'Take out the gowlers, and this could be anywhere in the world'
After a sell-out run in London, our reporter meets the Irish trio about to bring Waterford play 'Rigor Mortis' - an ode to the city and relationships formed and lost there - back home
Michael Quinlan, Jamie Beamish and Aidan Kelly are huddled over pints in a pub on the outskirts of London's Borough Market. It's what Waterford's mothers would call a dirty night - Quinlan and Beamish would know. Despite a 30-year absence between the two men from their home in the South East, their accents are still nippy and playfully confrontational. The give-no-inch, top-of-town spirit known well in the South East still endures. Rigor Mortis (Urbs Intacta Manet), a one-act play by Pat Daly, a countyman of Quinlan and Beamish, is an ode to the city and the relationships formed and lost there.
Quinlan plays Jimmy, the distraught and slightly unhinged best friend of a man who lies in a coffin that he has stolen in a bid for one last cocaine-fuelled session. Paul Connaughton, a product of the Gaiety School of Acting and a Wexford outlier, portrays Ted as a put-upon third-wheel of a mate whose exasperation is denoted by how many octaves his voice has gone up. The tragi-comedy, which is produced by Beamish and directed by Kelly, is often light-hearted but the nature of male relationships is expressed through an underlying pathos and dignity.
Although the play is dense in Waterford life and language - Urbs Intacta Manet Waterfordia is the city's motto and means that it is untaken - Kelly says that the play's themes and message are not tied to the locality.
"It's about two lads that can't talk to each other. One lad is dead, he couldn't talk to anyone. No one's talking. These are guys that should know a bit better. We live in a world now where guys this age are married, but these lads can't grow up. They're stunted by drugs. They're stunted by drink. They're stunted by where they live. And that's anywhere, that's universal. Take out the 'gowlers' and this could be anywhere in the world."
Kelly is an expressive and erudite Dubliner. His CV is formidable - he has had prominent roles in the Abbey, starred as Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company and portrayed The Howie Lee in the original run of Howie the Rookie by Mark O'Rowe. More recently he played Billy, the gruff sweetheart who provided the comic relief in the West End production of Once. Although Kelly says that his experience as The Howie Lee didn't directly influence this two-man show, his love for the art of the one-act play was a factor.
"You come in in the middle of something, it's a little Polaroid. The main action has already happened. You get the fallout. It's a flavour. Plunkett and Joyce were marvellous with them."
This is a production that is 15 years in the making, says Quinlan, who starred in the first run of the play in 2003. Since then, he has left his job in a Waterford factory, emigrated, attended the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, of which Laurence Olivier and Judi Dench are alumni, and carved out a career that has taken him from Sheffield with Shane Meadows to Rochester, New York, with the Geva Theatre Center. Urbs, however, always lingered and he was determined to give it an international run.
"When we were checking out the Hope [Theatre, London] for another play, Mick was looking around just going, 'Urbs would be deadly here, wouldn't it'," says Beamish, who is appearing on American TV screens in Will, the big-budget dramatisation of Shakespeare's life.
Deadly, it came to be. Last November, a production of Daly's play, starring Quinlan and Connaughton, sold out three nights at the Hope in Islington, where Beamish also produced Cat, a one-man homage to the eponymous musical that went on to a brief run in the West End.
"The Hope doesn't take any auld shit, it's not that kind of place," says Beamish. "They demand that everyone involved is paid and there is an even split. It's a model that, in terms of the fringe in London, is exceptional. It means that a small company like ours can go in, but it's not going to put us in hock and cost us money."
The success of Urbs in London convinced Quinlan and Beamish that a run in Waterford was needed. The city's Theatre Royal is where both men cut their teeth as part of rival musical drama societies. These were largely the children of factory workers or labourers, far removed from the middle-class stage school sort.
"The hardmen in Waterford know the score of Les Mis. It really was like the Sharks and the Jets," Beamish says.
"We hated them, but we're all friends now," adds Quinlan, raising a menacing eyebrow and pint in Beamish's direction.
Although none involved are strangers to big, expensive, productions, Urbs has been an exercise in DIY theatre. The play's main prop is a coffin, and coffins don't come cheap. A local undertaker is providing one for the Waterford run - as it did 14 years ago - but London is a far crueller place and favours are often hard to come by. "It's not as easy to go, 'Well boy, any chance of a coffin'. A friend said he knew a fella who would make one up for a few quid. So, this was going on and on... and we were waiting for this coffin. I would call him, 'Any sign of it? Yeah, next week'. We didn't have a coffin until the day of the play. We got a picture the day before, it was like a flatpack Ikea coffin," says Quinlan, whose back garden is now home to a dubious-looking box under a tarpaulin.
Kelly dryly muses: "He'll get one use from it anyway."
Beamish's girlfriend, herself a one-time actor who appeared in Pat Shortt's masterful Garage, brought an artist's eye to the bare coffin, decorating it with door handles and a crucifix bought in a Catholic supply shop.
Urbs is a play dense in Waterford's lingo; all yeah boys, some doses and dopes. If the bemusement of Londoners could be forgiven, it is probably because the director was often at odds with the reference points.
"Even after this, I still don't get Waterford people," says Kelly.
Quinlan admits to dropping some of the more hyperlocal references, but insists that they will return in the Theatre Royal. The voice of Billy McCarthy, however, made it to London. The well-known morning radio personality and sponge of Waterford's problems is the first voice the audience hears. McCarthy died unexpectedly last year, on the same day that the curtain went up for Urbs in Islington.
"Having Billy's voice is huge. The day he died, his voice was on a London stage. About five people in the audience knew and we knew. He was just a voice to the others. It was odd, but we felt it deeply," says Quinlan.
Bringing your work home can be risky. The people know Quinlan, they know Beamish and a bomb in Waterford would be a heavy hit on a personal level.
"Shadows aren't cast as long here. They are in Ireland. They are in Waterford. Theatre Royal is where we started," says Beamish.
In a different country, with different lives, the drag of home can often be a strong one.
It is not to say that these theatre men sit by the fire braying 'The Fields of Athenry' each night, but the affection for and the belief in work from their homeplace is immovable, says Quinlan. "Every play I have done, I have thought, 'I wonder would this work in Waterford'."
Wonder no more.
Rigor Mortis (Urbs Intacta Manet) runs from September 14-16. Play and a pint €15. See www.theatreroyal.ie
‘The Waterford vernacular is worth recording’
Pat Daly began writing plays in his early twenties with the ambition of having one staged in Garter Lane in Waterford. In 1999, The Pilferers became Daly's first play to be produced by Red Kettle. It was directed by Jim Nolan, who joined forces with Daly again last year on The Hall. Daly's Dissident enjoyed a sold-out run in Garter Lane in 2012 and Angus, a film based on Rigor Mortis (Urbs Intacta Manet), was nominated for Best Short at the Dublin Underground Cinema Festival in 2013.
Many of Daly's plays take place in Waterford City and over a single act.
"The Waterford vernacular is distinctive and worth recording in a dramatic context," he says. "The one-act play form is similar to the short story; everything must be distilled down to the necessary and is a good way for a writer to get a play staged. It's good to get the audience into the pub by 10 o'clock, especially after you've subjected them to a fairly intense tragi-comedy."