Coming to the Town Hall next Wednesday, September 6, is wickedly funny comedy To Hell in a Handbag, written, and performed by Helen Norton and Jonathan White and exploring two minor characters from The Importance of Being Earnest – Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble. A governess and a country rector; models of Victorian propriety in public, but in private? This is the play behind the play: a tale of blackmail, false identity, and money that offers a subversively funny new take on a theatrical classic.
The show has been getting rave reviews (‘a delight –beautifully written and acted’ –Mail on Sunday; ‘enchanting’ –Irish Times; ‘side-splittingly funny’ –Sunday Independent ) and has just finished a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe. “It went brilliantly, we had full houses every day which is unusual to be honest,” Helen Norton tells me. “I would never have performed here before though I have visited, but not for a long time. It has got a lot more manic since I was last here, the world all descends on this one spot and it is an incredibly beautiful city but it is crazy trying to get round it at this time, you get loads of flyers being shoved in your face, but it is gas.”
Interestingly, the origins of To Hell in a Handbag can be traced to Norton’s performance as Miss Prism in a 1999 Town Hall staging of The Importance of Being Earnest. “Our director Conor Hanratty had seen me in that when it was on tour,” Norton reveals. “He had cast myself and Jonathan in a reading of another play at the Abbey and he said to me one day ‘the first time I ever saw you was playing Miss Prism,’ and Jonathan then said he had always wanted to play Canon Chasuble but never had an opportunity so we started to chat about it and came up with the idea of writing our own play with them both. We had never worked onstage together before, but we have known each other for 20 years. It was a mad throwing together of all sorts of things that enabled this to appear.”
Norton outlines how she and White approached the material; “We went through Earnest forensically to see when they came in and when they went off, how long they were gone for, what they said about what they were doing. There is the hour and three quarters where Chasuble says Prism has been waiting for him in the vestibule so straightaway you are wondering what was happening then. Then there is all this information about her like losing the baby in the handbag, so she must have been somewhere in the intervening years while this child was growing up before should come back to the country after making such an enormous mistake. So there was all of that going on and they are each what you see or what is going on behind the facade.”
What of the challenge of emulating Wilde’s witticisms? “That was quite difficult,” Norton admits. “We could never dream of being close to what Oscar Wilde was like but we wanted to. A lot of plays of that era are very much about the people from the higher classes rather than the lower classes, whereas we are ordinary people as opposed to lords and ladies. So we wanted to have a look at that. They enjoyed language so much and their use of words is extraordinary and we both love words so it was a challenge to get that into something that made sense and worked.”
Norton and White also add new dimensions to Prism and Chasuble; “You will never see Earnest again in the same light!” she laughs. “Miss Prism likes a tipple and has done a couple of things she is not entirely proud of and the same goes for Dr Chasuble. Essentially, they are doing these things to survive in a difficult world for them. A lot of people look at Victorian melodramas and novels and are given a façade of somebody but you’re not given what is going on behind it until you dig a bit deeper, and that is what we have tried to do with these characters, to see what else they have going on in the background and bring that to the fore.”
Norton has previously written plays for children but this is her first time writing for an adult audience. “It has been very exciting to do this but it is a hard job and you need to keep working at it,” she notes. “We were in different countries when we started writing this, because I was working at The Globe last summer and Jonathan was in Dublin, so we were sending drafts to each other and then we got together and edited it and changed stuff around. It was an interesting process and it is great when you have another person working with you because you can bounce ideas off each other, and with us both being actors we could read it aloud and get a feel if it was working or not. It worked out for us in the end but it is a very intricate process and anyone who does this on a regular basis needs to be applauded.”
Norton’s impressive and eclectic CV has taken in roles at the Abbey, Gate, Druid, and Macnas, as well as smaller shows for the likes of Bewleys Café theatre and Dublin Fringe. I ask if the variety of work was a matter of choice or simple happenstance.
“It would be lovely to think I will only work for x, y and z but it never happens,” she replies. “Sometimes things turn up and you are amazed by them and they become part of your intrinsic experience and it is fantastic. I have done tiny things and huge things; I never thought I was going to work at The Globe and that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. You learn a lot about yourself doing those things, and I was in Fair City for three and a half years and that teaches you something else. You do not take all of the things that come because maybe you are not able to, but I am open to all sorts of things, that is how you learn. You can never stop learning, I have been doing this for a long time and you learn something from everything, there is a lesson in everything that you do. Sometimes you do something just because it helps pay the mortgage and sometimes you are excited by the director or the play, or it’s a role you have never done before or there is somebody you really want to work with, all of those things can kick you onwards.”
And her final thoughts on To Hell in a Handbag? “This has been terrific and great fun,” she declares. “Jonathan and I get on very well and it is a lovely piece to do, and it has been a joy performing here because the houses have been extraordinary. We are delighted to be taking it on tour; we both love Galway and are looking forward to going there.”
To Hell in a Handbag is at the Town Hall, for one night only, on Wednesday, September 6 at 8pm. Tickets are €20 / €18.