The former Father Ted star talks to Matthew Amer about reading plays, taking a stand-up breather and appearing in Port Authority at Southwark Playhouse.
“There’s no trickery, no gimmickry, none of this talking to each other lark.” It’s not the most conventional line ever used to sell a play, but then Ardal O’Hanlon is not the most conventional of leading men.
Best known for playing less IQ-endowed characters in TV sitcoms – the sweetly naïve Dougal in Father Ted and hapless superhero Thermoman in My Hero – the stand-up comedian turned actor might not have been the obvious choice to star in Tom Attenborough’s revival of Conor McPherson’s Port Authority at the Southwark Playhouse.
This is not a role to play for laughs, where he can bounce off other cast members and play the fool to someone else’s straight man. His character’s life “is one of regret and disappointment” and though he stars with two other performers – Andrew Nolan and John Rogan – they don’t interact in McPherson’s play of three monologues.
“It’s storytelling in its purest, rawest form,” a now bearded O’Hanlon tells me when we meet in a little office at the Jerwood Space, where he is rehearsing. “Each story has echoes of the other stories. These characters aren’t related in any way, but you could see them as three stages of man.”
McPherson’s witty and touching tale follows the fortunes of a trio of men; a boy leaving home (Nolan), a man starting a new job for which he is not qualified (O’Hanlon) and a pensioner with a mystery package (Rogan).
O’Hanlon’s character’s story finds him living life on the margins of show business: “I’m very familiar with the Dublin world that McPherson paints beautifully,” he explains. “His attention to detail is great. This guy is rubbing shoulders with the jet set. He’s at a dinner party in a big house; I’ve been at that party. He’s backstage at a massive outdoor gig; I’ve been in that milieu before, marvelling at the excitement of it and all the rest while also being slightly intimidated by it as this character is. But it’s not really about that. It’s not really about celebrity, celebrity culture or show business.”
“It’s storytelling in its purest, rawest form”
It is, in fact, a portrait of contemporary Dublin which, O’Hanlon argues, is “one of McPherson’s three best plays; Shining City, The Weir and this. I think when McPherson keeps it simple, I don’t think there’s anyone better. He just writes beautifully and lyrically from the heart.”
This may sound like a more knowledgeable answer than you were expecting from a stand-up comedian whose forays into theatre have been few and far between. That’s certainly what I thought… which takes us back to the unconventional O’Hanlon. “While I do stand-up, and that’s been my bread and butter for a number of years, I’ve always loved theatre. I’m not a brilliant theatregoer, but I’ve always been a reader of plays and, indeed, I shouldn’t even tell you this, I am writing a play as well. So I have been reading plays very carefully over the last number of years.”
While he is keen not to give too much away about his own playwriting acumen, he does describe it as “probably the stupidest adventure I’ve ever embarked on. It’s incredibly technical and it’s way beyond my experience, but that’s the reason for doing it. It’s extremely challenging and I don’t know if it will even see the light of day, but it’s something I wanted to do.”
It is a similar explanation to the one he gives when we discuss why he chose to take on a more serious piece of theatre in a small, fringe venue rather than trying to find a comedy in the West End. “I’ve done funny stuff, I know about that,” he explains. “This is about trying to do something a bit different; asking ‘Can I tell this kind of story and will people tell me seriously?’”
It is a brave step to take, but he wouldn’t be the first comedian to move into straight performance. Even so, his turn in the Graham Linehan-penned sitcom Father Ted is still the performance that most of the public know best, more so even than his stand-up beginnings. Trying to shake the ghost of Dougal is easier said than done, and though he professes to being indebted to the holy sitcom, the tiredness that creeps into his voice and the almost physical sinking within himself when we broach the subject hints at a boredom with the topic.
Even his move into comedy was an unconventional choice for a shy lad from Carrickmacross, Ireland. His background, he says, was “Very conservative. Very straight down the middle, serious people who wanted their kids to go into the professions. I was a very shy kid. I wouldn’t say studious, but pretty good at school. Academically minded, possibly. So when I met the kind of people I met at university and we decided to set up a comedy club it was radical for us.”
“I think when McPherson keeps it simple, I don’t think there’s anyone better”
“I feel sheepish about saying it,” he says when we discuss the shyness which he used comedy to overcome, “but I honestly think that’s what [triggered his move into comedy] at the time. As you get older, 15, 16, and you get interested in girls, you realise that shyness can be pretty useless. I just remember thinking if you could make people laugh, that was a great way of breaking the ice.”
So it is, and from launching a comedy club in Dublin – “there was little else to do in Dublin at the time” – to being named Hackney Empire New Act Of The Year 1994, he built a reputation as one of the best comedians around.
You might think it odd, then, that we don’t see more of him on the television now. Stand-up comedy has had an explosion of interest with Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Road Show and Live At The Apollo giving opportunities to showcase your work like never before and more panel games than you can shake a tickle stick at. Again O’Hanlon takes the route less walked. “I’ve always been a little more wary of that environment,” he says of the many panel shows, “it doesn’t really suit me. I always saw [comedy] as a vehicle for your own neuroses, fears and observations. When you try to crowbar that into a panel game environment, it’s not your agenda.”
This is why we find O’Hanlon in Waterloo, in a room, wearing an Armani Sport tracksuit top, surrounded by wooden pallets and talking with me about a small production in a small theatre where he is part of a cast with which he does not interact, rather than trading quips in a TV studio. He’s not afraid to try the trickier option, which might be more fulfilling.
“Coming from a stand-up background, it’s all about you, so you become a bit self-obsessed and you spend far too much time naval gazing, wracking your brains and all the rest. I can’t tell you how welcome it is just to get a change of environment and a change of pace from time to time.
“You’ve got to understand,” he whispers conspiratorially, “it’s lonely as a stand-up. You’re on your own all the time. You put up this front as a stand-up comedian, like you’re armour-plated; you’re out there on your own and it’s you against the world. To be able to shed all that for something like this is great. It’s fantastic.”
Trying something new to shed the burden that comes with your day job; maybe O’Hanlon’s not that unconventional after all.