Belfast Telegraph

Left: Ivan Little and Tara Lynne O'Neill in rehearsals for Educating Rita, which opens at the Lyric Theatre tomorrow

PLEASE SIR!

A modern-day theatrical classic, Educating Rita by Willy Russell, opens in Belfast's Lyric Theatre tomorrow. Former EastEnders star Tara Lynne O'Neill plays Rita, with UTV reporter, and sometime actor, Ivan Little in the role of her tutor. Here, Ivan provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the hectic build-up to the production

A modern-day theatrical classic, Educating Rita by Willy Russell, opens in Belfast's Lyric Theatre tomorrow. Former EastEnders star Tara Lynne O'Neill plays Rita, with UTV reporter, and sometime actor, Ivan Little in the role of her tutor. Here, Ivan provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the hectic build-up to the production



My love affair with the Lyric started soon after it opened in the late Sixties. I remember, as a wide-eyed teenager, watching plays starring the likes of Louis Rolston, Stella McCusker and, later, a youthful Liam Neeson.

IT was at precisely 5.23am last Saturday that I woke, sweating, from my nightmare ¿ and I honestly couldn't have been happier. For in a way it was a dream - a stress dream - come true.

You see, I've lost count of the number of similarly rude awakenings I've had in the run-up to most of the dramatic productions with which I've been involved.

Indeed, I've come to expect them. They've become almost an accepted ritual during rehearsals and the longer they stay away, the more concerned I get.

So that's why last weekend I was relieved to finally get the nocturnal turmoil out of the way with the arrival of the bad dream which consisted of the standard sort of scenario which normally haunts me ¿ and I'm told many other actors.

In my nightmare, I am standing on stage in a complete panic, unable to utter a single line from the script. Which probably had something to do with the fact that I was in the wrong play altogether ¿ An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley, rather than my latest production, Educating Rita by Willy Russell.

Three weeks earlier, my mind was also playing tricks as I arrived for the first rehearsal of Rita at the Lyric Theatre, because as I gazed out over the King's Bridge in Belfast, I couldn't stop thinking back to the Queen Vic in London. For it was there, on the set of the Albert Square pub a couple of years earlier, that I had last met Tara Lynne O'Neill, the young Belfast actress who was sitting opposite me in the Lyric.

I had gone to the EastEnders studios at Elstree to record a feature for UTV on Tara Lynne, who, at the time, was playing the part of Phil Mitchell's nanny in the popular soap.

After our interview was over, and after the departure of the over-zealous BBC press officer, Tara Lynne took me on an unauthorised tour of the backstage set, showing me not only the Queen Vic, but also the café, the garage, the launderette, the allotments and the homes so instantly recognisable to an unashamed fan - and saddo - like me.

At one point, a gaggle of well-known EastEnders stars sauntered past us and a group of extras, waiting for their filming to begin. Not one of the big names acknowledged the extras. But Tara Lynne was on first name terms - and gossiping terms - with every one of them, including Jonathan Ross's mum!

And so, knowing Tara Lynne's acting skills of old, I was doubly delighted to be reunited with her back home in Belfast, back in the Lyric, where we were ready to start work in the new production of Educating Rita.

The call offering me the role of Rita's weary and drink-driven Open University tutor, Frank, had come the week before ¿ and right out of the blue.

The acting chairman of the Lyric, Mark Carruthers from the Beeb, had rung me at UTV to say the theatre wanted me to play the part. I told Mark that I would love to be in the cast, but that I needed time to sort out my other commitments as a reporter. Happily, my bosses at UTV agreed to allow me to take the leave I needed to rehearse for the 'unturndownable' role.

Within an hour of my accepting the part, a taxi delivered a script to my door and I immediately started to read Educating Rita ¿ which was something of an education in itself.

I'd remembered from seeing the movie with Julie Walters and Michael Caine that the part of Frank was a big one. But I had forgotten it was quite SO big and I hadn't recalled that the play, unlike the film, has only two actors in it.

My last play, the Martin Lynch/Grimes and McKee comedy The History of the Troubles (accordin' to my Da), had a cast of three and we were all on stage all of the time. Suddenly, with Rita, a three-hander seemed like a luxury. And so it was, with more than a hint of trepidation, that I arrived on that first Monday morning at the Lyric. I had walked through the theatre's entrance hundreds of times, but suddenly I saw the place in an entirely different light.

My love affair with the Lyric started soon after it opened in the late Sixties. I remember, as a wide-eyed teenager, being in sometimes tiny audiences at the height of the troubles, watching plays starring the likes of Louis Rolston, Stella McCusker and, later, a youthful Liam Neeson.

Then, as a parent, I saw my daughter Emma virtually grow up on the same stage, progressing from a six-year-old in the Lyric Youth Theatre to her professional debut some years later.

As a journalist, I have also previewed scores of plays at the Lyric and a couple of years ago, for one night only, I made a guest appearance wearing a horse's head - don't ask - in a Christmas production.

But until that Monday last month, I had never been to the Lyric as an actor. Every other stage here, yes. But not the Lyric. And that's why it was reassuring to see familiar faces waiting in the wings on Ridgeway Street for the Rita production.

Director Roy Heayberd was the man who gave me my first professional role in a Joseph Tomelty play called Is the Priest at Home? in the early 90s. And I had also worked with the production manager Marianne Crosslé before. Roy swiftly gathered the Rita cast - all two of us - in the upstairs foyer at the Lyric and we ploughed headlong into our first tentative reading of the play, which Roy had decided to set in Belfast and not Liverpool, as in the original.

Over the next few days, we discussed and dissected the script, which Roy had cleverly divided up into 57 little sections. For hours we tried to tease out the meaning of every word, every exchange, striving to establish exactly what was driving the characters on.

At the end of the first week, Roy invited all the theatre staff to listen to a reading of Rita, with the aim of making everyone feel part of the team. From our perspective, the move gave us the first insight into how the play would play, so to speak, with an audience ... and the laughter was music to our ears.

Week two of rehearsals saw Roy getting Tara Lynne and me on our feet for the first time, directing us to where he wanted us for each scene, but at the same time listening to any problems we had with the moves.

It was, as ever, a slow, laborious process and every day our innovative stage management team brought more and more props for us to work with and more furniture from the set. After each day's rehearsal, the evenings were spent poring over the script, trying to learn the lines.

Week three of rehearsals was basically more of the same, with individual scenes being polished and hopefully perfected, but bit by bit Roy started to assemble the pieces of the jigsaw, getting us to run through all of the play. Technical crews began coming into the rehearsal room to see the shape of the entire production, to help them with their plans.

And then there were the costumes - it is usually a headache for any wardrobe mistress trying to find anything to fit my somewhat bulky 6 feet 3 inch frame! I usually have to help out the wardrobe departments with the odd item from my own wardrobe, which, because of my TV work, is fairly extensive. I know many actors are reluctant to wear their own clothes, but I prefer to act in jackets and trousers which fit me and which are comfortable.

Week four of rehearsals has seen us getting into our costumes and getting on to the Lyric stage for the first time, Technical rehearsals and dress rehearsals are the order of virtually every day - and several evenings as well.

Publicity has also been a priority with the Lyric PR team, sending Tara Lynne and me dashing around Belfast giving interviews here, there, and, it seemed, everywhere.

The recent changes in the Lyric management team and the planned re-build of the theatre have been uppermost in many interviewers' questioning.

But we've been largely side-stepping that side of things, ignoring everything which has happened OFF stage, leaving the actor in me to concentrate on doing the job ON stage as well as possible.

Lyric officials have been attempting to 'sell' Rita as the perfect antidote to the World Cup in Germany, but I have only one request to anyone who might meet me after the play: please, please, please don't tell me the scores!

My video recorder will be working even harder in June than me!





Educating Rita, Lyric Theatre, Belfast, June 6-July 1. Box office, tel: 9038 1081

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