Tee O'Neill

Author Tee O'Neill
Tee has been a playwright and script writing lecturer for over twenty years. Her plays have been produced and awarded prizes from all around the world. She has written several biographical plays and completed a PhD thesis on the unique creative process required to write in this genre. The adaptation of her thesis, 'Writing the BioDrama' is being published in the US in September 2020. So it was no surprise that her first novel was set in the theatre world about a biographical playwright who, in her search for the truth of her subject, uncovers a terrible crime. Her debut novel Criminal Conversation is first of a series of novels starring Tilda Ransome the talented but troubled playwright detective.
Award Category Finalist
Award Submission Title
Criminal Conversation
A biographical playwright needs, above all, to have compelling insight into her main character, and Tilda has been known to be fearless to get to the truth of her subject: but as she uncovers more disturbing evidence, Tilda realises that the truth in her play on Lewis will destroy lives, including perhaps her own. Criminal Conversation: A #MeToo Thriller
My Submission
Chapter 1

I’m sitting in Lewis’s office at the Strident Theatre. It’s the only place in the world I want to be right now, but something is odd. As my dear friend would say, ‘I can feel it in my waters.’ A theatre intern led me here and told me that “Sorcha” would soon see me. A good seventeen minutes has passed, and Lewis’s 1980s office chair is about as comfortable as a colonoscopy. Who the fuck is Sorcha?
I get off the chair and rub my bum. Lewis has not replaced any of the chairs in over twenty years, and the rest of the décor dates back to the first exciting decade of his company. Now it’s all dusty and old—perhaps thrice the age of the intern. “Sorcha”—coming from the intern’s mouth, her name sounded like the noise you make just before you throw up. Be still my bitchin’ heart. This always happens to me when I’m uncomfortable—becoming like my father: suspicious and plain mean.
Walking around the familiar room I see posters of Lewis’s successful shows, beside photos of famous theatre people with ’80s and ’90s facial hair. The faded excitement still holds glamour for me. Shiny-eyed actors, some now knighted, others arthritic, forgotten, or dead, all beam out rude youthfulness and the sharp look of ambition. I understand the look—my strong bond to Lewis was the product of my early ambitions, the doors he could open and the excitement his lifestyle offered, smashing the boredom of my outer-suburban bogan childhood.
On Lewis’s desk, there is a photo frame that catches my eye. The two-decade old photo in it has been replaced. What was once on display was a black-and-white image of his wife, Claire and their baby daughter. Now, in pride of place, is a professional photographer’s colour photo of Lewis with a young woman wearing a long lace white gown smiling up at the only man I’ve ever really loved—it’s the dip and kiss shot of a million modern wedding photos. I sit back in the colonoscopy chair. My mouth is still open when a fragrance of vanilla and lime enters the room.
“Tilda Ransome. I’m Sorcha Stanton, and I will be acting artistic Director until Lewis gets back from Ireland and a tour of the States.” We shake—her grip is tight, her skin cool. Three months without internet or phone and my planet is full of aliens. In black woollen slacks and an olive sweater of presumably cashmere, Sorcha takes her place behind Lewis’s desk, puts down her phone, and picks up the CV that my agent has e-mailed. So, she has taken her husband’s surname and his position? “Terribly sorry for the delay. I’ve introduced contactless payment in the bookstore and Arnold isn’t coping and we’ve had the carpenter in to widen the café space—he’s not coping with that either.” The new householder is furiously cutting the lawn.
I say with a softness not felt, “Arnold has been with Lewis and the Strident from the beginning.”
She smiles sympathetically and nods her head as if I just mentioned my dead childhood kitten. As she scans my CV, I scan her. She’s in her late twenties, and I’ve seen her before, on a stage somewhere, or on a screen. Yes, an image of her holding a bloody knife, walking in a tight cocktail dress toward the River Liffey arrives in my mind’s eye. She was once the good-teenager-gone-bad in an addictively ridiculous Irish soap opera. The pub near my Rathgar flat would have it on, and its weekly melodrama would connect all us lonely disconnected souls in the area. When I took Lewis along one night, he refused to watch it, even ironically.
With her eyes still on my CV, Sorcha speaks with a distinct Dublin accent. “Lewis tells me that you are the bravest person he knows.”
My heart rate quickens; there is a threat of blood rising to my face. Here it is again, this powerful need for Lewis’s approval, clashing with an awareness of how pathetic that is. And how to unpack these compliments from this young invader—how strategic is the flattery?
This mind-rush stops still with Sorcha’s next line.
“We want to commission you to write a play for our company.”
Have I misheard her? Lewis would never commission me; our closeness stymied that. Muddying his professional work with his social life—he told me that he had learned early in his career (after two actress wives) to live in two worlds: theatre and family—two worlds both too important to contaminate is what he used to believe. Christ, this wife is acting artistic Director, for fuck’s sake.
I stare at her manicured hands as they sift through three neat piles of paperwork on Lewis’s desk.
My literary agent got very excited when she told me that the Strident wanted to fly me over from Cork; but I’d assured her it would just be about a teaching gig. Every summer I used to run the International school at the Strident for emerging playwrights. I didn’t do it for the money, though it was, for most years, much-needed income; I didn’t do it for the love of teaching, though I did look forward to mentoring promising young playwrights who came from all over the globe. I did it to be near the artistic Director of the company: Lewis Stanton. So, why isn’t he here?
She finds what she is searching for and holds up a newspaper article. “This is from a Singaporean journal, talks about your method of researching biographical plays. You go undercover?”
“Sorry, but is Lewis joining us?”
“He’s in Dublin.”
I could have driven up from Cork.
“Negotiating with the Abbey.”
I could have met him at the pub opposite the Abbey—it’s one of our favourite places.
Trying to hide my disappointment and confusion I say, “I am staying in Cork, so why didn’t we meet in—” She cuts me off with a smile that will open doors for another ten years.
“Yes, your agent mentioned that, but I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.”
She pulls out another clipping from a pile. It seems she has a bit of a dossier on me.
“In your play set in Singapore, ‘Villainy’?”
“About the wrongful execution?”
“Allegedly, but yes it was wrongful, very wrongful.” Lewis sent a card to the Cork theatre I’m working with saying he would come as soon as he could.
“It says in this article that for research you befriended the widow of the accused, his colleagues as well as his boss, and used what they told you privately, off the record.”
“Yes.” I’m dealing with the fact that this woman even exists, while wondering where she found this article on the Net. Villainy got very little publicity and ran for only two weeks in a small theatre.
“You alleged that the man was innocent of the crime he was hanged for?”
“He was guilty only of whistle-blowing.”
“And, as Molière would say, being a cuckold,” she adds with pursed lips.
Researching the central character for Villainy had revealed a nasty web of lies. The only good person in that story was the lead character, who was hanged, and the bereaved sister who believed him and contacted me.
“Yes,” I tell her. “Turns out that the wife was sleeping with the corrupt boss - they planted the drugs on him.”
“And you played one of the recordings where the wife admitted this to you; you played that recording on stage, live on stage.”
I had got the wife drunk. I’ve long ago learned that booze makes you boast of what you should be ashamed of.
“Yes, and other taped confessions, but it was later alleged that the recordings were fake.”
“Did the allegers think you would go to that length to get an audience?”
“I don’t know what the allegers think. I only know what I think.”
Right now, I think I’m very excited by the offer but pissed off that it didn’t come from Lewis.
Sorcha has her mouth open as if she is about to ask something but closes it and returns to my CV.
“And the play about the footballer, that was very successful? Big hit in the US...”
My most recent play, Bravo, had given me some financial security but made me personally very defensive. Having been obscure and admired by a cult following up until then, I’d become mainstream and lost my shabby prestige with a play about Bravo Obed, a much-loved sportsman.
“Yes,” I say. “You write a play about injustice, it plays for two weeks in a small theatre, but if you write a humorous homage to a successful footballer….”
“It tours the world in playhouses.” Sorcha enjoys finishing my sentences. She is gaining confidence in this role she’s playing with me. “Yes, Lewis always says popular theatre is a whore.”
How would she know what Lewis ‘always says’? She hasn’t even been alive for most of his life!
Her mobile phone vibrates and she glances down, so I say, “Lewis always says that the mobile phone is creating a generation of antisocial personality disorders.”
Sorcha laughs good naturedly, before she points to the CV in front of her. “I see that you have won awards and been granted some prestigious residencies.” I nod but don’t tell her that my CV gives the highlights while leaving out the years of lowlife, anxiety, loneliness, rejection, and mounting debt.
Lewis’s wife seems to be wooing me; but why is she wooing me? She’s just offered me something that many playwrights would kill their grannies for.
She then says something I want to hear. “The Bravo Obed play did reveal some ugliness in the man.”
“Thank you. That was my intention.”
“Success so early, so young, made him vulgar.”
I note the use of the word ‘vulgar’ and place her parents in the higher income bracket.
“So, you have read it?” I ask her.
“I saw it on stage in New York.” She has checked out my play? Why is she working this hard? “The play explained something to me that I knew but hadn’t articulated to myself.”
“What was that?”
“That there are some people who are always forgiven, whatever their crime. Tell me more about going undercover to research your biographical characters.” Her breath has got a little shallow.
“You can gain more insight when people don’t know they are being studied.”
“Do…. Do you ever feel what you are doing is unethical?”
“No.” I shake my head. “All’s fair in love and biographical drama.”
“But aren’t you frightened of being sued?”
“You can’t be sued if you can prove you’re telling the truth.” Though the wife had told everyone the recording was fake, she knew the recording was real, but she also knew that my little play would not change the Singaporean justice system.
Sorcha has been quiet for a few moments and some pain crosses her face as she says, “You always use a recording device?”
“I tape many interactions.”
“Are you taping this?”
I pull out my tiny digital recorder and place it on the desk. She looks a bit shocked to see the red light on. I don’t know why I didn’t just lie, but then again, it can be enjoyable to shock people. “That’s one way I hone my dialogue.” I say with all the innocence I can muster.
Sorcha leans across, turns the recording device off, and says, “Seeing Bravo in New York gave me an idea for The Strident. I thought Players did an outstanding job with your play—they did a co-production with us a few years back that Lewis was unhappy with, but the way they staged both the football scenes and Obed’s troubled private life was remarkable. How did you feel about it?”
“I didn’t get a chance to see the production in New York. I was, was um.. trapped I suppose, in Cambodia.”
She places the CV down and looks fully at me.
“Cambodia… trapped?”
Surprise changes her tone and facial expression. She suddenly looks more open-hearted, a person I may even like, which may be why I say, “I was looking after a dying friend. I wanted as much time as I could find with her, so I overstayed my visa several months. After her death, I was arrested and held.”
“How long were you in jail?”
“Sixty-five thousand minutes.”
“In a Cambodian jail?”
“Far more interesting than going to see a show you’d seen a hundred times.”
“And far less comfortable. My New York stage debut was spent on a concrete floor with dozens of other women and even more rats.” Speaking of this was making my body hot but Sorcha was waiting for more detail. “It was very hot and I’m not so good in the heat. I think they only let me out because of the smell of me.” My lame joke surprises me.
“Must have been horrendous.”
“I was grieving; she was an irreplaceable friend. The place matched how I was feeling— horrendous, yes—yet the authorities did me a favour. Being there, you know, the cell I shared with dozens of other women forced me to stop feeling so sorry for myself. A lot of the women in that jail were never leaving, and I knew I’d eventually get out because I had white skin, bribe money and a Western passport.”
The truth was I had been doped up a lot of the time. A lawyer had mysteriously arrived with Valium and vitamin tablets and advice to keep my eyes down and my mouth shut, oh, and to give one third of my New York royalties for Bravo as a bribe.
Sorcha looks at me with a mixture of pity and alarm. I wish I had kept my mouth shut. “We want you to write a play that will open this year.” Well that means I haven’t imagined it: here is the offer again, with different syntax but the same meaning. In bizarre moments like these, I long again for River, my irreplaceable friend her ashes scattered on Cambodian soil. What pleasure we would take in this tale. Oh, River Li-Leung, how you would gasp, and demand detail and re-enactment. “Show me her face as she said that! What did she do with her hands?” You’d make me perform both participants; I would have to re-enact my own astonishment, the wildly mixed emotions, the perplexing irony of being given what I had always dreamed of: a play on at The Strident, coming from my best male friend’s autumn love. “Your contract is somewhere here.” Her three neat piles of paperwork are clearly not in order.
“Am I to write to a brief?”
“A biographical play. It’s what you do best.”
“About whom?”
“Lewis? Our Lewis? Lewis Stanton?” I’m babbling, but this detail completely floors me.
“The play will be performed in autumn.”
“It’s already March!” My voice has gone up two octaves.
“We may not have that long.”
Sorcha’s face holds so much sadness that I feel a rush of confusion and growing dread. Lewis dead as well as River? Both dead and gone? The idea brings clashing feelings of panic, sadness, and a dreadful excitement. I have always been important to Lewis, and while this meeting was starting to make me feel peripheral in his life, in the face of his death I would be brought closest to the centre… I would, in a role suitable only to me, control the ending of his narrative by writing his life story for everyone to see on stage. Am I a disgusting person to have these feelings?
“Lewis forgot, until I pointed it out that it’s the Strident’s 25th anniversary.”
The sadness cloud on her face has passed. Did I misread her expression?
Sorcha begins to read out from my contract. “Full length play with an interval, a cast of five, six at the utmost, but we recommend you keep under five. We want you to have input into the casting. So, give me your ideas early so I can contact the talent. We will pay you above guild rates and want the rights for five years.”
“That will be reflected in the fee. All goes well, we’ll restage the play for the theatre’s 30th anniversary.”
I try to picture the sort of play she may be imagining I will write. “My biographical plays aren’t party pieces.”
What I’ve just said comes out churlish, but she replies in an even tone. “Lewis never steps in the way of the artistic process, especially of playwrights he admires. He has complete confidence that you will deliver a powerful play inspired by his life.” Sorcha is fully back into acting artistic Director mode. “There is an attendance fee. He will require you at every rehearsal.”
“Will he be directing the play about his own life?”
“It depends.” The pain flashes again across her face.
“Depends on what?” I ask with alarm, but the flash has left her face as quickly as it arrived.
“It’s a big year for the Strident. If we get the last of our funding signed off, Lewis will be directing the Markus Crowley film script, Explicit Content. However, all our creative babies are important; be reassured you will get all the resources and support you need to write this, and it will be an important production for The Strident.”
Not only has she missed my point about the incongruity of a Director both commissioning and directing a play about his life, there’s something else she’s avoiding telling. However, excitement that can’t be contained has entered my body. Living back in London writing a play for The Strident! Adrenaline is being released into my blood, creating an urge to escape the office and skip through the streets of my favourite city.
“Kenneth Branagh has long wanted to perform back at The Strident, so we will approach him to play Lewis, along with Sean Bean.”
I’ve died and woken in playwright heaven.
I try to sound as practical as possible when I say, “I don’t live in London and I will need to, if I do this job.”
“That’s OK. We can provide a flat. We have one for visiting artists that will be made available to you near Holloway Road. Lewis wanted you to have the keys, whatever your decision. He worries about you.”
She has an open, maternal look, openly keen for me to write this play. It occurs to me that she has no idea that I know an enormous amount about her husband’s wide-ranging appetites… appetites that could end up playing out on stage. But already I am seeing some racy scenes flash across my mind, played to perfection by Sean you bloody beauty Bean. As she hands me the flat key, a new thought flashes across my brain: the new bride with her youth and beauty would never believe that her husband has any sexual feelings towards me or indeed anyone else. That might be a tad perturbing if my brain wasn’t already sorting out a hierarchy of clashing thoughts.
I recognize the old-fashioned key that Sorcha is holding. Years ago, Lewis and I used to bring lovers back to this very two-bedroom flat, and we’d share breakfasts together after arguing over whose turn it was to pick up the cream cheese bagels from the local Jewish bakery. Seeing the familiar shamrock key-chain makes me miss Lewis with a sharp stab. Something is not right about him not being here.
“I’ll have to talk to my agent,” I say tentatively.
“Lewis would prefer for this commission not to go through your agent.”
“I can’t do that to her. She’s stayed loyal through my dry years and she’ll want to know why you brought me here and why I’ve moved to London.”
“A writing workshop for our young writers?” Sorcha offers.
“You want me to lie to my agency?” I say with some alarm, but I have lied to them before.
“Only for now. Lewis would prefer no one knew until the end.” What does she mean by the end: end of his life or the end of the play commission? A pure emotion rises in me now of fear. I don’t want Lewis to leave me like River has left me. “We don’t want any speculation in the press about a vanity project. The play will be like a surprise birthday party with a twist, as the audience/party goers will not know who the party is for, until the night.”
“But I will need to pay my agent her proper commission,” I say.
“Pay them after the play opens. We’ve worked with your agency a lot. They will understand.”
“I’ll need to interview people,” I say.
“Yes, of course.” She hands me an A4 paper with a typed list of names and contact details. “Take these now and look through all the people happy to talk to you. Do this and look over your contract—you will see that it’s a generous offer. At this stage, you can say the interview is for an article you are writing about Lewis for our website. You’ll see some big names there. I’m still working on Charlotte Tucker but she hasn’t done an interview for over ten years. The first on the list is Lewis’s brother Theo, who is in hospital- lung cancer, but he’s very willing to talk to you.”
As I read the list she has given me, the adrenaline that has been making its way up my spine reaches my head. Many of my theatre idols are on this list. Living mainly in Asia these last few years has kept me out of theatre circles. My head is saying that this is too good to be true, but to be able to be in the same room as these idols and talk privately with them about Lewis has my heart singing.
A loud knock on the door startles both of us. The intern enters pale and stooped as a malnourished sapling.
“Sorry to interrupt but it is your mother - she called my phone; she needs to speak with you urgently…” the phone shakes a little in his twig like arms.
Sorcha has a tight smile as she takes the phone and says into it. “I’m in a meeting.” Her emphasis is on the ‘ting. I can hear a harsh female voice coming out of the phone’s speaker but can only make out a few words. ‘Everything, documents, Pret A Porter.’ Sorcha’s pitch is higher. “Well I don’t. Clearly I can’t…” More forceful words from her mother causes a cloud of obsequiousness to enter Sorcha’s blue eyes. She moves the phone as she writes down Berkeley Square Solicitors. They are a criminal law firm. She is irritated when she says, “Well then, I’ll wear a red beret.’ Sorcha writes down Thursday next week, 8am Pret a Porter, outside Supreme Court. She says “OK” to her mother very quietly. Is Lewis’s new wife in trouble? Then a louder “What?’ She looks at me and smiles and holds up one finger and a look of apology before gesturing for the intern to leave. She follows him out the door and closes it. I can hear her free to be agitated voice to her mother in the hallway, the familiarity strengthening her Irish accent, making it more difficult to follow what she is upset at. Switching my voice recorder back on, I slip it under the gap in the door before hearing, in an end-of-conversation voice, “It’s my decision and she’s doing it.” I grab my recorder back and am back in my seat to look up at her as she enters. She goes to her desk and looks down at her notes then breathes in deeply and looks up at me with a radiant look.
“Will you do it? Will you help the 25th year be the Strident Theatre’s finest year?