Alan Barry

Actor loyal to his native Dublin
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Although Alan Barry became a recognised voice on British radio and made several notable London stage appearances, his loyalties always lay deepest towards his native Ireland where his career covered a remarkable range of work.

Dublin-born, Barry was attracted early to the theatre. Both his mother and his uncle had close associations with the Church of Ireland (and his father became a late-vocation rector, with a Wexford parish) which had ties with the Actors' Church Union. Even as a boy Barry delighted in his involvement with amateur productions, often of Gilbert and Sullivan.

For a brief period on leaving school, Barry worked for Jacob's Biscuits, but it was clear from the start that a career in industry offered little allure. He auditioned for the legendary actor-manager Anew McMaster ("Mac" ) - handsome, charismatic, waywardly brilliant, with a knack for spotting young talent (Harold Pinter included) - and left the biscuit factory at once when offered the chance to become part of McMaster's touring company in a repertoire ranging from Shakespeare to Dion Boucicault and Lennox Robinson.

A second, equally rewarding, early period of rich opportunities came with Barry's attachment to the fledgling Globe troupe in Dun Laoghaire in the 1960s, a venture which in its day was arguably Ireland's most dynamic company. Barry was just one of a striking galaxy of young and energetic Globe talent - Norman Rodway, Donal Donnelly, T.P. McKenna, Godfrey Quigley and the director Jim Fitzgerald were others exploring an ambitious and diverse repertoire, mostly of contemporary work.

By comparison at that time, neither of Dublin's major theatres - the Abbey and the Gate - seemed to offer similarly adventurous chances, and Barry joined others of his Globe colleagues to leave for England. Repertory work included a spell in Leicester at the Phoenix Theatre and Barry also began to make a name in radio. His voice - rich in timbre and remarkably flexible, capable equally of the utmost delicacy as well as full-blooded rhetoric - and a keen ear for accents made him ideally suited to the medium (one for which he had immense respect). For a period in the 1970s, when radio drama was enjoying a golden era, he was several times a popular member of the BBC Radio Repertory Company, and he was also much in demand for voice narrations to television documentaries.

On stage, Barry scored a major success in Tom Gallagher's delightful Mr Joyce is Leaving Paris (King's Head, 1972), a performance which eventually (after a faintly ludicrous battle over the rights to the play) saw his return to Dublin and an acting stage reunion with his old friend Patrick Laffan.

Thereafter, his career alternated between Dublin and London. In his native city, perhaps his finest performance, still vividly recalled by audiences, was his Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire for the Gate, a performance which found a fearful, vulnerable core inside the tough-guy assumed exterior, revealing at the close a character perceptibly permanently damaged by his collusion in Blanche du Bois's destruction.

Performances from Barry at the Abbey included his happy patriarch in the Kaufman/Hart comedy You Can't Take it With You and a chilling portrayal of rectitude in Miller's The Crucible. At the Gate, his work was similarly varied - impeccable period performances in Sheridan (The School for Scandal), Wilde (An Ideal Husband) and Farquhar (The Recruiting Officer) included. He also shone in Boucicault - a splendidly, genially bemused Squire Harkaway in London Assurance - and as an ailing patriarch in Brian Friel's Aristocrats, giving a performance to match his Mitch.

Other Dublin-based work included his beautifully and subtly observed Mr Drumm, the seemingly dessicated figure of small-town convention in Hugh Leonard's Da (Olympia) and his unhappy, failing lecturer in Educating Rita (for Edwards-MacLiammoir Productions). Barry also on occasion returned to London; he was in fine form as a voice of the Medical Establishment in Brian Clark's Whose Life Is It Anyway? (Savoy) and appeared in Trevor Griffiths's Comedians (Old Vic) and in Richard Eyre's version of the Cole Porter musical High Society (Victoria Palace).

Barry worked extensively in television and films, mostly in Ireland. In the cinema he had his best opportunities in In the Name of the Father (1993), The General (1998) and Some Mother's Son (1996), while on television he appeared - almost inevitably - in the BBC's Irish-set series Ballykissangel and The Governor. Much to his own pleasure, he spent over two years in the popular RTE soap-opera Fair City, imaginatively cast as a character still trailing his hippie, motor-cyclist past.

A final role, fittingly for Barry, saw him back at the Abbey, where he appeared earlier this year in the smaller Peacock auditorium in Shelagh Stephenson's Enlightenment. In this challenging new play, centred round a couple's grief at the apparent loss of their son in the Bali bombings, he played a bereft grandfather with the unassuming conviction and truth which affectingly informed so much of his work.

Alan Strachan

In 1959 Alan Barry and I were in Geoffrey Hastings's company at the Theatre Royal Bath, writes Alan Curtis. Most of us stayed at the pub next door, the Garricks Head. Barry's humour kept word-learning sessions easier, with his introduction of the "saints' club" ­ for instance, the patron saint of highwaymen "St And and deliver!" or the saint of ice-cream sellers "St Op me and buy one" ­ and on and on.

Ten years later, we both worked on Ring of Spies, a good Brit film about the Portland spies, which contained about every familiar face from film and television. I had to go back to Shepperton for revoicing and was asked to cover some of Alan's lines. I dissented, not wanting to prevent him earning and was told, "We've got to get rid of his Irish accent!" In the light of his superb vocal skills in years to come, that was rich.

Comments