Belfast Telegraph

Exit stage left for look at life backstage in Belfast's Grand Opera House

Gracie Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Van Morrison and... May McFettridge - just some of the stars who have performed at Belfast's Grand Opera House. Ahead of a special family festival next week, Ivan Little gets a behind the scenes tour of this iconic building

Officials of Belfast's Grand Opera House are lifting the curtain on what goes on behind the scenes at their historic theatre which has played host to a who's who of stars ranging from Laurel and Hardy to Sir Kenneth Branagh and from Sir Van Morrison to the Krankies.

Next week hundreds of visitors will get the chance to have a glimpse backstage at the famous 123-year-old theatre which is closing temporarily in 2020 for a multi-million pound restoration programme.

The grand dame of Great Victoria Street will be the star of the show during an action packed three-day family festival from July 3-6 which will include a series of workshops in animation, dance, drama and even chocolate.

The special tours of the theatre are a new twist on the venue's normal visits and will allow parents and their children to see the dressing rooms and the technical areas before they walk on stage to savour the breath-taking view of the auditorium that actors see.

And trust me, there's no more exhilarating sight in the Northern Ireland theatrical world - especially when the 1,100 seats in the stalls, boxes and circles are packed.

I have been lucky enough to have been in plays and pantomimes which have attracted full houses at the Opera House.

And the buzz of looking out over a sea of smiling - or crying - faces never fails to do the biz.

But despite the GOH becoming something of a second home for me, the history of the theatre has always been a mystery.

Until, that is, I went on a preview tour last week.

Creative learning manager Aine Dolan is a walking talking troubadour who has a wealth of facts and figures - and fun -at her fingertips.

Her knowledge of the history and the technical wizardry of the theatre is apparently boundless.

She recalled for instance how the capacity of the Opera House used to be 2,500 - twice what it is now.

The audiences were a veritable variety show all of their own, with separate entrances for the high and not so high society of Belfast.

The top of house - the gods - used to be a heaving, seething bear pit of a place where hard to impress theatre goers in the cheaper seats or benches would let performers know if they weren't enamoured of their efforts.

The tours for the youngsters will be conducted by actors who will recreate ancient encounters between the illustrious GOH architect Frank Matcham and proprietor Joseph F Warden, formerly the manager of the Theatre Royal in Belfast.

Aine said that only 20 of the theatres which Matcham designed are still in business today and the GOH which opened just before Christmas 1895 with the pantomime Bluebeard is regarded as one of his finest creations.

The first seasons at the theatre, which took only a year to build, included burlesque acts, farces, Shakespeare plays, musical comedies, melodramas and even circuses.

Among the better known stars and audience members in the first 50 years were Gracie Fields, George Formby, Laurel and Hardy, General Dwight Eisenhower and Field Marshall Montgomery.

In 1963 a then unknown Italian singer called Luciano Pavarotti, made his UK debut on the Opera House stage in the opera Madame Butterfly before spreading his wings, so to speak.

But it wasn't long before the theatre, which started to double as a cinema, seemed doomed as the Troubles gripped Belfast and the GOH was put on the market with demolition looking increasingly likely to make way for offices.

But the Ulster Architectural Society launched a campaign to save the theatre, which became the first listed building in Northern Ireland.

The Arts Council bought it for £138,000 and it was lovingly restored over four years for a re-opening in 1980.

The subsequent decade was a major success story for the theatre with West End shows making a welcome appearance on the stage and putting thousands of bums on seats.

The Opera House even featured in the charts as a Van Morrison album recorded over four nights in 1983 became a bestseller and put the theatre on the map.

But the IRA also bombed the Opera House into the headlines, not once but twice in the Nineties.

A bomb shattered the theatre in 1991 and, two years later, the Provos staged an unwanted encore which again caused horrendous damage.

The terror years are, of course, in the past now but the theatre will go dark again soon for a once-in-a-lifetime restoration project.

At one point on our tour the Opera House chief executive Ian Wilson joined us to share his exciting vision of the future which he insisted will only enhance the theatre's prestigious past.

The theatre will shut after the panto Peter Pan in January 2020 for an as yet unspecified 'interval' to allow the Opera House to have its own £12.2m refurbishment drama enacted in time for its 125th anniversary celebrations.

East Belfast man Ian left his job as head of marketing at the GOH in 2003 after eight years in the job to set up his own marketing company in the West End of London.

Returning to his hometown to run the Opera House has been his dream job.

He said he remembered his first visit as an 11-year-old to the theatre to see a pantomime. And the magic memories have never left him.

Ian said the backing of funders like the Heritage Lottery Fund would make the ambitious GOH renovations possible.

The exterior fabric of the building was restored last year.

And Ian said the interior of the auditorium will now be brought back to its former glories and grandeur, adding: "All the old style cinema type seats will be replaced and there'll be more leg room.

"The beautiful plasterwork and paintings will be restored and cleaned.

"Work will be carried out on air-conditioning and the technical infrastructure will be changed and we want to reduce our carbon footprint too.

"By the time the work is finished the theatre will be sparkling and just as Matcham left it in 1895.

"The front of house areas in the extension will be restored too and we will respond to public demand by re-opening the old bar overlooking Great Victoria Street."

For Ian, another thrilling prospect is the plan to push ahead with a permanent visitor exhibition to showcase the rich and eventful history of the theatre.

He said: "We want to display our archive and costumes for the public and to present an oral history of the Opera House."

Ian added that he was convinced there are few theatres in the UK and Ireland to match the opulence of the GOH auditorium.

And he said he believed the 149 permanent and casual staff at the Opera House also feel his pride and love for the theatre "as do the people of Northern Ireland".

More than 275,000 people visited the Opera House in one recent year and thousands of them had grown up with the GOH, many of them getting their first taste of theatre at pantomimes starring the irrepressible May McFettridge aka John Linehan.

"Our audience figures are the best in the UK with an attendance of 96.3%," said Ian, who exited stage left to let Aine continue with the tour.

The excursion also takes in the two floors of dressing rooms which are a far cry from the crammed accommodation of the old days.

And Aine's tour provides visitors with an insight into what makes the theatre's productions tick from a technical point of view, from the fly tower to the sound and lighting desks which youngsters will be able to see up close.

Aine's anecdotes included the reasons why so much theatrical terminology is linked to steamships, what's missing from the GOH's dressing rooms, why actors are banned from using the theatre lifts during productions, why performers are never addressed by their first names by stage managers and how the IRA bombs of the Nineties knocked one of the theatre's iconic elephants off kilter.

For more details of the Grand Opera House family festival and tours go to www.goh.co.uk

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