What do you do if you want to take the family – Mum, Dad and three young adults – to the theatre at Christmas when the kids have outgrown panto?

If you’re Ged Graham, you invent a new theatrical genre. The creator of Seven Drunken Nights, the story of the Irish band, the Dubliners, had time to ponder the problem when lockdown meant that no one was going to the theatre at all.

His solution? Fairytale of New York, an evening of Irish song and dance mixed with classic Christmas songs and much-loved carols.

“The star of the show is the show itself,” says Ged, 62. “There are no big names in the production.”

Set in Central Park New York on Christmas Eve, the musical content embraces everything from Last Christmas and Driving Home For Christmas to Silent Night, White Christmas and, of course, the title song itself (albeit with the saltier lyrics discreetly sanitised).

Actors and guitarists on stage at Fairytale of New York

Ged was born in Dublin but moved to Manchester when he was 10. “But I’ve never lost my love of Irish music. Under the umbrella title of the Pogues’s famous song, I decided to put together a festive show with an Irish theme.”

In between the singalong songs, there’s a good dose of hard-shoe Irish dancing popularised in the UK via Riverdance as well as something more soft-shoe, says Ged, something more lyrical. There’s contemporary jazz and pop numbers, too, all of it in the capable hands (and feet) of a cast of eleven: six dancers, four musicians and one female singer

Ged launched the show in October 2021 at Darlington Hippodrome “It was nerve-wracking. I could have lost my shirt and then my house very quickly.

“There was also the spectre of Covid casting a long shadow so we had no real way of knowing whether audiences would be happy to come to a theatre again.”

Rehearsals were problematic, too. “Almost all of the preparation was done via Zoom and Skype, not ideal when you’re putting together a song-and-dance show.”

And Covid also meant certain restrictions for audiences and performers alike. “There was one show in Scotland where the cast had to be socially distanced. It meant dancing no closer than a metre apart. That was certainly a challenge.

“But we found out very quickly via social media that we had a hit on our hands.” With two tours due to launch simultaneously in October, advance tickets sales have been so strong that several venues across the country have already sold-out, with many others about to follow suit.

“For example, we’re at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast Wharf for two nights just before Christmas. It seats 2,500 people and one night has already sold out. I’m not exaggerating when I say we get standing ovations after every performance.

“But then, my ambition from the start was to provide two hours of much-needed escapism.” And you’re more likely to experience it in a theatre, he argues, than via any other art form. “When you go to the theatre, you’re part of the event in a way that you aren’t in a cinema.”

Man playing banjo at Fairytale of New York

Nor does the show remain unchanged each year. “This time round, for example, we’ve added in a Ronettes medley including some Irish songs which makes it a Celtic Phil Spector kind of sound.”

Last year, there was a big production of the John Lennon song, Merry Christmas, War Is Over. “The reaction was incredible,” says Ged, “so much so that, this year, we’re making it a multi-vocal ensemble piece rather than a solo.

“We encourage the audience to sing along because it’s their Christmas show.” But there’s a potential danger in that. There have been any number of stories recently of shows being ruined for most of the audience when over-enthusiastic theatregoers have been drowning out the singer on stage.

Ged is aware of the pitfalls. “Our show is deliberately designed with peaks and troughs in terms of the musical numbers because, that way, you can influence an audience.

With two tours running at the same time, it may prove a bit of a logistical nightmare. “I was in the show in 2021 and 2022 as principal singer and narrator but, this time round, I won’t be performing. I’ll be dividing my time between the two tours, making sure everything is running to plan.”

The first tour, which kicks off in Southport at the end of October, is playing 45 different venues and that’s not including matinees. It will finish in Derry on December 22.

The second, simultaneous tour will currently play 35 dates although more are being added. It will open in Peterborough on November 1, play three weeks in the UK and then move to Norway before returning to the UK to finish just before Christmas.

Actors on stage at Fairytale of New York

Ged has been in the business for the better part of 50 years, he says. Even so, there is no way he could have predicted the runaway success of, first, Seven Drunken Nights, and now Fairytale of New York.

“During lockdown, there was absolutely no guarantee that theatres would ever re-open. I was approaching my 60th birthday and I honestly doubted I’d ever step back on a stage. Then, given that audiences might venture out again, would they like a Christmas show with a strong Irish theme?”

He needn’t have worried. The reaction has been pretty universal the length and breadth of the land. “That said, where there’s a greater concentration of Irish people – Liverpool, for instance, Manchester and Glasgow – the reception is a bit more vocal, let’s say.”

Presumably, the theatre staff have to keep an eye on any lads who might have had a bit of a skinful before curtain up? Not a bit of it, says Ged. “The ones to watch are the ladies who might have been tucking into the Prosecco.

“Hen nights are always a challenge.,” he chuckles. “Give me a group of lads any time!”