Marie Jones Stars in Dockers

The playwright talks about being back on stage and playing a money-lender with a 'bit of a heart'

When playwright Martin Lynch first asked Marie Jones to play Sarah Montague in the new production of Dockers at the Lyric, she said, ‘Absolutely not! No way.’

Jones likes to keep her hand in as an actor – writing can be a solitary occupation and she loves the craic in rehearsals – but she didn’t want to commit to a run at the Lyric. As she points out, ‘I’d usually be getting ready for my holidays.’ Lynch, and two vodkas, convinced Jones to change her mind.

She’s glad she did. Both Dockers and the Lyric Theatre have special meaning to her as an artist.

Back when the idea of rebuilding the Lyric Theatre was first mooted, she and Jane Coyle (journalist and CultureNorthernIreland contributor) cynically agreed that they would be on zimmer-frames before it was finished. Jones delights in proving herself wrong with every visit.

‘The first thing I ever did was perform at the [old] Lyric,’ Jones explains. ‘And when I saw the new Lyric for the first time, I knew I was going to be on this stage. I needed to be.’

Her affection for the Lyric Theatre, however, is based on more than just nostalgia. For Jones, as an actress, the Lyric Theatre was her salvation. ‘At that time I couldn’t move away, it wasn’t an option,’ Jones explains. ‘So the Lyric was the only place for me. It was such an important part of my life.’

And for Jones, most – if not everything – about the old Lyric has been carried over to its new site. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ she asks, walking across the foyer and waving a hand to indicate… everything. ‘It’s a joy to come into and to work in as an actress. And it still has that great, intimate feeling the Lyric always had.’

The Lyric Theatre was also where Jones saw Dockers – starring her husband Ian McElhinney – for the first time. ‘It changed my life,’ she admits. She laughs at the words – claiming that she’s going to give Lynch a big head – but stands by the statement.

Jones recalls sitting in the audience, with people shouting out at the stage, and thinking, ‘Oh, this is what it is all about. This is the sort of theatre I want to be involved in.’ Jones had been used to theatre that was ‘clinky-clinky and nicey-nice’, not big lads from the docks trying to get in to the play carrying pints in both hands. This was a different sort of theatre.

‘My mouth was hanging open,’ Jones remembers fondly, before quickly turning serious. ‘Dockers changed the face of theatre for a lot of people. It opened for the doors for Northern Irish playwrights like Graham Reid and myself. We have Martin to thank for that.’

Directly, in Jones' case. After the play, she approached Lynch with some other female actors and told him he had to write a play like that for them, for women. Jones pulls herself up to imitate Lynch, turning her voice gruff. ‘I will not. Go and do it yourselves.’

So they did, starting the all-woman touring company, Charabanc Theatre Company. Their first play was Lay Up Your Ends, collaboratively written by Charabanc with advice from Lynch and McElhinney. ‘We had been researching our backgrounds and all of us had a connection to the Linen Trade,’ Jones says, explaining the choice of subject. ‘My mum worked in it for two weeks, but she thought the work was too hard.’

Jones' background comes into play in her current role too. Her character, Sarah Montague, is a money-lender, and Jones remembers going with her mother to visit their money-lender when she was growing up.

‘She had this wee shop that had a wooden floor and a built-up shoe.' She thumps the heel of her hand on the table to mimic the clunk and drag of the woman’s foot. 'I think she had polio or something. I can still see her going to get the money. Everyone was always talking about money-lenders. They were the scourge of our community, but they were also really, really important.’

With Montague, Jones imagines her as a tough, colourful and confident money-lender who has a ‘bit of a heart’. She thinks that becoming a money-lender might have been a survival mechanism for the character. ‘Montague is a Protestant in a Catholic community. Money-lending is her way of having a wee bit of control. Who cares if they like her or not? She’s got the money.’

Meanwhile, control is something that Jones is trying not to practice. Her son, Matthew McElhinney, is in Dockers with her. Despite his jokes – ‘He says the only downside to the play is being in it with me,’ Jones mock-huffs – she is doing her best to be hands-off and just let him get on with it. ‘It wouldn’t be right to interfere. He has to do his own thing and I’ve got to do my own thing.’

Jones confides that her husband was nearly in the play too, making it a family affair. Lynch wanted him, but it never quite came together. ‘I said to him, what do you think this is? Buy one and get one free?’

Jones hopes that people coming to see the play will think it still relevant. She believes it is, pointing out the commonalities between the job market the dockers experience and the one today. No-one stands in pens waiting for employers, at least, not yet. But job-hunters do send out hundreds of CVs in the hopes of getting a job in a coffee shop.

Relevant or not, however, it’s still a play with ‘heart and humour,’ says Jones. The aim of theatre is to get people to watch for two hours without ‘checking their watches or feeling their bums on the seat’, and she is certain they can do that.