Sunday 26 January 2020

Actor Phelim Drew: I miss the love of my parents

Actor, husband, father and son, Phelim Drew has had many roles in his life. As he prepares for a one-man show, he talks to Ciara Dwyer about grief and the consolations of love

Phelim Drew with his father Ronnie
Phelim Drew with his father Ronnie
Phelim Drew
Phelim Drew and Susan Collins

Ciara Dwyer

The first time I saw Phelim Drew, he was a swashbuckling hero striding across the stage in black leather trousers in Love and a Bottle. Decades later, in Bernard Farrell's Bookworms, he played a poochy husband in a cardigan trying to do a Skype video-call with his daughter. There is nothing like the chronology of an actor's characters to show the passing of time.

And now, as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe, Phelim is about to do a one-man show based on George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, which he has adapted for the stage. It is about Orwell's time in those cities, when he worked in a hotel, and later lived as a tramp.

"It has a wry sense of humour," says Phelim.

He talks with great enthusiasm about the play, his director Michael Toumey and how he feels a sense of empowerment performing something which he has created. He wants to entertain the audience.

"I'm excited about it but I'm extremely nervous about it," he says.

There is something very endearing about his honesty. We meet in a cafe on Clanbrassil Street, close to his home in The Tenters, which he shares with his wife, actress and comedienne Sue Collins and their four children - Vivian, 9, Milo, 8, and six-year-old twins Seanie and Lily. He met Sue in 1999 when they were introduced by mutual friends. From their first date in Nico's restaurant, to his trip to see her in Edinburgh where she was performing, he tells me that it became clear from very early on that there was something a bit more significant with this relationship.

"Like any relationship that has endured, it is based on mutual attraction and respect. I find her as interesting to talk to now as when I met her first. She's incredibly warm and caring and funny."

Most people will know Sue from her work as one of the comedy trio The Nualas. They are currently performing in The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

"I hit a wall last week," says Phelim. "Sue was going away to Edinburgh. And now I'm partner-less for a crucial month before putting on the play. An au pair from Madrid, Monica, has come to stay with us for a month and she has just settled in. She's lovely and she is great with the kids."

Phelim Drew has a gentle manner about him. No one could accuse him of being loud. I shouldn't be surprised by his slightly reserved manner, but this has been a common mistake, due to the fact that his father was the late Ronnie Drew, singer with The Dubliners. He died in 2008. Everyone felt that they knew Ronnie.

"People would make presumptions about me and my upbringing based on nothing more than the fact that they knew who I was. It happens less so now."

They lived off Baggot Street and later moved to Greystones. Phelim has one sibling, his older sister Cliodhna. His mother, Deirdre, was very keen on living in town but when her mother became ill, they moved out to be with her.

"My father had this romantic notion of living in the countryside and my mother had grown up in Greystones. I had a wonderful childhood there but I also got to know Dublin very well because my father would spend a lot of time there, as did my mother. They were both social people."

It is no accident that Phelim ended up a performer. Growing up, he met a lot of actors and musicians. Even though it was exciting, there were other times when his father would be away on tour and he and his sister would lead normal lives, going to school and doing their homework, with their mother cooking the dinner.

"I was exposed to a lot of performance when I was a kid. From a very early age I used to go and see The Dubliners play. Their concerts were always incredibly exciting because there was tremendous energy. For a child, it wasn't lost on me that my father was extremely well known before I was born. I came along in the middle of all that and it was my norm."

"My father was great friends with people like Cecil Sheridan and Danny Cummins and you couldn't but be completely charmed by these actors. They were great fun. When I got the idea of becoming an actor it felt very instinctive."

I tell him that I met his father at a party one night and that I found him to be quite a serious man. He wasn't the lively, happy-go-lucky character I'd witnessed on chat shows. It was past midnight but here he was worrying about the houses for his one-man show.

"It was difficult for him because he had left The Dubliners and was working off his own bat at a stage in his life when he should have been taking it easy and settling into a more comfortable existence. But being a performer he couldn't afford to do that. He could have gone around touring pubs and clubs singing the songs that people wanted to hear but instead he invested a lot in this show which was as much about the spoken word as music. The show was well attended but I always felt that it didn't get the kind of audiences that it deserved. I found it most endearing that he didn't think he was great. He always felt he needed to work at whatever he was doing. I think he was quite insecure."

"I think his forthright public persona was sometimes a mask for a deep-rooted insecurity, which wasn't to say he wasn't a very strong person. He had a very keen intellect but for whatever reason, he had a lack of self confidence."

Phelim was very close to both his parents and so, it came as a huge blow to him when illness struck.

Ronnie Drew had been complaining of a sort throat for a long time before he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died in 2008, a year after his wife Deirdre.

"He was very strong in his mind, but also physically strong. He was able to withstand the barrage of treatment that is prescribed for various cancers. My mother succumbed very quickly to cancer because she wasn't as strong to combat the treatment."

Phelim describes their deaths as "an emotional shock."

"If you have a father or a mother who is a heavy smoker, and then the reality dawns on you that there is something very serious medically wrong as a result of smoking. You say, 'Oh well, this is it.' But I got a wonderful insight into my father's character with his enduring sense of hope. My mother had a tumour which was removed and then two and a half years later it came back. She was quite resigned. She was a very practical woman and incredibly caring. She had lung cancer and she had known about it for quite a while but she had kept it to herself. She was so concerned for my father and us that she didn't want to burden people with her problem. That's incredible to think about. From the time she informed us that her cancer was back, she only lived for another seven weeks."

At the time Phelim and Sue had two small children and twins on the way.

"The human condition is a strange thing," he says. "You almost want to bring life into the world as a way of dealing with losing people close to you. It was a very emotional period but also very intense. You're not thinking about the future. You're living very much day to day."

Phelim and his sister and his aunt Joan looked after Ronnie at home.

"We tried to keep things as normal as possible for him. Looking after him felt like the most natural thing to do. It was the duty that we felt to him and my mother for the love and responsibility they had given us. They are the people that minded you as a baby and made you feel safe in the world. My father and I always had great conversations but we never talked about death. I didn't see the benefit of discussing the hereafter at a time when the moments you have together are so precious."

As Phelim speaks about his parents, it is clear that there is a deep love there.

"They were extremely loving and caring and I have that love with my wife and children. But I miss the love of my parents, and I think about them all the time."

His brown eyes fill, as his words linger. All I can say is that I am so sorry. But at the same time, it is beautiful to hear such love.

"At my father's funeral, my sister said that the arrival of the twins gave a wonderful sense of hope to the family and I think that's true. You see certain things in your children that remind you of qualities your parents had. They are blissfully unaware of the fact that they give you so much comfort and joy. And that's the way it should be."

Maybe some day he'll tell them.

Phelim Drew adapts and performs George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London at Bewley's Cafe Theatre. It opens on September 10 and is running as part of the Show in a Bag programme at Tiger Dublin Fringe 2014 - further info and bookings

Sunday Independent

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