Irish actor Fionna Hewitt-Twamley has been playing Myra McLaughlin, the middle-aged homeless alcoholic Dubliner, in Brian Foster’s one-woman play, Myra’s Story, since 2018. In that time, she has never washed the clothes she wears on stage each time she performs. That might seem like taking method acting to the extreme, but Hewitt-Twamley thinks it adds a whiff of authenticity to a story that so connects on a visceral level with audiences that some people return to see it again and again.
"People don’t just see Myra. Some in the first couple of rows may smell her too. I’ve had people who’ve left bags of food for me at the stagedoor and contacted me on Facebook to offer me accommodation. People know it’s a play, but they also feel that they’ve met Myra. They connect to her. I think you have to tell this story in a way that allows people to connect to it; otherwise, it just becomes like a TV soap opera."
Connecting is what audiences have been doing at the Edinburgh Fringe and at venues all over the country with a play that began when playwright Foster passed a homeless woman begging on the street and avoided making eye contact with her. Now it arrives in London at Trafalgar Theatre, in an area of the city where homelessness is visible everywhere. As it is all over the UK.
There probably isn't an adult in London who hasn’t avoided eye contact or deliberately crossed to the other side of the street when clocking somebody who is clearly sleeping rough and felt momentarily guilty about it, but the great trick of Foster’s play—and Hewitt-Twamley’s wildly acclaimed performance—is that they bring Myra fully alive. She is no longer anonymous and easily put out of the mind, and she is not just a statistic but a living, breathing human, not so very different from you and me.
The star of Myra’s Story, Fionna Hewitt-Twamley.
Hewitt-Twamley brings Myra alive both as a middle-aged alcoholic and also as a five-year-old dealing with the death of her mum, and in total she plays 16 characters from Myra’s husband and father to neighbours as she marries, has a child, is hit by tragedy, and feels the grip of the alcoholism that has stalked her family tighten.
If that sounds tough, Hewitt-Twamley makes no apologies for it, saying that the staging—deploying simply a bench, a bag, and a bottle—is deliberately raw and has no sugar coating. But she adds that during the show "Myra takes the audience low, but then she brings them right up again with something funny about her life. Audiences say it’s a real rollercoaster." After the show, people often want to share their own stories with Hewitt-Twamley, sometimes of alcohol abuse and getting sober, and sometimes of their own experience of homelessness. "People see the play through the prism of their own lives and experience."
Which Hewitt-Twamley reckons is important because so often we like to think of how homelessness affects other people and would never happen to us. But in reality, many of us are only a few pay packets away from the streets, and it only takes an unexpected turn of events—perhaps divorce, unemployment, or a tragedy—for apparently secure lives to unravel very quickly.
"People often don’t appreciate how your life can flip in a matter of no time. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m grand now,’ but nobody knows what tomorrow brings. Particularly at a time when everything is getting more expensive, from utility bills to rents. That’s as true in London as it is in Dublin."
Playing Myra over the last few years hasn’t just brought Hewitt-Twamley professional acclaim for her tour de force performance; it has also turned her into a passionate advocate for the homeless and the charities who work with them. In every city where she plays, the production is teamed with a local charity working with homeless people. In Edinburgh, it was with One Step raising over £22,000. For the London run, it will be The Connection St Martins, who are dedicated to eradicating rough sleeping in London.
For Hewitt-Twamley, the joy of Myra’s story is reaching out to an audience and, in front of her eyes, seeing them see the relevance of Myra's Story to their own lives. But her favourite audience is when local charities and those in recovery from alcohol dependency or who have experience living on the streets are in the audience.
"The biggest compliment I can get doesn’t come from somebody who has a £1 million house and drives a lovely car, but those people who have been where Myra is and know what it is like to have nothing. It’s when they say, ‘That was me; that is exactly what happened to me, and you portrayed it in a way that I felt somebody has understood me,’ that it feels like the biggest compliment I can get."
Cover image of Fionna Hewitt-Twamley in Myra's Story playing at Trafalgar Theatre Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from the 19th September through the 18th of October 2023.