How the Grand Canal Theatre became the jewel in the capital's crown

Grand affair: Various shows have helped bring a sense of Broadway to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre
Grand affair: Various shows have helped bring a sense of Broadway to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre

The iconic structure, with its illuminated outdoor poles and a natural ‘red carpet’ that sweeps in from the water basin, definitely has the ‘wow’ factor for theatre-goers. It was designed by Daniel Libeskind, the architect behind New York’s new World Trade Centre.

Stephen Faloon, the theatre’s gregarious, ebullient general manager, pops champagne at the birthday celebrations and reflects on his roller coaster five years that has seen the venue play host to legendary shows, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Phantom Of The Opera, Oliver!, Sister Act, Grease, War Horse, Wicked, The Lion King and Elf The Musical.

Five years on, bearded impresario Faloon can breathe easy in the knowledge that the theatre is now on a sound footing business-wise. It was a different story when the red carpet was first rolled out on March 18, 2010, during a period when Ireland was desperately trying to come to terms with the worst recession in living memory.
“It was very difficult to get shows initially because producers literally thought Ireland was closed for business,” Stephen recalls, grimacing at the memory.
“They thought that the restaurants were all empty, that everything was dead and nothing was happening at all. It took us a while to get a big show in.”
Then Stephen landed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and suddenly The Grand Canal Theatre, as it was then known, had lift-off.
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came to the theatre from July 25 to August 2014, 2010, and did 50,000 people over three-and-a-half weeks,” Stephen explains.
“That made producers sit up and take notice that there was business to be had in Ireland. Suddenly producers started ringing us, instead of me ringing them.
“It’s a small market with the producers because there’s not that many of them and they all talk to each other. Michael Rose was the producer behind Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and he literally became our ambassador with the West End and international producers.”
There is no doubt the theatre has played a major role in drawing people to Dublin’s Grand Canal Square. 
“When I did my interview for the job in early summer 2009 I didn’t even know where the theatre was myself,” Faloon admits.
“And when I was walking through the area at the time there was very little here in terms of businesses that were open. The Marker Hotel and all the office blocks around were dead. 
“There was really nothing here, and I think the restaurants were holding out until the theatre opened.
“So literally overnight it went from being a dead area to being completely full. Around the time we opened, HSBC moved in, as did Facebook down the road. 
“In our first year we took in half-a-million people, and they were people from all over the country, as well as Dubliners who had never been to the area.
“Now you get people coming down to the bars and restaurants and there’s a great atmosphere. On balmy summer evenings you could be in Copenhagen or Barcelona.”
One of the most popular bars and restaurants on the square is Café H, owned by Rita Crosbie, whose husband Harry played a leading role in turning the grim Dublin docklands into one of the most attractive parts of the capital.
Café H is where you’ll find theatre-goers, including celebrities like Pat Kenny and Kathryn Thomas, enjoying pre-show dinner and drinks before the short stroll to the door of the theatre that was once one of Harry’s cherished properties.
When Harry built the striking theatre it was valued at €80million, but amid the property crash it was taken over by Nama and sold by receivers for €28million to Crownway Entertainment, owned by John and Bernie Gallagher of Jurys Doyle hotel group fame.
Entertainment giant Live Nation, who worked with Crosbie running the theatre, are still involved. 
“Live Nation, who were instrumental in getting the theatre built, ran it on behalf of Harry and still have a management contract to run it,” Stephen Faloon reveals.
Over 250 productions have graced the stage since the theatre opened and Faloon is excited by the entertainment fare already in place for this year. 
The top shows include Hairspray, Jersey Boys, West Side Story, Love Me Tender, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Sleeping Beauty, The Bodyguard, plus the Christmas big gun Mary Poppins, which will run from December 3 to January 9, 2016.
Faloon says that Dublin is now the most popular destination for performers touring in the big shows. 
“Companies say that one of the lovely things about the theatre is that we have 35 dressing rooms and every one of them has a window and an en-suite shower, which you don’t get in the old theatres, so this is absolute five-star luxury for them,” he tells me.
“And then there’s the reaction they get from Irish audiences that they don’t experience anywhere else. I thought it was a cliché about Irish audiences being great, but when you go and see a show in the U.K. you can see the difference. 
“Irish audiences really engage with the performances, and are always so generous with their show of appreciation.