Boo, hiss! Irene steps into panto villain role

After years treading the boards in London’s West End, stage star Irene Warren is coming home to Cork and relishing her first role as a baddie in Cinderella, she tells COLETTE SHERIDAN
Boo, hiss! Irene steps into panto villain role

Irene Warren as the Wicked Stepmother, performing a scene from the Everyman panto. Picture: Darragh Kane

FOR the first time in her illustrious stage career, Irene Warren is playing a baddie - the wicked stepmother in the Cinderella panto at the Everyman, which opened at the weekend

And the actress, who worked in London’s West End for 11 years, says she’s revelling in the role.

“Even though she’s your stereotypical evil panto baddie, there’s a gorgeous eccentricity to her,” says Irene.

“It’s a modern twist on the tale. She lives in her own planet. It’s all Tik-Tok. The irony is I don’t understand social media.

“The stepmother is grooming her two daughters to be influencers. It’s a different world that is fascinating.”

Brought up in The Lough area, you could say that Irene was groomed for a career in theatre.

As a child, she trained with the Montfort Stage School, the Joan Denise Moriarty ballet school as well attending Annette Foubert for singing and Lorna Daly for drama.

She achieved gold medals with distinction from LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts). Later, she trained with Mary Curtin who tutored her for her drama teaching qualification.

At just 18, Irene was cast in Les Misérables in London for a two-and-a-half-year run. She was a cast member for both the tenth anniversary of the show as well as the twenty-fifth anniversary show.

“It was a huge break,” she says. “I look back and think that maybe someone was looking after me. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time.

“I wasn’t in a position when I was younger to train in the West End. We didn’t have the money.”

Irene replied to a newspaper advertisement looking for performers to audition in Dublin for Les Misérables.

“I went up on the train. I later got a phone call for a recall. I was flown to London for the final audition.

“I got a part in the ensemble and later, the role of Eponine. I left Ireland on my own and didn’t come back until I was 30.”

The twenty-fifth anniversary show was at the O2 Arena in London.

“To think I’m a random girl from Cork and I was performing in the O2 Arena and had a West End career,” reflects Irene.

In between roles in numerous shows, Irene worked in various casual jobs such as a stint in a fish ‘n chip shop, as well as selling Elizabeth Arden cosmetics in Selfridges.

“The thing about musical theatre is that it’s extremely disciplined. And it’s a slog. There’s no glamour in it and no fame attached. You need to have a love of the craft and of the theatre.”

Having had a sheltered upbringing, “all of a sudden I was in the big city. But bizarrely, my best friend growing up, Killian Donnelly, went to London and ended up in Cats. I ended up living with him. We’re still best friends. We shared our good times and our bad times.”

As well as Les Mis, Irene’s credits include Miss Saigon (for a two year run) at the Drury Lane Theatre as well as the role of Dinah in Starlight Express at the Apollo Victoria, Something For The Boys at the Barbican and the role of Sandy in Grease which had a national tour.

She also worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the original concept recordings for The Beautiful Game.

“Andrew was quite formidable, but in a very brilliant way. The man is a genius. Whether or not you like his music is kind of irrelevant. I admire his talent. He works very hard.

“I remember doing the private recordings. I was contracted and couldn’t speak about it. There was a group of us Irish performers. We’d turn up in the West End every Sunday in locations that kept changing.”

However, due to breaking her wrist, Irene didn’t get to perform The Beautiful Game on stage.

She was cast as ‘the singing nun’ in Fr Ted. “When I did Fr Ted, it was big in the UK. It hadn’t yet been shown in Ireland.

“The cast were so lovely, so normal. We were hard workers crafting careers for ourselves.”

What brought Irene back to Cork? She was just after playing the lead female in Grease when she was offered a role in the pantomime at the Cork Opera House.

“I came back for the panto and stayed. I just felt that I had been thrown in at the deep end in London. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was tough enough for that kind of life. I had to trust my gut.”

And while Irene’s CV is impressive, she is under no illusions about the downside of a career in theatre. “I always tell students that for every job I got, there were ten that I didn’t get.”

Irene’s comeback role in Cinderella at the Cork Opera House was at the red-headed fairy. (Killian Donnelly played Buttons. He is in London now starring in The Phantom Of The Opera.)

After training to be a drama teacher, Irene set up a drama school, The Performers’ Academy. She also married the late writer and director, Bryan Flynn. Sadly, he died from an illness eight years ago.

“How many people leave the world leaving a legacy?” Irene asks.

“Bryan’s show about Michael Collins (in which Irene played Collins’s love interest, Kitty Kiernan) is still being put on by musical societies. And I have our beautiful son, Ben, who’s 17. He’s a drummer with the Cork Youth Orchestra.”

As well as teaching, Irene has performed in numerous productions at the Cork Opera House and the Everyman.

She says that probably her most memorable role was that of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Cork Opera House. She says the biblical character is “misunderstood.”

Irene has come full circle. Her first professional gig was Goldilocks at the Cork Opera House “with the lovely Michael Twomey”.

She is back from the big smoke, re-established in her native city and very happy to star in another pantomime.

Irene says she can’t wait to unleash her “inner diva” once again.

Cinderella, an Everyman and CADA production, directed by Catherine Mahon-Buckley, is running until January 15.

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