Life

Joy and sadness for Caroline Curran as Christmas show launches without her late best friend Julie Maxwell

Three months after the sudden death of her co-writer, fellow actor and best friend, Julie Maxwell, Belfast comedy actress and writer Caroline Curran is struggling to cope. Ahead of the duo's Christmas show, she tells Gail Bell why the curtain will never fall on Julie's talent

Caroline Curran pictured during rehearsals for My Big Fat Belfast Christmas. Picture by Hugh Russell
Gail Bell

BELFAST comedy-actress Caroline Curran is throwing herself into rehearsals for upcoming Christmas show My Big Fat Belfast Christmas with her usual zeal – but this year there is a sadness behind the smiles and hilarious one-liners.

The popular actor/writer, best-known as Maggie Muff in playwright Leesa Harker's Fifty Shades parody series, has taken a break to chat about the production, but is now pondering how she will get through the festive season in real life.

Her partner Chris Williamson and their two year-old daughter, Molly, will be her rock, and family and friends a source of ever-generous support, but Caroline (35) is still grieving deeply for her best friend and professional 'other half' Julie Maxwell, co-writer of My Big Fat Belfast Christmas, whose sudden death stunned the closely-knit theatre community of Northern Ireland in August.

Read More: Tributes paid to Soft Border Patrol actress Julie Maxwell

However, in theatre's great tradition, the actor/writer is determined that the show must go on – mainly as a tribute to her late friend, who had completed the script just a matter of days before her untimely death at the age of 36.

Apart from resuming work recently with BBC's Soft Border Patrol without her deceased co-star, the new Christmas show will be one of Caroline's first solo dramatic outings. It has brought with it an understandable rush of emotions: one minute she is reminiscing over belly-ache laughs from a show long ago, the next she is overtaken with the gripping pain of the 'here and now' and the knowledge she will never again write or act alongside her "soulmate".

"This year's Christmas show was actually the first one we wrote together, in 2015, for the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey," Caroline recalls, "but we wanted to go back and update it.

"I think our writing skills had improved over the past few years, so we thought we would polish it up a bit and give the show a make-over for 2019.

"It's still the same at heart, though, about family and friends, which were so important to Julie, and about the dinner table at Christmas – and how a secret will always find its way out, especially when too much festive spirit has been consumed.

"Julie always wanted to update this one because we were so inexperienced when we first wrote it. We missed tricks and she wanted to make it bigger and better."

Julie Maxwell and Caroline Curran pictured on stage in the original 2015 My Big Fat Belfast Christmas

The talented Wales-trained actress died suddenly on a night out in Belfast and Caroline says her husband, Rhodri Lewis – whom she met at drama school and married two years ago – and the wider family still don't know why.

"The cause of death is still under investigation," Caroline tells me.

"We asked all types of questions. Julie hadn't been unwell or anything. She was literally having a lovely conversation with her husband and they were saying really nice things to each other – and then she just stopped talking.

"It was actually on my birthday and when my phone rang later, I thought, 'Oh, that will be Julie, ringing to sing Happy Birthday to me as we hadn't been able to meet up during the day.

"It all felt so unreal. I understand now what shock is and I know what a broken heart feels like because I had real pain in my chest and I couldn't feel my hands and feet which went inexplicably numb.

"My Big Fat Belfast Christmas is actually a play about family and grief and how people deal with things in their own way. The message now seems particularly poignant because some of the words we penned together refer to the importance of making memories and living for the 'now'."

Although credited as co-writer, the mum of one – who worked initially in stage management after obtaining a degree in drama and undertaking further training in performing arts – loves acting with a passion. Thus, Caroline couldn't wait to get back into character as 'Mags', girl-about-town and would-be Instagram millionaire.

The cast also features Abi McGibbon, Jimmy Doran and Matthew Sharpe, with Bernadette Brown stepping into the shoes of 'Wee Mary' – the part originally played by Julie in the play's 2015 debut.

"This year, Julie had said that she didn't want to act in the show, as she had been getting more into directing and had done several projects throughout the year.

"She wanted some time off at Christmas – ironically to spend with Rhodri and her family. It is some comfort to me, knowing her voice is so clearly in the re-written script and that we had re-cast it together, but I still feel like I'm working with one brain instead of two.

"We would finish each other's sentences and our humour was the same. We seemed to agree instinctively about what would work and what wouldn't, although I was definitely the 'mad hatter' one, while Julie was a romantic at heart and loved a good love story.

"She would write this really poignant scene and then I'd charge in with an unscripted line that would mess up the whole thing. She would think it was funny and keep it in – and that's kind of how our partnership worked.

"Our styles complemented each other, I think, and we drew inspiration from real life. Two years ago, when we were writing The Night Shift Before Christmas, there was a labour scene which was all of mine – including eating a ham sandwich, dropping it, lifting it off the floor and eating it again."

The late Julie Maxwell who died suddenly at the age of 36

This winning mix of lunacy and pathos marked out the pair ever since they met and "immediately clicked" 15 years ago while reading for parts in a production of The Wizard of Oz at the old Lyric Theatre.

It was the start of an enduring friendship which included many pairings on stage and screen as well as time spent together socially on holidays and important family occasions, including Julie's wedding, when Caroline took on the "role of her life" as bridesmaid while nine months pregnant.

"There were definitely funny elements in that, especially me walking up the aisle with huge, swollen feet," the actress says, laughing softly at the memory.

"But, as well as the many laughs we shared, Julie was a sincere and caring friend. She was real 'fixer' – whatever the situation, she had the ability to go in and just fix it.

"Before Molly was born, I struggled with anxiety throughout my pregnancy and Julie would try to get me to talk about my fears, which were totally irrational. She would organise wee pamper nights in and do anything to get me to talk more. She was very tuned in to how people were feeling.

"More than anything, though, she could see the funny side of life and whatever script we were working on, she always wanted a big happy ending. She knew, no matter what hard times people go through – especially at Christmas – so long as you have the love of your family and friends, even when you have no money, you feel like a millionaire.

"She would want us to remember that and keep laughing."

:: My Big Fat Belfast Christmas runs at the Theatre at the Mill from December 3 until 31. Bookings via Theatreatthemill.com

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