Marie Jones's play Fly Me To The Moon back where it started at Grand Opera House
At 67, Belfast award-winning and prolific playwright, Marie Jones, shows no signs of slowing down. Here, she tells Gail Bell why she is delighted her play Fly Me To The Moon, is coming back to the place where it started and why dark comedy will always be her calling card
MARIE Jones is holed up in the drizzle in Co Monaghan doing what she does best – writing a play – while her writing partner, Martin Lynch, is doing the same thing somewhere slightly more glamorous.
I have caught her during a break in the creative flow while staying at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, whereas Lynch has "taken himself off to somewhere in France" and already finished his share of the project.
"As usual, Martin has finished before me – he's all done and he's all biz," she jokes, "while I'm on Act 2 and stuck in the drizzle in Ireland."
It may be raining, but Annaghmakerrig is Jones's artistic home and she has been coming here with her ideas, her friends, her still favoured Marlboro Lights and occasional bottle of wine for 30 years.
"I'm in a beautiful room overlooking the lake; it's really a lovely environment to write," she enthuses down the line. "There are artists, writers and painters and everyone meets for dinner. It's a wee break away from what we are here to do."
The award-winning Belfast playwright has taken herself off to the artists' retreat to write a musical play based on the life of the Miami Showband, due to open at Belfast's Grand Opera House next summer, and, although ostensibly an inappropriate topic for a musical, it was requested by one of the survivors of the horrific 1975 massacre.
"Survivor Des Lee approached Martin and asked for their story to be told – from beginning to end," Marie explains. "Martin said he would do it with me, so we did a lot of reading and spoke to a lot of people. It is done sensitively, but they were five guys in a band, on the road together, so there is humour too."
Dark comedy is Marie Jones's calling card, of course, and she muses that one of her best dramas in that vein, Fly Me To The Moon – opening at the Grand Opera House in January – first came to life in "this very room".
Lauded as much for its sharp social commentary on greed, recession and underpaid workers as for its escalating farce, it opened in the Baby Grand studio in 2012 and Jones is delighted it is coming back to where it started – only, this time, on the main stage.
It tells the plausible/implausible story of two care workers, Loretta and Frances (Abigail McGibbon and Katie Tumelty) who look after an elderly Davy McGee who unexpectedly passes away during what should be an uneventful trip to the bathroom.
Faced with the opportunity to pocket the old man’s pension, the women talk themselves into doing something they never thought they would, all the time convincing themselves, each other – and the audience – that their moral dilemma has actually dissolved into more of a moral requirement...
It is one of the writer's favourite pieces of work and she can't help chuckling when recalling how it all took shape.
"Actress friends, Katie Tumelty and Tara Lynne O'Neill – who's in Derry Girls at the moment – came here, to this retreat, for a weekend with me and we were all bemoaning the fact that there were no good parts for women," she says. "It was like that when I started as an actress, so the wine bottles came out and we talked and we laughed and, during that conversation, we realised we all had a connection.
"My mother was in a care home, Lynne was helping look after her mother and Katie had some experience as well, through her grandparents. Because I was travelling every night of the week to see my mother, I got used to the whole set-up and we ended up laughing at some of the antics – and also some of the horrors. I thought, maybe we could do something with that....
"The thing that struck me, though, was the predicament carers were in for real – these people, especially in community care where you get about 20 minutes to do the basics, are just really caring for the body and not the soul.
"They don't have time to get to know the people they care for; they have to behave just like machines and it's awful. All Loretta and Frances knew about their charge was that he bet on horses and he loved Frank Sinatra. By the end of the play, though, they find out a little bit more."
To test the waters, Jones organised for an audience of real-life care workers to come to see the first dress rehearsal – and when the laughs were big, loud and genuine, she began to laugh herself.
"They were killing themselves laughing and when they heard the line about Davy not getting the good of his pension because he died on a Monday, they were roaring and nudging each other," Marie recalls. "I said, 'You've all done this! But, the fact was, they understood and had empathy with the women on stage, who had opened a door and couldn't get it closed again."
Since its debut six years ago, Fly Me To The Moon has literally flown all over the world, being performed in theatres in Canada, the United States and Scandinavia – Marie is not long back from directing it herself at the National Theatre in Reykjavik where it was performed in "unpronounceable" Icelandic.
Now 67 and a grandmother of two, her delicious sense of humour, dark and sweet as molasses and just as sticky, shows no signs of losing its bite, although her actor/director husband, Ian McElhinney, is still the yin to her yang.
"I don't know if I've become wiser as I've got older, but I think I am maybe a little madder," she suggests. "I do mad things, like fly over to Australia for a weekend to surprise our son. Ian is much more cautious and likes to think about things first, but I always say, if you think about it, you won't do it and then you'll regret it afterwards."
It is an approach which has served her well and is responsible for her becoming a playwright in the first place, thanks to Martin Lynch's "relatable" play, Dockers, at the Lyric in 1981.
"When I was at school, writers were all dead people – Shakespeare, Dickens – but in Dockers the theatre suddenly became real and personal," Marie says. "There were people on stage talking just like me. After that night, five of us, five actor friends, went to Martin and asked him to write a play for us, but he said, 'Absolutely not – if I can do it, you can do it – go write your own play."
She did and the result, Lay Up Your Ends, about the Belfast mill strike of 1911, led to a frenzy of others, including the now famous, Stones In My Pockets and Dear Arabella (recently staged at the Lyric) and A Night In November which she loves for its "pure storytelling" without trappings or a big production.
"I'm very lucky; I love what I'm doing," she says. "I'm having a great time – I'm not finding the cure for cancer or anything, but I am entertaining people and making them laugh. For me, that's what life is all about."
:: Fly Me To The Moon is on at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from January 21-26. See goh.co.uk for details and booking.