PAT MCCABE’S rollercoaster new play, The Bridge Below The Town, set in 1950s small-town Ireland, is coming to the Town Hall Theatre and promises audiences a swirling drama of life, love, Butlins, and nuns who make márla men, set to a classic soundtrack.
Staged by Livin’ Dred Theatre Company, in association with NASC Theatre Network, the play centres on housewife Golly Murray who, despite being almost broken by life’s struggles, ultimately discovers the gratifying truth that love can triumph over adversity.
The play re-unites McCabe with director Padraic McIntyre following their hugely successful partnership on The Dead School which was one of the theatrical highlights of 2010 having been nominated for three Irish Times Theatre Awards touring to full houses nationwide before playing at Dublin Theatre Festival and London’s Tricycle Theatre, London.
The Bridge Below The Town emerged out of McCabe’s last novel The Stray Sod Country, with Golly being one of that book’s teeming cast of characters. Padraic McIntyre takes up the story about its transition from page to stage.
“Pat wrote the novel around the time we were working together on our staging of The Dead School, and he gave me a copy of it,” he tells me. “ It blew me away, I thought it was one of his best books since The Butcher Boy and it was the starting point of this play.
“The novel is peopled by a lot of small-town characters from the 1950s and I got back to Pat and said I’d be interested in looking at it for the stage. He wrote a first draft and when he sent it to me for some reason it just struck me that this was a woman’s play. Because of the story’s cast size, you’d need to be the National in London to put on the original script, it was huge so I thought a way round it would be that the women report on what the men do. The women play some of the men as well, so we go round with them but it just struck me as very much a woman’s play compared to The Dead School which is very much a male play. That was something I wanted to explore and Pat did as well.”
McIntyre expands on the character of Golly Murray.
“Golly is the wife of the local barber, Patsy Murray,” he says. “She is in her fifties and the play flashes back to a time in her life when she had her own troubles, as they would say in those days ‘she suffered from the nerves’ though these days we would recognise it more as depression. She’s had a breakdown because of the loss of a son.
“The play flashes back to that time in the fifties and gives us a whole technicolour phantasmagoria which McCabe is very into; the language of that time, the women - not unlike those from northern England - standing at their doorsteps and the whole small-town vernacular of the era. Butlins is in there, all those iconic things from the 1950s.
“It’s Golly’s story seen through tinted lenses looking back over a time in her own life. We also see the rest of the town come alive, there’s a brilliant mad priest Fr Peyton and his housekeeper Mrs Miniter, and hilariously funny stuff which, in typical McCabe fashion, he goes along with. He also very much nods toward the Catholicism of that time but ultimately it is really Golly’s story.”
What of the relationship between Golly and her husband?
“Patsy has been a rock throughout,” McIntyre replies. “ Golly sometimes comes down in the middle of the night and something is annoying her, she can’t find her tablets or whatever, and it spirals her into this memory, but as she speaks we see that Patsy has stood by her through thick and thin. If anything this play is a celebration of everlasting and true love between them. The ending is very touching, I used to laugh at McCabe and tell him he was getting a bit soft but there is something really beautiful about the two of them. Having been through everything they come out the other side in a very simple, rural, Irish way.”
Despite its 1950s setting, McIntyre stresses the play has much to say to a modern audience.
“It has these universal themes that McCabe has been chasing all his career, about love or the fact that no matter who we’re married to or what family support systems we have at times we are essentially on our own and have to deal with that,” he says. “I think it is as much a play for today and it’s about what we have to go through in our everyday lives, it just happens to be set in the fifties.”
As well as directing The Dead School, McIntyre has also acted in McCabe’s Emerald Germs of Ireland and the pair of them have a strong affinity. “I’m from Baileboro in County Cavan and Pat is from Clones so we are both border-dwellers,” he explains. “ I think from day one he himself has said there was a meeting of minds. I understand his vernacular and the world he is trying to write about.”
The cast features Barbara Bergin as Golly Murray, with Malcolm Adams, Gina Moxley, Damian Devaney, Janet Moran, and Roseanna Purcell.
“We have a great cast, I’m delighted with them, we worked really well together,” McIntyre enthuses. “It’s a big play with multi-role playing and music from the 1950s period -‘Goodbye Johnny Dear’, those kind of evocative songs that tug on your emotions. It’s kind of a nod to 1950s cinema and Hollywood, it has a big soundscape.
“It also offers something to think about. Pat McCabe talked about that Alfred Hitchcock idea where you go home and have ‘An icebox moment’ where you open the fridge ‘Aaah!! That’s what that moment was about!’ and I think there are plenty of those in the play that will live with you well after your night in the theatre.”
The Bridge Below The Town is at the Town Hall on Tuesday March 11 and Wednesday 12 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie