'It only takes a few muppets to screw a country'
A send-up of the boomtime glory days, with oversized puppets and plaintive laments for bacon and cabbage, started rehearsals in Dublin this week. Just don’t expect to see Seán FitzPatrick in the audience
A CLAIRVOYANT WHO works in a launderette in Roscommon says there are diamonds in the ground in the county. This is enough for Seán FitzPatrick as chairman of Anglo Irish Bank to sanction a big loan to fund an excavation project.
Disaster strikes when the miners find just a single diamond. FitzPatrick is furious, but he is told the value of the land has increased 20-fold during the excavation. FitzPatrick is ecstatic, declaring himself a genius banker.
This didn’t really happen, but such a deal seems plausible given the kind of reckless lending that Anglo engaged in during the boom years that landed the Irish public with a bill of €29 billion.
It’s in Anglo The Musical, the new satirical puppet musical that opens in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin on November 14th for a two-week run.
The show is not a blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of Ireland’s worst bank, but a financial and political satire inspired by real events.
A simple couple – Diarmuid, who makes bodhráns, and Aisling, who works for the Department of Arts, Heritage, Greyhounds and What Have You – live on Inis Dull, which is a metaphor for pre-boom Ireland. Diarmuid’s cousin Jimmy arrives on the island to open a branch of Anglo.
“He warns them they are grossly under-borrowed and debt poor, and that they’re playing a dangerous game,” says the show’s writer, Paul Howard, the alter ego of the fictional D4 rugby jock and Irish Times columnist, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.
Jimmy convinces Diarmuid to borrow €890 million from Anglo to build a block of apartments and a shopping centre, even though €450 million would have been enough. “Bet big or get the f**k away from the table,” Jimmy says. Events on the island happen in tandem with another plot: the story of the bank’s collapse on the mainland as markets turn against it and the boardroom gets increasingly chaotic.
It’s George Orwell meets Spitting Image or Avenue Q, the irreverent Broadway puppet-musical that sends up Sesame Street. “With Anglo, it’s difficult to parody because the reality was so insane,” says Howard.
It’s only the third day of four weeks of rehearsals at Gateway House studios on Capel Street in Dublin and already the 12 cast members have a good handle on the larger-than-life puppets they perform with. They run through one of 16 songs in the show. “Put A Zero On The End - He’s A Friend”. It has references to a corporate box at Lansdowne Road, as well as a repeated refrain, “Screw the regulator”, and observations on how “It only takes a few muppets to screw an entire country,” which is also the show’s catchline.
The Brian Cowen puppet is particularly funny, with its dishevelled appearance and the actor’s incoherent, nasal delivery.
“It is a kind of very intelligent satire with a kick as well,” says the actor Mark O’Regan, who plays FitzPatrick and operates the silver-haired banker puppet with another member of the cast.
Nigel Plaskitt, the puppet coach on Avenue Q who has worked with Frank Oz as Miss Piggy and other characters from The Muppets, gave the Anglo cast a class on bringing the puppets to life.
The director, Michael Barker-Caven, who has staged operas, says the puppets’ oversized heads and exaggerated features were designed to capture the main players’ personalities and to “break through into the grotesque”.
He wanted the show to be as dark as possible but to strike a balance between the comedy in the script and the gravity of what happened.
“We have very much taken the facts and essential ingredients of how the bank operated, and dramatised those scenes,” he says.
The 10 puppet characters include Bertie Ahern, Brian Lenihan, former Anglo boss David Drumm and a celebrity chef, Gianpiero Murphy, who follows the bankers and the money to the island to open a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“I wanted the show to be really hard-edged,” says Howard. “I think we owe that to the people who buy tickets. I don’t think we will ever learn to laugh at what happened with Anglo. And neither should we: it is very, very serious. But the stuff I write is satire, and what is better than Anglo to write about? If Jonathan Swift were alive, he would be writing about Anglo. It is the most significant event to happen in Ireland since Independence.”
When he was growing up, Howard loved Spitting Image, the ITV satire, and how the show portrayed the political characters it parodied. “They never created any cuddly caricatures and I wanted it to be the same with our show,” he says. He particularly likes There is Nothing Wrong with Bacon and Cabbage, one of the songs written for the show by the composers Tony O’Sullivan and David McCune, which he describes as a “beautiful lament for old pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland”. Another song, We All Partied, named after Lenihan’s famous quote that riled many who felt they hadn’t partied, captures the hubris that gripped the country as the cash flowed cheaply and freely from the profligate bankers.
The creators are quick to point out that their portrayal of boom-time Ireland doesn’t blame the public for being swept away by it all. “They were drawn into it,” says Barker-Caven.
One character still playing a leading role in the real-life drama doesn’t believe that it is too soon to laugh at what happened at the bank; in fact, it may be cathartic for the Irish public.
“One of the things that the Irish have a great ability to do very well is to laugh at themselves; if you can laugh about it, then you can recover. It is a bit like therapy,” says Mike Aynsley, the chief executive of what was formerly Anglo.
IF TICKET SALES so far are anything to go by, Anglo: The Musical might produce a better return than Anglo the Bank. Darren Smith, of coproducer Kite Entertainment, says almost half of the tickets have been sold. Smith came up with the idea for the show with Johnny Morrison, aka Dustin The Turkey, and Colm Tobin of the animated satirical TV show Langerland. Hearing someone likening Anglo to a Greek tragedy and recognising the success of Enron: The Musical got the trio’s creative juices flowing.
Smith says Anglo shareholders will be offered a discount, given what they have been through, while the producers will insist on former Anglo senior management paying extra for their tickets. Not that Smith is expecting any of them to attend. “Roy Keane went to I, Keano!” he says. “That was more scary for the actors. I don’t think anyone involved in Anglo will be comfortable sitting through this show. They shouldn’t be.”
The producers are funding the show’s “significant six-figure budget” not with a low interest, high-value bank loan but money raised, with a lot of time and effort, from about 12 “angel investors”. “The irony is that if we had put this on during the boom we would have raised the money over a lunch,” says Smith.
As for the next show, Smith jokingly suggests Greece: The Musical or Quinnasty, the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of a border-county family. “I’d like to do a prequel to Anglo: the Musical, called ‘Copper Face Jacks: The Opera,’” he says. “Where love stories begin and end again, begin and end again, and again, all on the one night.”
Given the weekly drama playing out in the courts Quinnasty just might work. “Let’s make this show a hit first,” he says.