Larne Drama Festival: Financial pressures see curtain fall on long-running event

The curtain has come down on one of Northern Ireland’s longest running amateur drama festivals.
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Larne Drama Festival has been a popular fixture in the town since 1934, with breaks only during the Second World War and the Covid pandemic.

Hundreds of plays have been performed under its banner, including a 1970s production of ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’ starring a young Liam Neeson, who was then a member of the Slemish Players.

Citing financial pressures as the main reason behind the cancellation, the organisers of the event said: “It is with much sadness that the members of Larne Drama Festival have decided that the town’s annual event will no longer be held. At a meeting of season ticket holders held in the Carnegie Arts Centre on Saturday November 25, the current Executive officers of the organisation outlined the problems now facing future festival events.

Newpoint Players drama group, who performed 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' at Larne Drama Festival in 2013.  Photo: Phillip ByrneNewpoint Players drama group, who performed 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' at Larne Drama Festival in 2013.  Photo: Phillip Byrne
Newpoint Players drama group, who performed 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' at Larne Drama Festival in 2013. Photo: Phillip Byrne

“Foremost among these is the matter of finance. It costs in the region of £7000 to run the event; expenses include theatre rental, teams’ expenses, adjudicator’s fee, and travel and accommodation; these have all risen steeply since the last festival in 2020. Conversely grants, local financial sponsorship and ticket income have all dropped. The other main problem is the shortage of manpower to actually run the week’s event.”

The festival has been staged in several venues over the years, with the first event taking place in 1934. Billy Burns, who took on the role of festival secretary in 1965, outlined the history of the event. "Larne Musical Festival Association had three sections – music, drama and verse speaking,” he said. “The drama section began in 1929 as a play writing competition. The first true drama festival was staged in December 1934 with Robert Newton as adjudicator. The venue was the Victoria Orange Hall on Curran Road. The programme had 13 teams, all presenting one act plays. This arrangement continued until 1936.

“There then followed a break due to the Second World War, starting up again in 1946 in Gardenmore Lecture Hall, home until 1954 and then back to the Victoria Hall.”

A number of different venues followed, including Larne Grammar and Larne High schools and St Comgall’s Club auditorium.

A big turnout on the opening night of Larne Drama Festival in 2011.  Photo: Peter RipponA big turnout on the opening night of Larne Drama Festival in 2011.  Photo: Peter Rippon
A big turnout on the opening night of Larne Drama Festival in 2011. Photo: Peter Rippon

In 1995, the final switch was made to the McNeill Theatre in Larne Leisure Centre.

“The long association with Glenarm Castle started in 1931, when Margaret Countess of Antrim became President,” Mr Burns added. “She was succeeded by Lady Angela, Countess of Antrim until her death in1985. Lady Angela was not just a figurehead, but a keen worker for the festival. She also gave much support to the local arts community in persuading the then Larne Borough Council to re-acquire the Carnegie Building for use as our local museum and arts centre.

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“The Drama Festival thrived in the 50s, with one act and full length plays and even ballets included. The season could last into three weeks. In 1952, there were 13 full length, 15 one acts and school entries. Usually, a one act play was staged before the full length entry.”

John Worthing (Colin Woodham) and Algernon Moncreiff (Stuart Wilson) deep in discussion during the Holywood Players performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Larne Drama Festival in 2012. Photo: Peter RipponJohn Worthing (Colin Woodham) and Algernon Moncreiff (Stuart Wilson) deep in discussion during the Holywood Players performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Larne Drama Festival in 2012. Photo: Peter Rippon
John Worthing (Colin Woodham) and Algernon Moncreiff (Stuart Wilson) deep in discussion during the Holywood Players performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Larne Drama Festival in 2012. Photo: Peter Rippon

Local Women’s Institute members, meanwhile, were fervent supporters of the event, and often provided suppers for the teams after the show. Mr Burns recalled: “One WI lady loved knitting, so during the performances she worked away as she watched the play and at the end of the festival, she presented the adjudicator with a pair of socks.

“The adjudicator was of course a very important element of the competition. Larne man and actor Harry Towb officiated in1959, and other notable adjudicators were Lennox Robinson, Finlay J McDonald, Alan Nicol and Betty Ann Norton from Dublin. Then there was the unforgettable Gerda Redlich. Gerda, who was Jewish, fled from Europe during the second World War. She escaped in a circus group with a company of acrobats and did the splits every night on the festival stage.”

The festival grew in popularity during the middle of the 20th century, with audience numbers in the 50s and 60s reaching six or seven hundred supporters in the Victoria Hall.

“Festivals were often the starting points for many of the successful Northern Ireland actors and actresses. Best known is Liam Neeson who appeared in ‘Lovers’ in 1971 and won the best actor award for his performance in ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’ the following year,” Mr Burns said.

Festival chairperson Patricia Bresland with adjudicator Russell Boyce at the start of the 2013 Larne Drama Festival in the McNeill Theatre. INLT 12-378-PRFestival chairperson Patricia Bresland with adjudicator Russell Boyce at the start of the 2013 Larne Drama Festival in the McNeill Theatre. INLT 12-378-PR
Festival chairperson Patricia Bresland with adjudicator Russell Boyce at the start of the 2013 Larne Drama Festival in the McNeill Theatre. INLT 12-378-PR

“Each year the Larne festival team was delighted to welcome companies who became old friends. Among these were Clarence Players, Slemish Players, Ballymoney L&D Society, Holywood Players, Belfast Drama Circle, Bangor Drama Club, Lurig Drama Group, Rosemary Drama Group and Bart Players, who under the direction of Ken Powles staged most memorable productions.

“The Larne festival is a long way from companies in the south of Ireland, but in 1993 the Sundrive Players from Dublin came north and completed the line-up for our 50th season.”

Local firms and businesses also offered their support and often, financial backing. Main Street men’s outfitters J&N Craig displayed the festival trophies in their window before the event, as well as selling season tickets.

“Over all those years hundreds of plays have been performed; teams have come from all over Northern Ireland as well as across the border and many friendships have been formed, often lasting a lifetime,” Mr Burns said.

“So it is with much regret that the current Committee, some of whom having given almost sixty years of service, now see the final curtain of Larne Drama Festival.”