‘We wanted to do with Copper Face Jacks what Baz Luhrman did with Moulin Rouge’ – Paul Howard on Coppers musical
Copper Face Jacks: The Musical runs at the Olympia Theatre from July 5
If ever there was an institution ripe for the comedic treatment, it’s Copper Face Jacks, that most beloved of late night/early morning Dublin watering holes which has kept it lit for an impressive 22 years through booms and recessions and the death of the slow set.
And if ever there was a writer to do the place justice on the stage in musical form, it’s Paul Howard, creator of the legendary Ross O’Carroll Kelly, a character who has been in existence via novels and plays for exactly as long as Coppers itself.
Landing at the Gaiety from next month (previews from July 5th), Copper Face Jacks: The Musical has been six years in the making. The idea came to producer Darren Smith as he, Donal Shiels, and Paul battled to get Anglo: The Musical up and running.
Just as that run was about to kick off in 2012, three former Anglo directors were charged with offences relating to the bank’s collapse. Suddenly Howard and co were in a contempt of court situation and told to pull the show. Instead they tinkered with the script, cut songs, and ploughed ahead with the run.
“We were all a bit scarred by Anglo The Musical, financially and every other way,” says Paul of the six year gap between musicals.
“But if one good thing came out of Anglo, aside from our war stories which we’ve been sharing at the bar, it was that Darren came up with this great idea [for Coppers The Musical]. I couldn’t believe nobody had thought of it, nobody had tried it yet. When the smoke finally cleared from Anglo we just said yeah let’s do it.”
It has been an entirely different experience this time around.
“Not to get couriered letters from the offices of the solicitors of defendants in a major trial and to be accused of trying to collapse a trial is just a great thing to wake up with – not having that hanging over you!” he laughs.
“Anglo was a despised Irish institution and this is actually a loved Irish institution. That’s the difference. There was a kind of toxic element to Anglo and we kind of carried that with us.
“Lots of people, intelligent people, said to me around the time of Anglo, ‘I wouldn’t go and see that. I wouldn’t give them the money,’ thinking that somehow the money was going to Anglo Irish Bank and we never really kind of got rid of that taint of Anglo.
“We put that show on while it was still happening, while people were still suffering the effects of what happened with the bank and the cost of winding up the bank. So it might have been a bit too soon.”
In contrast, Coppers is a “happy show” and Howard and the cast have already been approached by countless people who have revealed they met the loves of their lives at the Dublin hotspot, most of whom were gardai, teachers and nurses.
“The clichés about Coppers are true and the clichés are part of why it’s so loved,” says Paul. “People have such a fond place for it in their hearts.”
Although he is now 47 and married and has “no business being in Coppers” these days, Paul [who is chatting to us from the bowels of the club on a Tuesday morning] was a frequent visitor around the millennium and that’s when the play is set.
“I would have been a regular here during what I would consider the classic Coppers period – classic for me because I was here, for people who are here now, this is the classic period – but for me it was kind of 1998 to 2004 kind of time.”
Back then it was fondly known as ‘Slapper Face Jacks’ or ‘Slappers’, which was considered a term of endearment.
“There was always something happening here, always great excitement,” says Paul. “I was here the night [former Liverpool defender] Phil Babb and [former Manchester city winger] Mark Kennedy were arrested outside for running across the bonnets of the cars, just before a world cup match in 2000 or 2001. And of course what a place to do it – there was like 300 guards in here at the time!”
Although most people don’t plan a night at Copper Face Jacks, and it’s more somewhere you tend to end up, Paul admits he has never had a bad night there.
“You always say ‘whatever happens I’m definitely not going to Coppers and you end up in Coppers,” he laughs. “But I’ve had bad nights in Renards, bad nights in Lillies, I never had a bad night in Coppers.”
Paul describes the show as an “homage” to the club, and says they sought the blessing of the venue’s owner Cathal Jackson before embarking on the project.
“We did go to him as a courtesy,” says Paul. “We all had in our heads that Copper Face Jacks was a trademark so we couldn’t really do it without his goodwill. We could call it something else but we wanted to call it Copper Face Jacks.
“We met Cathal and it was just a case of reassuring him we weren’t coming in to rip the place apart. It’s an homage really, if anything, a musical homage. We wanted to do with Copper Face Jacks what Baz Luhrman did with Moulin Rouge. We wanted to reinforce people's happy notions of it.”
Jackson and several of his friends, most of whom were gardai, attended a read through of the script recently, which was a pretty daunting prospect for Paul given the volume of garda jokes...
“There’s lots of gags about guards in it and I was kind of frightened to look up and I was thinking, I wonder are they finding that funny. And then I looked up and I just saw all these faces on the back wall and the shoulders going [up and down] and red faces laughing and I thought thank God for that!” he laughs.
The musical stars Johnny Ward as the captain of the Dubs football team, who falls in love (despite himself) with a Kerry girl (Roseanna Purcell) in Coppers on the eve of the All-Ireland final between Dublin and Kerry. Michele McGrath plays another love interest of Johnny’s and the cast is rounded out by a gaggle of puppets.
For Paul, writing a northside Dub and a Kerry girl was a welcome break from Ross O’Carroll Kelly.
“I love writing Ross but to have Ross’s voice in your head 12 months of the year is not healthy. I know if I’m writing a book and I’m doing a 10 or 12 hour day for three or four months to finish a Ross book by the end of it I need to lie down in a darkened room for a week just to get that horrible voice out of my head,” he laughs.
“It is nice to write from new perspectives with different characters and different points of view. When I write Ross it’s a really solitary process. I have my office and I go there every day and I work there for 10 hours and I don’t talk to anybody. My wife rings occasionally and I talk to my wife and then when I come home in the evening she tells me I’ve forgotten how to talk to other humans.”
He also enjoys the collaborative process of working with actors, who are free to give their input into the script and their characters. Paul is not precious about his work, he says.
“My first boss was Vincent Browne so I learned very early on not to be precious about anything I write,” he says. “Everything is a first draft. It went through three drafts to get it to this point but it’s still an opening gambit.
“Especially with something like comedy and I learned this with the Ross O’Carroll Kelly plays. You never know until you put something it in front of an audience whether it’s funny, how funny it is, what bits are funny.
“Sometimes a punchline that you’re really really proud of is not the funniest joke in it. The lead in line to the punchline becomes the punchline.”
Copper Face Jacks: The Musical runs at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin from July 5. Bookings Ticketmaster.ie. Tickets from €26 plus booking fee and €1 restoration levy.