DREAM CATCHER #2 in conversation with Alison Stanley from Newcastle based theatre company, Life of Riley.

In the last post Alison talked about her latest play Sex is Hard Work. Here she talks about her singing career and writing a play last year The Life of Riley.

My thing when I was young was Musical Theatre then I went onto work in pubs and workingmen’s clubs – which are grand places to cut your teeth. Yes it’s ‘Don’t you dare put your speakers where the bingo machine goes’ (laughs).

Still play them now as an ABBA tribute which works out great cos the punters know what they are going to get. An AC/DC fan isn’t gonna rock up to the club and say ‘these are crap they want paid off’.

DON’T MENTION THE WAR

But I also used to go into the care homes and entertain. Now they are really hard audiences, that’s where I got material for a play I wrote Bedsocks & Secrets which tackled dementia, it went really well and got to Edinburgh. But there was some really funny and sad moments in the care home. I remember a woman came up to me as I was singing, she lifted her dress and shouted ‘Pet did I put my drawers on today’. Well no, she didn’t as I tried to keep on singing.

I would vary the show and do music hall stuff, 60’s & 70’s and a wartime show with a uniform on, a union jack behind us and its Vera Lynn ‘We’ll Meet Again’. One time the head carer came up to me and said ‘Do you mind not singing anything that references the Germans or the war cos we’ve got a new resident who is German’ (laughs).

KNOCK ‘EM DEAD KID

Years ago I used to work as a celebrant for a funeral company, I would give the eulogy at a funeral. When lockdown hit all of our theatre in education work, gigs, plays went out the window, that whole income stream was cut just like that. But in a way it was a very creative time for me not having to rehearse or deliver Theatre in Education in schools. So I went back to doing the eulogies because it got me work. It also combines two of my loves, writing and performance.

I go to the family first get all of the information, I’m genuinely interested in people so that helps. Then write it to deliver it like a performance on the day. I find it fascinating and it plays to my strengths entirely, you have to be respectful and professional.

Alison lwith Cameron Frazer in ‘Life of Riley’ at Northern Stage 2020.

LIFE OF RILEY

The first play I wrote was The Birthday Party which only played a few small fringe theatres in London. Next year is a national tour of Life of Riley and it’s the third play I’ve wrote. Predominantly, it’s about autism, but it’s a mainstream play and accessible to everyone. It’s family drama entertainment and educational. The feedback and revues from people who’ve been entertained by it are now more aware of autism.

When I wrote it, it was a cathartic process because my youngest son is autistic. Jay is 20 and high functioning autistic so a lot of themes in there is our lives when he was younger and when he was diagnosed. The title is tongue in cheek because this family have anything but the life of riley.

It’s about a man who is looking back over his life and experiences as an autistic child, and how the dynamics of the family changed with his diagnosis. It’s funny and can be moving in parts, I also add the shock factor, which I like writing – like the Granny who thinks he just needs a smacked backside. There is the scenes with the mam and dad’s relationship breakdown because of it, and she nearly goes off with someone else.

There is also a scene where he is a teenager and he is beaten up and says to his mother ‘Mam what’s a spacka ?’ You can feel the audience drawing in breath, it’s the shock factor of a rarely used word now. The audience are torn hearing the term, but unfortunately it still happens.

SELL OUT

The play has had some good reviews and in 2019 we took it to Edinburgh Fringe where it sold out. I was surprised to get a standing ovation where the audiences can be quite hit or miss about it because the number of plays that they see during the week.

We played shows on a Northern tour of the Exchange in North Shields, Blyth, Stockton and just before lockdown last year at Newcastle’s Northern Stage 500 seater who sold it out and we got a standing ovation.

Through the Riley play we offer a Theatre in Education where we deliver an autism awareness and acceptance play in primary schools.  That has opened up to more people asking when is the main play being staged again, we will be working on that this Autumn towards putting on a full national tour next year.

NORTHERN FILM

A spin off from the play is we made a short film clip of it with Chrissy Rock (Benidorm, Ladybird Ladybird) and Charlie Price (The Great). Now with BFI funding we are looking to make a feature film with Try Hard Films and Opus Films – all very exciting. The play and film are very northern, it will be a look of The Full Monty crossed with Shameless, that type of real gritty humour.

They have taken my stage script and Debbie Owen who writes for BBC programme Casualty has rewritten it into a screen play. I’ll be a sort of consultant when they are making the film, I will be there somewhere, because I’m not just a writer, theatre maker, I’m also a jobbing actress.

DANCE IN THE DARK

For the future I’m hoping we can have a creative hub with a 60-100 seat black box theatre – just a bare stage with black curtains, no red velvets or plush surroundings. We could hire it out to other companies to help sustain it and encourage new writing, experimental stuff. Plus we can have a small cinema screening room, rehearsal and meeting space with a café or bar, it would create jobs and work experience – that’s not too much to ask.

We just need someone to come and say you can have this building because I know you will make a cracking job of it. If I want to try something new I just go for it, I’ve never been frightened of failure I’m just frightened of regret. I don’t want to get to a point in life where I say if I had done that or tried that.

Alison’s latest play ‘Sex is Hard Work’ plays six nights at Newcastle’s Cluny from 28 June 2021.

Advance tickets £10. Doors open 6pm.

The Cluny, 36 Lime St, Ouseburn, Newcastle, NE1 2PQ.  (0191 230 44 74)

Interview by Gary Alikivi  May 2021.