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What happened when an ex-prisoner, an ex-politician and a writer met a producer on Corrie? A bit of a drama

How a tribute to an adored mum, memories of the Ulster Workers' Council strike and an account of women's lives on the Shankill Road made it to stage of Grand Opera House

By Audrey Watson

When award-winning theatre and television director Noreen Kershaw got an email out of the blue from Belfast playwright Martin Lynch, describing a new all-female project he was initiating with his company, Green Shoot Productions, it didn't take much convincing for her to come on board.

"He told me that Green Shoot wanted to redress the balance of how women were involved in theatre in Northern Ireland," says the 63-year-old of that initial correspondence.

"I just thought it was a fantastic project, so I said to my agent that if I was free, I really wanted to do it.

"I didn't know Martin personally, but I saw his play, Dancing Shoes, at the Lowry Theatre in Salford.

"I knew the actor Aidan O'Neill, who played the role of George Best and thought, 'Well if Aidan has worked with him, he must be alright!'"

The Lancashire woman -- who has directed an array of serial dramas and one-offs, including C4's Shameless, BBC1's Moving On and ITV soaps Emmerdale and Coronation Street (for which she scooped a BAFTA, in 2013) -- has spent the last five weeks living in Belfast and working on the project, which opens at the Grand Opera House tomorrow.

Flesh and Blood Women is believed to be the first all-female, home-produced production in the history of Northern Irish theatre and features three dynamic short plays, penned by three women -- award-winning writer/director Jo Egan, Brenda Murphy who has notched up numerous awards, including for the hugely popular A Night with George, and novice playwright and former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis.

Every one of the 19 people involved -- writers, actors, stage managers, set designers, lighting technicians, marketers and the producer -- is female.

"In theatre, women often aren't given the chance to take on direction and production roles," explains Noreen of the thinking behind the project.

"In TV, there certainly aren't as many women directors as there should be. Things are improving, but progress is slow.

"The three writers on this project are really strong and it's been great to meet and work with them.

"All three plays are performed in the one evening and each has a very different style and subject, so the audience will enjoy a really varied night.

"The cast and crew have a really high-quality work ethic and have been fantastic. They are as talented as any I have worked with during my career."

After Flesh and Blood Women, Noreen will return to England to direct the new series of ITV's female detective drama Scott and Bailey, starring Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp, but says she has really enjoyed spending time in Belfast.

"I have been in Northern Ireland twice before. Once in the 1980s, when I acted in a play at the Belfast Festival called Trafford Tanzi.

"Then about 15 years ago, I did a radio play with Pauline McLynn and managed to see a bit of the city, but this is the first chance I've had to really get to know the place.

"Enjoy isn't the right word -- I've absolutely loved being here. I've travelled around and visited all the sights.

"Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming. I really hope I get the chance to come back again."

JO EGAN

The writer and director is the partner of Martin Lynch, and her play, Sweeties, tells the story of two sisters with conflicting memories about a life-changing

incident from their childhood. Originally from Dublin, but now living in Belfast, Jo's play Crimea Square, about the history of the Shankill Road, won the Belfast Telegraph Audience Award at the 2013 Belfast Festival at Queen's. She says:

When I was creative producer with Kabosh theatre company, I worked on many productions where the majority of the cast and crew were female. Some of the plays we did were written by women, but mostly they were written by men and had male and female characters.

What's different about Flesh and Blood Women is that all three plays are written by women, all the characters are women and all of the actors are women. It was a great idea and it also draws attention to the lack of female parts for women actors.

I knew both Brenda and Dawn before Flesh and Blood started -- Brenda from working in theatre and I interviewed Dawn for the Crimea Square project.

I also acted as dramaturg for Dawn. She has a natural talent for 'seeing' a story and distilling it down into a shape which gives an insight into a time and era.

What's brilliant about this production is that you are getting three different plays in the one night which paint a picture of working class women in the city from three very different perspectives.

My play was inspired by the interviews I carried out for Crimea Square and most of those interviews were with women from a working class background.

Dawn and Brenda's tales are about working class women, so Flesh and Blood will give a platform to voices that don't usually get heard much in the theatre.

Of course, being Martin's partner I knew about it a long time ago, but when it came to getting the project organised and deciding who would be involved, that was completely down to Green Shoot.

Martin and I keep our individual work projects separate. We would never read each other's scripts or plays, or anything like that -- it might start an argument."

BRENDA MURPHY

THE 60-year-old former republican prisoner from west Belfast, is an award-winning playwright, author and poet, whose recent theatre work includes the smash hit A Night with George and Baby It's Cold Outside. Her play, Two Sore Legs, is a tribute to her late mother, Bridget Murphy. She says:

I had always meant to write about my mother before, but never did.

She always said to me, 'Someday, you'll write my story', and I always replied, 'Ach aye'.

My mother died very suddenly in 2009.

It sounds like an urban myth, but she went out and paid for her own funeral just days before she passed away.

She'd gone to the doctor and they had told her she was fine, but she said she knew there was something wrong. We all told her to catch herself on.

Five days later, she was dead from a heart attack.

When Martin approached me, I initially thought of writing about an historical figure, then thought, no, I'll finally write about my mother -- the most loving woman I've ever met.

Writing the piece had me in tears. But it's not sad. It's warm and sentimental, and a tribute to her.

I've tried to put all of the tenderness I felt for her into the play.

My mother and father were together for 11 years and had six children, before the relationship ended.

They weren't married and she had to endure the stigma that that carried in the 1950s and 1960s and also pressure from the church and State to give us up.

She ignored all the slurs and gossip, and worked hard, kept us fed and kept us clean and was the best mother you could ever wish for.

Years later, she got married and had three children with my stepfather. There were nine children in total and I'm the eldest. She was a brilliant woman.

There was absolutely no problem with Dawn and I working together.

We actually have had very similar life experiences.

She is one lovely woman and we had a great laugh. She can hold her own anywhere and so can I.

She slags me and I slag her back, so working on this has been a lot of fun."

DAWN PURVIS

THE former Progressive Unionist Party leader (47) is director of the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast. Her play, Picking Up Worms, is about a child's reflection of events on a street in Belfast during the Ulster Workers' Council Strike in 1974. She says:

I've known Martin for many years and when he called me one Friday evening and said, 'I want you to write a play', I burst out laughing.

I told him that I couldn't write a play, but he said that anyone could if they were given the right support.

He told me what the project was about and I told him I would think about it.

He gave me until the Monday to decide and after mulling it over, I decided to give it a go.

I'm a complete writing novice compared to Brenda and Jo, so I was very nervous, but also excited.

I knew immediately that I wanted my play to be set during the UWC strike in 1974.

It's not so much about the strike itself, more about the intertwining lives of women living in the same Belfast street during that period.

I was eight years old at the time and remember it vividly. It's drawn from my own experience of what life was like at that time, but the characters and plot are completely fictional.

It's a poignant and emotional story, but with elements of humour as well.

I wrote the first draft, which was basically just a story of about 6,000 words in a couple of hours, and then tried to structure it and introduce the dialogue between characters after that.

It's been a huge learning curve, but Brenda, Jo and Noreen helped me enormously.

Jo was my dramaturg (a person who helps you build the structure of a play and develop characters).

When I finally saw the first run-through I was very emotional as I couldn't believe I had written what I was seeing onstage.

You write a story on a page and you have a notion in your head of what it looks like, but the way the actors and director come together and translate it is absolutely amazing.

There's a real craft and skill involved in getting a play on to the stage.

I've really enjoyed the project and although I always loved the theatre, this process has revealed a side of it that I didn't know about before.

It's blown me away."

AND A FINE CAST TOO ...

* Flesh And Blood Women runs at the Grand Opera House's Baby Grand theatre, from tomorrow until May 24

* The cast includes Kerri Quinn, who starred in hit show Dancing Shoes, The George Best Story (which was also co-written by Martin Lynch); Maria Connolly, whose acting credits include hit Lyric Theatre show Forget Turkey, We're Going to Phuket; Rosie McClelland, who is Belfast's only resident belly dancer, and Kat Regan, who recently stole the show at hit musical Spelling Bee, at the MAC

* Tickets for the show are £13.50/£19.50, and are available from the Grand Opera House box office, tel 028 90241919 or visit www.goh.co.uk

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