Artists in Waterloo #10: Colette Kelly

Throughout Waterloo Festival 2020, we platformed artists who either live in or are connected to Waterloo. And we are continuing this series of articles. Meet Colette Kelly.

I was born in Dublin but we moved to the North of Ireland early in my childhood as my father, who was originally from Belfast, found work there as a carpenter. We were a family of 4 girls and my mother, who wanted to be performer herself, brought us up to sing, dance, and act. We consequently appeared in all the local pantomimes and any plays that were being performed in Omagh, the small town in which we lived. A famous Irish theatre company called Anew Mc Master toured to Omagh and required a young girl to appear in their Victorian Melodrama East Lynne… no dialogue, but a lot of acting! The word went round and they were told, "Look no further than the Kelly household". And so I made my debut at the age of 10 in a professional play.

Photo by Hannah Quigley: Colette Kelly on The Cut outside Calder Bookshop - signage reads: The Bookshop Theatre - June 2020

That was my first taste of being an actress which has stayed with me ever since. All the Kelly girls excelled in singing and my two older sisters, Anna and Lilian were invited to Belfast to sing in a BBC Radio competition. They won, and consequently Lilian secured a contract to tour with a show in England whilst Anna, who was more of an opera singer, joined Butlins Holiday Camp as a performer. At the time, pop singing was at its height. Lilian was spotted by a talent scout and given a contract to tour with the likes of Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde and Billy Fury. The managers changed her name to Sally Kelly and she recorded under that name and had a successful career in the pop world.

Back in Ireland, the “Troubles” had not yet kicked off but there was a definite divide between the Roman Catholic religion and the Protestant. So those of us who attended the Convent School were not encouraged to make friends with the people of the Protestant faith. Although, my mother stuck her neck out and sent me to Tap Lessons at the other end of the town, which were run by a Protestant teacher! I am forever grateful to her and I am tapping to this day.

I suppose the biggest influence during those years was the cinema. Mama used to take us regularly and I remember being ecstatic over the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Donald O’ Connor and Debbie Reynolds.

In the early 60’s, we all moved to London, the era of the Windrush. It was difficult to find employment and accommodation; ‘No Irish, no Blacks, no Dogs.’ So we moved around a lot following my dad, wherever he could find work. At school here, everyone made fun of my Irish accent but at Secondary school I had a marvellous English teacher, Dermot Conway, who introduced plays into the curriculum and became my mentor.

It was through his influence that I later applied to Drama School and gained a place at the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. In the meantime I was doing a bit of pop singing, coached by my sister Sally who, when she had overbooked herself, would send me along to do the ‘gig’. So I gained quite a lot of experience with audiences at Working Mens Clubs, dance halls and special events.

During this time – I am now in my late teens- there were variety shows touring to the American bases in Greece and Turkey and a friend Bill Kenwright who had the knack of knowing everything that was going on in show business, got me a booking as the girl singer. This was to be a landmark in my career, though I didn’t know it at the time.

In those days, early 6o’s, Equity the Actors Union and the Variety Artists Federation were separate entities with membership of the former mandatory for those who wanted to work in professional theatre. It was quite difficult to get an Equity ‘card’. You had to complete an apprenticeship by securing a certain number of theatre contracts throughout the year. As luck would have it, I had joined the V.A.F. on returning from the Middle East who dealt with a claim for underpayment of our contract! When I graduated from Webber D., in 1967, both unions had amalgamated hence giving me full membership of Equity. This was particularly poignant as it meant I qualified for my first job in the West End!

Hair - Colette Kelly's publicity shot

I was cast in the original production of Hair at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Following this I had the good fortune of securing a major part in the original production of Grease at the New London Theatre which starred a very young Richard Gere in the title role. Throughout the coming years I managed to get work in various Theatres, Repertory companies, London Fringe, Touring plays, Musicals and Pantomime, in which I did have the privilege of appearing with Les Dawson as Dame at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Please click play for You Tube clip of Colette Kelly and Richard Gere in Grease

Indeed my experience covered everything from Ionesco to Ayckbourn.

In the late 70’s an opportunity arose to join the The Aba Daba Music Hall company at the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Kings Cross (now The Water Rats). All ‘spit and sawdust’, the venue was redolent of those where Music Hall began. This was a wonderful experience of how to entertain and handle audiences in the Music Hall style. We were a great success and toured the shows to America.

In the late 1990’s I was approached by Celia Moreton-Prichard who had connections with the Greenwich Theatre. She wanted to organise a series of Music Hall shows to raise funds for that theatre, the Cutty Sark, the Blackheath Halls and other Greenwich based charities who needed a helping hand. Celia’s expertise was as a producer and I directed and cast the shows (and appeared myself). With Kitty Kelly’s Music Hall shows we raised thousands of pounds throughout the years, the most recent of which starred Barry Cryer in the Chair and Colin Sell at the piano forte.

Flyer of Kitty Kelly’s Music Hall, Greenwich Theatre

I was very fortunate to return to the West End in 2004 in an Irish play By the Bog of Cats starring Holly Hunter. After that, work was thin on the ground. I wanted to busy myself so joined Morley College for tap lessons and more recently a course on Bass Guitar. The Royal Theatrical fund formed a Choir and coffee morning to keep actors in touch with each other. We sing at the Actors Church Covent Garden every Christmas and visit care homes throughout the year. Also our Equity meetings take place at the Young Vic every month so there is a feeling of support in such a over-crowded and competitive profession.

I came to know about Peabody through a friend from Hair who had a Peabody flat in Ebury Bridge Road—very nice. She convinced me to apply to Peabody as I was moving around a lot and sometimes living with my parents. It was not possible to keep a flat going in London whilst touring with various productions. Thanks to Lucy, I contacted Peabody who came to visit me in a shared flat Deptford. We had a pleasant interview and I thought no more about it. It was coming up to Christmas time and I went off to play Principal Boy in pantomime in Porthcawl. When I returned to London, Peabody offered me the flat in which I now reside and I was able to move in April 1985.

I remember my excitement on visiting Stamford Street on a Sunday, looking up at the first floor and thinking ‘Oh yes, I’ll take it’ without even looking inside! How fortunate was I?

Looking back over my 50 years, it has been quite a feat in itself earning a living (however meagre) in such a precarious business. In 1994 I got a bursary to study for an M.A. in Theatre Arts at Goldsmiths University of London. I took a year out from performing and thoroughly enjoyed the life of an academic! So now with cap and gown in hand, I began to investigate other forms of theatre and eventually was fortunate enough to join the Godot Company at John Calder’s Bookshop Theatre in the Cut. (Still there).

Photo by Hannah Quigley - close up of Colette Kelly outside Calder Bookshop window June 2020

John was Samuel Beckett’s publisher and close friend. John devoted his life to the works of that great man. In his little theatre he directed many readings and performances of Beckett’s work employing some of the most accomplished actors in the profession. We travelled to Ireland mounting productions such as Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Footfalls, Play, Not I, Happy Days (myself delighted to be cast as Winnie) and Rough for Theatre 1 and 2 which recently played at the Old Vic.

At John Calder’s funeral I was asked to pay tribute to John and was delighted to lighten the proceedings by describing my roles in the plays as in:

  1. A Dustbin

  2. An Urn

  3. Buried to my neck in sand (Happy Days)

My other link to the Waterloo area came when Gerald Amin produced the musical ‘Ballroom’ at the Waterloo East Theatre and cast me in a glorious cameo role. Sadly we don’t yet know the fate of this wonderful little gem of a theatre which leads seamlessly onto the subject of Corona Virus.

Photo by Hannah Quigley: Colette Kelly outside the Young Vic June 2020 - featuring surprise drive by of Peabody van

In the first few weeks, I was coping quite well; giving advice to people, have a plan for the day, read, walk, practice singing and bass guitar. But then the enormity of the situation dawned upon me - the fact that the theatre world would be one of the worst affected, and I became very frightened. It was difficult to do any of those things whilst being in a state of anxiety. Thankfully through friends and family and my Agent I found ways of coping and thanks to the technology we can audition for roles and self tape and get work that does not involve close contact through various media platforms.

Many theatres now stream their productions and although it will be some time before we can play to live audiences, there is some consolation in the fact that everyone is in the same boat.

Colette Kelly

Written at the end of June 2020