Marie Jones on taking her universally loved play to the Moon and back

Audiences from here to New York, Canada and Scandinavia have identified with Fly Me to the Moon, the comic tale of two carers, which continues to speak to the sector's emotional demands and the relationships between workers and patients

When it comes to telling the stories of Northern Ireland’s average denizens, there are few more adept tribunes than Marie Jones. Since 1983’s Lay Up Your Ends, her first foray with Charabanc, the East Belfast playwright has forged an acclaimed and successful career, interpreting the experiences of working people and imbuing each tale with healthy doses of humour, realism and authenticity.

One of her most topical plays, however, must surely be 2012’s Fly Me to the Moon. While no polemicist, Jones finds much that rings true in this story of underpaid, overworked and often demoralised social carers. As the age of biting austerity continues unabated, with swingeing cuts a norm of each budgetary cycle, it seems more than a little allegorical.

Fly Me to the Moon is once again showing on home turf, though, as Jones points out, its merits are underlined by the fact that the piece, which first ran in New York a few months after its Belfast debut— thus following on from the Broadway success garnered by Stones in his Pockets 11 years earlier — has been in production, somewhere on the planet, almost constantly since it opened.

‘It has never really gone away,’ she says. ‘The play has had its own life in other countries. It started off in Canada, and is still produced there, and I’ve just recently come back from directing it in [the National Theatre] Reykjavik. It’s been playing a lot in Scandinavia and I’ve seen it translated into Finnish. I’m bringing it back here because people want to see it. They think it’s entertaining.’

The work has certainly connected. The plot revolves around two care workers, Frances and Loretta, (portrayed, respectively, by Katie Tumelty and Abigail McGibbon, the latter taking over from original cast member Tara Lynne O’Neill) whose elderly charge, Davy McGee, dies on their watch. The two-woman comedy quickly sees its characters debating the morality of delaying the reporting of Davy’s death until after they complete their weekly chore of collecting a pension he no longer needs.

Fly Me to the Moon

(L-R) Katie Tumelty and Abigail McGibbon

Cash strapped and in no position to simply eschew the chance of a small windfall, the duo tackle the central quandary with brio. Tellingly, her early advice to the actors draws a distinction between the tense situation and its tone: '"You are in a drama. It’s the audience watching the comedy."'

‘These women and men have very difficult jobs to do and no time to do it. They become very vulnerable,’ says Jones. She believes that ‘the subject matter is always current. People get old and there will always be people needed to look after them but there’s never enough time to see to their emotional needs.’

That said, she's intrigued by the human ties, or even the occasional lack thereof, underpinning the care sector, with this show’s underlying theme best summed up by some fairly simple questions. '"Who is that person I’m looking after?"' she wonders, '"What was their life about?"'

Fly Me to the Moon’s globetrotting adventure has seen it strike multiple chords with international admirers, all of whom have been receptive to its core message, regardless of location. Carers can be ‘emotionally detached’ from those they are helping, she suggests. ‘Until something happens and then their reaction is the same as that of two ordinary people in Iceland or two ordinary people in Budapest or anywhere else.

Jones adds that ‘apart from cultural references, it doesn’t really make a difference. They have the same situations. All in all, it works because this is a universal story.’

Since seeing the play refresh its run in Northern Ireland (it was staged at Belfast’s Grand Opera House in late January and hits the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry for a night on February 20), Jones discerns no particular change in how audiences perceive the play, yet recalls one post-performance review that highlights the extent to which her writing echoes the vox populi.

‘One woman came up to me and said “This is brilliant. You should be paid by the NHS. That play should be on prescription.” You’re never going to get a better review than that.’

Asked what new material those same audiences have to look forward to in the near future, Jones confirms that The Miami Story, a collaboration with Dancing Shoes writing partner Martin Lynch which tells the story of the showband era, should be opening later this year. She states that her aim here is not to focus solely on the horrors that befell the legendary Miami Showband — ‘I can’t be doing with that.’ Instead, she wants to explore the role these groups played in drawing young people out of their corners, be they religious, geographical or cultural, during the early days of the Troubles.

Indeed, Jones has long been a vocal advocate of the need to expand theatre’s reach beyond its traditional base. ‘There will always be a need to create new audiences,’ she says, ‘but I think it’s getting better.

‘I do still talk to people about this. It’s not just people who can’t afford to go to the theatre, that’s a different issue. There are people who can well afford to go but it just wouldn’t be in their heads. It’s not just one social class. There are people who just don’t go and have no interest. Selfishly, I just think it’s a great experience. Live theatre: There’s nothing like it.’

Fly Me to the Moon comes to the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry on February 20. For more information and tickets go to www.millenniumforum.co.uk or call 028 7126 4455.