Rehearsals Continue for Annie at Ebrington
Dominic Kearney attends rehearsals for Londonderry Musical Society's forthcoming City of Culture production at The Venue
Something strange is happening at the Legenderry Warehouse, Derry~Londonderry’s newest cafe and craft shop.
Shop manager, Katie Patton, is talking in an American accent and muttering about orphans. Sarah Doherty, one of the waitresses, keeps getting the orders wrong. When customers complain, she simply shrugs her shoulders and tells them 'the sun’ll come out tomorrow'. They’ve both caught Annie. It’s highly contagious, and there’s no known cure.
Patton and Doherty are just two of the 100+ members of the Londonderry Musical Society, and Annie is the newest production chosen by the LMS to mark their sixth decade in existence. LMS began life in 1962, the brainchild of Belinda Story, a music teacher at Londonderry High School. She saw the fun to be had from performing musical theatre, and the desire in the city to see such shows.
Joined by 11 others, Belinda Story formed the Londonderry Light Opera Society. Their first production was Trial by Jury, in 1963. A verdict of Not Guilty was returned, and now, 50 years later, the Londonderry Musical Society, as it became in 2002, has over 100 members, men, women, and children, all amateurs, all busy with the rest of their lives, and all dedicated to the success of the LMS.
Derry~Londonderry is a performing city, of course, a singing city. There’s not a shy bone in its body. If proof of that were needed, it came in the form of a recent Guinness World Record-breaking attempt at Ebrington Square in early March 2013.
According to organisers, more than 5,000 people turned out for the bid, men, women and children of all ages. And what record were they attempting to break? That's right, the record for the greatest number of people performing a song and dance routine from the musical Annie, of course.
Annie fever had well and truly spread throughout the city. The start of the bid had to be delayed because so many more people than expected had turned up. Spectators decided at the last minute that they weren’t going to be left out.
Kevin Campbell, mayor of the city, had to take off his chain of office and help with the official count. The previous record of 4,500 was left trailing. Afterwards, there were Annies everywhere, in restaurants, cafes, and the odd one in a pub, sipping a Guinness in suitable celebration.
A similar story occurred when LMS announced the date of auditions for their forthcoming production of Annie. According to Rachel Tennis, secretary of the society, more than 100 children turned up, most of them after the leading role. They came from throughout Derry and beyond. The coveted role was eventually awarded to Lauryn Mulholland, of Buncrana.
The show opens on April 12 at The Venue, Derry's largest theatre house. Rehearsals are in full swing. I attend one in the function room of the City of Derry Rugby Club. Outside, in the freezing night, forwards and backs go through their practice drills, beating punch bags, sprinting, doing press-ups. Inside, there’s similar drive – the amateurs of the LMS are just as determined.
Punctuating the songs and dance routines, there are the despairing cries heard in every amateur dramatics society in the land. 'Has everybody got their pound?' Subs have gone up since 1962. 'I’ve not had one single lottery sheet back from the adult chorus.'
The floor is littered with sniggering children. They’ve all brought their lottery sheets back. They know how vital funds are to the society.
Children are a key feature. While other groups may struggle for younger members, it’s not a problem for the LMS. Their programme has been tailored in recent years to harness the enthusiasm of the children in the group. The Wizard of Oz, The King and I, Oliver, they’ve all been staged because they feature so many parts for children.
Of course, not everyone can turn up for rehearsal. One cast member is in hospital. Another has a fractured pelvis. Choreographer Vanessa Chapman cries out plaintively, 'NYC isn’t finished because we’ve not had the singer'. At this, ears prick up. If the singer hasn’t turned up, maybe someone else will get the part. This is a performing city. No-one is going to step back when there is a chance of stepping forward.
No sooner does a scene start than it is brought to an abrupt halt by director, Deigh Reid. He’s not happy with the curtseys. 'Together folks. I’m sorry, we’ll have to do it again. We’ve done this 13 times already. It’s not the orphanage. This is Daddy Warbuck’s house. It’s got to be sharp.'
And the next time, it’s sharp. But now he’s not happy with the excited whispers when Annie is introduced to the household staff. 'A bit of acting would be good, folks.'
Donald Hill surveys the scene and chuckles. He’s seen it all before. He was a founder member back in 1962. Today, he’s president of the society. 'It was all Gilbert and Sullivan until 1968,' he says. 'Then in 1969 we did Oklahoma.
'We’ve performed at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, for the UK Inner Wheel. We’ve done shows in Coleraine and Limavady. All over Northern Ireland. We’ve even been to Ballymena.' Hill’s daughter, Christine Deana, is the treasurer, and two of his grandchildren, Hannah and Polly Deane, are in this year’s show.
Hill knows that it’ll be all right on the night. There’s too much talent, too much dedication for it to be otherwise. And it's got to be. This year’s performances will be at The Venue, at Ebrington, where Primal Scream, Hofesh Shechter and the London Symphony Orchestra have already performed. There are 1,500 seats available for each performance.
'We are thrilled, really delighted,' says Rachel Tennis. 'It’s going to be amazing. We are an amateur society but we’ll be a recognised part of the City of Culture programme.'
Fraught though the rehearsal can be, the room is full of a buzz and an excitement. High standards are demanded by all. Not simply because of the scale of this year’s show, but because high standards are the only ones to have. You sing and dance your heart out, simple as that.
It’s part of the tradition of the society. As well as the shows, they also perform concerts for charity each year – Showstopper Concerts, they call them. In the early days of the LMS, with the Troubles raging, when their regular venue, the Guildhall, had been bombed again, they simply moved and performed elsewhere.
If circumstances didn’t allow for a full Gilbert and Sullivan, they’d do a Mozart mass, or Handel’s Messiah.
The show doesn’t just go on. It never stops. And the sun will come out tomorrow.