Belfast playwright Marie Jones: When my mum was in a home, we got to know the other patients and found ways to have a laugh
Fly Me to the Moon, a comedy by Belfast playwright Marie Jones, draws on her mother's experiences of living in a care home in the final years of her life. As the play opens tonight at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, Marie talks to Mairead Holland
It's the end of the first act, and larger-than-life playwright Marie Jones has taken a break from rehearsals to talk about the latest play she's directing. Mind you, 'break' may be stretching it slightly, because quick-fire witticisms pepper the conversation and seem as natural as breathing to this Belfast queen of dark comedy.
The 67-year-old is regaling me with anecdotes of her late mother, Sadie, whose time in a care home was just one of the inspirations for Marie's Fly Me To The Moon, a play that made its debut in 2012 in the Grand Opera House in Belfast and returns there next week.
"Sadie loved a wee bottle of wine on a Thursday or a Friday or a Saturday night," she says. "She didn't do wee glasses - she did a bottle. She loved when our friends from the theatre came round. She'd say to them, 'You wouldn't get me a glass of wine? Our Marie never gets me a glass of wine'."
Likewise, after her mother had suffered her first mini-stroke and had been persuaded to have some extra assistance in the house, she used to tell the home help, "Don't you bother doing that ... our Marie can do it".
There was also the time when a Zimmer frame was produced to help the fiercely independent east Belfast woman with her mobility. Such was her determination not to use it that the very next day she was miraculously moving independently again.
Sadie, who Marie describes as an ordinary wee woman from the Newtownards Road who loved her grandchildren and having a good time, died eight years ago at the age of 93.
She spent her final two years in a care home, suffering from dementia for most of that time.
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"She was great up until she was 90 ... even in the first six or seven months in the care home she was alright, but after her last stroke she lost the power of speech," says Marie.
While the playwright has nothing but praise for the care her mother received, she was struck by the pressures carers were under and the injustices of a system in which many are underpaid and undervalued.
"I think carers do their very best under the restrictions they have," she explains. "Community carers only get 20 minutes to come in and do the basics. They don't have time to sit down and really talk to people."
Gregarious by nature, Marie used humour during her daily visits to her mother to deflect from the often cruel realities of old age.
"The home was very near our house. My sister and I would go round every night for a few hours, and my brother would go at the weekend," she says.
"We started to get to know the patients, so it became like a big family. We used to help the carers give out the tea, and there would be music and activities going on.
"But it's still people in their last days, in the final throes of life, and some of them are confused and sad.
"You try not to go under with that. You have to find ways of making it bearable, of having a laugh and keeping cheerful, to give it a wee bit of levity."
Fly Me To The Moon was conceived after a conversation between Marie and fellow actors Katie Tumelty and Tara Lynne O'Neill, in which they realised they all had experience of having family members in care. "I thought maybe we could do something with that," Marie says.
The play tells the story of Frances (Katie Tumelty) and Loretta (Abigail McGibbon), community care visitors who are faced with a moral dilemma after their elderly charge, Davy, dies unexpectedly.
What starts off with the two women debating the rights and wrongs of claiming Davy's small pension allowance of around £60 escalates into finding out he has had a win on the horses - and increasingly hilarious and conscience-pricking reactions as they fear they will be suspected of having murdered him for his money.
Without giving the ending of the play away, there will doubtless be a few tears from the audience in among the laughs as the story reaches its poignant climax.
Marie's motivation for writing what has turned out to be one of her most popular works was also influenced by a true story with startling echoes to Frances, Loretta and Davy.
"I knew a carer who was in a very similar position," she explains.
"The person died, and she (the carer) knew the drunk, gambling son was going to come and get all the money, so the choice was, did she let this happen, or did she take the money and spend it on her kids?"
Marie, whose husband is the writer and director Ian McElhinney, is from a staunch, working-class background and was raised at a time when families lived in the same street and everyone looked after each other.
"Sadie was never strict, far from it, but we weren't bad kids," she says. "Back then, we were brought up by the street, because your aunts and your granny and everybody lived beside you.
"You had to call neighbours 'Mrs', whoever they were, and you couldn't have come back and said anything bad about the teacher at school, because the teacher was always right. You just didn't complain, that was that."
As for Sadie, she left school at 14, then worked in a mill for a week but didn't like it. She then joined the many hundreds employed at Belfast Ropeworks - at one point the biggest ropeworks company in the world - before becoming a cleaner after her three children were born - the aim being to juggle her work and childcare commitments.
Her husband, Sandy, Marie's father, died of cancer during his early 60s.
"Mum had a lot of friends, and they loved partying at each other's houses," Marie says.
"Sadie lived in our house for about five years before she went into the care home, and she helped me raise our three boys.
"Granny was the constant, because as actors and directors Ian and I were away all over the place working. She was one of 11 children, and even as she got older she would have cared for her brothers and sisters.
"It was the culture then, caring for people in their own homes. If someone moved away, then people down the street looked after you.
"In our generation, we all had jobs and mortgages and kids to get through university. We weren't able to just give up our jobs."
Reflecting on the time when the family took the incredibly difficult decision that her mother should live in a care home, Marie says: "I'm not a nurse or a care worker. I wanted her to be with someone who knew what they were doing.
"And, in honesty, I wanted to keep working."
Of the play, Marie adds: "It starts off with pennies, his pension, but they justify it by saying they are only getting paid over £7 an hour.
"We really like these women, then their predicament gets worse when Davy has a win on the horses.
"They think they are going to be accused of his murder and they think, 'Who is going to believe us - we are nobodies?', because as carers they feel so undervalued.
"They are looking after his bodily needs. They give him his tea, but they don't have time to talk to him properly.
"All Loretta and Frances know about this man they cared for was that he bet on horses and loved Frank Sinatra.
"At the end (of the play), they realise that they know nothing about him and then, when they find out more, they see what a lovely man he was."
Marie, who was awarded an OBE in 2002, began her career as an actress before turning her hand to writing and directing.
Her many award-winning plays include Stones In His Pockets and Women On The Verge of HRT.
She also helped found the Charabanc Theatre Company, an all-female touring group created to help tackle the lack of roles for women. The group's first play, Lay Up Your Ends, which was based on a strike by mill girls in the early part of the 20th century, was an immediate hit.
As for Fly Me to the Moon, it may have started in the Baby Grand studio of the Grand Opera House, but when it returns tonight for a six-day run it will be on the main stage.
The play has captivated audiences from Belfast to Dublin and New York, and in the past four years has been staged in destinations as diverse as Scandinavia, Canada and Iceland.
"Audiences all over the world really do seem to connect with the care worker," says Marie.
"The names for a care worker may be different in other languages, but the understanding of what they do is the same."
Fly Me To The Moon runs from today until Saturday at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. To book tickets, visit www.goh.co.uk