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Playwright Marie Jones: ‘My mother told me there was no such thing as menopause in her day’

As Women on the Verge of HRT returns to the stage, the writer remains a champion of ‘middle-aged nobodies’

Marie Jones writes comedies, but she says she doesn’t set out to be funny. “I think I’m just inherently humorous. If I get too deep then I go, I need to be funny now, because it’s just going to make me too depressed and sad. I’ve got to find a way.”

It’s not that she’s not serious too. As an actor she’s had serious roles, like Sarah Conlon in In The Name of the Father, and has been in other serious films, like Philomena. Her play A Night in November is “a very, very serious play, for me” about a Northern Protestant’s “Road to Damascus journey: I can’t live like this, with the sectarianism in me. I’ve got to change”.

But at the same time, her default approach is comic. “You know what Ireland’s like, you go to a wake and it’s the funniest place you’ll ever be, because people use humour when there’s a sadness. Where there’s darkness you go, right, I’ve got to make people happy here. I’ve got to find a way to undercut this and not have people sitting in this gloom and doom. Because I don’t like it. They don’t like it. Let’s find a way, without being disrespectful, ever.”

Cast your mind back to 1998. It is another world, with little discussion or acknowledgment of menopause’s effects. Jones recalls when she was writing the play Women on the Verge of HRT in the late 1990s, asking her own mother, then in her 70s, about menopause. “She said, ‘What are you talking about? There was no such thing in my day.’ They didn’t talk about it, so it didn’t happen,” Jones says.


It is no longer taboo and there is better knowledge, including awareness that middle age and menopause can also bring a gutsy confidence, plus, there are other comedy takes on it, from Anne Gildea’s How to Get the Menopause & Enjoy It, to the American Menopause the Musical. But the original was Jones’s Women on the Verge of HRT, first produced in 1998 by DubbelJoint Theatre Company, starring Jones herself and Eileen Pollock as two women on a weekend in Donegal for a Daniel O’Donnell concert.

Jones is in Dublin to tee-up a new production of it, from Northern commercial theatre company GBL and directed by one of her three sons, Matthew McElhinney, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin and Belfast’s Grand Opera House. Now in her early 70s, Jones is buzzing and full of 90-miles-an-hour chat. She is a naturally humorous, east Belfast woman, a petite ball of energy with a great cackle of a laugh.

These days you likely wouldn’t associate fortysomething women with following Daniel O’Donnell. Does Women on the Verge of HRT still work? “That’s what I thought, and part of why I was saying I don’t really want to do this again, until we did the research and realised that’s not it at all. It’s nearly the same demographic as it was,” Jones says.

“One of the two women at the [Daniel O’Donnell] concert was, ‘God, I’m surrounded by this mass of middle-aged nobodies.’ That’s how she felt. And all these women around her are having a great time, but she isn’t personally. She goes: ‘It’s not fair that my husband who’s 50 has married somebody 25 years younger, to make him feel young again. It won’t happen the other way’. And that’s fact. That doesn’t happen the other way round.

“The other character is the antithesis: ‘Isn’t it all right just to wake up beside somebody, and it doesn’t matter if you want sex. It’s just your soul mate and they’ll love you for who you are.’ And she said, ‘But I’m not with anybody. I am alone. Nobody wants me for a soul mate. I don’t want a soul mate. I want to talk to somebody, I want to have sex, but because I’m this menopausal woman, people have written me off.’ A lot of women relate to that.”

Besides, Daniel O’Donnell is, in the play, “a device”.

“A lot of people make jokes about Daniel O’Donnell, of course they do. But it’s not really aimed at him. It’s because the audience that follow him, people don’t take them seriously. A big mass of ‘middle-aged nobodies’, older people, older women. That’s where most of the jokes are,” Jones says.

“It’s not really about Daniel O’Donnell himself, it’s because his main audience aren’t taken seriously as people. If he had a very intellectual, discerning audience and he was writing different music ... It’s like the Swedes, when you say you love Abba they go ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you love Abba.’ And they’re Swedish. Now everybody loves Abba.”

Equally, “the play wasn’t really about HRT [hormone replacement therapy]. It could have been called women on the verge of disappearance, women on the verge of invisibility, menopause, hot flushes, anything”.

“But HRT was quite snappy as a title,” Jones says. “Everybody was talking about it when the drug come out, which made people start to talk about menopause too. HRT was the medical intervention for menopause, but the actual feeling, the actual emotions, how you felt as a woman, was not talked about.”

I get away from everything, the washing machine, everybody... I love it: wee cottage, meself and me glass of wine

Even today, “more, I would say middle-class, educated women, talk about menopause more”, Jones says. “Women still say, ‘You see that play, I want to go and see it now. I was too young then. I remember taking my mother, now I want to take myself. Because my husband said to me, there’s something wrong with you, wrong with your head.’

“For a while, I didn’t really want to do the play again,” she says. “And it was people coming up to me, in the shops, and saying, ‘When are you putting that play on again?’”

Where she grew up, in working-class Protestant east Belfast, people traditionally voted for unionist parties. But voting has “broadened out” with people “who wouldn’t want to identify with sectarian politics, and would be Alliance or SDLP. The more sort of middle-groundy politics”.

“Alliance would be a big one in east Belfast,” Jones says. “We’ve got Naomi Long, people really respond to her. A lot of women support Naomi, but you still have the DUP, which are quite big, and UUP.”

Her perception is that, in that community, people thought: “Stormont, what other choice was there? That has to be it. Civil servants, administrators, they couldn’t make any decisions, so everybody was suffering. People were totally, constantly frustrated, every day: why can’t you just get back and be there? I think when Brexit happened, nobody knew what it was, you were either saying yes or no, but you didn’t know what the effects of that were.”

“That was the real problem. Nobody actually knew anything. It was not sold to anybody. People still going, what is the protocol? I don’t understand what it is? What is the backstop? People are going, I haven’t a clue. Nobody could foresee that was the reason to keep the protocol, it was either yes or no,” Jones says.

There was a sense, in some quarters, that the “British government will sort it out, getting out of the European Union, and it’d be fine”.

“Did anybody think for a second, hold on, but we’re actually joined on to a part of Europe, which is south of Ireland,” Jones says. “How are you going to work that one out? It’s incredible how a whole nation, nobody in the whole of the UK, nobody, not one politician, said, we’ve a wee bit of a problem, you know. How are you going to get that stuff over and down there without a border?”

With the implosion of the DUP all over the news, are people out and about talking about it? “Oh, they’ve been talking about it! They’re getting up in the morning talking about it, everywhere you go people are talking about it ... It’s very sad,” she says.

Jones still acts occasionally but writing is her focus. She writes in The Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Co Monaghan. “I get away from everything, the washing machine, everybody. I’m going off to write after this is all over, [an adaptation of] A Christmas Carol for the Lyric. I love it: wee cottage, meself and me glass of wine. Nobody saying, you should be working now. I’d be thinking all the time. Focus, focus. It’s brilliant.”

Jones is arguably best known for Stones in His Pockets, which has been performed worldwide, winning Irish Times/ESB Irish Theatre Award for best production in 1999, and two Olivier Awards in 2001 (best new comedy and best actor). Matthew McElhinney has also directed a new production for the Lyric “a whole different take on it, brilliant”, which is touring from September. “I suppose I’ll have to keep writing, until me hand drops off. Till me head drops off,” she says.

Jones lives in middle-class southeast Belfast with her husband Ian McElhinney. His background is somewhat posher. “He’s a son of the preacher man. A Church of Ireland minister. He grew up in the vicarage in Lisburn, in Lambeg rectory,” Jones says. He studied in the United States, taught in Yorkshire, and came back to Belfast when he decided to become an actor. His stellar CV includes being Ser Barristan Selmy in Game of Thrones, and Granda Joe in Derry Girls. A humorous household, then?

“Yeah, but Ian wouldn’t be, like, a laugh-a-minute person like I am,” Jones says. “He would be much more serious about things. He’s completely opposite to Granda Joe. He looks exactly the same. People recognise him, and then he speaks in his very posh voice. That’s not Granda Joe!”

Work brings him away a lot. “D’ya know what, it’s our norm. Our Matthew is 35. He’s just been born into it. There’s something on TV and they go, ‘Is that my dad, when did he do that?’ And I go, ‘I don’t ask him. I just ask how much you getting for it!’ No, we do take it seriously. So you know, we all work.” Matthew is “very humorous himself. He’s also an actor. It’s just the world he grew up in, that’s our world”.

Way back, when they were first performing A Night in November, “we took it to a very DUP area”, Jones says. “We had to have security, in case there were problems with what the character was saying. We’re talking about 1994. UTV took a vox pop, and I think it was the DUP mayor, he came out and said, ‘Mmm, there’s a lot I didn’t agree with. But I near killed myself laughing’. Yes!” she says in triumph. “As Dan Gordon [who performed in it] always says, ‘Oh, you’re just giving them medicine with a spoonful of sugar, like your ma did. Get that into ya. Not too bad now is it?’”

Women On The Verge of HRT is at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from April 30th-May 4th and the Grand Opera House Belfast from May 6th-11th