Author/ playwright Bernie Gaughan and actress/ choreographer Hayley- Jo Murphy told David Hennessy about the revival of the Irish musical Next Door’s Baby.
A new revival of the acclaimed Irish musical Next Door’s Baby comes to Theatre at the Tabard this week.
Written by Bernie Gaughan and the late Matthew Strachan, Next Door’s Baby is the story of two families who are at loggerheads while also trying to maintain their façade of ‘respectability’ as they both have their secrets.
First performed in 2008, this new production will be livelier than previous incarnations due to the involvement of Hayley- Jo Murphy, a former World Champion Irish dancer, who choreographs the show as well as playing the role of Sheila.
Born in Fulham to Irish parents, Bernie Gaughan is well known as an author of popular women’s fiction.
Hayley- Jo has toured with major shows like Celtic Thunder and starred in stage productions both in Ireland and here in the UK.
Bernie and Hayley- Jo took a break from rehearsals last week to chat to The Irish World.
How are those rehearsals going?
Bernie says: “I’m delighted, we’ve got a fantastic cast.
“And they’re already, I think, like two families, aren’t you?
“So I think they’re going great. Hayley- Jo might think differently.”
Hayley- Jo adds: “No, they’re going so well.
“And it’s funny that you said that already we’re like two families because I’m part of the O’Briens and the O’Briens very quickly fused together as a little unit and we’re like total family.
“Then the Hennessys are the same and there’s almost like a secret rivalry already.”
Bernie continues: “It’s lovely. It adds something, doesn’t it?
“It adds something to the piece, I think.”
Set in 1950s Dublin, Next Door’s Baby is about two families living in adjoining terraced houses who become locked in a bitter matriarchal feud about a Bonny Baby competition run by the local newspaper.
Mrs O’Brien is widowed, hard-up, but ferociously proud of her five children; Dickie, Orla, Sheila, Larry and little Conor, the baby who will put their name in lights. She is icily polite to ‘her next door’, Mrs Hennessy, whose lifestyle is one of ease.
Bernie says: “I always wanted to write about my mum’s family and 1950s Dublin because there was a very specific family mystery that we were all aware of but it was always something that was whispered about in corners.
“I wanted a framework for it and one day I heard an Irish journalist talking about his first job which was on a Dublin newspaper organizing a bonny baby competition.
“He had no idea that so many photographs of babies would come in and he didn’t really file them properly. And when the competition was finished, he didn’t know who owned which baby and he couldn’t give the photos back.
“He said there were a hundred Irish mammies on the doorstep of the newspaper each night saying, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’
“And he had to leave by the back door.
“And I just thought how crazy Irish mams are about their babies.
“And I just thought that’s it. It’s the two households.
“My grandmother, who was an O’Brien, lived next door to a family called the Maycocks who just had more money, more of everything and to say she hated them is a real understatement.
“I thought if their babies were in competition, all hell would break loose so that’s the framework for it.”
Originally a radio play, Bernie would develop it into a stage production with her late husband Matthew Strachan who was a composer/ singer- songwriter. It is Matthew’s father Keith Strachan that will direct this production.
“Matthew said, ‘Right, we’re gonna write songs to this. It’ll give me an excuse to write Irish melodies’, which he loved.
“He wanted to have super sad songs and then a massive hooley, that was his plan.
“And I think he got away with it.
“It was a real labour of love.
“I enjoyed it from start to finish.”
Hayley- Jo admits to being ‘desperate’ to be involved not only because an Irish musical is such a rarity but because she was so touched by the piece.
“There’s very few, very few Irish musicals.
“That was a massive thing for me, to be part of an Irish musical like this because the opportunity does not come around.
“It’s really maybe once in your career.
“And then when I read the script, it hit home an awful lot for me because my Nana and granddad grew up in Clontarf in Dublin in the 50s.
“So I was like, ‘This is literally their childhood.
“There’s an awful lot of comic relief in there and I was telling them little things, and they just were cracking up.
“Could you tell I was desperate for this?” Hayley- Jo says to Bernie.
“I was like, ‘I can play the spoons. I can Irish dance. I’ll Irish dance right now’.”
Bernie responds: “Well, she didn’t seem desperate.
“When she walked out the producer and Keith and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, she’s Sheila, we wanted her from that second’.”
But having a champion Irish dancer in the team brought about a livelier production with Hayley- Jo utilised as choreographer to get all the parts moving a little.
Hayley- Jo says: “The first day of rehearsal Keith said to me, ‘We want you to dance and we would like everybody to dance at different parts’.
“So I’ve put the cast to the test dance wise.”
Bernie continues: “Originally, when we wrote this, it was a play with songs.
“But when Keith came on board as director, he said, ‘This is a musical, people want to have fun’.
“And he said, ‘Why would you put Irish people on the stage and not have them dance? What’s the point of them if they’re not dancing?’
“So he just turned it into a musical.
“The story is unimpaired but I think there’s just a lot more joy in this one.
“You get a real feel of togetherness and community and that feeling which I remember so much from my childhood going back to Dublin.
“There’s a moment in the evening when everybody stands up and dances, there’s no two ways about it.
“Somebody sings the song they always sing and your uncle gets up- and my uncle always used to sing a Tony Bennett song I remember- And some precocious little brat will get up and play the piano for 20 minutes before you get her off.
“So I’m loving this version. It’s good fun.”
What is it like to wear the two hats of actress of choreographer all at once? ““This my first time actually choreographing something that I’m also in and it’s really difficult because I’m not an outsider looking in.
“So Keith has been a real help with that.
“And I’m a very young choreographer; Very new, very raw, so I’m learning an awful lot.
“And the cast as well are so supportive and they’re just so eager to throw themselves in to whatever I suggest whether it’s lifts or I hand them a bodhran.”
Next Door’s Baby takes us back to a time when ‘respectability’ was all that mattered and women were judged on the dazzling whiteness of her net curtains.
While there may be animosity between the O’Briens and the Hennessys, they have more common than they realise.
Bernie says: “They both have secrets that are actually very much product of the times they lived in: When respectability was everything, when you didn’t tell the truth to your neighbours, when you didn’t let on what was going on behind closed doors.
“It’s only the fact that the two young girls in both families who are of similar age but very different experiences, one is drab and downtrodden and stays at home and the other one went to America and married an American, so they’ve got very different life experiences but they realise that they’re both living with terrible secrets that are really weighing them down that are to do with blood and kin and family life and death.
“When we had the first season back in 2006, we used to have audience Q and As, and a lot of the audience, particularly British people couldn’t understand why the girls didn’t just go, ‘Oh look, this has happened. Sod you, I’m off to…’
“The constructions of Irish society, of the church at that time were so tight, it was like a corset.
“It would literally be like leaving a cult. You would have to leave your family behind in order to be honest.
“So it’s very interesting just how much things have changed. I mean, thank God.
“It’s an old fashioned society but that I think we still feel it in our bones.
“All families have those things where you look through photographs and you go, ‘Hang on, wasn’t he..?’
“And my grandmother starts coughing and you’d have to move the photograph, we weren’t allowed to talk about that person.
“It’s societal pressure and families just falling in with it instead of loving their children and saying, ‘Whatever you do is alright by me’.”
Hayley- Jo adds: “Me and my friends joke about the Catholic guilt.
“We were a very religious family back in the day and when different things happened, it kind of steered them away because of different controversies.
“My mam was a single mother and there’s a story of us going to mass one day and it was me, my mam, my Nana, my granddad and my Nana dressed me up for my first outing going to mass and she held me up for everyone to see, really proud.
“We came in late but they wanted to sit up near the priest.
“The priest went on a tangent about wedlock and having a baby out of wedlock and was kind of glaring down at us.
“And my Nana was getting upset. My mam was getting upset and my granddad stood up.
“He was like, ‘Right’. And he told the priest to sh*g off and they walked out of the church.
“That was in 1993.
“And that was in the city in Dublin.
“You think, ‘Oh, yeah. that was back in the day’.
“No, it’s still very much there.”
Bernie has often explored her Irish background in her writing but nowhere more so than in Next Door’s Baby.
“My mum’s from Dublin, my dad’s from Mayo and I was always in Dublin as a child.
“You were just encouraged to talk.
“We would go to the shop and when we came back my grandmother would say, ‘What happened? Who was there? What did they say to you? Was she wearing a hat?’
“And you were encouraged to give news. News, news, news.
“Everything was talk, talk, talk. Mainly women, it has to be said.
“All the men in my family, very quiet. I mean you would suspect that they were dead in the armchair.
“I think it’s just as an Irish person silence is an anathema.
“There was no silence in our house, there was always something being said and if you didn’t have anything true to say, you made it up. No one thought any the worse of you.
“So now I make my living from it.”
From Santry in Dublin, Hayley- Jo is the daughter of choreographer Belinda Murphy.
She started performing young sharing the stage with Twink and Dustin the Turkey when she was only five.
Hayley- Jo, now 29, was a teenager when she was crowned world champion.
“I was 15 or 16 when I won the worlds.
“It’s a long time ago now.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve competed but I’m still very much in the world of Irish dance.
“But it’s something that you never forget. Once you win, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m always going to be a world champion’.
“We still have our Globes up on the piano for everyone to see and it’s amazing to every now and then remind yourself, ‘God, I did that’.
“And my hips remind me every now and then.”
Hayley- Jo studied at one of the leading performing arts of colleges in London, the Bird College of Musical Theatre and lived in east London for eight years before moving back to Dublin in lockdown.
Next Door’s Baby is a musical. What do the ladies make of the recent issue about people singing along in the musicals?
Bernie says: “It’s odd because you really want people to have a really exciting and fun communal experience.
“But if somebody sitting beside you has paid to hear the person on stage….
“I think there’s a bit of an attitude now. It’s like, ‘I will sing if I want to’, whereas before maybe it was more just, ‘I can’t help it’.
“I don’t think people should.
“I don’t think anyone in the theatre thinks people should, because they know what goes into putting the show on.
“I would say, ‘Be quiet and sing it on the way home’.
“But if people want to get up and dance, we’d love it.”
Hayley- Jo adds: “I agree with Bernie.
“I don’t think anyone should try and sing along or disturb a performance, especially when we’ve worked so hard and that’s why we’re on the stage and they’re not.
“They can go to music concerts, they can sing along at weddings, sing along when they’re on the way home.
“I think that culture of people dressing up to go theatre and it being a special night out and a really respectful environment gets lost sometimes.
“It should come back.”
Next Door’s Baby was first performed at the Orange Tree Theatre in 2008.
The cast member of the play’s first outing is now recognisable in a lead role on one of BBC1’s flagship shows.
Elinor Lawless was fresh out of drama school then but is now Stevie Nash in Casualty.
“It was her first job out of drama school,” Bernie remembers.
“And she said, ‘I thought every job was going to be like that’. Because it was so lovely and everyone was so supportive.
“And then she went into another job and nobody spoke to her.
“She’s still a great friend.
“And she’s absolutely talented, absolutely crazy.
“To see her getting a high profile part, it’s kind of changed her life.”
The Irish World has to let them get back to their rehearsals at some stage and in closing Bernie says: “We just can’t wait to get an audience and hear the reactions.
“It would be great if we got support from the Irish people in London so it can go on somewhere else as well.”
Hayley- Jo adds: “It’s a long time since I’ve heard a song that’s actually given me goosebumps and in the rehearsal room we’re trying not to cry.
“I think this is something really, really special and the whole cast are really excited and we care about it so much.”
Next Door’s Baby is at Theatre at the Tabard 4- 27 May.
To book or for more information, click here.