Kathy Burke stages showdown with nuns in Once a Catholic
Kathy Burke is happy to go on the record: she has nothing against nuns.
Yes, she is directing Mary O’Malley’s irreverent convent-school comedy Once A Catholic, and, yes, her most recent acting role was the fag-butt-flicking beetle-browed “angry nun” in an autobiographical TV series about her schooldays. But taking revenge on the holy sisters was never her intention.
“Angry nun and pretty nun in [Sky TV series] Walking and Talking weren’t against nuns, they were a device to put my dad into it. He battled with drinking problems all his adult life. Angry nun was the dad on the drink and pretty nun was the nice dad I would see when he was sober.
“Putting myself in there as angry nun was a way of making sure I got the cast I wanted because I wrote it with these two girls [Ami Metcalf as Burke’s younger self and Aimee Ffion-Edwards as her best friend] in mind.
“I cast Sean Gallagher as pretty nun because a lot of nuns look like blokes and I wanted him prettier than me.”
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Burke’s own wayward convent-school years made her first choice to direct O’Malley’s comedy about rebellious teenage girls stubbornly battling Catholic strictures in 1950s Willesden – from confused sermons to unforgiving sex education lessons.
Burke was born in Islington in 1964 to Irish Catholic parents Paddy and Bridget. Her mum died when she was two and when it came to secondary schooling, her dad packed her off to Maria Fidelis Convent School in Euston.
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“My dad listened to the headmaster of my primary school, as I’m telling the cast of this play, you have to remember that generation would absolutely do as the people in authority, the priest or doctor or headmaster told them. As a kid I went to mass, made my first Holy Communion, and dad thought it best I went to the proper Catholic school.”
Burke has previously described her time at Maria Fidelis as five wasted years as teachers vainly struggled to engage her in academia, while she was more interested in The Clash.
“It wasn’t as thought out as rejecting Catholicism. I just stopped going to mass as soon as I could bunk off from it.
“Whatever was drummed in just didn’t stick and I never felt I would be struck by a bolt of lightning.
“We were predominantly taught by nuns, but they had just become comprehensive when I joined, merged with a nice Catholic girls’ school,
She smiles: “I haven’t got any problem with nuns. It wasn’t their fault that I wasn’t academic. All these teachers having to deal with a different sort of child. When I left at 16, it was great to have that freedom of not being at school anymore.”
In O’Malley’s school – modelled on The Convent of Jesus and Mary in Harlesden and Willesden – it is rock and roll and Teddy boys that turns the girls’ heads. For Burke it was punk.
“For my age group, punk rock coming out was a challenge to authority and the thing I love about (Once A Catholic) is that it’s set in the 50s but written in ’77. There’s a sort of punk sensibility running through it, a lashing out against authority in these girls just on the tip of being teenagers and getting influenced from America and rock and roll and sex, but the nuns can’t quite deal with it because they’ve never had to deal with such a rebellious streak before.”
Maria Fidelis didn’t teach drama lessons, although one English teacher in Burke’s third year who used Anna Scher’s book for improvisation lessons, presciently suggested that she join the pioneering theatre school.
“He was the one who said, ‘You do realise this place is in Islington. Put your name down on the list.’
“I look back now and I’m pissed off because we were under the social workers and they never thought about it as a place to go, maybe because we were Catholics and it wasn’t seen as something we should be doing. But in the end it was lucky I left school and went to Anna’s at the same time.”
It was through Scher’s school that Burke was cast in the movie Scrubbers, and the versatility and raw truthfulness of her acting led to an enviable career in both comedies (Kevin and Perry, Ab Fab and Gimme Gimme Gimme) and tough dramas like Mr Wroe’s Virgins and Nil By Mouth.
But a decade ago, Burke pulled the plug to focus on directing and writing.
“I was always much more interested in those. I don’t mean to sound arrogant but the acting came a bit too easy to me. I just really love directing. I find it more stimulating.”
With her laid back, resolutely unpretentious persona, it’s hard to see Burke as a dictatorial or overintellectualising director.
“Well I don’t shout unless someone gets up my nose,” she laughs. “It’s kind of controlled chaos. It’s all about trying things out. There’s no right or wrong. It’s good when actors know they are allowed to have an opinion. I don’t claim to have all the answers but you can give them little clues and let them find it themselves, help them add a different layer, or have more fun with something.
“Some directors like their cast to be off the book before the first day of rehearsals. But I think most of acting is about listening.
“You have to listen to someone else before you get to what it is you are going to say – so there is a conversation.”
Right now, she’s working to ensure the cast capture the relative innocence of the 50s – rather than being too knowing.
“The girls are trying to help each other with any bits of information about sex. I’ve tried to explain to this young cast even Lady Chatterley’s Lover hadn’t been published. They know nothing. Innocence is all well and good but ignorance is very very dangerous.
“But I don’t want people to think it’s The Magdalene Sisters. If there had been any sex abuse I wouldn’t have gone near it. It’s much more light-hearted than that.”
Burke was initially unsure about taking on the play, thinking it “a bit quaint and churned out for tours”.
“But it was first done at The Royal Court and was quite ahead of its time. It’s quite a tough little play really and I thought, ‘If I can do this at the Tricycle it would be its natural home.’”
“It’s also,” she smiles mischievously, “terrific as the Christmas show because Jesus gets a lot of mentions.”
n Once A Catholic runs at the Tricycle, Kilburn High Road, from today (November 21) until January 18.