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The accidental playwright

Tony Doyle and Sarah Noll play Tim and Jane.

Playwright Christian O’Reilly spoke to David Hennessy about his play The Good Father coming to London for the first time, being moved to represent the disabled community in his other work and working with the late John Mahoney, known for playing the father in sitcom Frasier.

Christian O’Reilly’s The Good Father has been performed in Ireland, the United States and Canada.

This week it comes to London for the first time with its runs at Riverside Studios.

His plays may not have made it here until now but Christian is no stranger to London. He was born in Wimbledon and lived in Notting Hill Gate until the age of 8 when his family moved back to Ireland and grew up in Listowel, Co. Kerry. He now lives in Galway.

Christian’s initial ambitions as a writer were for screen. He graduated from the BBC Writers’ Academy, going on to write for Doctors, Casualty, Eastenders and Holby City.

But frustrated with scripts not being made, he looked towards theatre and when he did, The Good Father was one of his first plays and Druid would first stage it back in 2002.

The Good Father is the story of Tim and Jane, two strangers who meet at a New Year’s Eve Party.

While they are strangers to each other, they are also cut off from the rest of the party group.

They get talking, fall into bed together and Jane calls Time a few weeks later to tell him she is pregnant.

Winner of the Stewart Parker Award, Christian O’Reilly’s drama charts Tim and Jane’s journey of love, loss, and redemption.

Tony Doyle will play Tim while Sarah Noll will play Jane, directed by Mark Fitzgerald.

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Christian told The Irish World: “I always wanted it to be done in London.

“I’m so thrilled that the guys are bringing it over.”

You had ambitions of being a screenwriter but became disillusioned with scripts not getting made so you moved to theatre, isn’t that right?
“Yeah, it is.

“When I started off my ambitions were to be a screenwriter and to win Oscars for Best Screenplay, and I kind of thought all this was going to happen.

“And when I wrote my first number of screenplays, it was very chastening when they were not produced.

“I realised that many screenplays do not go into production.

“I became a bit disillusioned.

“I was home in Listowel and I became aware there was a local production of the John B Keane play Sive so I just went along to check it out and I was kind of blown away. It just felt like something that was more achievable and more possible.

“When I started writing screenplays, it had been because I’d been advised that it was a form that might suit me because I loved to write dialogue.

“That was misguided advice because stage writing is much more suited to a love of dialogue than screenwriting.

“So when I started to write stage plays, I found my voice as a writer and even now 20 odd years later, I feel that that’s the form that I have had most joy with.

“When I wrote my first play it was called It Just Came Out.

“That was staged by Druid and then I had lunch with Garry Hynes, the artistic director of Druid and she said, ‘Have you got any other plays in mind?’

“And I told her about this idea about this couple from very different backgrounds who meet at a New Year’s Eve party.

“This was The Good Father and she said she’d like to read it.

“I sent it in not actually expecting a positive response, because I knew it needed a lot of work.

“Initially Charlie McBride, the writing manager there, read it and liked it and I said, ‘Can I meet you for feedback, so I can send it elsewhere?’

“And he said, ‘Well, I’ve actually shown it to Garry Hynes’.

“And I was, ‘Ah, Charlie, it’s not ready for Garry to read it’.

“And he said, ‘I think it’s got some merit’.

“And pretty quickly she phoned me up and said, ‘I really liked this play’.

“Within a couple of weeks, she said she wanted to option it.

“I started off as an aspiring screenwriter and became almost a reluctant playwright.

“I feel that, for better or for worse, that seems to be what I’m better at.

“That’s what my career tells me anyway.”

Christian has had success with screenwriting including writing the film Sanctuary which, based on his original play of the same name, won awards including Best Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh.

Despite his early success, writing for the stage was not always easy for Christian.

“After The Good Father, I struggled.

“I think it’s because I felt the pressure of having had a success.

“It was like being an amateur footballer and suddenly playing at Champions League level.

“I was in the company of a really elite director and incredible actors, and I felt a bit out of my depth.

“The play was a hit. It sold out. The run was extended. Great reviews: It was an amazing experience.

“But it sort of it went to my head insofar as I felt, ‘I have to be able to deliver this kind of thing again’.

“I felt the pressure of it and my follow up work, my plays were not good.

“It took me some time before I found my way as a playwright.”

Where did the original idea for The Good Father come from?

“A big part of it is that my own dad left us in London when I was probably five or six.

“When we moved to Listowel, my mother moved over with three young kids as a single mother.

“I’d always had a kind of a prickly relationship with my dad.

“I wanted his love and to be in his life and he also wanted that too, but he had left us.

“I found that the theme of fatherhood and relationships to fathers is something that I have revisited in different scripts over the years.

“And also in my own life I reached a point where I really wanted to have kids, to be a father and to be a certain kind of father which was in contrast to my own which was a father who was present.

“I had a certain perception of fatherhood that was born out of the absence of my own father.

“So all of that fuelled this play, and also this idea of a relationship between two people with very different social backgrounds.

“That is something that I was intrigued by as a playwright.

“I found the voice of both characters and once I did, I sort of felt there was something really interesting there.

“It’s got something that audiences connect with.

“It’s a love story. More than anything, it’s a love story.

“I think it’s got two really interesting characters.
“His character is, in a way, so easy to like and so lovable.

“Hers is more prickly and resistant and sarcastic, and more difficult to love.

“One of the things that I love about the performances from Sarah and and Tony is that they imbue the characters with real depth and humanity.

“In Sarah’s case, she makes you care about this difficult to like woman, and that’s quite an achievement.

“When I saw the play again recently, I found I was sitting on the edge of my seat wanting to know what happens next even though I wrote the play.

“Initially when they get together, that’s a surprise because they’re so different.

“But also they’ve got something in common, they’re alone together at a party when everybody else is having the fun, having the craic.

“And there’s reasons that they’re alone. They’re both a bit lonely and adrift.

“They connect.

“They have sex.

“And then we discover she’s pregnant.

“He’s like, ‘This has nothing to do with me’.

“Of course, we think this guy’s a bit of a bit of a bollix really.

“And then in the next scene, we discover why he is so certain this could have nothing to do with him.

“He wants to make a go of this relationship.”

Your 2016 film Sanctuary, and the preceding play, depicted a relationship between two people with intellectual disability.

That comes up in your work time and again people we often don’t see represented and also relationships that ‘shouldn’t work’.

Would you agree with that?

“Yeah, I think you’re right.

“It’s funny.

“When I started off as a screenwriter, I kind of imagined myself writing crazy science fiction kind of adventure, but the kind of stories I found myself writing are relationship based character driven love stories and often with characters who seem ill- suited to each other but find a way to be together.

“I find myself going down that road unintentionally but I’m also just fascinated by these kinds of connections between people.

“And when it is unexpected and takes those twists and turns, then you feel it’s got something to give an audience because if it’s predictable, then that isn’t so much fun.

“If I look back on my own plays, often my best work is exploring that very theme, those sort of love stories and when that happens, I kind of trust it.

“I think, ‘Okay, maybe I’m on the right track. Maybe this is something that an audience will enjoy’.”

Christian came up with the story of the 2004 film, Inside I’m Dancing. The film starred a young James McAvoy as wheelchair bound Rory O’Shea.

Although it was your idea, you did not write the screenplay.

Does that mean you feel less connected to it?  “I feel really proud of Inside I’m Dancing.

“I wrote the original screenplay but not the one that was produced.

“I remember feeling initially a bit disconnected from it when it went in a different direction especially as I had been entrusted to tell the story by Martin Neactain and Dermot Walsh, both disabled men who inspired the story.

“I remember seeing it and being really thrilled by the film and realising that even though it had gone in a different direction, it really captured the spirit of what I’d wanted to express in my own attempt at the screenplay.

“It showed these two young men who wanted freedom, who didn’t want to be in an institution, and who escaped the institution to live independent lives but then one falls in love with their personal assistant and it kind of comes in between their friendship.

“The film was very true to what I wanted to capture.

“It was a story about significant physical disability and there aren’t many mainstream stories about that.

“I actually then went back to that original story.

“I eventually have managed to tell the story I wanted to tell as a play called No Magic Pill which is about a wheelchair user who goes to a hospital to learn to walk.

“He has muscular dystrophy, therefore will never walk and decides instead of changing himself to change the world around him.

“He finds a personal assistant, a young woman who pushes him around in the wheelchair but with whom he also develops a relationship.

“That becomes a very unexpected love story.

“I got there eventually in terms of that actual story.

“But with Inside I’m Dancing, I think the screenplay that I originally wrote probably didn’t really work as well as I thought it did at the time.

“I love the film and then I was able to tell my own story in my own way, so it’s a very satisfying journey for that project really.”

How did you come to be so passionate about Neactain and Walsh’s stories as disabled men? “I replied to a job ad that had been placed by an organisation called The Centre for Independent Living, about which I knew nothing.

“I soon discovered that this was a disability rights organisation run by and for significantly physically disabled people.

“And this man Martin Neactain, a wheelchair user with muscular dystrophy came into the Royal Dublin hotel in his wheelchair pushed by his personal assistant.

“He had a cigarette sticking out of his mouth.

“He said, ‘Shake the thumb’.

“And the next week, I was basically running a conference on disability rights.

“He’d thrown me completely in the deep end.

“I suppose my perception of disability had been passive, dependent, and pity.

“I was introduced to a group of militant angry wheelchair users who wanted to change the world, and it blew my mind.

“I became very galvanised by their campaign to change the world around them and became effectively a lobbyist for a couple of years, an accidental lobbyist.

“It completely transformed my perception of disability and has had a big impact on my life since and, I guess, my career as a playwright.

“I’m working on another project called Unspeakable Conversations which is another disability rights story.

“So it’s had a big impact on my career.

“I suppose you find when something gets under your skin, that it’s hard to let go of it.

“What’s striking about the disability community is how little disabled people and the word disability is represented in stories in mainstream media, whether it’s theatre, film or television.

“And yet, it’s rich with stories.”

Christian’s play Chapatti was produced by Northlight Theatre in 2014 with the late John Mahoney, well known from his role as Frasier’s father, starring.

“That was just amazing,” Christian remembers.

“I had written this play Chapatti and it had been rejected everywhere, I’d nearly given up on it.

“John Mahoney had sort of regularly done plays during Galway International Arts Festival over the years and I’d started to think of him as being perfect for this particular part.

“He’s such an everyman and there’s such humanity to him but there’s also a real, almost a curmudgeonly, cranky quality which I felt was really necessary for this particular character.

“I got the notion to send the play to him when he was doing a play in the arts festival some years ago.

“I remember texting my wife, ‘Would I be mad?’

“And she replied, ‘What have you got to lose?’

“So I dropped a copy of the play to him into the town hall, I was friendly with the staff there and they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll get the play to him’.

“I wrote a cover note  and the cover note referenced the fact that he had seen The Good Father some years earlier, the Druid production, and really loved it.

“I hadn’t met him but I’d heard about it so I knew that would tell him I had some credibility as a playwright.

“I promptly forgot about it and then about two, three months later, I got an email on a Friday night from him saying he read the play. He loved it. He wanted to play the part and he’d recommended it to Northlight Theatre, which I was just blown away by.

“It was just so thrilling to encounter him, to work with him, to have him speak those words.

“He was a lovely man, gorgeous actor and for me an absolute career highlight.

“Because he wanted to do the play, the play happened.”

Christian can thank the battery of John Mahoney’s kindle for all his good fortune.

“I remember him telling it.

“He said, ‘Well, I was on the flight back to Chicago, I was reading my Kindle, it ran out of battery, I had nothing to read, long flight’.

“And he said, ‘I kind of looked left and right to make sure no one was looking. I reached into my bag, I took out a copy of Christian’s play knowing I kind of wasn’t meant to read it because it had come to me unsolicited’.

“And he said, ‘I read it twice on the flight and I knew I wanted to do it’.

“So I’ll always be grateful to his Kindle for running out of power, so that it led to him reading the play.

“It was very serendipitous and wonderful that he did.”

Murmuration Studios and Resonate Film & Theatre present The Good Father by Christian O’Reilly 13- 24 March at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. 

For tickets and information, click here.

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