Slapstick rom-com Ardnaglass on the Air opens at the Lyric
As Ardnaglass on the Air takes to the stage - and not the airwaves - its creator, Jimmy Kerr, tells Gail Bell about his most 'fortunate' mistake yet
IT IS a source of some amusement to playwright Jimmy Kerr that his play about a radio show was originally meant to be a play for radio – until something got lost in translation. And so, Ardnaglass on the Air was created as a "mistake", albeit a "fortunate one" which takes to the stage – and definitely not the airwaves – in Northern Ireland this month.
It makes its debut at the Lyric in Belfast on Valentine's night, the first of a 10-date tour across the north, ending up in Kerr's home town of Moneyglass on March 5, in the very rural hinterland from where it first evolved.
A graduate in computer science – he also holds a masters degree in creative writing – Kerr ditched a lucrative job in computers in Edinburgh to follow his dream of acting in New York and is clearly "delighted" to have been given the chance to rework Ardnaglass for local audiences.
The play – a sort of rom-com farce – had its first professional outing in New York in 2010 as part of the first Irish Festival Off-Broadway and went down a treat, according to the playwright and actor who describes the tale as "Ballykissangel meets Father Ted".
Set in a community radio station, it revolves around banter and on-air gossip, played out under the shadow of unrequited love and hope for real fame and fortune when a BBC executive pays a visit.
"It's slapstick comedy focusing on rural community radio broadcasts set in the fictional Ardnaglass," Kerr explains. "It includes the themes of love, loneliness and the peculiarities of rural country life, along with the slight smell of manure.
"I had great fun reworking the original play ahead of c21 Theatre Company's production of it. I loved revisiting the characters of Hugh Francis O'Connell and Margaret Mary Rose but I had to write out the third character – a BBC intern from Brazil, for artistic and financial reasons.
"The original play came about when I was asked to write a radio-play for Hamm and Clov Stage Company in New York. I didn't know what a radio play was as I'd never heard one before, so I wrote a play about a radio show instead.
"Luckily, it was well received – the New York audience loved the farcical style and the honesty of the characters – and we have gone on to perform it in various theatres and countries over the past 10 years."
The fact it came about at all is due to a random change of itinerary for its writer who left a "good job" with a global technology company in Edinburgh in 2000 with the intention of travelling to Australia to work in one of its antipodean branches.
"When I got to New York, I decided I really wanted to take a proper acting class, so that's where it all started," Kerr says. "I got accepted on a two-year programme with the William Esper Studio and it was an amazing experience.
"I met Theodore Mann, who is the godfather of the whole Off-Broadway movement, and that led to my first steps on to a Broadway stage. I was just so pleased to be there, I didn't care if he wanted me to deliver the same line 30 times. I didn't give a sh*t – the man had taught Al Pacino."
Kerr last appeared on stage Off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre in a performance of In Shorts ("spinning yarns from childhood") with west-Belfast-born Hollywood actress Geraldine Hughes. He has also written other plays – House Strictly Private and The Chippy – both of which featured in the first Irish Theatre Festival in New York.
Today, he prefers the "buzz" from writing rather than treading the boards – "acting is a muscle you have to continually flex for it to work properly" – but he still keeps "grounded" with his day job at a Belfast law firm.
"I'm good at compartmentalising my life," he says, "and I'm more creative and productive when, in theory, I'm too busy to write. I find, if I have lots of free time, I can't think of anything to say. With writing, I can act out all the characters in my head anyway, so it's the best of both worlds."
For Ardnaglass on the Air he transported himself back to his rural roots, reinventing some of the characters he met when growing up in Moneyglass and spending time with his grandparents.
"Ardnaglass is actually a townland in Co Antrim but it could be anywhere," he adds. "That is one of the reasons the play worked so well in New York; it just encapsulates that rural feel. I love listening to people, to storytellers who all have great yarns to tell and their own, unique observations on life."
The fact the two actors, Marty Maguire (aka Ardnaglass radio presenter Hugh Francis O' Connell) and Jo Donnelly (co-presenter Margaret Mary Rose) are a real-life couple, adds to the dynamic of the play – as does a mysterious suggestion for members of the audience to consider wearing Wellington boots.
The writer is giving nothing away but you have been warned...
Ardnaglass on the Air, produced by Tom Finlay and directed by c21 co-founder Stephen Kelly, opens at the Lyric on Tuesday February 14.