A stalwart of Cork theatre, Elaine Stevens celebrated her 100th birthday today, April 2.
Elaine’s only child, Annabel Dixon, who lives in Surrey outside London, said she was going to send birthday wishes to her mother on Skype. Elaine now lives in a nursing home in Maryborough, Cork, she has some dementia, but is very well.
Annabel had to cancel a planned visit to Cork as the nursing home is on lockdown because of the coronavirus.
The nursing home marked the celebration with a cake and Elaine even got a message from Queen Elizabeth II.
Elaine, tiny and birdlike, always attended first nights at the Everyman, stylishly dressed with her blonde hair perfectly coiffed. She was an actress and had her voice trained growing up in Newport in Wales. She also trained as a dancer.
And as part of her war duties, she drove an ambulance. Her late husband, Alan, from the valleys in Wales, worked as an engineer in steel production. When he got a job with Irish Steel, Elaine was full of trepidation at the thought of leaving Wales to live in Cork. But she adapted very quickly, immersing herself in the theatrical scene.
Annabel explained: “My mother made a lot of friends in Cork and was very active until a few years ago. She always went to first nights at the Everyman (often in the company of Kay Ray Malone and Mon Murphy). The Everyman gave her a big party for her 90th birthday.
“She continued going to the theatre until she was ninety-four or ninety-five.
“There’s longevity in the family. My grandfather lived to 100 and my grandmother lived to ninety.”
Annabel says her mother has always been health conscious.
“Before she went into the nursing home, she would get up every morning and do exercises and go walking.”
What kind of a mother was she?
“She was great and always very supportive, helping me to get on. It was her idea that I go back to England to study. I got a scholarship from the Confederation of Irish Industry to study clothing design and textiles.
“Afterwards I came back to work in Dublin for a few years and then worked for Marks & Spencer in London for twenty-five years.”
Annabel doesn’t have children. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis some years ago. She and her husband have a holiday home in France.
She says that for Elaine, acting wasn’t quite an obsession “but she wanted to succeed in theatre.”
She is very proud of winning the All Ireland Best Actor Award in 1967 in Cork for her performance in ‘The Late Christopher Bean.’ Other plays that she starred in include ‘Come Back Little Sheba,’ ‘Hotel Paradiso’, ‘Blythe Spirit,’ ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ and ‘An Ideal Husband.’
Annabel, who attended the Cork Grammar School, never wanted to act herself but went to see all of her mother’s performances.
“My mother loves living in Cork. After my father died, people thought she’d go back to Wales. But there was no way. She had made her life in Cork.
“A remarkable vibrant lady who threw herself wholeheartedly into anything with which she became involved” is how chairman of the Everyman board, Denis McSweeney, describes Elaine.
“Her contribution to Everyman over more than fifty years has been huge. She became engaged with the nascent company of players after its foundation.
“She performed with Everyman in the Little Theatre in Castle Street, at Fr Matthew Hall and at the Palace. She was an accomplished actress at serious drama. She had a gift for comedy and she also played with a number of the musical comedy groups such as the Collins Musical Society.”
A member of the board of the Everyman into her late eighties, she “unfailingly advanced the cause of young and not so young actors and directors. I served with her for a number of those years. She was terrier-like in pursuing her agenda items but she also had a wide knowledge which she brought to bear on the general business of the company.”
Denis was in the first Everyman production at the Fr Matthew Hall in November 1972 with Elaine.
“Angela Lansbury officially launched Everyman there with Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man,’ directed by Elaine’s friend, Harry Bogan. It also featured her friend, the late great Brian Bolingbroke.”
Elaine was “a resourceful performer of the old school. The old school produced such rounded players, playing many roles in many genres.
“Elaine was a neat dancer as well. And she was an accomplished tennis player and prided herself on her physical fitness - no doubt a factor in her long life. And she was a snazzy dresser with an extensive wardrobe.”
On the occasion of her 90th birthday ten years ago, Elaine was asked by the Echo what she thinks of contemporary theatre.
“I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as it was in my day. I know it’s old fashioned to say this but I hate all the bad language. I often ask why plays that make people laugh aren’t brought back. The older plays are brought back in London and really bring in the audiences.”
Catherine Mahon-Buckley, artistic director of CADA Performing Arts, remembers being at Elaine’s 90th birthday bash in the bar of the Everyman.
She said: “She was in stilettos and she danced the night away. There was disco music and jiving and songs from the musicals.”
Sounds like Elaine always knew how to enjoy life.