The Ulster Group Theatre

The Group Theatre left a notable and vital legacy of theatre as a living tradition

Founded in 1940, the Belfast based Ulster Group Theatre became the major company premiering new writing in Northern Ireland, combining this over two decades with a wider programme of classic and international drama.

The first northern company to succeed in locating and keeping a permanent performance ‘home’ for an extended period, its small theatre in Bedford Street saw the premieres of almost 50 plays by a range of writers including St John Ervine, Louis MacNeice, George Shiels, Joseph Tomelty, and Brian Friel.

The company also became synonymous with a close-knit and highly regarded group of actors, several of whom would go on to become household names in Northern Ireland. Overall, this highly influential company was to prove the most long lived and successful in the twentieth century after the demise of the Ulster Literary Theatre.

The Ulster Group Theatre began in March 1940, a time when no public funding for locally produced theatre in Northern Ireland was available and amateur and professional demarcations were blurred. Against this backdrop, three officially amateur theatre companies, featuring many keen actors and producers with professional experience, decided to come together with the aim of creating a permanent professional theatre.

The Ulster Theatre led by Gerald Morrow and Nita Hardie, the Jewish Institute Dramatic Society led by Harold Goldblatt, and the Northern Irish Players led by producer JR Mageean together decided to stage a short 12 week season at the Ulster Minor Hall, a small auditorium attached to the large Ulster Hall. Each company presented four plays under its own identity, and the result was successful, with a small profit resulting. The Ulster Theatre then decided to withdraw from the arrangement, but the others opted to carry on the experiment and subsequently joined forces to become the Ulster Group Theatre.

Beginning in September 1940, the new company found a ready appetite during the war years not only for spirited presentations of locally set works such as Boyd’s Shop by St John Ervine, but also for a range of writers including Ibsen, Bridie, Chekhov, Shaw, Priestly and Rattigan.

In Sam Hanna Bell’s words, however, the ‘inner impulse and indeed the outer and public claim was for the Ulster play’, works which had immediate resonances in ‘locale, atmosphere, idiom and dialect’. Such works included the plays of three writers in particular.

George Shiels, then best-known as a writer for the Abbey Theatre, contributed five new works to the Group: Macook’s Corner (1942), The Old Broom (1944), Borderwine (1946), Mountain Post (1948) and Slave Drivers (1950). Premieres of works by St John Ervine included My Brother Tom (1952), Ballyfarland’s Festival (1953) and Martha (1955).

Joseph Tomelty, also a fine UGT actor, contributed several premieres to the Ulster Group Theatre. These include the enduring favourite All Soul’s Night (1949), the hugely successful Is the Priest at Home? (1954), and April in Assagh (1954), which showed Tomelty’s range and potential as a writer. There were also premieres of works such as Louis MacNeice’s Traitors in Our Way and Brian Friel’s The Doubtful Paradise.

As well as Tomelty, many prominent actors in theatre, radio and film were associated with the UGT over its history. These included Barbara Adair, Elizabeth Begley, Colin Blakeley, Stephen Boyd, Margaret D’Arcy, JG Devlin, Bee Duffell, James Ellis, Catherine Gibson, Harold Goldblatt, Denys Hawthorne, Doreen Hepburn, Jean Lundy, Patrick McAlinney, RH MacCandless, Allan McClelland, Patrick Magee, Cicely Mathews, John Moss, Jack O’Malley, Harry Towb, John F Tyrone and James Young. Together, the company became noted for its distinctive house style of ‘intimate, natural, effortless acting’ (JR Mageean), winning high praise on tours to venues such as the Liverpool Playhouse (1945, 1946), Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre (1945), the Cork Opera House (1954, 1955), and the Arts Theatre Club London (1953).

In 1951, many of the company were selected by Tyrone Guthrie to perform in the Northern Ireland Festival Company productions at the Festival of Britain. By the mid 1950s however the UGT was in difficulty. There were challenges from the new medium of television, while keeping the regular company together was proving problematic. In 1958 the company became a non-profit making trust, and was thereby awarded a guarantee against loss by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the precursor to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Then in 1959, the Over the Bridge controversy erupted.

Over the Bridge, a new work by former shipyard worker Sam Thompson, featured the dilemma of a group of trade union officials confronting sectarianism among workers. An uncompromising stand against bigotry, it was accepted by James Ellis, director of productions, for staging by the UGT. Shortly before production, however, the play was pulled by the board of the organisation, stating that it was the ‘policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage’.

In the wake of this pronouncement, there was a string of resignations from members, and the Group began to collapse. Many former Group members eventually went on to perform in a tremendously successful independent staging of the play by Ellis and others at Belfast’s Empire Theatre and on tour.

The Group itself limped on for a short period, and in 1960, when its future seemed bleak, the theatre was offered to James Young and Jack Hudson for a season. A lengthy and successful run of the comedy The Love Match resulted. This success was replicated over and over during the next decade as almost a score of long running Ulster comedies were produced by the duo. Young became a true Ulster favourite, even an institution of sorts, and audiences flocked to the new ‘Home of Ulster Comedy’.

However, over the next ten years the close ensemble playing which had previously characterised the UGT company ended. New writing in particular floundered, and a natural theatrical through-line stretching back to the Ulster Literary Theatre was broken. This degree of disruption in itself testifies to the company’s achievement.

If the little independent theatre and its associated writers and performers often struggled for survival in difficult financial and socio-political conditions, they also ensured that new theatre writing was tried and tested, sometimes succeeding but above all enduring as an accepted form of self-expression. Over its 20 year history, the Group left to Northern Irish society a notable and vital legacy of theatre as a living tradition.

© Ophelia Byrne 2004