Flying to the moon with Marie Jones

By Charlie McBride

TOWN HALL Theatre audiences should be in for a treat next week when Marie Jones’s most recent play, Fly Me To The Moon, arrives for a four night run at the venue.

Belfast native Jones is one of Ireland’s most prolific and best-loved playwrights with more than 20 plays to her credit, including major hits like A Night in November, Women on the Verge of HRT, and, most famously, Stones In His Pockets.

Indeed, Stones In His Pockets has been in the news again with the announcement that shooting is expected to start soon on the film adaptation.

“I’m obviously very excited about it and it’s all in train,” Jones tells me. “It’s been five years since I started to write the screenplay but as you know with film you have go through all the machinations that goes with funding bodies and development money which takes time.

“Now hopefully it looks like things will fall into place. As the writer I’ve done my job and most of the work now is being done by the production company, raising the money, meeting funders. Once that’s all done I’ll probably have to do another draft of the script but until then I can leave it to the others.”

And so to Fly Me To The Moon, which has been delighting audiences and critics alike since it premiered last year in Belfast.

The play is the tale of two women struggling in today’s tough economic climate and just how far they will go to make ends meet. Frances is a hard-nosed cynic with a dry wit and a keen eye for a scam. Loretta is a soft-hearted soul who is a complete innocent abroad. Together they care for Davy – a lonely old man whose greatest loves are Frank Sinatra and horse-racing. When Davy dies on the day his horse finally comes in, his cash-strapped carers are suddenly faced with an acute moral dilemma.

Full of sly humour and poignant moments, Fly Me To The Moon shines a light on the lives of some of society’s most underpaid and undervalued workers as well as showing the plight of the elderly in an increasingly uncaring world. There is also Marie Jones’s trademark comic brio, allied to brilliant acting, to guarantee lots of laughter along the way.

Fly Me To The Moon was first staged as a one-act play in 2010 for leading British company Paines Plough. Jones subsequently re-wrote it as a full length and explains its evolution thus:

“The story itself started with the two actresses, Katie Tumelty and Tara Lynne O’Neill, who are playing the roles. They came to me and were saying how it was really hard to get good roles for women, and given that I started out myself - forming a theatre company and writing - for the same reason, I thought ‘well I’ve got to help them’.

“We all went away together and started talking about our own experiences, and we all had communal experiences of care workers. Care workers are poorly paid workers yet we can’t do without them and they’re very important to us. These characters were great roles for them.

“It started out as a one-act because Paines Plough wanted it for their ‘A Play, A Pie and a Pint’ annual lunchtime season. I condensed the story for that but when the opportunity arose to expand it I had no problem doing that. We all knew the story and had talked about it a lot. It wasn’t like I had to pad it out because I’d condensed it first time around and now in this version it really works. Given the same two actors are in it, they’ve totally invested in it as performers all the way through.”

Jones expands on the characters of the play’s protagonists Frances and Loretta.

“These women are very close friends and have worked together for ages. They are both very recognisable characters, everyone knows who they are. They are the kind of women who spark off each other.

“They have a dreadful job though they don’t think it’s dreadful, it’s all they can get. Part of how they deal with it is just focusing on their lives with each other and with their children and partners and all that is very recognisable.

“Then we put them into a situation whereby they first of all make an error of judgment and then have a crisis of conscience. With what both the actors and audiences invest in the story, you can believe this would actually happen and you feel for them. They decide to do something which could be a crime; because they are so strapped for crash they do things which they normally wouldn’t do in a better economic climate.”

I ask Jones about the play’s fusion of the comic and the poignant.

“Comedy sometimes comes out of the most dire situations,” she replies. “Frances and Loretta can’t believe they’ve put themselves into this situation. I’ve always said to Katie and Tara Lynne as actors that they are in the drama while it is the audience who can see the comedy. The characters are two very ordinary people thrown into an extraordinary situation that lends itself to humour. The actors play it for real and the realer they are the funnier it is.”

Fly Me To The Moon also sees Jones’s debut as a director which seems amazing given her career in theatre stretches back to the 1970s.

It’s because we started this together the three of us and I know them so well,” she explains. “I didn’t want the play to be just a laugh-a-minute comedy and I know how to get them to be as real as possible. I’d sit there in rehearsal and go ‘If you play it funny it’s your laugh, not the audience’s’ and they don’t because they’re so good at it.

“I’ve never directed any of my own work but I just knew instinctively that I had to do this one. I can’t do what other directors do, I don’t know anything about lighting or design or how to conduct a technical rehearsal. But I do know how to make the play work for an audience.”

Having made her first foray into directing Jones declares she has no desire to work further in that area.

“I definitely wouldn’t direct again even though directing this show was a brilliant experience because I know the actors so well,” she says. “It was just the three of us and we know what makes the thing tick and we know the heart of it. I’m very happy being a writer and I just wanted to direct this one play.

“At the end of the day it’s my job to go out there and not bore people and to keep them engaged for two hours with very real characters who I believe they can be emotionally involved with. It’s a great story and it’s been received tremendously so far, so go and have a great night in the theatre!”

Fly Me to the Moon runs at the Town Hall from Wednesday September 25 to Saturday September 28. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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