The depth of commitment, the honest ambition and amazing resilience of amateur theatre and musical theatre people up and down the country, never ceases to amaze me and last weekend in Birr, Co. Offaly, I was blown away by the Irish Premiere of The Likes Of Us. This show was originally the first collaboration between Tim Rice and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1965, when they were ambitious students and before Joseph or Superstar. Despite initial interest, it never got beyond musical publishers and expressions of interest. Leslie Thomas, author of The Virgin Soldiers, wrote the book as he was a former Bernardo boy. This musical is about Dublin-born Thomas Barnardo, who went to London to prepare to become a medical missionary in China, but he stayed in London to set up residential care for children. By 1905, when he died, there were nearly 8,000 children in residential home with the motto – No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission. Barnardos in Ireland operates over 40 centres with the vision statement – Making Ireland the best place in the world to be a child.
In 2005 the composers returned to the work, and with a newly written linking narrative performed and recorded the work in a semi-staged format at the Sydmonton Festival. The Really Useful Theatre Company gave the amateur rights to NODA.
Birr Stage Guild, fresh from celebrating its 50th Anniversary applied for the Irish rights and set in motion an amazing week of musical theatre in the midlands, in a town no bigger than Carrick-on-Suir.
In a 200 seat venue, the Birr Theatre and Arts Centre, they gave the show great life, great compassion and such a vocally impressive live action performance. They are blessed with strength in depth and age with sub-teen performers, a solid young adult company who sing and dance with verve and passion and an older cohort who anchor the many character parts with veracity and experience.
Birr are twice blessed with a Chairperson, Maureen de Forge, who blossomed under the great Ray Jeffrey’s tutelage and she is a legend in musical and amateur theatre. It was an honour to meet her.
The show on paper is very much a mixed bag about Barnardo and his hopes, dreams in mid-Victorian London among EastEnd slums, tenement rooftops, drinking dens of gin and sin. There is a whiff of Oliver with rousing big chorus numbers like A Man On His Own and a song that will be a tongue-in-cheek English classic, Have Another Cup Of Tea.
There are two love stories within the drama, the love of Syrie for Barnardo and a parallel EastEnd story of love between Johnny and Jenny. Barnardo is dragged hither and wherever in A Strange And Lovely Song and Syrie shines with her solo, This Is Their Time. Johnny and Jenny have two great duets; Love Is Here and Man Of The World.
The children sing the title song and there is a triple implication of different layers of society as the Likes of Us. In performance terms it is also a powerful musical metaphor for those who cast, act and create musical theatre for an audience as the likes of us.
Ten children are the backbone of the emotional concept and they were Brona Byrne, Cathriona Byrne, Shannon Byrne, Naomi Cleare, Ella Flaherty, Stephen Guilfoyle, Karl Guinan, Conal Hanamy, Eve Masterson and Laoise Murray.
Michael Bermingham was a fine Barnardo and looked like Aled Jones. Yvonne O’Toole was a wonderful Syrie with a beautiful soprano range. Audrey O’Meara was a feisty Jenny and Ronan Coughlan a strong Johnny. Aileen Quaid was a sparky Rose. Tony Dalton was a splendid Lord Shaftsbury and Colm Burke, a nifty Auctioneer.
Tommy Lyndon was a wonderful Narrator and he brought quality and dignity to the work, unlike Stephen Fry on the UK CD who played it for laughs.
I loved two chorus performers – Darren Franks and Darragh Molloy, who lit up the stage with vital characterisations.
At the afters I met Seymour and Ruth Kenny from Shinrone who were stalwarts of Waterford Dramatic Society in the seventies and they asked to be remembered to Bertie Rogers.