Centre stage for Christmas


It will be drama all the way in the O’Leary household this Christmas, with a mother and two daughters starring in the pantomime at the Cork Opera House.

Valerie O’Leary is playing the evil Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland while two of her seven children, Claire (14) and Eva (16), are sharing the role of Alice in a production that started previewing last night and opens on Thursday.

For the girls, schoolwork has been sidelined since rehearsals started on November 12th. The Loreto Secondary School in Fermoy, where Claire is in her Junior Cert year and Eva in fifth year, has been very understanding, says Valerie. “But they will have a lot of catching up to do when they go back,” she says.

However, after her daughters auditioned in August and then heard in early September that they would be sharing the title role, “there is no way we could prevent either girl from doing this”, she adds.

A drama teacher and actor, Valerie has passed her love of acting on – her eldest daughter, Sally, is at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, while one of her three sons, Stephen, is a full-time student at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin. And at least one of their sisters definitely wants to follow their lead.

“There really isn’t much hope for us having an accountant,” jokes Valerie. “I certainly am not forcing them – what I am worried about is getting them back to school in January.”

Drama classes

Claire and Eva take drama classes at the Montfort College of Performing Arts, where their mother teaches, and they learn ballet and modern dance classes at the Cork Arts Studio.

As the only minors in the pantomime’s principal cast, it is “a fantastic life-learning experience for them”, says Valerie. “They are seeing all this put together and they are making lots of new friends.”

With an age difference of only 18 months, the sisters are the same measurements for the Alice costumes and wig that were made to fit.

“At the start of the rehearsals the cast kept mixing us up,” says Eva. “But they have gotten used to us now.”

Two teenage sisters sharing one role might have their moments but Valerie says her initial worries about sibling rivalry have proved unfounded. Apart from the usual rows over make-up and the hair straightener, “they are getting on better now than they ever did. I was worried about that before but they are helping each other and they shared the PR. Eva did a radio ad, Claire did TV 3; Claire is on the wall of the Opera House, Eva is on the bus stop. We don’t want an unhappy house.”

Claire confirms she and Eva are getting on better and has nothing bad to say about sharing the part with her sister. “To us it a fantastic opportunity, and in full-time rehearsals it’s good to have each other.”

With weeks of rehearsal and now facing into a 58-show run, Claire says she and her sister don’t see much of home and their baby sister Rose (four) these days (although Rose, too, makes an appearance in the pantomime – on an audio-visual recording as the mini queen).

The nerves

Valerie says she gets nervous before every show she does, “no matter what it is”, but this time around she will also be excited for her daughters. “They will be nervous but once they get the first two or three shows over . . .”

Eva says she can’t wait for what will be their busiest and most exciting Christmas ever. “Panto has always been a part of our Christmas for as long as I can remember,” she adds, “but this year will be the most memorable.”

There will be no over-doing the celebrations on Christmas Day for the three of them at home in Rathcormac because, although they get two days off, there is both a matinée and night show on St Stephen’s Day.

Valerie enjoys cooking but admits she wouldn’t mind not playing the lead role in the kitchen this Christmas. “I would like if somebody else invited us to dinner – but they wouldn’t want to see nine of us coming.”

Thomas Maxwell (11) is one of the very few children in Ireland who will be putting on his school uniform on Christmas Day.

While most of the under-12 population will be enjoying Santa gifts and gorging on selection boxes, Thomas and his fellow boy choristers at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin have to be correctly attired in the uniform of the cathedral’s choir school when they arrive there on Christmas morning, before changing into light blue robes and white surplices to sing at Choral Eucharist.

With the big Nine Lessons and Carols on December 23rd and again on Christmas Eve, the choristers have long services and demanding music to sing three days in a row this year. But these young musicians take it in their stride – between rehearsals and often twice-daily services, they sing up to three hours a day much of the year round.

On a recent Friday, about a dozen boys were practising James Whitbourn’s Hodie for Christmas, with Master of the Choristers, Stuart Nicholson, at the piano, in the choir school across the road from the main gate of the cathedral. The intensity of their pure voices, trained to soar through the wonderful acoustic of the vast cathedral, is striking in the constrained surroundings of the rehearsal room.

The boys do long days at the inner-city choir school, which was established 580 years ago, but that doesn’t bother Thomas, who lives in Dundrum. “You get to learn new things and stay with friends and have a bit of fun after school,” he says.

Each week day starts with an 8.30am rehearsal, followed by sung Matins, before classes begin. There’s more rehearsing in the afternoon and then they sing Evensong at 5.30pm two or three times a week.

On Sundays they are back in the cathedral of course, for services at 11.15am and 3.15pm. There are also occasional concerts. Last night they were singing Britten’s A Boy Was Born with the Goethe-Institut Choir in the National Concert Hall and last month they launched a CD, In Dublin’s Fair City.

Thomas, a second treble, agrees all the rehearsing is hard work but says that Nicholson is “really funny”, which helps. “Sometimes we make silly mistakes and we have to do it over and over again until we get it right.”

The life of a chorister is also a huge commitment for the parents. “You have to be somebody who wants to be in this environment,” says Suzanne Chadwick, mother of Thomas, as she sits in the cathedral listening to the boys practising in the choir stalls before Evensong.

As a musician who was brought up in the Anglican tradition in Leeds, and now teaches singing, she is very much at home in St Patrick’s. Does she think Thomas, her only child, has to make sacrifices to be a chorister?

“Personally I don’t think so. I think it is a choice we made. I guess there are times I worry I am forcing him into it – as a singer it is what I wanted for a son.

“But he is obviously very musically talented – that is not to say he doesn’t have to work at it.” With all the singing he does, “his ability to read music is phenomenal”, she remarks. He is also studying piano, drums and the organ.

Thomas has less time to play with friends and watch TV than a child his age would normally, she says.

“On the other hand, he is with these boys day in day out and they are a really close bunch of kids. It’s trading off one for another – you have to come into this with that attitude.”

Christmas for Suzanne and her husband, Robin Maxwell, who works for Ernst and Young, inevitably revolves around Thomas and the cathedral and she is delighted that her parents will be over from England to experience it this year. “On Christmas Day the boys have to be here by 10.30am but we’re done by 12.30pm,” she explains. “We go home, shut the door, put the turkey in and start opening presents. It’s a lovely day.”

'It's tiring. Last Sunday I had a day off, so I just went up to bed'

Liz Crummey is no pushy “stage mother” but she is certainly proud of her son, Liam McEvoy (13), who has his first professional role in a touring production of Oliver! from London’s West End, which opens in Dublin tomorrow.

He will be one of 12 Irish children on stage in various ensemble scenes of the musical, in which Neil Morrissey is playing Fagin, at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre over Christmas and into the New Year.

Hundreds of hopeful acting-singing-and-dancing children were whittled down to two teams of 12 during a long day of auditioning in Dublin back in September and Liam “couldn’t believe it” when he was included.

The teams will alternate performances in the month-long run and they will be joined on stage by one of four rotating teams of 12 boys from England.

It is invaluable experience for Liam who has his heart set on a stage career. At the age of four he pestered his mother to find him dancing classes near their home in Firhouse, Dublin.

Now he is attending classes at three different drama schools: on Wednesdays it’s Kathryn Coffey’s Stage 51 in Knocklyon; Steptacular Stage School in Firhouse on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday mornings; and then into the Gaiety School of Acting on Saturday afternoons.

“Believe you me, it’s none of my doing,” says Liz, as Liam reels off his drama schedule. “This is new to our entire family. None of us has ever been on stage – I certainly do not sing or dance. We say it’s maybe from his father’s side of the family – the singing but nothing else.”

It is a big commitment in time and money for Liz, a learning support teacher, and her husband, Stephen McEvoy, a bus driver, to support Liam, who is the youngest of four children.

But Liz pays tribute to Spectacular where they double his classes on a scholarship basis.

A second-year student at Coláiste de hÍde in Tallaght, Liam juggles all this, and now his rehearsals for Oliver!, with his school work.

“We talked about this beforehand – that if he wanted to do this, he would have to be over-prepared for school in advance, to allow for the time that was going to be lost,” says Liz.

As this is a UK production, the English education authority’s rules for the employment of children apply to cast members here. Liam has to continue with 15 hours a week at school, so he is in class until 12 before the mother of another boy in the cast picks him up, gives him lunch and brings him to the Liffey Trust Studios for rehearsals at 2pm. Liz or Stephen bring both boys home in the evening.

Liam goes over his lines at home. “I am really good at going over my stuff in my sleep,” he says.

What does he find most difficult about this role? “Probably how technical the dances are.”

The week after we talk, the Irish children are flying over to Leeds – the production’s last stop before Dublin – to rehearse on the set with some of the principal cast members.

It is tiring, agrees Liam, a quietly self-assured, fresh-faced teenager who just squeezed in under the 5ft height restriction to get the part. “Last Sunday I had a day off, so I just went up to bed,” he smiles.

Liam’s team will do 14 shows during the run, until January 12th, and he is on stage about five times during a performance.

What’s he going to spend his fee on? “I am going to save it up because I am going to London in February with Steptacular. We are going to see We will Rock You and Matilda the Musical and then we are going to Pineapple Dance Studios as well.”

Liam says he would like to live in London and Liz expects he will need to move there to study after his Leaving Certificate. In the meantime, he will always remember Christmas 2012 as the time he got his first, stage-side taste of a West End production.


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