D’UN AND ONLY JON KENNY TELLS ALL
NO matter what age you happen to be, Jon Kenny is still one of the most recognisable faces in Irish comedy.
Years after they called it a day, D’Unbelievables are still being hunted out by a new generation of fans, much to Jon’s amusement.
‘If I had a euro for the number of hits we get on YouTube,’ he says of his duo with fellow comedian and friend Pat Shortt.
‘Young people who would never have seen us live are looking at the bits and pieces on YouTube and really enjoying it.’
There was a brief reunion a few years ago and although he says he wouldn’t rule another D’Unbelievables run in the future, it’s not going to be any time soon. They are, he says, done for now. ‘I would never say never,’ Jon admits. ‘But the hunger would have to be there for both of us for it to come back – and that might happen. But both Pat and I have moved on – you wouldn’t want to be doing the same thing that you were doing when you were younger unless you were trying to reclaim your youth.
‘Though God knows I’m close to that stage now,’ he adds with a chuckle.
The thing is, at 61 Jon actually looks a lot more hale and hearty than he did a few years ago. After coming back from a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the early 2000s, he was told he was suffering from heart failure.
But now everything is in working order, Jon could actually pass for a man who is ten years younger. He has a twinkle in his eye and an optimism about performing and creating.
‘I had a bypass and now everything is working,’ he says of his heart scare.
‘People say to me, ‘The way you exert yourself on that stage, be careful you don’t do too much’. But if you were afraid of doing too much then I think there’s a danger that you would do nothing at all.’
And that, for Jon, would be the worst thing. A delve into the more theatrical side of comic acting has seen him heaped with praise by critics, most recently in John B Keane’s The Matchmaker alongside another theatrical stalwart, Mary McEvoy.
And of course, he’s now reprising the role of The Crowman that he first embodied at last year’s Cork Midsummer Festival. Though his loved ones might have been slightly nervous about the physicality of the role as it’s a oneman show, audiences were delighted to see this new but very familiar tale of rural Ireland written by Katie Holly.
And now the show is returning to the stage in Dublin’s Olympia next week before hitting high spots around the country.
‘I’d done this in Cork last year and I was glad to bring it back and have a good run at it,’ Jon says.
‘I had known Katie before as she did a bit of acting and she plays a bit of music as well and she decided then that she was going to write this. I don’t know whether she had me in mind or not when she was writing it.’
The play centres around Dan Lonergan, a bachelor in his 50s who is living in rural Ireland in isolation that Jon feels is pretty much of his own making as he has taken himself out of society because of a couple of things that have happened to him. ‘Dan is a man who has kind of withdrawn from society for a number of reasons,’ Jon says. ‘He’s an outsider who wants to fit in but it has got to the stage where he doesn’t really know how. And as it transpires he has been almost punishing himself for things that have happened in the past.’ Throughout the course of the play, Dan tells stories about his own life and we discover why he has his intrinsic dislike for crows. ‘There is a bit of Dan in all of us,’ Jon says. ‘A little bit of us that feels we don’t fit in. We all just want to belong somewhere. It’s a story that’s universal, there are Dans all over Ireland, there are Dans all over the world when you think about it. And the play is a rollercoaster of emotions. Like any other person Dan is not all doom and gloom – he sings, he dances but the most conversation he has is with himself and his little dog, as we all do when we live alone.
‘But the thing about the show is the audience never knows what will happen next. They never know where it is going to turn.’
In fact there’s so much in Holly’s writing, so many nuances and twists and turns that Jon says he finds something extra in the play every time he performs it.
‘I find new things in it every night,’ he adds. ‘It might be something different from previous night or the week before, the way I think about Dan and the way I approach him.’
You really couldn’t imagine Jon Kenny not fitting in anywhere, though. He’s personable, warm and approachable with an enthusiasm for life and people that seems to bubble through every conversation.
BUT his laid-back approach to work and life was a long time coming. He says it’s taken him until now to have a more relaxed attitude to doing interviews, to appearing on television, basically to what people out there in the wider world might think about him.
In The Crowman he is a vessel for someone else’s work but certainly he feels a need to create too and is always writing.
He intends, he reveals, to do a bit more of that once he is finished this tour and is currently working on a one-man comedy show that
will be sort of stand-up.
‘I couldn’t tell a joke to save my life,’ he exclaims, when I ask what the format will be. ‘All comedy really is rooted in laughing at someone else’s misfortune really, there’s light and shade in everything.
‘And if I was to go back to stand up I think it would be more in a theatrical vein as that has been the work that I’ve really enjoyed lately. But I will be doing this right up until Christmas and then we will see what happens next.’
However, there will never be a return to the days of the endless tours he did when he and Pat Shortt were on the road together. Although it was his health that stopped D’Unbelievables initially, there was no going back to those times when he admits he didn’t really know how to slow down. ‘When I was out on tour six days a week we were going all over the country and that was hard when the kids were smaller.,’ he says.
‘You weren’t doing one long run in one theatre, you were travelling all over the place – one night you could be in Cork and the next somewhere in Leitrim.
‘So it meant you spent maybe one night a week at home with the family. And even then I don’t think I ever really switched off. I thought I did but I was more likely to be in the pub with a few pints – although I still do that the odd time to be honest with you.’
So how does he manage to switch off now?
‘I love being in the garden,’ he says of the home he shares with his wife Margy and their two children, Arran and Leah, who are both now in their twenties. ‘I love getting right down into it like a child and smelling the earth. And I love just sitting with a book and relaxing – something I’ve only learned to do in recent years.’
Mealtimes at home, he says, are when he is happiest, having a leisurely breakfast with the family and catching up on all the craic.
‘I think the kids are both more grown up than me anyway as neither of them have chosen a career on the road,’ he adds. ‘Well neither of them have yet – they are following their own paths but they are still young so there’s time to decide what they want to do. I’m not even sure if I know myself yet.’
Cooking is also something that Jon gets great pleasure from. ‘I love food, I love cooking and one of my favourite things is when we are all round the table having breakfast and the chats with the lads,’ he says.
‘And I love soup. I make soup every day. My family give out to me because it could be sweltering hot and I would say to them, “Will you have a bit of soup?”’
He can make all kinds – beetroot, turnip, parsnip, chicken, vegetable – whatever is hanging about, Jon will turn it into soup.
AND restaurant owners beware – if Jon leaves after just having a starter, it means your soup is not up to much. ‘I always judge a place by its soup,’ he says. ‘If I go to a restaurant and have soup as a starter and it isn’t nice then I won’t eat the main course. ‘If I go somewhere and the soup is lovely then I’ll have a different kind for the main course and even another for dessert.’ Jon Kenny is a talented musician too and he still keeps his hand in playing music. He is in touch with Pat Shortt and they have the occasional pint together when the stars are in alignment. And although D’ Unbelieveables might be gone there will still be touring for Jon Kenny, like with The Crowman at the minute. Unlike Dan, Jon doesn’t mind the dark feathery creatures as when he was growing up crows were a sign of good luck. And this production certainly has brought that, not that Jon needs much of
it. A powerful and entertaining piece, he is looking forward to bringing The Crowman around the country. And he does still enjoy travelling with one big difference.
‘l’ve been travelling since I was in a band, it’s the only life I know really,’ he says.
‘But now things are different and I tend to try and go home after each performance.’
The Crowman will be at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre from this Wednesday until September 7. Tickets start at €24 and are available now from ticketmaster.ie
Classic craic: Jon Kenny and Pat Shortt as D’Unbelievables, above, Jon prepares for new stage role, main picture, as The Crowman, inset.