The Everyman hosts Ronan FitzGibbon’s play about singsongs along the Blackwater, writes
FOR writer and theatre producer Ronan FitzGibbon, doing the research for his latest play was not an onerous task. Blackwater Babble tells the story of a man who, on a boat trip down the eponymous river, recalls the many years he has spent in hostelries trying to work out what makes a good session.
“No show I have ever done has been as well-researched as this one,” he laughs. “I didn’t go down the river but I did do a bit of camping and singing by the fire.”
Blackwater Babble is being staged by Broken Crow theatre company, founded by FitzGibbon, and was originally performed as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival in 2018 in the fitting surroundings of Callanan’s pub on George’s Quay. Now the well-received production is going on tour, starting with a run at the Everyman Theatre in Cork, where Broken Crow are currently artists-in-residence.
The idea of writing a play about singsongs had been germinating in FitzGibbon’s mind for a while, when a chance conversation with one of the other members of Broken Crow provided inspiration.
“Gavin McEntee, who is the tour manager on this production, does a bit of boating with some of his buddies and he was chatting about going up and down the Blackwater. This idea of going up and down the river, stopping off for a few pints in all the different pubs, all of that, lodged in my brain. The story itself is based in the 1970s, it’s about the idea of a fella who is very interested in life but maybe not quite fully part of it; he would rather sit on the sidelines and write in a notebook than really get stuck in.”
The fact that the Blackwater flows through the counties of Waterford and Cork, was also appealing to FitzGibbon, a Cork native who has been settled in and around the seaside town of Tramore in Waterford for the past 20 years.
“That it is half in Waterford and half in Cork certainly wasn’t an accident,” he says.
Making their way down the river are Yip and Nope, played by John McCarthy and Gary Murphy. McCarthy is no stranger to working with FitzGibbon and Broken Crow.
“Myself and John have worked on many projects together over the years. We are also both fans of a singsong; some of the best singsongs I was ever at would have been with him,” says FitzGibbon.
McCarthy was happy to revisit the role, having found the original staging of the play in Callanan’s a particularly enjoyable experience. It also gives him an opportunity to sing, although he professes not to have particularly good voice, which is an asset in this role, he says.
“It’s an excuse to sing songs without being perfect — it would be the wrong kind of performance if you had an amazing singer. That appealed to me, and the strangeness of the scenario. It’s also funny.”
McCarthy is no stranger to the Everyman stage, making a big impression in Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West in 2018, and in Evening Train, the musical based on the work of Mick Flannery, which premiered as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival last year.
“I feel more comfortable coming to this having done Evening Train in the interim, even though I did the least singing of any character. It was always a challenge, how do you sing in a West Cork accent without being a ridiculous caricature, and there were nights I didn’t get it at all.
“It’s a relief to come back to this where the character isn’t removed from my own register and voice, but in terms of the mentality, it’s a lot easier because the songs come out of agendas and emotions. There are songs sung to provoke and to soothe and that’s easier than the embarrassment of just standing up and starting to sing,” he says.
As well as acting, McCarthy also writes and directs, and is currently the inaugural theatre artist-in-residence at Cork Opera House and UCC. However, he says that while working with Broken Crow is always a collaborative process, he is happy to stay in actor mode.
“I like switching that part off and just being an actor, those are the lines and I say them. When it comes to a line and maybe a change I chime in as much as anyone but the frustrations and revelations of being a writer can be set aside and I can just sit and do this or stand and do that. I enjoy the parameters being so clear.”
For FitzGibbon, scripting a two-hander is an organic and rewarding process in which the characters almost take on a life of their own.
“You are sticking two characters into a boat, setting them off and seeing what happens. Certainly, the most comfortable way I have of writing is when I get two characters — one character split in half in this case — and all you have to do is sit them down and let them talk to each other. It all just plays out.
“You have to go back and shape it but the guts of it is almost out of your hands really, once the characters are formed, they follow their own logic.”
Deciding what songs to feature was more of a challenge, according to FitzGibbon.
“I was trying to figure out the songs that would have been sung in a 1970s singsong, so I had to do a bit of research on that. The whole feel of the show is about this guy trying to work out what will get a singsong going, and what will kill it. My favourite bit in a singsong is when the person who has never sung before, who doesn’t have a good voice, stands up and does something.
“They are a bit embarrassed but they do it anyway. It’s lovely because almost always they will get a great response. They’ve done something genuine, and everyone appreciates it. It’s all well and good if you have a great voice to stand up and sing a song but for someone who doesn’t, it takes a bit of gumption.”
FitzGibbon is looking forward to bringing the play to a bigger audience in the Everyman and then on tour, taking in a night at the Blackwater village of Ballyduff, and also Garter Lane in Waterford.
“It will be good to get back to Waterford for a few songs and a few pints,” says FitzGibbon.