GROWN men were weeping in the aisles when Tommy Fleming’s new musical play, Paddy, had its premiere in Mayo last September.
“It’s about those who went to work in Britain in the ’60s and were often forgotten,” says the popular singer-songwriter. “This is a universal Irish experience — everyone knows a ‘Paddy’. At Castlebar, the response was incredible: I’d never seen so many adults crying. I knew it was a powerful piece. But even I was surprised. From early on, it was clear we had struck a chord.”
Fleming had never acted when playwright, Tommy Marren, offered him the role of an Irishman exiled in London who is losing his connection to the old country (and, along with it, his sense of self). But reviews of Fleming’s performance have been rapturous. He is bringing the production on the road through the autumn, with dates in Cork and Dublin.
“I based the character on my father and on two of my uncles on my mother’s side,” says Fleming. “He becomes two very different people over the course of the play. Starting off, he’s green and honest. However, as he has success in London, he grows more ruthless. It is a very interesting character-portrayal. You see someone go through a lot of changes.”
Singing and acting together is a challenge, Fleming says — far harder than bashing out a bunch of tunes. You cannot lose yourself in your music and you must be aware, at all times, of your fellow cast members and of the audience. It’s a hire-wire act Fleming has to carry off night after night.
“It is very draining,” admits Fleming. “It is much more difficult than doing a show of 22 songs. When you’re singing, something can go wrong and you don’t have to worry about it. That’s just part of the performance. With the play, I can’t mess up. People are relying on me. You really have to be aware of what’s happening.
“Getting to grips with the script was the hardest part. It had 260 pages of dialogue. That’s akin to learning a book from beginning to end. So it’s at the start that the challenges are there. Once you get into the character, the lines are less of a problem.”
Paddy came along at the right time for Fleming. After a 20-year career (during which he overcame a serious injury sustained in a car-crash), he says he had became jaded. He loved music, but the endless cycle of touring and recording was getting to him. He had started to think of a life beyond songwriting.
“I was getting tired — or, more accurately, maybe, bored,” he says. “You’d wake up and go, ‘Ah, jaysus, another album, another tour’. I was thinking of pulling back a bit – of semi-retiring. But I was only 45. How could I retire?
“The more I reflected on it, it became more obvious that it wasn’t actually an option. Then, this opportunity came along. It’s been a massive challenge and incredibly rewarding.”
Musicals are regarded as escapism. But Paddy is no Andrew Lloyd-Webber slush fest. There are memorable songs and big set-pieces and a dramatic arc that picks you up and sweeps you along.
Yet, it is also a sober account of a man forced to leaves his country and who, along the way, loses part of himself.
“This isn’t your cliched musical theatre — it’s not a musical drama,” says Fleming, confirming that anyone expected Mamma Mia! with Irish accents may be underwhelmed.
“The songs were crafted to fit the scenes. They make sense in the context”
Fleming has performed since he was a teenager, but it was a chance meeting with composer, Phil Coulter, that launched his career.
With Coulter taking him under his wing, Fleming toured Ireland and the United States, and even tread the boards at Carnegie Hall. This exposure led to a gig singing with traditional group, De Dannan, and, beginning with 1996’s Different Side Of Life, a successful solo career.
However, in 1998, Fleming broke his neck in a car accident. He was told he might not ever walk again, let alone stand on a stage and sing. Day by day, week by week, though, he recuperated — with help from his wife, Tina, who took over as his manager.
Fleming had to be cajoled into taking the part of Paddy. Two years ago, Marren (who also acts in the piece) called with a script for the singer.
“He wanted to know if it was something I might be interested in. So he sent it on to me. I had to go and tour Australia for two months. I spent that time reading the script and rereading, and making notes beside it
“I found myself getting drawn into it. So I told him I would do it. And then he said that he wanted me for the lead!”
Fleming assumed Paddy would run for a few weeks in Castlebar (the character, like Marren, is from Mayo). Instead, it has taken on a life of its own and has already had one sell-out national tour. Now, round two is on the way.
“It’s so much bigger than I had ever anticipated,” he says. “One of the reasons, I think, is the honesty: it doesn’t pull its punches.”
In this era of high emigration, there are obvious parallels with the events depicted in Paddy. However there are crucial differences also, says Fleming. Life was grim in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger’s collapse. But such suffering pales compared to the heartache of those who had to leave across previous decades.
“Emigration was very different 45 or 50 years ago. In 1964, it took as long to go from Castlebar to London as from Dublin to Sydney today. The world has become a very small place. It felt a lot bigger back then.”