Laughing in the face of death

IT’S not an obvious topic for comedy, but Seán Hughes has written a critically acclaimed show about the death of his father, aged 72, from leukaemia a couple of years ago.

Hughes will perform Life Becomes Noises at Vicar Street on Thursday, Feb 21. Hughes has never looked forward to playing as much. “It’s a joy to do,” he says. “Once people get over the subject matter, it’s just a comedy show. You’re taking them to places that they don’t normally get to go. People seem to be blown away by that when you do it properly. From comments on Twitter, I think people are shocked that they can laugh and cry in the same show; that’s when it’s working best, and it is joyful tears.”

Hughes doesn’t shirk, not even from his father’s alcoholism. “My father taught me to drink drive,” says his son. Reflecting on power ballads, he says “it’s not Dad dying” that makes him cry, it’s Snow Patrol.

“I had no idea how heavy a coffin is,” he says. “Obviously, I don’t work out. I was dreading I was going to drop it my end. It’s a really heavy, mahogany box. I was doing a line in the show — it didn’t make the final cut — about how I dropped the coffin, like he dropped me from the football team, but I thought it was a bit bitter, so I left that one out.”

John Hughes (he became Seán because there was another John Hughes on the books at Equity) moved to London in the late 1980s. He’s been a familiar face on British television for the last couple of decades, from the success of the popular Channel 4 sitcom, Seán’s Show, in which a charming slacker version of himself only gave the odd hint of his misanthropic stage persona; and, later, as a stalwart on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and as “a love rat” on Coronation Street.

Hughes returns to Ireland regularly to visit his mother, but his father’s absent spirit still catches him off guard. “There are days where I’ll miss my dad, say, if Dublin wins a game of Gaelic football. There’s a slight sadness, but you just kind of go, ‘Ah, well, he’s up there. That’s a shame. He would have enjoyed that.’ If you’re brought up a Catholic — no matter what you believe in — those thoughts haven’t gone away where there’s that little bit of you going ‘maybe, there is a heaven.’ Even though you know it is bullshit, it’s still there at the back of your head ‘oh yeah, we’re all going to see each other in heaven’.”

Hughes suggests there’s a different tack to confronting death in Ireland than in Britain. “I think British people are better at dying, because they’ve got that stiff upper lip. They’ve got that pretend reserve: ‘OK, off we go, then, off we go to the brink.’ While, with us, from day one, we’re told about death. It’s no surprise to us. It’s ingrained — eternally tattooed — in our personality,” he says.

Hughes was born in London, but his parents returned to Ireland when he was school-going age. “It was one of Dad’s practical jokes,” he says, “making me move to Dublin when I was five years old, in 1970, in the height of the Republican ‘Troubles’ and sending me over there with a cockney accent. It was a nightmare.”
He has an interesting mix of Republican and Loyalist roots. His grandfather, on his mother’s side, was part of Tom Barry’s Flying Column in Cork during the War of Independence, and once shared a cell with Barry. His grandfather, on his father’s side, fought with the Black and Tans. Hughes has a great grá for Irish history, and numbers Charles Stewart Parnell among his heroes. Jesus Christ is another hero, although Hughes says he’s not religious; he admires the historical Jesus, thinking of him as a kind of socialist and a hippy. Hughes once said: “he was the kind of guy who would have arranged Live Aid. To be clear: I am not saying that Bob Geldof is Jesus.”

“I was playing Lincoln, in Britain,” says Hughes. “I asked, ‘Does anyone suggest something to do here?’ And someone said, ‘Go to the prison to see where Éamon de Valera escaped from.’ I went to the prison, which is a working prison, with thieves and the like. It blew me away that he escaped from it in 1919, or something, and went over to America.

“His escape was an amazing story. The walls of the prison are the same today as they were then. Apparently, he escaped by getting a key in a cake, that old chestnut, but how they got the instructions to him was that a load of Irish people used to sing in Irish outside the prison gates. The guards were going ‘oh, those drunken blackguards out there’ while they were singing ‘and turn left at the hill, he will be there’.” Hughes has known good fortune. He remains, at 24 years of age, the youngest winner of the prestigious Perrier award at the Edinburgh Fringe, in 1990; and, incidentally, he picked up a Fringe First in 1999 for a play he co-authored with fellow Irish comic and playwright, Owen O’Neill. Hughes has also cheated death. He was in Sri Lanka during the 2004 tsunami.

“I was over there blowing at the wind,” he says. “I was on a spin over there and unluckily got caught up in it. The place where I was staying, I had booked in for a massage at half nine in the morning and the tsunami came at a quarter past nine, and took the massage area out to sea. It was that close.

“I was in a hotel called The Lighthouse. You can guess where that was. I was having a shower when the power went off, because the tsunami just submerged the hotel. Nobody died in that hotel, but there were dead bodies strewn all over the place.

“What happened was that they said there was another one on the way, and told us that we were going to die in an hour. Luckily, I had some whiskey, so I just drank that and prayed for the best. It never came; they were just covering their ass. But it was a bit scary. The assumption was that it was an earthquake, so that the second tsunami wouldn’t be as big.

“What chilled me was when I was back home watching a documentary about it, and there was an expert going ‘of course, the thing about tsunamis is that the second one is usually a lot more severe than the first.’ Then I had the panic attack. That was weird.”

* Seán Hughes performs Life Becomes Noises at Vicar Street, Dublin, Thursday, 21 February. Formore information, visit: www.vicarstreet.ie

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