North Sea Scrolls

A clever conceit by Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan makes for a show that is playful and serious at the same time

North Sea Scrolls
Kevin Barry Room, NCH

Billed as an "evening of revelations" and pitched as an alternative and hidden history of Britain and Ireland (wherein, among other notions, Ireland has invaded Britain, the minister of culture is 1960s record producer Joe Meek, Oswald Mosley is prime minister, and heroin is serviced free on the NHS), the North Sea Scrolls is delivered as a standalone concept by Cork's Cathal Coughlan (previously of Microdisney and Fatima Mansions), English musician Luke Haines (The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder) and Australian broadcaster and author Andrew Mueller.

The absurdist musical theatre conceit is handled brilliantly. The three are dressed up in old British colonial military garb. Mueller, gavel in hand, provides a brief, highly amusing and deliberately florid introduction to each “scroll”, whereupon either Coughlan or Haines takes lead vocal.

Musically, it's a mixture of Haines's taut guitar-based pop and Coughlan's more sonorous keyboard-driven material (each complemented beautifully by cellist Audrey Riley), but the lyrics tell separate tales born of different cultural backgrounds. Haines sings of Morris dancers, Carry On actor Sid James, comedy TV show On the Buses, British MP Enoch Powell and DJ/presenter Chris Evans. Coughlan mentions criminal Martin Cahill and Irish political figures such as Parnell.


It adds up to a show that is cleverly constructed (there is a small backdrop of archive images that obliquely reference the content of each song) yet thoroughly at odds with what passes for alternative amusement these days.

The fact that both Haines and Coughlan no longer operate near the centre of commercially accepted music (they were each, in their respective heydays, close enough to it) instils extra validity to proceedings. There's a wonderful playfulness here, but no sense at all of people not taking what they do seriously. Bonus points arrive with an off-point encore of solo songs: Gorgeous George from Haines and a superb Bertie's Brochures from Coughlan's Fatima Mansions years.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture