Packy Lee on bringing Gerry Adams to the stage in Agreement

David Roy speaks to Belfast-born actor Packy Lee about how the Peaky Blinders star met the challenge of playing Gerry Adams in Owen McCafferty's acclaimed new play Agreement, which centres on the fraught final negotiations to secure the historic peace deal in 1998...

"I THINK we're all a bit shocked, to be honest with you," admits Packy Lee of the overwhelmingly positive response to Agreement, Owen McCafferty's new play which takes audiences behind the scenes of the increasingly fraught final stages in the Good Friday Agreement 'peace deal' negotiations in early April 1998.

"The feedback that we're getting from it, it's a wee bit overwhelming at times, which is nice," continues New Barnsley-born Lee (41), who plays Gerry Adams in the show that's currently in the midst of its mostly sold-out run at the Lyric theatre.

"But the audiences have been brilliant - and it has been a different audience: it's apparently not just the 'normal' theatre goers who are coming. A younger audience has been attracted into it, which is brilliant."

What they've been witnessing on the stage of the Lyric is a surprisingly kinetic and engaging show directed by Charlotte Westenra, which turns the final days of stalemate-locked political bargaining between Sinn Féin leader Adams, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble (Patrick O'Kane), SDLP leader John Hume (Dan Gordon), British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Rufus Wright), his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam (Andrea Irvine) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (Ronan Leahy) into a powerful, often laugh-out-loud funny ensemble drama set against the ticking clock of a looming deadline in the 'last chance saloon' for securing peace.

"The wonderful thing about Owen is that his imagination and ear for dialogue is fantastic," enthuses Lee, whose stage career began with a youth production of Oliver! at the Lyric and for whom Agreement marks a long-overdue return to the stage following a decade-long run of TV success playing Johnny Dogs in the BBC hit, Peaky Blinders (a film spin-off is also in the works).

Former US Senator George Mitchell received a standing ovation while attending a performance of The Agreement at Belfast's Lyric Theatre on Sunday 16/4/23. Picture: Vincent Kearney/RTÉ
Former US Senator George Mitchell received a standing ovation while attending a performance of The Agreement at Belfast's Lyric Theatre on Sunday 16/4/23. Picture: Vincent Kearney/RTÉ

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"He's probably the only reason I said yes to this show, to be honest, because I love doing his work. And I love the new stuff that he does. It's always a challenge, but one that's always worthwhile to do - if we get it right.

"All we can do as actors is tell the story to the best of our ability, and hopefully that's what we're doing." 

Indeed, Lee is a veteran of the award-winning Belfast playwright's work, having previously played roles in Mojo Mickybo, Shoot The Crow and Scenes From The Big Picture. McCafferty is famed and respected for his ability to write authentic local dialogue and, according to Lee, he also leaves players plenty of elbow room to make their characters' words their own.

"Owen leaves it up to our imaginations," Lee explains. "He doesn't put in full-stops or question marks or exclamation marks: he basically writes in a way that lets the actor decide what way they should say each line. 

"He's just outstanding at writing conversation that's very easy on the ear, no matter what the subject is."

One major source of hesitation for the cast of Agreement must have been the challenge of portraying such well-known figures in front of a local audience that was sure to be all-too familiar with each of the real life deal-makers.

"This was the first time I'd been asked to play not just a real character, but a well-known politically-faced character," reveals Lee of taking on Gerry Adams,  "so I suppose there was a bit of pressure there - a lot of pressure, actually.

"I was very aware of [people saying] 'he's the guy from Peaky Blinders and he's going to try and play Gerry Adams? Will he pull it off?', you know?

"Of course, I went and looked at hundreds of hours of footage and listened to podcasts to try and get the rhythm of Gerry, and the mellowness of Gerry. But at the end of the day, what I really had to do was just read Owen's script and allow that to create the Gerry Adams that I'm playing.

Packy Lee in Peaky Blinders
Packy Lee in Peaky Blinders

"If I was to play him again in another show down the line, I'm 80 or 90 per cent sure it would be a completely different Gerry Adams."

He continues: "People didn't understand what Owen had written and people didn't understand what I was trying to do until they came and watched it."

Happily, the positive audience reaction and feedback which has been flooding in since opening night has reassured the cast that their performances and the story at hand are connecting as intended. 

Lee tells me: "There's been a lot of people in from both sides of the community and they're all coming up afterwards and saying how much they've enjoyed it. How much they've laughed at things they didn't think they would ever laugh at, and how nice it is to realise that David Trimble and Gerry Adams were human.

"We're not doing Spitting Image, and we're not on stage to have a shouting match. What we're here to do is play these characters for who they are, to show that they have compassion, aspirations, and that they're fighting for what they believe on behalf of the parties, people and communities that they represent.

"Most importantly, [every character] is just trying to get the job done and move forward. And it takes a lot to do that, you know? The older you get, and the more you understand politics, the more you can understand how hard it really was for them.

"It's like, 'how amazing was that - that it actually happened?'."

While the reaction to Agreement from punters and the press may well have helped ease Lee's anxiety about portraying a well-known figure like Gerry Adams, I couldn't help but wonder if he's had any feedback yet from the man himself.

"I've had feedback sent to me - and he seems to be happy," the actor reveals, with a chuckle.

"Listen, at the end of the day, I'm only telling a story - I'm not accusing anyone of anything."

Starring in Agreement has naturally led the Belfast actor to reflect upon where he was in his own life when the historic peace deal was struck.

"I was just turning 18, so it was the perfect time for it to happen for me," recalls the father-of-three, who can also currently be seen in the BBC's new Belfast-set police series Blue Lights.

"My adult life was just kicking off and it gave people like myself the opportunity to explore the north of Ireland without worrying about saying your name was Patrick, or William, and then getting a hiding.

"As a young lad it was very hard for me, because I wanted to be an actor. And it was very hard for me to get involved in the arts without cross-community [organisations].

"Without other people's religions, and other people's dreams, I wouldn't have had my own. So peace was very important to me - it still is to this day.

"One of the most important things that I can stand for is that I'm not a politician, and at times I don't know what I'm talking about. But it's straightforward - I don't want anyone to die. I want peace."

Such reflection has also fuelled Lee's frustration with the ongoing political stalemate which is unfortunately set to mar the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

"I don't care who argues over a table," he explains.

"Continue arguing if you want, but at least get something done. Let's help schools, let's help education, let's fix the problems that we need fixed in day-to-day life together, as a country, rather than having to constantly fight over them."

There can't be many people reading that who would disagree.

:: Agreement runs until April 22 at the Lyric theatre in Belfast. Tickets and showtimes via lyrictheatre.co.uk