David Hennessy chats to Barrie Keeffe, the playwright who writes plays for “people who wouldn’t be seen dead in the theatre”
Writing since the 1970s, Barrie Keeffe is well known for producing plays such as The Long Good Friday and Sus, both of which have been turned into films. My Girl 2, a modern reworking of his 1989 original, is currently being performed at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London.
The story focuses on Sam and Anita, a struggling couple. This new version updates their struggle from Thatcher’s Britain to the present day: “It’s a whole new version of it now, it’s dealing with the same thing trying to cope financially under another conservative government and it’s about how to keep your love alive.”
The playwright thinks the prevalence of bookmakers and pay day loan shops in a country that is only just emerging out of recession is significant: “The enemy of the whole thing is the payday loans companies who are causing havoc in so many people’s lives. It’s one of the curses of our times.
“The hero of the play is a social worker trying very much to keep other people’s lives on the straight and narrow and improve their lives while his own one falls into absolute havoc.”
Sam is played by Alexander Neal while Emily Plumtree plays his partner Anita. Alexander has already acted in Barrie’s work, taking a lead role in Sus for which he was nominated for an Off West End award: “I was very taken by him then, he’s got a real presence. Emily took my eye at the the National (where she acted in Strange Interlude). People always ask: ‘Why do you write plays, to change the world?’ I want to write wonderful parts for wonderful actors to play.”
Sus sees a black man being detained by racist policemen on the night of the general election. Like many of Keeffe’s work, it has roots in what he witnessed as a journalist: “I used to be a journalist for the local paper back in the 60s and I remember a black guy coming into the office a very broken man. He had been interrogated all night by the police. His wife had died, had an ectopic pregnancy as it turned out, and they thought they had tried to perform an illegal abortion and tried to break him that night. When the report came in from the hospital in the morning, he was told he could go but the guy was absolutely broken.
“I was always haunted by that story but I couldn’t see it as a drama until the night Thatcher came to power and in 1979 I suddenly realised everything was going to change. She always promised the police a 40% pay increase. I think if you’re going to pay that to police, you’re going to be able to use them.
“There was this foreboding that something awful was going to happen. That was the spark for that play.
“There’s a quote of mine that keeps coming up: ‘I write plays for people who wouldn’t be seen dead in the theatre’. My agent when he saw that quote said: ‘Barrie, you’ve ruined your career, no one in the theatre will ever touch you again’. Sus played in the theatres to a few hundred people but there was a Rock against Racism thing in 1979 and I think about 20,000 people saw it. A journalist who had mocked me for one of the tiny houses at one of the plays he’d seen, he said ‘a better audience you’ve got today’, and I said: ‘Yeah, I write plays for people who wouldn’t be seen dead in the theatre’.”
The Long Good Friday that features an iconic performance from the late great Bob Hoskins as a London mobster under fire from the IRA also has roots in Barrie’s reporting days: “In the mid 60s, it was coming to the end of the Krays’ empire and as a junior reporter, you’re sent to do complicated things because they think you’ll get away with it because you’re innocent. I remember there was a guy in hospital and he’d been found nailed to a warehouse floor. That was a criminal punishment if someone went into someone else’s territory. I was sent there to ask him how it happened, he took one look at me and said: ‘Do you understand English, son? Put it down as a do it yourself that went f**king wrong’.
“The idea behind the film was capitalism versus idealism. For the gangsters, the viciousness is just a way to make money but the IRA have idealistic reasons. I think there’s no competition then, the idealists are always going to beat the people who are just doing it for money.”
Of course, Barrie was taken aback to hear that Bob Hoskins had passed away in April at the age of 71: “I think it’s going to take a long, long time to realise I’m never going to see him again. He was such a life force and I loved him very much. He was the most vivacious, exciting person I’ve ever known. Gutted, I can’t believe I’m never going to see him again.”
The film also launched the careers of Helen Mirren and Pierce Brosnan who played an IRA assassin but didn’t get mentioned in the credits (until recently): “When it originally came out, his name wasn’t in the credits. He had a non-speaking part so he was just an extra. I think we’ve got him in the credits now he’s gone on to be James Bond. I remember seeing the rushes of him and those fantastic eyes: You just knew he was going to be an enormous star.
“My favourite Irishman of all time was Peter O’Toole. He said there are three kinds of madness: Madness, divine madness and making films. I had been trying to write something for him. I liked him very much, thought he was an old fashioned film star that they don’t make nowadays. He had real charisma. I was always hoping to write something for him.”
It is his Cork granddad that Barrie thinks he gets his writing gene from: “He had kissed the Blarney stone, he told the most wonderful stories but I never got to the truth of anything. I remember when I started school at five and no one could spell the name Keeffe right and he said, he always called me Mick to confuse things, he said [Barrie puts on a thick Irish accent]: ‘Mick, when I first came to this country, there was so much hostility towards the Irish and with a name like mine I’m a sitting target so I took off the O, put in another F and now no one knows I’m Irish’.”