My Left Nut: ‘My testicle was so big, you could play it like a bongo’

Michael Patrick’s youth was blighted by a bizarre condition – perfect material for his one-man show

Michael Patrick: ‘No one’s going to see a play about the cultural significance of the sandwich’ Photograph: OisÌn Kearney

When Michael Patrick finally told his mum, at the age of 17, the problem had swollen to the size of an avocado. Teenage boys may be used to talking bollocks among themselves, but there was one bollock, his terrifyingly tumescent left one, that had haunted Patrick for three years and he hadn’t spoken to anyone about it.

“It was massive,” he remembers, 10 years later. “I used to work in a cafe, standing on my feet for eight hours, and it would just drag and drag. The weight of it was so painful.”

It started as a pea-sized lump he could feel in his scrotum. “At first, I thought maybe it was supposed to be there.” After all, your body changes in so many surprising ways during adolescence. “But it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

The speed that they got us through the system! We were worried that meant it was really dangerous

Patrick’s secret became difficult to hide. At school in Belfast, the bulge earned him the nickname “big dick Mick”. One day, it popped out of his shorts during PE and his friend recoiled in fear. Patrick’s own fear was that it was cancerous and even that he was to blame.


“I would go to bed crying. I thought it was my fault somehow,” he says. “Maybe that’s the Catholic guilt around masturbation.” When he eventually went to the doctor, he realised how much he had been carrying around “both literally and emotionally”.

He and his mother were alarmed when Patrick’s problem was fast-tracked upon examination. “The speed that they got us through the system! We were worried that meant it was really dangerous but it was just like: ‘No, you’re so ridiculous. It’s that big! Let’s get rid of it now.’ ”

What they needed to get rid of was 400 millilitres of fluid (“between a can of Coke and a pint”) that had collected around his testicle, enlarging the scrotum – a condition known as hydrocele testis.

It is not uncommon for baby boys, but can also develop later in life. Patrick was presented with two options: simply draining it, which might result in another buildup of fluid, or minor surgery. He went with option two. “They make incisions around the membrane outside the testis and then they peel the membrane back like a butterfly chicken and stitch it directly to the inside of the scrotum sack. One of my testicles is now stitched in place so it doesn’t float around as freely as the other. I went under general anaesthetic, woke up an hour or two later and was discharged a couple of hours after that.”

Patrick proudly tells his mum he needs to start shaving, then bursts into tears when she buys him an electric razor because it's 'not what a man uses'

Having spent three years keeping silent about the problem, Patrick now can't stop talking about it. His one-man show, rather proudly titled My Left Nut, was performed in one of the jumble of lecture rooms at Summerhall in Edinburgh last month – and opens on Friday, September 7th, at the Mac in Belfast.

It is a raucous, poignant and wincingly funny drama in which Patrick plays himself as both a young child and a teenager and also shifts between the roles of his mum, his siblings, his doctors and his gang of mates.

A wave of shows at this year's fringe focused on the collision of swagger and panic that is particular to teenage masculinity; Gary McNair and Kieran Hurley's Square Go turned Summerhall's Roundabout stage into a wrestling ring for a playground fight. In My Left Nut, this mix of bravado and terror is captured in a scene when Patrick proudly tells his mum he needs to start shaving, then bursts into tears when she buys him an electric razor because it's "not what a man uses".

The play’s exploration of manliness is wrapped up in the death of Patrick’s father, who had motor neurone disease. In an early scene, eight-year-old Michael is told he is now the “man of the house”. What are his memories of that time when he and his three siblings were adjusting to life without their dad?

"I hid completely from his death. My cousin remembers driving me to the funeral and me talking about The Simpsons for the entire car ride." Off school for a week, Patrick spent time at home, "playing the Game Boy really happily. Then you'd sit down for a second and cry your eyes out for 20 minutes. Then you'd pick the Game Boy up again. It was a weird dichotomy."

He remembers his dad as thoughtful, quiet and intelligent, instilling in him a love of science and “questioning things”. They would watch quiz shows together and, if there was a problem to solve at home, his father would go about it in a methodical, inquisitive manner. This sense of calm is a complete contrast to the beat-’em-up Sega video games Michael plays and the testosterone-fuelled frenzy of his pals – “beautifully cocky, terrified boys” who measure their ideas of masculinity against each other.

My mum couldn't get over the fact that I was wanking on stage

They take pride in the idea that their mate’s avocado-shaped bulge means he is “packing”, but when they hear rumours he may have cancer they are relieved that he doesn’t have a “massive schlong” after all. Patrick talks about a time he went on holiday with friends and one of them glimpsed his swollen ball; the friend then became secretly paranoid his own testicles were tiny.

Patrick wants the show to enable more open conversations about health. He has met audience members with similar experiences and learned that his cousin had kept quiet about his own case of hydrocele testis. At the Edinburgh performance I watched, Patrick’s siblings and mum were present, prompting a tearful hug on stage. This is a show in which he not only impersonates his mum but also, at one point, drops his boxer shorts for a session of eye-wateringly frantic masturbation in a bunk bed. What did she make of that?

He laughs, remembering writing the play with Oisín Kearney at a writers’ retreat. “People were saying: ‘Your mum’s going to love the play. It’s such a unique thank you to her.’” He got home, read her the script and she didn’t speak to him for a week. “She couldn’t get over the fact that I was wanking on stage,” he says, before adding that she quickly became proud and is mostly pleased that he is getting acting work.

He and Kearney met at Cambridge university where, halfway through his physics degree, Patrick realised he wanted to be an actor. He studied drama at Mountview in London, realised he couldn’t afford to live there and returned to Belfast. One day, he and Kearney met up to discuss writing a script. “I was like: ‘Here are a few ideas,’” Patrick remembers. “He was like: ‘They’re all terrible! So I ended up telling him about my ball. And he said: ‘Write that.’”

The play has some hilarious moments, including an explosion of vomit, poo and vodka at a house party. Did Patrick ever see the funny side to his condition as a teenager? “When I got the diagnosis, there was about a month or so before I had surgery. Then me and my mates would laugh about it all the time. You could play it like a bongo.”

That sounds like a fringe show in itself, but what about the terrible ideas his writing partner rejected? “One was about alien abductions, which was useless. Then I had another about sandwiches. The one thing I’m really passionate about is sandwiches. Oisín was like: “No one’s going to see a play about the cultural significance of the sandwich.” But that sounds great, I suggest. “I still think there’s something in it,” he enthuses. “It was going to be a history of sandwiches. I’d make them for the audience.” If it ever happens, you will understand if smashed avocado isn’t served. – Guardian

My Left Nut, produced by Pan Narrans Theatre, is at the Mac, Belfast, September 7th-15th