Interview: Nichola McAuliffe

Playwright and actress Nichola McAuliffe has worked extensively on both stage and screen. Here she talks to Kate Saffin about her approach to writing and the choice to send the writer Nichola McAuliffe to the Canary Islands to misbehave in a bar so that the actor Nichola McAuliffe can focus on realising the character on stage.

Where did the idea for The Silver Gym start?

Many years ago I joined a gym, part of a network; they are all over the place, they work in conjunction with local councils, so it’s not like these posh, lycra clad places. You get an amazing cross section of people, all sorts, a wonderful collection of Eastern European, Vietnamese, African, West Indian… just about every nation under the sun, every size and age. I started to get to know a few people and realised that if you’re not feeling too bright or you’ve been isolated all day writing and you go and do a class it makes you feel better. It’s not just the endorphins, it’s meeting others, seeing other people’s lives. It’s fun, a very healthy experience and not just from the point of muscles, and I thought ‘These people interest me, and the situation interests me and the whole thing interests me. I’m sure I could cobble something together about these people that says more than just ‘women should do exercise’’.

The more I got to know these very interesting women, the more I saw that they had hard lives, extremely difficult lives some of them, but they make very very good friends. They are from such different backgrounds and some very strong bonds have been formed. This particular class has been going to ten years, although I’ve been going there for fifteen.

The gym in the play is under threat from developers. Is that based on real events?

Yes, but it wasn’t a small gym that was threatened. I used to go to one at Elephant and Castle – it was very run down, it was demolished to make way for apartments and will soon be full of aspiring young persons. I was fond of that old gym, it was absolutely awful, but it had something. It was the template for the place I had in mind.

What was your starting point for writing?

I started with the characters. What was very odd, and I’m sure it’s the same for everyone, is the way the characters decide what they want to do, you don’t have much control over them.

There are two women, one is a Jew, one is a Muslim, and the Muslim one in the full burqa and the Jew is a bad Jew because she is a good dancer, that what she says, that’s what her brother thinks of her. It’s the way that these women, and this white working class woman who is not exactly racist, but certainly deeply anti the Muslim, manage to resolve things in a way that men don’t resolve things. The one who is apparently the strongest, the one who’s come out of the army, is the one the others help to find herself. I think the humour is vital to it. And they’ve all got a sense of humour in a different way.

We use the song Dem Bones – the woman who takes over the gym says she has watched a woman die of osteoporosis, they signed up together and she feels all she can do is right a wrong, that weight bearing exercise is good for bones, So the song comes in and of course, it’s got all the resonances of putting yourself back together from Ezekiel.

Franklin Weekes, (the token man!), is apparently feckless, but he’s the one who tells the woman who allows herself to be abused that no man… he says ‘You think I’m a failure, I’m nothing, but I’ve never raised my hand to a woman and that makes me better than your powerful rich husband’ and the woman at that point can’t accept it at all.

Each person has a journey in it. I find all the women’s journeys extremely interesting and I don’t feel I really wrote it. And because I’m acting in it on the first day of rehearsal I said ‘The writer Nicola McAuliffe is actually in the Canaries with very bad Wi-Fi connection and the director can ring her up in the evening and ask her questions about the script but she’s ll be in the bar by then and too drunk to answer!’ So we didn’t get any of those awkward situations where you’ve got the actor/writer in the room and people get a bit peculiar about asking the writer directly and end up bypassing the director. And then you get a bit of an odd situation in the room until everyone trusts each other.

This isn’t the first time you’ve been in something you have written, is it?

No. The last time was Maurice’s Jubilee; Kika Markham who, as we know, has a very strong feminist and political presence was going to play Katie and the other part but she landed the part of Mr Selfridge’s mother for the television series and we all said well said you’ve got to go and do it because it will pay the mortgage! Sheila Reid and Julian Glover wouldn’t sign on the dotted line till they knew who was going to play the part because it’s such an intimate play and it was a just a week before the theatre brochure had to go to print so they said ‘you’ll have to play it’. So I did. The play before that was about my husband (A British Subject) , I played myself with David Rintoul playing my husband.

Have you always sent Nicola the writer to the Canaries?

I sent her to the Canary Islands on the second play. In the first play, a four hander with good friends, it was a very difficult process. In fact I sort of jettisoned the script and decided we were going to have a really good time - or we would have had open warfare in the rehearsal room. It worked and we’ve all remained great friends. After that I started working with Hannah Eidinow, who’s a brilliant director, she directed my last two plays, and we always said the writer wouldn’t be in the room and that’s when we invented the drunkard in the Canary Islands, the female Dylan Thomas falling into bars.

The director for this play, Glen Walford, is terrific. She was very keen it should be cut to run no more than 2hrs including the interval which meant a lot of the verbal development was lost but hopefully we’ve got it in there through the acting. I tend to over write. She cut, no, I cut for her, she didn’t cut over my head, and I think she was right about the running time and those developments.

The script has developed, I did cut it back, but I’ve also tailored it more to the cast. I was originally writing for my friends, each character was very specifically tailored to, for example a 5’ 10” ex dancer who could do certain things. So I had in my mind the actors I was writing for, but then of course we didn’t get all those actors and even if we had had them it would have changed. The characters would have become clearer and they would have brought certain things and we would have been saying ‘let’s develop that a little bit more’, they found something in the script I didn’t see was there so let’s release it by changing that slightly. It’s that wonderful thing about the definition of grammar – ‘knowing your shit’ versus ‘knowing you’re shit’ - It’s all about where you put the apostrophe!

Have any interesting things emerged in developing the play, any assumptions challenged?

There weren’t any really. But I have been fascinated how the Jewish/ Muslim relationship has developed and how the relationships between the white working class woman, the West Indian who works for the council and the girl who worked in the gym originally, that you assume is Vietnamese. What I did realise when we were casting that part was how few opportunities there are for Asian actresses from that part of the world, what used to be caused Oriental Asian– Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese…

She’s actually of Japanese extraction; she was saying that that nobody ever casts actresses who look like her as dipsy, mini skirted, vacuous, implanted, botoxed and fillered, aspiring Simon Callow contestants , they are always cast as nuclear scientists, doctors, something like that. Each ethnicity has its own box that people put them in. She was thrilled to be asked to play a bimbo, she’s not a total bimbo in fact, being around these other women brings her on and brings her out. She lives in a fantasy world and makes up stories and realises that she doesn’t have to. Her ambition is to run a nail bar. And that all gives her a journey she can emerge through. As an actor, if you haven’t got a journey, if you're not a different person at the end from the one you are at the beginning, then either the part of the acting is wrong, you should have some sort of movement, some development.

Finally – what are you hoping for after this run

A national tour, a London transfer, an international tour and a film with Morgan Freeman playing Franklin Weeks, Whoopie Goldberg as Violet and Meryl Streep playing me. Achieve all that and I think I’ll knock it on the head!

(c) Kate Saffin 2016

'The Silver Gym' is a play with a female writer, director and a diverse, predominately female cast.

A Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch production
Written by and starring Olivier Award-winning Nichola McAuliffe (Surgical Spirit & Coronation Street)
Featuring a vocal cameo by entertainment icon Christopher Biggins.
Joining them are Pauline Daniels, Susan Aderin, Suzanna Bygrave, Kim Ismay (star of the West End’s Mamma Mia!), Houmi Miura, Carol Sloman and Peter Straker.
Fri 15 Apr - Sat 7 May

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