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

Rowntree Players return from lockdown and fire with Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

Rowntree Players in rehearsal for Agatha Christie’s A Spider’s Web, directed by Howard Ella

AGATHA Christie’s Spider’s Web opens at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre tonight in the first of three Rowntree Players’ productions in four months after the long pandemic hiatus.

Coming next, from December 4 to 11, will be Howard Ella and Andy Welch’s pantomime Dick Whittington, followed by the January 27 to 29 world premiere of The Missing Peace, adapted by director Gemma McDonald from York author, musician and public speaker Ian Donaghy’s book on bereavement and life after death.

Howard Ella, who has taken up a director of productions role for original Netflix series in the UK, is somehow finding time to direct Christie’s murder mystery.

What happens? Diplomat’s wife Clarissa Hailsham-Brown is adept at spinning tales of adventure, but when a murder takes place in her drawing room, she finds live drama much harder to cope with.

Desperate to dispose of the body before husband Henry arrives with an important politician, she enlists the help of her guests. 

“In a conscious parody of the detective thriller, Christie delivers a unique blend of suspense and humour,” says Howard. “There is tension and laughter in equal parts in an intricate plot of murder, police, hidden doorways and secret drawers.”

Explaining the choice of play for Rowntree Players’ return to the stage, Howard says: “For a few years we’ve talked about doing a murder mystery, having done Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and John Godber plays.

Jeanette Hunter in the role of Mildred Peake in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web

“For me, I need a comic bent to find my way through a play, and because Spider’s Web has an element of tongue in cheek about it, you could almost argue that Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong is based on Spider’s Web and not on The Mousetrap.

“It’s funny, it’s heightened drama; it does the mystery bit that it brings out with a smile, and it lets Rowntree Players find our feet again after two years, with a cast of 11 taking part, some of them new to the Players.

“It’s also a proper set-build for us, now we have a roof back on our store and all our kit has been replaced after the fire that tore through our sets and props at Moor Farm in Murton in January 2020.”

The fire destroyed half of Rowntree Players’ stock. “Smoke and water damage made most of the rest of it useless, and then because of the Covid lockdowns, it took eight months to get the roof back on,” says Howard.

“That Biblical plague meant no-one could achieve anything for a year; it was such a crazy year, where you could not imagine a worldwide pandemic would stop everything in its tracks for so long.”

The 2020 Rowntree Players’ pantomime fell by the wayside and The Missing Peace premiere was put on hold, but the Players are returning at “hopefully full pelt”.

“Andy Welch and I wrote the Dick Whittington panto script for last year, so we’re a year ahead of ourselves!” says Howard. “We’ve done a read-through to road-test it, having written it remotely, with screen shares for me and Andy.

The Rowntree Players’ poster for Dick Whittington, Covid-cancelled last year but now taking to the road to London this December

“That was challenging to do, never hearing it out loud, so we got together in my garden once we were allowed to do so, to give it a run, and we’ve since done a couple of tweaks.

“We’re hoping to be able to do the show as we always would have done it, with children and a chorus, but we’ll react to any Covid restrictions if we have to.”

The Missing Peace premiere will complete the trilogy of Rowntree Players’ comeback shows in the form of one play with 15 endings. “I’ve picked out 15 of the monologues from Ian Donaghy’s book, putting them together to be told on a station platform in a collective narrative, with piano accompaniment, maybe a busker” says director Gemma McDonald.

“The play is a series of talking head-style monologues that have been brought together to explore life after death, with each character stepping out to tell their tale. It’s not a play about death, it’s a play about life, so there’ll be moments of laughter, sadness and reflection throughout.”

Out of necessity, Gemma is adapting the monologues anew because some of the original cast members have headed off to university, while others have moved on from York.

Looking ahead, Gemma says: “We would love to have the publicity of doing an extra show at York Theatre Royal, if the run goes well and we raise the money. If that could come off, it would raise the profile of Rowntree Players and we’d have more people coming to our plays.”

Howard adds: “We have to plan for bankrolling plays through our pantomimes, which always sell out, and that allows us to do plays that people have not always heard of.”

Or indeed are new, like The Missing Peace.

The Missing Peace: Missed out on its planned premiere in the lockdown lull but will go ahead in early 2022

Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web will be performed at 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday. For tickets for Rowntree Players’ productions, ring 01904 501935 or book online at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Who’s who in the Rowntree Players cast for Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web:

Sir Rowland Delahaye: played by Martyn Hunter;

Hugo Birch: Graham Smith;

Jeremy Warrender: Andrew Roberts;

Clarissa Hailsham-Brown: Gemma McDonald;

Pippa Hailsham-Brown: Katelyn Banks;

Mildred Peake: Jeanette Hunter;

Elgin: Craig Kirby;

Oliver Costello: Jake Botterell;

Henry Hailsham-Brown: Rory Mulvihill;

Inspector Lord: Mark McDonald;

Constable Jones: Sara Howlett.

Did he or didn’t he? All will be revealed when Craig Kirby plays Elgin in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web from tonight until Saturday at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York

What did you do in lockdown? Here’s a kind word from motivational author Ian Donaghy

Author Ian Donaghy with the first edition of his new lockdown book, A Pocketful Of Kindness

TRAVEL back to times BC, before Covid.

Let York author, singer, event organiser, conference speaker and dementia care campaigner Ian Donaghy take up the story. “Imagine if we had been told on New Year’s Eve, ‘enjoy the next 12 weeks because, come March 2020, schools will close the gates,” he posits.

“Pub and restaurant curtains will be drawn and live music venues and theatres will be told the show mustn’t go on… and on top of that, there will be no cuddles allowed’.” 

Never has the world needed a bigger cuddle than in these uncharted waters, says Big Ian, whose response to lockdown inertia was to write a 229-page cuddle of a book entitled A Pocketful Of Kindness. 

“During lockdown, many people were furloughed, uncertain of their futures,” says Big Ian, larger-than-life host of such York community events as A Night To Remember at York Barbican and Xmas Presence, former school teacher and now a “key voice in care”.

On song: Ian Donaghy hosting A Night To Remember at York Barbican

“As a conference speaker, I suddenly realised the venues I usually fill with delegates, whether ExCeL London or the Harrogate Convention Centre, were now Covid-19 Nightingale hospitals. Everything I did on my public-speaker travels had disappeared.”

At his home, not far from the York Barbican, where his band Huge played the first ever show, a restless Ian needed to keep himself busy.

Noting the acts of kindness that were proliferating in lockdown, he hit on the idea of writing a pocket-sized book on that very subject.

He already had two all-life-is-here books to his name, firstly Dear Dementia, published in June 2014 and now available in libraries home and abroad.

Writer Ian Donaghy and director Gemma McDonald at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre box office when hatching their plan to convert The Missing Peace into a Rowntree Players production

Next, in December 2017, came The Missing Peace, Creating A Life After Death, whose transfer to the stage by Gemma McDonald and the Rowntree Players should have been playing the Joseph Rowntree Theatre this weekend.

The Missing Peace had taken three years from first thought to printing, a longer gestation than an elephant birth. Come 2020, he had so many heart-warming stories bubbling away, waiting to be told, he felt compelled to put finger to keyboard once more, and lockdown’s quietitude allowed him a more concentrated focus, a much faster turnaround.

“Like many people, I like to work from a finish line backwards, so I needed to create a finish line. Not just a raison d’etre, but a raison d’aider, to help people in this difficult time,” says Big Ian, whose 50th birthday fell in those shutdown weeks.

York pianist Kieran White as he appears in the story A Fish Out Of Water

“So, after transforming the garden and doing some pretty shoddy decorating, I reflected on what was important in this new simplified world.

“The world had stopped, giving us a rare period of clarity – an opportunity to reflect, to see who and what really matters in our lives and who and what doesn’t.”

He set about writing stories from his experiences in dementia care; teaching young people with learning difficulties; working in crime reduction for the Home Office and 30 years as a showman singer, fronting bands in his native North East, Yorkshire and Nottingham.

The book combines short stories, monologues and TED Talk-style chapters highlighting the virtues and power that kindness has had in transforming people’s lives.

Sir Bobby Robson: The subject of Ian’s story A League Of His Own

Page after page of true stories, full of humour, revelation, wry observation and pathos too, recount  the deeds of England and Newcastle United manager Sir Bobby Robson, Irish boxer Barry McGuigan, American blues guitarist Robert Cray and an army of selfless people you will “never have heard of but will want to meet”.

Big Ian’s celebration of kindness attracted award-winning Private Eye cartoonist Tony Husband, who provided a cartoon, such was his belief in the inspirational project.

“The idea behind the book is that you gift it to someone who has made a huge impact in your life with their acts of kindness who may not realise it,” says Big Ian. “This enables you to reflect on who has helped get you where you are today.”

Seventy stories in total, they will make you laugh, cry and think in equal measure, promises Big Ian, whose storytelling elan has prompted one reviewer to call him “an Alan Bennett for the 21st century, who finds tomorrow’s charm and nostalgia in today”.

Kieran White’s reaction on being gifted a copy of A Pocketful Of Kindness

A Pocketful Of Kindness is available only from bigian.co.uk and is proving popular already, selling 1,500 copies in its first week, based solely on word of mouth.

“Many companies have bought bespoke versions of the book with their company logos to show their employees how appreciated they are,” says Big Ian.

Summing up his philosophy in advocating a championing of kindness, he says:

“Look back on your life and think…

Who believed in you?

Who pushed you?

Who said, ‘If there’s anything you want, I’m here’….and actually backed it up.

Who asked you how you were and waited for an answer?

Tony Husband’s cartoon, Be Kind, gifted to Ian Donaghy for A Pocketful Of Kindness

Who inspired you?

Who believed in you when even you didn’t?

Who gave you your standards?

Who made time for you despite being so busy?

Who was kind when the world was not?

Think who helped make you.

Who would you send the book to?”

Inevitably influenced by being written in lockdown, A Pocketful Of Kindness is “a book for our times”. “As its centre-piece, it even features a chapter called Stop The World I Want To Get Off about the chaos 2020 has dealt us all,” says Ian.

“But now I predict a new pandemic that I’ve already witnessed in communities and in care homes that I think won’t need a vaccine, as I expect the result to read: Covid 19 Kindness 20.”

Pocketed: Book editor Charles Hutchinson shows off his reward for suffering Ian Donaghy’s “punktuation”

AS an act of kindness in the lockdown lull, Ian Donaghy asked yours truly to edit some stories that he wanted to turn into a book.

As an act of kindness, CH said ‘Yes’…and so the to and fro and fro and to of 70 stories began.

As an act of cruelty, Ian subjected CH to his erratic punctuation, or “punktuation”, as his father has so aptly described it.

As an act of generosity, ex-Maths teacher Ian put up with being judged as if for a school report, story after story.

Now, however, the result can be yours, courtesy of Big Ian providing five copies to be awarded to recipients for the five best reasons to do so, honouring acts of kindness you want to showcase.

Send those brief stories of kind deeds to charles.hutchinson104@gmail.com, marked Kindness Acts, with your name, address and daytime phone number, by September 13.

Who deserves a copy of A Pocketful Of KIndness? Have your say by sending your suggestion and reason to charles.hutchinson104@gmail.com