Interview with Una McKevitt – Madhouse Tour
We got the chance to ask Una McKevitt some questions about Madhouse, which she directs and co-wrote with PJ Gallagher. Based on PJ’s extraordinary true life story, Madhouse is a warm and hilarious portrait of an Irish family in exceptional circumstances and was a smash-hit sell-out critical success when it premiered at Dublin Fringe in September 2018. Starring Katherine Lynch and Shane O’Reilly, Madhouse will tour to 13 venues across Ireland this autumn in a month-long tour running 23rd October-23rd November. For further information see https://www.madhouseontour.com/
This play is based on the real life experiences of PJ Gallagher, but was co-written by both of you. Can you tell me how you went about writing the play? Was there an initial framework there before you got involved?
PJ had tried to talk about it once or twice in standup but it’s not easy to make it work; no one has any context for the situation and so you’d have to do a lot of set up. It was when we were working on another show about his adoption (Separated at Birth) that he told me all about it and I was like, sorry, what? To have grown up in the midst of a fairly stark adult reality like that and to go on and become a comedian; it’s a great basis for a coming of age story. When we started working on it we knew it was important to keep it true to its time and PJ’s somewhat irreverent perspective of it; not to lose the authenticity of his experience by over policing it. But, equally, it was our responsibility to learn more about how the mental health and mental illness landscape has evolved since the 80’s, so we looked for some professional advice there. I also spoke to the social worker who had orchestrated the great experiment. It turns out she was the sister of a friend of mine.
Were the two of you in the one-room writing it or did you just meet up?
Usually we’d meet up and I’d record PJ on my phone talking about what he could remember. Then I’d piece stuff together and we’d meet up again and go through that. We decided early on we could only really tell the story from his perspective, we don’t know what it was like for the men in the house, we only know what it was like for PJ and how it affected him. Although the play is told by an adult PJ (played by Shane O’Reilly) PJ’s memories of the men who lived in his home, and the impact the situation had on his family, are what the play is concerned with.
Can you tell us a bit about the plot? It sounds a bizarre situation.
In the 1980s, many psychiatric institutions were closing down and there were few places for long term residents to go. So to supplement the family’s income PJ’s Ma, a nurse, moved six men into the family home to look after. She did everything for them from administering their medication to cutting their hair. One of only four residential homes in Ireland to engage in this experiment, it began when PJ was 10 and ended when he was 19.
In the play PJ (although the character has no name) arrives to talk to a current day lobby group for mental health service users about his experience growing up. This talk quickly opens brings us into his family home which is run by his mother, the largest figure in his life. The house is orgnanized chaos; men getting hair cuts in the kitchen, bags of clothes arriving from the cancer society, PJ running up and down with pills and dinner plates. Another key theme is the absence of his father, who is hiding in the living room or down the pub; it’s his relationship with his parents that’s at the heart of the play. We also have a gorilla.
This play was in the Fringe Festival last year. Has anything changed since that production?
There was a lot to concern ourselves the first time round; balancing the irreverent ‘80’s view of mental illness with PJ’s genuine empathy for the men as well as PJ’s concern of what his mother would make of it all (she loved it and Katherine Lynch’s portrayal of “Ma”). The story though, which was my job, lacked a certain logic. I came up against the same old problem PJ had in standup, how do you set this up, how do you give context at the top in a light, swift and humorous way? And with theatre, there’s the added imperative to answer the why of the story, why is it being told, what’s compelling our lead character to share it? That wasn’t clear enough the first time so when PJ and I came back to it that’s what we focused on finding. Once we worked that out it liberated the comedy in the piece, both in the relationship between PJ and his mother and how the actor representing PJ (Shane O’Reilly has joined the cast) channels the other characters in the piece. Our set designer Cillian McNamara assisted by Florentina Burcea have come up with a re-design that’s warmer and more playful than before and we’re just really having more fun with it.
This is a touring production travelling around the country. Will you travel with it or is it just the cast and crew that travel?
As I’m co-producing the tour (funded by the Arts Council) with Project Arts Centre I’ll be on the road as a kind of company manager and PJ will be travelling to as many shows as he can make too; the opportunity to remake and tour Madhouse means a lot to us both.
Have you anything new in the pipeline that you’d like to tell us about?
No! I really need a better answer to that question. And soon. Winter is coming.