Jennifer Johnston encourages young people to theatre

Award-winning novelist Jennifer Johnston has urged more young people to attend the theatre describing it as "an amazing experience" that more people should enjoy.

Catherine Cusack as Alicia Moore in How Many Miles to Babylon

The Londonderry author was speaking ahead of the opening of the stage adaptation of her famous novel, How Many Miles to Babylon? at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast next week (27 April – 24 May). 

The First World War drama is being staged to mark this year’s centenary of the outbreak of the war and tells the heart-wrenching story of two young Irish boys who end up fighting in the trenches. 

“I’m delighted to see the story is being revived,” said Jennifer. “I’m looking forward to seeing it at the Lyric next week. I’ll be taking my two grandsons who are 15 and 17 so I’ll be interested to see what they think of it.” 

Johnston urged more young people to try the theatre. 

“I think it is very important young people go to the theatre,” she said. “Not nearly enough children go to the theatre. It is an amazing experience and once you get a taste for it you want to keep going. I think today theatre is looked on as something for the few when back in the Middle Ages theatre was for the people in the street.” 

How Many Miles to Babylon? tells the story of Alec and Jerry – not much older than Johnston’s grandsons – who are divided by class but united in friendship. One is the only child of Anglo-Irish landowners; the other is from a large family of Irish workers. Brought together by a shared love of horses, the pair enjoy an idyllic childhood on the same estate in County Wicklow. 

As war breaks out at the end of 1914, both enlist in the army - and find themselves standing together, yet divided once more by rank. In the fields of Flanders, they must not only endure the horrors of the battlefield, but also face an ordeal that will test their friendship and their loyalty to breaking point. 

“The First World War ruined the last century – it never recovered from it,” said Jennifer. “We are all different as a result of it. If all those wretched young men hadn’t been sent into battle, it would have been a very different world.” 

How Many Miles to Babylon? was performed at the Lyric back in 1993 when the author herself adapted it for the stage. This time the play has been adapted by actor/director Alan Stanford and is the first time this version has been staged in Northern Ireland. 

Philip Wilson directs an impressive cast with Good Vibrations star Ryan McParland taking on the role of the charismatic Jerry and Anthony Delaney (Liola, The Kingdom) as Alec. Lyric audiences may also remember Ryan from Tim Loane’s The Civilisation Game in 2012 as well as the BBC series, 6 Degrees set in Belfast. 

Catherine Cusack, part of the Irish acting dynasty of Cusacks, plays the cold mother, Alicia Moore opposite Michael James Ford (Becoming Jane; Michael Collins) as her husband. The rest of the cast are Richard Teverson (Brideshead Revisited; Downton Abbey) as Major Glendinning, Jeremy Lloyd (The Iron Lady) as Bennett and Charlie De Bromhead (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People).

How Many Miles to Babylon? runs on the Danske Bank Stage from Wed 30 April to Sat 24 May (Previews Sun 27 April 2.30pm; Tues 29 April 1pm & 7.45pm). Tickets range from £10 for schools and students to £24.50. For more information on the Lyric’s season or to book, go to the webpage Babylon or contact the Box Office on (028) 9038 1081.

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