Sunday 21 October 2018

'I got fed up trying to make them laugh' - D'Unbelievables star Jon Kenny on re-evaluating his approach to work

In 2000, a cancer diagnosis forced Jon Kenny to step back from the limelight and caused him to re-evaluate his approach to work. The 60-year-old comic and actor tells Joe O'Shea about feeling comfortable with who he is and why he won't rule out a D'Unbelievables reunion

Single-hander: Jon Kenny's new play, Crowman, is premiering in Cork. Photo: Clare Keogh
Single-hander: Jon Kenny's new play, Crowman, is premiering in Cork. Photo: Clare Keogh
A new outlook on life: Jon's cancer diagnosis came at the height of the success of D'Unbelievables with Pat Shortt
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Jon Kenny is working hard, feeling good and perfectly happy to be - when the mood takes him - a bit of a cranky auld bollix.

The actor and writer has recently turned 60 and will soon be premiering a new darkly comic play, by rising Irish writer Katie Holly, at the Cork Midsummer Festival.

Perhaps still best known to the Irish public as one half of D'Unbelievables, Kenny has taken a step back from comedy in recent years to explore a wide range of artistic endeavours, mostly in straight theatre.

And in the new one-man play; Crowman, he is Dan, a late-middle-aged man dealing with isolation, a traumatic past and a disconnected, chaotic and sometimes surreal present.

A new outlook on life: Jon's cancer diagnosis came at the height of the success of D'Unbelievables with Pat Shortt
A new outlook on life: Jon's cancer diagnosis came at the height of the success of D'Unbelievables with Pat Shortt

When we meet in a Cork city centre café for an early morning coffee, Jon has already been up since 5am (he's a habitual early riser and busy with rehearsals) and is in a reflective mood.

Having fought a long and ultimately successful battle with cancer (he was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in his chest and neck in 2000) Kenny is - to quote that great rock n' roll survivor Keith Richards - "happy to be here. Happy to be anywhere".

That diagnosis came late, at the height of the success of D'Unbelievables, when Jon had been feeling unwell for some time but had put it down to the tremendous workload himself and Pat Shortt were facing.

He didn't rush to the doctors. The duo had spent years building up to the big arenas and major tours and they were focused on making hay as their sun shone very brightly.

The diagnosis, when it came, was serious. There were good days and bad, progress and remission. It took Jon years to work his way back to the well-being he feels today.

"My health is good, I think I finally have a great balance, I'm lucky to be able to work when I want to, I can spend time at home, I still go for a jar when I want to, I stay very active, I enjoy myself," he says.

These days, he lives in the area he grew up in, Lough Gur in Co Limerick. It's a rural setting, he has a little land where he grows his own vegetables, has a very extensive herb garden and loves nothing better than experimenting in the kitchen.

"But I'll admit, I've nothing done with the veg this year because I haven't had the time," he says. "I do have every herb under the sun and I love to do bit of cooking, Italian, Asian, whatever, doesn't matter, I'll try anything."

He did tour a stand-up show three years ago, and as well as Crowman at the Cork Midsummer Festival, he will be returning to the stage later this year with Mary ­McEvoy in two plays, The Matchmaker and The Successful TD.

He keeps busy, stimulated. But has learned to pick and choose a bit, to schedule in health breaks for time in the kitchen or working on his own writing.

"There's always other things, there's always something you are due to do, or asked to do and then there's your own work," he says.

"One thing I've learned now is to take some time to think about what I want to do and how much energy I have for it.

"You get to an age where you say to yourself, 'look, this is where I am at now, and isn't it great and am I not lucky to be here?'

"You don't have that torment of needing to work so hard, to be always driving on.

"If you want to take time on something, if you want to take time out to rest or reflect, you feel comfortable doing that.

"You're an adult now, I don't think I was an adult in my twenties and my thirties, I don't think I was taking decisions like an adult and I found it hard to say 'no'."

Jon has also learned to stop policing himself, when it comes to work commitments and how he interacts with the business. "I don't care how things sound to people now," he says. "Before, I would have been; 'Oh Jaysus, I can't say that, I don't want people to get the wrong idea of me'.

"But I've worked out, it doesn't matter. Why should it matter? You're entitled to state your opinion, to let people know how you feel. You are never going to please everybody one hundred per cent, so you might as well start by trying to please yourself as much as possible."

At 60, with two grown-up children and years of hard work (and serious illness) behind him, Jon says that in recent years, he has changed in the way he interacts with the showbiz world.

"Finally, after all this time, I feel a little bit comfortable in being the way I am," he says.

"Like, it's happened to me a few times, I've done bits of chat shows, on TV or radio, and I've found I don't want to talk. Or at least be the funny man. And I know how that's no fun for the people interviewing you.

"But it's not that I'm being a cranky old bollix, it's not that I'm in a bad mood - it's just that I won't force myself to be that person I was, when I thought I had to play the game.

"There was a time I would be saying to myself; 'Try to be funny, Jon, just try to be funny, do something that will make them laugh, it's your job, make them laugh'.

"And maybe I just got fed up of that. I'm not being selfish, but I'm at the point of my life where I don't think I should have to do that, to be the funny guy."

He's very excited about the Crowman, and thrilled to have the premiere at the Cork Midsummer Festival. "I was there at the start of Cork Midsummer and it's amazing to see how it's grown," he says.

"It's so important to have a platform like this festival, encouraging people, giving them a place to show their work. And there needs to be a lot more done like this in Ireland.

"I worry about younger people getting involved in theatre, music, art, about where they can even find a place to rehearse or start out.

"My daughter has a band and they couldn't find anywhere to rehearse in Limerick so they come out to my shed. It's great to have her around, but you wonder how young kids can find the place to express themselves today."

The chat turns (inevitably) to his past life on stage and D'Unbelievables, his collaboration with Pat Shortt that defined, for many people, Irish comedy in the mid to late 90s and is perhaps only rivalled by Father Ted (in which Jon had a number of memorable appearances) in terms of impact and legacy.

Jon does plan to return to stand up either later this year or sometime in the first half of 2019. And he is still in regular contact with Pat Shortt.

They have already reunited once and as far as Jon is concerned, it's something that could happen again, should they both want to do it and the stars align.

"You get the odd offer, promoters asking if it's a possibility and it's not something that I think we would rule out for good," he says.

"I think it would have to feel right and we would have to ask ourselves if we wanted to write new material, I'm not sure about doing a Greatest Hits tour, to be honest with you."

That may be something for the future. For Jon right now, there are very personal projects, half-started ideas, fragments of music and words that he intends to get around to bringing to life.

He sat down and tried to write about his mother recently, about how her love of Hollywood musicals, and how they would all gather around the family record player to listen to South Pacific or The King and I on a Sunday afternoon, inspired his own deep love of words and music.

"But it started out being about myself. I'm not sure how it happened," he says, with the air of a man who started down one road only to find himself travelling another. He plans to keep travelling, keep busy. And stay happy.

Katie Holly's Crowman is at Granary Theatre in Cork from June 15-20. Corkmidsummer.com

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