Friday 19 January 2018

Stage: Living-room musical from margins of Ireland

The female part was written for Barbara Brennan.
The female part was written for Barbara Brennan.

Maggie Armstrong

Remember a while ago people got all upset about the Abbey Theatre's Waking the Nation programme for 2016? Because a whole lot of men got to write and direct plays and not so many dames did. Well, as the year goes on, the Abbey doesn't seem all that treacherous.

Consider Town is Dead, the new "living-room musical" by Phillip McMahon with a score by Raymond Scannell - their Alice and Funderland, set in a Dublin underworld, was a roaring success. Town is Dead will be more "boutique", "gentle".

The 70-minute "companion piece" to Alice is about Ellen, a 66-year old living in poverty in north inner-city Dublin. Ellen has returned from England an immigrant in her home, displaced and isolated. Philly likes to write female parts, and wrote this for Barbara Brennan: "It struck me that it would be fabulous to create a singing role for a female character in their late sixties," he says.

The rage against Waking the Nation happened because theatre seemed have been kept in aspic by a white, male patriarchy. But Phillip can't really be tarred with that pastry brush (though does say it was "suddenly such a shock to be a man" during the backlash to the Abbey's programme).

Working-class and gay, this producer, writer, director, actor (a confessed "control freak"), emerged from the margins. Something of a canny salesman, he has made theatre available to a big, heaving, unexpected audience. He gets people who have never been to the theatre into the theatre. His plays are like nightclubs, or fairgrounds, where the young and old mingle.

With his outfit THISISPOPBABY, he launched gay culture into the mainstream, not least as a producer for Ireland's favourite drag queen. We saw him in the backgrounds of Panti Bliss in the film The Queen of Ireland. His work is loud, camp, gorgeous and forever socially engaged.

And now, if Phillip's life was a musical, it would be pretty good. Town is Dead is, he says, in part his own story, as "a child of Irish immigrants in England". His father was a painter-decorator, his mother managed bars, and they were "economic migrants in the late 1970s". When he was 10, his family moved from Camden Town back to Dublin. They lived in a flat on Summerhill Parade in the inner city - "not a great area," he says, referring to a recent gangland murder. His parents, his sister and he shared a bedroom.

He grew up different and conflicted. "There was always a sense of wrestling with what my Irishness was. Because in England we were the Paddies. But in Ireland we were English." When he was six, his parents played him the music to Grease. "Musicals," he says, "were very special to me in giving me a sense of a big, brighter, colourful world outside."

At 15, he found Dublin Youth Theatre, and came through that melting pot at the same time as theatrical firecrackers Grace Dyas and Emmet Kirwan. "But when we got out into the real world, the theatre really felt like it wasn't for us. The plays on stage, the people that were going, the institutions. It felt like we were not invited into that club. We were working-class kids. Our stories, we felt, were not reflected."

So they made their own club. Phillip acted in the Abbey, but his career amounted to "spear carrier on the left" and he failed to get into RADA. He felt "angry" and "frustrated" that he and his friends weren't getting called for parts. So 10 years ago he staged a two-hander on the dance floor of the Pod for the Dublin Fringe, casting himself. The Abbey found him there, plucked him out and eventually made him Writer in Residence. "I was like, wow! And it came with a massive pay cheque."

Ideas for Town is Dead came when Phillip's father died on Christmas Day 2011, Phillip's birthday. There was a "lot of storytelling" after the funeral, and "everything became about grief".

He wrote Ellen's story thinking about strong women in his life, and the many older, widowed women in his mother's local pub in Finglas. "Really fierce, funny, vibrant working-class women who have gone through incredible struggles."

As Town is Dead took shape, he asked himself the question: "Can my auntie come?"

Don't expect queens, glitter explosions or neon paint flung in Town is Dead. But it is still a gay story, argues Phillip. It "subverts" the traditional musical, and "replaces male leads with female leads. That, to me, is queer. It's about outsiders. If you arrive in Ireland with an English accent, you are queer. If you are working-class, that puts you firmly on the outside."

He feels that 1916 commemorations have been "a mess". "I think we haven't fulfilled the objectives of the Proclamation. To celebrate those poets and dreamers then we have to say that we achieved the dream. There are kids who are homeless in this city. That is a massive stain on our society."

But, says Phillip, even in "dire poverty", there's hope. "When you feel from the very start that you're on the outside, and you grow into that, it's a wonderful place to be."

Town is Dead runs June 2 to July 9 in the Peacock

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