Thursday 18 January 2018

Great acting and Billy's help made 'Belfry' great

Chris Hayes as Fr Pat, Jack Matthews as Dominic, Tommy Murray as Donal and Nicola Roche as Angie in ‘Belfry’.
Chris Hayes as Fr Pat, Jack Matthews as Dominic, Tommy Murray as Donal and Nicola Roche as Angie in ‘Belfry’.

AT eleven years of age, young Persephone is a person of many words, but she pared her verdict on the recent production of 'Belfry' down to just four. 'Very funny, so sad' she murmured with incisive brevity as the cast took their bow.

The play presented at the Dún Mhuire by Wexford drama group for five nights was billed as celebrating 25 years of the 'Wexford Trilogy', bringing us back to 1988. That was the year in which 'A Handful of Stars' first arrived on the stage of the Bush Theatre in London. It was followed a year later by 'Poor Beast in the Rain' and the full set was not completed until early in 1991 when 'Belfry' was presented.

Though the script may be as vivid as it ever was, all this consideration of dates and anniversaries irresistibly throws the mind back to bygones. Besides, the Wexford Drama Group production of the summer of 2013 has strong connections with the spring of 1994. Yes, it was 19 years ago that Enniscorthy Theatre Group presented the story of sacristan Artie O'Leary to an enthusiastic audience in the Athenaeum. Theirs was the first ever amateur presentation of the play.

Among those in the audience on the opening night at the Dún Mhuire were Norma Doyle (née Flood) and Michael Dunbar, both members of the original Enniscorthy cast, which also included the late Pat Connaughton, along with Frank Murphy and John O'Gorman. The two from the old crew had the luxury of being able to sit at their ease and relish their successors breathing of fresh life into the once familiar words.

No such indulgence was afforded to the man who directed the Athenaeum show way back, Norma's husband Andy Doyle. He was the first man to be seen when the lights went up on the latest production and he put in a superb long shift as narrator and central character opposite Nicola Roche, Jack Matthews, Tommy Murphy and Chris Hayes, all under the direction of Paul Walsh.

Andy admitted afterwards that the move from director to performer was tinged with strong emotion. Just seven months after the death of Pat Connaughton, it was strange to step into the great man's shoes.

The show brought Enniscorthy to the All-Ireland drama finals 19 years ago when they finished third in Athlone. It was not until 1996 that Enniscorthy Theatre Group made the breakthrough to become national drama champions – with another play from Billy Roche's trilogy, naturally, 'Poor Beast in the Rain'.

The playwright's unvarnished but always sympathetic view of Wexford life has earned him a worldwide audience, not to mention a place in Aosdána, the organisation for Ireland's artistic elite. He took an active and encouraging interest in the latest 'Belfry'. Andy Doyle revealed that Billy was a helpful presence at the initial readings and auditions, also appearing at the dress rehearsal as well as the first night.

'With his inspiration, we went on with confidence,' said the director-turned-actor. He added that there was no question of altering the original script to pander to a new millennium audience. The dialogue remains unchanged testament to the writer's universal appeal delivered with genuine Wexford speech patterns.

'It is a seriously well-crafted play,' commented the man who should know after working with it from both sides of the footlights. 'Billy is one of my heroes. He is special.'

Andy invested the character of Artie with a rueful cockiness, subverted by the seductive smile of Nicola Roche's Angela. Tommy Murphy spoke up for Everyman as Donal, while Chris Hayes made a more than likeable Fr Pat. But the most talked about member of the line-up was Jack Matthews.

The 17-year-old walked out of the Leaving Cert examination hall and into serious rehearsal for a part that would test the competence of any performer, let alone one so young. Jack delivered an exceptional version of the troubled, disaster-prone Dominic facing the awfulness of being shipped off to a special school when he would rather apply his hamfisted, good natured enthusiasm to being an altar boy in his local church.

He also got to deliver some of the worst jokes in theatrical history. For example: 'What did the monkey say after the train ran over its tail? Won't be long now!' Cue the groans.

Gorey Guardian

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