Tom O’Kelly interview: Jingle Belles, Black Box, Belfast, December 20th, 2022

By Conor O’Neill

With Christmas fast approaching and a whole gambit of shows to see, and some to avoid, Culture Crush NI caught up with the North Belfast born 24-year-old singer and actor as he and his sister, Sinéad, get ready for their show Jingle Belles. Tom promises the one-night only cabaret show is not to be missed. Here’s the lowdown on his roots and what to expect at the Black Box.

CH: Hi Tom, did you and Sinéad grow up in a artsy/theatrical household?

Tom: “Yes and no. Me and Sinéad and our two brothers were pushed into every hobby under the sun, it was the arts and music that stuck. My dad is now a very keen amateur musician and both he and my mum are in the Cave Hill Community Choir; that’s sort of off the back of me and Sinéad being very musical and they then got into it.”

CH: And did you study it at university level?

Tom: “We both did the same degrees but at different universities in London. We’re both trained opera singers. I did my undergrad at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Sinéad did the same degree at the Royal College of Music, they’re only about a mile and a half away from each other. I’m now doing my masters in musical theatre. Sinéad’s still living in Belfast while I’m over in London.”

CH: You’re both then aware of the fickle nature of showbiz then?

Tom: “Yes, certainly, but we’re lucky enough to be working actors and singers.”

CH: At what age did you decide that show business was the profession for you?

Tom: “Probably when I was about six. I was 11 or 12-years-old when I asked my mum to enrol me in ballet because that’s when I knew what I wanted to do. I started making plans then because I knew all I wanted to be was and actor and singer.”

CH: So, there was no toing and froing when it came to A Level decisions?

Tom: “Certainly not. I didn’t actually do that well in my A Levels as I was choreographing a P7 play up in Ballymena at the time. It was always this or nothing.”

CH: And did you have success straight away, or like many actors and singers did you have to supplement life with bar work or wait on tables?

Tom: “I’ve taught kids from I was 17-years-old. I’ve taught both here in London and in Belfast, it’s the only job I’ve ever had. It’s either feast or famine [with showbiz]. You can go months with nothing and then get an absolutely fantastic gig and then it’s back to nothing.”

CH: And has Sinéad been as lucky?

Tom: “Sinéad has had a long career as an opera singer. Last year she was The Baker’s Wife in the Lyric Theatre’s production of Into The Woods with Northern Ireland Opera.”

CH: Lat year you had a sell-out show at the Black Box and you’re doing the same again this year. What draws you both to cabaret?

Tom: “The art form of cabaret is just the best. It has all the joys of a concert but with the relaxed atmosphere of a comedy show. You get to interact with the audience, all the people are sitting at tables instead of sitting in an audience formation and there’s just a real nice ambience to it, Plus, it’s more or less boundless as to what you can put in it: there’s stories and then there’s the music and dance, it’s just a real nice hybrid of all the things we do.”

CH: And I assume there’s plenty of adlib and interaction?

Tom: “Absolutely. We bounce off the audience. Last year we were very lucky to have a really interactive audience, so if someone says something we can just roll with that. We do a loose routine of what we plan to talk about which we always go back to. We also have a live band, it’s three-piece. There’s the drummer and percussionist John Gillen and two people on the keys and piano, that’s Naill Flaherty and Darren Day.”

CH: How was last year’s show received?

Tom: “It went down a storm, we were sold out. We’re doing really well this year too, there’s only a third of the tickets to sell but they’ll be gone in the last days before the performance.”

CH: I’m interested in the writing process, do you write together?

Tom: “A lot of the stories are drawn from our own lives. In terms oof writing we have a Zoom meeting once a week and we do tend to stick to that. We just bounce ideas of each other, and we workshop on things. Being siblings, we have a lot of shared memories to draw upon. Last year we included a poem. It was an anecdote about me cooking the wrong ham for Christmas. I was doing dinner for a few mates who were coming over, we had the good family ham and a really crap ham for the friends. I cooked the wrong ham and that was quite an ordeal; we just wrote a funny poem about it and it went down a storm. It’s all a collaborative process but I do tend to get my own way quite a bit.”

CH: You took the words out of my mouth: if there is a difference of opinion, how does the pair of you sort it out?

Tom: “We always do come to an amicable solution. We do talk about it, or rather I’ll explain to Sinéad why I’m right until she agrees or works out that it’s not worth fighting about. That’s the joy of being the younger sibling!”

CH: I see from the advert you’re streaming the performance worldwide, how did that come about?

Tom: “Last year with covid a lot of people were unable to come so we introduced a DIY live-stream. The quality wasn’t the best because it was last minute but this year it’ll be a lot better. Our brother Aidan is a tech-wizard so we’ll have a few different camera angles. We’ve also got friends all over the world so with the live stream everyone and anyone can watch it. It’ll be a You Tube stream this year and it operates on a tip-jar style basis, so it’ll depend on whoever is watching, it’ll be down to their generosity.”

CH: And finally, what can people expect on December 20th?

Tom: “First and foremost is that the show has a lot of heart. I know that’s cheesy, but the show has a real warmth. It’ll also be irreverent. There is some cursing in it but we always say ‘you can bring your auntie along’, it’s that kind of show. It’ll be funny and heart-warming and it can get a bit mushy at times. Expect a lot of hummable Broadway numbers, a few Christmassy songs and there’ll be a few surprises.”

For further information on Jingle Belles visit http://www.blackbox.com or phone the box office on 02890 244400

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