Monday 24 October 2016

Bringing the house down

Con Houlihan

Published 03/07/2008 | 07:00

Con Houlihan
Con Houlihan

You see them waiting at bus stops or cycling on their bikes. And it always seems to be raining at the bus stops and they always seem to be cycling against the wind. I am talking of course about the men and the women who are the footsoldiers of The Irish Theatre. I cannot remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by them.

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When I came to live in Cork's fair city, I barely missed a show in The Opera House. There I saw many of the great names. Many years later in Dublin I came to know most of those famous people. They used to assemble in The Waldorf Hotel in the afternoons after rehearsals. There I used to meet Siobhan McKenna, Maire Ni Dhomhnaill, Cyril Cusack, Geoffrey Golden, Pat Laide, Michael Hennessy, and many others.

Harry Brogan was a member of The Abbey Company but I never knew him to collogue with his fellow players in The Waldorf. He drank a few doors away in Mooney's, always alone at the far end of the counter and always reading a big book. His colleagues loved him but there were times when they could cheerfully have thrown him into The Liffey across the road.

They had good reason: sometimes in the course of a play he might go beyond his lines. I have an especial memory of one such night. He had a small part in the drama based on Patrick Kavanagh's novel, Tarry Flynn.

Harry was to come on stage riding his bicycle, ring his bell -- and hand a letter to a woman and say "How are you Mrs Flynn?" and pedal away. It wasn't that simple. Harry said "I see from the postmark that Tarry is in Birmingham. How is he getting on?" Mrs Flynn (May Cluskey) could hardly walk away. The action was held up for about three minutes.

If all the actors added a few minutes to their parts, a play would go on for so long that people might get ravenous with the hunger and you would need food kitchens on the road outside.

Another Abbey Player, Michael O'Brien, couldn't have differed more from Harry: he was meticulous -- he never overstayed his part by a second. He was similarly conscientious about rehearsals, always the first to arrive and often well before time.

One morning surmise grew to worry when Michael wasn't there for the start of a rehearsal. There were sighs of relief when he arrived 10 minutes late.

Voices piped up: "What happened to you Michael?" "Did you get a puncture?" "Were you knocked down?"

Michael said: "I had to go to a wedding."

A chorus of voices said "Whose wedding?" And Michael said: "My own."

I had great time for Cyril Cusack but occasionally he reminded me of what Oliver Goldsmith had written about his friend David Garrick: "On the stage he was natural, simple, affecting. Twas only when he was off he was acting."

Cyril, at times, adopted the role of an emperor judging his people. One night in The Waldorf when the talk centred on Synge's masterpiece, he met his match. He said to Arthur O'Sullivan: "You were very nearly a good Playboy." And Arthur said: "You were very nearly George Best's father-in-law".


Eventually I became Drama Critic Number Two for The Irish Press; from there I went to The Evening Press as Number One. I loved the work but it was not without its downside: some playwrights and some players didn't take kindly to criticism. A time came when I had a head-on clash with Hugh Leonard.

I had praised all of his plays until a night came when I felt that his new play was written with too much awareness of the audience, especially a certain kind of audience.

I wrote that he was The Oscar Tame of The Smoked Salmon classes. He wasn't pleased. We became the best of enemies.

A few years previously I had said that he was The Man In The Irony Mask. That was praise -- but it didn't count.

I continued to admire Hugh for his brave political stance in dangerous times, and for the lasting qualities of his honest plays. We are friends again.

It was necessary to attend first nights but I didn't enjoy them: many of the audience were socialites and were noisy and vulgar. And so I proposed to my fellow critics that we go to the second nights -- the players welcomed the idea but the theatre managers wouldn't listen.

A first night came that should have made them change their minds. The play was a dramatisation of Benedict Kiely's short novel, Proxopera. It tells the story of an IRA group who force a teacher to carry a bomb in his car to the local town. As the teacher, played by Michael Duffy, goes to get his keys, the house begins to sway outward as soon as he opens the door.

Michael, a big strong man, puts his back to the house but he hasn't a hope -- he just got out of the way before the house and the curtain came down. The audience erupted: cheers, wild laughter, and unbridled ribaldry rocked The Gate.

A well-known young singer came out in front of the curtain to restore some order. He sang Phil Coulter's dirge, The Town I Loved So Well. The hilarity was subsiding until he came to the line "My God, what have they done?" -- there was another mirthquake.

At last the house and the curtain were up. Brave Michael Duffy went to the car -- the door wouldn't open. By now the audience were in such convulsions that I feared some of them would do themselves harm.

Michael persevered -- and got into the car by the passenger door -- to great cheers. He turned the key -- the car backfired -- and went dead. Two stage-hands pushed it away. It was like the sinking of The Titanic -- a night to remember.

The Waldorf has changed name and hands. Siobhan and Maire and Cyril and many of their comrades are no more -- it was great to have known them.

Fogra: My old friend and theatre lover, Joseph Duffin in Toronto, will be going to the repair shop soon and I send him my very best wishes

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