I was at the opening night of The Bachelor of Kilkish, the latest from Limerick company Bottom Dog Theatre Company, last week (June 12) in the Lime Tree Theatre.
Written by Bottom Dog co-founder and well-known actor, Myles Breen, the play is about the eponymous ‘bachelor’, Eugene (Brendan Conroy) who is a 65 year old closeted gay man who owns a barbershop in a small, seaside town. His world revolves around the shop and local goings on—chatting with regulars like hotel owner, Pat (Pascal Scott), who drops in every week for a trim and sharing cosy tea breaks with lifelong pal, Agnes (Deirdre Monaghan) and young hotel receptionist, Jacinta (Clare Monnelly).
His polite, low-key existence is shaken up when fun and flamboyantly gay young barber, Ian (Stephen Tadgh), takes a summer job at the shop. As the small-town ‘old guard’ gear up for the summer festival and the Colleen of Kilkish pageant (sher, they’re all lovely girls, ahem), the status quo is under threat and things are about to change drastically…and I’m not talking about the rearrangement of the amusement arcade!
What followed was a play that swung between hilarious and heart-breaking. It dealt with a lot of issues sensitively, such as homophobia and from the other point of view—the experience of being gay in a conservative community, hiding who you truly are and fearful of being the subject of gossip. Other subjects were unrequited love and the simultaneous comfort and claustrophobia of small-town existence.
The contrast between Eugene and Ian is as marked as the dichotomy between a small Irish seaside resort in summer and in winter. The interplay between the two was one of the highlights of the play. Conroy played shy Eugene with great poise and dignity, building towards a new assertiveness and sense of self. Tadgh injected incredible energy to nearly every scene he was in as the witty, exuberant Ian. He has a flair for comedic timing and is wonderfully expressive in the role. The scene where he lip synchs and dances to Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ is a contender for the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. The whole audience was in stitches.
The two ladies played their supporting roles well. Both were vibrant in their own style and were convincing in the more morose, emotional scenes too. Pat and his son, Mike (Cillian Ó’Gairbhí) represented the more conservative, ‘conventional’ side of society but came dangerously close to being caricatures a few times. That said, there were a few very realistic incidences of classic Irishman reactions to being in close contact with a gay person very at ease with themselves. The uncomfortable exchanges had great comic realism.
The Bachelor of Kilkish is well written. Breen excels at sharp one-liners and there are many brilliantly funny moments and scenes in the play. This was a blessing and a curse I felt because when the tone shifted to more serious interludes, the audience was still laughing and it was hard to refocus. As I said, he approached the issues with innate understanding and addressed them carefully.
For all the fun, it was terribly sad in parts too. I felt a real sense of empathy with Eugene. I couldn’t help thinking about all the others like him. The play had a good balance of light and shade in that way. It ended on a somewhat predictable, but hopeful and life affirming note.
He has a keen eye and ear for detail, making the setting seem genuine i.e. the townspeople referring to tourists as “swallows” because they fly in for a period and disappear as suddenly or the pompous, self-importance of commanding figures in local communities (we all know one or more!) spouting about reputations and brands.
There was a lot going on and director, Liam O’Brien, pulled all the elements together. The music was beautiful—making the scene transitions flow effortlessly—and the barbershop set was excellent and used in a very versatile way. The lighting was appropriately subtle.
I had a few minor problems with the play. I thought it was too long. It was pushing two hours and 30-45 minutes I’d say and I think if it could be cut back a bit, it should be because it would be the better for it. I thought the subplot involving Jacinta and Mike was drawn out, as were a few scenes generally. But these are small issues with a strong piece overall. (Note: I got a comment saying it ran for exactly 2 hrs 14 minutes with starting late and an interval overrun. I still reckon it was closer to 2 hrs 30 mins (not 45 thinking working it out in more detail). I took the delays into account and looked at my watch leaving at 11pm but I didn’t have a stopwatch. Perhaps it just went on too long in my estimation. My abiding point is: it seemed too long and dragged a bit so it could be cut back slightly. I stand by that.)
I really enjoyed The Bachelor of Kilkish and the 350 strong audience did too—showing their appreciation with a long standing ovation. Bottom Dog TC has produced some fine work since it was founded a few years ago and with limited funding. The play was funded through the ‘Made in Limerick’ strand of City of Culture and I’m glad to say it was money well spent. Funny and touching, this quality of this production really demonstrates what they can do.
I’d recommend it. It’s showing in Kilkee this Thursday and Friday (June 19 and 20) and Friar’s Gate in Kilmallock this Saturday and Sunday (June 21 and 22).