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Bellow review: An odd-couple pairing between an avant-garde performer and a traditional musician

Theatre: Brokentalkers are aware they occupy a rarefied zone. This encounter between Gary Keegan and Danny O’Mahony enjoyably sends up their approach


Cube, Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Much of what could be easily imagined about the serious people who make experimental theatre is summed up early in Brokentalkers’ arch new play. Bellow’s subject, the superb accordionist Danny O’Mahony, is seen introducing one of the company’s directors, suggesting they are particular about their artistic approach: “He makes what some people would call ‘documentary theatre’, but he doesn’t use that term.”

To Gary Keegan’s credit, he recognises the makings of an ingenious odd couple. The pairing of a traditional musician with a maker of contemporary theatre provides its own comic tension, bringing together men from separate worlds who use the cringy language of biographical profile against each other. We hear that O’Mahony’s music, according to his website, is “expressive and deeply personal”. Keegan, evoking the turtleneck-wearing inhabitants of the theatre-studies common room, prefers that his plays not be called “shows”. “I call them ‘pieces’”, he says. (We won’t be resorting to that here.)

Brokentalkers are aware they occupy a rarefied zone, and provide an enjoyable send-up of their own theatre. The method also seems a good way to tell a story. When O’Mahony is led through a word-association exercise (industry insiders will recognise Keegan carrying a copy of Impro, Keith Johnstone’s improvisation bible), there are hints to a lost childhood and a painful past with addiction. He retrieves a postcard addressed to his parents, written while on tour in New York, describing himself as being surrounded by suffering, and unable to escape.

This isn’t the first time Brokentalkers have depicted the trauma of young people in the Irish music industry. Their 2018 work Woman Undone, a reimagining of Mary Coughlan’s childhood, showed life on the road as a nightmare, and presented abusive, showband-era managers as dress-up cowboys. Here it is Keegan who dons the wide-brimmed hat, appearing as a brutal tour manager taking O’Mahony on the road without his parents’ knowledge. Eventually, the dancer Emily Kilkenny Roddy is ushered in to play the accordionist’s younger self, careening through relentless tours, becoming addicted to alcohol in their teen years and, later, falling into a painful fight against cancer.


There is much talk of the healing, reassuring power of music but it also risks the play being pulled towards intangible ideas with only obvious metaphor to express them, such as the sight of O’Mahony handing his reeling younger self an accordion to fill and release with air, as if performing a breathing exercise. Despite funny references to the overparticular ways of contemporary-theatre people, the focus surprisingly widens to include Keegan and Kilkenny Roddy’s contemplations of their own creative futures, making the play’s intentions fuzzy.

Yet it does justice to its artists. Watch as O’Mahony, speaking in clipped sentences, weaves long, meticulous melodies with the accordion. In one flash of brilliance, during a visualisation exercise, Keegan’s textbook-explaining, cowboy-dressed villain begins to explain the principle of Chekhov’s gun (“If in the first act…”) when, suddenly, O’Mahony fires a gun at him. Even the naysayers have to admit that’s cool.

Bellow is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until Saturday, March 2nd; it is then at Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda, on Thursday, March 7th, and the Everyman, Cork, on Tuesday, March 12th, and Wednesday, March 13th

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture