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Grand Opera House: 120 years firmly in the spotlight

Published 21/07/2015

Shining light: the Grand Opera House today
Shining light: the Grand Opera House today
Caroline Curran as Maggie Muff in Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue with writer Leesa Harker
Actors Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh pictured in the Grand Opera House during the staging of Look Back in Anger
Alex Higgins played by Paddy Jenkins visits George Best played by Aidan O'Neill in the play Dancing Shoes
John Linehan as May McFettridge
Laurel and Hardy
Ivan Little with Martin Lynch, Conor Grimes and Alan McKee in The History of Troubles (Accordin’ To My Da)
Grand Opera House chief executive Mary-Clare Deane

As Belfast's Grand Opera House celebrates a milestone anniversary, Ivan Little looks back at the stars past and present who have graced the famous stage.

It's an iconic theatre which has seen almost as much drama off its stage than on it. And the only wonder is that no one has ever got around to writing a play about Belfast's Grand Opera House itself.

For the magnificent theatre, which is celebrating its 120th anniversary, has all the elements of a classic storyline. And then some.

If the Opera House was a cat, it would have used up its nine lives long ago after all the twists and turns since it threw open its doors to thousands of theatre goers the night before Christmas Eve in 1895, after it was lovingly and skilfully designed by the archetypal architect Frank Matcham.

Stars? It's had a galaxy of them from Laurel and Hardy to Gracie Fields, from the Krankies to Van Morrison, from Kenneth Branagh to Derek Jacobi and from Pavarotti to George Formby. You name them and they've been there. Plus dozens you've probably forgotten.

Yet the brutal truth is that the Opera House, which is a cherished jewel in Belfast's architectural and cultural crown, almost wasn't around to celebrate its 80th anniversary never mind its current one.

For what is sometimes forgotten is that the GOH was on the verge of demolition after the Troubles turned the theatre which had been a cinema for 11 years into a virtual no-go area, just like the rest of the city centre.

In 1972, the Rank Organisation sold the Opera House to a property developer to construct offices and the bulldozers were poised to move in until the building was listed and the Arts Council entered stage left with a rescue plan.

The happy ending was complete in 1980 when the refurbished and resplendent Opera House reopened in all its fabulous finery, while re-establishing itself as an important hub for the arts, giving Belfast a nudge towards normality even if it was still in the midst of mayhem.

But that wasn't the end of the story. For in December 1991 the Provisional IRA almost brought the house down with a huge blast which was targeted primarily at the most bombed hotel in the world, the Europa next door.

A pantomime starring Liverpudlian comedian Tom O'Connor was hastily transferred albeit on a very much smaller scale to the La Mon House Hotel, which itself had seen more than its fair share of terrorist tragedy.

But it wasn't only the panto show which went on. After a nine-month enforced 'intermission' after the Great Victoria Street bombing, the Opera House was back in business, though the IRA returned with an encore in May 1993 when another bomb devastated the theatre.

The attack was mounted during the week-long run of the Ulster amateur drama finals for which I was the publicity officer, after having had the thrill of taking part in an award-winning production a few years earlier, then realising the dream of treading the famous GOH boards.

The day after the bombing I repeatedly had to break off from my duties of reporting on the blast for UTV to give interviews to other broadcasters about the impact of the attack on the finals.

In the end, an alternative venue was found in St Bartholomew's church hall at Stranmillis and the finals' president Brum Henderson - my then boss at UTV - rolled up his sleeves to single-handedly set out hundreds of chairs for that night's audience.

It was the same sort of indomitable bulldog spirit that helped the Opera House bounce back from the terrorist onslaughts.

The theatre opened again in 1994 when the prestigious Bafta awards were staged there, not only as an act of resilience but also one of defiance.

The GOH's chief executive Mary-Clare Deane, who attended scores of productions in her youth in the theatre she now manages, passionately believes that the Opera House is a symbol of not just its own dynamism but of a wider one too.

"The fact that the theatre is still standing also represents what the people of Belfast in terms of their resilience have come through in the last few decades," she says.

And the CEO believes an exciting future is waiting in the wings.

"We are planning a major restoration for our 125th anniversary. We need to start looking at things like air conditioning and a new sound system in the auditorium," she says.

"We will also have to think about new seats because the present ones were here when the Opera House was a cinema."

But Mary-Clare insists any renovations will be tasteful and will retain the magic of Matcham.

She says: "In the past year, I've been to a lot of theatres which he designed and the Opera House is unusual in that it still has all the colour and the vibrancy which Matcham put into the place. Quite a lot of the others have had their character ripped out, but the Opera House has largely been preserved."

One man who has seen his role change at the Opera House down the years is Paddy Jenkins from Finaghy.

For he has worked there in more different guises than anyone else - as an amateur actor, as a technician, as a guide, as a pantomime star and as a show-stealer in a host of other productions.

His first show with the St Agnes' Choral Society was in 1984 in South Pacific when he starred with Candy Devine. He says: "I was in awe of the place and I knew I wanted to be here more regularly."

Initially he worked for two years behind the scenes as a technician helping to build sets and changing the scenery for touring professional shows like the Buddy Holly Story.

"I was also appearing on the stage in amateur productions like West Side Story, 42nd Street, Hello Dolly and Oliver, but in 1996 the Opera House's Derek Nicholls offered me professional work in two summer pantos and eventually the winter panto in 1998," he says.

"Apart from two years, I have been in it ever since, clocking up over 1,100 performances."

Which would be some kind of record if Paddy's friend John Linehan/ May McFettridge hadn't been in the pantos for 25 years, an astonishing run which was recognised, not by a gold watch, but by the commissioning of a bust and the naming of a dressing room after him/her.

"I still think there's something really special about the Opera House," says John/May.

"I never tire of the theatre which is like a second home to me.

"And it's wonderful to see thousands of people, young and old, having such a great time."

His enthusiasm is echoed by Paddy Jenkins, who at the GOH, has also been in 10 Hole in the Wall Gang productions, in the Ulster-Scots musical On Eagle's Wing and in plays by Owen McCafferty, Marie Jones, Patrick Marber and Pearse Elliott, plus a tour-de-force as Alex Higgins in Dancing Shoes which is returning to the theatre next month.

Nowadays the Opera House is a must-visit destination for touring West End shows, especially musicals which are the theatre's crucial bread and butter money-raisers, but it rarely produces any shows of its own.

However, Mary-Clare Deane says she wants to bring more local companies into the theatre, building on the successes of productions from playwrights like Martin Lynch and Marie Jones and amateur musical societies who invariably pack the GOH to the rafters.

But she says: "There are people in this city who still think the Opera House is only about ballet, opera and things that are a bit remote from their everyday lives. That is very definitely not the case."

Indeed, in recent years a whole new 'breed' of theatre-goers has emerged from the shadows to give the GOH welcome sell-out shows.

They're the women who descend in droves on the theatre on girls' nights out to see no-holds-barred plays by the likes of Leesa Harker who has developed a very Belfast - and blue - take on the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy featuring her irrepressible character Maggie Muff, played by Caroline Curran.

"I have never seen a theatre buzzing so much as when Dirty Dancing in Le Shebeen was on here," says Mary-Clare. "We now have people coming to the Opera House who have never been before."

It was the same with one of the most successful productions at the Opera House in recent times, The History of the Troubles (Accordin' To My Da), written by Martin Lynch, Conor Grimes and Alan McKee, which has played to packed houses on a regular basis for the past 13 years

It's a play I know well because wearing my other hat as an actor, I have portrayed the central character Gerry Courtney, whose story of surviving the conflict is told by him, and a bunch of his madcap friends in a frenetic dash through the Troubles.

Looking back at an earlier era, the Opera House is planning to mark two defining moments in Ireland's history in 2016 with productions reflecting the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

But pantomimes will continue to play a starring - and financially vital - role in balancing the books of the Opera House which is now run by a trust and not by the Arts Council.

I was lucky enough to appear in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Opera House in 1997 alongside May McFettridge and Hi-de-Hi! star Su Pollard who repeatedly told us that the reaction of the Belfast audiences was the best of any in the UK.

I've also appeared in a number of independent productions at the Baby Grand, the GOH's little brother which opened after the theatre's refurbishment in 2006.

But Mary-Clare Deane admits that the Baby Grand hasn't grown up the way it was originally envisaged. "It has had limited success. It is actually more popular and has greater use as a conference venue and that is something we will have to look at."

As for the 120th anniversary, Mary-Clare says a gala concert will be produced in November, adding: "It's a big milestone for us. The Proms in London are also celebrating their 120th anniversary. So this theatre opened at a very important time and its legacy is highly significant.

"The Opera House has survived not only two World Wars but also the Troubles and it is still in its glorious state.

"Hopefully it will still be here for another 120 years."

Belfast Telegraph

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