Riot re­turns

Philly McMa­hon and Jenny Jen­nings on bring­ing cabaret back

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

What links Tayto crisps, Panti Bliss, Roscom­mon GAA, Ir­ish danc­ing and Je­sus? The an­swer is Riot, the ex­tra­or­di­nary mash- up of theatre, va­ri­ety, dance, mu­sic and per­for­mance art that wowed au­di­ences and won best pro­duc­tion award at last year’s Dublin Fringe. Now for all those who didn’t catch it dur­ing its run at the Spiegel­tent, and most likely for all those who did and are sim­ply dy­ing for more, the good news is that the ThisIsPopBaby pro­duc­tion is com­ing back, this time to Vicar Street.

It’s a dou­ble cause for cel­e­bra­tion, as ThisIsPopBaby is mark­ing 10 years in the busi­ness of fus­ing club cul­ture with theatre, and cabaret with a so­cial con­science. With about 10,000 seats in 10 shows over two week­ends, ThisIsPopBaby’s Jenny Jen­nings and Philly McMa­hon, are bank­ing on plenty of peo­ple want­ing to join in. They al­most cer­tainly will. Au­di­ences leav­ing the per­for­mances at last year’s fringe were trans­ported. Since then, some of the per­form­ers have con­tin­ued their own as­cent: the comedic dancers/ ac­ro­bats Lords of Strut, al­ready a fix­ture on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit, came to greater fame as semi- fi­nal­ists on Bri­tain’s Got Tal­ent; while Em­met Kir­wan’s short film Heart­break, which orig­i­nated from his Riot mono­logue about a teenage sin­gle mother, was viewed on­line more than 900,000 times in the first two days of its launch.

If you’re now won­der­ing how comedic ac­ro­bat­ics fit in with a, quite lit­er­ally, heart­break­ing mono­logue, wel­come to Riot. “We started the process about four years in ad­vance,” says McMa­hon, re­mem­ber­ing how the whole thing came out of a phone call. “I was work­ing in Aus­tralia at the time,” re­mem­bers Jen­nings. “And we thought: what if we made a show for the times we’re liv­ing in, but one that is dis­tinctly Ir­ish?”

“What would our River­dance look like?” adds McMa­hon. “Like River­dance, how would we send the mes­sage into the world that Ir­ish peo­ple are con­fi­dent, sexy and cool?”

There’s a bril­liant dy­namic be­tween the pair of them, as they man­age the feat of both giv­ing one an­other time to speak, while also fin­ish­ing each other’s sen­tences, and it’s an ex­change that char­ac­terises our in­ter­view.

As well as putting to­gether the stag­ing of Riot, which in­cludes com­pletely re­con­fig­ur­ing the Vicar Street space, they’re also fi­nal­is­ing plans to tour it in­ter­na­tion­ally. Plus there’s new shows in de­vel­op­ment too.

But back to the early days of the 2010s: the mar­riage equal­ity ref­er­en­dum hadn’t even been an­nounced, Panti had yet to make her “Noble Call” on the stage of the Abbey (“each of those was like a Red Bull, to give us the wings to keep go­ing,” re­mem­bers McMa­hon), and most peo­ple were only just start­ing to con­sider what the 2016 cen­te­nary of the Easter Ris­ing might look like. Think­ing of the cen­te­nary, the plan was to, as McMa­hon puts it, “make a vi­sion for the fu­ture, a shared vi­sion with every­one in the venue, the artists, the au­di­ence, in a way that we hope will make peo­ple – on a very ba­sic level – go out and be nice to each other, build things to­gether, cre­ate things to­gether. And the idea that we can do this while a rave tune is play­ing is very ex­cit­ing.”

The duo’s re­search is al­most as in­ter­est­ing and bril­liant as Riot it­self. They looked at Yeats and Lady Gre­gory and the Ir­ish Re­vival, and then came to the old Theatre Royal on Dublin’s Hawkins Street.

McMa­hon points me towards the work of lo­cal his­to­rian Conor Doyle, and tells the story of fam­i­lies buy­ing sea­son tick­ets and stay­ing all day watch­ing va­ri­ety acts be­cause it was warmer than at home.

Then there’s the tale of Judy Garland, who stayed in the bar till morn­ing, drink­ing with the tech­ni­cal crew. She en­ter­tained Dublin’s de­liv­ery men, singing from an up­stairs win­dow. The Theatre Royal is long since gone, but it is sto­ries like th­ese, of pas­sion­ate peo­ple, many of them out­siders, some of them con­sid­ered mis­fits, that in­spire ThisIsPopBaby in their work.

Jen­nings and McMa­hon got to­gether when Jen­nings, a judge for the fringe, saw McMa­hon’s first play Danny and Chantelle ( Still Here) in 2007. “It was a beau­ti­ful play, in­spired by club cul­ture, and for the first time I saw peo­ple go­ing to theatre who wouldn’t usu­ally be in the theatre. I called up Philly and said I wanted to be in­volved in putting it on again.”

The com­pany name came from an old email ad­dress. “It was the kind of name that would ei­ther set us apart, or set us up for ridicule,” McMa­hon re­mem­bers think­ing at the time. For­tu­nately, it was the for­mer, and since then the com­pany has put on work in theatres, but also in spa­ces as di­verse as night­clubs, the Elec­tric Pic­nic and the Ir­ish Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art. “We’re try­ing to kick down the doors of the per­ceived elitism in the theatre,” he con­tin­ues. “When we put on Alice in Fun­der­land at t he Abbey t here was a 56 per c ent first- time at­ten­dance rate over the six weeks.”

“That’s my favourite statis­tic,” chimes in Jen­nings. “Fifty- six per cent of the peo­ple there had never been to the theatre be­fore.” So where does it come from? “What started out as an in­ter­est in the pol­i­tics of the dance floor, went into queer pol­i­tics,

and on to the sto­ries of the marginalised,” re­mem­bers Jen­nings. And Ire­land, steadily be­com­ing a more plu­ral­ist so­ci­ety, was ready to em­brace them. “Now we’re re­ally in­ter­ested in the pol­i­tics of fun,” she adds, her green eyes an­i­mated, smil­ing wide. “We be­came more and more in­ter­ested in the sto­ries of peo­ple who are on the edges of so­ci­ety,” McMa­hon adds. “Who­ever they may be. That can be very far- reach­ing.” This de­scribes the sub­jects of their work, but also the bril­liant peo­ple that work with them, “the glo­ri­ous out­siders”, as McMa­hon de­scribes them. “The glo­ri­ous weir­does.”

Th­ese in­clude, most fa­mously, Panti. “I knew Rory [ O’Neil] from the clubs,” re­mem­bers McMa­hon. “I didn’t know him very well. He ran the best clubs, and we were try­ing to get into them for free. Some­times he’d let us and some­times he wouldn’t. When I did my first show – and with a cou­ple of gins on me – I went up and said would you make a show with me, and Panti said – who the f** k are you?” He’s laugh­ing telling the story, blue eyes crin­kled in amuse­ment. “I said give me a shot – so we did.”

The pair’s first show opened in a 60- seater theatre in 2007, but by the time 2014 came along, High Heels in Low Places opened in a 1,100- seater.

Now they’re also work­ing on a world tour with Panti. I ask McMa­hon to cast his mind back to Panti’s “Noble Call” at the Abbey – the mono­logue call­ing for gay self­hood, pride and recog­ni­tion that re­ver­ber­ated around the world.

“We were in the taxi on our way over. Panti’s no­to­ri­ously bril­liant, but kind of last- minute, and I said ‘ well, have you writ- ten some­thing?’ And she said, ‘ well I kind of have, but I haven’t re­hearsed it . . .’ And I said, ‘ well I work here some­times, so don’t f** k it up.’ She’ll be re­mem­bered there for a lot longer than I will!”

You can’t pick favourites in a show like Riot, though an­other set of mem­o­rable mo­ments comes from for­mer Roscom­mon GAA player, now aerial dancer, Ro­nan Brady. Pic­ture him in his county strip, and I’ll leave the rest to your imag­i­na­tion. GAA play­ers or not, “au­di­ences recog­nise them­selves in the show”, says McMa­hon. “Hav­ing fun, it’s the crazy ses­sion vibe. You only feel that en­ergy once or twice in your ca­reer,” he says. Do you reckon? I ask him. “It’s a long life,” he agrees, a faraway look in his eyes.

One of the mes­sages of Riot is that we’re all bril­liant in our own way, and all that bril­liance is worth cel­e­brat­ing. In­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively, we’re all in charge of, and re­spon­si­ble for what hap­pens next. “The world has changed a lot since we put Riot on last Septem­ber,” con­cludes Jen­nings. “And it’s far more po­tent be­cause of it. Now we need it more than ever.”

Riot is at Vicar Street on se­lected dates be­tween July 6th and 15th. Tick­ets from ¤ 25. thisispopbaby. com

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DARA MAC DÓNAILL AND FIONA MOR­GAN

Jenny Jen­nings and Phillip McMa­hon, of ThisIsPopBaby and op­po­site page a scene from Riot.

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