Time to Murder and Create


I see it all. I see it all, but who sees me?

You could say I run the show. Well sure, you nod. From a technical point of view. The lighting-guy gets the cues wrong or goes AWOL, the actors perform on a dark set. But that’s not what I mean. Any button-pusher can follow cues. Even in an amateur affair like ours where everyone multi-tasks, so that generally I double up as the sound-guy, it’s hardly rocket science. Of course, there is loading up the lighting-rig. And that takes up an entire morning. And there’s the gels, and gobos. Checking the wattage. The temperature. Fixing the barn-doors. Programming the control-panel so it pretty much runs itself. Again, it doesn’t exactly require a degree in engineering.

What it means, in the run up to a show, and even more for the couple of weeks we’re on the circuit, I don’t get the jitters the rest of them get. Nor, I suppose, the vertiginous thrill. What I do get is time. Lots of time. Also, perspective. The skewed perspective of the lighting-box, maybe – shadows more marked than uprights. But what you get to see from up here is the fly-on-the-wall stuff. The see-and-don’t-be-seen stuff. The faces pulled behind backs. The stage-kiss that was just that bit too long.

Take that one, there – her with the tiny eyes and hairdo far too youthful? Aileen, the secretary. A tongue on her like caustic soda. And that guy with the comb-over, in the sheepskin jacket? Looks harmless, yes? What if I was to tell you he’d do anything to see his brother taken down a peg? And trust me, I mean anything.

I’d been with Hurly Burly maybe a dozen seasons the year Alma Flynn walked in on an audition. Just like that, no introductions. Alma Flynn, who might’ve been fifteen, who might’ve been twenty-five. In fact it was a couple of months since her Leaving Certificate. She told Bev straight out she’d only showed up for the auditions because her people hadn’t the money to put her through drama school.

One thing about Hurly Burly, it takes the circuit pretty damned seriously. Readings for the circuit start in August, though we won’t tour before the following February. That year, it was A View from the Bridge. Arthur Miller’s classic, you know it? Tight piece, gutsy. Now, you’re not going to attempt a play like that unless you’ve got Eddie Carbone in the bag, and Beatrice, and Katie. Most Am Dram groups could probably swing the first two. But getting someone to play a teenager just coming of age? I guess that’s how come you don’t see A View from the Bridge so much on the amateur stage.

It’s a small group, Hurly Burly. A matriarchy, too, to the extent that the only one who ever did or ever would direct was Bev Gardner. Bev’s American. Usually, we stuck to three or four-handers. Five actors max, with maybe a couple of walk-ons. So this play was already going to be a challenge. In Philip Rattigan, Bev had her lead – he’d won a hatful of best actors down the years and besides, Rattigan has a swarthy look. Could pass for Italian, and he can nail a Brooklyn accent. And then, like every Am Dram group in the history of Am Dram, we’d no shortage of contenders to play Beatrice Carbone. Generally it would’ve gone to Lisa Corrigan, Rattigan’s other half. But she’d announced at the AGM she was six weeks gone, and she’d be showing come February. She’d be happy to manage backstage. As for the other ladies vying for the part, it was going to come down to chemistry, pure and simple. What worked on stage.

And Catherine, the niece? As it happened, Lisa Corrigan had a niece. And that niece had picked up a couple of adjudicator awards the previous year for her portrayal of Girleen in The Lonesome West. She was a spry thing, elvish. Saoirse Corrigan had only recently turned sixteen, so it was in part to act as chaperone that her Aunt Lisa suggested managing backstage. They could share a room on any stopover. So the auditions that night were basically to select a Beatrice to play opposite Rattigan’s Eddie Carbone. That and to try to shoe-horn the remainder of the membership into the available parts. If they could bury their animosity, the Donlon twins could make a passable Marco and Rodolpho. But as for Alfieri the lawyer-narrator, PJ Kelleher’s accent was so bad the joke was Bev would have to rename the character Alf O’Leary.

Auditions were just about to resume after coffee-break when into the hall breezed Alma Flynn, all four foot ten and spikey hair and faded denims. Now, it’s not my part to talk about the politics of the Am Dram group. I can’t say what code of ties and loyalties is supposed to operate. What I can say, down the years Bev Gardner never shied away from displaying her ruthless streak. Bev was all about making the finals in Athlone, and making the finals in Athlone is what Hurly Burly should be about. If that meant drafting in a new face from outside the group, so be it. That was Bev’s ethic, part of her American DNA.

The long and the short of it, Alma got the part. And seeing her niece displaced, Lisa Corrigan was no longer available as stage-manager. To have been a fly-on-the-wall when she discussed the upcoming tour with her swarthy other half, now that would’ve been something. For she must have noticed, no more than myself and everyone else, that when it came to rehearsals, anytime they weren’t actually blocking out a scene or doing a line-call, there was an awkward, you might even say an adolescent reserve on the part of Eddie Carbone toward his juvenile charge. What made it doubly curious was that Alma had a humour quirky as her hair, and she was forever engaging in easy banter with the Donlon twins. Also with June Mahoney, who’d unexpectedly been given the nod ahead of Liz Keane to play Beatrice Carbone – on foot of which it transpired that Liz’s husband’s van, almost twice the capacity of mine, was no longer at the disposal of the group during February-March.

Rivalry and envy – they’re no strangers to the stage. Jealousy, too. You might even say they’re what give certain performances their bite. Something is going on onstage beneath the level of the play, and the audience senses it. The time we toured The Lonesome West, the Donlon twins were barely talking to one another – there’d been some balls-up over their mother’s will, with the result it was stuck in probate. It lent an edge to the play’s sibling rivalry beyond anything Bev Gardner could have wished for, and if it wasn’t for the cockeyed adjudication we got down in Carnew, that edginess would surely have carried us to Athlone.
Something about what I was witnessing was of a different order.

When was it I had the first foreboding?

There was one night in November, a wild night, rain driven fitfully against the windows of the hall. We were packing my van. I was there not because we were having a look at the lighting-plot – techies and crew were not required at run-of-the-mill rehearsals. There was a bit of heavy lifting – retrieving the blacks and costume crates out of the attic – so Bev asked me to come down. With Liz Keane’s husband’s van no longer available, we had to see how much mine could fit on top of the lights.

Joe Donlon was the younger of the Donlon twins by a couple of hours, but those hours might just as well have been years. They’re fraternal twins, not identical. Joe’s chubbier, but if he is, he’s also jollier. Always ready with the quick quip, and one usually bordering on the louche or inappropriate. People instinctively liked Joe. Not that they didn’t like Donal in their way, it’s just that Donal was that bit drier. I think that was the nub of why he resented the way the mother’s will had divided the estate. Families never bear too much looking into. Of course it was Donal, he of the comb-over and sheepskin jacket, who I could rely on to help clear out the attic, while Joe looked on and fired his smart-arsed remarks. Alma Flynn was willing and able, all four foot ten of her, and surprisingly robust when it came to carrying whatever Joe piled onto her head. It was all innocent fun, banter, standard horseplay. But Donal Donlon was not enjoying it. In fact he was rigid with envy. That much you could sense, the way you sense an electric field. Was Joe oblivious? I don’t think so.

Then, when I was leaving, or more correctly, when I’d already left and was returning briefly for a monkey-wrench I’d left backstage, I overheard an altercation. Not Donal Donlon. Philip Rattigan. I caught sight of his open palm pushing Joe hard in the chest – I assume they’d both stepped outside for a fag. There was a guffaw, then ‘I see you try that on again, or anything like it, I’ll fucking kill you myself.’ It was a hiss. A whisper through clenched teeth. Was Rattigan messing? I didn’t stick round to find out. I didn’t want either of them to think I was snooping.

Ok, it’s not exactly forensic evidence. All the same I could see Alma Flynn’s presence was setting the men like game-cocks one against another. Not her fault, but there you are. But that’s a long way from saying I knew what it was going to lead to.

I was pretty much out of the loop until the tech rehearsal in January. As I say, the lighting-guy isn’t required at most rehearsals. And it was during that endless day that I was witness to how far things had moved on. From my perch in the lighting-box, I had the time and the opportunity to observe. Now, it’s fairly normal during a play-run for people to live in one another’s pockets. Sometimes there’s a bit of spill-over from the story the playwright wrote. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to see the rapport, the ne’er-see-one-without-the-other, between Alma and Philip Rattigan. She was hungry for the circuit, she’d never been on it – remember, she was still only seventeen. And he had the glamour of the veteran.

How far had things gone? I can’t say. Donlon was fidgety as all hell. Joe, I mean. It all seemed to pass Donal by. And remember Aileen, her with the tiny eyes and hairdo far too youthful? She was making it her business to never leave the two leads out of sight if she could help it. She’d always had a thing for Philip Rattigan, that much was well known. And with so much discontent among the other members of Hurly Burly, Aileen was now stage-manager. I didn’t see anything that day that would hold up in court. But body language tells its own story. And banter. The stage-kiss that goes on just a bit too long? That’s what I’m talking about.

The run of three nights in the town hall prior to the circuit passed without any major balls-ups. A few cues missed, a prop or two misplaced. But against that there was an electric charge that pulsed under the boards pretty much from the minute Rodolpho encroached on Eddie Carbone’s territory. You really felt these two guys could have a go at one another. Bev sensed it, and Bev loved it. I’d never seen her so excited about the prospects of finally making Athlone.

But it was a powder-keg. All it needed was a spark to set it off.

On the night before we were to head off on the circuit, Lisa Corrigan received an anonymous note. By this time she was seven months gone. The note was short, and brutal. Whatever the truth behind it, it was a dirty underhand blow. It could’ve caused all sorts of complications with the pregnancy. I don’t know what went down that night between Lisa and Philip Rattigan. What I do know, that first night down in Gorey, he looked like a man who hadn’t slept a wink. And I have more than an idea it was Joe Donlon he suspected of writing that little note, though to my mind it was more in the style of our piggy-eyed secretary. But all that gave his performance a desperate jumpiness. Long and the short of it, we came away with best play and best actor. And a nomination for Alma Flynn, on her very first outing.

There are any number of accidents that might befall a touring company, unused to the small-town stage with its precise hazards. A light might crash down from the rig, its safety tether improperly tied; or a ladder might be insecurely balanced at the edge of a rostrum as the set is being dressed; or a trapdoor left open. You don’t brace a flat, it can topple at the slightest disturbance – eight foot by four, with who knows what screwed into it. It’s not a fall you’d want to be on the receiving end of.

And then there’s the props. Ever considered how easy it would be for someone to tamper with them as they lie innocuously on the props table? I don’t even mean the Murder She Wrote kind of stuff – the unbated sword, the dagger with the retracting blade that fails to retract; the revolver that’s supposed to be loaded with blanks. Or the cold tea in the brandy decanter laced with arsenic. Or say I was in on the act – the lights go out, and when they come up again, there’s an actual body centre-stage. All very well in a TV drama, or in an Agatha Christie you might actually see on the circuit.

But…a peanut? Has a peanut ever been used as a murder weapon?

Yet that night in Goresbridge – it was our fifth night on the circuit – no sooner had Eddie Carbone forced the infamous kiss on Rodolpho than the latter went into spasms. Anaphylactic shock. That’s the simple, medical fact. At first the audience thought it was part of the production, something you might see in a Jacobean revenge play. But then I brought the lights up, and someone in-house was quick to close the curtains. Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, pssh, pssh, pssh. By the time I was down from the lighting-box and onto the stage, Joe Donlon was rigid, bug-eyed, purple, and gasping like a landed fish. His brother had jabbed some sort of hypodermic into him, but it didn’t appear to be having much effect.

Ok, he didn’t die. During the ambulance ride, the paramedics managed to control the spasms and open his throat. But it was a close run thing.

Phil Rattigan denied he’d been next or near a peanut that day. Alma, Bev and PJ Kelleher had dined with him prior to the show, so there was no evidence to the contrary. He did mention an odd taste off the bottle of Jameson that Eddie Carbone necks just prior to that kiss – could it really have been smeared with peanut oil? And by whom, for God’s sake? Which of us, bar Donal, knew that Joe had a dangerous peanut allergy? Ok, he’d thrown a wobbler that time in the Chinese after the AGM – but that was seven years ago, and besides, sesame oil had been the culprit, then.

Could it all have been an unhappy accident? After all the hullabaloo, the Jameson bottle went missing. But then, we only went to look for it the following day, after Joe had been given the all-clear and the scare was over. The Gardaí hadn’t been called, why would they have been? Strong allergic reactions occur every day of the week.

Goresbridge was a write-off, and we pulled out of Skerries, which was to have been the following night. But hats off to Joe. If he suspected someone had had a go at him – and who knows but it might even have been his older brother – he wasn’t the one to show it, or to let it get to him. In fact if anything, the final two shows had even more edge than anything that had gone down before. And heel of the hunt, we’ve made Athlone.

It’s an hour to curtain. And even I am starting to get the jitters.

There have been a few minor changes. Lisa Corrigan has come down, basketball bump or no, to help out backstage. And there’s no love lost between herself and Aileen of the piggy eyes and too-youthful hairdo. But if Lisa was worried about Alma Flynn, she needn’t have been. When Alma learned about that little anonymous note, she was horrified. It poured cold water on the whole offstage love-in between herself and Rattigan. These days she’s all about Joe, who came out of the peanut fiasco with colours flying. Making a joke of the whole thing. Letting on to have an asthmatic attack any time the word nut is so much as mentioned. Rattigan can’t stand to be in the same room as him. And for Alma, that’s hurtful. She really just wants us all to be one big happy family.

I see it all. I see it all, from my hideaway. I saw who it was placed that bottle of Jameson on the props table, and I’ve a fair idea of who made that same bottle disappear. But I’ve kept it to myself. It might surprise you to hear who it was.

I’ve never seen Bev Gardner so fired up. Fiddling, fussing. An eye to every detail. And I honestly think we’ve a shot, this time. If we can keep the company from killing one another, that is.


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