Playing Happy Families with John McCann

Home truths are dragged from the past in the writer's first full-length drama, honed over six years with help from Tinderbox

Growing up on a council housing estate in Portadown, John McCann travelled a couple of miles at weekends to visit his grandparents. He remembers the stark change of landscape on the southern shores of Lough Neagh and the different way of life he witnessed in a house with no running water and no electricity.

'The memories of that location have stayed with me for many years, so it was only a matter of time before the location filtered into my work,' he says.

His new play Famla is set in this familiar terrain: an old, festering house that looks like it has been abandoned.

Before moving to Scotland, McCann was Outreach Director with Tinderbox Theatre Company for nearly a decade, back when Michael Duke was Artistic Director.

‘Whenever I was sitting at my outreach desk and saw Mick and Hanna going into the room with a writer to discuss a new piece of work I always felt very jealous that I couldn’t be in the room in that creative mix.’

His work at that time involved helping communities find their voice through storytelling initiatives and by creating new pieces of writing like Comet for Replay Theatre Company. McCann says that it allowed him to ‘dip his toe into the water’ of writing. Now settled in Fife, he’s shifted from being inspired by other people’s factual stories to creating his own fictional characters and settings.

Tara Lynne O'Neill plays Harpo

Tara Lynne O'Neill plays Harpo

‘I was always scribbling down bits and pieces,’ he explains. ‘But I didn’t have the patience or confidence to stick at it and see it through.’

McCann studied Drama and Arts at Birmingham University. He took the opportunity to write and submit a play for his final year coursework and describes his years working at Tinderbox as an ‘apprenticeship’. While he has written short works like The Cleanroom before, Famla is his first full length play ‘where people get the chance to go and have a gin at the interval, if they need one!’

Famla has been six years in the making and it seems very natural that he has brought it home to Tinderbox, given his familiarity with how they ‘use their resources to do the best for the words and the work … and their focus on nurturing and developing a writer’.

‘It was only in 2014 when I submitted a draft scene of what became two of the central characters of Famla to Michael Duke at Tinderbox. He was taken with it and said he always knew I had a culchie play within me!’

McCann isn’t a writer who throws his weight around the rehearsal room. He has enjoyed the collaborative process in the run up to the play’s premiere at the MAC.

‘Everyone is trying to find the truth of the moment for a character. What is this person doing? What do they want? What are they hoping to achieve? What are they trying to hide at each point of the script. That drives everything.’

Rhodri Lewis as Botley

Rhodri Lewis plays Botley

As playwright he has relished watching ‘distinctive’ director Patrick J O’Reilly work with the cast (Tara Lynne O’Neill, Rhodri Lewis and Hayley McQuillan) to discover facets of the piece, often prompting McCann to rework scenes and enhance existing imagery. He also singles out the ‘forensic’ examination of the text by dramaturg Hanna Slättne.

‘She doesn’t just look at how a particular line is in keeping with a character at that particular moment, but also at how a scene, a mood, a physical gesture, or an object on the stage resonates with the whole production and its tone. So there’s a great ebbing and flowing between the micro and the macro.’

The characters in Famla have abstract names and are caricatures, a nod to Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd. McCann jokes that ‘it’s no kitchen sink drama’. There’s a menacing and brooding atmosphere around the mysterious house.

Family secrets, long since buried, are dug up and revealed. There’s tension between the private and the public, between a character’s past and their future.

‘We have a character in the play who has arrived back after a long time away and wants to remain detached. They have something to do, without disturbance or being seen or talked about … This person actively wants to keep the outside world outside.’

Hayley McQuillan plays Hector

Hayley McQuillan plays Hector

McCann is keen to hear audience reactions to Famla. He cites an Italian author and dramatist as an influence for the particular theatricality that sets the play’s two acts apart from each other. In a speech to mark the awarding of the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature, Luigi Pirandello was described as having an ‘almost magical power to turn psychological analysis into good theatre’, with the deft use of ‘obscurity’ and the ‘relativity of truth’. Watching Famla, audiences should expect to encounter characters ‘juggling various roles within the one lump of flesh’ as they battle between different recollections of past events.

As well as being entertained – and much light is promised amongst the shade – McCann hopes that audiences will recognise something of their own lives and perhaps those of their families in the play. They’ll be able to see their own hidden stories reflected back from the stage, and realise that even though we look back with rose-tinted glasses, there can be something darker lurking behind the lenses.

While Famla is just entering its public phase, McCann has other projects underway, including a post-primary commission Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World for Replay as well as what he describes as a ‘foundation play’ looking at mythology.

Famla is recommended for ages 16+ and is at the MAC, Belfast from Tuesday March 21 to Saturday 25 at 8.00pm (plus Saturday matinee 3.30pm). Tickets available by phoning (028) 9023 5053 or at www.themaclive.com.

The production will then tour to Cushendall Golf Club (March 29), Craic Theatre, Coalisland (March 30), The Playhouse, Derry (March 31) and The Market Place, Armagh (April 1). Booking details available at www.tinderbox.org.uk.