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Grief encounter

Colin Campbell plays Barry while Rhys Dunlop takes on the role of Pa. Photos: Ste Murray.

Award-winning playwright John O’Donovan tells David Hennessy about his new play Flights being inspired by burying too many friends at young ages, as well as its powerful themes of unfulfilled potential and the effects of austerity.

“Over half a dozen of my peers have died over the years,” playwright John O’Donovan explains some of the inspiration for his new play Flights which is about to come to London after playing at glór in his home county of Clare and the Project Arts Centre, Dublin.

“Even before we finished school, there were three or four lads who had died and you get strangely used to burying people your own age.

“I was writing the first draft of what this play would become- It was just a funny play at the time, I was wondering if there was something in it- when I got news a friend of mine had passed away at home.

“Three of us were living in London at the time who would have known him and we got together as soon as we could. We weren’t going to be able to get to the funeral so we just needed to see each other to see we were all alright.

“I was aware a couple of us hadn’t seen each other for a while and it was a strange thing to bring us together and it struck me that night not only this ‘here we go again, another one of the lads is dead…’ but also, ‘Why are we away? Why aren’t we able to go home?’

Flights tells the story of three friends in their thirties, Barry, Pa and Cusack, who gather to mark the anniversary of their friend Liam who was killed in a road accident when they were seventeen.

The characters in Flights meet to mark the anniversary of a friend who passed away young to slowly realise they are the only ones coming.

They have done it every year since he passed with other friends but this time, they slowly realise no one will be coming to join them and that they must drink to their uncertain futures, their dwindling youth and the ghost that has held them together.

The play is John’s tribute to friends who have died and also those who have gathered in their wake. It may not sound like a funny subject but it is described as a haunting but also darkly comic tale about bereavement, brotherhood and breaking away from your past.

John told The Irish World: “I think you get three friends in a room who have known each other for years and there is going to be jokes. I think we’re funny people through serious times. The play is serious but the lads are funny.”

John was writing Flights on and off for five years. Is this because it was such a personal project and so he did not want to rush it? “It was more pragmatic than that. It can be very hard to get a play into production. I had a couple of near misses with it, it was nearly ready to go and then the production didn’t happen.

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“You just have to keep going, audiences change and times change. I knew that I wanted the characters to be the same age as me. I wanted it to be about my generation. When I started writing them, they were in their late twenties. They’re 34 now. There’s a big difference between 34 and 29. You might still have hope at 29. You are where you are in your mid 30s, do you know what I mean?”

John goes on to explain what he means: “You don’t see too many people taking chances at 35 but you still see it in your late twenties. It’s a blessing in disguise that the play didn’t get away initially because I was able to revisit it and make it a much stronger play now than it ever was.”

The play’s sense of unfulfilled potential is palpable. Although the characters’ potential was once, like Liam’s, infinite, they are now facing up to being where they are. In Pa’s case, that is unemployed and homeless while Barry is stuck in a dead-end job.

“I always knew that their friend had died when he was 17 but now that they’re 34, that means he’s dead as long as he was alive. I think that’s a crucial point, that moment when they are gone longer than they were here.”

Rhys Dunlop in his role as Pa.

The play also highlights the effects of austerity on those left behind when so many were leaving rural Ireland to try their luck elsewhere.

John believes these themes will transfer easily to London: “I think England is the same as Ireland in a lot of ways in the way it was affected by austerity. I know for a fact thousands and thousands of people were affected by austerity in Britain. Disabled people, people with mental health issues: All those services being cut.

“I would expect them (London audiences) to recognise what ten years of austerity does to a generation, a generation that can’t afford to live in their own country but also feel like their potential was taken from them by politics out of their control. That’s as true in London as it is in Ireland.”

Based in London for ten years now, John has been pleased with the response to the play in Ireland: “It seems to be going really well. We’ve had good crowds. We opened in Ennis where it’s set and where I’m basically from (John is from nearby Clarecastle) and we had a great reception. The good will seems to be translating to the Dublin crowd as well. We had great laughter and a very moving response last night. It feels good.

“I can’t take credit for how good the production is because it’s the director and the team that have done it. I’m delighted with the actors, I’m delighted with the sound, set design, lighting. It’s just incredible.

“The three boys that are acting in it are excellent. Colin Campbell, Rhys Dunlop and Conor Madden who all very different, very different type of actors. They’re working together very very well.”

Conor Madden, the actor that plays new parent Cusack, is actually from Clare also: “It’s the first time I’m getting to hear my work done in the local accent which is great. It sounds so natural, you would think he was coming up with it on the spot rather than having learnt it. He’s just so natural.”

Flights is at Omnibus Theatre 11- 29 February. omnibus-clapham.org/.

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