Fly Me to the Moon

Playwright Marie Jones on her new play 'about desperate people in desperate situations'

She has a list of credits as long as your arm, awards and nominations too numerous to mention, productions ongoing around the world, a couple of honorary doctorates, an OBE and a film of one of her most famous plays (Stones in his Pockets) soon to go into production.

These days she could be relaxing in rural seclusion in her second home in County Leitrim, but instead playwright and actor Marie Jones is about to embark on yet another new play, in which she will make her debut as a director. So what is it, one wonders, that continues to spur her on?

'Any creative person will always be creating,' Jones tells me at the press junket for Fly Me to the Moon, which is soon to open at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, produced by Martin Lynch and Joe Rea. 'You can’t stop just because you have plays going on around the place.

'Besides, what else would I be doing?' she laughs. 'People are always coming up to me with "a great idea for a play", and my head is full of little germs of ideas of my own. There’s no way I’ll live long enough to write them all!'

For all her success over the years, Jones remains as accessible, unpretentious and good humoured as she was when she wrote her first play for Charabanc Theatre Company, the company she founded with four similarly under-employed actresses in 1983.

Encouraged by fellow Belfast playwright Martin Lynch, who already had several titles under his belt, Jones gritted her teeth and set about creating an ensemble piece about the women who toiled for long hours in the gruelling conditions of the Belfast linen mills.

Lay Up Your Ends turned out to be an enormous success, establishing Charabanc as a theatrical force to be reckoned with in Northern Ireland, and Jones as a writer with a gift for turning the real-life stories of ordinary women into engaging drama.

She draws parallels with her latest play Fly Me to the Moon, which was conceived in similar circumstances and again focuses on the plight of female workers.

'Last year Paines Plough theatre company in England asked me to write something for a season of new plays called A Play, A Pie and A Pint,' she explains. 'I talked to Tara Lynne O’Neill and Katy Tumelty, who had appeared in the revival of Somewhere Over the Balcony a few years ago. We came around to the subject of care workers and started to develop the idea.

'We’ve all had experience of the care system. My mother was in a home for two years. My sister and I got to know the people who worked there and had such a laugh with them. When they saw us arriving, they’d say 'Uh-oh, here comes trouble!''

'Care workers go from house to house, looking after lonely, elderly people. They are undervalued and underpaid and can tend to lose sight of the human being in their care. They’re there for 20 minutes, see to the client’s basic needs, then move on to the next one. There’s no time to build relationships. The person just becomes an address.'

O’Neill and Tumelty play Frances and Loretta, two hard-up community care workers tasked with looking after an old man named Davy, who dies in the loo while on their watch. When they get wind of the fact that Davy was about to come into a few bob, the two women share a little lapse of honesty, which spirals them into a nightmare scenario.

'It’s not that Frances and Loretta are bad people, just women who are down on their luck and struggling to make ends meet,' observes Jones. 'In their day, they probably would have been mill workers.'

'But it’s very much a play for our times, about desperate people in desperate situations, who do something they would never have dreamed of doing before. They justify their actions by saying that in taking money that belongs to someone else, they’re only doing what the Government does to working people.'

While Jones laments the fact that, almost 30 years on, good parts for actresses are still thin on the ground, she takes satisfaction at being part of a movement that has attracted new audiences to mainstream theatre. She cites Lynch’s Short Strand community play The Stone Chair, which, in the late 1980s, drew people from the area into the splendour of the Grand Opera House for the first time.

'It’s great that people from those communities are no longer in awe of theatre,' she says. 'Working class kids aren’t shy now about saying they want to become actors or singers or dancers. We have great young talent here in Northern Ireland, but a generation ago, we’d never have seen them. It’s all about attitude and confidence. I don’t write plays to preach about the underdog. I’m there to entertain people.'

Fly Me to the Moon
runs at the Belfast Grand Opera House from January 31 to February 18.