John Arnold: All the world’s a stage as the fit-up tradition returns to Cork

They said that television would finish drama and so would computers, video games, box-sets, Netflix and so on. How wrong they were ... so says John Arnold in his weekly column.
John Arnold: All the world’s a stage as the fit-up tradition returns to Cork

STAR PERFORMER: Jon Kenny mixes belly laughs with pathos in ‘Crowman’

JOHN Spillane has written hundreds of songs, as he’d say himself, “the hit factory on overtime”, and one of the best is surely Magic Nights In The Lobby Bar.

No doubt next Saturday night the Leeside bard will sing that one and many others also — not in the “gone but not forgotten” Lobby Bar, but in the Village Arts Centre in Kilworth. I’d love to be there to see John regale the fans with The Ballad of Marengo, the White Charger of Napoleon Bonaparte, having been bought long, long ago at Bartlemy Fair.

An entry in my diary sends me to Kerry and so I’ll miss John and his co-star, the ageless Seán O’Sé. What a concert it promises to be with the pair of Leeside legends.

Now, I was never in the Lobby Bar to experience any of those nights of musical magic, but only last week I had a similar encounter. Sometimes a hurling game, or a song, a poem or a play — even a photo — can exhaust one’s supply of superlatives, when it happens; well, whew, lads, all one can do is just sit back in admiration.

Our local parish hall was built back in 1961. We have a few snippets of film that recall the building and its opening, which has become a huge resource for the community down the years. Before it was built, the local national school was the only indoor venue for meetings, concerts, 45 drives and the like. Some things never change in rural Ireland. The GAA is the most prominent example, but drama and amateur dramatics are a close second.

From the start of November, 1960, until the end of Lent in 1961, the Bartlemy Drama Group ‘toured’ all over East and North Cork and West Waterford with the play A Will And A Woman. It was staged 26 times in total and the finance raised went a long way towards the cost of the new hall. Nearly 60 years ago, amateur drama was a huge part of life in rural Ireland, especially during Lent, when dancing was ‘banned’.

If one peruses the ‘Stage, Films and Drives’ column of the small ads on the Cork papers of the time, you’d see plays and concerts on everywhere. It wasn’t just in the rural hinterland either — I can recall being taken several times to Fr Matthew Hall in Cork city as a child. In the early 1960s, as well as all the local drama groups, the last ‘wandering minstrels’ were still on the road.

Before halls came to be built in nearly every parish, the ‘fit-ups’ were an integral part of theatrical life in this country. Groups of actors toured the countryside, putting on plays and shows. One of the most famous was Anew McMaster. They literally came to a town or village and in a shop store or suitable shed they ‘fitted up’ curtains, a makeshift stage, lanterns lamps, or candles, and the production went ahead.

I remember Dermot Dennehy and his troupe coming to Bartlemy. They had three caravans parked near the hall, and for four or five nights it was as if Broadway had come to Bartlemy! It seems like ‘the light of other days’ but amazingly the fit–up tradition has been revived in recent years.

Fermoy man Geoff Gould has had a lifelong love affair with theatre. Based in Ballydehob for a spell and latterly living in rural West Waterford in his father-in-law’s ancestral home near Clashmore, Geoff is a theatrical visionary. His ‘I have a dream’ scenario has turned into a marvellous reality. He had the idea of bringing different plays, new and old, to venues all over the place for a series of productions. It began in West Cork, and recently it’s been in the Blackwater Valley. This year, for instance, the 2020 Blackwater Valley Fit–Up Theatre Festival is running for five weeks, it started last week. Eight different plays are being staged in Mitchelstown, Bartlemy, Ballynoe, Youghal, and Fermoy.

Geoff contacted me before Christmas to see if Bartlemy would join the fit-up circuit. We did, and the roller-coaster started last week.

Talk about a magic night — well, we had that in spades when Jon Kenny brought his acclaimed show Crowman to our local hall. Fresh from a great pre-Christmas stage run in Dublin, Katie Holly’s beautifully-written masterpiece was one of the most profound pieces of stagecraft I’ve ever seen. Geoff and his small crew arrived in the afternoon. In the tradition of the ‘fit-ups’, they installed lights and a sound system and fitted out the stage.

Many came expecting Kenny — one half of the side-splitting comedy duo D’unbelievables, to produce a comic tour-de-force. Yes, we got comedy alright, but much, much more. This was Jon Kenny the superb actor leading us in laughter and sorrow. Tears of both joy and heartbreak were shed. I remember in the 1970s we had Eamonn Kelly on that same stage with his one-man show In My Father’s Time. The master seanachaí from Kerry wove his tales around life in Ireland long ago.

Last Thursday night, Jon Kenny was on his own on the stage, but this was no ‘one-man’ show. For we met many other characters — the kind of people we all know and encounter in shop, pub, church, and in a myriad of other settings. His face, his eyes, smile, frown, hand movements, and body language were mystical.

The other night on the radio, I heard a girl explain the difference between drama and theatre. “Drama,” she said, “is written down forever, whereas theatre is something very special that just happens.” Truly we witnessed pure theatre. Cork folk are lucky because those that have not yet seen Crowman in the Fit-Up Festival can see Jon Kenny in The Everyman next week and in the First Fruits Centre in Watergrasshill after that.

I was telling Jon the other night of when I first met him. Back in 1980 I had the job, as GAA club secretary, of booking bands for the marquee at Rathcormac Festival. The late Stephen Collins from Killeagh was manager of a crazy, zany rock band from Limerick called Gimik. Well, they were booked and came.

We had a good crowd on the night. I can remember well, around midnight, Jon Kenny shinning up the central pole holding up the marquee with a knife across his teeth and he threatening to cut the ropes and collapse the tent! He was crazy then, and still has that ability to show every single emotion — but he’s more controlled now! That comes from 40 years of honing and polishing his brilliant acting ability.

Geoff Gould explained to me that the Fit-Up Festival would never have been possible without the financial help of both Cork County Council and the Arts Council — certainly money very well spent. This is week two of the series and Maura Laverty, This Was Your Life and The Experience of Being are being staged. Yet to come in this festival are Pat Kinevane, Seamus O Rourke, Aindrias de Staic, Sarah-Jane Scott, and Timmy Creed. What a line-up of talent and on our virtual doorstep for the next few weeks.

I don’t know what to call Geoff Gould — entrepreneur, impresario, thespian troubadour, or a man of ideas. In reality, he’s a drama lover who wants to share his passion with us all.

They said that television would finish drama and so would computers, video games, box-sets, Netflix and so on. How wrong they were ... hopefully. Certainly in decades to come, we’ll still use that phrase “Coming to a stage near you soon...”.

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