Taking to the road

The tradition of travelling theatrical troupes has been revived in Cork, writes Jo Kerrigan

Taking to the road

THERE was a time when fit-ups were an integral part of the theatrical scene in Ireland and Britain. For over a century, travelling companies visited small towns, villages, rural communities that had no established theatres of their own, bringing Shakespeare, melodrama, pantomime and circus (as well as a touch of glamour, glitter and excitement) to people who would otherwise never have had the opportunity to enjoy live shows.

English companies came over to Ireland, but we had our own great names too, like Anew McMaster (the young Harold Pinter learned a lot of his craft in the McMaster company).

Today, alas, only the circus continues to tour. Fit-ups more or less died out in Britain with the dawn of the 20th century, and the establishment of permanent theatres in all major towns. They hung on in rural Ireland a lot longer, but we saw the last of the great Irish companies on the road in the 1960s. The coming of television had finally killed off the travelling troupers.

Or so we thought. The next fortnight sees three different seasons opening in unusual venues throughout Co Cork, offering live entertainment where you might not have expected to find it. Clearly the old tradition was not dead but simply sleeping. That’s a genuine cause for celebration. There is something about seeing live drama in an unexpected environment that sharpens our senses, gets rid of the tired old reactions, and makes us experience what is being played in an entirely new and fresh way. We may have constant access to manufactured entertainment on TV and computer screens, but nothing can beat the immediacy of real theatre on your own doorstep. Particularly when it is somewhere that is usually used for an entirely different purpose.

In Bantry, the lounge of JJ Crowley’s Bar has been miraculously transformed into a 70-seat auditorium where Ronan Wilmot and the Dublin Theatre Company are presenting that well-loved story, The Tailor and Ansty, for a six-week season.

Wilmot was originally asked to perform the show during the inaugural Fado Fado Festival there over St Patrick’s weekend, and that was such a success that the idea of a summer season in Crowley’s was devised. In true fit-up tradition, the company moved into the town last weekend, and started work on transforming the lounge bar into a small and charming venue, just right for an intimate show like The Tailor and Ansty.

Delighted members of the local drama group have also been recruited to help with stage management, lighting and publicity, just as they would have been in days of yore.

Attractions like this are good for everyone in a seaside town in summer and, given the present weather, a heartwarming homespun drama of real life events should go down very well.

If it is a success, they are planning other plays for a two-week run in the autumn and spring, and a major new production in summer 2013 from other Irish playwrights like John B Keane and Brian Friel.

And then there is the West Cork Fit-Up Festival, which runs from Jul 24-Aug 19, touring not just to mainland villages but also to offshore islands with a repertoire of plays changing week by week, offering a kaleidoscope of theatrical experiences to audiences from Lisavaird to Goleen, Ballydehob to Bere Island. Piling cast, crew, props and scenery into vans, traversing winding boreens or piling on to ferries, the company will make its way through the countryside of west Cork in an exhausting month-long marathon which will see four very different shows performed in a total of seven venues.

THE inaugural festival was founded in 2009 by Blood in the Alley Theatre Company, in association with the Arts Office of Cork County Council, and it proved such a hit with the towns and villages of the region that it has toured every summer since.

Blood in the Alley is a cooperation between director Geoff Gould (former artistic director of the Everyman Palace), playwright Micheál Lovett and designer Elizabeth Powell, that concentrates on new Irish writing. This year the touring season kicks off with a double-bill of Frank McGuinness’s Baglady, performed by Maria Mcdermottroe, coupled with The Wheelchair on My Face, written and performed by Sonya Kelly. That’s being performed from Jul 24 to 29. From Jul 31 to Aug 5, Pat Kinevane will be performing either Silent or Forgotten, depending on the venue, while Aug 7-12 sees Ray Scannell’s Mimic.

That great lady of Irish comedy, Rosaleen Linehan is more than game for a bit of travelling theatre too, taking to the road in The Ghost Show with Mark O’Regan and Conor Linehan, Aug 14-19.

This is a glorious opportunity to follow the company along the roads of west Cork, track them down in the different locations, and see a wonderful range of new pieces in surprising places. The venues this year are: Ballydehob, Goleen, Kilcrohane, Lisavaird, Sherkin Island (ferry from Baltimore), Hare Island (ferry from Cunnamore), and Bere Island (ferry from Pontoon).

And finally, you might associate Ballymaloe House in east Cork principally with gustatory pleasures, but drama is going to be the main course in the 17th century Grain Store there from late July. This superbly-converted building is opening a new summer theatre season with the Irish premiere of the stage version of publishing sensation Tuesdays with Morrie. Based on Mitch Albom’s book, this is the autobiographical story of a successful sports journalist and his former college professor.

What starts as a simple visit to an ailing acquaintance turns into a weekly pilgrimage, and a lesson in the meaning of life. Directed by Breda Cashe. and starring Terry Byrne and Andrew Murray, it runs from Jul 31 to Aug 5.

That’s followed by 47 Roses, written and performed by Peter Sheridan, which runs from Aug 7 to Aug 12. A stage adaptation of his memoirs, it chronicles growing up in 1960s Ireland. By turns brilliantly funny and intensely moving, it is a tribute to family and community, but is also part detective story, as the death of a parent triggers the uncovering of a very delicate secret.

Dinner at Ballymaloe is available as part of the package. Theatre in a pub, a village hall, on an island, in a farm building. Players travelling the roads to bring you entertainment. The actors are in town. Let’s go!

Summer theatre

* The Tailor and Ansty at JJ Crowley’s Bar, runs from Jul 17 to Aug 25 at 8pm nightly. Booking on 087-6960346.

* West Cork Fit-Up Festival, Jul 24-Aug 19, various venues. Full information on www.westcorkfit-upfestival.com.

* The Grainstore at Ballymaloe, Summer Theatre Season: Tuesdays with Morrie, Jul 31-Aug 5; 47 Roses, Aug 7-12. Booking on 021-4501673. Dinner and theatre package, 021-4652531. More information on www.thegrainstoreatballymaloe.com

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