Estate agent turned theatre owner hoping for a whale of a time in Greystones
Co Wicklow venue is just part of an ambitious scheme developed by Ross McParland
“Our reach will have to be beyond Greystones for it to be sustainable,” says Ross McParland. “We’re hoping that, in time, people will come from west Wicklow and south Dublin.”
Whales are mysterious, elusive creatures. Shape-shifters. Intelligent. Creative, even – think of all those sophisticated songs, which we humans admire, yet don’t fully understand. These are just some of the reasons why Ross McParland chose The Whale as a name for his theatre in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
McParland, creator of a new homes agency that concentrated on the the high-end of the market and which was later taken over by Sherry FitzGerald, dipped a toe into the entertainment/hospitality business when he bought the Horse and Hound pub and B&B in Delgany. Now he has moved on – and is plunging into the arts arena with the refurbishment of a mixed-use development just off the main street in Graystones, in the belly of which – quite literally – sits The Whale.
McParland has programmed the theatre’s first season himself – a brave move for a man who admits that until recently, he wasn’t exactly a paid-up member of Ireland’s arts community. “I’ve been on a crash course,” he says.
“The plan to move into the arts wasn’t really scripted at the start. The building came up for sale. It was unfinished, and in disrepair. I was looking for something to occupy the next decade of my life, and have found the business of putting in bricks and mortar very interesting and enjoyable.”
McParland says the town is more than ready for an arts venue. “There are 350 little theatres dotted around the country, but there was none in Greystones. Or rather, there was a theatre of sorts here about seven years ago, but it went into liquidation and it had all sorts of problems with damp and so on.”
Located in the basement of a four-storey building, the theatre has now been completely renovated and can hold between 100 and 150 people, depending on the configuration. McParland plans to host everything from lunchtime concerts to evening shows, a supper club, movies and opera nights.
“The interest has been overwhelming,” he says. “People can’t wait for the doors to open.” No sooner had McParland announced his plans for the venue than a local theatre group – Greystones Players – was formed. “They put on Dancing at Lughnasa in May – we sold 500 tickets in a day and a half,” he says.
He is, however, clear-eyed about what can be achieved in a venue such as this. “Our reach will have to be beyond Greystones for it to be sustainable. We’re hoping that, in time, people will come from west Wicklow and south Dublin. It’s just across the road from the Dart station, which will help. It’s also, mainly, a weekend venture. Most people in Greystones work in Dublin and are in their pyjamas at nine o’clock at night during the week.”
McParland says he’s taking a punt on The Whale. Just over a year ago, he opened a restaurant, Theatre Lane, in the same development. “As gorgeous as the food was – and we had a chef from a two-star Michelin kitchen – we had to close it. The figures just didn’t add up.”
This time around, he hopes he has worked out the right balance of ingredients in a winning combination. The theatre is part of a bigger project, so any funding shortfalls should – in theory – be balanced out by commercial lettings.
At ground level the complex hosts a number of shops, one of which – Up To My Eyes – is a beauty parlour run by McParland’s wife, Elaine. On the first floor is a bright, airy studio space which is rented by, among others, a ballet school. Above that again are two apartments which will be available through Airbnb: McParland is also adding a fifth floor to create a penthouse space offering glorious views out over the sea.
The woman responsible for creating the “look” of both theatre and apartments is interior designer Sharon Ryle. “I’m not into high fashion,” she says. “Longevity is something I like to work with. I went with pink, which would be unusual for a theatre, to soften the basement feel and give it a bit of glamour. We introduced black and white tiles into the pit, and mirrors on the ceilings of the bar, to bounce the light around.”
Ryle used copper walls to suggest the hull of a ship, while the oiled tabletops are reminiscent of driftwood. Eagle-eyed audiences may notice that the hub chairs feature a shell detail on the back.
For the upstairs apartments, two of which will sleep four and the other accommodate six people, the brief was “seven-star Airbnb ”. “Because of the glass box on the ceiling we’re making the rooms dark. We’re creating a luxurious interior which has to do with the shapes of the furniture – it’s an experience that isn’t your home, essentially.”
McParland, who lives in Greystones, has made a point of using local artists and craftspeople for the project, with a view to fostering a sense of cultural community and solidarity. For his debut season as artistic director he has programmed shows by actors Mikel Murfi and Phelim Drew, both of whom live close by.
Ryle’s showroom is at Kilmacanogue, near Avoca Handweavers. A wire installation which finds fairies and butterflies fluttering above the first-floor stairwell is the work of Zambian-born, Wicklow-based sculptor Emma Jane Rushworth. The enormous mural that appeared on the outside wall of Theatre Lane last week was created by painter Irina Kuksova, who comes from Russia but now lives and works in Greystones. It took two years to get planning permission for the whale on the wall – plus six months to make it and three weeks for the installation, with Irina perched on a cherry-picker high above the SuperValu car park, slotting its 18 panels together.
McParland believes the cheerful 100-foot cetacean is a suitably upbeat mascot for his development. “Talk to me again in a year’s time – so far, though, things are looking good,” he says, as The Whale prepares for its official launch in September. “We hope the upstairs apartments will appeal to entertainers, and help persuade them to come to our small venue. Go to The Happy Pear. Sleep upstairs. Hop into the sea.” Sounds to us like – ahem – a whale of a time.
What’s on at The Whale this autumn
Al Porter (September 16th)
The Tallaght comedian brings his inimitable confessions all the way to Greystones.
Down and Out in Paris and London (September 21st)
Phelim Drew recreates George Orwell’s iconic portrait of homelessness in a one-man show that enjoyed huge success at Dublin Fringe festival.
The Man in the Woman’s Shoes (September 27th)
Mikel Murfi’s much-praised one-man show follows Pat Farnon as he walks to conduct some business in town – and back again.
Rocky Horror Picture Show (October 29th)
Hallowe’en special showing of the cult movie, hosted by Greystones Film Club.
Rebecca Storm: My Life in Music (November 4th) The doyenne of music theatre on a tour of classic tunes. This is a benefit night for Greystones Cancer Care.