Bellow – Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Reviewer: Marian Lovett

Writers: Feidlim Cannon, Gary Keegan & Danny O’Mahony

Director: Feidlim Cannon

Perhaps awkwardness is partly the point of the first fifteen minutes of Bellow. Two very different protagonists, Danny and Gary, go to some lengths to explain this unlikely collaboration between a traditional musician and an experimental theatre maker. Danny O’Mahony is a renowned accordionist from Ballyduff in North Kerry who comes from a distinct lineage of music makers. His soft toned inflexions and hesitancies say more, rather than less, about how his passion took him down some fairly twisty roads.

Gary Keegan makes ‘pieces’ rather than plays, he is not averse to ‘eating his words’ (literally) and there are a few laughs generated by remarks about improv and that ‘failure is partly the point of it all’ (though really that’s ‘bullshit, Man’, he later admits to Danny who seems to have believed that line). Thankfully, just when I wondered whether Bellow was veering too far off into its ‘meta’ reflections on process we get to hear Danny play and then to see and hear his story unfold through word and dance and some extraordinary music.

One of the first tunes Danny plays is ‘Morrison’s Jig’. This he tells us was ‘passed down to James Morrison by Tom Carmody and can be traced back to Jeremiah Breen in the late 1800s. Now, unless one is an aficionado of the history of traditional Irish music we may not know any of these figures who are Danny’s icons. But anecdotes like this make the script conversational and also indicate the unbroken line between the music we hear now and some very ancient sources.

Danny’s virtuoso accordion playing makes us feel connected to, and almost nostalgic for, an Ireland where musicians gathered in kitchens in small towns and villages throughout the country, where tunes were passed down by the elders, mostly to young boys, children like O’Mahony, often eager for approval. ‘I was needed’ he says and evidently was made to believe. But a bleaker picture begins to emerge as we glimpse how the young player fell prey to the pressures exerted by own wish to excel, and by those who sought to exploit and gain from his talent.

If Gary Keegan seems initially pretentious as he provokes young O’Mahony to loosen up, engage in improv and ‘trust the process’, he comes into his own when he dons a cowboy hat and becomes the huckster, coach and small town Impresario who cajoles, threatens and pressurises the young O’Mahony to run away for three weeks and perform in New York. ‘Don’t go making a show of me’ the huckster harangues the young lad. The gruelling schedule which led to young O’Mahony being hauled off to perform in numerous venues throughout Ireland, the UK, Europe and further afield had little to do with the boy’s best interests but more with charting the so called ‘future of the tradition’, a good line surely for those touting their version of some divine mission, one that would have gone down well with local interests and with ‘Brand Ireland’ as it sought to project itself in and outside 1980s Ireland.

When it seems that the play is getting ‘stuck’ in its efforts to expose a traditional story via experimental means, then the protagonists are upfront in admitting they reached an impasse and how it came to be that they enlisted the services of a dancer, Emily Roddy Kilkenny, to get ‘unstuck’ and reverse out of the dead end that Bellow might otherwise have lurched into.

The performance climbs out of its clunkiness and really takes off when Emily comes into the narrative, her job being to communicate what is apparent from Danny’s off kilter body if not always from his words. Her movements are fluid and empathic and she somehow manages to express how choked up, burdened and strung out the accordion, and the weight of expectations, really made Danny feel. When she puts on the mask and the young boy’s clothes she effortlessly inhabits his persona. Through her dynamic movements we come to understand the trauma visited on the adolescent as he tries to navigate the lonely path of celebrity and success with addiction and illness, part outcomes of his journey. A high point is when Emily takes to the table and rap dances to a contemporary beat and the sounds of Danny’s feiseanna medals, which clink and shimmer and animate the shirt to which they’ve been pinned. It’s a mad moment which might just compensate for Danny’s deprived years without ‘Depeche Mode or the Pet Shop Boys’, years when his devotion to his art blinkered him to what might have been on offer in the local dance hall or disco.

Bellow is not perfect but it never sets out to be. There are some odd digressions, such as the brief reflection on the ‘shelf life’ of an artist but, as a company, Brokentalkers clearly rates authenticity over seamless narrative or flow. Ultimately, Bellow succeeds in presenting a compelling hour and a half of story and theatre enhanced by great dance and some extraordinary music.

Runs Until 2nd March 2024.

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The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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