Marie Jones

One of Northern Ireland's most successful playwrights

Playwright Marie Jones is one of the most prolific and successful theatre artists ever to emerge from Northern Ireland. Beginning in the independent theatre sector, and working periodically with theatre-in-education and community theatre, her lively, often humorous, quick-fire and highly theatrical work has gone on to major commercial success, engendering huge popular and critical response worldwide. 

Born in Belfast in 1951, Jones worked as an actress in Belfast in the 1970s. Frustrated by the nature and scarcity of work for women in theatre, she and four other actresses founded their own company, Charabanc, in 1983. Lay Up Your Ends, a play about the two week strike of Belfast linen workers in 1911, resulted. Co-written by Martin Lynch and the company, and directed by Pam Brighton, it proved an instant critical and popular success. 

Many other plays were to follow, including Oul’ Delf and False Teeth (1984), set in the Markets area during the 1949 Stormont elections, and Now You’re Talkin’ (1985), by Marie Jones and the company, set in a present day centre for the reconciliation of sectarian conflict. Gold in the Streets (1986), written by Marie Jones and devised by the company, dealt with twentieth century Irish emigration to England.

The Girls in the Big Picture (1986), also written by Marie Jones and devised by the company, examined the claustrophobia and pressures of rural Ireland in the 1960s. Somewhere Over the Balcony (1987), written by Marie Jones, featured life in Belfast’s Divis Flats on the eve of the anniversary of the introduction of internment. 

Charabanc company members thereafter began to work more on individual projects, and to stage plays by writers from beyond Northern Ireland. However, Jones continued periodically to write works for the company until 1990, including The Terrible Twins’ Crazy Christmas (1988), Weddin’s, Weein’s and Wakes (1989), The Hamster Wheel (1990), and The Blind Fiddler of Glenadauch (1990). 

During these years, Jones also began working for Replay Productions, Northern Ireland’s professional theatre-in-education company, which commissioned and premiered six works. These covered subject matter ranging from environmentalism and hiring fairs to the history of Belfast: Under Napoleon’s Nose, It’s a Waste of Time Tracy (both 1989); The Cow, the Ship and the Indian (1991); Don’t Look Down (1992); Hiring Days (1992); and Yours, Truly (1993). 

Jones co-founded DubbelJoint Productions in 1991 with Pam Brighton and Mark Lambert. Many of her works were premiered by that company during the 1990s, and directed by Brighton. These included an adaptation of Nikolay Gogol’s The Government Inspector (1993), set in small-town Ulster at the turn of the twentieth century, and A Night in November (1994), born out of Jones’ response to the sectarianism at the Northern Ireland versus Republic of Ireland World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park in 1993.

Women on the Verge of HRT (1995) portrays two forty-something women who confront a looming mid-life crisis on a weekend pilgrimage to meet singer Daniel O’Donnell, while Stones in His Pockets (1996) describes two unemployed thirty-somethings’ experiences as extras on an American film on location in Ireland. Though not all successful, several of these proved huge popular, critical and commercial successes, touring extensively. 

Thereafter, Marie Jones’ work was produced outside the context of DubbelJoint. In 1999, she co-wrote, with Martin Lynch and the company, the large-scale cross-community Wedding Community Play. Women on the Verge of HRT … Get a Life!, a successor to the 1995 work, was produced and toured in 1999, while in Belfast, Tinderbox Theatre Company premiered Ruby (2000), a play about the life of Belfast singer Ruby Murray, and the short site-specific Court No 2 for the convictions project (2000). Meanwhile, Jones has recently seen a succession of her works produced to popular acclaim at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. 

These included a 1999 production of Stones in His Pockets at the theatre, which has since become a major international hit. Productions have been staged all over the world and the play has been translated into many languages, winning a host of major awards. It also became the subject of a High Court case (Brighton v Jones, 2004). A film version is reportedly planned.
As well as writing for the stage, Jones has continued to act, and has written a number of television plays for the BBC and Channel 4. Jones has won many awards, including an OBE for her services to drama. 

Criticism of Jones’ work has largely focused on an awkward merging at times of an ‘odd battalion of theatrical styles’ (Irish Times), and for a perceived simplistic or sentimental approach to subject matter.

In general, however, Jones has been lauded for having ‘wryly accurate powers of observation’ (Irish Times); for creating ‘sheer, slowly-slide-off-the-edge-of-your-seat, and-on-your-bum-and-keep-laughing farce’ (Belfast Newsletter); and for an ability to mix ‘polemic and observation into a rich, rewarding and provocative piece of theatre’ (The Guardian).

Ophelia Byrne