Elaine Murphy on adapting Circle of Friends: ‘They call it the Normal People of its day’

The stage version of Maeve Binchy’s novel is finally premiering after a two-year delay

Maeve Binchy famously earwigged on conversations, providing inspiration for the stories she wrote, in novels and newspaper columns, evoking complicated lives and relationships. Here we are, 32 years after the publication of Binchy’s Circle of Friends, and playwright Elaine Murphy, who has adapted it for the stage, is talking about writing about interactions and relationships (“I wouldn’t be one of those twist-and-turn, plot-plot-plot” writers).

When money’s been tight she temped. “I just love chatting to people. That’s why I like temping so much: you go in and get to meet loads of people. I end up in the strangest of places working. You’re only there for a little while.”

Aha. Is temping her version of Binchy’s overhearing? She acknowledges she has one of those faces “where people come and sit beside me on the bus: Wait till I tell you. But Maeve was much more extroverted. I’m better one-on-one.”

Her warmth and good humour seem a good match for Binchy’s, and producer Breda Cashe asked her to adapt the hugely popular novel Circle of Friends for its world premiere onstage.

READ MORE

They were two weeks into rehearsal on March 12th, 2020, all set to open on April 6th, when it froze, almost mid-sentence. Murphy recalls watching a run-through of Act 1 with Cashe and Gordon Snell (Binchy’s husband) that day our world paused. “There was such a good spirit about it, and Gordon was thrilled with it, because I had left lots of space for singing and dancing, to give it a real energy of young people. There’s great energy in it, and crack. We were really delighted with ourselves.”

And then.

She thought, “Hopefully we’ll be back in two or three weeks. I remember going home to my husband, who’s a musician [Gavin McCaffrey, who plays with the Bentley Boys, among others] and the two of us looking at each other: what the hell are we going to do? It was terrifying.”

Ready for action

Fast forward two years, and we’re sitting backstage in the Gaiety Theatre, walls covered with photos of past theatre glories, back at the same point, mid-rehearsals and ready for action. “Breda Cashe is a superstar. Every curveball that’s been thrown at her, she has just rolled with it and figured it out.”

The trio of young women at the centre of the novel – and now a stage play directed by Viko Nikci – are Benny (Roseanna Purcell), Nan (Juliette Crosbie) and Eve (Aisling Kearns), dealing with the vagaries of friendship and fellas and falling-out, heartbreak and humanity, grief and family. They’re from a Wicklow village, heading to university in Dublin.

Going to UCD in the 1950s, women generally “must have been like unicorns on campus. With all these men, and trying to find a place there.”

Murphy had read Binchy’s novels years ago, and revisited. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a well-handled paperback. Various coloured stickies protrude and, as she flips it, there are glimpses of corresponding highlighter colours for different characters. “It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle.”

Growing up, the things I remember are the really strong female friendships. If I fell out with them that would have devastated me more than breaking up with boys

“I remember, how am I gonna get, like . . . it’s 709 pages, but also there’s about 40-odd characters. And loads of other people she talks about in the village. They’re a sort of tapestry, all these people that actually don’t do a whole lot, but give you a real sense of the place. So many beautiful chapters of Maeve. Everybody is shaped by where they come from.”

She set out to “find the action of the story and pare it down from there”.

She observes that Pat O’Connor’s 1995 movie version, starring Minnie Driver, “is very much about Benny and Jack”, the romance, “but for me, this story is more about the three friends. I think the big story is, not to spoil it, but how girls make these really strong friendships. Even for me growing up, the things I remember are the really strong female friendships. If I fell out with them that would have devastated me more than breaking up with boys. Friends from school, from college, they’re the friends you carry through life.”

‘Big life changes’

“It’s the same stuff we all go through. They call it [Circle of Friends] the Normal People of its day. This was the original. Now there’s social media and other stuff, but at the end of the day, when we all go through those big life changes, going to college and moving away, we’re all dealing with the same things. We’re trying to find who we are.”

Murphy’s breakthrough hit was Little Gem, a tragicomedy about three women from different generations. It premiered at 2008’s Dublin Fringe Festival, winning the Fishamble New Writing Award, an Irish Times Theatre Awards Best New Play nomination, and then bagging top prize, the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award, at Edinburgh Fringe. It’s continuously in production since then. Marsha Mason won a Critics Choice Award for it (New York Irish Rep production in 2019), and its longest run is in Prague, where it has been performed in repertory since 2010.

For all the fear and isolation, Murphy’s been busily creative during the pandemic. She’s in the middle of writing two plays, wrote a TV pilot and is also working on a comedy-drama series based on a true story; the kernel is from an unproduced play she wrote years ago, perhaps presciently, about poor building standards during the boom.

For her, Binchy’s novels are “like the duvet and the bowl of soup when you’re feeling a bit low. Leave me alone for a few hours, I’m going to read me novel. They’re just so lovely to get lost in.”

But the stage version is shaping up for good, fun nights out, she hopes. “I’m looking forward to sitting at the back again, just listening to people out and chatting and enjoying it. And also, to do Maeve justice. I really hope I’ve, ah, captured the spirit of her a little bit. I feel like Benny grew up to be Maeve.”

A decade on from Binchy’s death, “I really wanted to have that lovely humour of Maeve in it. It’s not vicious and it’s not mean. And it’s good crack.”

Circle of Friends is at Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick April 13-16 and Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, April 20-May 14