Comfort food and a dinner date with Neil Watkins

The performer pushed all sorts of personal and public boundaries with his last Fringe show. Now he’s back with its antithesis, and he wants to throw one hell of a party

Playing with food: Neil Watkins in 'Dinner and a Show'

Playing with food: Neil Watkins in 'Dinner and a Show'


Neil Watkins doesn’t want to act. After scoring a massive hit both in Ireland and Australia with The Year of Magical Wanking, an autobiographical show that tackled his darkest thoughts and experiences, he retreated from the stage. That reaction was understandable. The Year of Magical Wanking was a remarkable, testing, emotional and shocking experience for the audience, so one can’t even begin to think how doing that show night after night impacted on its subject and performer.

Over a beer at the Cake Cafe in Dublin, Watkins is discussing his new performance, Dinner and a Show. “The whole thing came about because I was pretty f***ed after The Year Of Magical Wanking on many, many levels,” he says. “For anyone who has seen it, they might be able to understand why.”

At this year’s Electric Picnic, on one of the festival’s secondary stages, Watkins introduced his band, Buffalo Woman, a group made up of his baritone voice, guitar, the cello section from Maud in Cahoots and electronic accompaniment by Tim O’Donovan of Neosupervital.

Watkins believes people are becoming disengaged from live music, something he hope to tackle with Buffalo Woman. “On some level we want them to embody the music by eating stuff that is reflecting the music. Originally we wanted to do a canapé per song, but we might manage seven out of 10. We don’t want to bombard people, we want them to be able to enjoy it.”

Food and tunes are far removed from his previous project. When Watkins returned to Dublin in the mentally draining aftermath of The Year of Magical Wanking, he felt fragile enough to wish he could move back into his mother’s womb. Instead, he found himself living in Dublin’s south inner city. “It happened in the pits, the Blackpitts [an area of Dublin 8]. I just feel on a ‘poetic level’ [he mocks a luvvy voice for those two words] that I was in the black pits after the tour. I got a gaff.”

That apartment happened to have an accommodating landlord, musician Seán “Dr” Miller, who would Watkins. They would talk about everything and write songs. Watkins drew further inspiration from the Drop Everything and Body and Soul festivals, and then he came across the nearby Fumbally cafe.

The Fumbally community
He got a job in the restaurant, which has helped build a new, loose community in the area. “I really wanted to bring together what I feel is an amazing community around Dublin 8 and around the Fumbally. I wanted to bring that vibe to this context.” Watkins was searching for an antithesis to The Year of Magical Wanking, something that wasn’t so solo and so exposing. “Music and lyrics can be very raw and honest, but when you’ve a band up there with you, you’re protected.” When the opportunity arose for a Fringe show, Watkins combined everything that was going on with him at the time: the work he was doing with food, his new relationship with Dublin 8 and its inhabitants, and a band put together over the course of a year.

“I feel like it’s a better place for me to be, for now,” he says of music versus acting. “It’s more expressive, it feels better.” Does he think acting is damaging? “For me I think it is. I’ve sat in on castings . . . it’s not that acting is damaging, the business is damaging. The music business is damaging, too, but if you can find a way to paddle your own canoe, it’s the best thing ever.

“I’m not saying go out there by yourself; do it with like-minded people. When you’re auditioning for stuff and what’s being considered more is your profile than your talent or suitability to the part, then I think there’s a problem. It happens a lot . . . for example, I’ve been given parts that are ‘oh, there’s a gay character, we’d like to see you for it’ – [I’ve just] had enough of that.”

Watkins says actors can’t have compassion for characters unless they have compassion for themselves, that only balanced human beings can give a performance that has a good vibe. The competition of acting confuses you, Watkins says, in the same way it confused him, aged 19, going to drama school in London with dreams of winning Oscars.

“The drama school I went to seemed to breed James Bonds. So there’s a lot of pressure to be James Bond when you’re an actor . . . Pierce Brosnan went to my school, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, they’re alpha males, Russell Brand. I’m not. And that’s grand. But for years you end up comparing yourself constantly. So the idea of competition at all is unhealthy because it’s a stance where you’re constantly comparing and despairing and it’s like, right, maybe you should wake up and read what’s happening.

“So be yourself. Stop acting. You’re not James Bond, you’re from Artane, deal with it. You’re soft, you’re sensitive, you’ve a lovely voice, get up there and sing and shut up.”

Dinner and a Show is at the the Old Whiskey Distillery on Mill Street, Dublin 8 until Friday.