When the fit-ups came to town
Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Oct/Nov 2016 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
Karen Hurley - Stage Crew
Touching up the old Town Hall
As a youngster back in the ‘50s I recall seeing a poster in a shop window announcing the imminent arrival at the Town Hall of Anew McMaster’s celebrated troupe of players to present a week-long feast of theatrical delights for the delectation of the good citizens of Ballinasloe. McMaster’s odd-sounding first name left me puzzled. Was he a newer version of an older McMaster? I wondered.
It was only many years later I learned that Anew was a childish mispronunciation of Andrew that the great man had kept as his stage name. Born in Birkenhead in 1891, he ran away from home as a teenager, eventually making a career for himself in the London theatrical world. To avoid conscription, in 1915 he joined a touring company in Ireland, returning after the war to the London stage where he went on to win critical and popular acclaim for his interpretations of the major Shakespearean roles.
In 1925 he formed his own company, touring Ireland almost annually for the rest of his life. Familiarly known as Mac, his company was regarded as the aristocracy of the fit-ups, small-scale enterprises whose performance patch was the villages and country towns. The fare Mac provided was predominantly Shakespearean, with a few thrillers thrown in as potboilers. Constraints of a tight budget meant that settings were minimalist, though the company was noted for their authentic costumes.
A larger-than-life character, Mac was an actor-manager of the old school who played the lead part in virtually all his own productions. He was tall (six foot three), strikingly handsome, and had a superb voice with a remarkable vocal range. It was said that on one occasion he had silenced a drunken, disruptive audience by the sheer power and magnetism he exuded in the role of Othello.
Nonetheless, in the judgement of contemporaries, he was an uneven actor, not above turning in a sub-standard performance at times. Never a great director, he was notorious for hiring cast members more on the basis of their willingness to work for less than the going rate than for their acting ability. Moreover, with advancing years his memory for lines began to fade, a difficulty he tried to overcome by having pages of the script unobtrusively attached to drapes and pieces of scenery.
Drama wasn’t always confined to the stage of the Town Hall. In 1926 a fire at a makeshift cinema in Drumcollogher, Co. Limerick, resulted in 46 fatalities.
Shortly afterwards, during one of McMaster’s presentations of “Macbeth” in Ballinasloe, as “the three weird sisters” cavorted round their bubbling cauldron, an electrical fault created an alarming visual effect. Whereupon a prankster in the auditorium shouted: “Drumcollogher!” A panic-stricken rush for the exits ensued. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt, although some ladies were reported to have lost their shoes in the stampede.
An Englishman successfully masquerading as a Monaghan-born Irishman, McMaster was married to Marjorie Willmore, a sister of Micheál Mac Liammóir, co-founder of Dublin’s Gate Theatre. When in Ballinasloe the couple always stayed at Hayden’s Hotel, while their two children, Christopher and Mary Rose, as well as the rest of the company, had to make do with pretty basic digs elsewhere in town. Mac disbanded his company in 1959, but continued acting up to his death three years later.
The other fit-ups catered for less sophisticated tastes. Performances were generally in a tent on the Fair Green, sometimes in the Parochial Hall on Dunlo Hill, rarely in the Town Hall. A typical evening’s entertainment would consist of a melodrama featuring stock characters, some stand-up comedy, a few sketches replete with broad humour and local references, and a couple of songs.
No “roadies” or stage hands were employed, so that the actors were required to do everything from publicising the show to erecting the performance tent. Versatility was evidently the name of the game, and the villain in the melodrama might appear later in the programme with a change of costume to give a rousing rendition of “A Nation Once Again”. If they found themselves in a place without a cinema, it would not be unusual for members of the company to visit a nearly town to view a popular film and return to present an improvised stage adaptation for the locals.
Unable to compete with the novelty of television, the fit-ups went out of business over 50 years ago. In their day they performed a useful function in introducing and accustoming people to live theatre. It has been remarked that the absence of touring companies in recent decades has decimated the rural playgoers, with the result that anybody now setting out on tour would find it more difficult to attract an audience. The fit-ups had inherited the mantle of the strolling players of old, but left no successors. Provincial Ireland was the poorer for their passing
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