Geraldine Hughes on the final homecoming of Belfast Blues at the Lyric this summer
Jenny Lee chats to Belfast playwright and actress Geraldine Hughes, who is returning to her home town this summer with her one-woman show based on her childhood during the Troubles
HAVING just finished a year on Broadway, where she played the role of Professor Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Belfast actress Geraldine Hughes is coming to the Lyric Theatre this summer with her smash hit one-woman show.
In her words, Belfast Blues is "one wee girl's story about family, war, Jesus, Hollywood... Most of all it's a story of hope – it just happens to be my story."
First performed in 2003 and having enjoyed award-winning runs in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and London, the play is a tapestry of stories told from her own perspective as a girl coming of age in the Troubles-torn Belfast of the 1980s, as she recounts seeing men die on her doorstep and watching small children accidentally shot.
Her impetus to bring Belfast Blues back home "for one last time", came from a group of Northern Ireland young people who saw her perform it in New York last year, during a two-day run of the show, squeezed in between Harry Potter performances. Among them was her Broadway co-star Anthony Boyle, from Poleglass, who played Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
"I'm neighbours with actor Mandy Patinkin [Homeland, The Princess Bride] and he was doing a show at a theatre in New York and persuaded me to perform my show on the nights his wasn't running. I had two weeks' notice to relearn it again, but I'm so glad I did," explains Hughes, who lives in uptown Manhattan.
"There were a number of young people who came and were very moved, including Anthony, and they asked me to bring it back to Belfast for their mates to see. That made me realise there is a whole new generation here who hadn't seen it and for whom the Troubles is not tangible, rather just something in a history book or television screen."
Hughes's childhood still has a profound impact her and as she recalls a scene from the play, tears appear in her eyes and her throat tightens.
"There is one line in the play, where a wee boy says 'you better shoot me now, mister, because when I grow up I'm going to take my gun and shoot you with it'. That is followed by a line about revenge and how no-one is going to win in this scenario.
"When I think about that wee boy – that's now the wee boy in Syria or the wee boy in Palestine. This is about families and people who are just trying to live and have fun, when this stuff is happening.
"Nobody asks kids if they think we should go to war, when actually they will be the most affected by it. Kids have a voice and should have a voice and that is the main reason I wrote Belfast Blues," adds the 49-year-old, who is passionate about integrated education and paid a visit to Hazelwood Integrated College during her recent visit home to Belfast.
"As I get older and look back, I'm more affected about it than ever I was. You wonder how we woke up every day and dealt with that? But we just had to and amid that crazy world was a little girl swinging on lampposts and watching Starsky & Hutch.
"As well as being told from the perspective of a young child who still has innocence and hope, I wanted the story to be told with a great sense of humour because the craic is what gets us through it all."
The first scene of Belfast Blues features Hughes's heavily pregnant mother being asked to carry a bomb to an IRA safe house during an army raid. Playing 24 characters altogether, Hughes is proud that her 80-year-old mum will take pride of place in the audience.
The show is directed by fellow actress Carol Kane of Taxi and Scrooged fame. Hughes says her Emmy award-winning friend has “challenged her as an actress”.
“She’s a real mentor of mine when it comes to acting. We have a great language of communication with one another, with an honesty and truth that's quite frightening and she's encouraged me to strip the piece back for the Belfast performances. I don't have any set – just me and some beautiful textured projected images. So I'm forced to completely rely on the words and my physicality. There is a great freedom about that."
Hughes is delighted to return to the Lyric Theatre, where she first performed at the age of 13 in Annie. It was this love for acting that saw her swap Divis flats for Hollywood at age 18. Roles in ER, The Good Wife and The Blacklist followed as well as acting alongside Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa and Clint Eastwood in 2008’s Gran Torino.
After being cast in the Troubles film Children in Crossfire she attained a private scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles, where she earned a BA from the School of Theatre, Film and RV.
During that time she became a part-time nanny to Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman's children. It's a job which she credits with keeping her grounded in the world of celebrity culture.
"I'm not a star, I just happen to have done some interesting things, with some extraordinary people. Yes, it's amazing to feel loved and adored and have 15 people fixing your hair on set and going to award ceremonies at Hollywood's Mann's Chinese Theatre. But just as quick, you are home alone, with no assurance you have another job," she says.
"Being around famous people for a long time prepared me for that. Celebrity doesn't mean much to me. I find people with an interesting story to be more interesting than many famous people."
As well as writing two new pieces of theatre, one of which she would like to debut in Belfast, Hughes is preparing to "let go" of Belfast Blues and open it up to a wider audience.
"I would like it to be a film. I think I'm ready to share it. I've held on to it very tightly and haven't even published the play – it's ridiculous. So I am going to edit it properly and publish it."
And would she like a role in that film?
"I'll probably play my mummy – I'm old enough" she laughs. "Or maybe my granny by the time it gets made."
Brassneck Theatre Company present Belfast Blues at Belfast's Lyric Theatre from August 6-11, as part of Féile an Phobail. For tickets visit Lyrictheatre.co.uk