LIAM Neeson, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie are just a few of the household names that have graced the boards of the University of Ulster’s Riverside Theatre in Coleraine – Northern Ireland’s oldest operating theatre outside Belfast.
Since it opened 35 years ago, in 1977, the theatre has nurtured many fine young actors, most notably James Nesbitt, who, earlier this week, returned to perform on the same Riverside stage where he made his acting debut as the Artful Dodger in the December 1978 production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver.
“In Conversation with James Nesbitt was a great evening and a wonderful celebration of the Riverside,” says Jeremy Lewis, current manager of the theatre. “And it was the first time Jimmy had performed here since he starred in Godspell in 1981.
“Another Riverside son, BBC journalist Mark Carruthers, who was also in Godspell and also that same 1978 production of Oliver, joined James on stage to reminisce and share anecdotes with the audience.”
As well as staging productions and events, over the years the Riverside has become an important part of the Coleraine and north coast community.
Adds Jeremy: “We have 130 volunteers who work alongside our five full-time members of staff to help run the theatre.
“The Riverside has become very important to the people of Coleraine, Portrush and Portstewart and we are incredibly lucky that we have the public support that we do. If we didn’t, I don’t think that the theatre would have lasted 35 years.
“Our volunteers are just ordinary people who enjoy being involved in the day-to-day running of a theatre.
“It’s a very good way of getting the local community involved.”
Like James Nesbitt, Jeremy also began his career at the Riverside and he was employed as front of house manager, when the doors first opened.
“I remember the foundations being laid,” he laughs. “There was tremendous excitement because there had been no history of professional theatre in Coleraine at all before that.
“Also in 1977, Northern Ireland was in a very bad place because of the Troubles, so there was joy that something good was happening.
“The show for the opening night was meant to be a thriller - the Hitchcock classic, Dial M for Murder – starring Douglas Fielding and Jimmy Ellis.
“Unfortunately, just before opening night, Jimmy became very ill and as it was too late to recast the role, a replacement show had to be found very quickly.
“The programmers opted for a play from Scotland not knowing it was quite a controversial piece. It was called Our Land, Our Lives from a company called 784, who were known for their political productions.
The production was brilliant to watch and had a superb story, but it was very left-leaning and this upset quite a few people as 35 years ago things were very different to how they are today.
“What saved us was that even though people found the content of the show controversial, they were so delighted to see a professional theatre in their own home town, that it turned out to be a huge success.
“Of course, there was no way to completely escape the unrest at the time.
“We used to get at least three bomb scares a week. It would always happen at the same time. The show would have started and it would be about 10 or a quarter past eight and a phone call would come – ‘Tell the audience they have 15 minutes to leave the building’.
“You knew, nine times out of 10, that it was a hoax, but you didn’t take the risk, so we had a procedure whereby we would use the internal phone and use a code word for evacuate and we used to pride ourselves that even with a full house of 350 people, we could empty the theatre in well under four minutes.
“Thankfully, the hoaxes were never real; it was really just a disruption thing. I even think whoever was doing it got bored themselves after a while.
“After 1982, we never had another one.”
Jeremy has amassed many fond memories over the years.
“As well as James Nesbitt, who we have all known since he was 12-years-old, I can remember the young Liam Neeson performing here in the 80s when he was going out with Helen Mirren.
“I had the pleasure of showing Helen to a seat in the back row of the auditorium where she watched her boyfriend on stage.
“We’ve had every major name from every soap opera you can think of. We’ve had Sir Anthony Hopkins and all of the Cambridge Footlights people – Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry.
“Van Morrison has also performed here.”
Jeremy admits that in the current economic climate, it is necessary for a theatre to provide entertainment as well as
“In the beginning, Riverside did nothing but drama. It’s only in the last 15 years that we’ve gone into music, entertainment, conferences, weddings and other events because these bring in the revenue to host the latest best quality drama productions.
Our programme for the next few months is wonderfully diverse. We will host a new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan by Bruiser Theatre Company; musical performances from the Causeway Chorale; a tribute to the gospel music of Elvis Presley; an Irish dance spectacular and this year’s pantomime, Aladdin.
“In 2013, we kick off with Ballywillan Drama Group’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, Whistle Down the Wind.
Despite the recession, our 35th birthday year has been very successful for us – which is the perfect present to spur us on for another 35 years.”
n For bookings and details about Riverside Theatre events visit www.riversidetheatre.org.uk or call 02870 123123.