Man and dog keep the pantomime on tune

James Cunningham with cast members, with guide dog Bart.
James Cunningham with cast members, with guide dog Bart.
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Registered blind keyboard maestro James Cunningham and his trusty guide dog Bart have been receiving standing ovations at Portadown’s pantomime during its current season at the town hall.

James (19), musical director of the panto, has had the condition Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA) since birth. He never misses a beat or a note on his electronic keyboard as the Gateway Theatre Group cast members sing and dance their way through ‘Dick Whittington’, the story of the poor boy who became Mayor of London.

As James pumps up the rhythm and the volume, the stoic Bart – a Labrador-retriever ‘cross’ - sits quietly and contentedly at the feet, through the 15-scene panto, which is in the middle of its 14-show run. The canny canine rarely stirs as James pumps up the volume and the rhythm, and the Thespians react to the enthusiastic audiences.

He belts out favourites like ‘The Lambeth Walk’ for the entire cast; ‘Wherever We Go’ for Dick Whittington (Suzanne McDonald); ‘Be Prepared’ for King Rat (Kyle Emerson); and ‘Man I Feel like a Woman’ for Sarah Suet, the Dame (Eddie Drury). James also has to play incidental music, like ‘Arabian Nights’ from Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Uptown Flunk’.

LCA means that James has about 30 per cent of normal eyesight. He has ‘tunnel vision’, his retina is profoundly affected, and he can only decipher an on-stage blur of ‘Dick Whittington’ from his position up in the gallery.

His hearing senses, though, are acute. He can literally play anything in any key, and susses out the arrangements by listening to orchestras, harmonies, and musical blends on items like his i-pad, mobile phone and all sorts electronic wizardry.

“I can hear every individual instrument on recordings, and can come up with my own arrangements,” said James, former Deputy Head Boy at Portadown College, and now in his second year studying for a Degree in Music at Queen’s University.

He stays in residence at Queen’s during the week and travels home by train each weekend to parents Drew and Tracy, who live off the Brownstown Road. Bart guides him expertly on his way around Belfast and Portadown, and is in every way his best friend.

James chuckles, “Mum and dad were never all that keen on having a dog about the house, and I always wanted a Labrador. So, Bart ticked all the boxes and I’m truly honoured to have him as my guide. He’s four years old, and brilliantly trained. We have total trust in each other.”

The pantomime is just one string to James’s considerable musical bow – he plays clarinet, guitar and bass guitar, and a succession of percussion instruments, recently along with his dad at the ‘MADS’ youth theatre’s production of West Side Story.

He’s also resident pianist at the Stonebridge Restaurant Sunday carvery and at ‘dos’ on special occasions in the Armagh Road premises, especially at Christmas, where he ‘jams’ with his friends the McNallys – John, Tracy, Flo and Jack.

James has also played at glittering occasions for the Secretary of State and other notables in Hillsborough House. He’s self-taught in many instruments – especially the clarinet where his mum provides magnified musical scores.

He is fulsome in his praise for Portadown College music teacher Linda Dougan, who has gone far beyond the call of duty to set him on the way to his musical career. And at Queen’s, he’s given special aids and extra time when doing his exams - in this respect, he won’t be able play at next year’s panto.

He said, “Being second year, I don’t have any exams this time round. In fact, there are exams as we speak, but not for my year. But this time in 2018, I’ll be doing exams – so Bart and I won’t be able to preside at the panto keyboard.”

Said veteran Dame Eddie Drury, who is in his 20th Gateway panto role, “James is just amazing. He can play anything by ear and we love having him in the pantomime. He’s a true gentleman – we don’t know how he does it, but he takes it all in his stride.

“It’s great having such an expert keyboard player in the show, and to coin and old pantomime phrase - We’re all behind him!”