A magical trip from clubland to the Abbey

Fri, Mar 23, 2012, 00:00

With its mix of queerness, creativity and boundary pushing, Thisispopbaby has redefined modern Irish theatre. Now, with its latest project showing at the Abbey Theatre, is this pop baby coming of age, asks UNA MULLALLY

PHILLIP McMAHON has a fresh new haircut and a bottle of water to hand.

“Stressed? Stressed about life in general.” The rehearsal run of Alice In Funderland is nearing an end. Directed by Wayne Jordan, written by McMahon, composed by Raymond Scannell, and originally created by McMahon and his other creative half in their company Thisispopbaby, Jennifer Jennings, Alice is the culmination of four years of development, and the first musical the Abbey Theatre has produced in more than 20 years.

McMahon and Jennings have essentially redefined what a modern theatre company is. Their work is of the city of Dublin, inherently queer, creative, boundary-pushing, simultaneously glossy and rugged, and constantly set in a realm of fun. Their diversity and productivity is almost unnerving.

In 2007, they staged two plays with drag artist Panti, the ringmaster of Alternative Miss Ireland. They produced another play with Panti in 2009, and established the Queer Notions festival, which continued in 2010, showcasing gay playwrights and performers. Between 2008 and 2010 they constructed, programmed and produced the Pop, Poptopia and Thisispopbaby tents at Electric Picnic, an arena that became the frantically beating and glitter-spewing heart of the festival, away from the cerebral chin-stroking of Mindfield or the wind-chiming of Body Soul.

Trade, written by Mark O’Halloran and produced by McMahon and Jennings, won Best New Play at the Irish Times Theatre Awards last month. And that’s not to forget McMahon’s other plays, Danny And Chantelle (which won the Spirit of the Fringe Award in 2006), All Over Town and Pineapple. The Year Of Magical Wanking, written and performed by Neil Watkins, directed by McMahon, has just come off a 52-date tour in Australia. Like most of Thisispopbaby’s creations, that project started off resolutely DIY, rehearsed in the back offices of the Corn Exchange and financed through the crowd-funding website FundIt.

Thisispopbaby’s Werk, a series of five club-cabaret-performance nights hosted by Watkins in the bar of the Peacock in 2010, brought people into the national theatre’s building who had never thought of setting foot inside. In five years, the company has managed to fashion an inventive, tangled web within which a network of artists and collaborators reside, waiting for the next feed of creative juice.

Considering how Thisispopbaby ricochets from club nights to theatre-award ceremonies, it’s somehow fitting that its return to the Abbey (not that much of a comeback considering McMahon is currently writing another play for the Abbey) is for the theatre company’s biggest project yet. Alice In Funderland was first presented as a work-in-progress in early 2011 in the Project Arts Centre. That night, the standing ovation for what was essentially a read-through seemed to go on forever.

At that point McMahon, Jennings and the rest of the team didn’t even have the Abbey in mind. “We just didn’t know what was going to happen to this project,” McMahon reflects, “It was too big. It had taken on a momentum of its own, and it was either going to stop when there was no money, or someone was going to come on board, whether that was a commercial partner, and at the time we didn’t think it was going to be the Abbey, that wasn’t in our heads. [The Abbey] stage is always the stage we wanted to put it on, but we just didn’t make that connection.”

He describes that experience as “overwhelming, a crying experience . . . My dad was there as well. That was important to me.” McMahon tears up slightly, and apologises, rather unnecessarily. His father, Eddie, passed away over Christmas.

“The spirit of it [Alice In Funderland] is very simply: look after each other, it’s going to be okay, carry on,” says McMahon. He talks about it as a reaction to a culture of fear propagated by both government and media, creating a low-level anxiety around the capital. He says the show is a call to action, citing lyrics in some of the songs such as “unlock your doors, open your windows”, and calls on people to key back into the idea of community. “That’s not too much of an ask in a rip-roaring comedy musical.”

Alice is also about tension, McMahon says: the tension between the acerbic wit of the script and the heart underneath; the tension between walking through the red carpet of the Abbey and looking at a musical with content that would be edgy on any stage, not just this one. That edge – that idea of being an outsider within the establishment – is something Thisispopbaby has managed to keep.

McMahon uses the word “outsider” more than once. “Part of our initial impulse in setting up our company and making the work that we’ve spurred each other on to make – myself and Jenny [Jennings] and other people that we’ve collaborated with – was about feeling at the very start not part of the club. That’s no slight to anybody else in the theatre world, but it was just that idea of feeling like an outsider. We were going, ‘well, we want to make theatre that is of ourselves and of the city that we live in’, because we didn’t feel as though that was being reflected.

“In a way, Alice, for us, is that culmination – although we say this about every project – and it just feels as though all of those ideas about nightlife, and bloody drag queens, running around the city and feeling lost as a citizen, that they’re all coming together in this musical, which is kind of fab.

“When we were in youth theatre and college and all those kind of things, various places that we all came from, we imagined the theatre to be this amazing thing like college, this amazing club that we were all in. But it was never like that. But now we made it like that. We made our own conditions to work within. ”

Speaking ahead of what was the final Alternative Miss Ireland last Sunday (McMahon had just overspent on silver fabric in Hickey’s – “total rage“), he’d received a text message from Niall Sweeney, the designer who conceives AMI’s image. “Niall said, ‘AMI is on Sunday, and then Alice is our new Miss.’ There’s this idea, it’s not really batons, but the creativity isn’t dying, and it’s all interlinked.

“We’ve always been super ambitious. We’ve never been afraid of various things, including being commercial, once we stay true to the ethos of the company and what the work is about. So whether it’s here [The Abbey] or who knows, I think we can still stay true to all of those things. That idea of keeping your edge or staying in tune with the younger culture in the city, I think that can happen here.”

And with that, it’s back down the red carpet and into the rabbit hole of rehearsals.

Alice in Funderland is at the Abbey from March 30th to May 12th. Thisispopbaby.com