Sunday 4 December 2016

Stage - Mover and shaker: the solo comeback of Tom Hickey

Maggie Armstrong

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

Tom Hickey
Tom Hickey

Before Tom Hickey walks on stage as the gallant John Joe, there will be an announcement that is bound to create a bit of suspense.

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The audience is told that Tom has Parkinson's disease and has adapted the performance to his condition. The actor hopes to create awareness for Parkinsons.ie and show how acting, singing and dance can have a positive affect.

The play, by Tom MacIntyre, begins; its lone actor launches himself into the danger. The danger of a solo show, and more.

"Parkinson's... people are inclined to take a beating because they have it," says Hickey, now in his seventies. "This is to try and show that it can be handled, and beaten, or kept at bay."

Some 9,000 Irish people live with the progressive neurological disease, for which there is no cure. Tom, one of the finest actors of an advancing generation, was diagnosed in 2013.

It was a sore blow for an artist whose craft is physical and who has played many great roles written for him by Tom Murphy, Brian Friel, Marina Carr, Michael Harding. The father of one lives alone. His distinguished friends, like Des Keogh and Bosco Hogan, he meets "at funerals". Getting up on stage is his way of survival.

Hickey emerged out of Naas, Co Kildare, in the 1960s as a founding member of Deirdre O'Connell's Stanislavsky Studio and the Focus Theatre. He still practises the breathing and stretching rituals he learned with Deirdre, along with his favourite, pilates.

Some 50 years since he played Uncle Vanya in the Focus, he is using all the tricks they learned at improvisation. "We were always forced to look for the inner life. What is acting? Acting is the revelation of a soul of a person. So that's what you're up to."

The two Toms created an international rave in the 1980s with The Great Hunger but for Hickey, The Gallant John Joe is "the best short script ever written in Ireland". A Cavan widower broods on an unhappy existence. The pregnancy of his teenage daughter haunts him. In throes of mental instability, he sings arias to his football hero.

The play might not be here but for its lead actor. In 1997, Cavan playwright MacIntyre premiered The Chirpaun (Cavan slang for baby), about John Joe Concannon, his pregnant daughter and a cast of eccentric villagers. "It was in the Peacock and it didn't quite work," explains Tom, who played John Joe. "But John Joe Concannon struck me as being a very rich character. So when the play was over, I said to Tom, 'Would you write a one-man piece with John Joe Concannon at the centre?' He said 'Yes I will' and he did."

The Gallant John Joe first premiered in 2001 and won best new play the following year at the Theatre Awards. In reviving it, Hickey is reviving his own art - not keen, he says, to exit stage left too early. It hasn't been easy.

"It's particularly difficult acting with [Parkinson's]. Because it loves stress. You get dizzy, you get tired. There's the Parkinson's shake. People say, how do you do an hour-and-three-quarters one-man piece? I say, with some difficulty."

Performing has been shown to have a therapeutic effect on the illness, and for some, all symptoms disappear onstage. The English National Ballet are leading the way with their Dance for Parkinson's project, and in Ireland Parkinson's choirs like the Voices of Hope are hugely popular. But until now, no Irish actor has taken their illness onto a professional stage with this kind of candour.

"MacIntyre thinks it's 50 times better than it was the last time," says Hickey. "Because of the fragility of the man. The interesting thing about this production is that the character in the original never stopped taking medicines and pills during the piece. Now I'm doing it for real.

"If I have a problem - you'll find problems arising you never expected because of the situation - what's happening now is, they're stitching themselves into the play. And there's all sorts of resonances that come from me coping with the difficulty. It takes on light and shade it hasn't before."

The show has transformed in just a year.

"When I did the first performance this time around [in the Glens Centre, Manorhamilton], I had to be nearly carried out on a stretcher. Now it's like I don't have the Parkinson's at the end. There's a great boost."

This is not all: Tom plays the voice of Hamlet's father's ghost in an AC Productions take on Hamlet at the New Theatre, also starring Rex Ryan - one of Hickey's "protégées", he says with a long and comedic face.

Expect a rousing performance. It was Hickey's fault that a certain Toyota ad brought a tear to my eye recently.

The Gallant John Joe plays at the Dolmen Theatre, Cornelscourt, April 23 and 30 and tours to the Nenagh Arts Centre, Tipperary; The Viking, Clontarf; Sligo's The Hawk's Well; Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire and the Watergate, Kilkenny.

Hamlet runs in the New Theatre until April 23

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