Maeve Binchy's final novel arrives in Belfast as a hit stage play
Minding Frankie was the late Maeve Binchy's final novel. Now, the bittersweet comedy is entertaining audiences around Ireland in the first ever stage adaptation of her work, directed by Peter Sheridan. Leading lady Clare Barrett tells Joanne Sweeney why this tragicomic story of single parenthood has universal appeal
MINDING Frankie was the final novel from the late and much-loved writer Maeve Binchy. This weekend fans can see the book adapted into a stage drama at the MAC in Belfast.
It's the story of hapless heavy drinker Noel, a grown man who stills lives at home with his mother at the age of 49, who’s suddenly presented with a baby he doesn't even remember conceiving.
The child’s mother, Stella, gets him to assume his parental responsibility before she dies from cancer.
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and what ensues after Stella’s death is a bittersweet account of how family and friends help Noel finally become responsible.
Helmed by acclaimed Dublin director Peter Sheridan, the play stars Steve Blount as Noel, and Clare Barrett as Stella and social worker Moira Tierney, who argues for custody of baby Frankie, whose arrival throws everyone’s life into chaos.
Blount and Barrett play 10 other roles between them in this bittersweet comedy, which has already garnered rave reviews.
Dubliner Barrett came late to acting, 12 years after qualifying initially as paediatric nurse. For her, Binchy’s trademark warmth, compassion and humour comes across every bit as much on the stage as it does in her books.
“The reaction from audiences to the play is really warm and we have been packing out theatres everywhere we go,” she says.
“I presume it’s not just about us doing the play, as Maeve had a huge following for her writing, and I know people are coming because of that. There are some who have read the book and people who haven’t, but either way they enjoy the evening, which is great.
"Even though the story is quite sad, it’s also quite funny too."
Having recently appeared in the all-female cast of The Unmanageable Sisters at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Barrett has also become well-known to theatre goers in Belfast via her role in The Train, Bill Whelan and Arthur Riordan's play celebrating the historic 1971 cross-border contraception ban protest, which was staged at the MAC early last year.
She was back in Belfast at the Grand Opera House last summer in Angela’s Ashes, another book-to-stage adaptation.
Maeve Binchy died in 2012 at the age of 72, having sold 40 million novels including Light a Penny Candle (1982), Echoes (1985), Circle of Friends (1990) and Tara Road (1998) throughout the world.
While minding Frankie is the first book from Binchy’s prodigious collection to be dramatised for the stage, 1995's Circle of Friends was made into a film starring Chris O'Donnell and Minnie Driver. Tara Road and the short story How About You? also became feature films and The Lilac Bus (1984) and Echoes were made into television films.
She published Minding Frankie – her only book to feature a male protagonist – in 2010, with her husband Gordon Snell fully supporting the play’s staging at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre last year before it moved on to Cork.
“We have gone back to Cork again this year before we play Belfast and then Manchester and there’s still audiences coming back, so we are delighted with that," enthuses Barrett.
“A lot of people still love the story and we get a lot of repeat business with people who have been there before and bring their friends along.
"There’s a very mixed audience coming along. It’s great that a play about a single father resonates with both men and women."
While Barratt had read a few of Binchy’s most well-known books, she was not familiar with her full catalogue.
“Maybe as a youngster years ago, you may have felt that Maeve’s books weren’t my cup of tea but now as an actor, her human observations are really quite something.
“She’s very perceptive and can hone in on the smallest thing that is instantly recognisable. Being able to create that many characters in a book and to get the reader to care about them is really something impressive.
“I also play a neighbour called Mrs Byrne, who’s in the book. She only appears for all of 40 seconds but she’s instantly recognisable as this little old lady on the street and people love her.
“That’s what is universal about Maeve’s writing, whether it’s people in Galway or in Manchester or anywhere in the world where her books were huge successes – people just recognise and identify with that person.”
:: Maeve Binchy’s Minding Frankie is at The MAC in Belfast tonight until Sunday. For tickets and performance times, contact the box office on 028 90235053 or visit Themaclive.com