Half a century on the stage
SEPTEMBER 1963 - The Beatles charted with ‘She Loves You’, the Profumo scandal was making headlines and the Great Train Robbery was still sending shockwaves around the UK.
And, at the same time in Portrush, a young boy called Rodney Magee was persuaded to set foot on stage for the very first time with Ballywillan Drama Group.
Now fifty years on, Rodney is preparing to take his final bow with the group as he takes his leave from stage after half a century of amateur drama.
Rodney is currently playing the part of an apostle in the drama group’s production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in the Riverside Theatre and, on Saturrday, February 1st, he will step down from performing with the group.
Rodney took time out from rehearsals for ‘Superstar’ to look back over 50 years of pantomimes, musicals, directing and producing.
“I suppose like many Portrush folk my first memory of going to see a panto was being taken to the Town Hall by my mother when I was probably about seven or eight to see Ballywillan,” Rodney told the Times.
“In those days, people used to be queued up outside in all weathers waiting to get in.
“I remember being amazed as a child that all the people I had seen dressed up on stage were the same people that I met down the street in Portrush.
“I suppose it was naive but I was just fascinated that these were the people we met in shops and around the town.
“Then in September 1963, I was coaxed to go along to rehearsals for the pantomime The Wizard of Oz.
“I joined the chorus and I never left!
“After about four years in the chorus, the then director Cecil Burleigh approached me and asked me to play the wolf in Red Riding Hood.
“i was just a teenager and the wolf was a big part and I was petrified!
“I remember that the curtain opened and I was alone on the stage at the opening of the show and when the spotlight hit me, I noticed that a wee boy in the audience had brought his toy gun with him.
“He started shooting at me and then shouted ‘Mummy, I got him’. I could barely speak for laughing.
“But it’s that buzz of live theatre and a live audience that I love.”
After earning his theatrical stripes, Rodney was then cast in the role of the Dame.
“I first played Dame in 1977.
“In those days, we were performing in the old Portrush Town Hall with about 60 or 70 people squeezed into the dressing rooms but the craic was brilliant.
“Playing the role of Dame in pantomime is really the best you can get.
“I can now say that I have played every part in pantomime except the principal boy and girl....and the only reason I haven’t played principal boy is because my legs don’t suit fishnet tights,” joked Rodney, who works in the Coleraine campus of the University of Ulster.
“In amateur drama you are always learning so by the 1980s I had progressed onto directing the pantomimes.
“It was a very different challenge but there was a great sense of achievement when everything comes together.”
One of the biggest challenges Rodney and the group faced was when Ballywillan had to leave Portrush Town Hall in 1990 as renovations were on the horizon.
“After negotiating with Coleraine Borough Council we moved into Waterworld until 2001,” said Rodney.
“We faced a huge amount of work, walking into the empty space in Waterworld and transforming it into a theatre.
“The public really doesn’t realise the amount of work that goes into putting a show on stage in amateur drama, especially when you are faced with building the very stage from scratch.”
Ballywillan Drama Group then decided to move into the genre of musical theatre with a production of Oliver!
On the back of the success of that show, the following year they staged The Sound of Music which sold out 16 shows in just ten days!
Other musicals followed including Carousel which involved constructing a revolving stage AND a fully working carousel.
“We were talking about just using flat hobby horses when one day I happened to meet Eddie Mason from Barry’s.
“The idea just came to me, so I asked him could we borrow the famous hobby horses from Barry’s.
“Barry’s and Frank Trufelli had always been great supporters of Ballywillan’s pantos in the Town Hall, so they said yes.
“It took a lot of work constructing the carousel on which to place the horses but we did it and it looked fantastic.
“I think it shows the amount of support that Ballywillan always received from the people and businesses in Portrush.
“I really do think there is still a tremendous amount of affection in the town for the group and for those pantos.”
During his years with Ballywillan, Rodney’s children Fiona and Brian both became involved in the group and his wife Geraldine was always helping out in one way or another.
“There were days when I was leaving Portrush at 6.30am to drive to work in Belfast, coming home at 6.30pm in the evening and heading straight to the Town Hall to get make-up and costume started so I was hardly seeing Geraldine.
“So it’s very true that being involved in amateur drama takes a lot of commitment and support from your family.
“But the Drama Group became part of our social life.
“The craic that you have on and off the stage is fantastic, the people you meet, the social life and just seeing what you can achieve from scratch is amazing and that’s why I have been involved for 50 years.”
Once he finishes the run of Jesus Christ Superstar, Rodney plans to devote his free time to more Hospital Radio in the Causeway Hospital for which he broadcasts twice a week.
“At the moment, I am playing an apostle in Jesus Christ Superstar in the Riverside.
“When we did it ten years ago, I was a priest - is that progress?” he joked.
“But like most things in life, you get out of it what you put in. I have met lots of great people and it’s all about the comradeship.”
* Jesus Christ Superstar by Ballywillan Drama Group plays in the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine until February 1st.
Tickets on sale now at www.riversidetheatre.org.uk or call 028 70 123 123.