ROLL UP, roll up and enter the shady world of Delaney’s Travelling Roadshow. Step inside the boxing ring - smell it, sense it, feel it and somewhere between the fights and the fortune tellers, the bookies, and the bloodshed, rub shoulders with its wayward wards.
When young runaway Emer arrives in search of her long lost father and a challenge from a professional boxer is thrown in to the ring, everything in this rundown sideshow is about to change forever.
This is the atmospheric world of Billy Roche’s most recent play Lay Me Down Softly, which arrives at the Town Hall next week in a production directed by the author himself.
Set in rural Ireland in the early 1960s, Lay Me Down Softly is a dangerous story told with a darkly comic wit. It takes us into the burlesque world of the carnival and the boxing hall with its intriguing cast of characters. There’s the charismatic but dangerous Theo, the owner-cum-ringmaster; the gentle old trainer and cut-man Peadar, his worn out sidekick; the ferocious prize-fighter Dean and handsome Junior who nurtures aspirations of supplanting Dean as the carnival’s main attraction.
Completing the cast is Lily, Theo’s mistress, and Emer the daughter he abandoned many years before who arrives in search of her father. In Roche’s skilled hands what ensues is a mythic tale of love, loss, and pain suffused with his trademark blend of humour and pathos.
The boxing milieu Roche draws on for the play is one he knows personally from his family background, as he reveals over a lunchtime phonecall ahead of the play’s Galway visit.
“My grandfather Jem Roche was a professional boxer and Irish heavyweight champion,” Roche reveals. “He beat the British champion in one of his bouts and he also fought the world champion though he was knocked out in the first round of that fight. But he was a celebrated fighter at the time, like the Barry McGuigan of his day, with knobs on!
“My father boxed also so there is that strong family background in boxing. And I remember once my grandfather telling a story of taking on a boxer in one of those travelling booths so that may have been a seed in coming up with the story of the play.
“But it’s not primarily about boxing, I would say it’s more about the world of the travelling carnival, kind of in that Felliniesque sense. And there is a tragic nature to the carnival, so you could call the play a Chekovian tragedy.”
Roche’s plays are often notable for being set in masculine worlds such as poolhalls, bookie’s shops and bar-rooms, and they offer richly-nuanced portrayals of the camaraderie, rivalry and occasional menace to be found there, as well as the momentous waves that can be made in his male characters’ lives by the arrival or presence of women.
“I grew up working in my father’s bar in Wexford,” he recalls. “I started off just washing glasses when I was a kid and then when I was older I worked there full-time. The pub was very much a male environment at the time but I would notice how the atmosphere would invariably change if a woman entered the premises, the men would stop cursing for instance. I suppose that would account to some extent for my interest in that sort of theme but it’s not something I set out to write about deliberately.”
Lay Me Down Softly was originally staged at the Peacock in 2008. This revival is co-produced by Wexford Arts Centre and Mosshouse Productions, which was set up by Roche with the express goal of giving the play a second run, which he strongly believed it merited.
The success of its initial Wexford run has vindicated that belief as it led to the Arts Council awarding the touring grant which facilitates the play’s forthcoming Galway visit and an invitation from London’s Tricycle Theatre to run there next month.
“These days everyone wants the coup of doing a first-run production and no one seems interested in giving plays a second run,” Roche observes. “When the play ran at the Peacock it had full houses and a very good response so I was keen to do it again, I didn’t want it be just left on the shelf. I’m like a singer who wants to hear his songs continue to be sung and in different ways.”
Sing it loud
Roche’s determination to hear his song sung again saw him take on the role of director and assume much of the hard graft involved in getting his play’s new production off the ground.
“We chiselled it out, it was a real struggle at times,” he recalls. “When the actors came to rehearse in Wexford they were working for half nothing. So it was very gratifying when we put it on in Wexford and then the Arts Council and the Tricyle responded positively to the piece and have given it this extra life.
“As a Wexford writer it meant a lot to me to be able to put the play on for my own people because not many of them would have been able to go up and see it in Dublin, but as well as doing it for your own people you also want to see your plays go out into the wider world and that’s what’s happening with it now.”
The cast features actors Roche has worked with before, notably Gary Lydon who plays carnival ringmaster Theo and whose long association with Roche goes back to his breakthrough Wexford Trilogy of plays in the 1980s.
“Gary and I understand each other really well,” Roche explains. “He’s my De Niro! This part was made for him. The other cast members have also been in my plays before. Michael O’Hagan was in two of the plays in The Wexford Trilogy and Dermot Murphy played the young boy in Amphibians when I directed that a few years ago and now here he is in an adult role. And Simone Kirby was in Cavalcaders so I feel a bit like I’m surrounded by these people I reared in a way!”
Also in the cast are Pagan McGrath, as young runaway Emer, Anthony Morris and Lesley McGuire. Lay Me Down Softly, which Irish Theatre Magazine hailed as “beautifully poignant and memorable”, plays the Town Hall for five nights from Tuesday June 14 to Saturday 18 at 8pm nightly.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie