Anne Hailes: Actor Karl has big shoes to fill in Percy French but if the 'tache fits...
WHY has actor Karl O’Neill shaved off his beard and grown a moustache? Why has he been taking walking tours of Dublin, visiting Pearse Street and sitting on a bench in Dun Laoghaire?
All in preparation to step into the shoes of balladeer, writer and artist Percy French who makes footfall later this week at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
Karl admits he didn’t know much about this famous Irish entertainer although when he was 17 and visiting in Dundalk he met tenor Brendan O’Dowda who specialised in singing the French repertoire.
“That evening my father played the piano and Brendan sang. Years later I was performing with an opera group in the Culloden Hotel when someone asked me to sing a couple of Percy French ballads for owner Billy Hastings who was a great fan. Then I got to know his songs – but, until now, not the individual,” Karl says.
At the Lyric Karl will tell the fascinating story of this talented man who married his love but lost her and their baby in childbirth when she was only 20. His hair turned white in grief but he kept writing his now famous songs of Ireland.
The story behind Karl’s performance is also bitter-sweet because this show was written and originally performed by Sam McCready who died one year ago this month.
In his memory, his wife Joan determined to bring it again to the theatre that meant so much to them both – but who would play French? Sam had made it his own so it was a difficult task.
As it happened, I was sitting over lunch with Joan a few months ago and we were talking about casting and I suggested Karl O’Neill who, although born in Armagh, has worked mainly in Dublin, with frequent trips to theatre in the north.
As good fortune would have it, Joan was delighted with Karl and both were amazed that Sam’s wardrobe fitted perfectly, right down to the shoes.
“So it was only the moustache to perfect,” said Karl, “although it does mean I have to avoid soup for the duration of the run!”
His companion throughout is singer Kyle Riley who will be performing from the French songbook, the man who wrote The Mountains of Mourne, Slattery’s Mounted Fut, and Phil the Fluter’s Ball and so many other famous Irish songs.
Rehearsals are now complete bar some last-minute touches before opening night on Wednesday. Then it will be time for Joan to turn her attention to herself as she opens two weeks later with her one-woman show Coole Lady, the story of Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, written by her husband Sam as a present for their 30th wedding anniversary.
“Twenty seven years ago! I call it the gift that keeps on giving as I’ve played it all over the world yet it never becomes run of the mill. No matter what the play, I always find a little extra during a performance and every single audience gives something that is different," Joan says.
"Like the night I was about to go on stage with Time to Speak, the story of Helen Lewis, a story of courage and survival in the Nazi concentration camps. The audience settled as the house lights went down. Stage light and music should have followed before I walk on but nothing happened.
"I could feel the audience getting restive, so I walked into darkness and silence and prepared to start when a voice boomed out of the blackness: ‘Excuse me, Joan, we’ll have to start again – the computer has frozen.’ I thought if my friend Helen Lewis survived the Holocaust we can survive this.”
The Sea of Galilee
On another occasion a young woman’s glass of water tipped over on the side of the stage and the water spread everywhere.
“I was concentrating on an intense part where cattle trucks were being loaded up with men and women going to Auschwitz and all the time the water was getting closer like the Sea of Galilee!”
She was dodging the tide when there was a huge commotion at the back of the auditorium and an angry member of the audience shouted ‘We can’t hear you with this noise’. It transpired that someone had been taken ill and the girl who spilled the water on stage was a doctor and went to the rescue.”
Another stop-start situation – but the young woman was forgiven!
Joan excels in her portrayal of famous women; in Coole Lady, sitting in her estate at Coole Park, Co Galway, Lady Gregory reflects on her life, her family, the famous people she knew and worked wit,h and of founding the Abbey Theatre with her close friend WB Yeats.
She recalls those times when she was the centre of Ireland’s literary life, a playwright, an actress and a woman to be reckoned with.
“Also times of personal tragedy and national struggle, proud and indomitable on the outside, a woman with a passionate nature and a deep vulnerability that engages our sympathies.
"I’ve performed Coole Lady many times. It’s a tremendous piece and Sam has managed to include so much of her remarkable life in the writing.”
Joan agrees this month will be emotional.
“It’s not the same without Sam’s warmth and presence around but, you know, I'm still being guided by him. Sam’s with me all the time.”
Before these two production there will be a night of tributes to Sam McCready. Seven Ages of Sam takes place on Monday February 10 at 7.30. It’s free but booking in essential. Also throughout February an exhibition of his art will be on shown in ArtisAnn Gallery at 70 Bloomfield Avenue in Belfast.
:: Details at lyrictheatre.co.uk/event/percy-french and What’s On Northern Ireland