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.

Quinn’s work includes Monster/Clock, a lightly philosophical, fantastical musical featuring puppets designed by Heffernan.

Relentlessly heartwarming

Their work shares a similar tone: unapologetically sincere, generally disinterested in contemporary aesthetics, and utterly unafraid of whimsy. So relentlessly heartwarming it can chill some critics to the marrow, it has also struck a chord with a growing audience. Monster/Clock was recently revived for a brief run while Eric Argyle returns to the stage later this month. It doesn’t feel premature to call it the beginning of a movement.

In person, the Penguins have correspondingly playful personalities, with a sense of humour both intelligent and free-associating. A remark about punctuality leads to a surreal riff on the stubborn linearity of time (“How come you never have to apologise for being too early?”), which then becomes a mock battle between Heffernan and Dungan as they trade citations from Plato (Heffernan studied Drama and Classics) and Kurt Vonnegut (Dungan studied Drama and English Literature).

I briefly leave my phone unattended and later discover they have recorded two minutes of impromptu comedy: a seething conspiracy of Tolkienesque voices (“He’ll never understand our plans to steal his soul”) is interrupted by jealous discussion of another orc’s holidays (“He’s gone to Bali? So he’ll miss the fourth reckoning.”).

A plausibly medieval folk tune about a castle built on a cloud suddenly gets a beatbox remix. (Quinn, currently pursuing a PhD in the history of science and religion, studied music and English.) It’s absurd and very funny.

Matt Smyth (the only original member, or a Penguin classic) has emerged as one of the most canny and apparently indefatigable producers working in the country. Because Smyth can’t attend the interview, the others use every opportunity they get to badmouth him. “Everyone is going in their own direction,” says Dungan at one point. “Aaron is doing more acting. Eoghan is doing his PhD. I’m doing more writing. Matt’s got those cats to look after.” Nothing indicates their current direction quite as archly as the title of their farewell production, a performance of all three sketch shows back to back, called Druid Penguin. Quinn, who has only recently become interested in professional theatre, doesn’t get the joke (“I know it has something to do with Garry Hynes”), yet he offers most insight into the effect that comedy has had on their theatrical style.

“I genuinely think it comes from Edinburgh,” he says. “The plays that do well there are very accessible and 90 per cent of them are comedies. Having a background in comedy means that your work tends to be more audience-led – you think more about what kind of reaction you’re going to get. And comedy allows you to push a more earnest message. You don’t have to be so ironic because you’re kind of disarming people.” Monster/Clock, for instance, began as a haphazard comedy idea, but later found a different focus. “It became a play,” Quinn recalls, “and the whole attitude towards it completely changed. We took it a lot more seriously.”

Dungan is more of a traditionalist: his writing takes inspiration from stand-up-turned-playwright Daniel Kitson and the master craftsman Brian Friel and even his frequent ribbing of Heffernan for “going off piste” from the scripts affirms the centrality of writing. “In the Dublin scene at the moment there’s nothing that aspires to be timeless,” he says, speaking with high regard for the enduring works of Arthur Miller and Friel, but also shying from explicit political engagement. Minute Before Midday, for instance, involved a thinly fictionalised version of the Omagh bombing, as though diffident about its gravity.

A bright refuge

A Betrayal of Penguins show comes from a similar sensibility, a bright refuge from darker concerns from people who came of age after 9/11 and into a new era of austerity. The plot of a typical show is “really epic”, as Heffernan describes it, “unnecessarily so”. Their second show, Don’t Run With Scissors, was set during the last episode of a live kids TV show forced to continue broadcasting by a fan who threatened to blow up the studio. “It was basically Speed meets Blue Peter.”

Dungan, who approaches performing with the same enthusiasm most of us reserve for doing tax returns, has been tweaking the scripts before their final airing. In Smyth’s absence, he makes the sales pitch for their last hurrah. “The last show is going to be a fantastic night,” he says. “You won’t not be able to enjoy yourselves.” An urgent conversation erupts over the precise meaning of this double negative. “You can say you were there,” he clarifies. “No one will ask you if you were. But at least going to it will give you that option.”

Druid Penguin runs at Project Arts Centre from January 4-5. The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle runs at Smock Alley Theatre from January 14-26