Roma and Frances Tomelty

Sisters on stage and screen

Roma and Frances Tomelty are the daughters of Joseph Tomelty, a legendary name in Ulster theatre, as well as acclaimed stage and film actors in their own right.

A versatile film and stage actor and playwright, Tomelty was one of the stalwarts of the famous Group Theatre, the heartbeat of professional drama in Belfast during the 1940s and 50s.

Roma has carried on the family association with the Group, appearing on stage there many times and, most recently, leading the unsuccessful campaign to keep the theatre open.

The family roots are in Portaferry in Co Down, a picturesque town on the shores of Strangford Lough and Joe Tomelty's birthplace. Until recently, one of Portaferry¹s best-known pubs, ­and a lively venue for traditional music sessions, ­bore the name of Peter Tomelty, Joe’s brother.

The Tomelty family home was close-knit and cultured, immersed in traditional Irish music, literature, drama and good conversation. As children, Roma and Frances were encouraged to be ambitious and to aim high.

Although they chose to enter the same profession, the Tomelty sisters took divergent paths. Frances headed off to drama school in London in the late 1960s, while Roma opted to devote herself to the development of theatre in Northern Ireland.

She has done so in a variety of ways. In 1986, she and her husband, director Colin Carnegie, set up Centre Stage, a professional company dedicated to producing plays dating from the halcyon days of Ulster theatre.

It subsequently developed a drama school arm, which has provided young people with training in acting, directing, stage management and technical skills. The company has staged many productions all over Northern Ireland and continues to nurture the talents of the next generation of practitioners.

In 1999, the company presented a major reappraisal of the work of writers such as Joseph Tomelty, St John Irvine and George Sheils, who had taken the Group Theatre to such heights of dramatic success.

Roma has maintained her Co Down links in her professional life. During the 1980s, she was the artistic director of Newry Arts Centre, where she was responsible for a number of delightful small scale theatrical and musical productions.

One of her own most recent and most memorable appearances was in the world premiere of Soldiers of the Queen, Damian Smyth’s poetic history play, staged at Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick.

Set on the South African veldt during the height of the Boer War, the play – produced by Centre Stage and directed by Carnegie – was a personal testament to the writer’s own Downpatrick family and the wartime sacrifices made by successive generations.

When Siobhan O’Casey, daughter of Sean O’Casey, decided to set up a theatre company in Northern Ireland, Roma was invited to become involved. The O’Casey Theatre Company, which was already established in the United States, chose the border town of Newry as its base. The company flourished for two or three years, then shifted its base to Derry, before calling it a day.

Roma is also one of a group of eminent Ulster actors who had a long association with the Arts Theatre, on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue, before it too fell prey to closure in the late 1990s.

She appeared in many productions there, working alongside directors such as Roy Heayberd, Michael Poynor and, of course, Colin Carnegie. She has also appeared in Lyric Theatre productions such as The Road to Mecca and her father’s All Souls Night.

Frances’s life has taken an altogether different direction. As one of the most dynamic young actresses of her generation, her exotic looks, feisty talent and warm Northern Irish personality made her an immediate hit with casting directors across the water.

In 1971, she was cast in the highly acclaimed television BBC Play for Today Edna, the Inebriate Woman, in which she played a nun. She went on to appear in a dazzling series of films and screen dramas, including The Changeling, The Romantic Englishwoman, Testament of Youth, Lamb, A Perfect Spy, The Field, Vanity Fair, Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, and many more.

Some of Frances’s finest work has been with distinguished companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National Theatre. For the RSC she was Mrs Darling in Peter Pan, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Queen Elizabeth in Richard III and Titania in A Midsummer Night¹s Dream. For the National, she was cast in the premiere of Donegal playwright Frank McGuinness¹s extraordinary play Mutabilite.

Frances has also appeared at the Hampstead Theatre, the Lyric in Hammersmith, the Abbey in Dublin, the Royal Court in London, the Theatre Royal Plymouth, the Chichester Festival, and the Manchester Royal Exchange.

She made a rare but welcome appearance on home soil when she joined James Galway and Barry Douglas on stage for the starry gala opening night of the Belfast Waterfront Hall.

She added another facet to her unusual life, when she made a dramatic entry onto the rock music scene, through her marriage to Sting, lead singer of The Police. They have two children and are now divorced.

It is impossible to encompass the vast list of credits Frances has amassed in the course of a varied and hugely successful career, which is now entering a new phase. Recently, she embarked upon a new career ­as a professional writer, producing work for screen and radio.

Meanwhile, one can only stand back and wonder at the apparently limitless energy, talent and enterprise of these two remarkable sisters, whose surname has become a by-word for the dramatic arts in Northern Ireland.

By Jane Coyle