'I'll aim to give the audience a good laugh' - Caroline Curran on starring in a Christmas play she wrote with late friend Julie Maxwell Lewis
Next month Belfast's Caroline Curran takes on her toughest role to date, starring in the Christmas play she wrote and performed with her late great friend Julie Maxwell Lewis, who died suddenly in August. She talks to Ivan Little about her enduring grief - and why the show must go on
Belfast actress Caroline Curran, who has brought smiles to the faces of thousands of theatre-goers in her comedy roles here, wipes away tears as she speaks movingly and passionately about her best friend, co-star and co-writer Julie Maxwell Lewis, who died suddenly in August.
"I still feel like my heart has been ripped out. There's nothing there," says Caroline. "I never had a sister but when I met Julie, I suddenly had a sister. I worshipped her. She was the best actress in Belfast bar none and a brilliant director and writer too.
"But aside from the acting and the writing that we did together, we shared a love for each other and our families."
Julie, who was 36, died suddenly from natural causes on what was Caroline's birthday. The exact cause is still under investigation.
Julie collapsed in a Belfast city centre bar where she'd been enjoying a night out with her Welsh husband Rhodri, whom she met at drama school in Cardiff.
Ironically when Caroline saw Rhodri's number light up on her mobile phone on that dreadful Saturday she thought he and Julie were going to sing Happy Birthday to her.
But instead the call brought devastating news - so dreadful that initially Caroline didn't believe it.
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"A lot of people came round to my house and I recall sitting in the kitchen as we all drank loads of tea and coffee and I told everyone that it wasn't true, that it was a nightmare and that we were all going to wake up," she recalls. "No one knew what to say to me.
"However, when Julie's father rang to tell me she'd passed I just lost it completely."
Only six days earlier Julie and Caroline had signed off on a new updated script of the first play they ever wrote together, My Big Fat Belfast Christmas, which was staged in 2015 at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, where it's being revived this year.
Caroline admits that she and Julie were something of an odd couple in terms of their personalities. But they were inseparable friends with similar tastes in many things and were seen as "peas in a pod" as theatre practitioners.
"We met for the first time 15 years ago when we both auditioned, unsuccessfully it has to be said, for the Lyric Theatre's last Christmas show in the old auditorium, The Wizard Of Oz," says Caroline.
"We went for a drink afterwards and we clicked immediately. Julie was at drama school in Wales at the time and she invited me over to visit her and Rhodri. Before she knew it, I landed in on them. I'd never been anywhere on my own before.
"We had a brilliant time. Julie took me to all these fancy bars in Cardiff before realising that I was more of a Wetherspoons type of girl!
"When she came back to Belfast to work I was stage-managing a lot of the plays Julie was appearing in. But I always wanted to act and Julie encouraged me and pushed me. We ended up in a number of productions together, including a Leesa Harker Christmas play in Newtownabbey."
Caroline says it was also Julie who persuaded her to write that first play, adding: "I'd been approached by the Theatre at the Mill to try my hand at writing but I thought they were mad. However, when I mentioned the idea to Julie she said: 'Why don't we write it together?' I trusted her completely and the combination seemed to work.
"We went on to write four Christmas shows, but for that first show we came up with a story about a family in Belfast who have a visitor from England and all hell breaks loose over the Christmas dinner as the secrets they are all hiding come pouring out.
"Julie and I played sisters in the original show and she thought it would be a good idea to polish it up with a new version for 2019.
"However, Julie decided to take a break away from the stage this year to make time for herself because she had been so busy with other projects including her work as an assistant director on Shirley Valentine at the Lyric."
The opening of the Willy Russell play was delayed after Julie's untimely death but it eventually went ahead to rave reviews, which were hailed as testimonies to Julie's skills as a director.
Like Tara Lynne O'Neill, who played Shirley, Caroline has decided that her show must go on too as a tribute to her friend.
"It's what she would have wanted and I want everyone to know just how good Julie was," says Caroline, who worked with her friend in the BBC NI series Soft Border Patrol.
"We ended up paired as partners in the series," says Caroline. "The producers knew that we were best friends and that we would bounce off each other. It was just fantastic."
A new series of the comedy has just been recorded, and Caroline admits that it was difficult to do it without Julie. "But everything has been tough without her," says Caroline.
"As long as we had each other as friends nothing else really seemed to matter."
And it's not just Caroline who has been left bereft by Julie's death.
Her funeral at Roselawn was one of the biggest ever seen at the crematorium, with three times as many people outside the building as inside it.
"I have never felt so much love in this whole town. which became like one huge family," says Caroline. "Julie touched the lives of everyone she met... and she always had a smile on her face.
"I think the suddenness of the death has made people like me realise how short life really is."
Caroline says she's been leaning on Julie's family to assist her in trying to cope with her grief, adding: "Thank God for my loved ones and my friends but I've been clinging on to Julie's family too because they are hers and I need them.
"Julie was also very close to my two-year-old daughter Molly and vice versa. I can still see Julie lying on the kitchen floor wrapping tea towels around the heads of Molly's dolls."
Caroline says she believed Julie had an "awesome" future ahead of her in theatre and on TV. "There was so much she had to give as a writer and as an actress," adds Caroline, who revealed that Julie had been working on a play about soldiers in modern day wars.
She continues: "She'd interviewed a number of people but it was never the right time to do the play. I'm just hoping that we might see it one day."
However, Caroline said Julie would never have been a millionaire. "She was just so generous. As fast as she got any money, she gave it away with the other hand. She would have given you her last pound.
"And if you were doing a play you always knew that Julie would be the one who'd be feeding everyone with the best of food and wee nibbles," says Caroline, who hopes that a trust fund can be set up in Julie's name.
"All of us want to keep her memory alive," she says. "Julie was always looking out for younger actors coming through. So maybe the money could be used to give them a start.
"She was grateful that the Kenneth Branagh award and other bursaries which she won played their part in getting her to Cardiff to study."
Caroline said Julie and husband Rhodri, who's taking part in a pantomime in Armagh over Christmas, adored each other. She adds: "His tribute to her at the funeral was amazing, as was the lovely one from her sister Stacey."
Even in the depths of her sorrow Caroline has been taking comfort from the fact that her last times with Julie were happy ones.
Caroline says: "We had good laughs. It was just us. But it is all still raw, still shocking.
"I know she wasn't in any pain at the end but I keep asking why she was taken?"
The very last communication between Caroline and Julie was the email exchange of their scripts for My Big Fat Belfast Christmas.
Obviously Julie will be very much in Caroline's thoughts on opening night, Tuesday, December 3.
Caroline says: "It's going to be sad, especially as one of the last parts of the play before a comedy ending is a very emotional piece about making memories. I will have days when I will just want to put my head in the sand but I have to show everybody how great Julie was. It's the only thing I have left to give her.
"But I'll also be aiming to do what Julie would have wanted - to give the audience a good laugh for two hours at us moon-cats."
Theatre officials are dedicating the show to Julie, but Caroline said she didn't know how or when she will pay homage to her friend onstage.
"I will definitely do something. But at the end of show party for Soft Border Patrol I wanted to thank the crew for their support and understanding of how I was feeling doing the programme without Julie but nothing would come out of my mouth," adds Caroline, who as anyone who knows her will testify, is rarely lost for words.
My Big Fat Belfast Christmas, Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, Dec 3-31, 7.45pm