HELENA Bereen may be in her seventies but the Cullybackey woman hasn’t let her age get in the way for her crossing one big item off her bucket list: acting on a London stage.
Helena, an actress perhaps best known for her roles in films Hunger and The Devil’s Doorway, has been a stalwart of Belfast’s theatre scene for years, appearing on every stage in town.
From the old Arts, to the new Lyric, the Old Museum to the MAC, she’s graced them all.
But in spite of a long and busy career, the opportunity to work in London just never presented itself… until this year.
The play is On McQuillan’s Hill by Armagh writer Joseph Crilly, and the role – Mrs Tymelly – is one she originated at the Lyric in Belfast in 2000.
Revisiting the character is an opportunity she is relishing:.
She said: “I loved playing Mrs. Tymelly twenty years ago. I am loving playing her again: I love her character, and I love the play.”
Set in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement, the play centres around IRA volunteer Fra Maline, and a celebration in the local community hall that turns to chaos.
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 keeps the keys to the hall, and is the guardian of everyone’s secrets, as well as one of her own.
While Bereen may have had a head start learning lines, she relied on her fellow actors a bit for advice about getting around London.
She’s no stranger to the city, but much has changed since she first travelled there.
She added: “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!”
In spite of a lifelong desire to act in the city where she once nursed, taking this latest job wasn’t an easy decision.
“It’s a big undertaking, to travel to London, and be away from family and friends for eight weeks.
“My partner is disabled and I am his Carer, However, with help from others, it’s been possible. Just. A good friend in the village has moved in to our home. I am very grateful for that.”
With Helena at the helm, the play has opened to rave reviews, with many passing remark on the quality of the performances – “an exceptionally strong cast”, “the acting is stellar” – and one in particular noting the “quietly forceful Helena Bereen”.
For an actress in her seventies, working away from home for two months, that’s no understatement.
The rest of the cast are delighted to have Helena in the dressing room.
Dundrum actor Declan Rodgers remarks: “Working with Helena is an absolute Joy. She lights up any room that she enters and regularly has all of the cast in stitches of laughter with her one liners and off-the-cuff remarks”.
Bereen appreciates the camaraderie in the company: “I may be older by many years but am not made to feel that way. I don’t feel that way.”
“I have been to London many times” says Bereen, “but this is the first time working as an actor. I’m loving every minute. It really is a tick on my bucket list, and I would do it again in a heartbeat!”.
Is there anything she’d do differently next time?
“I wouldn’t take so many clothes with me, as I sadly haven’t been invited to The Ritz on a regular basis!”
On McQuillan’s Hill runs at the Finborough Theatre until February 29th.