Emma O’Grady ‘looking well’ with revival of superb solo show

One of the best local plays I saw last year was Emma O’Grady’s solo show, What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside, based on tape recordings made by her grandfather Paddy O’Grady shortly before his death.

A highlight of last year’s Galway Theatre Festival, where it garnered rave reviews, O’Grady’s captivating play returns to the Town Hall next week for one night only, on Friday, August 17, at the start of a national tour.

What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside? is a multi-layered theatrical mosaic which weaves together song, story and slapstick, Vera Lynn and Gay Byrne, fairy hills and fraught family dramas. One month before his death, retired civil servant and man of few words Paddy O’Grady had a sudden urge to talk. Using a portable cassette recorder, he recorded 15 hours of material: stories about leprechauns, aliens and lonely pharmacists; absurdist political satire; musings on life, love and death; radio shows with advertisements for products that never existed; ballads and poetry; and memories of life as a civil servant.

Paddy’s granddaughter, Emma O’Grady, later discovered he had written plays, poems and short stories in the 1950s and until now his work has been without an audience. This one-woman show — created with multiple directors — examines the fractured and fragile personas we present to the world, who we might be behind them and what we could be instead. What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside? is a piece about emotional inheritance and grief for wasted creativity that serves as both a tribute and a warning.

Attired in a pinstripe suit for much of the play, Emma O’Grady both inhabits Paddy’s persona and comments upon it, shaping and enacting the story as the play progresses in a compelling performance.

Ahead of her show’s return Emma sat down with me to chat about the inspiration behind it and how she put it all together. She began by recalling her childhood memories of her grandfather. “After Paddy retired he and my grandmother moved to Headford and then after my brother was born in 1988 they came to live with us in Laois so I grew up with him from the age of three until he died when I was 12. He was silent, not quiet; there was a dark, brooding energy around him the whole time. He didn’t talk much with anyone. I remember being just a little bit afraid of him; he didn’t really engage with children. I remember more about my grandmother because she was a lot of fun and would play games with us and loved to chat. I remember Paddy loved gardening and he’d always be outside and he was very much into walking; he would walk for miles and it was during his walks he would have ideas for his stories. He had a lot in his head that he never wrote down. Then his eyesight started to go and the tapes are like notebooks that he recorded aurally. He started making the recordings about a month before he went into hospital where he died. He said to his son-in-law one evening, ‘I have things to say but I can’t read my writing any more’, and so he got him a tape recorder and cassettes. He started recording then and ended up with 15 hours of tape.

“The title of the show comes from something my granddad once said,” Emma continues. “When I was researching the show and asking family and neighbours what they remembered about Paddy, they would always pause and then say ‘your grandmother was lovely!’ They’d then go on to say that Paddy was a difficult character. One night a neighbour woman was visiting my granny and as she came in the room she remarked to Paddy ‘you’re looking well’, and he retorted ‘what good is looking well when you’re rotten on the inside’ — it was a statement about himself but I think it was also aimed at her.”

Was Emma aware of her grandfather making his tapes at the time, I ask. “We all knew,” she replies. “He’d do it in the sitting room when nobody was around. I used to stand outside the door and listen to him recording his stories though I couldn’t hear him properly through the door. It was fascinating. My grandmother used always say that Paddy was a great writer and she’d framed a poem of his called ‘Old Age’, which I use in the show, and hung it up in the sitting room so we all knew he used to write. If I walked into the room while he was recording he’d stop and just watch me fetch whatever I’d come in for and as soon as I’d left the room I’d hear the tape going back on again. He didn’t bequeath the tapes to anybody so my grandmother had them for another 16 years until she died but she never listened to them. She went into a nursing home around 2006 and her stuff was being moved so I said I’d take the tapes to Galway and digitize them for the family but I didn’t get around to listening to them until 2010. When I did I was immediately fascinated by all the stuff that Paddy came out with; and there are no personal stories, they are all fiction.”

Four directors are credited for the show; Jonathan Gunning, Catherine Ireton, Caroline Lynch and Andy Smith. Emma explains how she ended up with a quartet of ‘helmers’; “I did originally want to have just one director but there were so many contradictions in Paddy’s personality I decided the show needed different perspectives in its presentation and different styles. I initially envisaged having four different directors and four separate stylistically different sections in the show to represent all the facets of Paddy’s life. Then when I chose the four people I really wanted to work with the sections ended up blending into each other so you wouldn’t really be able to tell who directed which bit. Andy Smith helped me a lot with the writing and the structure, Jonathan Gunning did a lot of the physical stuff, Catherine Ireton did a lot of vocal stuff, and I always wanted Caroline Lynch to be involved because we had such a good relationship when working together for Mephisto. When we do the tour Caroline is coming back for the week in Galway to direct the tech and to polish the show up.”

What Good is Looking Well... is more technically elaborate than most solo performances. The set features a cosy sitting room above which are an array of suspended speakers. Paddy O’Grady’s voice is part of the play’s soundscape as snatches of his recordings are played throughout the show. “Myself and the sound designer Rob Moloney designed the set together,” Emma relates. “It was important for us that you could always see where the sound was coming from. It makes the audience aware that all that is left of Paddy is this voice so I wanted people to feel like he is inside that speaker and with the lighting it narrows in on the speaker or tape recorder or wherever his voice is coming from. The set is the sound basically.”

What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside plays the Town Hall on Friday, August 17th, at 8pm. Tickets are €18/€16 available from www.tht.ie On Friday, August 31, the show will also play the Mall Theatre in Tuam, which Emma cites as a special date as Paddy grew up nearby so it represents a kind of homecoming.

Whether you catch it in Galway, Tuam, or on one of its touring stops in the coming months, do catch it; ye won’t be sorry!

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