Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview Theatre Interview

Terry O’Donovan: Kiss Marry Kill

By | Published on Friday 12 April 2024

Beginning a run at London’s Stone Nest shortly is ‘Kiss Marry Kill’ from the excellent and critically acclaimed Dante Or Die.

It sounds amazing on a number of counts – the narrative, the story behind its inception and the important musical content. 

It tells the story of two men who are serving prison sentences for homophobic murders who fall in love and ask for permission to get married. The show was written by Daphna Attias, James Baldwin and Terry O’Donovan, while Attias and O’Donovan co-direct. 

I was keen to find out more about the play, the cast and the creative team, so I spoke to Terry O’Donovan ahead of the upcoming dates. 

CM: Can you start by telling us about the narrative of ‘Kiss Marry Kill’? Who is it about and where does the narrative take us?
TO’D: It’s a fascinating story inspired by the first same-sex marriage to take place in a UK prison.

Our play is a fictionalised tale that centres on Jay and Paul. We see Jay commit a horrendous LGBTQ+ hate crime and follow him into his life in prison, where he meets Paul.

Slowly, they start a hidden relationship, eventually asking to get married, a thing which has never happened in this – or any – prison. So everybody is confounded by it.

The play is being performed in chapels and places where people get married – spaces that queer people are often excluded from.

The entire set is built from real prison beds donated by HMP Holloway when it closed. You’ll feel very close up to the action as the cast will be on these beds all around you.

CM: What themes are explored through the show?
TO’D: Homophobia, equality, civic rights, criminal justice, masculinity.

CM: What was the inspiration for this? What made you want to create a show with this story, these themes?
TO’D: We started working on this project in 2016, having read an article about the first same-sex couple to get married in a UK prison. The complexities and complications of the men’s relationship – from unrelated homophobic murders to marrying each other – fascinated us.

The fact that the men were separated as a result of choosing to get married complicated the story even more for us.

I married my husband in Belgium before same-sex marriage was legal in the UK, and I was really interested in the validation and safety that a marriage offered, and as we began our research everyone had a different opinion about the reasons for their wedding.

CM: Would you say it’s political? Does it have a message?
TO’D: As we approach the London opening we find ourselves at a moment when the prison system is buckling under the pressure of continued funding constraints, making rehabilitation more challenging.

According to Galop’s Hate Crime Report in 2021, two-thirds of LGBTQ+ people had experienced anti-LGBTQ+ violence or abuse. Of these, nine in ten had experienced verbal abuse, three in ten had experienced physical violence and two in ten had experienced sexual violence.

Despite huge advances in representation and civic rights, homophobia and transphobia continues to affect us in the UK, and across the globe is frighteningly worse. At the time of rehearsing the piece in March 2024, Ghana’s parliament passed a tough new bill that imposes a prison sentence of up to three years for anyone convicted of identifying as LGBTQ+. 

We hope ‘Kiss Marry Kill’ sparks debate, challenges our audiences as much as we’ve been challenged during the creative process, and makes people think about how they can make their corner of the world better for everyone around them.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
TO’D: Three of our cast have experience of prison. The applied theatre element to the project has been a real driving force in the creation and development of the show.

We’ve had a long-term collaboration with Synergy Theatre who recruited nine ex-prisoners to take part in a research and development period with us in 2019. The room was explosive. The men’s opinions were divided and their experience hugely fed into both the script and the building of the project. 

It was clear that we should create roles for people with prison experience in the production. We also felt it was important to build pathways into the arts through our next phase of development and so devised a theatre workshop programme at HMP Swaleside and a ten week Approaches To Theatre Making course for fifteen Synergy members.

The three ensemble cast members come from our work with Synergy – one from our recent course, and two from our 2019 research and development phase. They are incredible performers.

The other cast members are brilliantly diverse. Graham, who plays Paul, is a veteran West End performer whose first job was Marius in ‘Les Mis’. Dauda is a performance poet as well as being an actor and lyricist, and rap artist Lady Lykez is an incredible ensemble member playing four parts.

CM: The show has live music – can you tell us about the style of it and how integral to the show it is?
TO’D: The music has been created with our long-term collaborators Yaniv Fridel and OJ Shabi, alongside lyricist and rap artist Lady Lykez. There’s intense rap, spoken word and score throughout.

It’s a huge part of the storytelling and setting the emotional tone. At the top of the show there’s a club number that uses homophobic slurs which is a banger despite the content being really uncomfortable.

We wanted the music to make a comment on unconscious homophobia in popular music and discourse.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you come to be working in the arts – was this what you always planned?
TO’D: I started taking theatre seriously in my teens when I joined Limerick Youth Theatre in the South West of Ireland.

We had professional practitioners leading our sessions and directing us in amazing productions. That experience and seeing those creatives work with us made me begin to realise that a career in theatre was a possibility.

I studied Film and Theatre at the University Of Reading and then did an MA at Central School Of Speech And Drama where I met Daphna, my Co-Artistic Director of Dante Or Die. We’ve been so lucky to have found each other and create a creative partnership that started in our bedrooms and is now our job.

CM: What have been the highlights of your creative career thus far?
TO’D: There have been so many, but performing the solo production ‘User Not Found’ at the Edinburgh Fringe as part of Traverse’s programme in 2018 was a huge highlight. We then had the huge privilege of taking the production to New York as part of Brooklyn Academy Of Music’s Next Wave Festival. I had to pinch myself when performing our own work in New York.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
TO’D: To keep creating live performance that gets under people’s skin, and gets people talking.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
TO’D: We’re creating pop-up betting shops across the country where people can watch our interactive short film ‘Odds On’.

It’s a really special project that we created with people with lived experience of gambling harm. It’s funny, surreal and immersive in a really unusual way. I’m excited to bring a live ‘in–person’ experience to the film.

‘Kiss Marry Kill’ is on at London’s Stone Nest from 16-27 Apr, see this page here for info and tickets.

The show continues on tour to Reading, Manchester and Norwich – see the company website here for booking links.

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