The Glorious Group Players

The Glorious Group Players:

A Chronological History 1940-1959

 

         

                 

                     

                                

 

Prologue

 

When Griffith Knight and his wife Doris Richmond ended their four and half year tenure in the Ulster Minor Hall in Bedford Street, Belfast in early 1937, it signalled the demise of their eager amateur company, The Belfast Thespians. The space they named The Little Theatre, a discreet 300 seat annexe of the much larger Ulster Hall, was once again silent.

It was given a short but sweet protraction by former Belfast Thespian Harald Norway’s company, in the now renamed Playhouse. Guest actors included a teenaged Allan McClelland, Jack McQuoid and Carrickfergus Player, Robert Dempster.

Productions such as Hubert Griffith’s comedy ‘Youth at the Helm’ in May 1937 would be representative of future conventional presentations. This arrangement also proved financially unsustainable and their struggling existence effectively terminated after two years.
Despite a climate of seeming indifference, somehow a number of interested parties were, contrary to its recent past, still willing to take a chance on this intriguing space. In the winter of 1939, with war declared, Belfast schoolteacher and avowed theatre enthusiast, James Fitzpatrick, whose ambition was to realize a theatre which would serve as an enduring home for the peripatetic, Northern Drama Festival, discussed this and other possibilities with Thea and Gerald Morrow of the Ulster Players. The Morrows were hesitantly enthused, but soon put together a project to present to two other itinerant theatre companies, both Belfast based.

They were the Northern Ireland Irish Players led by J.R. Mageean, whose membership included Joseph Tomelty, Elizabeth Begley and Bee Duffell and Harold Goldblatt’s Jewish Institute Dramatic Society. A collective title was agreed as the Ulster Group Theatre and a three month open –ended lease of the hall was granted by the Estates Committee of Belfast Corporation, with the rent paid in advance. A twelve week experimental run was structured with Glasgow born James Bridie’s adaptation of Bruno Frank’s comedy ‘Storm in a Teacup’, directed by Nita Hardie, selected as the introductory production in March 1940.

The twelve week trial proved a moderate success and finished with the Northern Ireland Irish Players staging of St. John Ervine’s rural drama ‘John Ferguson’. After the summer break they decided to scrap the initial turnabout play format, a protectionist clause inserted to safeguard each company’s identity. Thus the newly named Ulster Group Theatre Players were formed.

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

A new rental contact, overseen by Goldblatt, was signed and on the 2nd September 1940, minus Gerald Morrow’s Ulster Players, a reluctant partner from the outset, the self-funded Ulster Group Theatre took to the stage with a somewhat surprising presentation, Somerset Maugham’s comedy, ‘The Circle’.

This was followed a week later by Gilbert Wakefield’s comedy, ‘Counsel’s Opinion’ and Jack Loudan’s tragicomedy, ‘The Ball Turns’. The next production in mid-September was a revival of St. John Ervine’s ‘Boyd’s Shop’, with Ballymena born Robert Dempster cast as the good natured grocer. The comedy ran for an incredible sell-out sixteen weeks and would be revived many times during the 1940’s, with Dempster the ineluctable choice as lead.
The company’s membership at this time comprised of General Manager Joseph Tomelty , Elizabeth Begley, Bee Duffell, J.R. Mageean, Harold Goldblatt, Min Milligan, the august R.H. McCandless, definitive rural character actor Robert Dempster, both former Carrickfergus Players and Fintona born John F. Tyrone.

Directing duties were largely shared between Goldblatt, McCandless and Mageean and from 1941, now in the teeth of WW2, it was hoped that new writing would be the order of the day. Notable productions of that year were Elsie T. Schauffler’s historical drama ‘Parnell’ in February, James Bridie’s comedy ‘The Black Eye’ in September and Rutherford Mayne’s three act comedy ‘The Drone’ staged in November. The only new work was Jack Loudan’s drama ‘Story for Today’ in December, starring Joseph Tomelty and Jack O’Malley and was directed by Nita Hardie.

Also and most significantly, that year saw the company present a rapid revival of ‘Boyd’s Shop’, which was shockingly interrupted by the second and most destructive air-raid by the Luftwaffe during the evening of Easter Tuesday the 15th April and into the early hours.

Two Tomelty pieces dominated in 1942, with a reworking of his 1938 radio play ‘Barnum Was Right’, which the Northern Ireland Irish Players performed at the Empire Theatre, Belfast in June 1939, with Tomelty himself in the titular role and Min Milligan offering decent support. The production enjoyed a successful run during January/February as part of a double bill with Chekhov’s ‘The Bear’, which featured a young but unperturbed Margaret D’Arcy.
The premiere of Tomelty’s coastal comedy, ‘Idolatry at Innishargie’ on the 11th May, saw the author as central character Sam Sirk and R.H. McCandless as his similarly naïve friend Dendy Dale and was directed by J.R.Mageean. The second original work of 1942 was Patricia O’Connor’s four act comedy/drama ‘Highly Efficient’ on the 21st of September, the cast again headed by Tomelty and McCandless, with Bee Duffell and John F. Tyrone in lucent form.

By 1943 and despite the Group’s clarion call for quality new works, there was little evidence of any rush to the door of the Artistic Director. Indeed it was Tomelty who led by example, with the 5th April premiere of his Belfast Blitz influenced ‘Poor Errand’, directed by J.R. Mageean and starring Tomelty as Stephen Durnan and Elizabeth Begley as his wife Winnie.

Hugh Quinn’s tragicomedy ‘Legacy of Delight’ was another new play, unveiled on the 2nd of August and directed by R.H. McCandless who played the pivotal role of David McFall, other parts were played by Tomelty, Min Milligan and John McDade with a supporting cast of largely unknowns.
The year was noteworthy also for the fulfilment of James Fitzpatrick’s vision of a permanent stage for Northern Amateur Drama Festival, which opened the 27th August with Jack Loudan’s ‘Story for Today’, performed with enthusiasm by the Youth Hostel Players. The Festival ran for a week until early September and would have an annual convene throughout the 1940’s.

Tomelty’s second premiere of the year was his sequel to ‘Barnum Was Right’, the analogous ‘Right Again Barnum’ on the 7th of December, directed by Mageean, with newcomer James Young as Willie John Marley and Elizabeth Begley as Gugs Marley. At the end of December into January 1944, Tomelty was editing his politically problematic ‘The End House’, set in a contemporary lower Falls Road, Belfast.

He knew without question and certainly with war raging, the storyline would run contrary to what was permissible in a sensitive Northern Ireland. The Abbey in Dublin expressed an interest and duly staged the play on the 28th August 1944. The only Ulster interest with the exception of Tomelty, was Co Down born Harry Brogan, who appeared as Constable Hanna. Overtly contentious, ‘The End House’ accentuated the Special Powers Act, but incredulously was interpreted as a black comedy by a sizeable number of a nescient opening night audience. The only revival in almost fifty years, was his daughter Roma’s 1993 Centre Stage production for the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

In early 1944, two Irish premieres, both well received comedies, were set before a war weary Belfast public. James Bridie’s ‘Mr Bolfry’, directed by Harold Goldblatt, opened on the 1st February and George Shiels’ ‘The Old Broom’, directed by R.H. McCandless and starring Elizabeth Begley, on the 3rd April.
A new work by Patricia O’Connor, this her second play, the social drama ‘Voice Out of Rama’, was staged on the 5th September, again directed by McCandless and again featuring Elizabeth Begley. Following this run the company undertook its first tour of Ulster, under the auspices of the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. (CEMA) and of course the two cash cows were rolled out again, ‘Right Again Barnum’ in January and ‘Boyd’s Shop’ in November.

The Group in 1945, now into a fifth year, was on the face of it, thriving, but could not yet be seriously described as a major producing theatre. In this, the last year of war, only two new plays were presented. Jack Loudan’s United Irishmen exposition ‘Henry Joy McCracken’, directed by Harold Goldblatt, with R. Forsythe Boyd in the title role and Margaret D’Arcy as his sister Mary. Premiered to an eager audience on the 31st March, it was followed on the 13th September by and Patricia O’Connor’s church v state drama ‘Select Vestry’, directed by and starring a quintessential R.H. McCandless as clergyman David Semple.

Revivals included G.B. Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ in January, George Shiels’ comedy ‘The New Gossoon’ in June, St. John Ervine’s three act comedy ‘Friends and Relations’ and yes a further run of ‘Right Again Barnum’ in November through December. Was it possible that there was actually a member of the theatre-going public who had not yet seen Tomelty’s spirited comedy since its first staging in December 1943. The play continued into 1946 and remarkably was still going strong into March.

The first of only two premieres in 1946, M. Eamon Dubhagen’s tragicomedy ‘The Curse of the Lone Tree’ opened on the 20th April, with Elizabeth Begley and Maurice 0’Callaghan prominent in a strong cast and was directed by R.H. McCandless.

Not to be outdone by the unbridled success of ‘Barnum Was Right’, St. John Ervine’s ‘Boyd’s Shop’ was revived again in May, followed in June by Louis D’Alton’s comedy ‘The Money Doesn’t Matter’. The second new work of the year was George Shiels’ border smuggling yarn ‘Borderwine’, directed by McCandless, it was brimful of almost all the senior players and presented on the 26th November.

Regrettably no contemporary writing was passed for production in 1947, with the entire programme consisting of revivals, over indulged revivals and the annual Northern Amateur Drama Festival, which was held in April.

The functional schedule comprised of Alfred Sangster’s ‘The Brontes’ in March, with Margaret D’Arcy as the reclusive Emily and McCandless as her father Patrick. Revivals of previous successes, generally a guaranteed source of income, included Patricia O’Connor’s ‘Highly Efficient’ in April, G.B. Shaw’s ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ in early June, ‘Macook’s Corner’ at the end of June and in October, Shiels’ ‘The Passing Day’, with McCandless magnificent as miserly shopkeeper John Fibbs.

Astonishingly the appeal of ‘Right Again Barnum’ showed no signs of diminishing and the theatre obliged with two runs in July and December’.
A year later in 1948, new writing represented a third of total productions; commencing on the 10th of February with a large cast assembled for Cecil Cree’s comedy ‘The House That Jack Built’, directed by R.H. McCandless and was followed in March by St. John Ervine’s poorly received drama ‘The Christies’, starring Harold Goldblatt and Gwyndolyn Stewart.

In autumn 1948, director J.R. Mageean had a wealth of comedic talent at his disposal for the Irish premiere of Belfast born, Canadian based John Coulter’s ‘Stars of Brickfield Street’, which opened on the 19th October. Originally written as ‘The Family Portrait’ in 1937, it drew energized performances from all involved, most notably Margaret D’Arcy, Elizabeth Begley and new arrival Sheila McGibbon.

The premiere of Shiels’ drama ‘Mountain Post’ closed the year, presenting on the 21st December, directed by and featuring McCandless as Enoch Brown, Begley as his wife Grace, James Young and a young hopeful, Armagh born Patrick Magee as Maton.

Noteworthy revivals were Louis D’Alton’s little known ‘Second Thoughts’ in May, ‘Candida’ in June, which suffered a costume theft on the eve of opening and in September, a splendid production of John Steinbeck’s masterly ‘Of Mice and Men’, which witnessed the debut of Oranmore Player J.G. Devlin.
Following the run of ‘Mountain Post’ through December and January 1949, Harry Sinton Gibson’s new comedy ‘Bannister’s Café’ premiered on the 1st February, directed by Goldblatt and starred Elizabeth Begley and Patrick Magee.

A series of further revivals filled the period from March until the end of the summer and included the inevitable ‘Boyd’s Shop’. Despite his considerable commitments to the theatre, Joseph Tomelty somehow found time to launch his commissioned radio series ‘The McCooeys’, a weekly Belfast set comedy, with a select number of Group Players, including himself filling the pivotal roles, with the inaugural broadcast on the 13th May 1949.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Tragedy struck on the 5th August with the death of respected character actor Robert Dempster. Illness forced his withdrawal during rehearsals in March of ‘Boyd’s Shop’, in which he was once again to be cast as the titular shopkeeper Andrew Boyd, arguably a contributory reason for the perdurable success of St. John Ervine’s evergreen romantic comedy.

Three original plays would be staged in the autumn/winter of 1949; Patricia O’Connor’s family drama ‘Master Adams’, opened on the 18th October with Maurice O’Callaghan and James Young, directed by R.H. McCandless, preceded what would be Joseph Tomelty’s definitive play, the cogent coastal tragedy, ‘All Souls’Night’.

Loaded with a weighty cast of himself as John Quinn, Elizabeth Begley as his wife Katrine, J.R. Mageean as Tom Byers and directed by Harold Goldblatt, it ran for six weeks from the 15th November until the 21st December. Cast changes were many in the intervening period, most conspicuously J.G. Devlin replacing Tomelty in the central role.

‘A Title for Buxey’, the fourth premiered play of the year, was presented, peculiarly on Christmas Eve. A boxing themed comedy written by Cecil Cree and starring John F. Tyrone, it drew on most of the inner core of Group Players and embarked on a lucrative run which spanned four months, closing in March 1950.

1950 proved another indifferent year for original work, with a meagre two submissions. Harry Sinton Gibson’s social drama ‘The Square Peg’ was staged in September, with R.H. McCandless, Maurice O’Callaghan, J.G. Devlin and a raw recruit named William Millar. Directed by Harold Goldblatt, the cast list had an unfamiliar look of guests and a generous sprinkling of new blood.

In November it was George Shiels’ reworking of his 1942 piece, ‘Master William’, entitled ‘Slave Drivers’and McCandless assumed a none too difficult task as director, going through the motions with old hands, Begley and Tomelty.

An expeditious revival of ‘Stars of Brickfield Street’ in early December gave way to the Christmas offering , Wynyard Browne’s ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, with Margaret D’Arcy in scintillating form. Notable other productions included ‘Juno and the Paycock’ in May/June, garnering inspiriting performances from principles, Tomelty and Devlin and in October Noel Coward’s 1927 comedy ‘The Marquise’.

1951 was interesting, with four premieres, a jaunt to London for the Festival of Britain, the amicable resignation of General Manager Joseph Tomelty after a ten year stint and the customary clutch of revivals.

Debutant playwright Ruddick Millar’s family drama, ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’, opened on the 6th February, directed by Goldblatt, with Margaret D’Arcy, Catherine Gibson and new arrival Barbara Adair.

Veteran Downpatrick born Lynn Doyle’s final play, the comedy ‘Fiddler’s Folly’ was staged on the 24th April, with a cast shorn of the Festival of Britain retinue, but potent nevertheless. In attendance were Margaret D’Arcy as Nellie Green, Catherine Gibson as Miss Blue, Harold Goldblatt, who also directed, was the Rector and R.H. McCandless played the malcontented central character, Robert Martin.

During the Festival of Britain, the limited company under the directorship of Tyrone Guthrie began with George Shiels’ darkly comic ‘The Passing Day’, presented at the Lyric, Hammersmith on 20th March, followed by John D. Stewart’s gritty ‘Danger Men Working’ on the 2nd April, which strangely would be given it’s Irish premiere at the Group two years later. The third play, Jack Loudan’s adaptation of Charles Shadwell’s comedy ‘The Sham Prince’, completed their contribution, opening on the 23rd April. The troupe consisted of among others, Joseph Tomelty, J.G. Devlin, Patrick McAlliney, Patrick Magee, Kathleen Feenan, John McBride and London based Allan McClelland and Bee Duffell.

At the close of 1951, two new comedies were introduced to a post-war audience, now absorbed in a weekly diet of the phenomenally successful ‘McCooeys’, with the added attraction of seeing most of the radio family in the flesh.

Dublin born Janet McNeill’s comedy ‘Signs and Wonders’ was bereft of wireless stars when it was staged on the 27th November, but with the Group’s abundant reserve of talent, offered a star-studded cast nevertheless. Directed by newly appointed General Manager, Harold Goldblatt, who also appeared as Seth Goodman, it starred Margaret D’Arcy in the focal role of Florence Thompson and J.R. Mageean as her father William.
Mageean’s joint writing effort with Ruddick Millar, ‘Arty’ was staged on the 22nd December; Mageean who also directed, offered the flamboyant James Young the title role and he did not disappoint, working the festive audience to great effect, with the run stretching into March 1952. It was replaced by yet more laughs and another success, St. John Ervine’s ‘My Brother Tom’, premiered on the 26th March and sustained into May.
The huge cast assembled included Barbara Adair, a central role as the contrite Joe Luke for director Goldblatt, J.R. Mageean, Elizabeth Begley, R.H.McCandless and a scene stealing J.G. Devlin as Peter Connolly.

A George Shiels revival, ‘The Caretakers’, improbably brought proceedings to June and this on a limited programme. In September the company welcomed a new member, east Belfast born James Ellis, twenty- one years old, a Tyrone Guthrie Scholarship recipient, who trained for a period at Bristol Old Vic. Before that however, as a QUB student he made several appearances at Hubert Wilmot’s Arts Theatre, the located in Fountain Street, Belfast.
His debut as the titular Kevney in George Shiels’ 1927 comedy ‘Cartney and Kevney’ was not inspiring, but was much better in his follow- up a month later, Louis D’Alton’s ‘They Got What They Wanted’, rubbing shoulders with Group giants, McCandless and Begley.

The theatre’s enthusiasm for programme scheduling close to Christmas continued with Patrick Riddell’s social drama, ‘The House of Mallon’, a surprising departure from the now traditional comedies and only the second new writing of 1952. The play, directed by Goldblatt and starring himself as the eponymous Sir Miles Mallon, also featured Begley, D’Arcy and former Omagh Player Patrick McAlliney, endured to the end of January 1953.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

There was no doubt that into his second year as General Manager, the influential Goldblatt was literally hands-on and was now directing and appearing in the lions share of productions.

1953 would certainly qualify as a landmark year, producing five new plays and two Irish premieres. After the curtain closed on ‘The House of Mallon’, Goldblatt took charge of Hebe Elsna’s family comedy ‘The Season’s Greetings’, with the opening performance on the 3rd February. Patrick McAlliney was given his most important role to date, playing opposite another capable actor Gwyndolyn Stewart as novelists Paul and Lucy Barlow.

Goldblatt also directed the subsequent offering, Jack Loudan’s Co Armagh set satirical piece, ‘A Lock of the General’s Hair’, presented on the 11th March, with Elizabeth Begley typically efficient as Aunt Alice. Able support was provided by Barbara Adair, Maurice O’Callaghan and Kathleen Feenan. Next up on the 2nd May, St. John Ervine’s contemporary rural comedy ‘Ballyfarland’s Festival’, afforded senior players, McCandless, Mageean, Begley and Devlin, under Goldblatt again, the opportunity to unashamedly strut their stuff. A categorical house-filler, it ran for seven weeks until the 24th June.
The fourth original work of 1953 was Armagh born Michael J. Murphy’s debut play , the social drama ‘’Dust Under Our Feet’ which was set in rural Ulster. It featured an outstanding Margaret D’Arcy as the persecuted Anne Lavelle, leading a formidable cast of J.G. Devlin, Maurice O’Callaghan and J.R. Mageean. It was yet again directed by Goldblatt and the production opened on the 28th July.

After a short summer break, audiences were treated to a positive example of avant-garde theatre with Jack Loudan’s ‘In Donegall Square’, an adaptation of Aimee and Philip Stuart’s ‘Nine Till Six’. This bittersweet Belfast comedy was directed by Elizabeth Begley and consisted of a cast of twelve, all female. The production drew appreciable notices and ran for six weeks until the 16th September.

Two plays making their Irish premieres followed in November and December. First up was John D. Stewart’s hard-nosed building site drama, ‘Danger Men Working’ which Tyrone Guthrie presented at the Lyric, Hammersmith during the 1951 Festival of Britain was this time directed by R.H. McCandless. J.G. Devlin as Patrick Hoy and John McBride as Chas Quinn were the only remaining members from the original London cast.

The final presentation of 1953 was Terence Rattigan’s tragedy ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, another curious festive choice, but for all that a precision piece. Directed by Goldblatt and faultlessly played by Margaret D’Arcy as Hester Collyer, Goldblatt as husband Sir William Collyer and James Greene as her lover Freddie Page. One of the theatre’s more celebrated productions, it ran until the middle of March 1954.

A divergent patchwork of plays in 1954, began after the fourteen week triumph of ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. John Boyd’s adaptation of St. John Ervine’s turn of the century, seaside melodrama, ‘Mrs Martin’s Man’, brought audiences back to the tried and tested Ulster play. Premiered on the 16th March and directed predictably by Harold Goldblatt, it starred Patrick McAlliney as the improvident James Martin, Elizabeth Begley as his wife Martha and Kathleen Feenan as their daughter Agnes.

Perennial favourite ‘Boyd’s Shop’ was trotted out for the umpteenth time in April, but was unthinkably and unanimously considered to be lacking in enthusiasm. A more crowd-pleasing production though was just around the corner, as Joseph Tomelty, who was still intensely immersed in ‘The McCooeys’, was able to deliver another local classic, with his new sparkling comedy, ‘Is the Priest At Home?’, unveiled on the 18th May. The principle role of Father Malan was taken by the omnipresent Goldblatt, who of course also directed. Margaret D’Arcy played the pious Perpetua O’Kane, Elizabeth Begley the housekeeper Marona, J.G. Devlin as handyman Jimmy McLaughlin and J.R Mageean as the postman Danny McAlea. ‘Is the Priest at Home?’ was unequivocally the Group Theatre’s most successful production, with a run stretching to eighteen weeks. As future events would dictate, it would be Tomelty’s last original work to be produced at the theatre.

Two months later on the 13th December, his second comedy premiere of 1954, ‘April in Assagh’, was staged at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, directed by J.R. Mageean. In the cast were McCandless, Devlin, Begley, Feenan, the emerging James Ellis and Tomelty himself as Davey McGreevy. At the Group later that month, the theatre presented work by an unknown Belfast writer, Maurice Shanks, entitled ‘On Arthur’s Account’, billed as a light comedy it made a rather optimistic opening on Christmas Eve and was placed in an impossible position. Pitched against heavyweight opposition a mere five hundred yards away, it’s brief ineffectual run ended just after Christmas and made way for the transfer of ‘April in Assagh’ on the 4th January 1955.
On the 7th February, Sam Hanna Bell’s only stage play ‘That Woman at Rathard’ opened to unanimous critical acclaim. Adapted from his 1951 novel, ‘December Bride’, a dark menage a trois set in the Ards Peninsula just before WW1 and subtlety directed by Harold Goldblatt. It drew a virtuoso performance from Margaret D’Arcy as housekeeper Sarah Gilmartin, with Maurice O’Callaghan and James Greene as brothers Hamilton and Frank Echlin. Patricia O’Connor’s latest work ‘The Farmer Wants a Wife’ followed on the 30th March; another rural comedy, it paired Kathleen Feenan and James Greene as frustrated sweethearts Margaret Wylie and John Bryson and was directed with a good deal of empathy by R.H. McCandless.

Less than a month later distressing news reached the company, that Joseph Tomelty who was in England screen-testing for George Cukor’s feature film ‘Bhowani Junction’, was involved in a serious car accident on the 26th April in Bushey, Hertfordshire, close to MGM’s British Studios in Borehamwood. His slow recovery from grievous injuries determined the demise of his flourishing radio show ‘The McCooeys’, the most famous family in Ulster, which had just completed its seventh series on Friday 1st April.

The 15th August saw the premiere of St. John Ervine’s melodrama ‘Martha’, with constants Margaret ‘D’Arcy in the title role and Harold Goldblatt as actor/director. There was mixed fortunes for a couple of revivals later in the year. George A. Birmingham’s now dated comedy ‘General John Regan’ in early October and Tomelty’s timeless ‘All Souls’ Night’, which as expected, prospered and enjoyed a strong run until the middle of December.
The concluding presentation of 1955, ‘Diana’, an original piece by C.K. Munro, was a political comedy, with the dominating pair of D’Arcy and Goldblatt and a supporting cast of Catherine Gibson, Denys Hawthorne and visiting London based Robert Bernal. The now seemingly speculative, but profitable Christmas scheduling, gave the play a Boxing Day opening and a satisfactory three week spell at the box-office.

Another premiere, John Crilley’s only play, the jaunty but subsequently neglected ‘A Saint of Little Consequence’ opened on the 24th January 1956, with an excellent cast of Devlin, Begley, Gibson, James Ellis and Robert Bernal, methodically put through their paces by director J.R. Mageean. The Irish premiere of Margaret D’Arcy’s adaptation of Cesare Giulio Viola’s drama, ‘Nora the Second’ followed on the 3rd March, effecting a fine performance from the eponymous D’Arcy, with the omnipresent Goldblatt as actor/director.

Donegal born house-writer Patricia O’Connor’s penultimate play for the theatre, ‘Who Saw Her Die’, a clever black comedy directed by Mageean, was presented on the 24th April. It featured ex Bangor Drama Club member Doreen Hepburn and Denys Hawthorne as Sam and Mary Harrow and Elizabeth Begley as housekeeper Kate, a role type she was now filling with consummate ease.

The third and last new work of 1956 was debutant playwright Patrick J. McLaughlin’s Killarney set comedy, ‘Ill Fares the Land’ on the 30th June. Directed by Goldblatt it numbered the customary high standard cast, this time of J.G. Devlin, Catherine Gibson, Maurice O’Callaghan, Doreen Hepburn and schoolteacher/radio actor James Boyce, a former Northern Drama League player, who acted periodically with the Group from 1940. The programme for the rest of the year consisted of trusty comedy revivals such as George Shiels’ ‘Moodie in Manitoba’, during August/ September and Lennox Robinson’s ‘The Far-Off Hills’ in September. In October, the still recuperating Joseph Tomelty saw his new play ‘To Have a Little House’, performed at the Little Theatre, Bangor and at his behest, directed by James Ellis. The production though unfortunately failed to impress, the first rebuff in his career to date.
Brendan Behan’s inaugural work, the Mountjoy Prison tragicomedy, ‘The Quare Fellow’ was staged on the 27th November to rapturous applause. Transferred earlier from the Abbey Theatre, where it was denied a submission in 1954, but given a platform by Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift in their bijou Pike Theatre, Dublin in November of the same year. Director Harold Goldblatt assembled his most experienced male cast, drawing elevated performances from each and everyone and among the first night audience was the author, who gave it a mighty nod of approval.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

By 1957 the theatre was beset by financial problems, probably not out of the blue, as it would first appear. New writing for whatever reason was not as it should be.

The year began with ‘The Mustard Seed’, a contemporary melodrama by Joan Sadler. It received select status when billed as an Irish Premiere, upon its opening on the 15th January. Directed atypically by Denys Hawthorne, the general cast was not of the usual strength, with Doreen Hepburn and Welsh actor Artro Morris taking the leading roles.

The lone new play, Louis Macneice’s political drama ‘Traitors in Our Way’, was unveiled on the 23rd March, normal service being resumed with Goldblatt on directing duties. Margaret D’Arcy appeared as Portia Carstairs, Denys Hawthorne as her husband Thomas and Goldblatt as Roger Haffer, the traitor of the title.

If the warning signs were evident at the start of the year, by the beginning of August the future of the theatre would find its future dictated by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts, aka CEMA and administered by General Secretary John Lewis-Crosby. The company was now registered as non-profit-making and renamed as the Ulster Group Theatre Ltd.
James Ellis who had just turned twenty six was appointed Assistant Artistic Director to Harold Goldblatt. Lewis –Crosby reasoned that an injection of new blood would engender innovation. Ellis had from 1955, been a Joint Director at the little Theatre, Bangor, with his wife-to-be Betty Hogg and old friend James Greene. To augment finances he would oversee a summer season in Bangor, with a revolving ensemble which would alternate between there and Bedford Street.

In 1957, following summer renovations the company’s autumn/winter programme began in October with the Frances Goodrich/Albert Hackett adaptation of the poignant ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. Under the direction of Harold Goldblatt, it starred a mature Kathleen Feenan as the young heroine, Goldblatt as her father, Margaret D’Arcy as the mother Edith and young Bangor actor Colin Blakely as Mr. Van Daan. In November J.G. Devlin proffered himself as director and the role of Old Mahon for a revival of Synge’s masterpiece ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, starring James Ellis as a commendable Christy Mahon and Doreen Hepburn as Pegeen Mike to a gainful run through until mid –December. The Irish premiere of T.M. Watson’s Scottish comedy ‘Bachelors are Bold’, which although tolerable, was a questionable Christmas offering.

The theatre in 1958 was a different world from that which began in the early months of WW2. Audiences in the forties and early fifties attended in droves and for the most part were auspiciously entertained. The problem now facing all theatres was television, a cosy, relatively inexpensive medium that was seriously affecting the box-office.

A constricted, structured schedule was planned for the theatre in 1958, which exasperatingly was devoid of a single piece of new writing. Instead it comprised of three plays, two of which were big screen successes and the other would eventuate in December 1959. Roy Lawlor’s acclaimed Australian drama ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’, staged in early spring, was replaced in April by an adaptation of Stanley Haughton’s family drama, ‘The Master of the House’. Colin Blakely who co-starred as Dick McArdle, made his Group Players debut in the play during the previous year’s Bangor summer season.

In June Harold Goldblatt was granted permission for a title change to T.M. Watson’s comedy, ‘Beneath the Wee Red Lums’ and with a few tweaks here and there, he presented a reconstructed Ulster comedy, ‘Spinsters Are Sly’. He gathered a cast of Group luminaries, notably McCandless, Begley, Hepburn and a wonderful J.G.Devlin as undertaker Gilbert Dalgleish. Colin Blakely at this point, with a little help from James Ellis, not to forget an abundance of talent, was on the cusp of becoming the favoured leading man. Ellis, now with some clout, gave him a further boost with the key role of the peripatetic Hal Carter, in William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning ‘Picnic’. His summer theatre commitments notwithstanding, he also found choice parts for other Bangor Players, his wife Betty Hogg and James Greene’s partner Diana Payan.

Internal politics simmering from the beginning of 1957, reached boiling point when Gerard McLarnon’s tendentious play ‘The Bonefire’, effectuated a heated debate between Lewis-Crosby and his CEMA Vice-President and Board Chairman Ritchie McKee, whose brother Cecil was Unionist Mayor of Belfast. A number of judicious Group Players, Goldblatt, Devlin and Ellis were prominent in their support for the play, siding with Lewis-Crosby against a majority of board members, including R.H. McCandless, whose independent position remains unclear.

The Belfast Telegraph took an unsurprising stance, with an editorial comment describing it as ‘a vomit of disgust’. The unanimous verdict amongst those in opposition, was that it should not transfer, following its staging at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, to represent N. Ireland at that years Edinburgh Festival.

Despite this angst, ‘The Bonefire’ opened on the 18th August, under the direction and discernible protection of Tyrone Guthrie. The cast was the strongest the company could muster, with the exception of Kathleen Feenan and predictably R.H.McCandless. Pivotal roles were filled by Maurice O’Callaghan as John Hanna, Margaret D’Arcy as Vanessa Lindsay and J.G. Devlin as James Mitchell. Ironically, or perhaps not, the opening night audience was attended by all and sundry, including the aggrieved McKee brothers, after all photo opportunities are there to be taken advantage of. ‘The Bonefire made it to the Edinburgh Festival, replete with all the publicity imaginable, but as was the case in Belfast, it fell short of an unmitigated success.
Falkland Cary and Philip King’s romantic comedy ‘Sailor Beware’, was the penultimate production of 1958, a minor screen success in 1956, it was also the last but one for Harold Goldblatt as actor and director. It opened in mid- November, with what was arguably one of the most potent casts available. The credit list was a cornucopia of stagecraft, with D’Arcy, Begley, Devlin, Hepburn, Blakely and Ellis, et al, having a whale of a time. Goldblatt departed upon the closing of the Christmas presentation, J.B. Priestley’s ‘When We Are Married’ in January 1959.

Although still faced with a persistent financial strain and an undercurrent of hostilities between Board, CEMA, and assorted actors, a more pernicious situation would develop from the end of March 1959. Who would have thought that in less than nine months, an industrious theatre, that once burned brightly, would be reduced to a humdrum space.

With the earlier departure to America of J.R. Mageean, the Group would suffer further setbacks. The first jolt was the departure of Margaret D’Arcy, following the run of ‘Sailor Beware’ and then Harold Goldblatt relinquishing his position as General Manager/Artistic Director, citing a combination of increasing screen work and more than a hint of quarrel fatigue.

His ambitious but unseasoned assistant James Ellis was the instant replacement and under his new title of Director of Productions, presided over Patricia O’Connor’s new play, a rural drama, ‘The Sparrow’s Fall’, on the 25th February. It starred Doreen Hepburn as domineering schoolteacher Rosina Sweeny and included Ellis, Blakely, Maurice O’Callaghan and was directed by R.H. McCandless.

In early March, during the run of ‘The Sparrow’s Fall’, Ellis met by chance an aspiring East Belfast playwright, Sam Thompson, who approached him with the script of a sectarian steeped, shipyard based play, he had hoped the Group would find a compelling enough story to stage.

Ellis was so taken with the piece, he rescheduled planned productions and was prepared to present it after John Murphy’s new work, a comedy/drama, ‘The Country Boy’, around the end of May, Indeed ‘Over the Bridge’ appeared as the next presentation on the programme of ‘The Country Boy’, which would be Ellis’ first play as director and Director of Productions.

With an opening date of 7th April, he cast Colin Blakely as the restless Curly Maher, J.G. Devlin as his father Tom and Kathleen Feenan as girlfriend Eileen. Ellis had already begun rehearsals for ‘Over the Bridge’, but McKee, already on alert, requested a copy of the script which, after much subterfuge was made available to the Board of Directors.

Reaction was swift and options limited, with the Board at first demanding the play be pulled indefinitely. At the end of May, McKee had a private meeting at his home, in the company of Vice-Chair Harry McMullan, BBC Head of Programmes and invited guests Ellis and Thompson. This was to be the final attempt at resolving the sensitive issues in the narrative and as this would involve a complete rewrite of the final act, Thompson flatly refused.

Meanwhile Jack Loudan had withdrawn his play ‘Trouble in the Square’, in solidarity with the Ellis fraternity, which was scheduled as the next production following ‘Over the Bridge’. This prompted a hastily packaged Louis D’Alton revival, the ironically titled ‘They Got What They Wanted’, directed in early June by the trusty McCandless.

Filling what was an embarrassing void, the Bangor summer season was now up and running and with the tension bubbling away in Belfast, Ellis, though still steadfast, was stretched to the limits.

As the summer progressed, Ellis’ decision to resign was more an inevitability than a surprise. Both he and Colin Blakely’s resignation letters were read out and accepted at a Board meeting held in the Artists Room in the Ulster Hall on the 17th July. Blakely was more or less London bound and a show of unanimity with Ellis was taken as an expression of gratitude for the belief and support he had given him during the previous eighteen months.
With the 1959 Bangor Summer Season wrapped up, Ellis embarked on his final production for the Group, a revival of St. John Ervine’s domestic tragedy ‘Jane Clegg’, timetabled for opening on the 16th September. With himself as both director/actor, he cast Maurice O’Callaghan as the philandering husband Henry and Doreen Hepburn as the titular wife.

Now in a vacillating, prosaic state, the theatre under Ritchie McKee, who was at this point, luxuriating in his omnipotent dual roles of Chairman and Secretary General of CEMA, following the withdrawal in October of the perplexed John Lewis-Crosby. Although remaining as a CEMA Assessor, he would essentially be a voiceless Board member.

London born Jonathan Goodman was appointed as Ellis’ successor on the 26th August, with the inartistic title of Administrator. In the weeks that followed he witnessed a raft of resignations. Elizabeth Begley, Catherine Gibson, Kathleen Feenan and Doreen Hepburn all followed Ellis at the end of October, on the termination of their contractual agreements.

The freelancing J.G Devlin had effectively decamped at the end of the summer, working briefly with Colin Blakely at the Royal Court, in Sean O’Casey’s ‘Cock-a-Doodle Dandy’. The new theatre company was registered as Ulster Bridge Productions Ltd and Thompson, who had sued the Group for breach of contract was offered and accepted an out of court settlement of £175 plus costs.

The general consensus is that the Group ended its days as a legitimate theatre when the curtain closed on George Shiels’ comedy ‘Quin’s Secret’ in October, an expeditiously arranged revival, which had played in August at the Little Theatre, during the Bangor summer season. Director, McCandless offered Ellis a leading role, a somewhat absurd gesture, in the circumstances, which was politely declined. Although there would be a handful of plays produced in November/December and January 1960, the link with Shiels and the mass dispersal of personnel, was a reminder that things had irrevocably changed.

With the exception of R.H. McCandless, Maurice O’Callaghan and John F. Tyrone, the heartbeat of the once masterly company had by November, all but expired. The ‘Over the Bridge’ furore rumbled on, with Ellis and his band of resting actors searching for a theatre in which to rehearse and ultimately stage Sam Thompson’s problematic play. A solution emerged on the 12th November, when Belfast’s Empire Theatre offered a lifeline, but with time constraints, there was little chance of an opening occurring before the end of the year.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

Back at the Group, new administrator Jonathan Goodman wasted no time in promoting a personal agenda, writing and directing the Christmas offering ‘Chopsticks in Waltztime’, a lethargic comedy with a cast of lesser lights, Maurice O’Callaghan being the only recognisable Group Player in the programme.

He made a promising start to the new year though, with the presentation on the 12th January of young east Belfast playwright Stewart Love’s debut piece, a shipyard drama ‘The Randy Dandy’. An unpractised Hugh Swandell played the eponymous disaffected docker, with Maurice O’Callaghan the sole old school Group Player.

Two weeks later in Victoria Square, the Empire Theatre was preparing for the more authentic and fundamentally more challenging shipyard exposition. The cast comprised of the most gifted local actors of the time, notably J.G. Devlin as union official Rabbie White and Joseph Tomelty as the unprejudiced trade unionist Davy Mitchell.

Other key roles were played by Kathleen Feenan as Marian Mitchell, Catherine Gibson as her mother Nellie, Harry Towb was shop steward Warren Baxter and director, Ellis in a peripheral appearance, played the mob leader. The role of victimised Catholic worker Peter O’Boyle was taken by the effective, but unknown, Ray Alcorn and the author himself played with assurance, the sectarian agitator, Archie Kerr.

For all involved, the moment of truth had arrived. The immediate fortunes of the principled, now former Group actors, depended on its contemplated success. With the brouhaha surrounding the production, selling tickets, at least for the first week, would not be a problem. Indeed following a sensational opening night, there was every indication, a lengthy run was highly probable.

Viable Belfast opposition during the run, apart from ‘The Randy Dandy’, was the redoubtable Orson Welles’ highbrow production of his Shakespearean pastiche ‘Chimes at Midnight’, which opened at the Grand Opera House on the 13th February and closed just five performances later, a fate that would repeat itself during the head to head in Dublin a month later.

As the all- conquering ‘Over the Bridge’ neared the end of its six week residency at the Empire, Ellis had already secured a major venue for the first leg of the impending tour, but was obliged to open, at least for a few days, in tandem with the Belfast production. In the second week of March 1960, Sam Thompson’s now celebrated play was unveiled to an eager audience in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre.

Orson Welles who had arrived at the Gaiety Theatre at the end of February with the convoluted ‘Chimes at Midnight’, found himself once again in competition with the hottest ticket in town, culminating unfortunately with yet another premature closure.

After a lucrative four weeks in Dublin the next stop was the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, where the reception was as expected in a city with a comparable shipyard history. Following the scheduled one week, the play moved for a similar period to Edinburgh and the Lyceum Theatre, where the level of enthusiasm dropped a degree or two.

Brighton, was next on the itinerary, an odd choice, but perhaps a sound indicator as to the possibilities of a decent run in London. An acceptable reception gave the entourage encouragement for what was always going to be the most challenging test of the tour.

The Prince’s Theatre, now the Shaftesbury, was the location for ‘Over the Bridge’s London debut in early May and a sojourn, with the odd unhelpful mishap, that proved to be brief and unforgiving. An unfair reflection of the hitherto unbridled success enjoyed by Thompson’s seminal piece, in what was without doubt the most exhilarating and tempestuous twelve months of his and James Ellis’ careers.

Ulster Bridge Productions Ltd persevered for another nine months, producing three further plays, all at the Empire, culminating with the money draining pantomime, ‘Cinderella’, which folded early in January 1961. The host theatre itself was demolished in July of that year, making way for an obligatory department store.

A few weeks after the expeditious departure of Jonathan Goodman and, in the wake of the highly successful run of the Sam Cree adaptation ‘The Love Match’, the  fast developing populist Group Theatre, still caught in a blurred transition, staged what could be considered the first legitimate production of the new regime. Sam Cree’s record breaking comedy ‘Wedding Fever’ opened on the 28th September, directed by the prospectively influential James Young, and ran until the 6th July 1961 usurping the previously triumphant ‘The Love Match’.

Both he and his partner Jack Hudson were appointed Assistant Managing Directors in mid -September and any hope that the once inspiring space could be restored to its former glory would be dashed by a series of farces, encouraged by the rampant success of ‘Wedding Fever’.

In September 1961, in his first major television credit, Ellis was given the opportunity to interpret the character of Dandy Jordan, in director Ronald Mason’s commendable adaptation of ‘The Randy Dandy’. In the company of a number of former Group Players, he turned in a convincing performance, one that was instrumental in securing his career defining role of PC Bert Lynch, in the iconic police drama series ‘Z Cars’, appearing in episode one broadcast in January 1962, through 627 episodes until September 1978.

In conclusion, a notional question; is it possible to create an argument that in the hands of Goldblatt or Tomelty, would Sam Thompson’s play have been treated any differently. Probably not, for as much as a young and spirited Ellis made it his raison d’etre, others a generation older may have taken a more complaisant approach. It was without doubt the catalyst in the Group Players demise but the theatre from as early as 1957, was treading on shaky ground and with its existing fabric would conceivably not have survived, considering the persistent disquiet and financial uncertainty at large.

The original ethos of the Group was to both actively encourage and offer a podium for new writing and, arguably to a significant extent they succeeded. However there remains a further question as to whether the Group Players could be described as sufficiently energized risk-takers, to be able to sustain the essence of their aspirations.

 

 

 

Catalogue of other productions by year:

* Standard and other Revivals not included

1940

September- The Rotters- H.F. Maltby
December- The Barratts of Wimpole Street- Rudolf Besier
December- The White-Headed Boy- Lennox Robinson

1941

January- Robert’s Wife- St. John Greer Ervine
January/February- The Jailbird- George Shiels
May- Spring Meeting- M.J. Farrell
September- Goodness How Sad- Robert Morley
September/October- Quin’s Secret- George Shiels
October/November- Autumn- Ilya Surguoliev

1942

January– The Rose Without a Thorn- Clifford Bax
February/March– The Heritage- John K. Montgomery
March/April– Thunder Rock- Robert Ardrey
June/July-The Real McCoy- M.J.J. McKeown
August/September– I Have Been Here Before- J.B. Priestley
November/December– Macook’s Corner- George Shiels *(Largely a revision of his 1938 play Neale Maquade)

December– Jupiter Laughs- A.J. Cronin (Continued)

1943

January/February– Jupiter Laughs- A.J. Cronin (Continued from 1942)
May/June/July-Give Him a House- George Shiels

September/October– Professor Tim-George Shiels

November/December– Margin for Error- Claire Luce Boothe

1944

May/June– Friends and Relations- St. John Greer Ervine
July– Romersholm- Henrik Ibsen
October– A Doll’s House- Henrik Ibsen

1945

April– Drama at Inish- Lennox Robinson
October– The Money Doesn’t Matter- Louis D’Alton

1946

March– The Land of Promise- Somerset Maugham
August– The Silver Cord- Sidney Howard
October– Things That Are Caesar’s- Paul Vincent Carroll

1947

October– Mungo’s Mansion aka Galway Handicap- Walter Macken
December– Pygmalion- G.B. Shaw

1948

March– The New Gossoon- George Shiels
July– The Sulky Fire- John Jacques Bernard
August– The Caretakers- George Shiels
December– Drama at Inish- Lennox Robinson

1949

May/June– Love and Land- Lynn Doyle
June/July– No Surrender- Gerald Macnamara
August/September/October– Paul Twyning- George Shiels

1950

April-The Fortfield- George Shiels

May– Juno and the Paycock- Sean O’Casey
June– The First Mrs Fraser- St. John Greer Ervine

1951

May/June– Morning Star- Sylvia Regan
September– The Heiress- Henry James

1952

August/September– The Constant Wife- Somerset Maugham

1953

June/July– All This Is Ended- Jack Aldridge

1954

November/December– The Rugged Path- George Shiels

1955

July– Blind Man’s Buff- Denis Johnston

1956

April– The White Steed- Paul Vincent Carroll
June– The Cradle Song- Gregoria and Maria Martinez

1957

December– Mr. Oblomov- John Coulter

1958

April– Dr Angelus- James Bridie
September– Faithfully Yours- Ladislav Bush- Fekete and Mary Helen Fay
December/January– When We Are Married- J.B. Priestley

1959

November– The Man of Destiny- G.B. Shaw and A Pound on Demand- Sean O’Casey
November– All Ends Up- Richard Wilding

 

Productions with most revivals:

Boyd’s Shop
Right Again Barnum
Quin’s Secret
Friends and Relations

 

Summer Season productions at the Little Theatre, Bangor:

1957

The Far-Off Hills
Friends and Relations
The Master of the House
The White-Headed Boy
The First Mrs Fraser
The Marquise

1958

Jane Clegg
Quin’s Secret
The Righteous Are Bold
All Ends Up
The Doctor’s Daughters
When We Are Married
Sailor Beware

1959

Sailor Beware
The Country Boy
When We Are Married
Quin’s Secret

 

List of Group Players screen debuts: 

(Total Film/TV appearances) 

Joseph Tomelty- Odd Man Out-1947 as Gin Jimmy (45)
Harold Goldblatt- Jacqueline- 1956 as Schoolmaster (66)
R.H. McCandless- The Luck of the Irish- 1936 as Gavin Grogan (2)
Elizabeth Begley- Boyd’s Shop- BBC Sunday- Night Theatre 1954 as Mrs Clotworthy (46)
Margaret D’Arcy- The Third Man (TV)- 1959 as Dora Hagon (19)
J.G. Devlin- Captain Lightfoot- 1955 as Tuer O’Brien (82)
Bee Duffell- Stranger at My Door- 1950 as Proctor Finnegan (51)
J. R. Mageean- The Early Bird- 1936 as Charlie Simpson (13)
Maurice O’Callaghan- Pilgrim’s Progress- 1978 as Worldly Wiseman (5)
Kathleen Feenan- A Child in the House- BBC Sunday-Night Play 1962 as Isobel (3)
Catherine Gibson- The Big Donkey- BBC Sunday Night Play 1963 as Madge (8)
Patrick McAlinney- Time Gentlemen, Please!-1952 as Rev. Soater (86)
Doreen Hepburn- The Search Party- ITV Play of the Week 1960 as Mrs McKelvey (21)
Allan McClelland- Spring Meeting (TV)- 1946 as Michael Byrne (77)
James Young- Saturday Night- BBC NI 1972 (numerous television comedy shows)
Stephen Boyd- The Limping Man-1953 as Airport traveller (67)
Denys Hawthorne- Henrietta, M.D.(TV)- 1956 as Medical student (74)
John McBride- The Horse’s Mouth-1953 as Mick (9)
James Ellis- Escape (TV)- 1957 as John Wishart (80) *also credited with 627 appearances in Z Cars
Colin Blakely- On Trial (TV) -1960 as Sir Roger Casement (84)
James Greene-Tales From the Lazy Acre (TV)- 1972 as 2nd Defendant (147)
Patrick Magee- Dial 999 (TV)- 1959 as Parsons (94)
Barbara Adair- Suspense (TV)- 1960 as Waitress (35)
Sheila McGibbon- The Mating Season (TV)-1980 as Mrs Jamieson (5)
J.J. Murphy- Cal-1984 as Man in Library (11)

 

The McCooeys Cast List:

Joseph Tomelty as Bobby Greer
J.G. Devlin as Granda
Min Milligan as Aunt Sarah
John McBride as Sammy
Mina Dornan as Maggie
Sheila McGibbon as Sally
James Young as Derek the Window Cleaner
Stephen Boyd as Policeman/Detective
John McDade as Cecil
Audrey Bell as Bella McCoubrey
Valerie McKee as Meta
Series ran from 13th May 1949 until 1st April 1955