Charabanc Theatre Company

One of the major Irish theatre companies of the 1980s and early 1990s

Charabanc Theatre Company was one of the major Irish theatre companies of the 1980s and early 1990s. Pioneers of independent theatre in Northern Ireland, the company foregrounded the experience of women in society, developed an astonishingly extensive grassroots touring circuit, created thought provoking and accessible works out of community interaction, and achieved a formidable reputation for its distinctive and skilled ensemble playing.

Charabanc was born of the frustration of five Belfast actresses at the scarcity of work for women in theatre, and at the nature of the work available to them. Deciding to stage their own production in 1983, Eleanor Methven, Marie Jones, Carol Scanlan (Moore), Brenda Winter and Maureen McAuley were persuaded by playwright Martin Lynch to write their own play about Belfast women.

In so doing, the company developed what would become a characteristic early process, involving research of written archive sources, interviews in the community by company members, and subsequently a workshop process between members. As a result, Charabanc initially performed devised or collaborative works, with the first, Lay Up Your Ends, credited to Martin Lynch and the company. Directed by Pam Brighton, it proved an instant critical and popular success. Set in York Street linen mill, Belfast, and based on a 1911 strike of female linen workers, it featured minimal set and props and the style that would typify Charabanc’s early work: short scenes, rapid-fire narrative, song and black humour.

This success convinced some of the actresses to carry on, and a core company emerged of Methven, Scanlan and Jones. Between 1983 and 1988, together with directors including Pam Brighton, Ian McElhinney, Andrew Hinds and Peter Sheridan, they staged six new plays to acclaim.

Oul’ Delf and False Teeth (1984) was set in Belfast’s Markets area during the 1949 Stormont elections. Now You’re Talkin’ (1985), by Marie Jones and the company, was set in a present day centre for the reconciliation of sectarian conflict. Gold in the Streets (1986), written by Marie Jones and devised by the company, dealt with twentieth century Irish emigration to England. The Girls in the Big Picture (1986), written by Marie Jones and devised by the company, addressed the claustrophobia of rural Ulster village life in the 1960s. And Somewhere Over the Balcony (1987) by Marie Jones was set in Belfast’s notorious Divis Flats on the eve of the anniversary of the introduction of internment.

These works were brought to thousands of people through the company’s creation of a new touring circuit to unconventional venues both rural and urban. Reviews were very positive and enthusiastic, both at home and overseas on tours to Scotland, Germany, Canada, Russia, the USA and Lithuania. If the plays were sometimes deemed raw, the company was also highly praised for its honesty of approach, pithy humour and striking ensemble playing. However, the company was also reaching creative and financial exhaustion, and after a transition period in 1988 began to diversify.

While Marie Jones after 1990 concentrated on writing outside the context of the company, the remaining Charabanc members adopted a tripartite focus: devising plays from and for the company’s own community, commissioning new Irish writing, and introducing and reinterpreting existing texts.

Such productions included The Stick Wife by American writer Darragh Cloud, exploring the lives of Klan wives in Alabama in the 1960s; Me and My Friend by Gillian Plowman (1991); Bondagers by Sue Glover (1991); Skirmishes by Catherine Hayes (1992); and The Vinegar Fly by Nick Perry (1994). Adaptations included Lynn Parker’s adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, and Peter Sheridan’s adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Illusion.

New writing included Cauterised by Neill Speers (1989), focusing on women in rural Northern Ireland; a short urban play, Frontline Café by Thomas McLaughlin (1991); October Song, a family drama by Andrew Hinds (1992); and Iron May Sparkle by Thomas McLaughlin (1994), a revue-like comedic work. A Wife, a Dog and a Maple Tree (1995), a major new piece by Sue Ashby, explored domestic violence in Northern Ireland and again was developed through lengthy research and improvisation processes.

Some of these plays were greeted warmly as vintage Charabanc territory, but others were deemed a deviation too far from the company’s original ethos. In July 1995, the two artistic directors, Carol Moore and Eleanor Methven, decided to bring the work of Charabanc to a close.

Charabanc Theatre Company brought theatre to highly diverse new audiences, and cleared a path in Northern Ireland both for new independent theatre companies and for companies wishing to work in community drama. Bloomsbury Theatre Guide considered the ‘versatile and ebullient’ Charabanc ‘one of the most entertaining companies to emerge out of Northern Ireland’.

The company will perhaps be best remembered for bringing to public prominence, in a highly distinctive way,’the lives of “insignificant” people, women who are supposed to have no place in history other than as extras for the crowd scenes’ (Fintan O’Toole).

© Ophelia Byrne 2004