Three plays, two companies, one issue: mental health in NI | EdgeFest

The artistic directors behind a series of bold new theatre productions on coming together and responding creatively to the crisis on our doorstep

A trio of bold and darkly comic shows will take over the upstairs venue at the MAC for three weeks under the banner of EdgeFest. The productions will explore the wider issues of mental health to take theatre audiences ‘to the edge of who we are’.

The series of plays is a creative response to the mental health crisis in Northern Ireland, which has a 25% higher prevalence than England with one in five adults having a mental health problem at any one time. The arts community knows the shattering effect of the continuing loss of colleagues and friends to suicide. Individual practitioners are also aware from their experience of addressing their own poor mental health, backed up by research, that accessing creativity and imagination can have a positive impact on wellbeing.

Tinderbox Theatre Company’s Patrick J O’Reilly is directing his own play The Man Who Fell To Pieces. He explains that at the heart of the four-handed production is John, a man who is literally falling apart.

‘He’s telling the story of his depression, his breaking points and his way of dealing with depression by using his imagination. When he tried to vocalise his feelings, it was incoherent. How do you talk about depression without using clichés – like being ‘sad’ – and without it being less empathetic?’

It’s a play that promises not to forsake humour while celebrating the beauty and fragility of being human and shining a light on strength and hope that are present at moments of crisis. While John is a fictional character, the issue is a very personal one to O’Reilly. Over six months in 2012, he experienced a pervasive sense of low self-worth and hopelessness. For him, anti-depressant tablets were not a good fit for the context and circumstances behind his feelings, all of which feeds into the character of John in the play. One of the reasons O’Reilly attended the Jacques Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris was to understand how to physically portray someone falling apart on stage.

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Patrick J O'Reilly

‘The arts are fundamental in how we can get someone to explore who they are through performances, or workshops, or imagination such as storytelling and poetry. It’s important that we celebrate who we are no matter how many times we’ve been cracked and broken, it’s more about showing that in those moments your strength is there because you manage to hold yourself together no matter what happens.’

While the play is personal, O’Reilly had no interest in taking a role on stage. ‘I’m not precious to it’ he says, and in the rehearsal room he is happy to have a physical and dynamic collaboration with the cast (Maria Connolly, Patrick Buchanan, Roisin Gallagher and Shaun Blaney). Their performance will be accompanied by music composed by Katie Richardson. O’Reilly has collaborated with her for more than a decade and appreciates ‘her talent of looking at theatre and how music can play a significant role within that form’.

On top of a regional tour, Tinderbox’s IN8 outreach programme will take The Man Who Fell To Pieces into residential care homes, a prison and community centres, to groups of people who would not otherwise be able to attend theatre performances and explore these problems through creativity. O’Reilly says that ‘regardless of who you are, or what your art form is, or where you come from, or how you express yourself creatively, none of that matters to how Tinderbox will approach people to create work with us or to respond to our work.’

O’Reilly developed The Man Who Fell To Pieces as part of Prime Cut’s REVEAL programme in 2015 and that company’s artistic director, Emma Jordan, is delighted that EdgeFest is featuring Tinderbox’s work along with another two shows produced by Prime Cut.

Jordan had already been planning to produce Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful and East Belfast Boy when she realised that O’Reilly was working again on The Man Who Fell To Pieces. She has noticed that the theme of male mental health keeps recurring in recent new work from playwrights. ‘We’re interested in looking at the issue,' she explains, 'the writers are writing about it, the stats in Northern Ireland are absolutely horrendous, and it made sense to ask what can we do together.’

Emma Jordan Feature

Emma Jordan

‘Theatre is an act of empathy in terms of opening our understanding as a viewer and an audience to how people think and feel and their life experience. It’s a natural home to look at those issues.’

Writer Fintan Brady developed East Belfast Boy with young men from the local community in 2015 and it was first performed in Ballymac Friendship Centre in the heart of the inner east area of Belfast. Jordan is directing this new production and says ‘the script absolutely blew me away.’

‘We can be very judgemental as a society about working class young men, but this is a beautiful insight into 21 year old Davy, a DJ who has just become a father and he’s looking back over his life experience and wondering what decisions has he made for himself and what decisions has the place around him made for him.’

Ryan McParland plays Davy in this piece of dance theatre that sees Prime Cut collaborate with DJ Phil Kieran and dancer Oona Doherty.

Prime Cut’s associate director Rhiann Jeffrey (fresh from the MAC’s Hansel & Gretel) takes the reins for Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful, written by John Patrick Higgins about a man who is considering throwing in the towel.

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Jordan saw the play at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. ‘It was originally written for a comedian,' she says, 'but I saw so much depth to the script that there’s room to present this monologue in a different way.’

Charlie Bonner will play Malachy, a middle aged man in a moment of crisis. Jordan explains that ‘he really likes women but is daunted by their emotional intelligence. His self-confidence is on the floor. It’s a voice I haven’t heard before. John writes it in a very poignant and funny yet heartbreaking way.’

Prime Cut has recently picked up seven nominations for The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards for last year’s production of Red in the Lyric Theatre. To Jordan ‘it felt like a bit of a watershed moment’ when she opened the paper and saw the news. ‘Just phenomenal.’

A weekend of talks and workshops will accompany the EdgeFest performances in the MAC. Yoga, meditation, and an open house pharmacy offering social prescriptions will be offered as a counterpoint to purely pharmaceutical solutions. There will also be a disco to fundraise for the suicide and self-harm prevention charity PIPS.

Tickets are now available for The Man Who Fell To Pieces (February 6 - 11), Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful (February 15 - March 1) and East Belfast Boy (February 16 - March 2), with 20% discount for those booking to see all three shows. There are also opportunities on February 17, 24 and 25 as well as March 3 to see a double bill of Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful and East Belfast Boy. Book via

After the MAC, The Man Who Fell To Pieces will embark on a regional tour through The Alley, Strabane; Riverside, Coleraine; Cushendall Golf Club, Antrim; The Craic Arts Centre, Dungannon; and Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick.