Interview with Kathy Rose O'Brien | Alice in Funderland
Interview by: Caomhan Keane
There are many focal points in Philip McMahon's Alice in Funderland, the manic musical monstrosity camping up the Abbey Stage. There's Val Sherlock's wigs, technicolour candy floss with an acidic tint; Naomi Wilkinson's set -a neon metropolis- and costumes, a dragtastic delight, or the "Oh no, you didn't" gall of the humour, a vulgar veneer spread over the insecurities and desires of a people lost yet lurid. There's Paul Reid's voice (WOW!), Ruth McGill's presence and Mark O'Regan's smirk, as sublime as it is smug. But for me the one person who can be seen legging it off down Abbey Street with the show in her purse is Ms Kathy Rose O'Brien. With her dead pan delivery and sh*t eating grin, she makes chop suey of every line she's dealt, dealing it up to the audience in deliciously lathered morsels almost too funny to digest, most memorably as Gobnait, but that really was just the cherry on top.
Not that any one should be surprised. This is a woman who walks off with any show she graces. From the title character in Ellamenope Jones to her Gate debut Hay Fever her dramatic work packs a poignant punch, thoughts of her Rosie Redmond in the Plough in the Stars coming most favourably to mind. Gush complete, read her thoughts here on Alice which runs at the Abbey till May 12th.
Were you a fan of musicals growing up?
A huge fan! My Dad is a Bing Crosby/Frank Sinatra/Gershwin/Cole Porter aficionado so together we would have watched all the classics like High Society, Guys and Dolls and Singing in The Rain – Donald O'Connor, wow! And I think in my heart when I think of musicals it's those big Hollywood MGM ones that come to me. I remember teaching friends at school Marilyn Monroe's "Heat Wave" number from There's No Business Like Show Business. Very glad the nuns never clocked that!
Did you have any particular training in the field of musical theatre?
I trained at RADA and, although we did have individual singing lessons each week with fantastic vocal coaches and our voice and movement training was excellent, it wasn't exactly jazz hands day in day out. Granted there was a whole term on period dance, which meant learning the Pavan and Mr Isaac's Maggot and other 18th and 19th century "numbers" that would be more helpful for a period drama than a musical, but, all joking aside, it all helps!
Did you ever imagine that you were ever going to be working so heavily in the genre when you started out as an actress here?
I suppose I haven't seen it like that. I've been lucky enough to be very busy since graduating drama school and particularly the past couple of years, so in the context of that, I have only done Ellamenope Jones and Alice amongst comedy at The Gate, drama at The Abbey and other great projects. But I love that I am able to take part in these extravaganzas especially as people do train specifically for musical theatre and sometimes you feel as an actor you are meant to only work within certain confines. I think the wonderful thing about Wayne Jordan and Phillip McMahon's musicals is that they are as demanding in their requirements of actors actually acting as they are of the musical theatre conventions and demands. So, you don't feel as insecure if you take longer to get the choreography down than a trained dancer because you think, well, I'm also here to offer the skills I really have honed – I'll hopefully be quicker off the mark when we get onto the text!!
Tell us about Alice in Funderland?
It is a wonderful tumble down the rabbit-hole with a lot of truths and realities for people today wrapped up in a night of fun, fantasy, singing and dancing! It's also crammed full of jokes and sidebars, things that, embarrassingly I am only getting now after I don't know how long working on the show – Phillip's writing is so layered, yet light, and there are constantly more things to discover. We've had some people see the show 4 times already!
Tell me about the music?
It's just so beautiful. I think all the tracks are stand-alone numbers that could be in the charts. For me it is the more haunting and reflective songs like On the Edge, Torsos in the Banal, Which Way is Home, The Destination etc that I get lost in. They are lush and carry you away. I love their romance. There are plenty of upbeat numbers too though – Sister Sister is this fantastic duet between Chloe and Alice. It's hysterical!
Tell me a little bit about that time when Alice in Funderland and Ellemenope Jones were both being workshopped and performed?
Well, in a way Ellamenope Jones had me prepped for that exciting two weeks rehearsal before we did the reading/presentation of Alice over a year ago now in The Project. Wayne, the cast and I had just had a really satisfying time with Ellamenope and so the singing and performing required in Alice was less daunting. Gosh, those two weeks were intense! We had been meeting up for a few weeks at a time a couple of times a year for 4 years and every time we met up new songs or characters had arrived thanks to Ray Scannell and Phillip McMahon. We really wanted to do it justice and honour all that hard work. So we all dove in and what we showcased over those two nights got us to where we are now, on stage at The National Theatre with a hugely supportive artistic director behind us, a committed crew, creative team, an awesome band, amazing production values – the dream scenario!
How much has this taken out of you as opposed to your more recent work, The Passing or Hay Fever?
It's funny because the show certainly requires energy and yet I feel energized doing it! There is a slight feeling of anxiety when I am putting on my make-up and staring in to the mirror in my dressing room knowing what is ahead of us and what we all have to achieve over the next couple of hours to do the show justice but once you begin, not to mention hear the audience start to laugh, it's such a buzz!
You sing in Dublin accents. Did it take you a while to not crack up?
Hmmm, we still crack up over millions of things in the script. How sad are we? We are constantly laughing in the wings or miming at each other (due to the microphones!) as a performer out on the stage works in a new inflection on a line or really lands a joke that we've become used to.
What have you lined up for the future?
I go to Charleston, South Carolina straight after Alice with The Gate's production of Hay Fever that was on last Summer. The Spoletto Festival has invited us over and I am hugely excited about it!
Story by EI Team | 09:00 | Friday 13th April 2012 | Theatre
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