Dirty Dancin' in le Shebeen: 'It's hard for us to believe that all this started as a joke on Facebook'
As the play Dirty Dancin' in le Shebeen returns for another run at The Mac, playwright Leesa Harker and leading lady Caroline Curran discuss the runaway success of their crude character Maggie Muff.
It's early afternoon on a grey January day in Belfast. Outside people hurry by, in no mood to linger in the biting wind. Besides, it seems to be getting dark even though lunch-time is barely over. But inside the Mac Theatre, nestled in the Cathedral Quarter, the mood couldn't be more different - bright, infectiously upbeat and at times tipping over into raucous laughter. Indeed, such is the excitement of playwright Leesa Harker and her leading lady Caroline Curran that you could be forgiven for thinking these two were about to make their stage debuts.
Yet even though they currently number among the hottest talents in the arts in Northern Ireland, both young women are still in awe of the fact that people love them so much that they are back in the Mac for a two week run due to popular demand.
The atmosphere was charged with enthusiasm as they prepared for curtain up last Tuesday for another two weeks of Dirty Dancin' in le Shebeen - the hilarious sequel to Leesa's phenomenally successful Fifty Shades of Red White and Blue.
It's another outing for Maggie Muff, the character played so well by Caroline, and the women's joy at their success is both endearing and very genuine. As they talk about it, you can't help but love them for it.
When I chat to them separately, they both say they can't quite believe they are living their dream and still have to pinch themselves every now and again to accept that what is happening in their careers is real.
Caroline's portrayal of Maggie Muff has been described as "amongst the best ever seen on a Belfast stage" and Leesa now has three bestselling books and successful UK tours to her credit.
Dirty Dancin' in le Shebeen was seen by thousands in a sell-out tour last year, but such is the almost fanatical following of the latest shenanigans of Maggie Muff that many fans complained about not being able to get tickets, so now the play is back in The Mac for another sell-out run.
If both Leesa and Caroline are relishing their triumph, then perhaps that's due in some small part to their similar backgrounds. For both have defied the odds to get here. Both grew up in working class housing estates in Belfast. Both believed for many years that theirs was an impossible dream - Caroline's to be an actress and Leesa to become a writer.
And both had to take other jobs before they were able to one day fulfil their true calling.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, despite the huge success of the past few years, neither is taking anything for granted.
Leesa and Caroline have become firm friends as well as colleagues since starting to work together two years ago first on 50 Shades.
In a story worthy of stage adaptation itself, it all started for single mum-of-two Leesa (37) when as a joke she wrote a spoof of the steamy blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey on Facebook in 2012.
Her hilarious Belfast version - Fifty Shades of Red White and Blue - went viral and within no time 29,000 people were following her lead character Maggie Muff's every move.
It led to a book deal by Blackstaff Press followed by a play which went on a sell-out tour of Northern Ireland and the UK.
Her second book, Dirty Dancin' in le Shebeen, was another bestseller and she followed it with a third in 2013- Maggie's Feg Run.
Leesa, who is mum to Lola (6) and Lexi (4), has been writing poems and stories since she was a child.
She studied English Language and Literature at the Open University and has worked as a bank manager, car mechanic, perfume spritzer in Debenhams, in animal welfare and has also had periods of unemployment.
Life has changed beyond recognition for her in the past two years that it's little wonder she feels like her feet haven't touched the ground: "It's crazy, mad, hard to believe and to think it all started as a joke on Facebook," she says.
"I've done every job you can imagine as well as having periods with no work. This is something I have always dreamt about and now I'm doing it. It's just mad. I am so grateful and enjoying every minute."
As well as her prolific writing, Leesa has also set up her own theatre company Red Brick Road Productions and now produces her own plays.
Indeed, she has created such a popular character in Maggie Muff that she is now being sought after for her own BBC TV series.
Still, Maggie, who has affectionately become known as "the tart with a heart" who can turn the air blue with her crude talk about sex, is not for the faint-hearted and will need some careful tweaking before she can be presented to the viewing masses.
Leesa says: "It's just too rude the way it is now so I am working on trying to tone it down for a TV audience. I don't want to take away from the character, though, so I'm having to think of a way round it. TV needs something with a female lead and there is nothing to appeal to the working classes.
"It's all men in lead roles with women as the sidekicks which I think is wrong.
"The BBC is really keen to do a series starring Maggie Muff. Their head of comedy came to the Opera House to see the play and loved it. I'm really excited and it's just going to take a bit of time and work to get there."
While Maggie's speech is strewn with sexual innuendos Leesa makes no excuses for the explicit nature of her work which ultimately manages to amuse rather than offend.
"I do love innuendo," she says. "I am the queen of innuendo. Words are just words to me and I don't get offended by them.
"I know that some people might be offended by hearing women talking about farting in the bath and having casual sex and enjoying it, but I'm not out to shock. It's comedy, it's not sleazy and it's not a case of just saying rude words for the sake of it.
"Maggie gets away with it because it is how she speaks. It's like you think 'Oh my God, I can't believe she said that' but she is such a genuine person that somehow it's ok."
It's a source of great pride for Leesa that Maggie's working class Belfast background has struck such a chord with many people who would never have attended theatre before.
Leesa did her own research among her 33,000 Facebook followers, asking those who had seen her plays if they were regular theatre-goers.
She was astonished by the huge number who replied that going to see Maggie Muff was their first time in a theatre.
She says: "I'm very proud of myself for that and why not? I've told them in the Mac that they better get the bar stocked up this week as there will be a real party atmosphere.
"I myself had never been to the theatre to see a play before I wrote my own play. I had this idea that it was only for older people and that Northern Irish plays were all political. It wasn't my idea of an enjoyable night out.
"When I did the survey on Facebook, most people came back to say they hadn't been to the theatre for the same reasons. It's wonderful to think that they are going now."
Last year was a difficult one for Leesa who spent much of it battling breast cancer after being diagnosed with the disease in October 2013.
She came through four months of chemotherapy and was relieved to be given the all-clear.
Today she is focused on the future and her plans for 2015, which include taking Dirty Dancin' on a tour of Scotland and working further on her new dream of bringing Maggie Muff to the small screen.
She says: "I made a New Year's resolution not to talk about my breast cancer as it is now thankfully behind me.
"Everything is fine and I have finished my treatment. I had a hormonal type of cancer which apparently gives you the best chance of survival and there is no evidence of anything having spread so I was told to just get on with my life and that's what I'm doing.
"It did mean that I missed out last year when Dirty Dancin' in le Shebeen went on tour which is why I am so delighted it is back in the Mac. I've been tortured on Facebook by people complaining they couldn't get a ticket for the shows last year and so we are doing these two weeks for them.
"I'm really enjoying the production side and I have a great all-female team here. Caroline is amazing - she is just Maggie. I couldn't have got anybody better and if she ever tells me she is not doing it anymore I will probably cry my eyes out.
"I do have to pinch myself, I really do. I met a friend of the family last year and was telling her about all that has happened to me over the past couple of years and when you talk about it like that it really does sound like you are making it up. It's crazy what's happened, it really is."
The play's leading lady recognises that feeling. Until Fifty Shades of Red White and Blue, Caroline Curran had never been handed a script which was accompanied by a warning.
She laughs now as she recalls her curiosity after being advised: "I just want to pre-warn you that it has a lot of bad language."
Caroline says: "I'd never heard of the play and I had no idea what I was in for when I took the script home that night.
"But after reading the first page I thought it was really good craic. There was a lot of swearing but it didn't feel like it was in a bad way and I knew that night as I read the script for the first time that I wanted to give it a go and felt that as long as people laughed I didn't mind."
Caroline (30) shot to stardom as audiences and critics alike were wowed by how she brought the beloved Maggie Muff to life on stage.
The plays propelled her into the limelight and revealed her gifts as an actress. Endearingly modest about her talents, she deflects compliments by showering praise on Leesa for creating such a huge character.
"Maggie has reawakened a dirty, dark humour that the people of Belfast love to laugh at," she says.
"I'm so happy she came into my life - I thank my lucky stars every day that she did. Two years on and everyday still feels like I am living a dream. Every day I wake up delighted to go to work and to be able to make people laugh - that's all I have ever wanted to do."
Caroline grew up in the Short Strand and was the youngest of three children. Her parents Eileen (54) and Owen (64) are retired musicians. Her older brother Kevin (37) lives in Italy while her younger brother Damien (34) is married with three children and lives in Belfast.
Having performed on stage with a number of different bands her parents were well aware of the precarious nature of showbiz as a means of making a living and wanted their children to get a good education and follow more solid careers.
"As singers, mum and dad knew how hard the business was and how difficult it can be to get work and they wanted us to get steady jobs like working in a bank," explains Caroline. "When I told my mummy that I wanted to be an actress she cried for three days."
Caroline studied drama at university and after graduating worked as a stage manager for five years.
She was spotted reading two monologues in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, by local playwright Patricia Downey, of Spanner in the Works theatre company, who persuaded her to pursue her acting full-time.
Caroline says: "Stage management was my way of getting my foot in the door and I really loved it but I still had never given up hope on acting. "Patricia really pushed me to give up stage management to concentrate on my acting career and that's what I did even though it meant being unemployed at first. It started slow, just trying to get seen by people as an actress and get my break."
It was good advice, though, and Caroline hasn't looked back since.
She has tread the boards in most local theatres in a number of critically acclaimed roles and sold out her one woman show Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was an experience which paved the way for her big break with Fifty Shades where she alone takes to the stage and holds the audience in the palm of her hand as she seamlessly slips into all nine characters.
She says: "Being on your own on the stage is tough and I am still trying to prove myself. I think you are always trying to prove yourself and you just have to keep working hard.
"As soon as I get clearance from the stage manager I take a big deep breath before I go on stage and then hold it for the next two hours.
"I play nine different people, both men and women and change between characters using different voices and different stances.
"I've based some of these characters on real people I know and I've told some of them and they don't mind, but others I haven't had the courage yet to tell ..."
It helps, too, that she loves her lead character Maggie Muff. Her dad got quite a shock when he first came to see the show and heard his daughter swear for the first time ever.
Caroline laughs as she tells the story: "I don't swear round the house so it was completely new for my dad to hear me talk like that, but he said when he looked around the audience and saw everybody laughing it didn't seem so bad.
"Maggie Muff is very honest and stands up for women and she has integrity and even though she can be quite crude she is funny. She believes in love and friendship and what I love about her is that there is a wee bit of Maggie Muff in every one of us."
Caroline is engaged to her boyfriend of seven years Christopher Williamson (35), who works as a hotel porter. The couple have put marriage plans on hold while Caroline focuses on getting her career off the ground.
Although now well established as a talented actress she jokes that she won't be able to think about setting a date for her big day "until I can afford a Vera Wang dress".
When she finishes Dirty Dancin' in le Shebeen she plans a well-earned holiday in the sun with her fiancé then it will be straight back into for a production of Martin Lynch's new play Crazy, which opens in the Mac in May.
As she heads back into rehearsals, she adds: "I will take anything I am offered. I just want to keep busy with new acting roles and challenges."
Crude comedy’s hilarious story
In Dirty Dancin' at le Shebeen Maggie Muff and her buck-eejit sidekick, Big Sally-Ann are planning a birthday party in the Shebeen.
Big Sally-Ann's dream is to dance to the last dance from Dirty Dancing at the party - but she can't find her rhythm, or a dress, or a swimsuit that fits.
And as if that's not enough, big Igor "the dogger" gets lifted and deported. Maggie comes to the rescue, but in the world of "The Muff" things don't always run as smoothly as planned.
In this hilarious sequel you get to join Maggie and chums for tales of a front wedgie, being caught short in Zumba, and a friendship that's tested to the limit.
The show opened last Tuesday at the Mac and runs until January 25.
Produced by Leesa's own company Red Brick Road Productions Limited, it is directed by Andrea Montgomery.
For tickets, contact the Mac, Belfast, tel: 028 9023 5053 or go to: themaclive.com/shows