NEXT WEEK sees the Town Hall host a welcome return visit from Little John Nee’s current touring show, The Mother’s Arms, last seen at the venue in January, which offers up a comic, musical helter-skelter ride through a surreal but frighteningly believable rural gothic landscape.
The action unfolds somewhere in the wild hills of Donegal, where sits a dilapidated two storey building surrounded by tumbling sheds; dry stone, rusty tin, rotting timber and tar-paper, the yard surrendered to weeds. This is The Mother’s Arms Singing Lounge, a quiet place where lonely farmers and weary travellers gather to while away the empty hours.
The previous owner has recently been sent to prison and his daughter has returned from Louisiana to run the place but the banks are circling like vultures. It's been a long time since there was any singing hereabouts. Then one beautiful summer’s morning a vintage automobile, driven by Taxi McDermott, founder of The Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra, struggles up the hill and there begins a tale .....
The Mother’s Arms sees Nee joined by Jeremy Howard, Fionn Robinson and Orlaith Gilcreest, the quartet playing the members of the aforementioned Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra. Nee’s collaborators bring an impressive array of credentials to the show. Howard is a film-maker and sound-track composer, Robinson is a guitarist from a well-known Donegal musical family, and Gilcreest is a singer and multi-instrumentalist who performs with a variety of ensembles, playing jazz, folk, blues and classical. Indeed, Gilcreest’s singing is one of the stand-out elements in the show,which also sees Nee and his impressively versatile orchestra play piano, sax, clarinet, guitar, bazouki and more – even petrol cans get to feature in their distinctive sonic palette.
The Mother’s Arms sees the foursome adopt memorably colourful personas. Little John is Sparkplug Callaghan, Howard is Scorsese Gallagher, Fionn Robinson is Jesus O’Donnell, and Gilchreest is Norma Eggstrom, the daughter of the bar’s prior owner. Nee expands on her character; “Norma is quite an enigmatic character. She was christened Peggy Lee and has recently returned from the US which she was forced to leave after knifing a sailor. But as well as being handy with a blade she can also hold forth on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism!” Of his own character he observes “Sparkplug is kind of a rural Buddhist bluesman and he’s like an evolution or amalgamation of the characters I’ve portrayed in my shows down the years.”
As well as the orchestra members, the show also vividly evokes the various locals who populate the bar –such as the 70-year-old woman describing her recently-acquired tattoos.
These are busy times for Nee, and Galway audiences can look forward to seeing more shows from him in the coming months. His most recent play, Sparkplug -featuring further adventures of Sparkplug Callaghan, is just about to travel to Dublin’s Absolut Fringe Festival and is pencilled in for some dates in the Town Hall after Christmas.
Nee will also feature at this year’s Baboro Festival, in October, where he will be joined by the Donegal Youth Orchestra in a presentation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, with a new score composed and conducted by Vincent Kennedy.
And there is also a new show in the pipeline with The Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra which should hit the stage sometime next year.
So, plenty on the horizon for Littlejohn and his various collaborators. In the meantime, Galway audiences can look forward to the sampling the heady delights of the Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra’s residency in The Mother’s Arms. It’s at the Town Hall from Wednesday, September 5 to Saturday, September 8 at 8pm. Tickets are €13 / €11.