Flesh and Blood Women

Three plays written and produced by a female crew tell the story of Northern Ireland's better half

It’s official. Martin Lynch has been banished, exiled, put out to grass by his own company, Green Shoot Productions, and the women have taken over.

From May 7, Green Shoot will stage a triple world premiere in the Grand Opera House in the shape of Flesh and Blood Women, the first ever all-female, home-grown production in Northern Ireland theatre.

As if it were not enough that each of the three plays, all to be presented in one evening, has been written by a woman and will feature a cast of four actresses, every member of the production team – led by distinguished stage and television director and former actress, Noreen Kershaw – is female.

They number 19 in total: writers, actors, director, designer, producer, stage managers, dramaturg, publicists … no wonder Lynch is keeping his head down.

 

Outnumbered he may be, but there is no disguising his pride in the project as he welcomes to the press launch four more high-powered women: Michelle McIlveen of the DUP, the Ulster Unionists’ Sandra Overend, Claire Hanna of the SDLP and the Alliance Party's Naomi Long MP, who delivered an entertaining speech about the way in which women continue to be overlooked in so many aspects of life in her city.

'In my former career as an engineer, I worked for an organisation in which there were more men called Jeff than there were women,' Long joked. 'In the theatre, too, women often take on secondary roles, rarely directing or playing the lead character. And in politics, that is also the case. I’m delighted to be here today and to be inspired by this remarkable group of women.'

The intriguing potential of the three plays begins with the writers, who include former politician and peace campaigner Dawn Purvis, award-winning writer/director Jo Egan and Brenda Murphy, who has notched up numerous awards, not least for her hugely popular A Night with George.

Their respective backgrounds and subject matter have prompted sharply contrasting pieces, from the stark honesty of Murphy’s autobiographical Two Sore Legs, to Purvis’s playful Picking Up Worms and Egan’s hard-hitting Sweeties.

Egan, a highly experienced theatre practitioner, has worked extensively with community groups, most recently talking and listening to people who have suffered lasting, if invisible, damage during the years of conflict.

Her large-scale community play, Crimea Square, won the Belfast Telegraph Audience Award at the 2013 Belfast Festival at Queen’s. Sweeties is fuelled by the real life experience of two sisters, who hold conflicting memories about a life-changing incident way back in their childhood. Purvis, meanwhile, talks about entering the brave new world of theatre as being 'back in the goldfish bowl'.

'When Martin Lynch invited me to write a play, I thought he was having me on. I told him there’s no way I could write a play. But he said everyone has a play in them, you just need a bit of support and help in translating the ideas and stories in your head.

'And it’s true. We do all have life experiences which have the makings of drama. Jo Egan acted as my dramaturg and helped me so much with the mechanics and logistics of bringing my story to life.'

Purvis describes being brought up in the Donegall Pass area of Belfast by a single mother in an extended family in which women had a vital role to play. She says that her own childhood provided a rich source of material.

'The play is a mish-mash of stories and fictional characters. It is set over a 24-hour period during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike. The point of view is that of an eight-year-old child. I was that child. You could describe it as an observational drama, which deals with real issues in women’s lives like unplanned pregnancy and domestic violence.

'It was a momentous, intense period. We existed in a state of what I would call normal abnormality. This was what we knew, this was what life was. If you live in a tiny community, the fear and the threat become magnified. But to a child, it can all seem quite exciting.' And the title, Picking Up Worms? Purvis grins mischievously: 'If I explained it to you, I’d be giving it away,' she jokes.

 

Far from playful, yet infused with humour, passion and pzazz, is Murphy’s Two Sore Legs. It is a startlingly frank yet warm-hearted tribute to her remarkable mother Bridget, a handsome, sassy, free-thinking woman, who had six of her 11 children with a man who lived nearby.

Her mother loved the man dearly and went through hell and high water to be with him – the only glitch in their relationship was the fact that he was married with a family, whom he steadfastly refused to leave.

Bridget is to be played by Maria Connolly, a wonderfully versatile actress, who can flip from comedy to heartbreak in the blink of an eye. This 40-minute monologue, which takes in a gallery of colourful support characters, demands a truly virtuoso performance, something which at the mid-point of rehearsals, Connolly is already coming very close to achieving.

'Bridget was an incredible woman,' Connolly says. 'It's a gift of a role, as well as all the other characters she creates, like her American mother, her brothers, her grumpy father, her ballsy granddaughter Lorraine and Liam, the father of six of her children, whom she absolutely loved. There are so many layers and levels to the play and the characters are very well drawn. There are no caricatures.

'Brenda has been very brave in writing a play inspired by her own family, and even mentioning herself in it. Bridget was very glamorous, she loved to dress well and go out dancing. She was way ahead of her time and she was brave, too. Her life could not have been easy, given the times that were in it.'

The atmosphere in the rehearsal room is markedly warm and open, thanks to the enthusiasm, encouragement and generosity of spirit demonstrated by Kershaw. She directs with total absorption, her engagement with the performer written clearly across her face.

One senses a genuine sense of identification with Belfast women in the demeanour of this big-hearted Mancunian, who, in her early career played Shirley Valentine in the 1986 stage premiere of Willy Russell’s eponymous. Her performance was described at the time by the Liverpool Echo critic as 'opening up like a bank of spring flowers'.

Green Shoot were fortunate that Kershaw was able to find a window of opportunity in a packed schedule of directing for stage and screen. In her time, she has directed over 70 episodes of Coronation Street, over 40 episodes of Emmerdale, as well as popular series like Shameless and Heartbeat. Her next job after Flesh and Blood Women will be ITV's female detective series Scott and Bailey, starring Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp.

Kershaw has nothing but praise for her cast and production team, paying tribute to Lynch and Green Shoot for their imaginative approach to the project and for the invitation issued to take part.

'Their faith has made me want to give these shows my very best shot. These are three very different, powerful plays by three very different writers. Each play has its own distinctive, individual life and they deserve a wide audience.

'I have a formidable cast who I have never worked with before but who I want to work with all my professional life. They are totally versatile. And I have a fantastic technical crew, with a really high quality work ethic. I am proud of this company.' As each and every member should be of themselves.

Flesh and Blood Women runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from May 7 – 24, then tours to Strule Arts Centre, Omagh (28 May), Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre, Limavady (29 May), Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (30 May) and the Craic Theatre, Coalisland (31 May).