- 30 Jul 07
Barbra Streisand's Castletown House concert was billed as “the experience of a lifetime” – a not inaccurate description of what was about to unfold...
Chantelle’s mother had been promising to bring her daughter to Barbra Streisand ever since she first saw the diva in concert 13 years ago. By happy coincidence, the singer’s Irish date fell around the time of her mum’s 50th birthday celebrations. So they decided to splurge.
Travelling from Cornwall in the south of England, the total cost of airport parking, return flights to Dublin, taxi transfers, hotel rooms and concert tickets brought the total outlay for the two-day excursion to £1500. A lot of money, but surely it would be worth it. After all, you couldn’t put a price on experiencing Streisand live…
At the other end of the UK, in Ayrshire, Scotland, Irene and her sister began their journey. They too were filled with great expectations, and thoroughly unaware they were about to embark on the most expensive mistake of their lives.
Closer to home, Mary set off for the concert from Dublin. Accompanying her were cousins who had travelled from England and South Africa for the event. Lifelong fans of Barbra, they had long anticipated an opportunity to see her sing and perform live. Also travelling from Dublin were Ailis and her three friends. They may have been somewhat younger than Barbra’s ‘key demographic,’ but they’d decided to go along for a bit of craic nonetheless…
Angelina left the office in Baggot Street in plenty of time, at 4pm. She picked up her dry cleaning, what she called her ‘old reliable’ dress, a John Rocha, and in the car park she rang her mother to ask if she was nearly ready. Margaret, for whom the event was a 60th birthday treat from her daughter, was worried about shoes. “There’s just a short walk over grass, Mammy,” said Angelina, “But still, best be practical in this weather, don’t you think? I’ll pick you up in an hour.” And, indeed, efficient as ever, she drove up the drive in Ballsbridge at 5:00 precisely, having popped home, checked the kids were alright, and changed.
She’d put on a pair of boots – not strictly summer wear, but Angelina was not going to be silly about the evening. She had her clear plastic raincoat with her. They were going to the country, after all, even if it was a stately home. Her mother, however, answered the door wearing her fur coat and court shoes. “Mammy, they’ll be ruined,” said Angelina. But Margaret wasn’t to be put off. She’d waited all her life to see her Funny Girl in real life, and this was a Very Special Occasion Indeed. She was not going to let herself down…
At the Town Bar and Grill in Kildare Street, Dublin, the manager was planning to keep the kitchen open for a little later than usual that night. He had a special booking lined up – 30 people after the Barbra Streisand show. It’d be worth keeping the chefs on for another half hour if that was what it took. The guys who’d made the booking would be savvy enough to leave before the encore to get out ahead of the crowd. And they’d likely be in high spirits: better make sure to have some champagne at the ready…
Gerhard and Hans were explaining to the young girls on the bus that they had seen Barbra four times in their lives, and this was going to be their fifth. They had travelled over from Munich especially. They smiled indulgently at each other, and the Celbridge girls shot a few glances at each other wondering if these two grey-haired old guys were gay. But they seemed harmless enough, and Gerhard regaled the girls with his stories, how she was far too young for Hello Dolly but got away with it, how Yentl was consistently underrated because people can’t stand a woman taking full charge of things, when men do it all the time, and of seeing her in New York last year. “But why would you want to see her again?” asked Katrina. “She’s simply a living legend,” answered Hans. And the two men nodded, in unison.
Despite the heavy rain, the night started smoothly for some. Irene and her sister boarded their coach in Dublin at 4:30 and were at the venue by 5:30. But on the way, they had passed traffic that was getting heavier and heavier the closer they got to Celbridge – the first sign that everything wasn’t going exactly to plan. Rain and road works had hit journey times badly.
As the minutes ticked by, and they began to turn into hours, many of those stuck in their cars, including Angelina and her mother, were beginning to realise that they mightn’t make the 8pm start time. At 6.30, Angelina thought she had escaped the city, but as the traffic crawled to a standstill at Lucan, the two women had run out of small talk. They sat in stony silence. Two hours later, and the car inched its way past the sign for “Historic Celbridge”. The silence had developed into something quite menacing, but neither of them knew how to break the spell of it. In another half an hour – it was now after 9pm – they had travelled through the town, over the tiny bridge, and were being directed to a field. As the car entered, it got stuck in the mud. By dint of reversing and advancing a few times, it was free in a couple of minutes, and Angelina went to the far end of the field, where there was the first space she could find in the chaos.
Joe was working in the car park. There, concert-goers – some of them clearly at the end of their tether – were jumping out of their cars and screaming at the attendants. They’d been stuck for two hours in traffic. Or maybe it was two and a half. The only consolation Joe could offer them was that they were the lucky ones – the average wait was three and a half hours. In the confusion, he saw a family of Romanians, who probably didn’t even know who Barbra Streisand was, being shepherded into the concert parking area. They were trying to get home to Leixlip but their requests for directions had been ignored or misunderstood...And then there were those who had abandoned their cars on their motorway, trudging through through the dark to the venue.
Back out on the road, not all of the coaches taking people to the show had been able to get through the gridlock. Chantelle and her mother were on one of them. Panic rising that they might miss the entire performance, they decided to leave the bus and walk the last mile. After all, the trip was costing them dearly – they had to see Barbra in action! When they arrived into the arena, it was every man or woman for themselves. People skidded up and down on polythene sheeting as they searched for their seats in the rain. Many quickly discovered that their numbered places simply didn’t exist. By 8:00, farcical attempts at renumbering the seats were being abandoned. People were told to sit anywhere in the block by stewards, who were becoming more and more bamboozled and frustrated.
There were those who knew how the numbering went, and those who didn’t, and if you asked the wrong person you’d be directed to join the queue behind the woman who possessed the secret code to unlock the mystery of the numbering. Some fans didn’t want to wait. With no-one to stop them, they had no compunction at all about occupying the more expensive seats…
Down at the front, one hotpress writer didn’t know where to look. To his left, people were arguing about who was entitled to sit in a particular seat. To his right, a woman in high heels was looking down aghast at the muck in which she was mired. It was like nothing he’d ever seen in his gig-going life. In more ways than one, this was the most well-heeled audience for an outdoor music event ever, but the event staff were getting dogs abuse from them. “The kids at Oxegen have far better manners,” one security man of his acquaintance had announced, “and they don’t use half as much bad language.”
When Streisand finally appeared on stage, he found himself gawping in disbelief. But his eyes were not deceiving him: the biggest, fuck-off autocue you’d ever seen in your entire life dominated the vista. It was enormous. And from where he was sitting, you could actually read it. “It’s great to be here in Ireland,” it said. Barbara dutifully read it. “It’s great to be here in Ireland,” she parroted.
Artists sometimes get a round of applause for stuff like this. But not tonight, Josephine. It was all too surreal. Was her eyesight so shot that she had to have everything written in letters the size of her head? Was she incapable of uttering even the most turgid banalities without the aid of a prompt sheet? That was the way it seemed. This was going to be a gig to remember alright… or rather one that’d be impossible ever to forget…
Ailis and her youthful buddies had been sitting in traffic on the N4 for what seemed like hours – because, well, that’s what it had been. It would be nearly 9:00 before they eventually got to Castletown House. This was after Barbra Streisand had finally walked out on stage, over 45 minutes behind schedule, to begin her set to a less than full arena. But even getting there almost on time was no guarantee you were going to enjoy the night.
Perversely, Ailis would reflect later, those who had spent the least and were seated farthest from the stage ended up getting the best view, with the least distractions. All through the first half and most of the second, late-comers and those without seats trooped through the crowd, making no attempt to pass quickly. They strolled around and stopped in front of other fans, who were also looking around for seats. They consulted conspicuously with one another whilst Barbra was singing and argued openly with those already sitting down. They didn’t seem to care that they might be – no, that they were – ruining the enjoyment of those already seated. The noise level from disgruntled fans was incredible, as was the disruption. This was not the ‘intimate’ venue described by the promoters – in effect, it had become more like a free-for-all. And the crowd were not a concert audience – they were a discombobulated rabble…
Angelina looked for Row JJ in Block A – but the signs were nonsensical. She couldn’t make head nor tail of them. A steward didn’t know where they were meant to go either, and he pointed the duo to a harassed-looking woman with a queue of people behind her. When, eventually, they were directed to the designated area, their seats did not exist. Margaret’s lips were pressed together so tight they had disappeared. They went back to the steward, and while they were waiting, people began shouting at them to get out of their way.
On stage, a group of tenors were warbling away, apparently part of the show. The steward gave them two tickets from a bundle of in her hand. They trudged over the slippery tarpaulin where she pointed and although they found the seats, the group of women already sitting there refused to move. Their seats too didn’t exist, they insisted, and they were damned if they were going to move from the ones they had requisitioned. Angelina argued with them for a few minutes but was shouted at by the crowds behind her, and then everyone began cheering because Barbra had come back on stage. It was close to 10pm, five hours after Angelina had picked her mother up. She was beginning to feel dizzy with exhaustion.
Margaret stirred into action and went over to the women sitting in their seats and bent down and said something that Angelina couldn’t hear. Hurriedly, the two at the end got up. Angelina sat quickly down beside her mother. “What did you say to them?” she whispered. “I said,” said the woman, magisterially, “that my daughter and I had the correct tickets, and if they didn’t surrender the seats immediately then they ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves for ruining my 60th birthday.”
As Barbra was high-kicking her way through ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, Angelina nudged her mother. “We have to go, Mammy, we’ll never get home otherwise.” Reluctantly, her mother abandoned her seat, and they joined the crowds who also had the same idea, and were leaving in droves. When they got to the car park, Angelina realised with horror that she had no way of finding her car in the dark: there was no tree or landmark that she could see in the distance. So late had they been, she had forgotten to pay attention. Now, panic mounting, she realised that she didn’t know which way to turn.
As they walked through the rows of cars, the mud got deeper and deeper, and they found themselves in a swamp in the middle. “Oh dear,” said Angelina’s mother. “I’ve lost my shoe.” Angelina looked down, and saw her mother’s tiny, muddy foot lifted up, like a puppy favouring a paw. The shoe had disappeared. Reaching down to feel around for it, Angelina lost her balance and fell, and with an added sense of horror felt her mother tip forward and fall flat on her face over her.
Angelina stopped struggling. She’d had enough. “Are you alright, Mammy?” she asked. “Yes dear,” came the reply. Then a snort. “Thank you for a lovely evening.” To Angelina’s amazement, she realised her mother was laughing, and the two women giggled together in the mud and the dark, as they heard the final cheers in the distance. Over there, James Brolin was leading his wife off the stage.
Geraldine’s journey to Castletown House had been similar to many others. A tale of misery and frustration that had taken almost four hours – from Malahide. But as Streisand reached the sweet climax of her final song, a field in Kildare seemed like the best place on earth to be. Barbra was brilliant and the music took you up, up and away to a different, wonderfully romantic kind of place.
Once the final notes had dwindled into the ether and the musicians had deserted the stage, she had to readjust. It dawned on her that she was still in a field. In Kildare. People had begun to mill to her left. They were milling on her right too. They didn’t seem to be sure exactly which way to go. Neither was she. No point in sitting like a dork in her seat, though. It was find-the-car time.
Easier said than done. Thousands of people were jammed together like sardines, all heading in the same direction at once. There were no signs, lights or staff giving guidance to the parking areas. Shoes were lost and people ended up walking barefoot in stinking muck.
The elderly, many of them with wheel chairs and walking sticks, were hanging on to their carers, their grips like grim death, for fear of getting trampled on by the crowds. Many people could be heard complaining about the state of the venue and how totally unsuitable it was for the event. But one group of girls seemed determined to drown their sorrows and began singing the songs they thought Barbra should have sung. Others joined them in belting out Streisand ballads to try and lighten the frightening atmosphere. If you didn’t feel like crying, you’d have to laugh.
How could this be happening? Who would believe that people had set off for Dublin excited and looking forward to hearing Barbra Streisand sing in an “intimate” venue, with all the formality that that promised, and ended up, head to toe in mud, abandoned in a rain drenched, and pitch-black quagmire?
When Gerhard and Hans had finished cheering, the loudspeakers announced that everyone had to leave by the entrance at the back. Slowly they fell into step in the hordes, and they left the lit arena, plunging into the darkness outside. A string of light bulbs, like fairy lights, lit their way through the field. But then people stopped. There was no movement. A group broke away from the stream of humanity, forced to do so by the pressure behind them, and headed for the woods to their left. Gerhard and Hans followed them. It was very dark, and they found themselves walking over a makeshift bridge over a ditch. Again, all movement stopped, and then Gerhard reached for Hans’ hand as he realised the bridge was sliding away underneath them. The two men found themselves jumping into a ditch along with about 10 others. They stood there bewildered, holding on to each other.
They clambered out carefully. Upright again, it took them an hour and a half to walk to the Celbridge gates of the estate, as they slowly inched past the fields where the cars were revving and roaring. They saw people wandering around lost, and covered in mud, and all over the vast darkness of the fields people were clicking their alarms on and off in an effort to find their cars, providing an odd soundtrack to the melée, a chorus of electronic chirrups and beeps and yellow flashing lights, far into the night. People began singing to cheer themselves up. By the time they got to Celbridge itself, they were surprised to find that there were indeed buses waiting for them. Well, not everything had gone wrong! With relief, they left the madness behind. “Perhaps that’s our last time, Gerhard,” said Hans. Hans wiped away a tear. He knew Gerhard was probably right.
In the middle of all the chaos, there was one reassuring thought going through Geraldine’s mind. Conscious that a normal evening meal was unlikely to be on the evening’s agenda, she had come prepared, making sandwiches and stashing them in the car. It was now 11:30pm. People were gripping their steering wheels like lifelines and revving furiously all around, but they didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It seemed the best thing to do was sit back and let other people lose their minds. Have a picnic.
So, when Geraldine and her partner finally located their car, that’s precisely what they did. All around them was a sea – of headlights, exhaust fumes and chaos. Ensconced in the car, they ate their sandwiches and had a flask of tea to warm up. The food tasted good, easing the hunger pangs that had built up during the show. And even though they took their time, there was still no real movement in the traffic when they finished eating. So they lay back and, exhausted, fell asleep…
In the kitchen of The Town Bar and Grill, they were in the process of preparing food of a somewhat higher calibre when the call came. The gig had been a shambles. The traffic was appalling. Nothing was moving. With the prospect of a Temple Garner shoulder of lamb or fillet of John Dory tickling the taste buds, the 30 revellers had left the field early at 10:15 – but progress had been slow. Very slow. They’d be late getting back to Dublin.
And so they were. It was 1.30am on Monday morning when they finally arrived in Kildare Street. They were spitting fire. They’d never seen anything so badly organised. The night had been a disaster from start to finish. Some of these guys were experienced music professionals. They’d seen things go wrong before. But they were as close to the summit of high dudgeon as it’s possible to get without going completely over the edge and strangling somebody. At least they could settle down to a cracking good meal and knock back a few bottles of wine to soothe the pain away. As they did, the laughter began to flow as fast as the imprecations. Ah well, life could be worse…
You could be still stuck in the field in Kildare, for example. Like Geraldine, Ailis and her friends had elected to wait for the bulk of the crowds to leave. It was 2 o’clock in the morning when they finally arrived home. It was shortly afterwards when Geraldine and her partner awoke. There were still cars struggling to find their way out of the car park. Geraldine worked the threat of a crick out of her neck. She stretched her weary limbs. The car started and they turned on the headlights. They had done their civic bit by waiting for two hours. The traffic seemed manageable now. It was after 2am.
Back in their hotel room, Chantelle and her mother sat on the edge of the bathtub, desperately scrubbing at their feet to get the muck off. It had been the experience of a lifetime alright, but in a way that turned out to be radically different to what the organizers had promised.