Amy Morgan tells Shelley Marsden about working with Kathy Burke on the play Once A Catholic…
AS someone who wasn’t raised in any religion but fascinated with it since childhood, playing a London-Irish Catholic schoolgirl in late-50s London has been an interesting one for Amy Morgan.
The Welsh actress, whose last job was as a gossipy shop assistant for the second series of ratings hit Mr Selfridge, plays wayward schoolgirl Mary McGinty, 16 in a cast that includes Irish actors Sean Campion (Stones In His Pockets), Molly Logan and Calum Callahan (also in the new series of Mr Selfridge, as Amy’s boyfriend).
She’s a little Cockney dolly-bird, says Amy, and more than a bit Barbara Windsor-esque: “I always play a little saint”, she says. “I’m delighted to be naughty!” Her own schooldays were, she says, a balancing act of actually being a bit of a swat but trying to stay in with the cool gang: “I’d work really hard on my homework and the next morning, all casual, be like, ‘Oh that? I did it on the way in on the bus…’”
Mary J O’Malley’s award-winning comedy, first performed in 1977 at the Royal Court to rave reviews before transferring to the West End for two years, is being revamped for a run at the Tricycle Theatre under the direction of Kathy Burke, who quit acting ten years ago to devote herself to another love, directing plays.
Set in a convent girls’ school in Willesden in 1957 (Burke attended a Catholic grammar in Camden), the nuns are preaching chastity and diligence while the pupils sense the liberalism of the swinging sixties. Final exams loom, but for the girls in class 5A, their last year in uniform is set to be one of discovery of the less holy kind.
Based on the author’s school days in a London convent, Once A Catholic does not necessarily finish the title phrase with “always a Catholic.” Rather, it looks at the resilience of young people to survive and thrive in spite of, not due to, their upbringing.
Mary, one of three joined-at-the-hip friends (also called Mary) at Our Lady of Fatima, is beginning to doubt her faith. She’s found a boyfriend,a Co-Op milkman, who is Church of England, and without realising it the two lovebirds launch into deep, theological discussions. All she knows is what she’s been brought up with, but at her age, she’s starting to question everything.
Though the 60s are seeping into people’s consciousness at the time the play is set, Amy believes adolescents, though their morals may be a bit looser these days, aren’t really that different today to what they were back then.
“My character loves Elvis, I mean seriously loves Elvis, and listening to old snake-hips was totally anathema! Look, my character’s 16, she’s seeing an 18 year old and questioning everything, she’s getting all dressed up and going down the pub. Things haven’t changed that much.
“If anything, things are less innocent, maybe. Molly Logan, plays the character of Molly Mooney, her character is so innocent and naïve – she has no idea how babies are made. The nuns think she’s being facetious when she actually has no clue! That naivety is gone now.”
Amy loves Mary’s one-liners, which she pronounces without realising their humour: “She’s talking at one point about going to confession, and says ‘It’s not very nice to have to tell your sins, but you come out feeling all good and holy, a bit like when you’ve had a couple of gin and limes’!”
One of the only cast members not raised a Catholic, Amy has been calling on her County Down flatmate – who attended a strict Catholic school – to give her the lowdown, and as such was whisked off to Sunday mass in Kennington for some method acting.
“I enjoyed it actually”, she says. “It was surprising how many young people I saw at the congregation. We had a lot of chats about religion preparing for the show, and though they were all raised in a religion, none of the cast still practice – it sparks interesting debate.”
Amy confesses to being a little star-struck to be working with Kathy Burke, though the London-Irish actress is so down-to-earth, she says, it’s like being with a mate (“so much so that I probably over-share, which is embarrassing”).
Burke herself is still known best as an actress, though she’s only done a smattering of roles in the past decade. Before then, she was loved as the ginger loudmouth in Gimme Gimme Gimme; the greasy-haired Waynetta Slob and obnoxious teen Perry in Harry Enfield and Chums. She was a switched-on magazine editor Magda in Absolutely Fabulous and won awards for her performance in Gary Oldman’s grim Nil By Mouth.
The actress-turned-director said recently that she loves Once A Catholic, which she used as an audience piece herself in the late 70s, because it’s both quaint and totally bonkers: “It’s been lovely returning to it. It’s brought back so much. I can see how it’s influenced and inspired me. Good, natural dialogue. Very funny.”
Concentrating for the most part on the amusing ways the girls deal with the dogma regularly pumped into them, Once A Catholic is full of laugh-out-loud moments, but it’s also sure to ignite healthy debate on education and its providers in the present day.
Once a Catholic runs at Tricycle Theatre, London until January 18 2014. To book visit www.tricycle.co.uk or call box office on 020 7328 1000. It will then transfer to the Royal Court Liverpool from January 28 to February 8.