Sheffield-based actress Maggie McCarthy finds herself back at the Crucible Theatre in The Absence of War after appearing in the first-ever show on the same stage.
Maggie plays diary secretary Gwenda in David Hare’s play, which looks at George Jones, a charismatic Labour leader who is desperate to get into Number Ten at the 1992 General Election but isn’t sure how much he should compromise his beliefs to do so.
This production will open at the Crucible before going on as national tour in the build-up to this year’s General Election in May.
Maggie said: “The party leader’s diary secretary is a job about which I knew absolutely nothing. It turns out that secretary really is a misnomer.
“We had a talk from a woman who is now a baroness in the House of Lords who was diary secretary to various leaders.
“We also had a talk from a historian who said the press secretary and diary secretary are extremely powerful.
“Gwenda has a hold on absolutely everything that’s planned.”
As well as organising every aspect of the leader’s personal appearances, the diary secretary also has to make sure he has a clean shirt and gets fed on his travels.
Maggie said: “It’s an extraordinary job. We’re talking about a very, very bright woman.”
She said that the world of politics is so far out of her own experience that it’s been a steep learning curve.
“Gwenda is very intelligent, very well organised, loyal, focused and politics is her life.”
It’s not a world she could imagine herself in: “My daughter said that it’s bad enough watching you on stage speaking other people’s words, it would be even worse to have you speaking your own!”
In this production George Jones is a Sheffield MP but, although the play is set during the 1992 election, it isn’t portraying real events.
Maggie said: “It isn’t about Neil Kinnock. It’s completely fictional, although there are certain elements that are familiar.
“That’s what people thought when it was first put on and they tried to work out who was who. It was a bit of a waste of energy.”
Instead, the play looks at how far a leader facing a hostile press and divisions in his own party will go to take power. Maggie said: “It is a beautiful piece of writing, a fantastic play.”
Maggie first worked in Sheffield in the old Playhouse in the early 1970s, moving to the Crucible to appear in the first show, Fanfare, in 1971.
She said: “We did a bit of Stirrings in Sheffield. When the theatre moved over, we had to have it in the first show.
“It was so exciting. What was so amazing about this city was that everyone was so enthusiastic. People said this is our theatre, we’ve got this amazing theatre.
“It was an exciting time in the business anyway, there was a lot of new work including new work by Rony Robinson.
“I was in his very first play ever. We did it in Scotland Street when I was still at the Playhouse as we didn’t have a studio space so we turned this old church hall into a theatre.”
The play was called Wait for the Bell.
Maggie eventually moved away from Sheffield but decided she “couldn’t be on my deathbed having never gone back to Sheffield”, so she moved back to Walkley eight years ago.
“It’s the first time I’ve been here on the main stage since I’ve been back and I’m delighted.
“I love it, it’s the best theatre in the world. I love that stage.”
The Absence of War, starring Reece Dinsdale as George Jones, is at the Crucible from February 6 to 21. Box office: at the Crucible, online at www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk or call 0114 249 6000.