‘I just sit with my feet up, write a bit and have a laugh’

News Letter journalist Julie-Ann Spence pictured during a interview with Marie Jones at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
Picture By: Arthur Allison.
News Letter journalist Julie-Ann Spence pictured during a interview with Marie Jones at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Born and bred in Belfast, playwright Marie Jones is back at her second home, the Lyric Theatre, as the curtain goes up on her new play Sinners.

Marie loved the theatre from a young age but never dreamed that one day she would make a career from her childhood passion.

“I always loved the theatre,” she said. “I had never really been, maybe to a pantomime once, but I loved the idea of it.

“When I was about seven or eight I used to put on shows in the back alley. I would put a curtain on the back door and charge people to come. I just made it up off the top of my head. I loved fairy stories and I was always the queen, I just created my own wee plays.”

But childhood dreams were just that - games and fantasies that couldn’t become reality. Even when she was at school, Marie never thought a life in the theatre was a serious prospect so she got some qualifications and went into the world of work.

“I couldn’t even think of being an actress,” she said. “I was quite disruptive at school because I wasn’t interested academically and when kids aren’t interested they start to act out.

“I was constantly in detention and one day I was sent, yet again, to the head mistress. She said that being in detention wasn’t working so she sent me to drama class.

“I thought it would be very boring and we would just be doing Shakespeare but when I went after school everyone was singing and dancing and I thought ‘I have arrived’.”

Despite her every increasing love of the theatre, Marie followed the advice of her teacher, got some basic maths, shorthand, and typing qualifications and went to work in an office,

But she still harboured ambitions of being on the stage and got a helping hand from one of Northern Ireland’s best loved comic actors.

“My first time at the Group Theatre, I went to see James Young,” Marie recalls. “I thought I would write to him. I told him I really loved the theatre but didn’t know how someone like me could do it and I asked him for advice.

“He said he was holding auditions for a new play and asked me to go and see him. He brought me on stage with another actor and I got the part.

“I was 16 and I was thrown in at the deep end, which was fantastic.”

Marie then joined the Youth Lyric company but still didn’t think it was possible for her to become an actress full time.

At the age of 30 Marie and some of her artistic friends formed an actors’ centre, inviting special guests along to give talks and host workshops.

From that centre, five of the women decided to set up their own theatre company called Charabanc and with guidance and inspiration from acclaimed playwright Martin Lynch, Marie stared writing plays for the women to perform.

She later penned five plays for Replay Theatre and in 2002 she was awarded an OBE.

Over the years Marie wrote more and more, with one of her most well known and critically acclaimed plays Stones in His Pockets, which was directed by her husband Ian McElhinney, taking the world by storm in 1999, and winning her the 2001 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Such has been the love for Stones in His Pockets, the play is currently being staged in the United States, first at Princeton, before moving to New York. The play is also undergoing a revival in Northern Ireland, with Marie taking on the role of director when it is staged at the SSE Arena in Belfast.

“Ian doesn’t care if I steal his ideas for the play,” she laughed. “He has done the basic work and I will just help the actors achieve the vision. It is the original work with fresh actors but I’m not precious about my work so if they have ideas or want to change something then I am happy to do that.”

There is no rest for the busy playwright. Marie has also finished work on the next two parts of Dear Arrabella, the first of the three parts was staged last year at the Old Vic in London. “I go away to write now. Either to our house in Greece or to an artists’ retreat at Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan, I love it. I count the sleeps until I go and I spend two weeks writing. People tell me I work hard but really I just sit in the house with my feet up, write a bit and have a laugh.”