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Electric Rosary: Meet playwright Tim Foley whose play about robot nuns is being premiered in Manchester

The writer talks about the inspiration behind his unusual new play, getting the biggest production of his career so far and why he swapped Middlesborough for Manchester.

An “adopted Mancunian” playwright is looking forward to the biggest step of his career so far when his latest play gets its premiere production on a major Manchester stage.

Tim Foley’s Electric Rosary - which has the eye-catching subject matter of robot nuns - is being brought to the boards for the first time by the Royal Exchange Theatre.

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Tim says having his work performed on such a prestigious stage is a dream come true.

He also discussed where he got the idea for Electric Rosary and why he swapped his hometown of Middlesborough for Manchester.

Breffni Holahan and Saroja-Lily Ratnavel in Tim Foley’s Electric Rosary. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

What is Electric Rosary and when is its premiere in Manchester?

The world premiere of Electric Rosary is taking place at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester city centre from 23 April until 14 May.

The play has already scooped awards, landing playwright Tim the Bruntwood Prize Judges’ Award.

The work is set behind the crumbling walls of St Grace’s Convent, where an exhausted order of nuns needs resurrecting to keep the future of the religious house secure,

Tim Foley

As Easter approaches, Mother Elizabeth thinks she has found the solution and introduces ‘Mary’, a council-funded robot.

The play asks questions about what it means to have religious faith in an era when artificial intelligence (AI) is possible and what it means to be human in a world shared with robots, but also has plenty of laughs along the way alongside its more thoughtful and serious explorations of ideas.

What has Tim Foley said about the new world premiere?

Tim is delighted to have his work being premiered on the main stage of a major theatre for the first time, saying Electric Rosary’s premiere this month will be the highlight of his writing career to date.

He said: “This is just amazing. I’ve done Fringe venues and small venues before but this is my first main stage show.

“It feels really nice and right to be having the play done on such a big stage in Manchester.”

How did Tim come up with the idea for Electric Rosary?

Tim, whose previous work includes The Dogs of War and Astronauts of Hartlepool, explained that Electric Rosary was a combination of a number of experiences over some years which finally came together in his mind as the play.

He said: “About 15 years ago I visited a monastery in Scotland. My grandfather was a miner and the church would send them round the country to build stuff in their down time.

“I kept in touch with the monks and spent a few weeks there straight after school while I was figuring out what to do next.

“They were all getting old and there was this dilemma that they couldn’t do the hard work on the land. They were wondering about getting outsiders in.

“Fast forward to just before I moved to Manchester and I went to Shropshire for a year and did loads of writing there. I met a lot of interesting people including young farmers who were telling me about the incredible technology they used. One had a drone set up to keep an eye on the cows.

“I was thinking it sounded like the next step would be robot farmers and for some reason I just connected this technology with those monks. I thought there was something interesting there, about whether a monk would be breaking a vow by getting a robot in. That was the seed of the idea.”

Tim said after that the first draft of Electric Rosary came together fairly quickly in 2016 and he admits his enthusiasm for the idea and exploring it hasn’t waned since.

What else has he said about the new play?

Tim says putting Electric Rosary together has been a lot of fun in the rehearsal room but says the play is not all about humour.

He said: “There are some serious parts to it. When you are dealing with themes like religion and technology you have to handle them appropriately, because this stuff comes from the heart.

Breffni Holohan as Mary in Tim Foley’s play Electric Rosary. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

“Ultimately I’m a big sci-fi geek but a lot of stories in sci-fi are dystopian and I wanted to avoid robot revolutions or hyper-sexualisation in this play. I think the future has more interesting things to offer.

“I wanted to write a more hopeful story about technology. I think post-lockdown that’s what we all need right now.”

Finding a happy home in Manchester

Tim moved from Middlesborough to Manchester around six years ago to be part of the city’s cultural scene and is now living in Withington.

He says the move to the big city and all its artistic offerings has been everything he hoped it would be.

He said: “I had never even visited Manchester before, I just arrived one day and haven’t moved.

“There’s so much theatre going on at places like the Royal Exchange and I’m always seeing films at HOME.

“It’s just a really vibrant city and also a really friendly and welcoming one.

“I don’t think I’m going to move any time soon, I’m going to put some roots down here.

“I really quite like Withington as an area too, sandwiched between the students and the classy Didsbury stuff.”