Penguins in pole position
There are a few popular misconceptions about penguins. They don’t live in the North Pole, for instance; only south of the equator. They are neither especially villainous nor particularly good dancers. And, as the Dublin sketch-comedy group A Betrayal of Penguins first discovered four years ago, there is no generally agreed collective noun for the species. Now that the group prepares for their last ever shows, it’s time to dispel another myth: penguins do not mate for life.
To read many previous write ups, the decision to disband A Betrayal of Penguins looks like breaking a promise. “A Betrayal of Penguins will be massive,” predicted one of their early approvers. “A superb and jaw-achingly hilarious hour of comedy, that, for all its mayhem, is the perfect sketch show,” went The List’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe review of last year’s show, Endangered For a Reason. The comedian Jason Byrne endorsed them on the basis of their name alone. Hatched in Trinity College’s drama society, DU Players, with a colony of rotating members (“We’ve been called the Sugababes of Irish comedy,” says Ross Dungan, an original replacement), and migrating annually – and quite successfully – to Edinburgh, the group must have found it difficult to call it a day.
“Not really,” says Dungan.
“That never actually happened, did it?” asks Aaron Heffernan gamely. “The big push.” Dungan, unfailingly wry, considers their trajectory, one that earned them rave notices, the attention of celebrity managers, promised meetings with television companies that never materialised, and a slot headlining the Christmas show of the progressive Bedales School in Hampshire. “I would say we’re the ‘nearly men’ of Irish comedy. But I don’t think we’re really in the Irish comedy scene,” he says.
That may be true. Like their predecessors Dead Cat Bounce, Mercer Island Rodeo and Foil, Arms and Hog, the group was always somewhere between theatre and comedy. Where previous generations of Irish comics had been defined mainly as different flavours of stand-up, the rise in sketch groups comes from a collegiate generation more interested in creating characters and – however loosely – telling stories.
That may also explain how A Betrayal of Penguins have been pulled towards different but overlapping careers. Heffernan is an actor (Tender Napalm, The Picture of Dorian Gray), Dungan and Eoghan Quinn writers, and Matt Smyth a Rough Magic affiliated producer. Dungan’s professional debut, the monologue play Minute Before Midday, won a Scotsman Fringe First Award in 2011. He followed this with a comic drama The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, a modest success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and Dublin Fringe Festival.