It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone is struggling through lockdown. But spare a thought for the theatres. Live performance has effectively been decimated. And while it’s wonderful to see brave theatre practitioners staging livestreamed events, with actors in theatres performing their socially distant hearts out to a camera and an empty auditorium, it’s not quite the same, is it? It’s heartening, it does your soul good, but oh dear God, did we ever think we’d miss being crushed at the bar queueing for interval drinks and discreetly rolling our eyes about the Quality Street munchers in the second row?
I have a vested interest. I wrote a play.
Now, it's only a little play, my first, and it came about because back in pre-Covid times I'd been a guest on Pat Kenny's radio show chatting about my new book, The Secrets of Primrose Square. It's a story based on a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, who famously said that a woman is a bit like a tea bag. "You can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water."
Anyway, interview done and dusted, there I was, delighted with life and strolling down Digges Lane in Dublin 2 when the phone rang. Theatre producer Pat Moylan had heard the show and wondered whether I'd ever thought of adapting the book for the stage.
She and I met, we talked, we bonded and the project took root; the challenge, of course, being how to distil a 400-page novel down to a 70-minute play.
I was doubly blessed to have Pat on board; not only is she a highly respected and experienced producer, she also produced the musical adaptation of Angela’s Ashes with stunning success, so there couldn’t have been a more perfect guardian angel to steer my baby from page to stage.
Our initial run had to be shelved, but it was a scary time and, in the greater scheme of things, what was one postponed show?
Two years' work followed and 14 drafts of the script. We had to cut - ruthlessly. In yet another case of sheer beginners' luck, I landed my dream cast with my two best friends on board, Clelia Murphy and Marion O'Dwyer, along with a stunning new talent, Megan McDonnell, fresh off the set of Normal People. Mark Lambert signed up to direct, no better man to steer a project like this.
Our initial run last spring at the Viking Theatre had to be shelved, but it was a scary time and, in the greater scheme of things, what was one postponed show? Pat rebooked autumn dates and put together a string of fabulous countrywide venues, so all we had to do was wait it out.
For a time, all looked well. Summer brought a relaxation of lockdown and case numbers were well and truly on the wane. Should have known better though; if there’s one takeaway from 2020, it’s this; the only sure way to avoid crushing disappointment is not to bother making plans in the first place.
Hey ho, back we went to Level 5 and that was the end of our lovely autumn tour. But lo and behold, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media announced a producers’ grant towards staging a live event, and miraculously we received funding. We were euphoric – this was theatrical equivalent of an adrenaline jab straight to the heart. This time, we were to stage a winter tour, taking in Cork, Galway, Limerick, Kilkenny and both the Pavilion and Civic theatres in Dublin, all wrapping up on February 13th.
I held my breath. Please just let the show go on, was my one and only Christmas wish. It was December, the country had reopened; we had a shot.
But by then, I had a new verb to describe all the cancellations and crushing disappointments. “We got Covided.”
Serves me right for being confident. Yet again, the Covid gods raised their ugly head and there we were, straight back to level 5
Not to worry, Pat decided, powerhouse that she is. With theatres closed down yet again, we’d livestream instead. The plan was to rehearse the show via Zoom, then take it to a rehearsal room (because there’s only so much you can do on Zoom), bring it up to speed, film it in Draíocht Theatre and stream it around all the venues that we were physically unable to get to, 20 dates in all. Massive relief.
We did a full week's rehearsals via Zoom, and worked tirelessly to distil the script down to a final, final, really honestly very final draft. Number 15 at this stage. Early January, we were due to start real-life rehearsals in the James Joyce Centre and I allowed myself to breathe easy. Of course there were ominous background noises on the news as Nphet warned cases were spiraling out of control, but I tuned it out. Our little play was to be a one-off recording, all safely rehearsed at a nice 2-metre social distance. Surely even Tony Holohan would approve?
Serves me right for being confident. Yet again, the Covid gods raised their ugly head and there we were, straight back to Level 5. At the end of our first week’s work via Zoom, a full cast and crew meeting was called. It’s too risky, was Pat’s reasoning. If even one person tested positive or became ill, the consequences were unthinkable.
It was heartening to see how unanimous everyone was behind her – health and safely had to trump all else, didn’t it?
So, our fourth cancellation. To have one cancelled show may be regarded as a misfortune, to have four looks like carelessness, with apologies to Oscar.
My wish for 2021? That somehow, by some miracle, my little play gets to see the light of day, in an actual theatre, with an actual audience, with their bums on actual seats, clutching programmes and wondering what to order at the bar afterwards, when the auditorium goes dark and for belter or for worse - we’re on.
Because the show must go on. Mustn’t it?