EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL 2021
Myra, a middle-aged, homeless Dublin street drinker, is feisty, funny, and tragic. Desperate for her first drink of the day, she begs from the passing city centre throngs. Between begging she re-lives her back story. Playing all the characters, and acting out all the incredible events that have led her to this pitiful existence, Myra takes us on a swirling, searing, at times hilarious, but ultimately heart-breaking journey.
Hi Brian, it's great to have the chance to talk with you, how have you been keeping during these strange Covid times?
Covid has surely changed us. If it hasn’t then you’re immune to change. Thankfully, I’m fully vaccinated and have not caught it (yet?). But my wife, Majella, though also fully vaccinated, still caught it. A year ago it might well have killed her, as she has a weakened immune system from a previous illness. But being vaccinated meant that her symptoms were very minor, and passed over in a couple of days. So thank goodness for science and the brilliant scientists who gave us this life-saving vaccine.
Since the start of lockdowns what has been the most surprising thing you've discovered about yourself?
I’ve learned to appreciate people and things I previously took for granted. I’ve lost a couple of close friends to the virus. And it’s not until you lose someone before their time that you fully appreciate how much they meant to you.
Have you taken on any new hobbies or interests?
During the lockdown, I’ve taken the opportunity to write a new comedy play, Scottish Psycho, which will premiere at Edinburgh Fringe 2022. It’s the craziest, most creative piece of writing I’ve ever produced. And I think it’s possibly one of my best plays to date. It’s set in a remote Scottish Highland motel near Inverness, where lives (with his mother of course) the great-nephew of the infamous Norman Bates. Truly the blackest of black comedies, and with singing and dancing, Hitchcock’s masterpiece gets a treatment you would not believe. I will be seeking a co-producer for this in 2022.
Your first run in 2019 was a great success, did you imagine you would get the type of reaction you got for Myra's Story?
Myra’s Story was a huge success at Edinburgh Fringe 2019. It played the splendid Assembly Rooms Ballroom, and 22 sellout shows brought rousing standing ovations from audiences and five-star reviews from critics. I was delighted, but not at all surprised. Because, and this may come as a shock, I produced the first draft of the play 20 years ago! Its original title was Maire A Woman of Derry. And it has been receiving fantastic acclaim from audiences in the northwest of Ireland since its first production back in 2001 in Derry’s Playhouse Theatre, and then in Derry’s 1000 seater, Millennium Forum Theatre, where it regularly sold out. Yet, despite my efforts, I could not attract interest in it from further afield.
So, in 2013, I retired the original production and set about an extensive re-write in which I moved the storyline from Derry to Dublin. In 2018, Millennium Forum Productions took Myra’s Story on a successful short Irish tour. Following this, in 2019, I decided to go for broke and use the last of our personal savings to take my own production of the play, with me directing, to the Edinburgh Fringe. I didn’t really see it as a big gamble. I knew Scottish audiences would love the play.
My only regret is that I didn’t get it to Edinburgh years ago. Glasgow now looms large in future plans as it will go down an absolute storm there. So, if any Glasgow theatres would like to get in touch?
"I was heading nowhere fast. Had nothing to lose. Once I began writing and had a little bit of early success, I never looked back."
Myra's Story features Fíonna Hewitt-Twamley, what has the experience been like for you working with such a talented award-nominated actress?
I was incredibly fortunate in finding Dublin actor Fíonna Hewitt-Twamley to play the part of Myra in the new adaptation. Fíonna understood the character intimately and revels in giving incredible performance after performance. She doesn’t just act the role, she inhabits it. On one memorable occasion in Belfast, a front-row elderly member of the audience was so totally convinced that Fíonna (as Myra) was a genuine homeless down-and-out that he stepped forward at the end of the show, reached up to the stage and pressed a pound coin into her hand!
Tell me a little bit about Myra's Story, what was the inspiration behind your play?
The idea for the play came to me twenty years ago when I was down in Dublin on business with another play. Crossing the city’s famous Ha’penny Footbridge, I spotted a pitiful homeless woman crouched down begging. I passed her by, pretending not to see her or hear her plea, ‘could ya help me out, sir.’ Afterwards, as I sat in my plush hotel, I felt ashamed. So ashamed I made my way back to the bridge to give her a donation that might lift my guilt. But she was gone. On the coach back to Derry I couldn’t get her out of my head. Who was she? What was her backstory? How does someone come to be in that state? And that’s how ideas for plays come about. I immediately set to work, beginning with the premise ‘every homeless person, every addict, has a backstory to tell.’
And a few months later Myra was born. A lot of the characters and events in her story come from my own growing up years, and from my own extended family and friends. To make the play work, I had to get people to look into Myra’s face, stand in her grubby shoes, smell her stale odours and, unlike me that day in Dublin, listen to her voice. The bottom line with Myra’s Story has always been, ‘there but for the grace go I.’ This is why audiences everywhere so readily love her and identify with her. She is their mother, their father, their brother their sister. She is each of them... there but for the grace.
Have you always had a passion for theatre?
When people ask how I’ve become a playwright I could give the easy answer ‘because theatre has always been in my blood and it was my destiny to write.’ But that would be a total lie. Because the truth is I had never set foot in a theatre to see a play until I was well into my thirties. I come from a working-class background in Derry. I was brought up in the huge Creggan Council Estate, then moved to the famous Bogside when I got married. Theatre was not part of my life, or of my circle of friends. I had left school aged sixteen with no paper qualifications.
Then spent the next twenty years rearing a family, doing everything from factory work to contract cleaning to taxi driving to crossing over to England to work for Butlins. Back in Derry, I began writing in my late thirties as a last gasp effort to escape yet another period of grinding unemployment. I was heading nowhere fast. Had nothing to lose. Once I began writing and had a little bit of early success, I never looked back.
And finally, is there any advice you would offer an emerging playwright making their Fringe debut this year?
The best piece of advice I can give to any aspiring writer is, develop your own voice, don’t copy others. And don’t censor yourself. If you think it, write it. If people like your writing voice then you’re up and running. However, be prepared for a multitude of setbacks and disappointments along the way.
It’s not an easy journey. But an immensely rewarding one.