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After Hurtwood: The New Dramatist - Niamh Collins

Updated: May 1, 2019

So now it is time to catch up with one of the key founder-members of MUSE itself, and hear about the waves that she is already making in the wider world of creativity and the arts. Niamh left us in June last year having already impressed as one of the Foyles ‘Young Poets of 2017’, and having been shortlisted for the Lincoln University poetry competition, judged by Poet Laurate Dame Carol Ann Duffy no less, to take up undergraduate English studies at Durham.

We meet for lunch on a rainy day in the Easter holidays to catch up on her latest coup … and news it is! Apart from clearly having a great time at Durham and holding her own as an undergraduate, her play, written in fact while still at Hurtwood last year, and titled rather ironically ‘Ladies Who Lunch’, has been chosen by audition for the prestigious Durham Drama Festival. The DDF, now in its 49th year, selects annually nine plays to put into performance, providing the venue and help with production, as well as a team of support mechanisms that enable the writers to work as a professional, with professionals, in putting on their own show.

Funding comes directly from the university, who in turn work with specific theatre-orientated groups. One of these, Fourth Wall, is now funding Niamh’s play, and taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe festival, so impressive was the run in Durham. Their particular brief is to foreground voices not always heard, to provide a platform for fresh ideas. In Niamh’s case, the viewpoint is that of the mother, and extraordinarily in this play, written by one so young, the voices of a range of seventy-year-old women. But first, how did the production go? The challenges? Rewards? Surprises?

It went marvelously well, she tells me. The challenges were manifold, not least the auditioning of over 65 keen actors, and whittling them down to a manageable company of six. Choosing to cast and direct the actors herself with the help of her (incredibly patient!) roommate, Niamh identifies then the huge difficulty of turning her writing into ‘dramatic action’, centering as it does on ideas and exchanges around the lunch table. How to break out of the stasis of ideas, and how to cast young actors with the capacity to give believability to characters some four decades older than themselves. Once cast, she had three weeks to achieve this.

Amongst all the practical difficulties, apparently the toughest challenge was sourcing a physically manageable table to seat six as the central prop for the set. The challenges were manifold but ‘Ladies who Lunch’ went finally into production at The Art Centre of one of the colleges. Phew.

Three performances later, with delighted, emotionally moved audiences, standing ovations, and with excellent reviews, Niamh and the team were encouraged to continue the run elsewhere in Durham, and, once again, to paying audiences. With key members of the company in their final year it proved sadly impossible to carry the performance through to another week’s run; Edinburgh seemed the obvious next step, with a possible move to London to follow.

Exciting times indeed! What were the surprises with the performance, I ask. ‘That it was funny,’ Niamh tells me, ‘and that it made other people laugh.’ Actors bring the text alive, she observes, and tells me that one of her professors mailed her say how believable he found the characters, and how free of caricature they were. One of her friends from the course, a sixty-year-old woman herself, who doubted that a cast so young could achieve this believability was presently surprised, ‘so that was a great compliment,’ she observes. Reviews generally were superb.

I ask her to sum up the play, what it is ‘about’, and her reply is instant. ‘It’s about the necessity of women supporting women, and the pain that comes when that dynamic is changed into a competitive one. The central character has done motherhood in critically different ways which then presents a threat to other women.’ She was aiming at archetypes certainly, but created women we all know. ‘Recognizable women. No-one is idealized in this play. This is raw.’

So now to Edinburgh. Fourth Wall have secured a morning slot in Greenside – just off the Royal Mile – they will be there for the two week span from 2 – 16th August.

The difficulties have been many, of course, not least the various bureaucratic hoops that appear as part of process when it comes to professional performances. Organizing publicity is now a priority. Interestingly, the play secured Niamh yet another creative challenge from a film maker, who has asked her to write a completely separate screenplay. She has of course taken up the challenge.

She has also been invited to NSDF 2019 by one of the professional judges of the Festival: Peter Bradley, resident director of the RSC summer season, where, no doubt, she will garner more creative skills.

Lunch has gone in a whirl of enthusiasm and excited pride, veiled as ever by Niamh’s innate modesty. This is one talented Hurtwood leaver with plenty to offer the world. Busy making her way in that world, I for one cannot wait to follow her progress. Booking a few days in Edinburgh is now on my ‘to do’ list, and I suspect it won’t be the only time I get to see her work in production. Her ‘to do’ list on the other hand, is clearly a very, very long one. Good luck, Niamh – game on, girl!


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