Life and death, monologues and music in Big Ian’s The Missing Peace at the JoRo. Watch out for narrator Mark Addy too

The Missing Peace director Gemma McDonald and writer Ian Donaghy outside the Joseph Rowntree Theatre

NOBODY thought this morning when they turned the key in the door lock, “well, that’ll be the last time I’ll see you.”

So begins the book The Missing Peace: Creating A Life After Death, written by York musician, author, charity event organiser and motivational conference speaker Ian Donaghy, now adapted for the stage by Rowntree Players performer and York teacher Gemma McDonald and Big Ian himself.

Gemma could not help but imagine a book she loved so much transferring to the stage, and so she and Rowntree Players pantomime co-writer and director Howard Ella approached Ian with the idea.

“The Missing Peace lends itself beautifully to the stage and also allows an opportunity for actors of all ages to highlight their talents with heart-breaking and heart-warming monologues,” she says. “It’s a very different, original and powerful production.”

Billed as “One play…fifteen endings”, The Missing Peace will run at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from January 27 to 29, after the first Covid lockdown ruled out its original run last April, since when half the cast has changed.

Graham Smith in rehearsal for The Missing Peace. Picture: Duncan Lomax

Thankfully, Mark Addy, York star of The Full Monty, Game Of Thrones and White House Farm, had recorded his part as the Station Announcer narrator, ahead of heading to New York last year to appear in the Broadway premiere of Martin McDonagh’s Hangman.

Taking part on stage will be Mandy Newby; Sarah Howlett; Mark McDonald; Gemma McDonald; Joseph Paul; Beth Hutchinson; Alison Taylor; Hannah Wood; Graham Smith; Liam Godfrey; Caitlin Banks; Maggie Smales and busker Pete Hyndman, who will weave all the monologues together.

Big Ian recalls the original reason for writing The Missing Peace. “So many friends were losing grandparents, parents, siblings, friends and even children and I realised people did not know how to help or support them,” he says.

“People would say things like, ‘Don’t call Paul…his Mum’s just died’. Surely that’s exactly why you should call or at least send a text to say you are there any time for him.

“Based on real-life stories, many of them from interviews conducted in York, the book was written to show how people can somehow survive losing the people they love the most and how they can support others – and don’t underestimate the impact of losing a family pet, either. Expect the unexpected. The shared experience of short stories of survival and monologues are there to spark the conversation and show that you are not alone.”

Mark Addy: Recorded narrator for The Missing Peace

Big Ian and Gemma cherry-picked 15 of the monologues. “We chose a mixture of length, style, with different messages for the audience to take away: some heart-breaking, some heart-warming and a couple, light-hearted,” he says.

“Gemma came up with a brilliant idea to set it in York railway station. From the start to the finish of the one-act play, it flows from one voice in a crowd to another. Mark’s narration and Pete performing original songs will glue the monologues together.”

Gemma says: “I read the book back in 2019 and found it encapsulating. I was engrossed in each story and went through a series of emotions while reading it. I realised I’d never thought about grieving in the way in which some of the monologues suggested and I felt that it really helped me to consider others’ perspectives and the different way people deal with death.”

The stories have “adapted easily” to the stage, she says. “I wanted to create the feeling that we are all in our own world and living our own lives and very rarely do we really look closely at others’ lives, especially in relation to life after death and the grieving process that we have all been through at some stage in our lives,” reflects Gemma.

Explaining the choice of monologues, Big Ian says: “We wanted to get a mix. It’s not a play about dying; it’s about living and celebrating life, so we chose the ones to best reflect that.

Mark McDonald and Gemma McDonald in the rehearsal room. Picture: Duncan Lomax

“The overarching theme is that we should be there for one another. We are all broken biscuits. We can either dwell on our cracks alone or make the best cheesecake in the world together.

“On stage, The Missing Peace is not so much a play as a patchwork of friendship and survival. Bring tissues but you will also laugh in places as humour can be found in the darkest of places.”

Donaghy’s writing, whether in The Missing Peace or his lockdown follow-up, A Pocketful Of Kindness, has drawn praise from Barnsley bard Ian McMillan; Emmerdale actor and regular tweeter Reece Dinsdale; York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird, who loves the “northern heartbeat” in his his fellow North Easterner’s stories, and The League Of Gentlemen co-creator Mark Gatiis, who devoured the “wonderful and inspirational” book
in a night without going to bed.

“If you’ve lost someone and have felt alone – as many do – these ‘talking heads’ monologues look at loss from so many viewpoints to help you help you and others when grieving,” says Big Ian.

Mandy Newby, who will be performing one of the monologues in The Missing Peace. Picture: Duncan Lomax

“To have The Missing Peace go from page to stage is going to challenge people’s thinking and start conversations. On opening night, I will have a dream come true that I never realised I had. Writing has opened up some many new doors.”

Gemma adds: “I hope the audience will get an insight into the different ways people grieve and how to deal with certain situations. There are moments of sadness, laughter and reflection throughout, and the actors capture this beautifully.”

The pandemic toll has added even more resonance to The Missing Peace. “It was never the hope to make this play more and more relevant,” says Big Ian. “But during the pandemic, families have had loved ones vanish, not die. Gone without a goodbye. Gone without holding a hand. A story with the last pages ripped out, denied by a virus.”

What is the best piece of wisdom Big Ian has been given to deal with grief? “Be strong for no-one,” he says. “Do whatever you need to do at any point to get you through the hardest challenges life can throw at you. Remember that you are made of bits of the person you have lost.”

Beth Hutchinson rehearsing her monologue. Picture: Duncan Lomax

As rehearsals progress, he takes pride in Made In York running through the core of The Missing Peace. “It’s a big deal! It’s not the merry-go-round of same old plays. It’s not Fiddler On The  Roof or Annie. It isn’t a musical, though it features four original songs,” says Big Ian.

“Rarely will York be so well represented in a production: York actors; York production company; York set designers; York play written by a man who has made York his home about people who live in York.”

What might happen next to The Missing Peace? “I can’t say just yet but it is very exciting,” he promises. Watch this space.

Rowntree Players in The Missing Peace, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 27 to 29, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk. All profits will be split between St Leonard’s Hospice and Bereaved Children Support York.

Copyright of The Press, York

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