ONE of Cork’s much-loved drama teachers, Shirley McCarthy, is enjoying being back on stage as Queen Sadista in the Cork Opera House pantomime, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
In her role as Snow White’s wicked stepmother, she is being booed at by young members of the audience — and is revelling in it.
Prior to this year, the last pantomime that Shirley starred in was Cinderella at the same venue, where she played one of the ugly sisters.
“There was a sense of being attacked by the audience that time too but not to the same level that the character of Sadista brings,2 she says. “Apart from that, I’ve always played sweet, nice roles in panto. This one is wonderful. The more you’re booed at, the more you realise that you’re really getting to the children.”
Shirley was last on the stage a couple of years ago when she was in An Ideal Husband at the Everyman with the late Michael Twomey. His recent passing “is a huge loss to the city,” she said.
“He taught us amazing skills and to do straight plays with him was a great experience.”
Shirley no longer acts as much as she used to.
“I suppose life changes. My two children (Lauren, 17, and Jack, 11) have their different activities (including drama and sports) so I have to prioritise. Over the years, I’ve been asked to come back and do panto but it just wasn’t the right time for me. It’s a huge commitment but Sadista is a role I really wanted to play. She’s dripping with evil. The children in the audience really get her; she’s the nasty side of the coin. She despises Snow White and wants the handsome prince for herself.
“Also, there are questions around how Snow White’s father died and that Sadista may have had something to do with it.”
Having trained in drama and various forms of dance with the Montforts, Shirley also trained in ballet with Joan Denise Moriarty.
“Joan Denise told me I had to make a choice. She didn’t like the idea of me doing both drama and ballet. It was a hard decision. I loved ballet but I was realistic about it too. You could be very good here, but if you were to go away, you weren’t necessarily in the same league as people in London. I got a chance to work in musical theatre. And ballet is something I have used.
“I taught dancing for a lot of years as well as drama. I got more into drama as I got older.”
Shirley teaches drama to the pupils of Gael Scoil Uí Riada in the mornings. She also teaches privately, in the afternoons, in the school premises. She praises the principal of the school, Aindrias Ó Maolanfaidh, for being so supportive of her work. That includes the staging of a musical every two years at the school.
Although a self-professed home bird, Shirley spent six years in Australia until 1998 where she got to play Nancy in Oliver and Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar among other roles.
“My years in Australia were wonderful but I felt I stayed too long. I would have preferred to make it here at home. Life just didn’t work out that way for me but to be able to come back to it like this is an enormous bonus.”
While in various parts of Australia, including Sydney, Shirley did her fair share of waitressing.
“I was appalling at it. I was just lucky to meet some lovely people who showed me the ropes. No matter where you go in the world, if you have trained in drama, you have got to do something else as a back up.”
Shirley met her husband (Ted Brady) by chance when she got talking to him in Annie’s Pub in Sundays Well. She was home from Australia for Christmas.
“I went back there and when I came home again, we struck up a friendship that took us to where we are now. He’s a wonderful man who is big into motorbikes. This summer, he became world champion when he completed one kilometre at the speed of 217.5 miles per hour on the back wheel of a motorbike. He goes to this competition every year in York and he has always come so close. He came second on many occasions. I’d worry a lot more if he was racing on roads. This is done on the straight in a disused airfield. People come to it from all over the world.”
Teaching drama makes Shirley aware of the frustrations of young people hoping to make a career in theatre: “The level of talent around me is incredible. But invariably, (after drama school), people have to come back to do something else because the work is not out there.
“In London, thousands of fantastic people are turned out, all looking for the one job. It’s very frustrating. You could be amazing and still not be spotted. Or you can be just lucky and fall into a job.
“I find it quite sad because I see how hard people work and how talented they are. They go away and a few years later, they’re back.
“Then, occasionally, you hear a happy story about somebody who has made it. But you know what, working here in the Opera House, I feel we could be anywhere in the world doing this show because it’s of such a high standard. You could be on Broadway.”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs runs until January 21. See www.corkoperahouse.ie