It comes as little surprise to hear that Brassneck Theatre Company’s Holy, Holy Bus has won the Belfast Telegraph’s Audience Award at this Belfast Festival at Queens. Having seen it at the Waterfront Hall I can understand why.
The Holy, Holy Bus, written by Pearse Elliott, is about four generations of women from west Belfast, all with their own reasons for wanting to go on the annual pilgrimage from Clonard Monastery.
They head south to visit the holy sites of Ireland. It’s a journey for all of them initially, fundamentally it’s about self-discovery, then it’s about faith, hope and some divine intervention for each of their characters, director Tony Devlin tells me at the Roddy McCorley’s club in west Belfast.
“We have three Catholics and a Protestant,” he explains. “The Protestant is on the bus because her mate at the taxi depot she works in hugs the altar rails and told her it would change her life. At this point of her life she can certainly do with some changes and she threatens that if Prods aren’t allowed on this bus, she’s going to storm off to the Nolan Show and tell them that there’s not too much holy, holy about the Holy Holy Bus!”
The whole journey is about some sort of spiritual salvation, but it’s not about statues moving. It is a journey of self-discovery and the changes that all four of these characters need in their lives right now. They’ve had very traumatic histories, be it through relationships or what’s happened to them in their pasts, and that unravels as the play goes on and we get a more honest idea of why these people are on the pilgrimage.
“The thing about this is that it’s a common bond that these four women find in each other. It’s like the Spice Girls, it’s that moment where boyband after boyband after boyband and all of a sudden the Spice Girls came on the scene and girl power because a new euphemism for female ownership and place in the world – taking control of their own destinies, and that’s what these four women do. They are each others’ salvation rather than having some divine intervention,” explains Tony.
As well as a script that deftly balances tension with humour, the four actors are theatre royalty.
“Stella McCusker, who has performed everywhere form the Abbey to the Lyric to the original Shakespeare’s Globe in 1654,” says Tony laughing.
“She’s playing the “more mature lady” and brings a power and a depth to the piece that makes my job as a director much easier when you have somebody of that experience. You can’t pay for that and it lifts the entire show.
“Then we have Caroline Curran who is probably best known at the minute as Maggie Muff in 50 Shades of Red, White & Blue, a show that has sold out all over the country and further afield and she has her own following at the moment. She plays a similar character in The Holy, Holy Bus to Maggie Muff. Caroline is the Prod on the bus who stirs it up a wee bit and mixes the pot up.
“Then we have the brilliant Claire Connor, who plays Perpetua, the organiser of the Holy Hold Bus, a castle Catholic, born in Leeson Street with delusions of grandeur and she plays it wonderfully, and there’s a lot of humour between her and Caroline’s character, Rita, the Prod, because they are the two polar ends of the religious divide in the north. She’s the stuck-up Catholic, that real kind of conservative Catholic and Rita is the über-prod from the Heel ‘n Ankle.
“Obviously the friction, where a lot of humour comes from in the first half of the play it between those two, but as the play goes on we find that they have a lot more in common than they do apart.
“We also have Róisín Gallagher who plays Lily’s daughter, Sally and I would say she’s the antagonist. Well, in fact there’s no protagonist in this play, it is an ensemble piece, all four women, but it’s her and her mother going on this journey for one last big adventure, I’ll not say anything more about that, but one last big adventure.”
The Holy, Holy Bus is based “very loosely” on writer Pearse Elliott’s s granny and her experience of going on these pilgrimages of Ireland and the tales that she regaled him with.
“I’m sure a lot of women, or anyone who have been on those pilgrimages will see something honest and true to how it is,” says Tony Devlin.
“When they’re sitting around a shrine, our first holy site on this tour is a statue of Our Lady, who has inside a washing machine in a field because Our Lady appeared in some woman’s washing machine in County Meath in 1983, allegedly. So we have the four actors gathered around a washing machine staring into it, waiting on her moving – so that kinds of gives you a sense of it!
“There’s a beautiful moment in this play where the Protestant girl is trying to understand what the immaculate conception is, and equally the Catholics are really struggling to explain the meaning of the Immaculate Conception!
Tony is quick to point out that the play doesn’t mock any religion.
“I don’t think there’s much mileage in mocking it, I think there’s a lot of mileage in questioning it – isn’t that what life’s about? Questioning and figuring out what the bigger picture is, and that’s what this play is about. So all walks of life will love the Holy Holy Bus, including the Catholic Church…”
Below are the tour dates for the Holy, Holy Bus but Brassneck have announced that the “very final” stop will be at their “spiritual home” in The Roddy McCorley Social Club, December 1-6 @8pm – so you’re spoilt for choice for your Christmas nites out! Tickets from (028) 9030 0480. Beep beep!