Meeting playwright Marie Jones, you sense this is somebody who really has her ideal job. The theatre is her home and inspiration. Before her most recent play Sinners opened at the Lyric Theatre, she was spotted during rehearsals hanging out with the actors during their fag break. They were obviously having fun. She admits that the production was good craic. “I loved it, the actors are very smart and want to get it right. They’d say ‘Is this what you meant?’ Sometimes they’re better than I am and I’d think no, but I’ll claim it.” For Marie, the theatre represents some kind of alchemy and for her, working there has been life changing, as she reveals over coffee in a Stranmillis cafe. “I’ve been asked to do film and television, but it’s not the same. I love the interaction of the theatre and was an actress myself so I know my way around it. It’s magic, transporting people to another world with one set and a stage.”
Significantly, the first time Ms Jones felt the pull of a theatre, she had left school and was working out what to do next. “I was 16 and had left school very young. I loved the theatre but I only had an experience of it through the school play. The old Group Theatre was the only one that would have been accessible at the time, and Jimmy Young had a play on. Nobody wanted to come with me from where I lived, Templemore Avenue off the Newtownards Road, so I thought I’m going to go myself. It wasn’t the play’s content or anything else, it was the walking into the theatre, the smell of it. At that time, the guy who ran it was Jack Hudson, Jimmy Young’s partner, and he smoked Mannequin cigars. The actors at that stage wore greasepaint, Leichner sticks no 5 and no 9, which created a strong aroma.” Marie Jones continues on her memory trip. “I remember the lights going down and they went up on stage and there was music and there were all these people there. It was almost like a spiritual thing, although I’m not like that. But I knew then I was going to spend the rest of my life doing this.” She adds that the clincher was the way the actors sounded in an era when performers spoke like Pathe news presenters. “What was even better, they sounded like me, when nobody did outside our streets. It was magic because television was RP, radio was RP, theatre was all RP.” In other words, received pronunciation, posh English.
After a long career, initially as an actress, then as a dramatist, Marie Jones OBE is reaping the rewards. The gongs are lining up, most recently the Ulster Tatler Lifetime Achievement award which she received in September. She says gaining this particular accolade was a pleasure. “It was lovely. The Ulster Tatler isan institution and 50 years old. We always laugh that when friends say ‘I saw you in the Tatler’, they have been getting their hair done or been to the dentist. But the magazine is part of our culture.” Marie adds that it was great fun for the boys – her three grown-up sons – to be at the awards ceremony with her and her husband, actor Ian McElhinney. “They said ‘Don’t be making a big speech, we need to get to the bar.’ The younger ones threw their jackets off but my oldest son Darren, ex-Royal Navy, said they shouldn’t take their jackets off before the coffee. Matthew goes ‘What is this, Downton Abbey?’”
In 2002, Marie Jones picked up an OBE for services to drama. Prince Charles was officiating and said smoothly as he handed her the award he was delighted to meet the woman who’d written Stones in His Pockets. The play had been doing a West End run and Marie already knew that Charles and Camilla – who were together – had seen it, thanks to a text from her man on the ground.
Asked about whether she pocketed any school prizes, Marie Jones looks askance and says definitely not. “Nothing. I wasn’t disruptive, just not interested. I’d been in detention so many times, the head sent me to the after-school drama club.” This provided a sharp contrast with the drama she was taught in English lessons. “I thought it would be boring but they were doing an old musical The Boyfriend and everyone was singing and dancing. I felt I’d arrived. I played Lord Brocklehurst, as Orangefield was an all girls’ school so we had to play the men. In class, we read Shakespeare and I think we did some Merchant of Venice, titled Shylock and the Bond. Nobody understood it.” Marie adds that when Orangefield, by then mixed, closed recently, there was a festival and she was asked to give a talk. Nobody had asked her to address the school before that point. “I’d been asked to go all over the country, then they asked me when there was nobody to talk to. But it would have been churlish to refuse.” She spotted Sam McCready, who taught there, coming out after his one man show and said hello. “Van Morrison went to Orangefield boys’ and he played a concert in the assembly room. My gig was in the library. I didn’t know we had one and when I told my sister Sandra, she said ‘What library?’ and I told her that (the library period) was when we had our smoke break.”
Marie Jones’ anecdotes are as animated as her scripts. When she and a group of women founded Charabanc in the 1980s, she found her writing voice. It was a collaborative project begun when they contacted writer and producer Martin Lynch with an idea for a play about the female mill workers’ strike in the early 20th century. Martin Lynch helped them work on Lay Up Your Ends, their first show. And Marie Jones became the group’s writer. She says she returned to her childhood and growing up, the era when her mother and aunties would chat every weekend with a bottle of Sandeman’s port to hand. “They’d go to my aunt’s in Rosetta – she had a bit more money and a proper kitchen overlooking the front garden. They’d talk and laugh and cry and fight. I could hear them in my head as I was writing that first scene.” This was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “I was 10 or 11 and my mother said ‘Why are you like my shadow?’ Of course they had to hush up as they couldn’t talk about certain things in front of me.”
Marie is serious about the funny stuff. Asked whether she likes the new, female led, accessible theatre produced by highly successful writers such as Leesa Harker (Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue) and Donna O’Connor (A Night with George), Marie Jones takes a surprisingly firm line.“As long as you’re continually trying to raise the bar for people that’s all right, not just giving people something to enjoy but something that’s important. If you asked me to sit down and write a romp now, I could do it before bedtime, but I wouldn’t. What’s it about? I need to have content, I need a moral dilemma. I won’t comment on another writer but you have a responsibility and I feel that it’s a privilege. You’ve been given an arena. When we started Charabanc, we’d say we were giving a voice to the voiceless, to my mother’s generation.” She goes on to cite Women on the Verge of HRT (1995) as one of her comedies with something to say. The plot involves Vera and Anna who travel to Donegal to see and hear their idol, Daniel O’Donnell. “People may look at it and say it’s just a big romp about women but no, no, no. It’s a very serious play for me.” She says she had been talking to many women who were menopausal, a taboo subject when she was growing up. She picked up on a shift in attitude. “Suddenly people were saying ‘Let’s talk about this’ and I remember sitting in our garden with the director, thinking ‘Can we really present this play?’ It’s awful what we’re saying about how women are treated by each other and by society. It really is very sad.” When the play opened in the Whiterock Leisure Centre in the West Belfast Festival, the theatre echoed to the sound of female laughter. Marie comments: “It was the laughter of subversiveness, I should have known.” A huge tour followed with the play ending in the West End, then in southern Ireland. A group of women won tickets to the show after sharing their experiences. “One woman thought she had Alzheimer’s because nobody explained the symptoms. In the play the character says ‘You go to the doctor, he doesn’t look at you and…’ That is what I mean about producing popular theatre – even though I want to do that, it’s important to me that it’s not just a romp or out for a laugh.”
Marie Jones then moves onto the question of language. She says she sidesteps the easy laugh via the four letter word “I avoid ‘F*** this and f*** that’ for comical effect. You only have two hours to tell a story and you want the lines to work. That sounds a bit snooty but it’s just how I am.” Marie Jones and Ian McElhinney are a great team. They met when they were both acting in Stage 80. She says now: “We didn’t like each other.” Clearly, things changed and they’re an impressive professional couple; Ian has directed many of her plays with a very sure touch. Most recently, he has brought her greatest hit, Stones in His Pockets (1996), to Iceland. This two-hander has toured the world and gained rave reviews. It also led to a court case, which Ms Jones won, in which the producer Pam Brighton claimed she deserved to be credited as co-author. Since then, Stones in His Pockets has continued to move and entertain audiences with its story of extras in rural Ireland participating in a movie which with typical American imperialism, misrepresents the real tale of the ‘oul sod. The play has been charming Iceland on its recent return visit with a poignant sub-text. Marie says: “The actor Stefan Karl Stefansson, an Icelandic national treasure who went to America and appeared in the children’s TV series Lazy Town, revealed he was very ill. When he said on his website that he had terminal cancer, he wanted to do one last thing and this is it. We went over and it was great, although I couldn’t understand a word. The last performance is going to be live-streamed to the whole country.” On why this play has hit such a chord with the public and critics, Marie Jones remains puzzled. “I didn’t have a clue it would be a big hit but with brilliant direction and fantasticactors and no set, you have no limitations. We could say ‘We’re in a National School in 1930 with the mooing of a cow outside (she moos), with a wee bell and organ music we’re in a chapel. So we created the whole world of the movie with sound, light and acting. Plus there is the universal story of two guys with no control over their lives who needed to find something so that they could find their own destiny.”
Home is the house she and Ian McElhinney bought years ago in Ravenhill Park. She has said there’s no risk of her becoming Establishment, in spite of the fact she may dine out at The Ivy restaurant, a celebrity haunt, when in London. “I haven’t moved away from my background and culture. Yes, when I am in London I might go to the Ivy for dinner. But in Belfast I pop into Sainsbury’s to do my shopping and people stop and talk and tell me about their lives all the time, because these people have known me all my life.” Her middle son, Matthew, is in the business, while youngest son David, who studied criminology at university, has just got back from Australia. “He’s off to Japan next to teach English.” They also have a house on the Greek island of Antiparos.
In terms of politics Marie Jones’ output contains A Night in November about the introduction of internment and the sense of a liberal Protestant view that felt the given legacy wasn’t right. She says: “I am instinctively interested in politics but it’s not usually overt. I never wanted to join the feminists, for example. I haven’t been that angry or that discriminated against. Maybe I’ve been lucky.” Marie adds that she has always been interested in being seen as a playwright rather than a female playwright. Marie Jones’ new projects sound more than interesting. Dear Arabella started out as a onewoman show presented last year at The Old Vic Theatre in London. “It’s about a woman who feels trapped and is caring for her agoraphobic mother. She wants to escape as although the sun is shining, they live on the dark side of the street. Gemma Jones acted it and she was great.” A tragedy happens near the start which ushers in some hope. The main drama on at the theatre when Dear Arabella premiered was King Lear with Glenda Jackson in the title role. Marie Jones is a fan. “She’s 80, you know, and when asked how she prepared for the role, said she got down to 10 cigarettes a day.” With an infectious laugh, Marie says Glenda is her kind of woman. In a Q & A session after the play, Marie Jones said off the cuff that she was going to add in two other women, referring to Lear’s three daughters. So she has, and the show is being produced next year, starting in Belfast.
Moving away from her own patch, Marie Jones’ next project involved dramatizing a great little book she says she read some 30 years ago. Titled Archy and Mehitabel by New York poet and humorist Don Marquis, it tells the story of a cockroach and alley cat (with the soul of a poet) who are pals and survivors. Marie explains the appeal: “It’s got parables of life.” She eventually tracked a copy down in the Oxfam bookshop on Botanic Avenue and is pleased I know the title, saying that is karma. Marie is setting it in Martini territory, 1930s Manhattan. She refers to the “lesson of the moth” section, where Archy tries to dissuade the suicidal insect from his aim, ending with this bit of philosophy – “myself i would rather have/half the happiness and twice/the longevity… but at the same time i wish/there was something I wanted/as badly as he wanted to fry himself.” Anybody wanting to see how Marie Jones treats the pair should head to the Baby Grand in February, where she is holding a workshop. Apparently, Marie Jones’ greatest review came from an audience member. “We were out leafleting for the show, that never stops, and bumped into this woman who’d seen Fly Me To The Moon and shouted ‘It should be on prescription!’”
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