AMIDST all the buzz that has sprung up around the international success of Cork-based TV comedy The Young Offenders, the real-life stories behind its leading actors and actresses is among the most compelling.
Seeing a cast of homegrown talent breaking an all-too pervasive glass ceiling in Irish entertainment and further afield has been a joy to behold here on Leeside.
The BBC/RTÉ comedy has become a bona-fide success story in Irish media, alongside Channel 4’s Derry Girls, creating 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 Young Offenders’ big success stories has been its anti-hero, Billy Murphy, portrayed by Northsider Shane Casey.
Despite this image of Casey being an overnight success, 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 crest of the construction-boom wave a decade ago, Wet Paint was written entirely by Casey, who is now starring in its upcoming production by Pat Talbot at the Opera House later this month.
As I sit down upstairs with him 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 for the Cork stage. “To be honest with you, I didn’t know that that was what I was going to write about,” he says candidly.
“I started writing a monologue, 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 humorous, and off the back of that, I had the character Tony, who I thought was like a neighbour of mine, and that evolved into the painting and decorating ‘boss’, who 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. In the immortal words of Taoiseach Brian Cowen, “we all partied”.
Irresponsible investments 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.”
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, ‘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 new-found influence to advocate for awareness of mental health and stress among teenagers. In his mind, opening up a 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 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 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 with them, ’cause I’m not the finished article at all. They think 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 you 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.”
On a parting note, before heading to a production meeting, Casey has an anecdote on The Young Offenders’ wide-ranging appeal. “A prominent person in this city, a television person, told me that they would sit down every Thursday 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 from March 20-23, 8pm, with a matinee show at 3pm on the Saturday. Tickets €21-27 from the venue’s box office, and corkoperahouse.com.