When the lights went down

Rave club Sir Henry’s closed ten years ago, but it still obsesses the hero in new play, DEEP, says Colette Sheridan

When the lights went down

DIRECTOR Louise Lowe is best known for the Monto Cycle Dublin plays, but she is now immersed in the history of Cork’s music scene. Cork’s iconic Sir Henry’s nightclub closed ten years ago and is the subject of playwright and actor, Raymond Scannell’s latest show, DEEP, which opens on Jun 21 at the Half Moon Theatre as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.

DEEP follows 35-year-old, Larry Lehane, who was born as disco was dying. He embraced ‘house’ music, influenced by his older brother, Danny. DEEP is a one-man show; Scannell plays 20 characters. The play includes documentary-style interviews with the venue’s main figures, and footage of nights at the club. As dance music grew in popularity, Sir Henry’s was the venue for the ‘Sweat’ night introduced by DJs, Shane Johnson and Greg Dowling (Fish Go Deep.) The ‘Sweat’ night was one of the top clubs in Europe in the early 1990s.

Scannell’s acclaimed one-man show, Mimic, toured the world, having premiered at the Cork Midsummer Festival in 2007. He composed the score for the musical, Alice in Funderland, at the Abbey Theatre last year. In DEEP, his character witnesses the evolution of Cork’s underground scene. It is the story of an exciting era. For Lowe, it’s virgin territory. “There are lots of opportunities and challenges for me, in directing DEEP,” says Lowe. “First of all, I’m not from Cork, but I’m working on a play that’s about a very specific time and place in Cork City. So, I’m at an immediate disadvantage. But that is an advantage, in another way. It means I’m really interrogating the show with fresh eyes. I’m not presuming that everyone knows everything about Sir Henry’s.”

Lowe was not a raver. “These significant distances from the show have really proven to be advantageous. I had only heard a mention of Sir Henry’s, by a friend. It never sunk into me, what it was all about. Myself, Raymond and our designer, Ciarán O’Melia, drove to Cork, where I was shown the site where Sir Henry’s used to be (on South Main Street). I got to know the geography of the city. That helped me in terms of understanding the play.”

The play opens with the birth of Larry Lehane. “It’s about Larry’s entire life. It also tries to chart the chronology of music, that ‘house’ music was influenced by. It goes right back to the 1960s. I knew nothing about ‘house’ music when I started working on DEEP, but I now know where it came from. It has been really interesting to look at the play in that kind of context.”

Lowe says that Scannell’s “skilful writing” fuses plot with atmosphere. “I don’t think the play is autobiographical. Raymond may be remembering his own time at Sir Henry’s, but I don’t think he is Larry.”

Describing Larry, Lowe says he is a guy who found “solace and sanctuary” in Sir Henry’s. “When it closes down, he remains attached to the notion of what it was. Whereas a lot of people have moved on (since the closure of the club), Larry hasn’t. He hasn’t really left his room. He exists online, more than anything else. In the present day, he is still talking about Sir Henry’s. The play looks at his journey. He is stuck in an idealised version of the past. But he’s also astute and is quite philosophical about the past. It’s a really strange mix of someone who’s very idealistic and also quite visionary in his own way. He has the courage to be himself.”

The play is not just concerned with music. “It goes into the social and political scene, from the 1960s onwards. I think it’s a really important piece of work, not just musically, but looking at who we are, and where we are now, and what our society is like. The show looks at the recession in the 1980s, but not in a didactic or preachy way.”

While ecstasy was the drug of choice for ravers, Lowe says DEEP “is not a drug play. There’s reference to people taking drugs, but the play also looks at people who went to Sir Henry’s and didn’t take drugs. It’s certainly not about ecstasy. It’s more challenging than that. While it’s a homage to Sir Henry’s, its scope is wider than that. It is looked at through the lens of a different era.”

The play is set in the round. There’s a suggestion of a bedroom and a desk. “But it’s not just set in a bedroom. The set becomes everything, from an airport to the club itself, as well as a record store,” Lowe says.

While no original music was composed for the show, it has “lots of music. I’m getting a music education through working on it. ‘House’ music passed me by. It’s interesting to see where it comes from. For lots of people, the play will be an eye-opener in terms of understanding the recent past.” Lowe says that she used to “worry about the character of Larry. But Raymond has managed to find a way in which, depending on your take of the play, you can either be concerned about Larry, or you can see that he has an epiphany of sorts. That is testament to how good Raymond is as a writer. The audience can read into it whatever they see.”

Short independent films, such as ‘120 bpm’ and ‘The House That Cork Built’, have paid tribute to Sir Henry’s as the focal point for ‘house’ music in Ireland. Scannell’s play will deepen the fondness with which Sir Henry’s is regarded.

*DEEP runs at the Half Moon Theatre, Cork, from Jun 21-30 (previews Jun 19-20).

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