Marie Jones play Sinners a satire on religion, family and greed in the north

Church and country merge in a new play by Belfast playwright Marie Jones. Sinners tells the story of an isolated farming community comes under the spell of the charismatic yet mysterious preacher. Jenny Lee finds out more

Sinners tells the story of a northern farming community turned upside down by the arrival of a charismatic preacher

SHE spent her childhood attending various church meetings and organisations. She even married the son of a Church of Ireland minister. But Belfast playwright Marie Jones's interest in faith and religion is purely fictional.

Her new play Sinners opened in Belfast's Lyric theatre this week, promising audiences an "uproarious satire on religion, family and greed".

It tells the story of an isolated farming community in the north of Ireland who are turned upside down by the arrival of the mysterious, charismatic preacher, Pastor O’Hare. He’s offering redemption – but at what price?

While his unorthodox ministry and charming personality wins over hundreds of converts including a farmer who allows him to use his field for his rallies, not everyone is convinced. Not all the farmer's family share his views and his wife Tania (Séainín Brennan) leads the Simpson clan in a searing battle of wits and wills to reclaim her husband’s mind, body – and land.

Award-winning Jones, whose plays include Women On The Verge Of HRT and Fly Me To The Moon, first started penning Sinners 10 years ago. It started as an adaptation of Moliere's 1664 theatrical comedy Tartuffe but slowly evolved into a classic Marie Jones original work.

"At one point I rewrote it in rhyming couplets. Whilst I decided against that, it did help to make the piece succinct and punchy," she says.

Religion is of course a serious topic, nowhere more so than in Ireland, and Jones was careful to fully research the issues – from reading heavy theological debates and doctrine and watching American religious channels on cable television, to visiting various churches, including Pastor James McConnell's Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast.

"Whitewell was an experience. It was like the Hilton and when the music started, you could see why people enjoy it. I went for research – it has to be done."

Jones is adamant that the character of Pastor O'Hare is in no way based on Pastor McConnell, who last year successfully contested racism charges levelled at him over comments he made about Islam in one of his sermons.

"The pastor is an American evangelist who comes to hold a gospel tent mission, like the ones you still see here in the summer. If you go to any of the gospel channels, they have such charisma – they are performers," Jones says.

Playwright Marie Jones pictured with composer Rod McVey, who has written original music for the score of her new play Sinners

Canadian-born, Northern Ireland-based Michael Condron plays the role of Pastor O'Hare and having just completed an American tour of Graeme of Thrones, a theatrical adaptation of the hit TV series, Jones says the actor has "got the American patter and razzmatazz down to a tee".

Jones, who grew up in east Belfast, admits "church was my social life", when she was growing up. As a child she attended Brownies, Girl Guides and attended tent missions, like those depicted in Sinners.

The most memorable experience came when attending a crusade in Belfast led by American evangelical Christian evangelist Billy Graham.

"I was about 15 and remember seeing Billy Graham preaching to a packed audience from a massive screen in a cinema in Belfast," she says.

"He was on a big screen and he was preaching from the screen. People were walking up to the screen and getting saved to someone who wasn’t actually physically there. We thought he was a rockstar and the music was amazing. It was like religion party time, especially as we were used to going into church with slow hymns, and after the minister spoke his first sentence we were sleeping. We were amazed we could sway and clap and everything."

Music forms an important part in the Lyric production of Sinners, with award-winning composer Rod McVey having written an original score of gospel songs, as well as using modern technology to help create a choir, which grows in numbers as the evangelist's ministry increases in size.

"You start off with about five or six people singing to a wee Bontempi organ and as the evangelist's ministry grows bigger and bigger, you see the choir multiply in size," explains Jones.

Religion is a subject many people in Northern Ireland will be able to relate to and Jones' play is sure to cause a lot of debate.

"Hopefully and get a laugh as well," she says, adding: "It's not a mockery. It comes down to the one simple thing – the conversation of faith and the question of whether you need to believe to be a good person."

“If this farmer had no money, no-one would care what he believed in. But because he has a lot at stake, all his family can see is that their birthright, legacy, livelihood is being given away to God. Therefore averous greed comes into play as they try to expose the evangelist or discover if he is indeed genuine. How do you make that funny? Well, I do."

Marie Jones's fans won't be treated to a new Christmas show this year, as she will be spending Christmas and the New Year in New York, where a new production of her award-winning two-hander Stones in His Pockets will open in January 2018.

British director Lynsey Posner is currently casting for the new production, which will also be staged in Belfast's SSE Arena next year.

Sinners tells the story of a northern farming community turned upside down by the arrival of a charismatic preacher

However the playwright's ambitious plans to turn Stones into a movie, starring Ronan Keating and Conleth Hill, have been put on hold.

"It was taking too long to get the screen version together," she tells me. "There's more to life than the movies. I enjoyed doing Shooting for Socrates," she says of the 2015 film about Northern Ireland taking on Brazil in the 1985 World Cup, whose screenplay she co-wrote. "But my heart is in theatre and I don't have the time to devote to this. If somebody else wants to do it, that's up to them."

Completing the cast of 10 in Sinners are Charlie Bonner, who plays the farmer, Alan McKee, Adele Gribbon, Michael Johnston, Louise Mathews, Patrick McBrearty, Christina Nelson and Roma Tomelty.

:: Sinners is at Belfast's Lyric Theatre until June 3.

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