NI actress Helena Bereen makes London stage bow in her 70s in play that speaks ‘beyond the grave’

A Cullybackey actress in her 70s has made her London stage debut in a play written by an NI man who is posthumously raising money to combat suicide.

Tuesday, 18th February 2020, 6:00 pm
Helena Bereen
Helena Bereen

Derrymacash playwright Joseph Crilly took his own life in a hotel in France in 2017. More than two years on, a play he wrote based on the Good Friday Agreement has premiered in London, raising money for CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably – and getting rave reviews.

The play ‘On McQuillian’s Hill’ features Helena Bereen, known for her roles in films ‘Hunger’ and ‘The Devil’s Doorway’, and as a stalwart of Belfast’s theatre scene.

In spite of a long and busy career, the opportunity to work in London never presented itself ... until now.

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Set in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, the play written in 2000 centres around IRA man Fra Maline. With peace on a knife-edge, bitter memories, family secrets and lies long buried in the bog threaten to resurface as an accidental family reunion descends into pitch black farce. Mrs Tymelly, played by Bereen who first had the role in the Lyric in 2000, is the guardian of everyone’s secrets as well as one of her own.

The actress is no stranger to London, but much has changed since she first travelled there: “I worked in London in the 60s as a nurse – I did midwifery in Beckenham Maternity Hospital, a good bit south of the centre. Those were different times, and that was a very different experience.”

Playwright Crilly was an acclaimed writer and actor, who had long since given up penning plays and treading the boards. Exchanging full houses for social housing, at the time of his death he was working at Peabody Housing Trust, where few of his colleagues knew he had been involved in the theatre at all, let alone that he was an award-winning playwright, and had worked as an actor at the highest level, including time with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a litany of television appearances.

Doreen Productions formed for the sole purpose of introducing Crilly’s work to a new audience. ‘On McQuillan’s Hill’ opened at the Finborough Theatre, directed by Belfast’s Jonathan Harden.

Mr Harden said: “There’s a real possibility that the play could have been lost. The sad reality is that had Joe survived, this production would never have happened. We are here, in so many ways, because like 18 others in the UK every day, a man took his own life. Organisations like CALM are the best defence we have against stories that end like Joe’s.”

CALM runs a free and confidential helpline and webchat for anyone who needs to talk about life’s problems, available in NI and across the UK.

‘On McQuillan’s Hill’ runs until February 29.