Stan Laurel celebrating his 62nd birthday backstage at the Grand Opera House in 1952Stan Laurel celebrating his 62nd birthday backstage at the Grand Opera House in 1952
Stan Laurel celebrating his 62nd birthday backstage at the Grand Opera House in 1952

11 pictures: Belfast’s Grand Opera House has welcomed a galaxy of stars from film, television and stage during its 128-year history

From Charlie Chaplin getting into a backstage punch-up in 1908, Stan Laurel celebrating his 62nd birthday on stage in 1952, a teenage James Nesbitt playing the role of Jesus in 1983 and ‘Queen of Dames’ May McFettridge performing her 33rd record-breaking panto season in 2023, Belfast’s Grand Opera House has welcomed a galaxy of stars from film, television and stage during its illustrious 128-year history.

Synonymous with sumptuous surroundings, prestige and world-class performances, the list of actors, singers, dancers, comics, and musicians who have trod the theatre’s iconic stage since 1895 reads like a who’s who of the entertainment industry.

Here we look back at the history of the world-renowned Great Victoria Street venue and lift the famous red curtain to reveal some of the stars who have appeared in the thousands of shows staged at Northern Ireland’s oldest theatre.

The Shakespearian actor, Sir Frank Benson, gave the opening address at the theatre’s first performance in 1895 and his fellow thespians have been well represented ever since.

In 1908, a 19-year-old Charlie Chaplin starred as part of the Fred Karno Company’s comic sketch, The Football Match. By his own account, he had a memorable visit to Belfast, getting into a backstage punch-up with his co-star Harry Weldon who was jealous of Chaplin’s rave reviews. Weldon’s annoyance erupted backstage one night and the two actors came to blows, leaving Chaplin with a bloodied nose.

Chaplin led the way for generations of variety entertainers to appear at the Opera House, including George Formby, Ken Dodd, Morcambe and Wise and Des O’Connor.

1911, Nellie Melba, perhaps the world’s first opera superstar, wowed Belfast audiences when she sang on the famous stage carving a path for other stars of opera and ballet, including Darcey Bussell, Carlos Acosta and Wayne Sleep.

In 1952, Laurel and Hardy played for two weeks, during which Stan Laurel celebrated his 62nd birthday on stage when the audience sang ‘Happy Birthday’, and theatre management presented him with a cake.

A relatively unknown Italian tenor made his UK debut at the Grand Opera House in 1963 in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The warm reception he received from the audience and critics seems to have inspired him as, within a few months, Luciano Pavarotti was in demand from the foremost opera houses across the globe.

Singers from Petula Clarke to Jason Donovan have performed at the GOH too and Belfast’s very own pop princess, Ruby Murray dropped in in 1959, following appearances by Vera Lynn’s and Gracie Fields either side of World War II.

In 1965, the National Theatre brought its production of Love for Love, with possibly the most star-studded cast ever to have graced the stage. Led by Laurence Olivier, it included Lyn Redgrave, Albert Finney and Geraldine McEwan.

Comedians have also been well represented by the likes of Frank Carson, Billy Connolly and Bob Hope, and let’s not forget Lenny Henry and the Comic Relief team broadcasting live from the Grand Opera House stage in 1995.

In 1960, Orson Welles, who had won his Academy Award for Citizen Kane almost 20 years earlier, fulfilled the dream of a lifetime by writing and starring in a comic play, Chimes at Midnight, based on Shakespeare’s character Falstaff.

Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea took to the theatre’s stage in Brian Friel’s feted play Translations in 1980, and the following year a young Lesley Garrett was whisked northwards to Belfast following her breakthrough season at the Wexford Festival.

A teenage James Nesbitt played the role of Jesus in a youth production of Godspell in 1983, and Rowan Atkinson recorded his live comedy album from the Grand Opera House, aided and abetted by the composer Howard Goodall and the screenwriter Richard Curtis, who would go on to write Four Wedding and Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually.

Other theatrical royalty to grace the stage included Dame Judi Dench who directed Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Look Back in Anger in 1989.

In 1990, the National Theatre brought not one but two Shakespeare plays to Belfast, with a star-studded cast including Ian McKellan, Brian Cox and Mark Strong performing Richard III and King Lear.

A regular fixture in the programme during the 1950s, the world-renowned The Royal Ballet returned in 1988 and 2000 after an absence of many years. In 1958, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother watched The Royal Ballet perform from what was then known as the Royal Box.

James Bond himself, Roger Moore, talked about his life and work, and Simon Callow, who had studied at Queen’s University some years earlier, returned to Belfast to star in Equus, and the Italian actress Isabella Rossellini appeared with her dog in an unforgettable one-woman show as part of the Belfast Festival.

Sir Derek Jacobi was a fabulous King Lear, and more recently a new generation of stars including Alexandra Burke, Craig Revel Horwood, Johannes Radebe, to name but a few, have appeared in productions such as The Bodyguard, Sister Act, and Annie.

However, one of our most cherished performers, May McFettridge, first appeared in pantomime in 1990, and 33 years later is still going strong! The Grand Opera House pantomime has entertained generations of families since the theatre opened on 23 December 1895 with the Blue Beard panto, and since then the it has hosted well over 100 pantomimes.

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