The next Sunday Songbook singalong show at the Everyman features the tunes of Vera Lynn, writes Cathy Desmond.
The curtain went down for the last time on The Good Old Days, British television’s longest running variety show with Cork native, Danny La Rue leading a singalong to Vera Lynn’s nostalgic hit, ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
The final moments on Christmas Eve 1983 of the popular programme recreating the golden days of music-hall were testament to the affection for the singer known as the Forces’ Sweetheart and the enthusiasm of a theatre audience to embrace audience participation.
Watching the show planted a germ of an idea in Linda Kenny’s mind that sprouted in the first of many Sunday Songbook shows at Cork’s Everyman theatre. Sixteen years on, the Great Singalong Songbook team are returning to their Victorian spiritual home with their show We’ll Meet Again: The Story of Vera Lynn.
When I speak to Kenny on the eve of a performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, she is on the side-line of a pitch in Cork. The soprano combines a performing career with busy roles of soccer mom and producer of a repertory of no less than seven themed theatrical shows delving into the stories behind icons of popular entertainment.
Kenny explains that while the shows have developed a more theatrical dimension, the invitation to join in remains a core element.
“The original premise was a very simple idea — instantly recognisable music for an audience of 55 plus raised on a diet of singalongs. It’s in our DNA, we sing at wakes and noble calls. I went to Geoff Gould, then director at the Everyman, and sold him the idea of a concert for the people.
“The idea was consistent with the repertory company of old with a core team adding guests depending on a broad theme. We did four a year and while the programmes changed, there were consistent elements. We always finished a song, ‘Goodbye from the White Horse Inn’ and people would belt out the lyrics and wave their song sheets in the air like the white flag. It was amazing!”
There has been remarkable consistency too in the songbook team. Linda Kenny first met baritone Damian Smith when she stepped in at the last moment for a live broadcast on the Gay Byrne show. Playing Laurie in a Cork Opera House production of Oklahoma brought director Cathal MacCabe into the circle and the three collaborated frequently in RTÉ programmes such as Theatre Nights with Kevin Hough.
The death of a dear colleague in 2015 forced a change in direction. A new style of show emerged and a familiar radio voice came onboard.
“Our beloved Michael Twomey passed away,” recalls Kenny. “It was a significant moment for us as Michael was inextricably linked with who we were and what we did. We didn’t want to replace him.”
MacCabe wrote Vera Lynn so that Kenny and Smith would tell her story.
“Up to that point, we never spoke to the audience. We introduced Alf McCarthy who was to be our new MC as a character who lived through the war. It is an absolute gem of a show, the best thing that Cathal has ever written. While we tell her story set against the background of war, Alf adds the personal element in bringing his character to life.
"He gives the story of how she impacted on people. She was the glue that kept the nation together and gave them hope that there would be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover and an end to the bombing.”
The war theme has a special resonance for those with first-hand experience of the war. Kenny recalls meeting emotional ex-servicemen in their nineties for whom the show provoked particularly powerful memories at early performances in Dublin and Waterford.
Since dipping a toe in the national scene, the team have introduced daytime performances which are attracting an intergenerational audience. The death of Doris Day last week threw a media spotlight on the team who were much in demand for radio interviews.
“I felt like a family member had passed on. The reaction at our show at the National Concert Hall was striking. People were very emotional.”
It’s been a busy week with tribute shows to Doris Day in Dublin and Jim Reeves in Birr but now the Great Singalong Songbook team is coming home to Cork with Vera Lynn — still alive at 102 — the show that Kenny admits is her favourite.
“It is so rewarding to do something you love with friends that feel like family for an audience that appreciate what you do. It is a simple hats-off to the innocent days of singalongs and pure entertainment. The stories are compelling. They tug at the heart strings and the music has stood the test of time.”
The Great Singalong Songbook present The Story of Vera Lynn at the Everyman, Cork, on Sunday, May 26; and The Story of Jim Reeves at Theatre Royal Waterford on July 14
Linda Kenny selects the songs she enjoys singing the most:
The White Cliffs of Dover
I’ve always loved the theme of hope and expectation in this song but it was brought more vividly to life when one octogenarian told me that when he was hiding out in the airraid shelter one line in this song kept him going throughout his fear (“And Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again!)”
We’ll Meet Again
Obviously this was the ultimate song for the war time hugely emotional at the image it evokes of loved ones being wrenched apart not knowing when or if they would ever be reunited. Catches me every time.
A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square
All her songs are heartfelt and powerful but her rendition and interpretation of this particular song is a masterclass in painting a picture in words.
My Lili of the Lamplight became a sort of anthem at that time, being torn apart from loved ones and going off to war. But the pulsing rhythm which intensifies with each verse is exciting to sing. It feels like a revolt against the fragmentation of war!
Faraway Places It is a gorgeous evocation of hope about life after the war. ‘Guns Salute, Trumpets Herald the Republic of Ireland’ was the headline in the Cork Examiner on 19th April 1949 following the ceremonies to mark the Ireland’s departure from the British Commonwealth. Well known Cork musician Bob Kearney recalls as a child hearing the crowds that lined the banks of the Lee spontaneously burst into the most popular song of the day- Faraway Places the latest recording by the Forces’ Sweetheart was the people’s choice to celebrate Ireland’s freedom.