Inspiring stories and comic cuts

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THIS August, Easter Road will entertain fans and critics alike, however, this year it won’t just be the Hibs team wowing the crowds. An exciting new play telling the story of how Hibernian FC (1) was formed by Edinburgh’s Irish community, entitled A Field Of Our Own, will be showing from August 15 onwards, and the production will take place in the actual concourse of the stadium’s iconic East Stand.

Edinburgh’s renowned Strange Town Theatre Group has devised and delivered what’s sure to be an enthralling stage-show, dramatising the reasons, background and events behind the forming of Scotland’s oldest Irish-born football club back in 1875.

Steve Small (2), so long a highly respected mainstay of Scottish theatre, directs the production, written by the critically acclaimed playwright Duncan Kidd (3). The two have collaborated successfully in the past, notably on Persevere, the play about the tragic 1916 Gretna Rail Disaster. Steve and Duncan took time out from rehearsals and preparations to talk exclusively to The Irish Voice. I began by asking Steve about the production.

“Part of what makes this production so interesting is the space in which we’re doing the performances,” he said. “We’re based in Leith so to link up with Hibs and to actually have our show run inside their stadium is amazing. I think that fans will love seeing a play about Hibs actually performed at Easter Road. At first when we were in talks with Hibs and they suggested that we hold the production there, I imagined us perhaps doing the show in a dusty boot-room or somewhere like that, but we’re actually doing it in the East Stand. It’s a very interesting space; it’s long but it has great acoustics. Our very talented musical director, Gary Cameron, demonstrated that by playing Sunshine on Leith on his guitar from the opposite end from where we were standing, and it sounded beautiful. We’ve used novel venues before. Persevere ran out of our Leith HQ which is located in what was once Dalmenny Street Drill Hall, the very drill hall in which many of those who died in the Gretna Disaster gathered before departure. It’s good to put on a show in a venue so linked to a story once more.

“The show has actually sold out and it did so quickly, we’ve added another date and may add more or perhaps do more shows at a later date, but whether we do depends on a few factors as we’re community based and Easter Road does, after all, get used for other things! Our cast are talented and great, all giving up their time for free. We’ve did our best to tell a good story in just over an hour, we’ve also tried to give some female perspective too, as too often history is written by men about men. The show also features some wonderful music, written by Gary Cameron—it’s not a ‘musical-show,’ but there is music in it. Maybe one day there’ll be a Hibs musical!”

Director Steve and playwright Duncan are both Hibs fans. I asked Duncan why he had written the play.

“I was inspired to write this play after I was involved with the Persevere play as part of the Gretna 100 project,” he said. “I became aware of so many Edinburgh and Leith community stories and realised that one common factor in so many of them is Hibs. Irish refugees and immigration played an integral part in the birth of Hibs and I found that interesting in today’s climate, where those two topics have become important issues to many in society once more. Sometimes there is a lot of negativity about refugees and migrants, but Hibs are such a huge success story that wouldn’t have happened without either.

“This project was underway before Hibs won the Scottish Cup in 2016, so it’s a nice coincidence that its release comes amid the club’s current renaissance. Hibs faced such hostility from parts of Edinburgh and Scottish society in their early years, and though that type of hostility has diminished it still exists in parts of Scotland today. If our play can start a dialogue about that then that’s great, though it does only run for just over an hour, so we can’t tackle everything in a single play that length. I do, though, hope that the play creates a touch of empathy for the characters portrayed.”

I asked Steve and Duncan if they were nervous or felt a sense of responsibility to put on an extra-special show, being Hibbies themselves.

“One thing we’ve been overwhelmed by as people have become aware of this show is the sheer passion of Hibs fans and the love that they have for the club,” Steve answered. “It’s immeasurable. We just hope that our show goes down well and starts some interesting conversations. The club matters so much to so many people that we do feel we have a responsibility—we can’t please everyone but we’ll do our best to make sure the audiences have a good night.”

Duncan added: “Yes, I feel a great weight of responsibility. This is an important story which is being told. Hopefully we’ve done the story justice and got the balance right between telling the story and entertaining the fans. It’s not just a Hibs story—it’s also an Irish story, an Edinburgh story, a Scottish story and also a story about attitudes to refugees and immigration. In a wider sense, the play is also about the power of football to bring people together, regardless of background. That’s a big responsibility for anyone to choose to write about. Some of the research I did which inspired parts of the play came from Alan Lugton’s wonderful book trilogy The Making of Hibernian, the Hibernian Historical Trust also provided some great inspiration, as did other books.”

A Field Of Our Own premieres at Easter Road on August 15. The initial five performances sold-out quickly, but extra-dates may be added, so anyone interested in attending should check with the Fringe Office or the Hibernian Ticket Office for updates about any further shows.

Poignant film

Among the most captivating efforts to appear at the Edinburgh festivals this year was It’s Not Yet Dark (4), the poignant release by Irish filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice.

Married and a father of five young children, Simon had already gained notice as a filmmaker, having one of his short films screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, but following his diagnosis with motor neurone disease he found his life and his career changed beyond all recognition.

Overcoming the challenge of life with MND, he produced a film while deteriorating to the point of becoming almost totally incapacitated, communicating with his eyes to transmit his instructions for My Name is Emily.

Now, with the support of the respected director Frankie Fenton—and having enlisted the services of Colin Farrell as narrator—Simon has defied his present situation to tell his story in It’s Not Yet Dark.
Having been forced to transmit his story through Eyegaze technology, many would be satisfied simply with doing the job rather than being determined to do it well, to the standards he set for his work in better times and with better health, as Simon was.

Speaking of his filmmaking in an earlier interview before he brought his work to the Edinburgh Film Festival, Simon told of how work on the film brought him respite from the condition which has robbed him of so much.

“It gave me a freedom from MND which I never thought possible,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I suppose just being focused utterly for 12 hours a day liberated me from MND which tries to define me, every second.

“When all this happened, it was my writing that saved me. When my life fell apart, my writing was there for me. And, like writing, the passion of film has never left me.

“Let’s face it: I’m a nerd, or at least a wannabe nerd. When I was in school I was dropped into a class that seemed to me to be full of super brains. The boys for whom mathematics just happened, like an event in their minds. Only I didn’t have a ticket to that particular concert.

“Everyone was better than me at everything. Except English. English was different. I’ve been a wannabe nerd ever since. I can never know enough, never read, see, do, or, be confident enough. And that’s fine with me. It’s the fire in the boiler.”

For a work as intensely personal and under such testing and unusual circumstances, Fenton was apprehensive about presenting Simon and his wife, Ruth, with the final cut, but after seeing the reaction of the couple when they viewed it for the first time —particularly the reaction of Ruth—the process of presenting it to the rest of the world is now a much simpler one.

“I would have been really happy with the film from Ruth’s reaction, that was really it,” he said. “To see how it affects people is remarkable. Somehow, somebody sees your film and wants to push it forward. It means the world to us. I’m really glad that Simon’s story can get out to a wider audience now, hopefully.”

Comic relief

One of the bigger names gracing the stage in Edinburgh is Neil Delamere (5), and not only will his appearance be the chance to showcase his latest show for the legion of fans who return year after year, it will also offer him the opportunity to look back on where his whole career kicked off.

It was in Edinburgh, in 2004, that Neil made his first big steps into a comedy career, and now he is back to deliver his own take on life and family with Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Pensioner. The show focuses on Neil and his dad, and was born when his father asked for help from his son in delivering Meals on Wheels locally. Not only were the meals delivered, but a new show was born.

The Offaly native has always had his small town background at the centre of his shows, and built his career following the first realisation as a teenager that it was possible to emerge from small town Ireland and still capture the attention of an audience, as well as bringing your brand of comedy and fun to the brighter lights and bigger cities, such as Edinburgh.

Speaking of his decision to try comedy as a career, Neil said previously that he needed a comic awakening to make it possible, and that awakening came at the hands of another Irish master comic in the form of Tommy Tiernan.

“I grew up in a small village where there was no theatre and even on TV at the time there was only one stand-up comedy show,” he explained. “I was about 18 when I saw my first stand-up show with Tommy Tiernan and I was blown away by the fact that he and some of the other comedians at the time were lads kind of like myself from small Irish towns, and yet they were able to stand up and perform and have everyone in stitches.

“It was on my mind for a while and I then went to see Dara O’Briain perform and I remember sitting mesmerised by him. I thought I have to give this a go—but just as something on my bucket list that I would tick off. I went to the International Bar where all the stand-up was happening in Dublin and gave it a go for a few minutes. I loved it and I just went back and did it again and again.”

That first decision to give it a lash has paid off handsomely, with RTÉ and the BBC becoming the primary recipients of his talented output, but the stage has always had the biggest defining influence on his career, and if you are looking for a taste of Irish comedy in Edinburgh this year then Neil will surely provide the strongest draw.

Hailed by GQ as ‘one of the best female acts in the country,’ there is another reason for those of us with a strong—or even a not-so-strong—link to Ireland to get along to see Mary Bourke (6) beside entertainment at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Making your Irish identity official has become something of a hot topic following Brexit, but there’s more to navigate than the forms as you dot the Is and cross the Ts one your application, and it is this complex theme of Irish identity that Mary wades into with her highly anticipated 2017 show, I Want An Irish Passport.

Bringing guest comics along for the ride, the show nevertheless is centred on Mary’s own story. Irish-born, but living and working in London, her style is not one commonly encountered, and stepping on stage as a ‘housewife comedian’ affords her certain luxuries other comics no longer have, the ability to shock being one of them. No-one expects someone who dresses—by her own admission—like a vicar’s wife, to dish it out.

Having slowly found her way into the job, the route she has taken has been far from glitzy, and working in comedy has meant confronting fears and facing down doubts in a way that she had never needed to in her previous life of academia.

“God no, it’s not glamorous in the least,” she said of her career before a series of performances in Canada earlier this year. “It’s me sitting in my PJs working on scripts most of the time,” she says by phone from her home in London.

“As soon as I finished my PhD, I started doing stand-up. My mother was finally happy I was a doctor. My sister is a medical doctor, so Mum has two doctors in the family.”

However, she didn’t simply shake off the shackles off academia to enter comedy, she took her first steps by entering a comedy course and studying her craft before she took the leap into the industry, honing her talents and impressing audiences enough to eventually turn pro.

“They say bereavement, death and public speaking are people’s greatest fears, but these days I don’t [feel fear]. It’s just a job, you click into it I might be thinking about the new stuff I’m doing on the show or how many people are out there, but I’m not scared,” she continued. “Comics can be quite serious, melancholy people. I save my outgoingness for the stage.

“It’s one of the few jobs you can have full control over. What I write in the afternoon I can say on stage that night. I don’t have to pass it through anyone. If it goes well, the glory’s on me. If it doesn’t…”

To find out more about the many colourful and insightful events at Edinburgh’s many festivals visit: http://www.edinburghfestivalcity.com

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