Legal eagle Catherine won't be 'court out' on stage ; By day she 'performs' to twelve good men and true (and women, naturally). By night it's a somewhat larger audience hanging on her every word. John Woodhouse meets Catherine O'Reilly - the leading barrister who just can't stay off centre stage
Catherine O'Reilly in her Stafford home.
BARRISTERS and musicals are an unusual mix. Rumpole, after all, never popped up in a Gilbert and Sullivan after a hard day at the Old Bailey.
But, then again, maybe the two arenas aren't that far removed. "A jury and an audience do have similarities," admits Catherine O'Reilly.
"They are, after all, a random selection of people. Some will find what's going on interesting, amusing, or whatever, and some won't.
"But one way or another it's all about connecting with people and being able to tell your story, be it on stage or in court."
Catherine, it seems, has always had two loves in her life. And, I put it to you, what makes her unusual is that pursuing one would never mean abandoning the other. As a child, she adored Perry Mason. "Don't get me wrong," she says, "I liked Starsky and Hutch too - I've got brothers, I had to - but Perry Mason was my absolute favourite. I liked the actual solving of the crime - the detective work. I liked people like Inspector Morse - the great detectives of TV."
But alongside a penchant for Raymond Burr, a bit of Judy Garland also seeped in.
"I remember on Christmas Day always sitting down to The Sound Of Music and The Wizard Of Oz," she explains. "And of course, these were the days when everything wasn't recorded - you watched things when they were on, which made it feel even more special. "Not only that, but my mum and dad were always big musical fans. They had all the old original LPs - My Fair Lady, all that kind of thing. "I did listen to what other kids were listening to as well - it wasn't just the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook! I liked all kinds of music - but I really loved musicals." Making a choice between these two diverse career routes could have been torturous.
But, like any great legal mind, Catherine had a clear strategy from early on. Despite having started performing aged just five, the temptation to be more Julie Andrews than Cherie Blair was never that overwhelming. "I never really ever considered doing it professionally," she says of her stage work.
"I think mainly because I was aware of the reality of how difficult a thing it is to do as a profession, and the commitment that's required. "But it was always an absolute passion, even at a young age. "And the way I see it now is, combining the stage with my job in the law, I have the best of both worlds. I like the way that, especially if you are working a lot, you potentially have that release." Somewhere between daily appearances in the courts of North Staffordshire, Catherine has just finished co-writing her first musical, What's All The Fuss About? ('three couples, two days, one wedding - what could possibly go wrong?'), which runs for five nights this week at Stoke Rep.
"The characters are the sort of people everyone will recognise," she says.
"They're actually based on people I know, friends and family. Whether people will recognise themselves, I'm not sure.
"Actually, I've got a lot of family coming over from Ireland to see it. But I'm not worried - it's all tongue in cheek and totally light-hearted." Catherine plays reluctant lover Bernie, the play stirring yet more childhood nostalgia, this time for its Irish setting.
"My parents are both Irish," she reveals. "We've got a huge family. My dad is one of 13, including two sets of twins, and I have something like 54 first cousins! So you can imagine what it's like when we get together for an Irish wedding. "We used to go back every summer holiday," she recalls, "to County Monaghan and County Down, which is where most of my family are from.
"There's nowhere like Ireland. They just have a different pace of life, and they're very quick-witted, another reason we decided the play has to be based over there.
"You know, it's just how the Irish would say 'much ado about nothing' - 'what's all the fuss about?'!" Studying law at university, Catherine cemented herself in the musical theatre scene on her return.
"When I settled in the area permanently," she says, "I started doing more, with North Staffs Operatic Society, down in Stafford, and then there were bits and bobs of acting work on TV."
After What's All The Fuss About?, she embarks on her first ever panto, Beauty And The Beast, at Rugeley.
COMBINING STAGE LAW, THE "I do love my job," she adds, "and it's great to have that balance. There's no reason the two can't go together, and, technically, I'm selfemployed, so I'm able to manage my diary accordingly, and the people in my profession have been tremendously supportive." Down the years, Catherine, aged 39, who lives near Stafford, has come to see the similarities between the court and the stage. "You are not yourself," she says of her horsehair wig persona, "in that you are conducting the trial on behalf of someone else. "BOTH "And although it's about the facts and the reality of a situation, there's definitely an element, especially with criminal law, of renewing yourself each time and acting a part."
Just like the theatre, no two audiences are the same. "The thing with jury trials," she says, "is it's fascinating to see how people respond to different situations. You are constantly learning about human behaviour - and so from that point of view it helps you create characters." There is, though, not much light to be had in the average criminal trial. "The fact that it's a comedy definitely made it an enjoyable experience," she says of writing What's All The Fuss About?.
THE WITH And, between the demands of her professional life, the production, co-written with Tim Churchill, has slipped out relatively easily. "The starting point was never 'right, HAVE BEST OF WORLDS I'm going to write a musical, the songs and everything'," she says, "because that would clearly take an immense amount of time.
"The starting point was 'let's write a couple of scenes, workshop them, just to see if it's possible, just for enjoyment perhaps, and see where we go from there'.
"We got a couple of scenes written and then it was just 'right, I'm going to write some more'.
In the end it was written relatively quickly. We started in January and had the first draft written by the end of March.
We put in these hits from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and it just seemed to work. We set out to write a musical with the idea of it being fun, no pressure. And that's what we got.
"Mostlys people write about things they know," she adds, "that's what they feel most comfortable with. I didn't feel that Much Ado About Nothing would transfer that well to the English/American tradition of many musicals, but I thought it would suit that kind of lyrical Irish talk, the cheeky humour - and that's what comes out in these characters."
Certainly the show promises an upbeat feel - I'm In The Mood For Dancing, Love Is In The Air, Build Me Up Buttercup, all feature. "I suppose it was inevitable that the musical should revolve around a wedding, laughs Catherine. "And I do seem to have subconsciously picked a lot of wedding songs." Come the end of the panto, Catherine will exit the dressing room and step back into her oakpanelled world. Her presence in both confirms that, given desire and commitment, you can fulfil whatever childhood dreams consume you.
Those formative experiences have always stayed with her, be they musical or legal, added to by their association with family.
"My dad would always be fascinated by the big criminal cases," she recalls. "He would read True Detective magazine, and so I'd read it as well."
When it comes to adapting a story for an upbeat musical, Shakespeare was probably the better choice. What's All The Fuss About? runs at Stoke Rep, Leek Road, from November 26-30. for tickets call 0844 870 0887.
ROLE MODEL Amelia Cope is turning heads. Read her story at thesentinel.co.uk And, between her COMBINING THE STAGE WITH LAW, I HAVE THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS a "because
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