Country meets choral in a play about literacy, lockdown and the love of music

Literacy, lockdown and the love of music are the themes of a new play which has its world premiere in Hove on July 6.

Goodbye Jolene by Siobhán Nicholas, is a play with songs, featuring country music alongside sixteenth century choral compositions.

The play, which will be performed by acclaimed Brighton-based company Take the Space, will tour at theatres around the south east.

Nicholas says: “It’s about a woman who finds inspiration, courage and strength through music.”

Care worker Niamh quits her job after Covid, determined to change her life. Her secret is she struggles with dyslexia – but after being invited to sing at Blackpool Country Music Festival she has to confront her demons, once and for all.

Norman the choirmaster, played by Chris Barnes, offers to coach her. They are very different people, from different backgrounds – but an alliance emerges.

Nicholas, who is based in Brighton, was inspired by her Auntie Mary, who suffered from dementia but who could still communicate through music.

“In the care home my lovely vibrant aunt became someone who wasn’t able to communicate with the outside world – but one day when I started to sing, she remembered my name.

“I took out my mobile phone and started singing along to one of her favourite country songs. To my delight, she started smiling. Not only that but suddenly she seemed to recognise me and when a nurse gently asked her who I was – clear as a bell, she answered ‘Siobhán’.

“It reminded me of the healing power of music and how music stirs memory and I knew I had to write a play around that idea.”

Sadly, Mary was one of the thousands of people in the UK who died in care homes during the Covid lockdowns.

Nicholas, the child of Irish immigrants who settled in working class Kilburn, also wanted to honour her mother, a teacher who taught many adults and children to read and who inspired in her daughter a love of words and writing.

She says: “Through my mother, a determined teacher, I discovered the joy of reading which soon became a superpower for a small, lonely child with thick glasses, an odd accent, in the wrong uniform at a new school.”

The music in Goodbye Jolene is a combination of country music and sixteenth century early music by English composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis.

Early music has long been a passion of Chris Barnes, who takes the role of Norman, the middle-class choir master who becomes a mentor to Niamh.

Barnes, who was a Westminster chorister as a child and studied music at Durham University, has also written original music for the production.

Nicholas says: “Too many people in the UK believe that classical music is above and beyond them – too highbrow and so we’d really love our audiences to leave the theatre having enjoyed all the music in the play - including two original songs, written by Chris Barnes.

“We want people to leave the theatre with a smile on their faces. We have all been through such a lot, with covid and lockdowns and this is a way to celebrate music and the way it brings people together.”

Take the Space has been working with a choir in Brighton who will become part of the action through video link up. The company intends to invite other local choirs to participate in the tour.

The title of the play is a nod to Dolly Parton, whose charity The Imagination Library was set up in honour of her father, who was unable to read and write.

To date one in seven people in the UK have problems with literacy.

Nicholas says: “If somebody like Dolly Parton can rise up from such a poor background to become a worldwide icon that gives everyone hope.”

Take the Space, a touring theatre company based in Brighton, was co-founded by actor and writer Siobhán Nicholas with actor and musician Chris Barnes.

The company has previously been acclaimed for original works, featuring forgotten characters from the past such as seventeenth century polymath Robert Hooke and eighteenth-century female astronomer Caroline Hershel. Its work has also included a Fellini-esque tribute to music hall artistes and a play about a First World War conscientious objector who was also a boxer. This is the first time the company has tackled a contemporary subject.

The world premiere of Goodbye Jolene will take place at The Old Market in Hove on 6th July 2023 at 7.30pm, before touring to five more venues in southeast England throughout the summer and autumn. Tickets cost £19 and are available from The Old Market box office on 01273 201 801, or via

Related Listings

Goodbye Jolene

Goodbye Jolene

Niamh is dyslexic, aged 60; mostly she’s worked as a carer but now after months of lockdown hell, she realises she can face anything, even her demons of literacy. 

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this article has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now