The relentless march of time is one big laugh for theatre director, Andrea Montgomery

Drawing cartoons as a child came easy to dyslexic theatre director and scriptwriter, Andrea Montgomery, as she struggled with reading and writing. Here, she tells Gail Bell why she returned to capturing life's funny moments in new (intentionally misspelt) book, Pen & Predjudice

Theatre director and writer Andrea Montgomery in her home in Belfast Picture: Hugh Russell
Gail Bell

ANDREA Montgomery once said her singer-songwriter husband (Anthony Toner) would do anything to make her laugh and now some of his attempts have made it into her first book – of cartoons.

'Life with Anthony' is one of seven sub-categories in the debut book, Pen & Predjudice from the Belfast theatre director and scriptwriter and, she assures me, the unflappable Mr Toner is not in the least bit alarmed.

Not so for the rookie cartoonist herself, though, who was feeling "quite nervous" ahead of the book's launch at the Eastside Arts Festival in Belfast last Sunday.

The misspelt 'prejudice' on the book's cover is intentional, by the way, as Andrea has dyslexia and learned to draw before she was able to read and write at school.

"I was diagnosed at about 10 years old, after quite a lot of 'you're very smart, why won't you try harder' feedback from teachers," she says. "So, when I realised I had typed 'Predjudice', instead of 'Prejudice' for the book's title, I decided to leave it and change the cover drawing instead – to one I call the 'existential scream'.

"It is a cartoon I drew it a few years ago because it shows exactly how dyslexia feels – but, maybe, also how we often feel about life generally. And it was bizarrely exciting to have an incorrect spelling for a book cover; a bit like breaking the rules and getting away with it."

The cartoon book is a new departure for the Canadian-born graduate of York University, Toronto, and theatre stalwart who has directed more than 60 plays and has had 12 of her scripts produced on stage and radio.

"Anthony put a little moleskin book with blank pages in my Christmas stocking some years ago to capture funny or creative moments in day-to-day life and that is how I got started drawing again," she says. "I draw small – sometimes tiny – black and white figures, using a minimum of pen strokes and they are very simple.

"I try to convey how the figures feel with a minimum of lines, so I pay special attention to things like eyes and eyebrows, mouths and the set of their shoulders. It's just about observing life, really, and the human condition, and my work in the theatre certainly gives me lots of inspiration."

Her book – its name a nod to Jane Austen, an author famed for her satire and wit – contains around 45 drawings with captions and, as well as home-life with her musician husband, other themes include Life's Little Doubts, Holidays and Other Occasions, Love and Different Feelings, The Relentless March of Time and Life of an Artist.

Andrea Montgomery's new book of cartoons is called Pen & Predjudice

The penultimate category is a current favourite, with the woes of middle-aged women a recurring theme: she also tackled the subject for her latest work for the stage: Cookie and Sue, "a new play about sexual misbehaviour in older women".

Now aged 52 and falling in the 'older women' division herself, Andrea regards it as a "fascinating topic", whether misbehaving is on the agenda or not.

"I actually love being in my early 50s as there's a kind of liberation, a 'not giving a hoot' that I really enjoy," she says. "I flirt, mostly with my husband, but not always. I talk to strangers; I bomb around on my bike.

"I find writing, decision-making and being a boss a lot easier than I did when I was younger and I love the fact that I don't have to dye my hair any more – I have a big silver mop. But, I think one of the worst things about getting older is probably the disappearance of your waist.

"When did that happen and what was I doing at the time? It was one of those observations I made and then drew it in my little book, transferring the scene to a woman in a dress shop who can't find her waist. It didn't make the cut for the book, but there are plenty of others relating to the Relentless March of Time."

A child of Canadian diplomats, Andrea – a fluent French speaker – enjoyed a nomadic upbringing as her parents were posted to India, Thailand, Switzerland, Indonesia and London during the course of their careers.

It instilled a desire to constantly be on the move and, after four years based at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, she was thinking about her next stop on the map when she chanced to meet Anthony, a former newspaper editor and assistant manager at Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart.

"We met up rather late, while in our early 40s," Andrea recalls, "but the life of a middle-aged working musician definitely provided fresh fodder for my cartoons which first began with drawings of trains or trees when I was very young and feeling bored.

"My mother would tell me to go and draw something, so I would sketch whatever was in front of me and I really enjoyed it. I still draw what I see, although today it is for relaxation purposes – I don't have time to get bored."

Life is certainly busy – as well as writing, drawing and working as a freelance director (she will again be directing the new Leesa Harker play, The Real Housewives of Norn Iron, due for its Grand Opera House debut next June), Andrea is producing a "giant, inter-cultural version" of A Midsummer Night's Dream for Ards and North Down Borough Council in her role as artistic director of Terra Nova Productions.

But with the first draft of Cookie and Sue – "funny, dark, with a little bit of menace" – now complete, she is heading "down to the woods" for some well-earned downtime.

"The family are meeting up in Quebec in Canada and we are head to a little cabin in the woods," she enthuses. "It's great fun; there are bears, mosquitoes... I will definitely have my book and pen to hand."

:: Pen & Predjudice is available to buy at the EastSide Visitor Centre, CS Lewis Square, Belfast, at and on Amazon UK from October 1.

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