Tenacity Wins Through  

Mark Farrelly is an actor with four solo shows under his belt. He tours them continually, sometimes concurrently. Susan Elkin talks to him about his life and career to date.

There is a dark depth in Mark Farrelly’s work which has struck me each of the three times I’ve seen him on stage. And it’s worryingly intriguing. That’s why I wanted to talk to him in real life to find out where it all comes from. And I got rather more than I bargained for. Mark has, in the past, suffered from acute clinical depression.

“It felt as if my brain was detaching itself from my head and floating away from me” he says, speaking slowly and thoughtfully. “I thought I was a failure and came very close to suicide several times.”

It seems a bit banal that all this horror is being unravelled in the ordinariness of Costa Coffee in Catford where Mark is sipping mint tea. At one point I can see he’s getting upset and slip off quietly to give him a break and get him a top up. It’s turning out to be a pretty emotional interview.

I ask him eventually why three of his plays are about gay men (Frankie Howerd, Quentin Crisp and Derek Jarman) because, before I met him, I had made an obvious assumption. “What I identify with is the loneliness and isolation that these men endured – which happened to be because of their gayness, but there are other causes” he says sombrely. “I’m actually a bit colour blind about sexuality.” 

“I gave myself permission to have a go. I accepted that it didn’t matter than I’m not Shakespeare”

Mark grew up in Sheffield which, when he’s not acting, you can hear faintly in his voice. There wasn’t much drama at Birkdale School – just one play a year, always Shakespeare, which he took part in and enjoyed. “I was no good at sport and tried very hard to persuade my English teacher to lobby for the same sorts of accolades for arts as the ‘colours’ the school routinely awarded for sports. In my final assembly, that changed and I was presented with ‘drama colours’ in the form of a special tie which I still have somewhere.”

After being rejected twice by Oxford, but academically very able, Mark went off to Cambridge, aged 21, where he eventually graduated with a double first in English having been told, obliquely, that it would be impossible to achieve that and take part in undergraduate plays. “I didn’t see why it had to be a choice and did about twelve plays while keeping up with academic work. I think it helped that I was a bit older than most of my contemporaries. I’d had a bit of time to think and mature.” 

In 2000, towards the end of his time as an undergraduate, Mark toured the East Coast of the USA playing the title role in Hamlet with a group of sixteen – eight cast and eight crew. “It was very bonding. I made friends who are still very much with me and decided that, yes, this was definitely what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” 

Back in Sheffield, his parents were supportive without ignoring the difficulties of a professional actor’s life. They had, themselves, toured northern nightclubs with music and comedy shows for several years before Mark’s birth. “Both are illegitimate, so we don’t know anything much about family in previous generations”, says Mark when I ask him whether there was drama amongst his forebears.

“At first the jobs flowed in. There was always plenty of work lined up. I thought it was easy and began to wonder why everyone says an actor’s life is so uncertain” says Mark.   

Then the rot set in.

“I hit a dry patch and it was a dreadful shock. I did a lot of compensatory drinking which made it worse.” At the time Mark was living in South London with his then girlfriend, X (he names her, but I won’t) who was also from Sheffield and a student at Rose Bruford. “One day I was at the top of the stairs unable to tie my shoelace and X lifted my head and said simply: ‘I think there’s a problem’.”

The doctor she took him to wanted to section Mark on the spot because he was suicidal. In the end, X took him home to Sheffield, where he rocked from side to side, fiddled for hours with elastic bands and tried therapy which he resisted and rejected when it got painful. “I just couldn’t adapt to the change in my life” he says.

Then things looked up – a bit. In 2008 he was offered a role which toured and went to Trafalgar Studios in London. “So we’re now in the West End, but after a year it ended. More good jobs followed, though, and I was working.”

Mark now admits, though, that he was only papering over the cracks of his illness and things really went wrong when his domestic arrangements collapsed. “I’d been living with X for fourteen years by then. Another girl had moved in with us and we’d been living as a ménage à trois. There were jealous rages and it was all utterly dreadful. At one point a neighbour called the police because she thought someone was being killed. On another occasion Mark called the Samaritans in despair and is quite witty about the way the poor chap on the other end of the line was completely flummoxed by the turmoil in Mark’s life. “Although I was still working – I was in a play at Jermyn Street Theatre at his time.”

Ultimately rejected by both women (who thereafter refused to acknowledge him even in the street), Mark found himself alone for the first time in his life – in a new flat, where he still lives. “Ostracism is deeply destructive. It was a real struggle: silence and no distractions. Then a friend I’d just met again from way back hanged himself nine weeks into our ‘new’ friendship. It couldn’t get any worse. I hit rock bottom. I had nowhere to run. I wanted to end it all. I rang my old friend Adam Barnard, who’d directed Hamlet.”

Adam spent hours talking to Mark, eventually sending him away to do two nice things for himself each day. “I bought a bath bomb on the way home and I watched a video of Quentin Crisp which made me laugh”, he remembers.

Several things helped Mark from there to where he is now. He engaged a therapist and forced himself to see it through rather than running away when it got painful. “We unpacked a lot of stuff about my childhood, for example”. Then there was a life changing book called Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. When he told his mother that he was thinking of giving up acting she didn’t offer to help him get a job in a building society as he expected. Instead, she said: “Mark, find a stage. Get on it. And act.”

Gradually Mark rebuilt his self respect. “I learned to see my mistakes and failures as opportunities for growth. And I began writing. I gave myself permission to have a go. I accepted that it didn’t matter than I’m not Shakespeare.” And from that came The Silence of Snow which is about playwright and novelist Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope.

“I sought advice from producer James Seabright, whom I knew from Cambridge.” He read my scripts over a weekend and said 

‘My advice is very simple. I’ll produce them’.” A year’s nationwide tour of the two plays followed, working with different directors and suddenly a corner had been turned. Mark was building a new, successful career as a playwright and solo actor. 

Although Seabright moved on to other projects after a year, newfound confidence persuaded Mark that he could self produce. “I started contacting venues myself and it grew from there. Since then, Mark has written two more plays Howerd’s End (unusually for him, a two hander) and Jarman.

“Some people will have an easier journey than mine” says Mark, “but the most important thing is to keep going and never give up. Tenacity is what you need above all else.”

He smiles at me over the final dregs of his mint tea and assures me that he has been “perfectly all right” for the last five years, although I’m aware that reliving it all for me and Ink Pellet clearly hasn’t been easy. Even the pandemic hasn’t got him down too much. “You simply have to ride it out” he says moving onto the joys of working in a wide range of venues from Crucible at Sheffield to Bridge House in Penge. “Wherever I go, audience members talk to me in the bar afterwards and some tell me the most amazing things” he says warmly, evidently reasonably comfortable in his own skin at last.

At the time of writing Mark has over fifty 2022 bookings for  his four plays all over the country from Penzance to Runcorn.  See markfarrelly.co.uk This is just a tiny sample:

02 February Howerd’s End, The Beggars’ Theatre, Cumbria

10/11 February Jarman, Lichfield Garrick

12 February Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope, Grove Theatre, Eastbourne.

24 May The Silence of Snow, Millfield Theatre, London  

IMAGE: Silence of Snow photo by Steve Ullathorne