Breaking Dad: the upstaging of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly
In the third Ross play, his daughter arrives home with a 17-year-old version of him. And the key lesson from the first two plays? Writing comedy for the stage is very different to writing comedy for the page
‘It’s the uncertainty of what might happen on any given night that makes writing a comedy for the stage so exhilarating.’ Paul Howard at the stage door of the Gaiety Theatre. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Rory Nolan as Ross O’Carroll-Kelly in ‘The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger’
The absurdity of what I do for a living is not lost on me. Mostly, my job involves sitting at a desk for between eight and 10 hours a day, thinking in the voice of a privileged south Dublin idiot – a role for which I happen to be extremely well qualified. Ross O’Carroll-Kelly has been a part of my life for 16 years now, and I almost can’t remember a time when the better part of my working day wasn’t spent considering the world through the prism of his rather dim-witted mind.
Seven years ago, Anne Clarke, theatre producer and force of nature, dared me to do something different – to step out of the comfort zone of my warm office to collaborate with a director and cast of actors in bringing Ross to the stage.
At first I wasn’t sure about the idea. What if their vision was different to mine? What if the satirical aspect of the comedy didn’t transition to the theatre? And, most of all, what if I was disappointed with the real-life manifestation of Ross?
I met Clarke, along with Jimmy Fay, the director, in the Gresham Hotel in the spring of 2007. They were two of the most impressive people I had met in my professional life. From that very first lunch, I knew I could trust them with the job of bringing the captain of the Castlerock College senior rugby team to life.
I went home to work on the script for The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger, the first in a trilogy of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly plays that will be rounded off – I think – when Breaking Dad opens at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin next week.
The third play in the series is set in 2022. The economy has been fixed, Fianna Fáil has been forgiven and Ross is faced with the ultimate nightmare for every middle-aged playboy, when his teenage daughter arrives home from Wesley disco with a 17-year-old version of himself.
Breaking Dad is a bit different in character to the first Ross play, which is a reflection of how much I’ve learned from working with Fay, a master of his craft. When I met him first, I told him – jokingly – that the last time I was in a theatre, I was shouting “Behind you” at Maureen Potter.
I think Fay might have believed it when I handed him the script for Last Days. It involved, from memory, 22 scene changes in one hour and 50 minutes, plus a lot of very expensive props, including a Garda helicopter and a stolen Caravaggio, which appeared on the stage for just a few seconds before being whipped away again. Members of the crew aged visibly during the weeks of that production.
Three years later, when I sat down to write a sequel, Between Foxrock and a Hard Place, I decided to make life a little less hellish for everyone by having the O’Carroll-Kelly family tiger-kidnapped and confined to the drawing room for the duration. Two acts, four scenes, one location.
Excited and nervous
I’m excited about Breaking Dad , and a little nervous, which is how it should be. If I learned anything from the first two plays, it’s that writing comedy for the stage is very different to writing comedy for the page. There is a rhythm and a metre to live comedy. You can insert a joke a line too early. You can write a joke that’s a word, even a syllable, too long.
Books are different. Occasionally, people tell me specific lines in the Ross series that tickled them or maybe didn’t. But it is a truly terrifying thing to sit in a theatre seat while an audience of a thousand people passes judgment on each of your jokes in turn, by laughing or not.
And what makes comedy theatre such a nerve-shredding high-wire act is that you can never be certain in advance just what lines people are going to find funny. You can spend an entire week finessing a scene and fool yourself into thinking you know where the laughs are – and then an audience will suddenly confound you by laughing at the set-up line to the joke rather than the punchline.
Or the biggest joke of the night will turn out to be a line that wasn’t a joke at all. A reference in The Last Days to an iPhone – a much-sought piece of technology in 2007 – drew loud laughter and a round of applause in every performance during the first run. When the play was remounted four months later, iPhones were everywhere and the word didn’t raise a smile.
Audiences have different personalities, I have discovered. Some nights, a line that had them falling out of their seats the night before blows like tumbleweed through the theatre. A Friday night crowd will laugh in different places to a Tuesday night crowd. A Dublin audience will laugh at different jokes to a Cork audience.
In the first play, there was a joke about Ross’s wife, Sorcha, taking their infant daughter to Avoca Handweavers. Ross asked Sorcha, “Do you want her to grow up Protestant?” To a Dublin audience, familiar with the tray-bake, gardening-paraphernalia, sensible-knitwear aesthetic of the shop, the joke was clear. When we took the play to the Opera House in Cork, the mere mention of the words “Avoca Handweavers” brought the house down, signifying, as it clearly did to a Cork audience, a certain type of Dublin snobbishness. I don’t think anyone in the Opera House even heard the word “Protestant”.
It’s the uncertainty of what might happen on any given night that makes writing a comedy for the stage so exhilarating.
I’m in awe of the actors in Breaking Dad – all six of them. For the past few weeks, I’ve been watching them rehearsing in a big, airy room on the first floor of a building on Foley Street, sitting in silent wonder as they go about the job of putting flesh on the bare bones of the script.
The day I met Rory Nolan was the day I stopped worrying that I might be disappointed with the real-life manifestation of Ross. When I watch him slip into the character of the swaggering, stupidly self-confident, yet oddly endearing rugby alpha, I think what a lucky break it was for us to find an actor of his talent to play him. Similarly, the wonderful Lisa Lambe, in my mind, will always be Sorcha. She’s older in this one, an assertive career woman in a terrifying, Hillary Clinton sort of way.
Laurence Kinlan, as Ronan, Ross’s shifty, gangland-obsessed first-born, makes me laugh and steals my heart in every scene, while Philip O’Sullivan is so brilliant as the nefarious, shape-changing Fianna Fáil doctor-of-spin that he could almost convince me of the justness of Bertie Ahern’s political resurrection.
We have two brand-new cast members and they’re both going to be stars. Caoimhe O’Malley plays Ross’s 17-year-old daughter, Honor, with such convincing hormonal fury that, when she’s in character, I fear her eye fixing on me. And Gavin Drea is note-perfect as her love interest, Traoloch, the captain of the Blackrock rugby team with the strut and the adamantine confidence of a young Ross.
I watch them go about their work and I’m grateful for the day that Anne Clarke rang me to suggest putting Ross O’Carroll-Kelly on to the stage. And happy, of course, that I said yes.
Breaking Dad opens at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, on April 30