Sunday 25 February 2018

Review: I Never Had a Proper Job by Barry Cassin



Two books of theatrical memoir have passed through my hands in recent months. One was The Happy Hoofer by the English comedy actor Celia Imrie.

The other is I Never Had a Proper Job, the Irish actor-director Barry Cassin's story of 60 years in theatre. What a difference: Imrie's is a series of ill-written "incidents" and name-dropping. Barry Cassin writes a quietly joyous and reflective trawl through a life lived with passion for his craft, and a rueful acceptance of the consequences of dropping out of university when the pull of the strolling players became too strong. And when he gets personal, about himself or others, he is intelligent, charming, always kind, but never indulgent.

John Finbar Cassin was born in 1924, the son of a First World War veteran. Both his parents were determined, with middle-class tenacity, for the boy to get a better chance than either of them had received. In old age, Cassin reflects that had he grown up across a narrow stretch of water, he would have been conscripted into the Second World War forces. And though he listened to his father railing against "the Hun" ("We beat him in '18, and we'll beat him again"), he was not, he admits, the stuff of which heroes are made.

Instead, he would go to University in Cork, where he decided in the words of a fellow student, that he would "work like a hoor, so that in my final year, some impressionable First Year would look at me and think 'Honours; friggin' Honours'." But like a bolt from the blue came the memory of how he had felt performing in a school operetta and the thought "You will not be a dentist. You will tread the boards and posture in the spotlight's beam."

In Dublin, he obtained an audition with Lord Longford, whose Gate productions were then playing at the Gaiety. In a small backstage room, he performed the great speech from Marlowe's Dr Faustus. Longford told him there was no need to shout, then thanked him politely. "The backstage stairs in the Gaiety are stone and cheerless," Cassin writes. "Halfway down I glanced back. Lord Longford was in the dressing room door, gazing after me. Our eyes met. He fled for cover."

After that, his first "professional" engagement was with one of the old touring fit-ups, Equity Productions, which he joined on April Fools' Day 1944, in the Theatre Royal, Wexford. It was also the era of "studio theatre" and it was in South Anne Street, in Madame Bannard Cogley's tiny theatre (a converted first-floor room) he made his Dublin debut, playing a Trojan soldier in A Night of the Trojan War. After a series of opening night disasters that included a painful weal across his ribs, and the bouncing of his helmet across the stage to hit the far wall before catapulting into the audience, he was told that if his death was not the noblest in the annals of Troy, it was certainly the noisiest.

He even played Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World, the problem of his towering six feet, three inch height solved by the director altering the line "a small low fellow" to "a long skinny fellow," with insouciant disregard for Synge's intentions.

Barry Cassin was to go on to found his own studio theatre company, 37, with Nora Lever, and to progress to an eminent career as the main director for Phyllis Ryan's Orion Productions, later to become Gemini, with a list of credits which includes the original production of John B Keane's The Field with Ray McAnally as Bull McCabe, and Cassin himself as the Bishop. (He credits McAnally, at the time a recovering alcoholic, with helping him to conquer his own alcoholism.)

I Never Had a Proper Job is full of anecdotes, related with an actor's perfect timing, and peppered with flashes of glorious character awareness of the many lives have which crossed with the author's. They are interspersed with wisdom and tenderness as he reflects on the Ireland he has known, its inconsistencies, its paranoia, its beauty and its hypocrisies. (And maybe he's also a bit of a snob: he mentions class rather a lot.)

Through the pages flashes the clearly remarkable woman who supported and loved him through the years of "a theatre marriage": not infrequently a non-theatre partner does not survive the exigencies of such a life. But Cassin's wife Nancy McCullen, a farmer from Meath who died in 1999, did.

One of their five children is Anne Cassin, the RTE journalist, of whom her proud father said to me a while ago: "She used to be introduced as my daughter. Now I'm introduced as her father." It was said with the most enormous relish, and somehow seems to sum up this long-time man of the theatre, who never under-values his place in our annals, but retains a wry sense of how short a time we all strut our stages.

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