Thursday 21 June 2018

Meet the new batch of Snappers transporting Roddy Doyle's tale from the 80s to 2018

This week, Roddy Doyle's The Snapper get its world stage premiere at The Gate theatre. Here, Maggie Armstrong meets the young cast and crew who are transporting everyone's favourite colourful family from the '80s to 2018. Photographs by Mark Condren

A1 Sharon: The play centres around lead character Sharon - played by Hazel Clifford (22) and her pregnancy. Photo: Mark Condren
A1 Sharon: The play centres around lead character Sharon - played by Hazel Clifford (22) and her pregnancy. Photo: Mark Condren
Abbey Redmond (13) and Amy Macken (14) two of six actors sharing the role of twins Tracey and Linda in The Snapper. Photo: Mark Condren
Cameron Simpson (age 13) one of two actors sharing the role of Darren in The Snapper. Photo: Mark Condren

There's a bit of a confrontation going on inside The Gate. If you put your ear to one of the theatre's rehearsal doors you can hear, in a foghorn voice: "I don't mind being pregnant. But I do mind people knowing who made me pregnant."

Then a resounding: "F**k off, Mister Burgess."

The Snapper is about to pop in the Dublin theatre, and this baby is big, if you like your metaphors mixed. It is just two weeks before the birth (sorry) of the new show, which takes place a meander away from the Rotunda maternity hospital where the book's snapper is born. The cast are costumed out like it's 1987.

We are here to meet the Rabbittes before the world premiere of Roddy Doyle's play about a headstrong 20-year-old who finds herself in the family way after a late-night encounter on the bonnet of a car. The novel, published in 1990, has now been adapted for the stage by the Booker-winning author and Weekend columnist (who is also an accomplished writer of plays including Two Pints and The Commitments).

Abbey Redmond (13) and Amy Macken (14) two of six actors sharing the role of twins Tracey and Linda in The Snapper. Photo: Mark Condren
Abbey Redmond (13) and Amy Macken (14) two of six actors sharing the role of twins Tracey and Linda in The Snapper. Photo: Mark Condren

Having told the father of her baby to "F**k off", Hazel Clifford, playing Sharon, emerges with a perm, a silicone baby bump and "three sets of boobs" (silicone).

The baby bump is one of the four stage bumps. She is wearing the 35-week fit. "It's nice and spongey, isn't it?" says the actress from Clondalkin, who was plucked out of final year in drama school to play everybody's favourite vodka-drinking expectant mother.

We are in The Gate's hospitality suite, where the sofa cushions are unnaturally cream and plumped. Barrytown denizens would refer to us as "yuppies".

It is very busy back here, or "chaotic". All the actors - and later director and designer - say the words "chaos", "chaotic" and "chaotic-ness" an awful lot. I counted 13 times.

Children, and their chaperones and stage manager, are to-ing and fro-ing between wardrobe and rehearsal and PR mode. In his compression of the book to fit this time-and-space bound medium, Roddy Doyle had to drop a few of the Rabbitte family, among other characters from the Barrytown community.

But there is no shortage of children in the show, with three sets of twins to appear on alternating nights, and two Darrens. Two of the "twinses", as the director calls them, are Amy Macken (14) from Lucan, and Abbey Redmond (13) from East Wall (not twins in real life). The freckled starlets are dressed in red and gold majorette marching costumes, with top hats, twirling batons; their hair plaited and tied with glass bobbles.

Cameron Simpson (age 13) one of two actors sharing the role of Darren in The Snapper. Photo: Mark Condren
Cameron Simpson (age 13) one of two actors sharing the role of Darren in The Snapper. Photo: Mark Condren

This is a generation who didn't grow up watching Roddy Doyle films.

Cameron Simpson (13), playing Darren, wasn't allowed watch The Snapper. "It's not the most appropriate for my young ears," says this winning chappie from Santry, who is rigged-out in full Pope John Paul II at the Phoenix Park get-up (a blinding green tracksuit). Does he like his tracksuit?

"It's funky," he says. "Not what I'm used to."

These actors will be testing their physical theatre skills when the show goes up. The twins' job is to bring lots of "energy" and of course "chaos" to the show.

Among other feats, Cameron will have to ride a bicycle around the stage cheering. "I think the audience will like him," he says.

The characters are grenades of activity, but the actors behind them are thoughtful. The phrase old heads on young shoulders come to mind.

What is The Snapper about, youth of today?

"The Snapper," Cameron begins, "is about a girl in her 20s, Sharon. She gets pregnant, and the whole play is about who got her pregnant. It's a journey through finding out."

Is there a moral to the story? "There is no moral as such," says the 13-year-old. "It's a play about trust and family."

Cameron played the boy in Druid's Waiting for Godot in the Abbey last year. He didn't understand that play "at all". He understands The Snapper, because Barrytown feels a bit like Santry. "It's relatable. It's what you're surrounded by really when you're growing up."

The Snapper is an opportunity for Dublin's young performers to use their own accents, and swear without getting into trouble. For some, a Roddy Doyle script will undo everything they've been taught about English so far.

"This is so off topic," says Amy, "but my grandma's an elocution teacher. She's really punched it into me from a young age that I have to say every word properly. Not that Dubs don't. But I don't know how she's going to feel."

"That's the same with my gran. She was like, 'No cursing'," says Abbey.

The girls are very excited about going on stage. They go a little bit starry-eyed describing the feeling. "I love looking out at the eyes and all the light shining, you just get lost in it," says Abbey.

Hazel Clifford, for her part, first walked onto The Gate stage for voice lessons while attending the Lir Academy. Looking onto the empty seats, she used to imagine things. "I don't know why, but your mind kind of wanders. I started seeing faces in the auditorium, seeing people who came here to see me. I'd think, 'Wouldn't it be lovely to get to act here?' Every fibre of my being wanted it."

The star of The Snapper is by now sitting alone in the hospitality suite. Wearing a pinafore and billowing shirt, massaging and clutching at her stage bump - worn for the first time today - it's hard to imagine she could be anyone but Sharon Rabbitte.

Which is exactly how she felt when posters went up in the Lir advertising the part. "I've never been so excited in my life. I was like, 'I want to play Sharon, I need to play Sharon.' I don't mean to sound cocky, but I was like, 'This part is for no one else but me'. Like, I need to play this part.

"She's bloody amazing and she's beautiful. She's nurturing, she's powerful, she holds her own. It's so beautiful to get to play that and to dig from the centre of myself."

Hazel grew up one of five siblings in Clondalkin, a "gas place to live", where "everyone knows each other".

Later, director Róisín McBrinn will tell me there were about 25 actresses considered for Sharon, some "brilliant people". But finding the right girl proved more difficult than imagined. The director was starting to feel she would have to compromise when Hazel walked in and made up their minds with her combination of "innocence and knowingness".

And so last February, when The Gate was still mired in controversy over a departed former director, scores of Dublin actors were desperately hoping for the call that would offer them a job in that same theatre.

When Hazel's teacher in the Lir brought her into his office with something to discuss, she thought she was in trouble.

"We sat down. He was telling me to relax. I was like, 'I am relaxed.' And he said they'd like to offer you the part. I nearly knocked myself out - that's no joke. One of my hands came up and clattered me in the face. I just couldn't believe it. I was like, 'This is huge.'"

Hazel was born in 1995 - too young to remember the fever of affection when the films The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van were released. The delight among her peers when she got the part gives you a sense of what Roddy Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy - particularly The Snapper - means to Dublin people.

News got around the Lir in two minutes. "People were crying. I started crying. It was absolutely mental." She ran to Trinity College to tell her mum, who works in the Buttery, the student canteen. "She was like, 'You didn't. You got it?' It was just amazing. My family have always fully supported me. Acting is something I wished and dreamed of my whole life, it's magical I get to do it now."

As Hazel was processing the news, Róisín McBrinn phoned her and gave her one piece of direction. "She said, stick with the book, and stay away from the film. It's about your ideas."

This play has nothing to do with the 1993 film version of The Snapper, which was directed by Stephen Frears and stars Colm Meaney as despairing father Dessie Curley (Mr Rabbitte in the book and play), the role that will be taken on by Simon Delaney at The Gate. Róisín says it was "essential" for her to not watch the film of the play she was about to bring to the stage.

"It seemed the key to me that there were no ghosts there. In terms of me feeling ownership artistically, and also knowing that we as a group were creating something new for now," says Róisín.

The stage director, who works with female prisoners with Clean Break theatre company in London, was brought up in Dublin's Sandymount. She remembers watching The Snapper on the TV in 1993. She loved the "boldness and freshness and sauciness and devilment".

"Roddy Doyle said to me that someone had commented once that The Snapper was the first Irish novel about a family that was happy. The comedy of it is brilliant and that's what everyone hangs onto. The ebb and the flow and the chaos."

If somebody says chaos one more time, I'm going to need to lie down.

Roddy Doyle worked with her on the staging before he left the production team to their own devices. "He's a master," she believes. "He's a literary genius, and he's also massively populist and mainstream. Which is, let's face it, highly unusual."

Later, costume and set designer Paul Wills tells me how he felt when he first read the script. (The set he is building is a house divided into rooms, with kitchen, bathroom, living room, pub; upstairs and downstairs. The stage has moving parts and the actors will be the stage hands.)

"The play to me was beautifully chaotic," says the English designer. "The overlapping lives, time jumps, emotional rollercoasters, location jumps. It was clear that a naturalistic setting wouldn't work. We needed to have Sharon in the bedroom in one scene and seconds later in the living room, and then the pub, and have other situations playing simultaneously."

The show's production manager, Jim McConnell, grew up in Kilbarrack and he took Paul around the local area which was "invaluable". Then, in creating the costumes, Paul got the cast to bring in pictures from the 1980s.

Roddy Doyle, when I interviewed him in 2016, described the social context in which he wrote The Snapper. "As a teacher in Kilbarrack, and as somebody who walked around, I had realised that the attitude towards pregnancy outside marriage was changing, very much led by the working class, who were much more accepting. They loved their children and grandchildren regardless of whether the parents were married or not. A baby was just a baby. And the working class led, in a way, that social revolution."

He added: "It wasn't going to be about whether they were married or not, they get over that quite quickly. It was about the appropriateness or otherwise of the man with whom she'd had sex."

This is what makes The Snapper so remarkable and thought-provoking 30 years on. Sharon's baby was conceived in what appears to be rape. She is ostracised and humiliated, but she is keeping her baby.

The Monday we came in to meet the cast, Ireland had just voted over the weekend to repeal the eighth amendment and legalise for abortion. For Hazel, who marched for choice, this is a "powerful and beautiful time for women."

"I feel like it was about making a private matter public. It was about listening to people. We can't just send it to somewhere else, we need to support our own here, and give them the compassion and care they need."

The Snapper could be described as a pro-life piece of art. In the novel and in this new play, when Sharon's parents ask her if she'd like to keep the baby, she replies: "Abortion is murder."

But it could also be described as a pro-choice piece of art, in which a woman fights to keep her baby. It is both pro-life and pro-choice. It is a story about choosing life. It might even unite people, in polarised post-referendum times.

For Róisín, the exercise of choice is what makes the story so appealing. "What I was hooked on was this story of a young girl who does everything in her power to define her own destiny and write her own narrative. She doesn't want an abortion. She wants this baby and decides how she's going to do it. It's about choosing."

Could the events in the story have taken place today? Could there be a woman determined to carry a baby conceived in terrible circumstances?

"We wondered would the road go differently in 2018," says Róisín. "Of course it could have, in terms of the availability of the morning after pill let alone abortion. But at the end of the day what we're watching is someone dictating something on her terms. That's what the triumph of the referendum was. People being able to make their own decisions. That's what Sharon does, and we love her for it."

Back to Hazel, who is promising all the world a good experience at The Gate. "I can't wait for people to see it. It's so uplifting. Anyone that has bought tickets for it will be walking out of there going: 'That was great. And I feel great.'"

Is that because of the chaos? But of course. "There are moments in everyone's family where everything's crazy and chaotic. They will be able to sympathise with those moments in the play. It's a happy, happy, happy, happy play."

'The Snapper' previews at the Gate Theatre this Thursday, June 14, and runs until September. To book, see gatetheatre.ie.

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