A Christmas Night with George - Watch Video
Co-writing and starring in one of Northern Ireland's most successful plays has 'vindicated' Donna O'Connor after years spent 'out in the cold'
Students tend to go for traffic cones. Teenagers are often bizarrely attracted to garden furniture. Others who should certainly know better can't seem to ignore street signs that relate to pop culture. Whatever the object, occasionally even the most sedate of drinkers is likely to wake up in the morning face-to-face with a garden gnome.
For Bridie, the heroine in Brenda Murphy and Donna O'Connor's play A Night With George, the beer goggles fix on just one thing: a lifesize cardboard cut out of Hollywood actor, George Clooney, installed outside Movie House Cinema on Belfast's Dublin Road. 'And who can blame her,' laughs O'Connor. 'As I say in the play, any Belfast woman would do six months for George!'
A Night With George tells the story of Bride, a west Belfast woman whose husband is sentenced to life imprisonment during the early years of the Troubles, and who is then forced to raise her son alone. Bridie, though, is no wall flower. The cardboard cut out of the former ER actor provides her with a non-judgemental shoulder to cry on, and a very welcome drinking buddy, after an otherwise uneventful night on the tiles.
'She tells him all her troubles,' O'Connor explains, 'and as the night wears on she gets more boisterous and in-your-face. She doesn't quite get to the stage where she's slurring her words, but she's not far off it in the second act. I like a drink myself – most people do. I think we can all relate,' she sniggers, extending her hand in a patting motion as if to say, 'sure you know I'm only joking with ye'.
Since its premiere run at the 2009 Feile an Phobail arts festival in west Belfast sold out in double quick time, A Night With George has become a full-time preoccupation for O'Connor, who admits that 'everything else takes a backseat' when a new run begins.
She will have her work cut out this Christmas, when a seasonal version of the play, A Christmas Night with George, comes to the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey from December 18 to January 5.
A Christmas Night With George is a one-hander that recalls Martin Lynch's The History of the Troubles (Accordin' to My Da) for its relentless humour and nostalgic reverence for Belfast in its darkest hour. The show lasts for one and a half hours plus interval, and O'Connor will be performing it 24 times before the curtain comes down on the current run.
Yet she is philosophical about the toll that such a performance can take. 'I'll have to do all of my Christmas shopping before it begins, though I couldn't be arsed,' she says with typical Belfast frankess. 'I hate shopping and there's no way I'm running around on my days off, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, because I'll be knackered. But needs must.'
Commanding a stage alone, performing so many different characters and managing to do so without flinching or losing momentum night after night would be a hard slog for the fittest of actors, but the exertion is worth it for O'Connor who, after years spent 'out in the cold' as an aspiring actress, is happy just to be working.
'When I was younger I would audition for lots of parts in Belfast without much success,' O'Connor admits. 'Things just didn't work out for me. Then, when we started to have a family, and I had two children to look after, my ambition to work in theatre had to take a backseat. I had to pay the bills, and I still work now when the play isn't running, but now the kids have flown the coop, and my husband is very understanding, so I'm able to do it a few times during the year.
'A Night With George came about when I was studying for my Masters dissertation. I interviewed [Belfast playwright] Brenda Murphy at the time, and she told me that she had this play in a drawer that she hadn't done anything with. When I read it, I knew I could add to it, and Brenda eventually allowed me to do that. I know that in 100 years time, someone is likely to look back at the script and think, "This is f*cking bonkers", but at least it's there. At least I did something.'
Given the success that the show has enjoyed thus far, O'Connor's early ambitions for Murphy's original script have long since been realised. She looks back at a run in the Grand Opera House and a stint off Broadway at the first Irish Theatre Festival – during which she was nominated for best actress – as the highlights of an incredible rise to fortune.
'Holding the Grand Opera House stage on my own over a week of performances... There are very few actors who can say they've done that. And to perform in New York, in front of a crowd who aren't that aware of Belfast history, vernacular or our sense of humour, but who really took the play to their hearts, well that was just an incredible achievement, a vindication for me as a writer and an actor.
'But there have been some lows also,' O'Connor adds without taking a breath. 'I'm out on stage dressed in thick pajamas under heavy lights, and, being a woman of a certain age, I've got Mother Nature throwing hots flushes at me, so I come off stage exhausted! If I'd known how difficult a one-woman show like this was going to be, I would have only written a few characters. But, again, needs must. When I go home, my husband knows to tread very softly.'
A Christmas Night With George is a fast-paced comedy drama that deals with how the Troubles impacted on the lives of Bridie, her husband and young son, as well as others from across Belfast.
Whilst that might put some people off – the phrase 'Troubles porn' comes up during our conversation, without direct reference to other works – O'Connor is adamant that Northern Irish audiences, critics and playwrights should not 'turn their noses up' at the past, but rather should embrace it as a means of moving forward.
'The Troubles have fashioned me as a writer,' says O'Connor, staring out of the window, confident in herself yet pensive, thoughtful. 'If I came from Kensington, maybe I would write about other things,' she offers, 'but I come from Ardoyne. So [the Troubles are] unavoidable.
'It doesn't matter what side of the fence you're from, I think many people can relate to this character. Bridie's farely apolitical, she's not waving any flags, merely responding to the Troubles that have shaped her life, and I've had a lot of good feedback from audience members who can identify with the commonality of the issues she's addressing. She becomes an everyman character. It's not a pretentious piece, nor do we intend it to be.
'Bridie's life, in a way, mirrors the progress of the Troubles. She's been through the horrible stuff, but post-Good Friday Agreement, she's looking forward. It's a story of hope. It recognizes that we're in a new era now, and she very much embraces that whilst realizing that there are still issues in our communities that we need to address. She does have her moments of pathos, but overall it's light-hearted.'
Remarkably, O'Connor has never seen The History of Troubles, a play that has captured the imagination of the Northern Irish theatre-going public since its Belfast debut almost a decade ago (it celebrates 10 years on the stage, in various forms, in 2013), though Martin Lynch is producing George in its current guise.
In the former play, the central character, Gerry, looks back on a life influenced by the Rolling Stones, local characters, bombs, bullets and bell-bottoms. O'Connor is loath to make a comparison between her play and Lynch's, although she does add that A Night with George is very much 'a woman's story of the Troubles. And I don't think that's been done, largely.'
A Night with George is also very much a Belfast play, chock full of wry asides, filthy jokes and expletives that has somehow managed to find an audience outside of the Northern Irish theatrical goldfish bowl. Nevertheless, O'Connor is continually surprised by the reaction from audiences.
'It's a very funny play. It's a riot, but it always surprises me the backgrounds of the people who come to see it. My husband's boss's parents came to see it, for instance, and they are in their 80s, two retired teachers. I thought they'd hate it, but when I saw them at the end of the night his eyes were red from crying with laughter. And the wife said, "I didn't watch the play, I watched him. I've never seen him laugh so hard".
'Another woman I work with, her father, a minister, came to see it, and before he saw it I said, "You do realize there's some very strong language in the play?" And he said, "Dear, I've taught for 30 years in Ashfield Boy's School. If I come across a word I don't know, I'll let you know". The reaction surprises me greatly.'
It pleases her too. O'Connor looks at theatre not as an elitist art form, but as a medium through which working-classes voices can be heard, and audiences can find 'release'. And at Christmas, for her, there is no better form of entertainment.
'I like being entertained,' she concludes. 'I like feeling that I've had a tonic – I like leaving the theatre feeling refreshed. I've been to see very serious plays, but I think life is serious enough, and dark enough, as it is. We all need something to lift the gloom.'
A Christmas Night with George runs in the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, from December 18 to January 5, 2013.