It was like walking into a rainbow, seats labeled blue, green, red, turquoise, gold, teal, children dressed in multi-colours and lights swooping and dancing. This is theatre at its best. A stage filled with 250 actors and singers, the director giving instructions, the choreographer calling: “Let’s do it again”.
A little girl in a red wig stands centre stage and calls “Becky” and the most delightful blond dog races down the centre isle onto the stage and flings herself at little orphan Annie.
Welcome to ‘Annie’ the Musical, this summers youth project at the Grand Opera House. I’ve been allowed to slip into rehearsals and then roam backstage to see what’s going on. Sitting in the stalls one of the lady chaperones fills me in. “There are a number of men chaperones too for the boys,” she explains, “and amongst other duties we make sure the young people are in the right place at the right time and are safe and happy while they are here. The colour coding makes it easier for us to find our particular group of eleven children.” They are 10 years of age to 18 she tells me and they come from all over Northern Ireland.
At that point the director calls: “Quiet Please. Not even a whisper.”
The director is Adam Knight.
During a break he tells me how impressed he is with the talent here. Although he’s now working on the management team at the Opera House, he was an actor with the National Youth Theater and the National Youth Music Theatre and then ran theaters in London’s West End. “Yes, I would recommend a career on stage, why not, isn’t it better to follow your dream than regret it years later? My recommendation is go to a good theatre school or get involved with the many companies here in Northern Ireland. And it doesn’t need to be an acting career, we’ve ten teenagers working with the technical crew learning lightng, stage management, flying scenery, we’ve others working with the designer and some assisting in wardrobe. In future we’d like to involve some budding musicians as well.
He’s ended up with two Annies, why? “Because there wasn’t a hair between them, brilliant.”
In the wardrobe department is Jeanette Tumelty who has had to measure 250 children for costumes – miles and miles of children! She and Suzy Miller have been busy making and hiring, shopping for little items to give each orphan her own character, a duncher for one, a teddy for another and a doll dressed in Stars and Stripes. We’re surrounded by wigs, straw boaters, top hats, New York cops caps – and ice skates.
Then a real thrill, the two Annies arrive to say hello. They bring with them Daddy Warbucks, Odhran McNulty who is 17 and set on an acting career. He’s been involved with local companies and will be on the stage of the Opera House again in November when the Ulster Operatic bring ‘Grease’ to downtown Belfast.
Daddy adopts Annie, in this case 12 year old Lauren Clarke from Bangor and 10 year old Lara Mulgrew from Belfast, both seasoned performers and very composed young ladies. Neither can believe they’ve landed the part in this production, Lauren’s afraid she’ll waken up and it will all be a dream and Lara reckons that although it can be tiring at times it’s always fun and definitely worth the effort.
I meet Wilson Shields in the corridor. As musical director he’s been adding little bits of extra harmony to the original score. “Legislation allows only six hours with an hour and a half break, so we split the day, ten to four and one to seven with the 16 year olds permitted a full day. It’s a bit of a balancing act but we’ll get there!”
The break is almost over. The cast are filtering back into the auditorium, all in their place for the next scene.
“Where’s Becky?” Sitting beside Margaret McKnight ready for her call. A dog rescued from the Lagan Tow Path were she and her puppy siblings were about to be tossed in by some boys. Two women chased them, took the puppies to safety and via Assisi Animal Sanctuary Becky ended up with Margaret.
Becky is special; she works for Pets as Therapy visiting people with Alzheimer’s, she won a local dog show which entitled her to enter the Scruff National Final at Earls Court which she won and went on to win the over-all final for non-pedigree dogs at Crufts in Birmingham last March. And now she’s a star. I left with her soft lick on my hand and a Hollywood smile. That’s theatre!
Review by Anne Hailes
‘Annie’ 25th – 27th July. Details at www.goh.co.uk
Image: Becky with Lara Mulgrew from Belfast and Lauren Clarke Bangor who share the role of Annie.