LITTLE JOHN Nee brings his inimitable brand of theatrical storytelling and songcraft to the Town Hall Theatre next week with his feted show, Sparkplug, winner of The Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Sound Design.
Sparkplug features the further adventures of bluesman and vintage mechanic, Sparkplug Callaghan, the protagonist of previous LJ shows such as The Mother’s Arms and Bag of Queens. When the current show opens, it finds Sparkplug residing in his dead uncle’s disused barn and he’s got the blues bad. Every day there is another funeral, Joe Duffy is ladling out the doom and gloom on the radio and the banks are putting people out on the side of the road.
Then, across the meadow, Sparkplug beholds a vision, one that suggests his boat may have finally come in. There ensues an adventurous foray into the heart of a surreal rural landscape that fuses lyrical and comical storytelling with original music performed on an array of intriguing instruments.
Little John has remarked that Sparkplug is the culmination of the characters who have featured in many of his shows down the years. Not only has the character already featured in several of his productions for stage and radio, Nee also intends that he be the focus of a a 10 year cycle of work which he has entitled Sparkplug Callaghan’s Emporium of Theatrical Delight.
So what was it about the character of Sparkplug that gave him this much importance and artistic mileage for Nee?
“I think the fact that he was a bluesman and also a vintage mechanic were part of the attraction,” he tells me. “For years there have been certain things aesthetically that I was drawn to. I did a show called Dead Rooster Blues, and though he wasn’t called Sparkplug in that one but that was where he started to appear.
“It was that notion of travelling around a rural environment singing the blues and being an original blues artist in that environment. It’s not New York or Chicago but he still has all the authenticity of any blues artist. He’s a worldly character. At that time as well my interest was growing in vaudeville and circus and the aesthetics of those shows and show-makers, I wanted him to embody all those things and be on the road, so the transport is a big part of it too.
“The whole creative process is that a lot of things evolve from an original premise. In Dead Rooster Blues, he arrives at a pub called The Mother’s Arms and he ends up falling in love at the end of that show. So in The Mother’s Arms show he is already there but his girlfriend has been abducted by aliens and he is on the road with the band again. This show I’m doing now picks up where he has moved into his uncle’s barn in a place called Tullyglen and that’s where the radio play and a lot of my other recent work have found him.
“He’s a rural bluesman living in a barn that is attached to a disused petrol station that belonged to his uncle. His family were all mechanics and they were all known as sparkplug, these are all things that have evolved over time. That’s partly why I chose to stay with Sparkplug is because there are more and more peripheral characters emerging and the back story is being enlarged all the time. The world of the plays get richer and richer as it goes along.”
While many of Little John’s recent shows have seen him collaborate with musicians Sparkplug sees him take on all the scriptwriting, composing, and performing duties himself.
“I got a small commission from Earagail Arts Festival to develop the script but there was no production budget so it was all done on a wing and a prayer - but that fitted in totally with the whole ethos of Sparkplug anyway, living as he does in a barn.” LJ explains.
“The set is made up of old fruit boxes and things like that. Another nice thing about focusing on the one character is that you can experiment with different aspects of the story and his persona. I composed all the music myself. I used music loop pedals so all the music is played live and I think that may be one of the reasons it got The Irish Times Theatre Award for Sound Design.
“I still have that punk ethos when doing music of ‘just play it’ but I think my playing ability is improving as well and there’s lots of interesting instruments like cigar box guitars and harmonium as well as various musical effects.”
Sparkplug is at the Town Hall on Wednesday June 5 and Thursday 6 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie