West Belfast grandmother sees I'll Tell Me Ma turn professional at The Mac
West Belfast playwright Patricia Gormley tells Gail Bell how writing her one-woman play helped her deal with family tragedy
HUMOUR is often the best therapy when it comes to coping with the vicissitudes of life – but then, that's not something you need to tell a west Belfast woman.
Direct, derisory and deadpan, Belfast drollery may be right in yer face but is always wrapped in warmth and suffused with honesty, according to playwright and west Belfast grandmother Patricia Gormley.
After living with tragedy and depression in her own life, the Andersonstown woman is now retelling her story – with a little dramatic license – on the stage of The Mac in original tragicomedy I'll Tell Me Ma, which opens in the new year.
And, for the first time, instead of playing herself, Patricia will be sitting in the audience watching as someone else takes on the one-woman role (playing four different characters) which she has lovingly perfected over five years of touring small community venues and clubs.
"It will be the first real professional debut for I'll Tell Me Ma," she says, "and I am so excited. I first started touring with it after I got a grant for a laptop and sound system, so it will be amazing to see what it looks like when produced professionally by Joe Rea Productions.
"I used to do the lighting and sound myself, loading up two cars every time we set off and packing the ironing board which was the only prop. It sits on the stage with a pile of books on top and is a throwback to when my children were small. I couldn't afford a writing desk so they did their homework on the ironing board instead."
She is also delighted that the "fabulously funny" Christina Nelson is in the starring role, the pair having first met when Christina (of Pride and Prejudice, the Musical and Handbag Positive) was working with Big Telly Theatre's Spring Chickens project, an initiative aimed at increasing creative self-expression among older people.
"The Spring Chickens project came to Tearmann Fold sheltered housing in Andersonstown when I was working there as scheme co-ordinator," Patricia recalls.
"It was a brilliant project and the tenants really loved performing. It prompted me to put on little plays for them – I didn't want them to be playing bingo all day, so we did creative writing instead.
"They were my first audience and they pulled no punches when it came to giving a critical appraisal of the script. It was great though, because if older people don't find anything funny, they won't laugh, so you know where you stand from the outset."
Tapping into the ability to laugh at the ridiculousness of life is something with which audiences of all ages have readily identified, along with universal themes of loss, grief, old age and coping with the shifting circle of life.
"Writing the play was my own therapy after my sister Sharon died at just 18 years old," Patricia confides. "It was my way of coping, just as the play looks at coping mechanisms for what life throws at the four different characters.
"It is about the ups and downs of one west Belfast family, but the themes of love and loss are universal, tied together with irreverent Belfast humour.
"The play also deals with the heartbreaking effects of a young girl’s death and that part was always so tough for me. The tears I shed on stage were real."
It is the poignancy of a music box, given as a Mothers' Day gift (and which plays well-known children's tune, I'll Tell Me Ma) which Patricia says transports the play "from stand-up to something deeper".
"Although a comedy, everything hinges on this funeral scene," she says. "Generally, though, the play is very fast-paced and lightened with funny moments – including a lot of swearing by the great-granny who is allowed to swear, just because she's 80."
But then age is really just a number to Patricia Gormley, who, after raising four children, went back to school at the age of 40 to study English Literature and Politics at Queen's University, Belfast, and later take creative writing classes.
"I had done a bit of drama with community theatre years ago, but when I started studying at Queen's I decided to tread the boards with Queen's Drama Society," she says. "It is something that has always been in me, I suppose, and maybe runs in the family – my brother Jo Brennan and his son, Gerard, wrote a play, The Sweety Bottle, which was staged at Belfast's Grand Opera House three years ago."
Her hope is that her own play will be staged there at some point in the future as plans are afoot to take the new-look professional production on tour to 18 venues across the north.
"I'll Tell Me Ma has been my baby all these years, but the time has come to hand it over," she adds. "I'm in my 60s now and it is too exhausting. I'll be glad to put my feet up and laugh through the tears in a comfortable seat."
:: I’ll Tell Me Ma opens at The Mac on January 18 and runs until February 4. Visit themaclive.com