​Brendan Shelly - A Lifetime in the Making

Brendan Shelly talks about the background to the world premiere of his company's inaugural play, Porridge Boy, which opens this month at the Greenwich Theatre.

A celebration of the ability to rein in our biggest fears

Brendan, let's start with your company, Ageless Arts, which you created to support previously unpublishedplaywrights over the age of 50. Did you feel there was a gap in the market that you could plug, based on your experience as a singer-songwriter?

There is a gap in the market as people over the age of 50 are underrepresented in the theatre. As a theatregoer, it’s also apparent that there are very few parts for older or younger actors. A lot has been done to tackle other diversity issues but that doesn’t seem to be the case where age is concerned.

As a career changer and someone who likes to challenge himself and take on new roles, where I am always a little out of my comfort zone, I want to encourage other people at my stage in life to feel they can do the same in whatever activity they are drawn to.

Going back over your life, I understand Porridge Boy draws on your childhood experiences. What were they and where does it go from there?

I lost my father when I was seven and that event changed my life. The play dramatises the events that occurred after this tragedy and explores how it affected all family members differently and how the family unit, as dictated by society, must survive but often at the expense of the happiness of individuals.

It would be fairly obvious to most people that an event of this type would have a negative impact, however, what I've been aware of is that it has also changed my life with an urgency to find what’s really important in life. The play is a celebration of the ability to rein in our biggest fears and take on new challenges, which someone with a less traumatic background might not have the need to do.

It’s set in 1979, a year of some dramatic events in Ireland. How do these relate to the musical?

Although the church and state still had a strong grip over the lives of ordinary people, in the late 70’s there was a groundswell of opportunity for young people to express themselves in such forms as punk music and fringe theatre and with relative financial freedom, young people could indulge for the first time. In the case of Ireland, the well-used phrase that teenagers were invented in the 1950s could be said of the 1970s.

The play mirrors this new sense of individualism and freedom through the reactions of the young members of the family to the events that unfold around them. For example, in the play the youngest boy, Joey, wants his painful feelings of loss to be acknowledged, while the older brother Dan wants to disrupt the natural hierarchy of the family by taking on the role of the ‘man of the house’ in defiance of the prospective stepfather.

In a way the play challenges earlier notions, promoted by the catholic church, that children have no feelings and are full of sin that needs weeding out. On the contrary, I found growing up that it is the natural propensity to have a bit of harmless fun that is liberating, whether it’s smoking a joint or playing ‘spin the bottle’, which the church would frown upon.

Apart from being a first for your new company, this is also your first musical. Were you nervous about embarking on the project and how did it go?

This play has been a lifetime in the making and therefore pretty much wrote itself, once I set myself to the task. In fact, I noticed that the more honesty in the writing the easier the words flowed. This had the added benefit of helping me overcome the childhood trauma and to release the hurt child I'd carried inside me for years.

The chance purchase of an accordion led me to experiment with new folk sounds which resulted in songs and melodies that transported me to my childhood in Dublin and into a story redolent with some personal experiences in my home life, as well in the life of the characterful community I was brought up in.

You’re also directing for the first time, along with Coco Mbassi. Before we delve into that process can you tell me something about Coco and how that partnership came about?

Coco is a director of fringe musicals, notably Haendel on the Estate, which was performed at the Depot in Finchley and the Oval Playhouse in London in 2022. She is an incredible Afro jazz singer/songwriter and performer. The combination of her experiences, her talents and her French African upbringing with its tradition of storytelling, community and music-making not only linked to my background but, as we have also discovered, drew her to a connection with Porridge Boy.

You’ve taken on a cast of eight and a musical trio, which seems quite ambitious. How has it worked out?

We have carefully assembled a wonderful cast of talented actors, young and old, three of whom have come over from Ireland to do the show.

It’s been a very fulfilling experience, not least because of the challenges I have faced in directing, for the first time. However, I am well supported by my team who bring their combined wealth of experiences and ideas to the project. Already one week into rehearsals the prospect of realising this story, which I have nurtured for so long, to an audience, is becoming more tangible by the day.

Many thanks, Brendan and we wish you every success with Porridge Boy.

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