Memories, mishaps... and dramas too

In her first Throwback Thursday of 2021, JO KERRIGAN returns to the subject of your favourite memories of theatre and the Cork stage
Memories, mishaps... and dramas too

The Christmas pantomime Aladdin performed by the Fr Mathew Players at the Father Mathew Hall, Cork, in 1937.

FOLLOWING my recent column looking back at Cork theatre memories, Fintan Bloss shared his recollection of Opera House shows going back many years.

“The artists I saw there! Gosh, where do I start? Neil Finn, Toyah Wilcox, Michael Collins The Musical, the Alabama 3, that riveting play Eclipsed, about the Magdalene Laundries.”

A particularly vivid memory for Fintan is the Opera House 160th anniversary Gala Concert in June, 2015.

“I went with my daughter Ashleigh (who, incidentally, as a nine-year-old went to Missouri, USA with the Montforts in 1999!).

“The Gala Concert featured Fiona Shaw, Cara O’Sullivan and Jimmy McCarthy among others.

“I attended numerous pantomimes of course, always going with my wife Yvonne, my son Aaron, and daughter Ashleigh. I will never forget Pat Talbot as the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. And I never missed The Improvised Panto with Hilary Rose and Dominic McHale of The Young Offenders.”

And so much more, including great musical moments. “The Tremeloes’ Silence is Golden, Suzanne Vega’s Marlene on the Wall, the late Hugh Moynihan and also Camille O’Sullivan in Man of La Mancha. Liam Neeson as the chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, along with our own Frank Twomey of Bosco fame and John Kavanagh in the Jack Nicholson role.

“Pat Boone, who had that great hit song way back, Speedy Gonzales. The Dubliners, when Luke Kelly took ill and did not appear after the interval. The New Vic’s Canterbury Tales starring Tony Robinson of Blackadder fame, where the theatre-goers would be met by the cast and you could be invited up on stage during the performance.

“10cc Dreadlock Holiday, finishing with I Don’t like Cork, I Love It. Richie Havens, who performed at Woodstock. Forgotten and Silent by Pat Kinevane. Wet Paint by Shane Casey of The Young Offenders. His grandad, Jack Buckley, grew up at 15 North Mall with his twin brother Dan, and was reared by my grandmother, also their grandmother, when their mother died giving birth to them.”

Fintan was delighted when he saw Reeling In The Years on RTÉ and saw his mother, Mary, her brother Josie, and wife Maura at a Joseph Locke concert in the Opera House in the 1970s. “Tom and Paschal were special guests,” he adds.

Tony, Fintan and Don Bloss with Leo Sayer at a Cork Opera House gig.
Tony, Fintan and Don Bloss with Leo Sayer at a Cork Opera House gig.

Fintan mentions Pat Talbot playing the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Opera House. How many can remember John McCarthy taking the same lofty role back in 1967, when Paddy Comerford as one of the wicked witches (“ooh me nerves, me nerves!”) carefully observed the foot and mouth regulations by wiping her black-buttoned boots on the sanitised mat every time she exited stage left (as you all know, the baddies enter and exit stage left, or prompt side, while the goodies use stage right, or opposite prompt).

That year saw probably the Opera House’s last ever Principal Boy, played by Gertie Wine in fishnet tights and legs up to her eyebrows. Sad loss, the principal boy.

“Opposite Prompt?” comments Ger Fitzgibbon. 

“That was all right for an exit unless you happened to be in one of those unique little theatres that didn’t actually have an Opposite Prompt exit.

“The only theatre I ever encountered that was an absolute, insurmountable object (apart from the great old Group which was really too small to have a stage, let alone two exits), was actually in Buttevant. Fortunately, I never had to do set design there, but did appear in a Cork Shakespearean touring production of Julius Caesar. A nightmare of a stage.”

The hall, he explains, was used mainly as a cinema with a drop screen. “For drama, the screen was removed, leaving a tight platform stage with a blank wall on one side, no circulation space, and with only room for one or two bodies in the wings.

“The auditorium was decorated with the posters of the latest offerings so The Brides of Frankenstein or Creature from the Black Lagoon glared at us throughout the performance. On stage left there was a slightly larger wing space and a four-foot drop.”

The crisis, he recalls, came in the big oration scene.

“Don Rohan and I (Citizens 1 and 2) were to take Caesar’s body off once the baying mob (five or six motley individuals trying to sound like 5,000) decided to riot, burn, loot and kill. In the chaos, the mob exited stage left (sudden traffic jam as they saw the four-foot drop) so Don and I were left holding the stretcher with Caesar on it.

“Seeing the traffic jam, Don exited stage right — up against the blank wall. I was stuck on stage with my end of the stretcher containing Caesar’s lower half. On impulse, Don dropped his end and (still acting like mad) I tipped Caesar into the wings like a bag of cement.”

CCYMS, remembers Ger, was very tight on stage right but there was usually a backdrop you could slide behind to get back to the dressing room side. “Or at least I could have when I was a skinny greyhound.”

His last appearance on the CCYMS stage was with the Loft in a production where Juliet fell off the balcony, he mentions casually.

Well don’t leave it there, Ger. Tell us more. Tell us all!

“Oh, all right then. The Romeo and Juliet story was an accumulation of mishaps, almost all down to the Loft’s tendency to focus exclusively on feelings and the delivery of the verse and to ignore trifling matters of set and construction until the last moment.

“In that particular production, we had neglected to think through the requirements of Juliet’s balcony and, at the last minute, someone decided that all we needed was a table for Juliet to stand on and some painted hardboard cut with castellations to wrap around said table. Juliet could clamber up from the wings and stand on the table, peering over her balcony. Great. Job sorted.

“There was only one hitch: the table was rectangular and the ‘wall’ of hardboard was curved (to create a turret effect, I suppose).

“At a crucial moment in the scene, Romeo is about to depart and Juliet, on high, calls him back. ‘Good Romeo, one word more.’ At which point, with a small scream, she disappears down the gap between the table and the hardboard.

“Romeo swivels to hear his love’s words only to find an empty balcony, wobbling dangerously, as an ASM tries to extricate Juliet.

“Some moments of ad-libbing from Romeo, some more wobbling of balcony and a somewhat breathless, flushed and dishevelled Juliet reappears to pick up the threads of romance.”

Oh, what we suffer for our art.

Schools’ audiences, says Ger feelingly, were a torture. “The brighter ones knew when someone had gone wrong; the less bright ones couldn’t care less; all of them were rampant with hormones and far more interested in other teenagers in the audience than they were in Shakespeare; and when they turned their full, ironically enthusiastic attention on the stage, you never knew what was going to happen.

“To take just one example: towards the end of Julius Caesar, in a very sombre moment, Cassius contemplates suicide. He turns to his trusty servant and observes that his life has run its course because ‘on this very day was Cassius born’. Cue two hundred school kids bursting into ‘Happy Birthday to You’.”

Simon Butteriss (Ko-Ko) and Maeve Morris (Yum-Yum) from the Carl Rosa Company production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, pictured in Lakemount Garden, Glanmire, Co. Cork. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney / Provision
Simon Butteriss (Ko-Ko) and Maeve Morris (Yum-Yum) from the Carl Rosa Company production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, pictured in Lakemount Garden, Glanmire, Co. Cork. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney / Provision

Mention of that great panto dame Paddy Comerford reminds us of a lovely anecdote told by the late great Michael Twomey. He was directing Paddy in a one-man show at the Palace and the ever-nervous Paddy said he wanted prompts in large print fastened to the rail around the orchestra pit so he could see them clearly if needed. This was duly done and the show was about to commence.

Enter a large gentleman to the front row who divests himself of a voluminous greatcoat and places it over the orchestra rail — thereby obliterating several of the cues. Horror! Crisis! Frantic shaking of curtain.

After some quick thinking, an usher quietly asked the gentleman to remove his coat as it was a fire hazard. Fortunately he accepted this, and the show proceeded with great success.

Somebody enquired about the Carl Clopet Players and their performance of East Lynne, mentioned last week. For decades the Carl Clopet group played a yearly season in Cork, with leading lady Phoebe Bradley-Williams firmly taking the main role, whether innocent maiden or stern matriarch.

As Isabel, the erring wife in East Lynne, she was responsible for this writer at least deciding to take up a career in melodrama forthwith.

Oddly enough, my own mother remembered the little girl who played Willie, the child who dies without ever recognising his long lost parent (“Dead! Dead! And never called me Mother!”) coming into O’Brien’s ice cream parlour during the week’s season many years earlier, and recalling how she had the whole audience in tears during her death scene.

Then there were the visits of Carl Rosa with their Gilbert & Sullivan seasons, when the entire audience sang along with the arias, already knowing the words off by heart.

Last time they came was back in 2005, I think, when Simon Butteriss starred in The Mikado. I wish they would return. How many kids today could sing along to Poor Wandering One or I Am The Monarch of the Sea?

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