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JOHNJO @ Central Arts Waterford review:
A View from the Green Room.
Arts Correspondent. Waterford News & Star
DISTURBING ‘JOHNJO’ AT CENTRAL ARTS.
Johnjo McGrath enters singing ballad of The Rocks of Bawn and you just know that there is a story to be told. It was a favourite of his father who barely knew the words, or the notes, if the truth be told. A small landholder of twenty acres on the Comeraghs of which only five were arable, he carried ancient grudges around like boulders. Clearing land that was full of furze, rock and limestone, he cursed his circumstances and drank a lot of whiskey to dull the pain.
He references Crotty the highwayman and understands the shared experience of disenfranchisement. He curses the Curraghmores and their acres of lawns that would have fed the bellies of half-fed cattle. Not that he had too many of those. It’s the sense of privilege and entitlement about the Curraghmores that gets to him. It eats away at him and he sees no shame in stealing the odd sheep of theirs and selling it on to slaughter. He feels dispossessed and evicted from his land and blames it on the greed of the Anglo-Irish who never had enough.
A selfish father with a grievance, he drank all he had and when he drowned himself, Johnjo had to sell the bullock to meet the funeral expenses. With only £2-10 the mother mortgages the land and moves into the town. A knife-incident leaving a man badly wounded, forces him to flee and it’s the boat in wartime for Johnjo.
Grim times. Working on the lump, with an array of identities to avoid detection, it’s a grim and lonely existence. Kavanagh’s lines of the women who love only young men ring in the ear of the aging man who moves between damp and over-crowded doss-houses while building the motorways. The gangers are always the same. Elephant John is a tough task-master who can really dish it out. And it’s always Paddy. Never Johnjo. Still no matter when you’re on the lump. The names tumble our like tourist dishcloths…Tom Dooley…Roy Rogers…Gene Autry…Donald F****in’ Duck.
But a life without children. And a wife. Before he knows it, he’s fifty. It’s been an empty existence claims Johnjo but odd facts begin to pop out from the coiled spring of resentment. Sexual ambiguities surface. He prefers the company of men. Their smell. Their friendship. A band of building brothers. It’s a world of sexual compromise and secrets hidden from even himself.
He hates Bannagher, the jumped-up Irish boss who also owns the pub in Cricklewood where the wages are paid. He only pays by cheque and charges 5% on cashing cheques for subbies who he knows can never have a bank account. When a trench collapses killing Johnjo’s only friend Kennedy because of poor scaffolding, Johnjo settles accounts with Bannagher in the old time-honoured way of blood-payment.
Eamon Culloty is excellent as the spiteful-regretful-sexually-ambivalent Johnjo. In what was once a best suit, he brings the whole range of despised Paddy to the stage. It’s a performance that’s always highly charged and directed with great sympathy by James Power. The emptiness of a wasted life is what remains with you after the performance. There’s nothing simple about a performance that seems to constantly search for answers and, perhaps, other ways to have gone about his business. His father’s son, he doesn’t get his sense of dispossession from the ground. He doesn’t blame the father and scoffs at Larkin’s line: they f**k you up, your mum and dad’. ‘No’ Johnjo declares ‘I f**ked them up’.
Tom O’Brien’s writing always seems to drive Johnjo on to a conclusion based on the navvies’ experience. His wisdom is bought at a price that no one should really have to pay. O’Brien lays Paddy’s experiences in post-war Britain bare…lodgings in damp rooms crammed with other Paddies trying to get by. Weekends trying to dull the pain of existence through drink and then looking for a sub on Monday to get through the week.
Great to see Waterford playwright Tom O’Brien’s work on a Waterford stage. Let’s see more of it.