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Belfast man Hollway turns 20-year battle with booze into a play

Ahead of the play's opening night Rob tells Stephanie Bell how meeting recovering alcoholics saved his life and enabled him to make his stage debut in his own work

Playwright Rob Hollway
Playwright Rob Hollway
Rob Hollway
Rob and Rachel Coffey, his co-star in his new play The Painted Lady

An emerging Belfast playwright has drawn on his own experience of alcoholism to bring his first major piece of work to the stage in Belfast.

In what is set to be a powerful production, Rob Hollway draws parallels with his own life in The Painted Lady, opening at Accidental Theatre this week.

Rob (45) will also be making his acting debut in the play alongside veteran actress Debra Hill. He is thrilled that Rachel Coffey, founder of Chaos Theory Theatre Company, is directing it.

A picturesque butterfly observation site in the Irish countryside sets the scene.

Drawing from his own experiences, Rob portrays a journey with alcoholism through protagonist Dan, a fortysomething recluse in recovery who hides away from the world studying butterfly migration.

That is until party girl Kimberley (played by Hill) ends up in his field hungover after a night out.

Kimberley is struggling to come to terms with being in an abusive relationship.

When the two characters begin to share their stories their chance meeting becomes less of a coincidence, giving power to the old saying "everything happens for a reason".

For Rob too, fate intervened to provide him with a support network of new friends who have been crucial to his recovery. He says: "Even though Dan is a fictional character I certainly used the clay of my own life to create him.

"When I hit my own rock bottom a number of strangers crossed my path at the right time to lead or guide me towards sobriety.

"I see this play as one of those signpost moments where two people meet and they have a chance to take the right paths to change their lives."

The 45-year-old father-of-two, who works in finance for a power supply company, has been writing since he was 18 but it was only when he became sober nine years ago that he focused on bringing his work to stage.

He got a taste for how his writing could come alive on stage when he had a short play performed in the Lyric Theatre as part of the Fast And Loose Festival a couple of years ago. After that he was determined to get a full length theatre script into production and is thrilled that one of three nights of The Painted Lady is already sold out.

Rob adds: "It is very exciting and I can't wait. I have such a passion for this. My ambition for it is that it will be put on in a bigger theatre after next month and I have already done the first draft of the sequel, so it's not going to be the end."

Rob speaks candidly about his alcoholism and is convinced that his recovery saved his life.

He says: "If I hadn't got sober I would be dead now. I don't think I had one more drink in me."

He describes alcoholism as "the thinking disease" and found that after he took his first drink at the age of 15 that it very quickly took hold.

For many years he thought drink was making him feel better when in fact it was slowly destroying his life.

His inability to talk to anyone about his feelings is what he believes drove him to drink.

He says: "I was a worrier even before I took my first drink at 15. It to me was the answer, as it took away the worry and gave me comfort.

"I thought it was the solution to how I was feeling but it was the problem and I chased that feeling for the next 20 years.

"It was the 'thinking disease' as I never, ever told anybody how I was feeling. I would drink for oblivion. Towards the end I was drinking very heavily.

"Mentally, it was a very sad life I was leading.

"When I wasn't drinking I was sad and very down.

"It ended up taking me down the route of being in a psychiatric hospital.

"My head was like a pressure cooker because I wouldn't talk to anyone about how I was feeling.

"Alcohol was my only outlet. Inevitably my head was going to blow and I ended up in hospital."

Rob was 36 and he spent a week in hospital. Around that time a number of people came into his life who were recovering alcoholics.

For the first time he felt he could share his feelings and soon found that talking was his way to heal.

He says: "It taught me a very important lesson that when I have things on my mind or my mind starts racing that I have to share it with another person as soon as possible.

"Talking is amazing as a medicine for mental health. It is one of the main tools I have. I have this group of people who came onto my path from nowhere and who had travelled the same journey and who had found long-term sobriety. That was the turning point for me and it was the first time I had experienced unconditional love from people who wanted to help me with no gain on their part.

"I had hit my rock bottom and was sick of being sick and tired of being tired.

"One of these friends talked to me about how they were able to achieve long-term sobriety and I decided to grab that lifeline and I haven't had a drink since that night.

"I feel lucky to have good friends around me who keep me sober."

Recovery, however, wasn't easy and Rob decided the only way to get through it was to take it one day at a time and not to look too far ahead. He still maintains that approach.

It wasn't long before he was enjoying the benefits and he has rebuilt his life and his relationships, learning to live as he always wanted and following his passion for writing.

He says: "I started to get glimpses of peace of mind very early on and good things started to happen in my life. I was feeling better and life started to fall into place gradually.

"I became a better father, brother, son and friend. I was now adding to people's lives rather than taking away from them. I had put my family through a lot of heartache.

"I had married but that fell apart and it wasn't helped by my drinking, but my ex-wife and I are good friends.

"Life is not easy at times but I have so much peace of mind now. I've a full life without any thought of drink and two beautiful kids and I'm a big part of their lives.

"I'm not looking for out and out happiness, I just want contentment and to live a normal life and that's what I've got and I am very thankful for it."

The play means the world to Rob, especially as he has been writing for over 20 years.

He started with film scripts and then was encouraged to write plays.

It is only since he stopped drinking that he has decided to focus all his energies on getting his writing to the stage.

He explains: "I've always had a full-time job to pay the bills but writing is my passion and I always had the ambition to do it full time but I am realistic enough to know very few people get to do that.

"I had a public reading of The Painted Lady two years ago with an invited audience and I took their feedback on what they thought worked and didn't work.

"Eight months ago I decided to get it on stage and I would do it all myself." Rob approached Richard Lavery, artistic director of the Accidental Theatre Company, who immediately agreed to stage the play.

Positive feedback encouraged Rob and he created his own artwork for the posters.

He advertised for a director and after Rachel was appointed they held auditions.

He says: "I'm delighted to have Rachel on board.

"She sent me a heartfelt email and she really got my vision of what I was trying to portray.

"After Debra was cast we held auditions for the part of Dan.

"We saw a lot of actors and they were good but there was just something they weren't getting and although it was never on my radar to act the part, I knew the character inside out and I knew how he thinks and so I decided to give it a go and I think now it was just meant to be."

Rachel Coffey says of the play: "While on the surface it appears dark, there's a lot of comedy in there too, and it's a raw, gritty and crucial piece of Irish theatre."

Rob adds: "I am really excited. It has been a long time coming. I believe things happen at the right time and I am thrilled we are already sold out for one night."

The Painted Lady is showing at Accidental Theatre Belfast from April 4-6 at 7.30pm. Tickets are available online at www.accidentaltheatre.co.uk

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