The Celtic Tiger is now firmly in the rear-view of the national psyche, and is increasingly remembered as a strange time in Irish history. For former painter/decorator Shane Casey, it was a point of frustration, but also a rich seam of material for comedy-drama play ‘Wet Paint’. Mike McGrath-Bryan sits down with the Young Offenders star to find out more.
From the local buzz that has sprung up around the international success of Leeside slapstick series ‘The Young Offenders’, the real-life stories behind its leading actors and actresses are among the most compelling, with a cast of homegrown talent breaking an all-too pervasive glass ceiling in Irish entertainment and further afield. Thanks to the international reach the original film and spinoff TV show has attained via RTÉ/BBC co-production, and distribution deals with streaming titan Netflix, ‘The Young Offenders’ has become a bona-fide success story in Irish media, and alongside Channel 4’s ‘Derry Girls’, a cultural talking point not seen in Irish comedy since the height of Father Ted’s success in the mid-nineties. For those out of loop, one of the show’s profound pop-cultural sensations is one of its’ anti-heroes, Billy Murphy, portrayed by Northsider Shane Casey.
Though the success of Young Offenders has placed Casey in a national spotlight, he’s been fervently working away on stories of his own for over a decade. Informed by his time as a painter-decorator at the very crest of the construction-boom wave, ‘Wet Paint’ was written entirely by Casey, who also stars in its upcoming Patrick Talbot production at the Opera House next month. Sitting down upstairs in the venue’s Blue Angel bar, Casey is open about the process of bringing the story of an image-conscious boss and his workers to life. “To be honest with you, I didn’t know that that was what I was going to write about. I started writing a monologues, and ‘I was on the Late Late Show once’ was the opening line. This monologue spilled out of me one afternoon up in Sunday’s Well, I was living (there). I found it was a funny anecdotal story about the man who meets the future James Bond on the Late Late Show, and told his wife that he knows him, when in fact he doesn’t know him. He’s caught out with a lie on national television. I found that humourous, and off the back of that, then, I had the character Tony, who I thought was like a neighbour of mine, and that evolved into the painting and decorating ‘boss’, that was under pressure, buying the new car every year, the new kitchen unit, and so on, all of this nonsense that was going on during the Celtic Tiger, and that evolved into, to be honest, a semi-autobiographical piece on being an apprentice painter-decorator as the world was going mad, in 2005.”
‘Wet Paint’ is a curio, in that it deals directly with the Celtic Tiger’s largesse and ‘notions’ by openly lampooning them, doing so not only as a personal nostalgia piece, but addressing the national episode, a time when the country, by and large, was arguably getting carried away with itself. Irresponsible investments, an over-emphasis on entrepreneurship, and a steady flow of cheap credit championed by banks and politicians alike created an atmosphere where anything seemed possible. For young people, however, soon to be the first victims of the precipitous bust of 2008 and the reviled austerity measures that followed, that fantasy was rarely the case, and Casey’s bile was aimed directly at the obstacles the boom-years mentality placed directly in his path. “It was just a frustration for me, at that point. I’d left the painting and decorating (a few years prior) and then when the 2005 (City of Culture) scenario rolled around I’d just finished college, I thought, ‘oh, this is going to be good for me, lots of plays and lots of theatre, vibrant things happening in my city’, and I just felt completely excluded from it. It was opera-singing up at the barracks, foreign plays coming in, which is all well and good, I love theatre, but I felt it was elitist, and that was the frustration that was coming through me in the play. I wanted to write a play that my Mam and Dad, and that my friends, who are builders, painters and decorators, and the theatre-going public could sit down and watch, and go ‘oh, he’s trying to say something, here’, y’know? I know that sounds kind of heightened, or convoluted, but it’s frustration, really, with… jambons, and silly, stupid carry-on.”
This time around, Casey and crew are working with former Everyman Palace director Patrick Talbot to get the Opera House production of ‘Wet Paint’ over the line, but Casey is quick to sing the praises of former directors that have worked with him on the play’s prior productions at the Granary Theatre, and the Everyman itself, drawing from the rich seam of theatrical talent that the city possesses in spades. “The play was directed by a woman called Evelyn Quinlan, who was one of the first Theatre students from UCC, she would have been involved with Julie Kelleher and people like that. She became a friend over the years, and I wanted a female input on the play originally, and she would have been a guiding light for the original production, and a director when we put it on in the Granary, and transferred it to the Everyman, then, a year later. Pat happened to be the guy that was running the theatre at that stage, and then when Pat came to me last year and said ‘would you take it out again?’, I was thinking it would be more relevant again, that there’s distance between now and 2005. I had another look, and thought, yeah, ‘maybe this does have something to say’, because now there is a nostalgia buzz, and I even talk about ‘Reeling in the Years’ in the play, Turners’ Cross and Cork City, all the stuff that was going on at the time. Pat has always been very encouraging to me in theatre, and encouraging me to write more, always.”
With the property bubble having long since burst, the fallout of the bailout and bank guarantee having taken a heavy toll on the Irish public over the course of the last decade-plus, and the prospect of a so-called economic recovery being touted by the Irish establishment, the temptation to ask Casey if any of the well to-do crowd have taken umbrage with the play and its mirroring of notions in certain parts of Irish society is frankly overwhelming for your writer. “I live close to inner-city Dublin, and I do workshops in schools. I know that kids are suffering because of the austerity cuts, like. We’re all suffering. The nurses are on strike. There’s kids who are homeless in Cork city. There is a bit of a recovery, but for who? That’s why I’m doing my workshops, ‘cause I know what it’s like to feel like sh*t about myself as a teenager, The Young Offenders has opened the door for me to do this, and put this play on again, and I’m proud and really excited to be working on it.”
In pursuing the opportunity given to him to revisit ‘Wet Paint’, Casey reached into his recent acting past to cast his two collaborators for the new production. Having moved to Dublin right before ‘The Young Offenders’ to pursue his craft in a busier atmosphere, the right people were literally falling in around him as he was revisiting the script. “The first time I met Tommy (Harris) was across the road (from the Opera House), when we were filming the prison scenes. I was beating this guy for an afternoon, and he turned out to be a friend, and now he’s in a play that I wrote, it’s amazing… I was in Dublin, went into a coffee shop that I had never been in before, and I took out the script. I hate taking out scripts in coffee shops, because I feel like a bit of a w*nker. The next thing, Tommy walks in the door, and I think ‘brilliant!’. Michael Sands is also a friend of mine, and he’s probably played more than anyone else at this stage. He’s been in dozens of pantos here, and in the Everyman, and I’m really excited to be doing it with him.”
Taking the play, a three-man piece with limited props, from the ‘round’ of the Granary and the smaller stage of the Everyman, to the generous proportions of the Opera House’s boards, would present anyone else with the question of how best to fill that space, and make the most of the historic venue’s facilities. For Casey, however, that negative space around his show’s characters presents an opportunity to maximise its visual impact and complement his story, allowing audiences to fill the spaces themselves. “That’s probably saying more for their isolation as characters, to be honest with you. We’re still on the outside, looking in on them. It was probably more ‘under the microscope’ as an actor, in the Granary and the Everyman because they were up our noses. There’s a moment in the show where, without giving too much away, where ‘the wall’ is very much broken. People didn’t realise we were acting within the scene, they thought the play was falling apart. We can make it maybe a little bit bigger. I’m glad that we did it in a small venue, and now we have it here, and we’re looking at taking it on tour later in the year, see how it does in other houses. We’re doing Skibbereen as well, I’m excited about that!”
When he isn’t working on his stagecraft, Casey has used his influence and the wide reach his acting has garnered him to advocate for awareness of mental health and stress among teenagers, following on from parental testimonies on ‘The Young Offenders’’ inherent inter-generational appeal. In his mind, opening up the conversation about the world around our young people, and the pressures that have always gone hand-in-hand with adolescence, is the first step. Casey draws from his own experiences prior to entering the performing arts, and has come away from his school workshops on the matter with some profound experiences and perspectives. “We’re opening up the floor to them, to have a conversation, suggesting things that they could do. It’s an experience-based workshop, based on the mistakes I’ve made in my life and the life I’ve led so far, what I need to do to be productive and happy within myself. That’s the most important thing. It’s very easy for kids to feel like sh*t about themselves, I know what it’s like to go home and sit on my phone for four hours, thinking everyone else’s life is perfect. I’m going in and being honest them, ‘cause I’m not the finished article at all. They think that when you’re an adult, everything’s over and you have everything made, they don’t realise you have problems and troubles. We need to sit down and talk about their problems and troubles as well. We had a lovely moment the other day, I asked a group, ‘how many people have somebody they can turn to if they really need help?’, and nobody put their hands up, and that was worrying. But we turned the tables on them and asked, ‘if somebody needs help, would yoy help them?’, and they all put their hands up. We’ve a lovely saying at the workshops, ‘don’t go the butcher for a haircut’. A lot of them get confused at the very start, but it’s about going to the right person for help at the right time.”
It must be an odd reverse-engineering of those experiences with mental health, then, to pour everything into portraying Billy Murphy, the Young Offenders’ eternal menace, rival and eventual anti-hero. Initially portrayed as protagonists Conor and Jock’s near-psychotic local bully, pursuing the pair over comeuppance received at the end of the original film, Murphy slowly becomes a sympathetic figure as the subsequent TV show progresses. He’s shown to be profoundly out of his depth when holding bus-goers hostage in the series’ infamous finale, and is ultimately shown as the product of parental neglect, mental ill-health and the wider social issues affecting inner-city areas and their infrastructure. With the responsibility that comes with such a large platform, Casey’s approach, similar to his other work, is to create a blank canvas for others to project their experiences onto. “Everything was there on the page from Peter (Foott, Young Offenders director). It’s well-documented at this stage that he lets us do a bit of improvisation, but Peter knows me for years, and what I can contribute as an actor. The character was there, and we knew there was more to him than the stereotypical guy that punches somebody. I very much wanted to have a struggle within the guy that if he does punch someone, that he goes ‘oh, tell your mam I was asking for her’, afterwards. I thought that was an interesting angle. Any time I ever saw a lad get into trouble, especially in relation to violence, he was kind-of beating himself up, more than anybody else, afterwards. I don’t think anyone goes out, punches someone and feels great about it. I think there is a sinister side to him as well, where he does take a little bit of enjoyment out of it, but there’s a pinch of salt to it.”
This coming summer will see the show’s second series enter filming around the city. While the details of the show’s next steps are of course under tight wraps, it’s evident that between the upcoming shoots and ‘Wet Paint’s continued run around Cork county, Casey has enough happening to keep him busy in the coming year. “It’s going to go again, that’s all I know. The kids and teenagers I meet are crying out for another series. The more we can get done, the better. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll get the one-percent of people coming up to me (saying so), but it’s like, ‘ye’re not the demographic’, like. Peter has assembled a brilliant team of people on cast and crew. Somebody put the headline that there’s a ‘love-in’ between all of us, and I’ll stand by that, I’m very fond of everyone I work with on that show.”
On a parting note, Casey makes time before he heads to a production meeting for an anecdote on the real strength of ‘The Young Offenders’ wide-ranging appeal. “A prominent person in this city, a television person, told me that they would sit down every Thursday night with their son and watch the show, and it would become a real bonding moment for them. It was really nice, as a family to do that. I thought that was really nice. The therapeutic quality the show has. Sitting down to watch one episode and being able to switch off, from their phones and the pressure they’re put under at school. I’m very happy to be involved in a show like that, and at the very least – kids are having a laugh.”
‘Wet Paint’ runs at Cork Opera House, at 8pm nightly from Wednesday March 20th to Saturday 23rd, with a special matinee show at 3pm on the Saturday. Tickets €21-27 are available from the venue’s box office, and corkoperahouse.com.