A new start after 60: I retired and became an actor
Fiona Allen fell in love with drama as a little girl. Half a century later, she seized the chance to live her dream
When Fiona Allen was seven, her parents took her to the theatre in Inverness, where they lived, to see a production of AA Milne’s story The House at Pooh Corner. Instantly, Allen fell in love. “The moment I saw Christopher Robin come into the white spotlight, I was starstruck,” she says. But although she took part in school and college plays, she never thought it could lead to a career. Instead, she studied business at university and joined the civil service, working for the Land Register of Scotland until she retired in 2012. Her newly free time reignited a decades-old spark. “I still wanted to do something with my brain so I went back to university to study theatre and performance,” says Allen, who’s now 72.
That year, she took part in a folk drama workshop and discovered mumming, an ancient masked form, in which male actors travel through villages, performing simple plays, often in exchange for food or shelter. “It’s a simpler story than conventional plays. It has one central conflict and sword fight, rather than slow character development. It’s steeped in history and involves more improvisation because the play is always tailored to a local audience,” says Allen.
The practice dates back centuries in Europe but the earliest records suggest mumming – the word is thought to derive from the Greek god Momus, personification of mockery and satire – which is traditionally performed in winter, gained popularity in the 1800s. “These plays were often performed in Scotland at Christmas time or Hogmanay. Some wealthy aristocratic families might have had their own group of performers for on-demand entertainment,” Allen says.
Galoshins, the Scottish folk play she learned, has a hero, a villain and her favourite character, the doctor who brings the hero back to life. Allen loved the experience and wanted to get more involved; she even made it the subject of her dissertation. “I really enjoyed the informality,” she says. “I also love the feeling of knowing that countless Scottish people have performed the play before – it’s like I’m connected to different generations.”
In 2013, Allen advertised in a cafe for other women who might share her passion. “I set up the mumming group for women only, partly because more women want to get involved in amateur drama – and partly because I thought it would be fun to feminise something traditionally performed by men.” She was excited to have fun with sword fighting, the wild costumes were fun and it was exciting to introduce an audience of women to something so different.
Interest grew and Allen set up her group – the Meadows Mummers – as a charity, to attract wider support and donations. Its first performance was in 2015, at the Meadows festival, a community event held every summer in Edinburgh. Things snowballed from there. As well as touring central Scotland, the group went to the International Mumming Symposium and Unconvention in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in January 2016, and learned more about the history of folk drama. And in 2019, Allen went to Tuscany to perform in Barga, where many of Scotland’s sizeable Italian community originated. “It’s said to be the most Scottish town in Italy as so many people have ancestry here,” she says.
The mummers rotate because they have jobs and other commitments, so Allen has made many friends through the group. “We always have an icebreaker session for anyone new. For performances, I send out scripts a few weeks before, to help people learn their lines, then we rehearse all afternoon on the day of the performance, running through the play several times.” They usually perform Galoshins, but recently tried out a pastiche version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
More recently, life circumstances have made performing difficult. “My husband got cancer, then Covid hit,” says Allen. “I’ve had health problems, too, including a hip replacement and gallbladder removal.”
She says that, at times, she has considered giving up, but gets too much joy from doing it to stop. “We’ve just done one performance this year but I’m really excited that we’re getting ready for more festivals next year.”
The drive to keep going is inspired by an experience more than 30 years ago. “I was in a national park in Yugoslavia when I saw a woman staring intently at this emerald green river,” she says. “She told me she was going blind and wanted the river to be the last beautiful thing she ever saw.” Whenever doubt creeps in, Allen recalls that encounter and feels compelled to continue grasping life with both hands. “If you choose to do something off the wall, like me, people may say: ‘What are you doing?’ But deep down they are thinking: ‘I wish I had the nerve to do that.’ Just because you’ve reached 60, it doesn’t mean the drawbridge has been pulled up.”
Tell us: has your life taken a new direction after the age of 60?