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A lockdown soap going places

David Hennessy spoke to Conor Montague and John O’Dowd, Chris’ older brother, about the lockdown inspired soap opera Coronamona that is told through Zoom calls.

When Covid-19 called a halt to all film, TV and theatre productions, Vagabond Productions’ Conor Montague and John O’Dowd found a way to keep creating drama while stuck at home.

From their bases in the London area and with the help of other actors based in Galway, they created Coronamona, an online series using recorded zoom calls between John’s character Seamus, a frontline health worker in the NHS in London, his Father Martin who is cocooning in Connemara and Bridie who works in a nursing home in Spiddal.

Writer Conor Montague, from Galway, explains to The Irish World where the idea came from: “I teach playwriting at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith and I moved my classes online with Zoom. And myself and John were having a couple of meetings on Zoom and we were just kind of thinking, ‘We could do a two hander just with two people on Zoom’.

“It came from that. Then we thought without another character, it would get a little bit stale.”

Martin is played by Peader O’ Treasaigh, who for decades has been a legend of Irish language theatre, film and TV. This is his very first project in the English language. Bridie is played by Sarah O Toole, a writer, actor and producer from Galway.

“We brought Sarah in then and that allowed us to widen the scope of the narrative. The audience could be in on the secrets, that we could create a bit of dramatic irony if Sarah told someone one thing but didn’t tell the other person or vice versa.”

Although the series has gone to five episodes so far, the group have been making it up as they go along.

John, brother of Hollywood star Chris O’Dowd, explains: “The only thing that was pre-planned was the first episode. There hasn’t been a direct knowledge about what’s happening next. The story evolves and forms through the interaction that the actors have with the text and the writer’s observation of what’s happening. It’s all just kind of manifested almost as a desire to be just doing something. Myself and Monty have been working together the last five years.

“When people engage with it and start to see it for what it is, a moving process and that these characters are starting to slowly reveal themselves and the storyline and that they’re keeping up with it: It’s a joy really.”

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The series has received glowing reviews for it’s storytelling and performance that depicts an Irish family.

Conor and John.

Conor says: “It’s very interesting to write when you’re not sure what’s going to happen even though you know the characters well enough. It allows the characters to surprise you a little bit or go in a new direction.

“And of course there is the very Irish father/son that don’t engage emotionally in a direct way. Everything is through metaphor/story and having a woman there that one character is in love with and the other character has a deeper love for maybe because she’s his care worker and he knows her since she was a child. It makes for a very interesting dynamic which I think the audience are very much engaging with.

“Family is universal. As Tolstoy says, ‘Every family is unhappy in their own unique way’.”

John counters: “It was me who said that.

“One of the things about Coronamona is it’s about the power of story telling. Stories are how Martin expresses himself to Seamus and to the world. It’s who we are. Irish people tell stories like no one else. We rejoice in the process of telling a story and I think we capture that.”

The series tells a very human story and one that everyone can relate to right now. They also tell it in a very Irish way and think it has something to say to the many Irish people all over the UK and the world that are currently unable to get back home or to see family as they would like to.

Conor says: “The main character Martin is sick. He has a brain tumour. Seamus is a nurse in London. They can’t move for obvious reasons and there is a lot of people in that situation and a lot of people have lived through that over the last few months of not being able to be with their family. I think it really speaks to the Irish diaspora who are away from home. Six months ago any of us could have just hopped on a flight without even thinking about it.”

John adds: “We’re able to express what’s happening in the external world in this particular time in history. We’re able to touch in that in a present day basis. It’s interesting. I’ve never been on a projecct before like this where it has that soap opera thing where it can comment on what is happening currently in people’s lives.

“We were able to comment on Seamus’ reaction as a nurse in London to the applause that was happening every Thursday. It wasn’t necessarily received as warmly as people might have expected him to. He was more concerned that people would tow the line, stay locked down so he wouldn’t be put under any more duress. It’s lovely to be able to comment about those things because they’re actually happening now as people are debating them presently and the same will be true as we move forward. It’s an incredibly tumultuous time in our history and we look at it in our own way.”

On the new esteem that people seem to have for health workers and care workers, Conor says: “Both my parents were nurses. I kind of grew up in hospitals. I think growing up the son of nurses is different becasue you never get any sympathy. You come in with your head hanging off you, ‘You’ll be alright’.

“We’ve spoken to quite a few care workers about their own cynicism towards the government, how they have been looked after, how they have been thrown into the fire to a degree and haven’t been cared for properly and yet continue to do their work. They’re conflicted all the time which we found very tragic and interesting at the same time. As Sean says in one episode, ‘It’s grand getting a round of applause. Give me a mask, give me protective clothing’. Applause isn’t going to help him. He’s just doing his job. He doesn’t want to be seen as anything other than that. They should have been respected all along.”

And has John’s A list sibling given it his approval? “Do you know what? We’re very close but I haven’t actually been in contact with him for a while. He’s always been kind of involved in the majority of the work that we’ve done. I’m sure we’ll be talking about it soon, Coronamona.”

John’s famous brother, Chris O’Dowd.

Could he tempted to cameo in the soap? “Yeah, maybe.”

Conor says: “Just put him on the phone call, don’t even tell him.”

John adds: “Do you know what? That’s what I’ll do. He’ll be like, ‘Why do you keep asking me to call you Seamus?’ We’ll do that in episode ten, the last one.”

When Chris reimagined his childhood in Boyle in the series Moone Boy, there was no older brother character but an uncle that John was the basis for.

“The character that was apparently inspired by me was the uncle who was played by Steve Wall from the The Stunning.

“He’s got all the bravado about travelling all over the world but he’s actually selling encyclopaedias door to door in Dublin. That’s actually what I used to do in London.

Steve Wall in character as the uncle John inspired in Moone Boy.

“I was away when he was a kid. At that age, I would have been the Steve Wall character sending post cards back from Australia or Asia or wherever. Chris always thought ther was an exotic nature to me. If he had seen what I was at at the time, I’m not sure that he would carry that opinion.

“I was a huge Stunning fan. It was very interesting when I got to set on the first day. I’m standing beside Steve Wall and he turns around to me and says, ‘I think I’m you. What are you like?’

“The whole thing was a surreal and brilliant moment for my family and for the town of Boyle.”

Conor and John are currently writing a feature film commissioned by a major American production company, a biopic of streakerMark Roberts. They are also working on a couple of TV series, one about Grace O’Malley and one named Rising that looks at the relationship between the Irish and Jamaican communities in London in the 1980s.

Despite the lockdown, John says they have stayed surprisingly productive. “Actually it’s odd. It’s probably one of the busier periods we have had.”

Conor says, “Myself and John had a play going to Edinburgh in August called Killing Donald and we had another play Chasing Raindeer that was coming to London in October/November. Obviously the lockdown put the kibosh on all of that.

“We’ve a lot of stuff under our belt at the moment. Coronamona I suppose was our reaction to where we were at the time.”

Coronamona can be viewed on Vagabond Productions’ YouTube channel.

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