‘My Cork connection’

Sonya Kelly, whose mother is from Cork, tells COLETTE SHERIDAN about her love of Leeside, stand-up comedy and her new play
‘My Cork connection’
Sonya Kelly. Picture by Al Higgins

ACTOR, sometime comedian and now a full-time writer, Sonya Kelly, is bringing her latest play, Furniture, produced by Druid, to the Everyman.

Sonya, whose award-winning shows, The Wheelchair on my Face and How to Keep an Alien have been staged at the Everyman, is fond of Cork. Her mother was originally from Blackrock in the city while her father came from Blackrock in Dublin.

“You can imagine how that conversation went,” says Sonya. Her mother, whose maiden name was Treacy, moved to Dublin at nine or ten because of her father’s job in Bord na Móna.

“But Cork and Cork culture was very present in my house growing up and Christmas wasn’t the same without spiced beef. As an adult, I’ve come down to Cork with work, touring my own shows all over County Cork with the Fit-Up Festival. I’m hugely connected to the place.”

Anyone who saw Sonya’s autobiographical show, How To Keep An Alien, might be interested to hear that Kate, her Australian girlfriend, is now Sonya’s wife. The funny play was about the couple’s attempts to prove to the Irish immigration authorities that they were a genuine couple. “Maybe I should write the sequel,” says Sonya, laughing.

The subject matter of Furniture is “so simple that it’s hard to imagine it in terms of drama. But when you think about it, furniture is everywhere. The dramas of our lives are played out on it, amongst it, in front of it. We’re born in a bed. We eat at tables and sit on chairs. I decided to see how our relationship with furniture affects our relationships with people.

“I’ve taken three scenarios and written three playlets for this play. The last play, for example, is about an elderly uncle who is dying. His solicitor/nephew has come to manage his uncle’s personal effects. The uncle bequeaths him something he doesn’t want — a chaise longue. The nephew is forced to explain why.”

The play is about how humans are affected by the material objects around them.

“It’s about our possessions and how they affect us and the reverence we give to them.”

Sonya Kelly. Picture by Al Higgins
Sonya Kelly. Picture by Al Higgins

The six cast members, who pair off into three duets for the short plays, are Niall Buggy, Helen Norton, Ruth McGill, Kate Kennedy and Druid ensemble members, Rory Nolan and Garrett Lombard.

“They’re all extremely funny, whip smart and wonderful performances. Audiences have a laugh, a bit of a think and at the end, they might have a cry. A lot is packed into 80 minutes.”

When Druid was having an open call for submissions of new writing, Sonya sent Furniture to the Galway-based company.

“They got 250 scripts. They picked two and did a public reading of them at the Galway International Arts Festival in 2017. Mine was chosen to be produced. I was over the moon.

“It was a hit at the festival last year and Druid decided to revive it for a tour taking in 13 counties.”

Sonya began her career as an actor. Furniture is the first play she has written that she doesn’t star in.

“I still do a bit of performing. But I’m caught up with Furniture now and it is such a pleasure to have written it and to see it being performed. If you really want to do something well, you have to give it the 10,000 hours. For the next while, I’m going to be focused on this.”

In 2006, Sonya started doing stand-up comedy.

“I started gigging in Dublin in seven to ten minute slots. Then I went to the UK. I got into the final of a competition and I ended up in the Comedy Store in London and started gigging there.”

Stand-up comedy, is, says Sonya, “lonely, different and very singular. You show up at a venue. There’s four other people there. All of you are on that night. You might know one or two of them or you might not.

“Then you go back to your hotel, whereas, with theatre, it’s such a wonderfully collaborative medium. It’s social and less gladiatorial. It’s a world I prefer to be in.

“Working in stand-up in London is pretty challenging and not for the faint-hearted. While I love humour and being funny, I don’t have a compulsion to be funny in public six nights of the week to drunk people. But it’s a wonderful thing. Hats off to Alison Spittle and Aisling Bea. They’re trailblazers and they’ve helped to change the industry which, when I was in it, was sexist. What’s great about Alison is that while she’s funny, what she says is important. She gets her point across. She’s emphatic and angry and she seems to channel it all in such a beautiful way.”

Writing is something Sonya has always done.

“But I never did it with a view to becoming a public entity. I write every day. I get up at around 7.30am and am at my desk (in the office of a Dublin theatre company) by 8.30am or 9am. I usually work on a script and a project until 1pm. I resist emails until after lunch. It takes discipline to focus on the writing. The reason I go into an office is so that I don’t end up just doing the laundry.”

Sonya is careful about showing her work to people. “I work on stuff for a considerable amount of time before I share anything. If someone says that what you’ve written is great, you won’t show it anymore, even if you know deep down that you need to.”

Clearly, Sonya is striking a chord with her writing. She abides by Hitchcock’s dictum that drama is life with all the dull bits cut out.

“It’s about sharpening and heightening and making sure that something is always being negotiated and characters are always wanting something.”

Furniture is at the Everyman from May 3-4.

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