Gig Reviews

Tales from the Holywell – Abbey Theatre – Review

Tales from the Holywell – Abbey Theatre – Review
30 January – 18 February 2023

Written by Damien Dempsey
Directed by Conor McPherson

Dates: 30 January – 18 February on the Abbey Stage

This new production by the Abbey theatre explores the life of Damien Dempsey through music and spoken word. In truth, despite having Conor McPherson as the director, this feels a lot like a gig from Dempsey where the performer is in a particularly thoughtful mood. There are five musicians on stage with violin, double bass, percussion and keyboards, with Damien standing centre stage with his guitar.

Between songs, Dempsey reflects on his life. He talks about his early years in Dublin. He grew up on Holywell road in Donaghmede and this is where the production gets its name. The road is named after an ancient Holy well that was covered when the housing estate was built and Dempsey talks of the many musicians that were born on this unusual road.  This is just one of the many supernatural elements that are discussed by Damien, who delves into his visions of the future and other events around the death of his father.

He tells the audience of his memories of the Pope’s visit, the first time he got a guitar and a multitude of other small events that formed the man we see before us. There is a story of the bullies he encountered during his teenage years. He discusses how he got his first real break in the music industry and the people that helped him along the way. We hear how he helped a man who was drowning in a river back to safety. These anecdotes are interludes as he moves from one song to the next. They are relatively brief and don’t overstay their welcome. The main focus is on the music, as he delves through his back catalogue.

The staging of the production is simple but stylish. The musicians are spaced out evenly across the stage and often play behind frames which descend from above, looking like playing cards.  The lighting is never overstated and the backdrop varies between black and dark blues.

Damien Dempsey’s fans suffer from an unusual devotion often reserved for the latest Boy band, the only difference is that his audience members are adults and not teenagers. It was about halfway through the performance that I noticed the woman sitting in front of me in the theatre was sobbing. I’m not sure what song it was that set her off, but she was audibly weeping. The relationship between the singer and his audience was explored in the recent documentary Love Yourself Today, but seeing it in the flesh is always unsettling. Dempsey seems to touch a nerve and the intensity of the relationship between the singer and the audience is visceral.

One of the reoccurring themes through the piece was Dempsey’s search for a hit, a song that would be sung throughout the world. It was Dempsey’s focus during a period of his life, but he seems to have come to terms with the impossibility of the task. He states early on in the performance “I don’t write hits, I write healers.”  He can leave the stadium hits to Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, and focus on the love of the Irish, who have embraced him like few others.

Writer and Performer: Damien Dempsey
Director: Conor McPherson
Set and Lighting Designer: Paul Keogan
Sound Designer: Sinéad Diskin
Costume Designer: Saileóg O’Halloran
Band Leader: Eamonn De Barra
Musician: Eamonn De Barra
Musician: Lucia McPartlin
Musician: Rod Quinn
Musician: Aura Stone
Publicity Image: Rich Gilligan


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