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

Bruiser is 20. It’s easy to say but hard to believe that the cheeky little theatre company, which sprang up two decades ago has grown into a rather poised and successful young thing.  

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.

Almost every undergraduate will be familiar with the experience of approaching that scary spot on the horizon where the reality of employment hovers. Many drama students harbour aspirations about starting their own company, making their own work, finding a gap into which they can slot their artistic energy and vision. But in the forbiddingly chilly economic conditions through which this generation of theatre makers has grown up, such aspirations have become more and more difficult to attain. But May is possessed of the same cheery determination and can-do attitude that she brings to her directing work. The long list of memorable credits in the company archive is is proof that she rarely brooks refusals; if her mind and imagination are focused on a project, she will go all out to make it happen. And so it was with the formation of Bruiser.

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

Colette Lennon and Adam Dougal in rehearsals for The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4. Photo by Gary O'Kane

'It’s absolutely true,' May laughs. 'I remember so well being on the brink of graduating and not having a clue about where that might take me. In my final year, I wrote an article for the university magazine, which asked the question - "What are we really supposed to do with this degree?" Bruiser wasn’t the first to come out of UU – Karl Wallace, who was a couple of years ahead of me, had already formed Kabosh. Big Telly, who were based in Portstewart, were going well and doing really good work. But I felt there there was room to create a new touring company, which would be flexible enough to also specialise in education and outreach.

'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.

'Early on I coined the expression, 'minimal set for maximum impact’, which suggests that the focus is always on the actors' ability to engage the audience, without relying on elaborate sets, costume and lighting. The actor is the central mechanism of performance, and our choice of scripts has allowed exploration of the essential dynamics of theatre: the actor, the audience and the space.'

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

Colette Lennon, Orla Mullan, Adam Dougal, Keith Lynch, and Gerard McCabe. Photo by Gary O'Kane

A cursory glance through Bruiser’s back catalogue reveals another vital part of the company’s successful survival technique. The vast majority of its titles are familiar and popular – Oh, What a Lovely War, The 39 Steps, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Two, Sweet Charity, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Cooking With Elvis - in which Beggs delivered an unforgettable, no-holds-barred turn in the central role - and lots of Brecht.

'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.

'We all aspire to developing and producing new plays but bitter experience proves that they are an extremely hard sell, which is so sad. Audiences tend to like what they know and, particularly these days, they are unwilling to risk their money on something untried and untested. So we try to give them an exciting new experience within a text they think they know well. We have done some unfamiliar titles, like Nikolai Gogol's absurdist play The Nose, which I still think was a great piece of work but which did really poorly on tour.

'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.'

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Bruiser and the MAC co-produced an all-male adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest earlier this year

During the course of its life, Bruiser has employed a huge number of actors and creatives, many of whom have retained an ongoing association with the company.

'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.'

Between 2012 and 2014, the company went through a particularly purple patch with a clutch of highly acclaimed musicals, including Sweet Charity, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and a big, splashy production of Cabaret in a specially designed space in the MAC. In celebration of its 20th birthday, Bruiser is reviving another favourite, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, a piece it first presented some twelve years ago, albeit in a somewhat more modest style.

'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.'

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Production shot from Bruiser's original Adrian Mole tour in 2005

Not content with amassing a bursting canon of on-stage work, this non-nonsense woman from Derby, who now calls Belfast her home, has also fulfilled the early educational remit she drew up for the company. Bruiser runs an extensive year-round programme of drama workshops, teacher training sessions, masterclasses, work placements, consultancy work, theatre schools and training projects. The company is now included on the schools syllabus – listed alphabetically in the official brochure immediately after the distinguished veteran practitioner Peter Brook! Places on its summer schools and graduate academy are highly sought after and A Day With Bruiser, delivered in regional venues in partnership with the MAC, regularly brings in groups of some 120 children a day to learn and practice the Bruiser style.

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 things are going well you are invigorated' she says. 'Then you go back to the office and it can all change in an instant, when you get news that an application you laboured over for ages has been turned down and a major project is in jeopardy. But that goes for everyone working in this business. The flip side is that you can be in the rehearsal room with the actors, trying and trying to make something happen. And it’s not happening. You’re in a complete impasse. Then suddenly, you try something different and it does happen - and it feels great. I just love that moment. It’s the best feeling.

'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!'

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4  runs at The MAC, Belfast from 22 September to 7 October, then tours to Ballina, Mullingar, Lisburn, Dublin, Armagh and Derry from 10 to 15 October. To book tickets go to www.bruisertheatrecompany.com/the-secret-diary-of-adrian-mole.html.