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It could happen to you

Playwright Brian Foster and actress Fíonna Hewitt-Twamley told David Hennessy about their multi- award winning Myra’s Story ahead of its debut on the London stage. Myra’s Story is the humorous but heartbreaking story of a woman who finds herself begging for change on the streets of Dublin. 

The multi-award winning Myra’s Story has been a smash-hit wherever it has played.

It is now coming to the London’s West End for the first time.

Written and directed by Derry playwright Brian Foster, Myra’s Story sees Fíonna Hewitt-Twamley take the audience into a day in the life of Myra Hennessy as she begs for money from passers-by on the streets of Dublin.

Sharing her powerful story, Myra explains how she came to her present state with street-smart style, wry wit and unflinching honesty.

The story is one of laughter and tears, joy and despair with universal praise for Hewitt-Twamley who commands the stage as a homeless alcoholic or ‘wine connoisseur’ as Myra prefers to say herself.

The play has received numerous five star reviews with the Scottish Daily Mail saying: “Five stars are not enough to do it justice! Hosannas are what Hewitt- Twamley and Derry playwright Brian Foster deserve for this soul- searing drama about those we pass by every day.”

Described as hilarious and heartbreaking, audiences have laughed and cried with Myra as she becomes the characters who have shaped her life, from her irascible father and idealistic husband with Hewitt- Twamley also voicing 15 additional distinct characters to take us on Myra’s journey.

Although they have been performing it and watching it for years now Fíonna and Brian say the piece never gets stale.

Brian told us: “It touches a nerve with audiences everywhere and that’s the great thing about it.

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“We’ve had people in from all over the world, especially in Edinburgh, and they can all relate to the character that they see up on stage.

“They can all take that story and place it in the context of their own upbringing, of their own people, their own family, their friends, all the rest of it.

“So it has that grit.

“And that’s what makes it, dare I say, unique.

“I’ve been to loads and loads and loads and loads of plays over the years but I’ve never honestly seen one where the audience connect so much.

“You’ve got to be there to take in the show to see it.”

Do people come up to you to say it has reminded them of someone in their lives, perhaps a relative?

“Every single time,” Fíonna says. “And not only that, but the most touching of comments that I get are whispered.

“It’s when people come up and they say, ‘Can I give you a hug?’

“And you know it’s coming.

“They’ll say, ‘Seven years sober’, ‘nine years sober’, ‘five months sober’. Or, ‘I was homeless myself’.

“I don’t want to give away too much of the story but there were different things that happened within Myra’s life that led her to become a homeless alcoholic living on the streets still with the determination of getting through every day.

“These people come up and they think, ‘I identify with you, I am you’.

“And they say to me, ‘I’ve given up, I’m 21 years off the drink’.

“And, ‘I heard about this, and I had to come and see it’.

“And they’re crying, most of the time they’re crying.

“It’s very emotional.”

The importance of highlighting the plight of the homeless is something that both Fíonna and writer Brian are acutely aware of. The London run is in connection with the Connect charity, and Fíonna tries to spend time with people living on the streets.

“It spins on a coin,” Fíonna says about how easy it is to end up on the streets.

“It only takes two pay cheques, which is what we’re all so used to hearing now, for you to become homeless. Without a home, you’re not entitled to your benefits. Without your benefits, you don’t eat.

“Then you’re living on the streets, then you have no choice but to ask people to buy you food or give you money to buy food or provide for hostel accommodation.

“So it’s a spin of a coin and some are lucky and some are unlucky.

“But the idea of the whole show for me is to get people to look differently and not down on people.

“I had a guy in town last week and I went to give him money and he kept putting the cup up. And I said, ‘I will not put money in a cup’.

“And he looked at me as if to say, ‘What then?’

“Because he’s so accustomed to it.

“And I put my hand out and I shook his hand and put the money in my hand.

“Because even if you don’t have money, even to give a bit of time and just say, ‘How are you today?’

“How many times are they asked that in a day? Never.

“It humanises them again, brings them back to life again to feel that they’re identifiable as a person and not rags, homelessness, drunkenness, drug addiction, mental abuse, none of it.

“It all disappears when you go back to the basics. I’m very passionate about homelessness.”

Brian adds: “One of the lines that everybody takes away is, ‘There but for the grace of God’.

“In other words, it could happen to you and the character of Myra issues that directly to them.

“And it’s a sort of a seminal moment and people come out afterwards and they say, ‘God, I’ll never again look at homeless people the way I did before’.

“But when I sat down to write the play, I knew that I couldn’t subject people to a 90 minute miseryfest.

“So I had to bring a lot of humour, comedy into it because if you grab them in the humour, in the comedy, then you’ll also grab them in the tragic moments and the heavy moments.

“So it’s this roller coaster effect.

“I wanted to show the life that Myra had before she ended up that way.

“And this is the point that I like to reinforce: We see people on the street, and we see them as they are now.

“How often do we ask, ‘What were they like then?’

“Because they’re just like you and me and everyone else.

“They had a life.

“They had friends, family.

“But we only see the end product now, the damaged, broken person on the street.

“And we rarely ask the question, ‘Who are you? What’s your story?’ And that’s what Myra’s Story is about.

“It’s about humanising that aspect of the homeless and the addicted.

“And Fíonna does it so brilliantly that you can’t help but come out at the end of it and say, ‘My God, I didn’t expect that.”

Brian Foster.

Fíonna was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the 2018 IFTA Awards for her part in Cardboard Gangsters when she first heard about Myra’s Story.

“I can honestly say hand on heart: Best script I ever read. Ever.

“The one part that I would love to be able to play forever is Myra.

“I think we’re very similar.

“She’s witty, she’s funny, she’s vulnerable.

“She’s hard, but she’s soft.

“She’s every contradiction that every person in the world has, which is just being normal.

“And yet, it’s finding all those moments within the script, and within her personality, to put them together into 90 minutes to say, ‘I have exposed every bit of myself to you, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the indifferent. I’ve shown it all’.

“And that’s what made me connect. And that’s why I love it.

“Every time I go out on stage as Myra, I look like to the audience a vision or a version of themselves in six months’ time, and that’s the bit that connects with people.

“Again, it’s showing them, ‘You could be exactly where I am’. Exactly, just for circumstances.

“So that’s what I love about it. It’s real, it’s honest. It’s also very current, even though Brian wrote it 20 years ago.”

In its first incarnation, the play had been set in Derry before Brian moved it to Dublin.

“I thought, ‘Well, what if I reset it in Dublin? It’ll give me access to a bigger pool of actors, bigger demographics’.

“Also Derry Girls hadn’t come on the scene then so Derry was a place where petrol bombs were thrown and buildings were blown up. It wasn’t really known for the theatre.

“It’s a terrible word to use, but Dublin was a bigger brand name.

“So it made sense for me to lift the story, sit down, and rewrite it and it was a quite an extensive rewrite.

“And then I was lucky enough to find Fíonna to deliver it the way that I wanted it and she found it right to deliver.

“So that’s why we are where we are today, a week and a half away from kicking off in London in the West End.”

It was in Dublin that Brian was inspired to write the story.

“Dublin was where the seed came from to write the play originally.

“I was in Dublin when I walked past a homeless person, a homeless lady and I pretended not to see her as a lot of us do because we just find it more convenient.

“And I got back to my hotel, and I felt so guilty.

“And I went back to the spot where she had been, but she was gone.

“But on the coach back to Derry already the seed of Myra’s story was taking root and it was beginning to germinate in my head.

“And it was very, very quickly after that that I had the first draft of Myra’s Story done.

“In a way Myra’s Story has come full circle. It’s gone back to its roots, to where it originated from.

“It’s particular to Dublin but it could take place in any city, any town, anywhere all over the world.

“And that’s what gives it the international appeal.”

Writer Brian Foster based the central character on several street drinkers he was familiar with in his native Derry.

Brian says; “The reason the characters work so well is because they’re based on aspects of different characters and some of them are members of my family who had problems with drink and things like this.

“And for instance, there’s the Bloody Sunday scene.

“And I was there on Bloody Sunday, one of my best friends was one of the ones that was killed.

“So I can tell that story or I have Myra tell it, but it’s through my eyes, through an actual eyewitness to the what went on that day.

“And again, that’s how we can bring authenticity to it. It’s not a political play in any way, it’s a social play.

“But every social life has political drum beats in the background where the politics influenced people’s lives, their social lives.”

Brian was brought up in Creggan and lived on the bogside of Derry.

“I’m from a very working class background,” he says.

This meant writing came to him late in life.

Brian says: “I suspect there are an awful lot of what you would call mature writers who don’t know they are writers, who have gone through life with a talent that they’ve never ever discovered.

“I was in my late 30s before I started writing which is very, very late, but it just makes me wonder how many more very, very talented people are there who have just never been given the break?

“And that’s why I hate to see theatres advertise for writers and they say between the age of 18 and 27 or something like that, ‘We’re looking for new writers’.

“I think it’s so unfair, and it’s so luddite.

“I mean, surely it’s the talent that you have, and the stories that you can tell and the life stories, especially for someone who’s getting on a bit.

“I’ll be letting people know that they really do need to give mature writers a bit of a fairer go than they do. And actors.”

Fíonna Hewitt-Twamley.

Fíonna adds: “I only came into acting at 43

“I was in college. And John B Keane’s brother was one of my tutors.

“He said to me, ‘You have a great wit about you. I’d love you to be in a show that I’m doing’.

“And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I wouldn’t be into doing shows, getting up on stage. Go way out of that’.

“But he convinced me and did that for a couple of years.

“It was just purely amateur theatre.

“I thought, ‘Ah, yeah, bit of craic’. Went to live in Australia, came back, had a family, raised the family, mortgages, houses, all that mad stuff.

“And then my husband died in 2011, and I knew I needed to find something that was me.

“And I thought because I love theatre I thought, ‘I have to try and see if I can do something’.

“In 2014 I went into Maureen Hughes and did an audition for her.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m probably crap. If I am, tell me to go out the door’.

“I got to call then to say, ‘We’d like you to come in and work in The Factory (now Bow Street Academy)’.

“And I went in there and within six weeks Maureen had cast me in Charlie with Aidan Gillen. My first scene was with Aiden Gillen.

“And that was it. It just kicked off.

“And that’s why myself and Brian have such an affinity, because the two of us are like two elder lemons that are saying, ‘We’re still here, we’re still alive, we’re still kicking, and we’re still contributing, and we can still make it happen’.

“Youth is wasted on the young. The older people have it in spades.”

It brings us back to Myra’s Story. She’s still here, still kicking…

“It’s very similar,” Fíonna says.

“I think actors, if they’re worth their salt, they’re prepared to go raw.

“And to me going raw is not with my hair full of hairspray and with makeup on my face, it’s paring it back to the very bare basics of who you are as a person.

“And in doing that, an actor worth their salt will expose themselves, parts of themselves.

“Acting is acting.

“But at the same time, you do have to connect a part of yourself to that character. Otherwise, it just becomes fake.

“And yes, acting is fake.

“But if I can get it as close to real as possible, and what I do is onstage I draw on my experience in life of heartbreak, of losing somebody in my life. Of everything from babies and miscarriages to feeling as if you’re not worth anything anymore.

“And then pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and saying, ‘I’m still here’. And that’s what Myra does. And she does it in spades. And she does it with humour, and she does it with wit. And she does it by being raw, being vulnerable, but at the same time having that great Irish humour.

“If you come and see the show, you won’t believe the emotions that it will draw out of you.

“I’m proud of the fact that every show that I do I believe every scene. I’m in every scene.

“And when I talk to the people, I’m not doing it in a sense of, ‘This is off a script’.

“It’s coming right from in here (the heart).

“And you have to feel it because if you can’t feel it, you can’t portray it. If you can’t portray it, it’s not believable.

“I go to places. I go to places in here.”

Myra’s Story plays at Trafalgar Theatre for a limited run 19 September- 18 October.

For more information and to book, click here.

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