Obituary: Mary Sweeney, front-of-house theatre manager

Mary Sweeney: Much-loved doyenne of the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow for several decades
Mary Sweeney: Much-loved doyenne of the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow for several decades
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Born: 28 March, 1923, in Derry. Died: 29 July, 2015, in Glasgow, aged 92

Mary Sweeney was the doyenne of the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre. For 40 years she was the calm and reassuring force in the background while the celebrated triumvirate – Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David Macdonald – brought the theatre international fame on stage with their imaginative productions and daring programming.

Sweeney ensured the front of house, the staff and the theatre was in a ship-shape state. The school parties were given special attention – and an extra warm Sweeney smile – and herded into their seats on time. She knew the importance to the Citz of the regulars and welcomed them in the foyer with open arms and by name.

At curtain down she was there to say good night and discuss the production – wonderful or controversial.

As The Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan recalls: “Mary kept an eagle eye on the whole front-of-house operation. Like the theatre itself, she always looked wonderful, and worked to the most impressive standards.

“Even after she retired, she visited the theatre often, particularly on first nights. It is hard to imagine that foyer and auditorium without her presiding presence, which embodied so much of what was – and is – great about the Citizens’ Company.”

Sweeney was an enlightened perfectionist. She insisted that things should work like clockwork and everything happen seamlessly and without fuss. Problems were dealt with in a trice and crises – major or minor – were solved without the audience knowing anything about them. She also ensured that new front-of-house staff were given clear instructions and how the public should be greeted.

Mary Josephine Ronaghan was a nurse in Manchester during the war, often flying on dangerous missions to France to bring home wounded soldiers. In 1963 she joined the Citz where her family had connections over many years.

In an article in The Scotsman dealing with sectarianism in Scotland in 2010 the comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli remembered the warm welcome he received at the Citz when he went to work there in his youth.

“Memories flooded back from my days as an usher at the Citizens’ Theatre and the indomitable Mary Sweeney who ran the front of house.

“Ironic since Mary was an outsider herself, an Irish immigrant to Glasgow. Yet she couldn’t have been more inveigled into the bricks and mortar of the Citz.”

Sweeney made one appearance on the stage at the Citz. In a famous adaptation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (retitled for the Citz by the adapter Robert David Macdonald as A Waste of Time) the director Philip Prowse asked Sweeney to be an extra in a short scene.

Looking very grand in severe black with a magnificent chapeau, she cut a majestic figure.

In March 2013 the Citz gave Sweeney a splendid tea party to celebrate her 90th birthday. What was expected to be just a few friends turned into a major occasion with many past colleagues and friends arriving to demonstrate their love for a real friend.

She had, in fact, retired ten years previously, but Sweeney’s two daughters and grandchildren helped organise the event.

“Mary had a ball,” Christine Hamilton, current house manager at the Citz, recalled. “Still sprightly and full of energy, she revelled in three hours of laughter, chat and just a little speechifying. Mary was, as was fitting, terribly spoilt.”

The party was a reflection of the deep admiration many who had worked at the Citz felt for Sweeney. Gerard Murphy, who first trod the boards at the Citz 40 years ago, and returned last year to appear in Krapp’s Last Tape, was present.

David Hayman – well known for his barnstorming appearances in television’s Trial and Retribution – also first appeared at the theatre in the 1970s and returned last year to play the title role in King Lear.

Hayman could not be present at the party as he was filming in Australia but he sent a splendid DVD which was delightfully personal and a lovingly warm tribute to an old friend.

Sweeney retired from the Citz, aged 80, and her seat at the back of the stalls – M13 – was dedicated to her memory by the staff. “I was lucky enough to get my hands on it during the recent seat sale,” her grand-daughter Jenny Knotts told The Scotsman.

Sweeney, with much style, upheld the very best traditions of the Citz and did much to enhance the theatre’s friendly and adventurous reputation. Her enthusiasm for the famous Gorbals theatre was infectious, sincere and joyous.

She married Hugh Sweeney in 1949. She predeceased him and she is survived by her two daughters Geraldine and Philomena, her brother Michael and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.