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Maurice's Jubilee at Richmond Theatre - Nichola McAuliffe Interview

Posted: 18 February 2013
Maurice's Jubilee at Richmond Theatre - Nichola McAuliffe Interview

Such has been the impact of her play, Maurice’s Jubilee, that writer- and actor- Nichola McAuliffe must have been pinching herself for fear that it would turn out to be a dream. Happily, it’s all true. Maurice’s Jubilee, having charmed audiences on last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe with its mixture of poignancy and wit, is now embarking on a nationwide tour under the aegis of the mighty Ambassador Theatre Group. We know Nichola best, perhaps, for her role as the formidable Sheila Sabatini - a surgeon with a tongue as sharp as her scalpel-in the long-running comedy, Surgical Spirit but she is also a published author and a performed playwright several times over.

'I’ve always written but never really thought about it,' explains Nichola. 'Even while I was training at LAMDA, I wrote a couple of one-act plays for four of us to perform. I really, really enjoy writing and my husband, Don, who is a very experienced tabloid journalist, has helped me enormously to develop a concise and economical style.'

Nichola remembers when the first shoots of what evolved into Maurice’s Jubilee started to appear.

'We were driving back after attending Don’s mother’s funeral and we were sitting in a companionable silence with a long journey ahead of us. I was thinking about the upcoming Diamond Jubilee and I said to Don that I thought I had an idea for a play. I told the chap who runs the Pleasance in Edinburgh that I’d had this idea but that I didn’t think it was suitable for Edinburgh because it had an old-fashioned structure. But he insisted that I tell him about it and after I’d finished, he said that the brochure was off to the printers soon and could I hurry up and write the play? So I sat down and wrote Maurice’s Jubilee.'

As the title suggests, the play takes place during the Jubilee Year of 2012 and the eponymous Maurice, an octogenarian jeweller now in retirement, has long had a special relationship with the central figure in the celebrations, much to the dismay of Helena, his wife of many years. The play is beautifully written, funny and sad in equal measure, and given Maurice and Helena’s time of life, you would probably assume that the play was about the trials and tribulations of being in the twilight of one’s days. But Nichola vehemently disagrees.

'It’s not remotely about old age,' she insists. 'It’s about how you love somebody for all that time and how your hopes and dreams remain the same. In the Arts, in society at large, we are always told that we should think of the Second Act, when people are in their teens and their twenties, as the most dramatic Act. But it isn’t. People of an age still have dreams and ambitions but they also have knowledge of life - all of which makes them interesting characters to write and people with whom the audience can identify.'

As the title of the play suggests, the Queen has a role to play in the story and writing Maurice’s Jubilee set Nichola thinking about how Elizabeth II has occupied a constant place in all our lives.

'We all project our thoughts onto the Queen but the extraordinary thing about her is that she has remained the same,' she argues. 'She’s no different in 2013 than she was in 1953. She hasn’t changed, although we have come full circle. For Maurice, his relationship with the Queen is part of the process of making friends with death. He’s had enough and he’s ready to go but he has something to do first and he wants just enough time in which to do it.'

In the play, Nichola deals with these ideas with sensitivity but also with great humour.

'In my experience, the more you are at ease with death, the more humour you find in the situation. I dislike dramatic displays of emotion - the kind you see in television soaps. But reality is not melodramatic. People don’t do overt expressions of how they feel.'

Once the play was written and advertised in the Fringe programme, Nichola had to set about casting Maurice’s Jubilee.

'Originally I wasn’t going to be in it; I had a holiday booked,' she explains. 'Kika Markham had agreed to play Katy but then she was offered a nice television job and we quite understood that she had to go for that so I decided to take it on. I ran into Julian at the Rose Theatre in Kingston and I asked him if he was doing anything in the summer and could I send him my play? After some time, I rang him and asked him if he’d read it –which he had- and he added that Isla {Blair}, his wife, had told him he had to do it. Sheila Reid’s husband said much the same thing. Julian have known each other forever but never worked together, although I’ve always admired him. As for Sheila, I used to bunk off from school and see a matinee at the Old Vic when she was a member of Olivier’s National Theatre company there. I’d queue up for a seat in the Gods and I’d gaze down at Sheila on stage from a great height.'

It must be an odd experience to appear in your own play. Was Nichola extra protective of her script?

'In the rehearsal room, I was the actor and not the writer,' she reports. 'I didn’t mind if somebody wanted to change a word or a line, provided that the change was for the good of the play. In the event, I was very pleased that the audience laughed a lot and what really surprised me was the reaction of some of the young people who came to see the show. One twelve-year-old boy was very moved, practically distraught, because he was projecting his own grandfather on to the character of Maurice.'

Maurice’s Jubilee was one of the hits of the Fringe 2012 but its reception in Edinburgh still didn’t prepare Nichola for what was to happen when the Ambassador Theatre Group declared an interest in prolonging the life of the production.

'I couldn’t believe it; this kind of thing simply doesn’t happen,' says Nichola. 'ATG represents the absolute Gold Standard. Various people had come to see it in Edinburgh but we really wanted to keep our powder dry and not rush into anything. Adam Spiers of ATG moved very quickly and, to our astonishment, a tour of the UK was set up. One of the people I must thank is Peter Wilson, an independent producer who also runs the Theatre Royal, Norwich. He read the initial play, saw the potential in it and got ATG involved. We’ve been amazed by what has happened. It’s been a case of jaws dropping continuously on the Axminster, as it were.'

Nichola has been enjoying the rare luxury for a writer of building up the original play both to fill the slightly increased running time and to allow the production to expand into the larger dimensions of some of the venues on the tour.

'In Edinburgh, it lasted for ninety minutes without an interval and so I’ve increased the play to fit two hours with an interval. There were areas which we felt we could develop, such as the characters’ back-story, and I’ve added an extra line wherever we felt it was necessary.'

Has Nichola been influenced by any other writers? She cites some of the best.

'My admiration for writers knows no bounds,' she says. 'Peter Nichols is just brilliant and I love the work of David Mamet, Patrick Marber, Terry Johnson, Tom Stoppard and Peter Shaffer, who is one of the great, great playwrights. But Alan Bennett is my inspiration for the way he uses the English language and how he demonstrates that a line must sit well in the mouth. I’ve been influenced by them all.'

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