‘What a Difference You Made to My Life’

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By Councillor Deirdre Mayo

SINCE being elected to the role of councillor for Cookstown Council I have attended many functions and visited many groups.

On Friday 31st August myself and Councillor Christine McFlynn attended a play in the Burnavon Theatre entitled ‘Midnight at Mildew Manor’, written by local play rite Carol Doey.

It was presented by The Open Door Theatre Company along with Cookstown Gateway Club.

The evening proved to be one of the most thought provoking, entertaining and enjoyable nights I’ve had out in a long time!!

The Open Door Theatre Group is a cross community youth drama group which meets in Cookstown once a week. Cookstown Gateway Club is like a youth club for those with learning difficulties, which meets once a fortnight. Both groups are run by volunteers, and funds to keep both groups afloat are obtained from fundraising events and donations.

Over the last few months both groups have worked very had together under the direction of Carol and her husband Tony McGurk from The Open Door Theatre, and Bernie O’Neill from Cookstown Gateway Club.

Choreographer of the project was Chris Cross from Brocagh and the musicial director was Brian McDevitt from Newtownstewart.

It has been a learning curve for both the youth people of the Open Door Theatre, many of whom had never encountered those with learning disabilities, and the members of Cookstown Gateway Club.

To see how the bonds of friendship had been built up between the two sets of people was very heart warming. Many barriers had been broken down through this process.

The story of the play centred around Mildew Manor, a place where parents left their children to attend a ‘bootcamp’.

The idea of the bootcamp was that all mobile phones, laptops etc were taken off the children at the start of bootcamp, as were sweets etc, and the children went back to basics, doing exercises, learning to cook and sew and doing what many would class nowadays as ‘old traditional stuff’. There were some very cleverly written lines as children asked questions like “why did my parents buy me a new iPhone only to have it taken off me in here??” Are parents just following the crowd by getting their children the latest gadgets? We give them an X box with one hand and then on the other hand expect them not to be absorbed in it. One child delivered a line about how some children were counting up how much money they would get for the grades they got in their GCSEs. Is this parenting or mere bribery to enable parents to boast about how well their child did in their exams?

Nanny McBee ran the bootcamp at Mildew Manor, her former home which was now rundown. She tells of how she had polio as a child and had to wear callipers. She was allowed to attend one of the weekly balls in the Manor and met young Jimmy who was their gardener at the time. He asked her to dance and she showed him her callipers. But this did not deter him. They fell in love, but her father found out and forbid her to see Jimmy again. Carol has cleverly written into the play how the barriers of disability could be overcome. Jimmy, feeling rejected and alone, turns to drink. He arrives at Mildew Manor to bring the children some sweets, something they are forbidden to have. He tells the children the story of meeting the young Nanny McBee, though in his story he does not see her as a disabled person. He tells of how we have choices in life and that him being a tramp and drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag is his own fault. I felt that the writer was trying to get across the point that we are all responsible for our own destiny and that we should make the most of what we have and not blame others for our misfortunes.

The roof of Mildew Manor is in a bad state of repair and the children decide to have a fundraising concert to get the money to fix the roof for Nanny McBee. This gives way to the second half of the play where all the young people perform. Poignantly one of the young Gateway members asks if she can sing and the young fella from the Open Door Theatre tells her she can’t sing well enough. But another young person comes along and delivers a speech on who are we to judge a person’s talent. And rightly so!! Some of the performers might not have made it past the likes of Simon Cowell, but their performances were certainly more memorable. When Liam Ryan performed an Elvis number the audience were in no doubt as to who the king was that night!

The finale was a number performed by both groups called ‘What a difference you made to my life’. And they did.

It was hard not to feel moved by the evening.

It went far beyond a project to bring together an able-bodied group of young people and a group with learning disabilities. Lines in the play made us all thing about our values in life and question some of the things we do as parents.

Carol Doey deserves credit and recognition for this project, which should be shown to a lot more people!