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Author Alison Carr sees Dolly drama find a home

FIVE years ago, when Alison Carr first had the idea of writing a play about a Dolly Parton impersonator, she pictured it for the stage.

Alison Carr

FIVE years ago, when Alison Carr first had the idea of writing a play about a Dolly Parton impersonator, she pictured it for the stage.

It was in 2006 that, as part of a New Writing North project to pitch play ideas, her story outline was first drawn up under the title Parton of the Waves.

But, over the coming months as she worked on it alongside her other work, Alison – author of such quirky comedy dramas as Mam, Dad, Monkey And Me and Edinburgh Fringe success Patricia Quinn Saved My Life – found this one stubbornly refused to shape up for some reason.

“It wasn’t working,” she tells me. “Sometimes, you’ve got to accept that.”

But when she was invited to submit an idea as part of a BBC radio project, the Dolly play came back to mind.

“I thought, ‘if I can get it to work this way then great, if not, then it’s not going to work ever and I’ll put it away and get on with my life’.”

But, from the A4 pitch she sent in, the powers that be immediately spotted its potential. And the upshot of what Alison calls “quite a laborious project” is that she is about to make her radio debut, with her play – renamed Dolly Would – going out on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday afternoon.

The Newcastle writer, who travelled down to London in November for its recording at Broadcasting House with the play’s cast – which includes local actresses Sharon Percy and Libby Davison – adds: “I feel quite proud that I hadn’t given up on it, that it did have potential, and I think it’s found its home on radio.

“It wasn’t meant to be a stage play.”

She adds: “I think the original title was too jokey for the way the play was going, then for the radio version I wanted a brand new fresh start and not to be bogged down by what had gone before. So I had to adapt and rewrite it.”

Approaching it from a different angle has brought to life the world of Dolly tribute act Denize (played by Percy) who’s been donning the wigs and costumes of the singer for 10 years, while the story takes in her partner Martin, a Kenny Rogers impersonator, and her sister Joanne, who takes her on a surprise road trip to a mystery destination.

“The very centre stayed the same. Denize starts to lose her sense of self and the line starts blurring between where Dolly ends and she starts.”

Above all, it’s a drama about identity issues – how do you know who you are when you pretend to be somebody else? – and relationships, while peppered with humour and those all-important Dolly Parton classics, such as Islands in the Stream – the duet she famously sang with Rogers, which have formed the backdrop to Alison’s own world for such a long time that she became a real fan.

When she recently took the opportunity to see the star in concert at Metro Radio Arena, she admits hearing 9 to 5 made her feel emotional. “I’d spent the best part of five years on this play!” she laughs.

In Dolly Would, Percy will be belting out those tracks, while the cast also includes Lee Ross, who’s appeared in EastEnders and Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies.

While 30-year-old Alison has penned about 30 stage plays – both shorts and full-length plays such as My Mam Was An Ice-Cream Blonde and The Girl from Poppyfield Close, this experience, as well as being a remarkable achievement, has proved a steep learning curve.

Radio is a very different ball game to play-writing, and saw her make alterations and come up with new lines on the spot during the 19 hours’ recording time for 53 scenes ... all for just 45 minutes of drama.

“We had two days to record it and I had to rewrite a scene on the hop.

“At first I was terrified, but it turned out to be so freeing writing for radio. Once I got my head around it, I embraced it rather than be nervous of it.

“You can do so much more, and tell the story in such a different way.”

With radio opening up possibilities in terms of storyline – the surprise road trip, for instance, would be a far more difficult concept for stage – Alison is keen to do more of it.

She’s constantly busy, fitting her writing – including pieces for the Hotbed Festival in Cambridge and Soho theatre in London – around a job at the People’s Theatre in Newcastle, where she’ll also be presenting Quick Bright Things, a work she’s written as part of the RSC Open Stages project.

Inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it imagines the character Helena’s earlier life.

Alison, who has also performed twice on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, also has acting experience under her belt, and she’d like to write her own solo show, too.

The difference with radio, of course, is that you don’t get to see the audience reaction.

Alison says: “You’ve no idea who’s listening, what people are doing while they’re listening, if they’re liking it or turning it off!”

But now her play has found its home on radio, it won’t be transferring to the stage.

Alison says: “It’s absolutely not a re-hash of the stage play version. It’s brand-new, written for radio.

“In a way, this is the full stop to the Dolly play.”

She might once have felt like throwing out those Dolly CDs but, as she says, “for five years, it’s always been there”.

“I already miss it!”

:: Dolly Would by Alison Carr airs on BBC Radio 4 at 2.15pm on Wednesday. It will be available afterwards on BBC iPlayer until January 11. For more information on the writer visit www.alisoncarr.co.uk


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