Michael Twomey is a true stalwart of Cork theatre

Michael Twomey may be best known for Cha and Miah, but his reflections on over 70 years in Cork theatre include some incredible history, writes Jo Kerrigan

Michael Twomey made his stage debut at Cork Opera House in 1944. Picture: Mark Kelleher

THE Everyman Palace, is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year. And who could know more about not just Everyman but everything to do with theatre in Cork over the past 70-odd years, than Michael Twomey?

Creator of characters, doyen of directors, master of every kind of ceremony, he won’t mind being identified as an octogenarian. In fact he can’t, since he is proud of the fact that his first ever stage appearance was at the old Opera House in 1944 at the age of 11.

It awoke a passion for the stage which never abated. A range of roles at the old Opera House, Pres Theatre Guild productions with Dan Donovan and Der Breen, and of course Shakespeare at the Loft. It was in As You Like It that he met his future wife, Marie, playing Rosalind to his Orlando.

The Southern Theatre Group began its long and successful career in 1959 with John B Keane’s Sive, and Twomey will never forget his role as Carthalawn the tinker, the haunting song, and the atavistic beat of the bodhrán. “We would start the drumming way back near the dressing rooms, and slowly progress towards the stage, getting louder and louder. When we arrived, the whole place erupted with applause!”

KEANE EDGE

Every new Keane play was a success, with sell-out seasons in Cork, followed by countrywide tours. They even did the west coast of America, and — probably more unusual —Dublin. “Normally there was an unbridgeable gap between the two cities, but we crossed it. And we were sold out before we even got there.”

Anecdotes abound. “We were headed to Tralee one weekend, four of us in James N [Healy’s] car, the rest having gone ahead. Now Jim was always one for taking what he considered were short cuts, and we were way up over Nad Bog when we got a puncture. Well, out we all piled, pulled everything out of the boot, and got the spare tyre.”

Job done, they headed off again, and fortunately arrived with minutes to spare before curtain up. Only afterwards was it discovered that James N’s briefcase, with the envelopes containing everyone’s pay for the weekend, had been left behind on the roadside. “Well, there was nothing for it but to head back and hope for the best. That briefcase was still sitting there at the side of the road, just where we left it.”

Twomey has particular affection for Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty. “I was in that first production; Marie was in two later revivals; I directed it myself for Everyman in 2006 — and my granddaughter was in the one we’ve just seen, directed by Catherine Mahon-Buckley. Now how’s that for family continuity?”

Meanwhile, in 1963, the Everyman Theatre Company had come into being. “It was John O’Shea’s idea. He could see that there were so many acting groups and companies in Cork that it would make sense to bring them together under one banner, so everything could be planned out ahead.”

And so O’Shea, together with Dan Donovan and Seán Ó Tuama, created the new company, first based at the CCYMS Little Theatre in Castle Street, then the Fr Mathew Hall, and finally the Palace on MacCurtain Street, which has borne the Everyman name since the 1980s.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

Twomey on right as Miah, with Cha played by Frank Duggan.

Twomey knows every theatre, every venue in Cork and beyond. The tiny and rickety Group Theatre on South Main St, where the Slag Shows, and Twomey’s production of The Glass Menagerie were first aired. St Francis Hall, home of many a memorable pantomime. The School of Music theatre, both old and new. The Cat Club ditto. Both of Cork’s opera houses. Plus all those country venues in village halls. He recalls one winter when performers kept on getting injured or ill. “I played six different parts in the Opera House panto that year, stepping in whenever someone didn’t turn up.”

His first role as director came at the An Tostal celebrations in 1953, when he staged Shadow of the Glen with Charlie Hennessy, Abbey Scott, and Dan Coughlan.

Those well-loved characters Cha and Miah with old buddy Frank Duggan are probably his most enduring creation. That duo began back in 1969 when young Telefís Éireann reporter Bill O’Herlihy was doing a vox pop on the dangers of smoking. Twomey put on an old coat and hat for a skit interview, and coughed profusely as he explained how smoking 80 fags a day had no effect on him whatsoever. When Frank Hall asked him do a slot on his Newsbeat show, Frank Duggan was drafted in to play Cha. A legend was born. They became household names through their weekly slot on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, with Twomey’s Miah in the role of pub philosopher, and the dimwitted Miah as his foil.

Twomey also devised and directed no fewer than 22 Summer Revels seasons at the Opera House. The Sunday Songbook shows at the Everyman continue to be sell-outs. In between, plays, musicals, cabaret, pantomime, TV, radio — an endless list.

TEAM WORK

He has happy memories of working with the late Paddy Comerford. “You wouldn’t think it, but Paddy was the biggest worrier backstage. He would always panic that he might forget something. So for the opening night I organised big prompt cards which we fastened to the inside of the orchestra pit where he could read them easily. Just before the curtain went up, this big man came down to the very front row and threw his coat right over the rail, covering up several of the cards! Paddy went into orbit, and I had to think quickly. We got an usher to go down and murmur something about health and safety, and would he please remove his coat.”

There are still things he wants to do. “Direct Inherit The Wind. Such a powerful play. And take the title role in Year of the Hiker, originally created by James N. It’s probably the strongest Keane play, and I would so love to play that part.”

People who influenced him most? “Jim Stack, probably Ireland’s finest director at the time. James N Healy for the incredible way he could stage everything from musicals to Keane. And most of all, Dan Donovan. Actor, director, visionary — there couldn’t be another like him.”

Which you could well say of Twomey himself.

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