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Educating Rita

Playwright Martin McNamara and actress Mary O’Sullivan told David Hennessy about Rita McGrinder is Still Here, a new darkly comic play coming to Omnibus Theatre in Clapham.

Rita McGrinder is Still Here, a darkly comic new play from Martin McNamara, comes to the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham this week.

Forthright, funny and bloody furious, Rita McGrinder is a fifty-something barmaid in a back-of-beyond pub in rural Monaghan.

As she works, she delivers a caustic recollection of a disappointed life, but one lived in extraordinary times.

Rita has seen a whirlwind of change. She’s seen it all. In fact, she’s lived it all.

Hers is a story that, despite all its rural mundanity, encompasses violence, sex, scientific discovery, illiterate nuns, hypocrisy, terrorism, sock laundry, Daniel O’Donnell, showbands, dying priests, Jedward, and strap-ons.

But Rita’s story is a sad one in that she was never allowed to pursue her passions or educate herself.

The piece is written by Martin McNamara whose work has been broadcast on BBC Radio Four and produced at many London theatres, including Soho Theatre, 503 Theatre, Lion & Unicorn, Bread & Roses, JW3, N16 Theatre, London Irish Centre and the Bunker, as well as in Wandsworth Prison.

His play about the Guildford Four, Your Ever Loving, played at the Underbelly, Edinburgh in 2017, and was named best drama of the Festival.

His adaptation of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, with Brendan Coyle playing the older Behan, was broadcast on Radio Four earlier this year to mark the writer’s 100th anniversary.

His scripted short films have also been selected for festivals around the world.

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Su Gilroy directs Mary O’Sullivan in the role of Rita.

Originally from Limerick City, Mary has performed on stage in Ireland, the London Fringe and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Previous roles include Rita in Educating Rita, Old Woman in J.B. Keane’s Big Maggie, Maggie in Dance-Hall Days with the Irish Repertory Theatre Company, UK (The Riverside Studios), and Auntie Ah in Marina Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow. 

In 2018 she was awarded Best Actress at the Abu Dhabi International Theatre Festival. She has appeared in the short films, SHAMED and Life After Life for fremar Productions, directed by Damien Varley.

Playwright Martin McNamara told The Irish World where the play came from.

Martin said: “I think I’ve met a lot of Rita McGrinders.

“I spent a lot of my childhood in in pubs in South London.

“My father’s from Cork and that was his idea of childcare: Stick the kid in the corner with a bag of crisps and a bottle of lemonade.

“And there were always these very formidable barmaids who were all Irish, all quite fierce and very, very funny. You were slightly frightened of them, but they were really very kind underneath this very brittle demeanour that they had to have and keep everyone in order.

“I think a lot of that came back to me with Rita.

“Also I think because it’s set in 2010, Rita’s a middle aged barmaid, she’s lived through the whole sweep of changes in Ireland: Social, political, religious.

“Obviously, it’s up near the border, so touches on the troubles.

“It is quite an extraordinary period for Ireland, isn’t it?

“She’s lived it.

“I think sometimes you write stuff and you’re not too sure why you’re writing it.

“I think that was one of the central themes, looking back at a period of extraordinary change and to show that change, have this one person who’s kind of living in the backwater of Monaghan, never really got a chance to go anywhere, never got a chance for an education but has kind of lived through this history on a very, very personal, intimate level.”

Actress Mary O’ Sullivan adds, “I just loved the character of Rita.

“She is a tough Ulster woman.

“She’s been through tough times and it’s made her tough, but I think another way of saying that is, it’s made her strong.

“It’s that thing: If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. She’s the epitome of that.

“She’s lived through the Troubles. The love of her life got involved in some IRA activity.

“And she says, ‘If he wasn’t as involved in the politics, we might have made it together’.

“Her father was an alcoholic, quite abusive.

“She got pregnant when she was very young, and went to England.

“She just has a whole load of stuff in her past, really tragic times. But she’s come through, and she’s still there.

“You can tell that she’s an intelligent woman.

“She loves science and she says she could have gone to university but she just didn’t get the opportunity.

“In all of it, she still has this sense of humour.

“It’s not that she tries to be funny. It’s just that she has this natural turn of phrase that is funny.

“She’s angry because she just didn’t have the opportunities or when there was an opportunity, it slipped away from her.

“Life didn’t work out in so many ways but she’s not bitter and she didn’t take her anger out on people, she just kept going.

“Through it all, she could be bitter but she’s not. She’s got a good attitude.

“She’s kept herself going.

“It hasn’t killed her. She’s still there. That’s the idea, Rita McGrinder’s Still Here.”

You say she got pregnant and went to England, does that mean she did not have the baby? “No,” Mary answers. “She had the abortion.

“It was just literally a one night stand.

“She did take the bus up to Castleblayney to tell him that she was pregnant.

“I suppose she was hoping maybe that he might say, ‘Alright, I’ll take care of you’ or whatever.

“But he didn’t, he dismissed her.

“And of course, this is the 80s.

“The church is the big influence.

“It is the shame of the family, it’s the power of the church and what would people think?

“She basically would see it as she had no choice.

“You know, the village of the peering curtains, isn’t that the way they used to describe it?

“So rather than shame her family, she went up to  Castleblayney and asked your man or told your man, but when he dismissed her, then that was it. She was going over to England and she was going to have the abortion.”

The church and religion is a big theme of the play, isn’t it?

Martin says: “The amount of social change in Ireland has just been astonishing and Rita is one of those transition characters.

“She was born and steadfastly of that old Irish world: The deference to the priest.

“There’s a priest in it who comes in and takes off his socks and throws them on the table and expects the woman of the house to wash them while he sits there drinking the house whiskey – That’s actually based on a real priest!

“But I used to look at that and think like, ‘Oh, what the hell’s going on?’

“But that was a real a real priest.

“I think – I hope I changed his name, but it was that kind of deference to the cloth which is another thing that’s gone.

“And very much a kind of ambivalence to religion, which has been such a defining feature of Ireland especially since the creation of the Republic, and the role that the church played in education, in the health service, in basically being a controlling force in politics.

“I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial view, I think there was always a deference of the politicians, that they had to keep the church on side.

“And of course, all those things have changed now.”

Mary says: “She often says, ‘what is sin?’

“And at the end of the day, this priest, Father Gallagher, he’s an abusive man, takes advantage of the people. Both the children and the adults. So she is angry at the church.

“She’s definitely angry at the church, even though she’s managed to get herself through life and get herself through things with just the attitude of get on with it.

“She even says, ‘I was taught to read by nuns that were barely literate themselves’, so there is that anger there towards them.”

Aside from a trip to England, did Rita ever get out of her home town? “No, she didn’t get to travel,” Mary says.

“She was only 16 when she got pregnant.

“She left school shortly after that.

“Later on then a few years later, she got some bar work working as a barmaid in Feeney’s pub and that’s been her life.

“She takes care of mammy because all of the brothers and sisters got married and did their own things or they ventured further.

“But because life and relationships didn’t really work out for her. Even though she has two younger sisters, she was the one who ended up unmarried at home with a part time job and there was no one else to take care of mammy, so there was no choice.

“I think the newspaper is her way to the world because of the fact that she didn’t get to travel.

“And she says about the locals, ‘Some of them only come in here to check the obituary page of the Northern Standard.

“She says, ‘My one slice of peace in the day is when I have my paper and my cup of tea before the regulars come in’.

“So I think the newspaper is her way to the world to see what’s going on.

“She is the smart Alec in a lot of ways with her turn of phrase, but she knows like that she’s missed out on so much and there’s stuff that she thinks she would have been able to do if she had been able to get out in the world.”

Does she enjoy her work, the social aspect of it? “Yeah, I think the fact that she’s able to go in there and listen to them and kind of laugh at them, that’s nearly her revenge: That she can just go, ‘Oh my god, these poor creators, they don’t have a clue’.

“That’s nearly her getting out of home and being able to go somewhere where she can feel a bit superior.

“She tells them facts because she’s always looking up the paper.

“There’s a column, Did you Know?

“And she’s looking up facts like a giraffe can clean its ears with its own tongue.

“And she thinks it’s great.

“But even when she mentions that, one of the guys in the bar says, ‘Ah Rita, you’re always talking about sex’.

“She has this reputation and it doesn’t matter what she says, they’ll bring it back to, ‘Oh, you’re just a dirty girl’.

“So she does her best. She lifts herself up. She goes to the bar. She tries to get a laugh out of it but there will always be a comment or someone that will try and drag her down again.

“It’s that thing of just falling down, dusting yourself off and getting up again and keeping on going.”

You say she has a reputation, where does that come from? “Well, I think it’s because she was a talker when she was younger and because she found out facts and things, she’d say things that maybe other people her age didn’t know.

“And maybe the nuns might get word of that and say, ‘Oh, you’re dirty and you’re bold with the stuff you’re saying’.

“But I think, even though it was like this quiet thing that she went over to England, a village is a village and I think the word got around.

“She even goes to mass shortly after, and she takes her mother to mass.

“And the sermon is all about the girls that are going over to England, and the priest says, ‘They’re nothing better than murderers’.

“She’s got the reputation because there’s the whispers again, whispers going round like that, ‘Did you hear what happened to Rita McGrinder?’

“And I think even though she didn’t sleep around- she had one love of her life. That was it – But because of her history, and because of the talk and because she was a bit of a talker herself, she got this reputation.”

Rita McGrinder is Still Here is at Omnibus Theatre 29 August to 16 September.

To book and for more information, click here.

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