A healthy appetite for drama

THE Big Yum Yum is the unusual title of Patrick McCabe’s new play, which centres on a party and a showband.

A healthy appetite for drama

The title refers to the comfort food provided by the maternal figure in this dark comedy. McCabe, who is best-known for novels such as The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, was commissioned by Corcadorca Theatre Company to write The Big Yum Yum, with music by Maurice Seezer.

Set in an indeterminate time in Ireland, McCabe says The Big Yum Yum “is about a lot of things. Mainly, it’s about loneliness and how everybody wants to be minded. Even the most authoritative-sounding person is vulnerable. Everybody has a secret anxiety. And who do you usually go to? The mother, of course. You have all the universal mother figures, such as the Blessed Virgin. It doesn’t matter what shape the mother takes. She is always revered. That’s why a female villain is so awful. If the mother turns rogue, who have you to go to?”

Geraldine Plunkett plays the mother of Walter (Ciarán McIntyre). “But she is really a mother to everyone in the play. She doesn’t turn rogue, but she operates strategies for power, as mothers do. Some people might question that, saying we live in a patriarchy. But human interaction isn’t as clear-cut as ideologies would have us believe. Relationships between men and women are still evolving, because women have only had freedom for 50 or 60 years. So, everything is complicated.”

Donagh Deeney plays Hoagy, “a therapy survivor.” He glows with apparent happiness, full of certainty post-rehab, but fragile, deep down. “He’s one of those people whose answers to life are so consequent on a whole load of gobbledygook. He’s an amalgam of people, including my own self. I’ve had difficulties. Not that I went to therapy, or anything. But if you get to my age, 58, life leaves some scars. I’m drawing a lot on those things,” McCabe says.

The play is stylised and exaggerated but “it’s rooted in real life. I have no interest in gimmicks. Put any two people in a room and they have a story to tell. Pat {Kiernan, Corcadorca artistic director} is also insistent that the play be grounded in a recognisable reality. A real problem with theatre is that it excludes people. People, particularly from country places, think theatre is not for them. But if you’re in a pub with these same people, they’ll tell you the most surreal jokes and will describe the strangest landscapes. That’s the audience I’d love to have.”

The play also has a monsignor, accused of abuse. Played by Brendan Conroy, he “represents the old authoritative world, the world of certainty.” Kate O’Toole (daughter of actor, Peter O’Toole) plays Connie Fairchild, Walter’s wife. “Connie was a pop singer of the 1960s. She has an air of damaged glamour and a mysterious, unknowable quality. She’s kind of fragile. She loves her husband and she also hates her husband.”

McCabe, whose fiction has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, says he would stand over five of his plays. “I’m a relatively new convert to theatre. I’ve learned an awful lot in the last three to four years. Sitting on your own, imagining things, is not the same as giving lines to an actor. That’s why some novelists don’t make good playwrights. I’m unlearning a lot that comes with writing novels. I’ve become quite ruthless. Once I begin to see what themes are coming through, it becomes quite easy.”

McCabe is enjoying the collaboration of theatre. “I love the companionship of theatre. You get very fed up and lonely writing novels. I’m pushing 60 now. I’ve spent, maybe, 25 years writing mostly novels. I like the social thing about writing a play.”

While he doesn’t suffer from writer’s block, McCabe says he has written “bad stuff. I suppose that’s the equivalent of being blocked.” But his body of work is impressive. The success of The Butcher Boy allowed him an interesting career. The books that were unsuccessful “weren’t necessarily failures to me. But, in commercial terms, they were failures. At the end of the day, when the accountants do their numbers, they don’t give a shit if you’re the biggest thing in Irish literature. You either sold books or you didn’t. After The Butcher Boy, the accountants were always hoping there would be another one.”

The novel is under a cloud because of shortened attention spans arising from the internet, blogs and ebooks.

“It’s hard to make a judgement on the future of the novel. When I was a judge for the Impac Award, earlier this year, I had about 300 books knocking around. I brought them to a second-hand bookseller in Dublin. He said only the winning book (Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane) would sell and he’d have a job selling the rest of them. So, if booksellers are telling you that, regardless of how brilliant the writers are, then the novel could be in trouble.”

McCabe has just published two novellas, in one book, entitled Goodbye Mr Fish/Hello Mr Rat, but he wants to write more plays, to experience “the hair tingling” when a group of “maybe 50 people” are captivated by a play he has penned. “That’s success; it doesn’t happen often.”

* The Big Yum Yum premieres at the Half Moon Theatre in Cork, and runs from Oct 9-19.

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