Marie Jones' eye-opening night at the church of Pastor McConnell as she researched her new play
Belfast writer Marie Jones joined the throng to witness a controversial minister for research, but her new play has a very different take on religion
She was just another face in the packed pews at Pastor James McConnell's Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast but writer Marie Jones wasn't seeking salvation. She was looking for more down-to-earth inspiration. For a play.
Marie, a self-avowed non-believer, went to see the controversial pastor in action as part of her research for a new work called Sinners which opens in Belfast's Lyric Theatre next month and which is a wry look at the world of religion.
Marie, however, insists that the play isn't based on the Tabernacle or Pastor McConnell, who last year successfully contested a charge of racism levelled at him over comments he made about Islam in one of his sermons.
The preacher in Sinners is an American evangelist who comes to Northern Ireland and who quickly has a small rural community eating out of his hand … and filling his pockets.
Marie remembers the fervour whipped up by Bible-bashing evangelists, particularly the visiting American ones, in her youth. And she saw the most famous of them all, Billy Graham.
She says: "I went to a hall in the centre of Belfast to have a look at Graham. He wasn't there in person. I think the pictures were coming from America. I was only about 11 but I had never seen anything quite like it.
"It was pure theatre. There were times during his service that the music slowed right down and Billy Graham got very quiet. It was very emotional and people all around me were putting up their hands after he asked who wanted to come to the Lord. They rushed to the front to where Graham's people were standing."
Marie most definitely wasn't one of Graham's disciples but she found it easy to understand why people fell under his sway.
She says: "Only I was too scundered, I would have gone up myself. But I wasn't sure that what I was wearing was fit for the occasion."
Marie comes from east Belfast where in her younger days churches were maybe not a dime a dozen but the area's cup most certainly did runneth over with places of worship on almost every street. And Marie sampled a lot of their wares.
But in her case the clerics were preaching to the unconverted. She says: "There wasn't much of a social life around us. So the churches became a substitute. We didn't take it very seriously at all but we would have gone to many different churches. After all there was a chance that you might have found a boy in one of them.
"I remember that there were six churches on Templemore Avenue alone."
Sinners has been in the melting pot of Marie's mind for years. She first had the idea of doing a loose adaptation of Moliere's play Tartuffe in the wake of writing her take on Nikolai Gogol's play, The Government Inspector in the 1990s.
But she says: "The more I worked on the new idea, the farther I got away from the actual play itself. So I forgot all about it."
And when she re-visited the Moliere adaptation in more recent times, she couldn't find the original from all those years back. But she didn't panic. "I reckoned I didn't need it any more. So I just decided to start again from scratch."
The storyline of Sinners centres on a charismatic and mysterious preacher called Pastor O'Hare, who offers an isolated farming community redemption through his unorthodox ministry.
The pastor's easy charm wins over hundreds of converts including a farmer who allows him to use his field for his rallies. And he sacrifices much more besides.
"Half the town gets caught up in this evangelical fever," says Marie. "But the farmer's family are wary because they see him giving him up his land and even his car to the preacher to travel about in. The pastor moves into the house and he eventually gets everything. Everyone in the play has something to lose to him."
The question begging for an answer throughout is whether or not the Pastor is genuine.
Another east Belfast playwright, Sam Thompson, famously tackled the same subject in his play, The Evangelist, in 1963 with Ray McAnally playing the lead role of the Pastor John Earls, a self-proclaimed but unproven healer of broken bodies as well as retriever of lost souls.
In 1997 this writer revived the role in a production staged at the Arts Theatre in Belfast by a theatre company founded by Roma Tomelty who, by coincidence, is in the 10-strong cast of Sinners.
Like Thompson before her, Marie Jones opens up a debate about the evangelist and evangelism but she insists that the two plays are very different pieces - especially as hers is a comedy.
The Lyric production also has a heavy emphasis on music, with award-winning composer Rod McVey having written the score and using multi-tracking to help create a choir who grow in number as the evangelist's ministry increases in size.
Marie says: "They get kitted out in all the robes and it's all very American gospel and the pastor has visions of building his own church in the countryside."
Marie's visit to Pastor McConnell's Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road, a year ago, was an eye-opener. "I couldn't get over how much people had obviously been prepared to pay to support the church. It was like the Hilton Hotel and there were cameras everywhere.
"When the music started, people were singing and getting carried away. And I could see why. Preachers like Pastor McConnell are great at what they do.
"But at the same time I was looking at young fellas around me and wondering why they weren't going out and doing other things rather than coming to the Lord.
"But I have to admit that the atmosphere was astonishing and I remember thinking that if you were lonely, there would be a great sense of community at Whitewell where people would want to go two or three nights a week.
"But there was also a vulnerability among some folk who really needed to believe in something.
"As for me and my friends, we all caught ourselves on after we left the church and went home," says Marie, who encouraged members of the Sinners production team and cast to go to Whitewell to sample the set-up there for themselves.
"It was very important for us that as many of our people as possible witnessed that potent atmosphere."
The Lyric Theatre management are confident that Sinners, which they're billing as an 'uproarious satire on religion, family and greed', will strike a chord with Belfast audiences.
"I just hope that they'll find it entertaining," says Marie, who first worked with musical composer Rod McVey 40 years ago.
"I trust that we won't have a re-run of a problem we had way back in the Arts Theatre days in Belfast in the 1980s."
Rod was the musical director of a show called The Rockin' Fifties when he received a message that there was a bomb scare.
"I couldn't understand what was going on," says Marie, who was in the middle of a song on stage. "All of a sudden I realised that Rod was directing the band to play the song quicker and I could barely keep up. Then there was an announcement that the theatre had to be evacuated.
"All of us in the cast including the likes of the late Peter Quigley and Libby Smith got out too and we kept the show going on the pavement in Botanic Avenue until we received the all-clear and we were all able to return to the theatre."
Marie is, of course, now one of Northern Ireland's most successful playwrights as well as an actress who starred in movies like In the Name of The Father about the Guildford Four.
And her play Stones in his Pockets, which has played to packed houses all around the world, is set for a revival in America - and in Belfast.
Highly respected British director Lindsay Posner is bringing Stones to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, in a possible forerunner to it returning to the West End and Broadway where it won a raft of awards in the 1990s.
Next year Stones will be staged in Belfast's SSE Arena which is being modified so that it can play host to theatrical productions.
However Marie's ambitious plans to turn Stones into a movie have been put on hold.
Former Boyzone singer Ronan Keating had been lined up to play one of the main roles in the film alongside Ballycastle-born Game of Thrones star Conleth Hill who won critical acclaim for his stage performances in Marie's play in England and America.
"It was taking too long to get the screen version together," says Marie. "There's more to life than the movies. But if somebody else wants to do it, that's up to them."
- Sinners by Marie Jones will be staged at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from May 6 to June 3. For further details go to www.lyrictheatre.co.uk/event/sinners