‘It surpassed my expectations in all kinds of ways’

Christian O’Reilly on his Galway Arts Festival play Chapatti

John Mahoney and Penny Slusher in Cappatti.

John Mahoney and Penny Slusher in Cappatti.

GALWAY PLAYWRIGHT Christian O’Reilly and actor John Mahoney have lit up previous Galway International Arts Festivals with their contributions, but 2014 sees them joining forces in O’Reilly’s acclaimed new play Chapatti.

Christian’s previous Artsfest credits include his professional debut with Druid’s production of The Good Father in 2002 and last year’s hit show for Blue Teapot, Sanctuary, while John Mahoney has become a regular visitor to Galway with a range of shows from Steppenwolf, Chicago’s Northlight Theatre Company, and Irish Repetory Theatre of Chicago.

One man and his dog

Chapatti centres on the relationship between two lonely, elderly pet-lovers from Dublin. When forlorn Dan and his dog Chapatti cross paths with the amiable Betty and her 19 cats, an unexpected spark begins a warm and gentle story about two people rediscovering the importance of human companionship. The play premiered in Chicago in March to great public and critical acclaim.

“It surpassed my expectations in all kinds of ways,” O’Reilly admits. “It got an amazing audience reaction - full houses and standing ovations, a really good critical reaction, and it was one of Northlight’s best-selling shows. We had previously done a rehearsed reading in November 2012 in front of an audience of 200 and it was so well received it encouraged us all to believe we had something an audience would respond to. So it proved with the actual production. I went over there with my wife Ailbhe and our son Cóilín, who is four, ahead of the production. It was cold there and snowing and it was the first time Cóilín had ever seen snow so it was just a great adventure”

While Christian has previously had his plays done by the likes of front-rank Irish companies such as Druid and Rough Magic, this was the first time one of his plays has been premiered by an overseas ensemble. He is full of praise for his time working with Northlight.

“It was a great experience working with them,” he tells me. “Just as people and a theatre company I found them incredibly welcoming and accommodating. When we went over they helped us find accommodation and made sure we were OK, they were very mindful of us, it’s like we were adopted as part of their family and there is a real family atmosphere about Northlight and that was lovely.”

Aside from their social graces, Christian is also effusive in his praise of Northlight’s handling of his play.

“Professionally I found them excellent to deal with,” he says. “BJ Jones, the director, was a gentleman and just brilliant with the actors. He was very firm about what he felt needed to change in the text and was very decisive about what worked and didn’t work and he was invariably right about what did and didn’t work.

“The play largely consists of monologues - with some dialogues - which is a bit of a departure for me, and the presentation could have been quite static but as you’ll see in the production BJ was able to bring it to life and I was thrilled by his approach to that, it became a much more exciting piece of theatre as a result. There was also the addition of music; Denis Clohessy provided a great score which really added to it as well. It was a great experience.”

And what of the genesis of Chapatti?

“I originally wrote it as a short film script and it was later produced as a radio play but because it was about two lonely characters I always felt I wanted them to tell their story to an audience and that suggested theatre” Christian says. “The monologue form seemed to suit two lonely characters so that they could tell their story alone so that was the starting point in terms of its form.

“As regards the content, years ago I worked with a disability rights organisation and they had a transport service and one of their drivers was a man with a dog and the image of the two of them and their relationship, they were nearly co-dependent, stayed with me and eventually inspired the character of Dan. With Betty, I once had the experience of coming across this woman in Dublin who owned loads of cats which is where she came from. So these two characters developed in my mind into two people who would have a friendship.”

I ask Christian how he found an insight into the mind-set of the play’s elderly characters.

“There would be elements of my own elders in the play” he replies. “My grandmother in her final years was ailing and my mother cared for her and that inspired the character of Betty’s elderly friend Peggy. I myself was brought up by three women after my parents separated, my mother, grandmother and great aunt, and it was a house of cats and dogs, my granny was a real cat lover and my aunt loved dogs so all of that and being around older people found its way into the work.”

Working with John Mahoney

In Chapatti, Dan is bereaved and inconsolable after the death of his true love while Betty, despite having once being married, has never truly experienced love.

“Dan has had the experience of being in love and Betty hasn’t had that and yet she is more in love with life,” O’Reilly notes. “She has made her peace with not having found love, in a way, but there is a part of her that still longs for it and that comes to life in the play. Dan has kind of given up on it but his desire is re-kindled when he is at his darkest point so they are opposites. Betty provides a lot of light in the play and Dan provides the shade.”

Having noted the interpersonal dynamic of the characters, Christian goes on to praise the contribution of the actors in the production.

“The actors bring a massive amount to the production. John Mahoney has a great tenderness and humanity but there is also a great crankiness and curmudgeonliness as well, which you can see for instance in his Marty Crane in Frasier, and I love that combination.

“The danger with this play was you have old people, love, cats and dogs which could be a recipe for sentimentality. Hopefully the script doesn’t indulge that but the production certainly doesn’t, BJ was very keen that we work against that and the casting of John Mahoney goes a long way to achieving that, he plays against sentimentality. John had worked with Penny Slusher before and he suggested her to play Betty and she is extraordinary in this play. She is very, very funny and warm and moving. Together she and John have an incredible chemistry that makes the whole thing sing.”

Christian concludes by revealing that it was a happenstance Artsfest connection that planted the seed for Chapatti featuring in this year’s programme.

“When John was doing The Outgoing Tide here in 2012,” he says, “I dropped a copy of the script in for him with a covering note reminding him that he had seen The Good Father years ago and liked it so I figured he might read the play. Three months later I got an email from him saying he had read and loved the script and wanted to do it and he would recommend it to Northlight, so very quickly I had a star actor and a terrific theatre company and then they added Penny so it all came together brilliantly”

Chapatti runs at the Town Hall Theatre from Tuesday July 15 to Sunday July 26 at 8pm. There are also matinee performances on July 18, 19, 25, and 26 at 2pm. Tickets are available through www.giaf.com


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