Bruiser brings back Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole for theatre company's 20th birthday
Founder Lisa May on celebrating the late author after two decades of highs, lows, sleepless nights and moments that make it all worthwhile
Back in the 1990s, a number of independent companies had been formed by university friends. They were the young Turks of their day, now they are highly regarded, established industry names. Druid emerged from University College Galway, Rough Magic's provenance was Trinity College Dublin, Big Telly's founders had graduated from the University of Kent and Tinderbox was formed by a core of Queen’s University Belfast graduates. Bruiser is the brainchild of Lisa May, who, along with fellow University of Ulster alumni Jo Murphy and Simon Imrie, felt that there was room for a new company on the north coast, whose joint focus was on touring and education. It’s one thing to think it, of course, but quite another to go out and do it – and keep it going. But from the onset May quietly followed her instincts and ambitions and has kept the thing up and running through increasingly trying times.
Looking back, she still vividly identifies with that brooding sense of ‘… I have a degree, now what do I do? I have read lots of books and plays but … so what?'
Colette Lennon and Adam Dougal in rehearsals for The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4. Photo by Gary O'Kane
'Our first production was The Little Prince, a classic children’s tale, which we produced as a family show. Then came John Godber’s Teechers, which contained a strong element of education, wrapped up in a play that was energetic, highly entertaining and very funny. We toured all over with it and went into schools with a package that was equally appealing to teachers and pupils. That combination was our selling point. I am a trained actor but my education had moved very much into the area of physical theatre and that became the cornerstone of Bruiser’s style. People talk about ‘a typical Bruiser show’, which I think means a production that is accessible and ambitious and delivered with a high content of physical expression and fun.
After Murphy and Imrie moved on to other projects, May cast her eye around for the right person to take over as company manager, someone who could help to develop her artistic vision while also providing sound, shrewd administrative support. She says she went looking for ‘a Duracell Bunny,’ who would share and capitalise on the energy and enthusiasm she had built up for Bruiser. She hit on the perfect person in the tireless Stephen Beggs, who had been in the year ahead of her at university. Their partnership flourished for 12 highly productive years until Beggs took the decision to go out on his own, becoming one of the busiest freelance performers and facilitators around today. Their friendship continues undiminished, with Beggs remaining one of Bruiser’s staunchest supporters.
Colette Lennon, Orla Mullan, Adam Dougal, Keith Lynch, and Gerard McCabe. Photo by Gary O'Kane
'Oh yes, loads of Brecht', says May. 'We can’t have too much of him. The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Threepenny Opera … they’re right up our street, those large scale shows with a capacity for an ensemble cast, paring down, multi-roling, physical play and music. We've never been tied down by texts and have regularly gone for interesting interpretations of known titles. It’s great when people come to see a show that is familiar to them only to find that the way we’ve done it was not at all what they expected.
'Our recent production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a good example. It’s been done many times, so we knew we were taking a bit of a risk on it. But there are things in the text that directly relate to the times we are living in. We thought long and hard about how to go about saying what we want to say, while playing it Bruiser-style. Thankfully, it got really good reactions. I am always looking for scripts that we can put our own stamp on and tease out new themes. As a director, I believe in always giving myself loads of challenges and obstacles.'
Bruiser and the MAC co-produced an all-male adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest earlier this year
'We always audition extensively,' says May. 'It doesn’t matter to us whether people have agents or not. Coming from an actor’s background, I know how frustrating and difficult it can be to get a foot in the door. Our summer schools and Graduate Academy grew out of that situation. We felt it would be good for us and for performers if we gave them the opportunity to specialise in our style of development and training. So you will see familiar faces coming and going between Bruiser shows, as well as people who have not worked in Northern Ireland before.'
'This is the first revival we have ever done,' she says. 'It’s a really big revamp. This time around, we have an amazing creative team – Matthew Reeve is again our musical director and composer, Stuart Marshall is doing the set, we have a fantastic choreographer. We wanted something special to mark the birthday year and also as a tribute to the book's writer Sue Townsend, who passed away in 2014. She was a lovely, grounded person who became our patron and friend. We were in bits when she died so this will be a celebration of her association with the company.'
Production shot from Bruiser's original Adrian Mole tour in 2005
Inevitably, in the course of 20 years, there have been highlights and lowlights. Like so many arts practitioners, May laments the constant pressure of fighting for funding, struggling for resources, sourcing new funding streams and tweaking the company’s mission in order to tick the appropriate boxes. She admits that heading up the company over so many years, as well as directing almost all its vast output has, at times felt anxious and lonely, but then something happens on stage or in the rehearsal room which blows the cares away.
'When Bruiser started out, we realised that we needed a platform to sell ourselves and I guess that we found a niche, even though we were not really aware of it at the time. Yes, we have taken huge risks and I have had many, many sleepless nights. But, yeah, 20 years on, we’re still here and growing. Whoever would have thunk!'