The show must go on: the writer’s first play, ‘The Secrets of Primrose Square’, based on her novel, eventually opened in Ottawa in May after being postponed four times
It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone struggled through lockdown. But spare a thought for the poor old theatres. Back in the dim, dark days of level this and level that, it was heartening to stream live shows, but oh dear god, did we ever think we’d miss being crushed at the bar queuing for interval drinks and discreetly rolling our eyes about the Quality Street munchers in the second row?
I have a vested interest. I wrote a play. Now, it’s only a little play, my very first and it came about when I’d been a guest on Pat Kenny’s radio show a few years ago chatting about my brand new book, The Secrets of Primrose Square.
It’s a story based on a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, who famously said that a woman is a bit like a tea bag. ‘You can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.’ So there I was live on air, yakking away about how the story essentially centres around four strong female characters, ordinary women who find themselves in extraordinary situations.
Anyway, interview done and dusted, I was all delighted with life and bouncing down Digges Lane in Dublin when the phone rang. Producer Pat Moylan, saying she’d heard the interview and wondered whether I’d ever thought of adapting the book for the stage?
She and I met, we talked, we bonded and the project took root; the challenge of course being somehow to distil a 400–page novel down to a 70–minute play. I was doubly blessed to have someone like Pat on–board; not only is she a highly respected and experienced producer, she also produced the musical adaptation of Angela’s Ashes with stunning success, so there really couldn’t have been a more perfect guardian angel to steer my little ‘book baby’ from page to stage.
‘This is going to be easy,’ I naively thought. ‘This is going to be a breeze. All I have to do is adapt a book I know like the back of my hand, then worry about a new outfit for the opening night...’ In my head, we were already winning theatre awards. In my head, we were going to the Tonys. Ha! Dream on.
All you could hear was me wailing, ‘but it’s not like that in the book!’
I won’t bore you with the details – who wants to be reminded of us all going from one level of lockdown to another, only to be plunged back into full–scale lockdown again? And again? And once more for luck?
Two years’ work followed, with no fewer than 14 drafts on the script – I counted. We had to cut – ruthlessly. Whole characters had to exit stage left. Plotlines were axed without a second thought. At script meeting after script meeting, all you could hear was me wailing, ‘but it’s not like that in the book!’
However, I fast learned that with any adaptation, you have to be prepared to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And no, of course it’s never going to be the same as in the book I was politely told by not one, but two dramaturgs, the wonderful Bryan Burroughs and Emily White. How can it possibly be? News for you, you eejit, this isn’t a book, it’s a play. You want to read a book? There’s Eason beside you.
Welcome to the theatre baby: cutting is tough, so deal with it and shut up.
Rookie mistake number two? ‘I know what I’ll do,’ I thought, way back at draft one. ‘I’ll write in a jammy little part for myself.’ Jobs are few and far between at my hour of life, so why not create work for myself? Just like Phoebe Waller–Bridge, I thought in my naivety.
The production team didn’t quite laugh in my face, but made it very clear that they were having none of it – quite rightly too.
‘Hate to give you bad news,’ I was politely told. ‘But you’re completely wrong for one part, you’re way too old for the other one and the third character is a teenager, so dream on.’
But when it did come to casting, there was a welcome bit of very, very, very good news. In yet another case of sheer beginner’s luck, I landed my dream cast with my two best friends on board, Clelia Murphy and Marion O’Dwyer, along with stunning new talent, Megan McDonnell, fresh off the set of Normal People, if you don’t mind.
Mark Lambert, Irish and UK theatre and TV legend, signed up to direct, and no better man to steer a project like this. Mark is one of those rare actors’ directors with an instinctive feel for what’s going to work onstage. As an added bonus, he has by far the best theatrical anecdotes you’ve ever heard. If you ever meet him, get him to tell you the one about him and Judi Dench backstage at the Old Vic – you’ll be bent double.
So all systems were firing. Everything was coming together. The Department of Arts, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht even came on–board with very welcome grant money, so we were good to go and hot to trot.
But then no fewer than four different productions and nationwide tours had to be shelved because of our old friend, Covid. Mind you, it was a scary time and in the greater scheme of things, what was one more postponed show? If there’s one takeaway I learned from the Covid Years, it was this; the only sure way to avoid crushing disappointment was to not bother making plans in the first place.
By then, I had a new verb to describe all the cancellations on our little play. ‘We got Covided.’
Not to worry, Pat Moylan decided, tireless powerhouse that she is. With theatres closed down yet again, we’d live stream instead. The plan was to rehearse the show via Zoom, then take it to a rehearsal room (because there’s only so much you can do on Zoom), bring it up to speed, film it from Dublin’s Draíocht theatre, then stream it around all the venues that we were physically unable to get to; 20 dates in all. Massive relief.
The cast rehearsed their hearts out, while Pat, Mark and I worked day and night to distil the script down to a final, final, really honestly the very final draft. Our little play was to be a one-off recording, all safely rehearsed at a nice two-metre social distance. Surely even Tony Holohan would approve?
Well, I don’t know about Dr Tony, but I do know the critics were nice to us. Really nice. As a newbie playwright, I hadn’t a clue where we’d go from here, but I did learn this much. The playwright’s main job is 90pc done by the time you get to the rehearsal room, so the main thing you can do is sit up at the back, and place full trust in the cast, director and producer to get on with it. Oh, and get coffees whenever people need a break. Trust me, the coffees are important.
The show was licensed to Canada back in May and opened at the Gladstone theatre in Ottawa with John P Kelly directing a cracking production. I was lucky enough to be there for the first night and couldn’t have been prouder or more grateful.
So you may ask, will ‘the play wot I write’ (thank you, Eric Morecambe) ever see the light of day in Ireland? In front of a live audience, with actual bums on actual seats?
Who knows. But for now I’m just thrilled to have a new book hitting the shelves. It’s called The Love Algorithm, it’s all about online dating, and dear god, the research for this one was something else. Real life will always trump fiction, and you wouldn’t believe some of the shenanigans that go on out there...
Will this little book baby ever make it to the stage? Watch this space.
Claudia Carroll’s new novel, ‘The Love Algorithm’, is published by Zaffre and out now