Eileen Battersby on Billy Roche
"My plays are like folk songs that are sung by different people. Even if the productions are different, they are still the same song,"
The first play Eileen Battersby ever reviewed was Billy Roche’s A Handful of Stars. Here’s a 2007 article about Billy by the distinguished critic, essayist and novelist who died last year.
If more people were like playwright Billy Roche, the world would make a great deal more sense. Here is a man who has not yet lost what F. Scott Fitzgerald once referred to as “a capacity for wonder”. Roche may well be an old-time romantic, but his plays look to reality: the hopes, disappointments and hurts that shape a character.
Small-town life, with its dreamers and losers, has proved a rich source for him as a writer. As a boy he developed the habit of listening to the conversations in his father’s pub. A part of him still is a boy, listening to the chance remarks and asides that contain dramas. The Shamrock bar in Wexford town was on its last legs when Roche senior took it over and gave it a new life. For about a decade it was a sanctuary of sorts for regulars - and then it burnt down. Life’s like that.
There is no bitterness about his vision of Wexford town, where he still lives.
“I like the place. It has grown: it was about 12,000 people when I was young, now there’s 30,000. I had a happy childhood,” he says and, as is obvious, is having a happy life.
That early experience of the pub as a gathering place left a lasting impression. He sees shops as small self-contained worlds, such as the shoe shop in The Cavalcaders or the barber shop in On Such As We.
Roche’s career as a dramatist began dramatically in 1988. He seemed to come from nowhere with A Handful of Stars (the first play I ever reviewed), the opening work in a Wexford trilogy soon completed by Poor Beast in the Rain (1989) and Belfry (1991). His early success happened in an orderly rush, each play receiving its first professional production at London’s Bush Theatre.
He was following in the steps of Tom Murphy, albeit without the rage that simmers through Murphy’s work. Frustration rather than anger is the medium within which Roche’s characters operate.
Garry Hynes, then at the Abbey, commissioned The Cavalcaders on asking Roche if he had a new play. He had, although it was still at the idea stage. As a time and memory play, the finished work has a complex structure, cutting through various time zones. It marks an important stage in Roche’s development and he admits looking to influences such as Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Roche’s relaxed attitude to life and work makes it easy for an interviewer to cut across and ask why we are discussing a revival of an established play, rather than a new one. “I got caught up in writing those short stories - it took me seven years,” he says. “Never again. I hope to write another novel, but short stories, they’re very hard to do.”
Tales From Rainwater Pond was published by Pillar Press last year and Roche was pleased by the reviews. The pond acts as a motif of sorts, a silent witness to each story. It’s a gesture towards the presence of a local pond, the Otter Pond, that excited his imagination as a boy.
“It was very deep, that pond, and local rumour had it that you could throw a coin down into it on your way home from school, go home, have your tea, play some football, go to bed and get up the next morning, have your breakfast and head back to school, come home for lunch - and that coin would still be falling through the waters, the pond was so deep,” he says.
He is honest and funny and enjoys telling his version of his life.
“I set off for London when I was about 23, and just married,” he says. “My wife and first child followed me a few months later. I was a singer/songwriter and an actor. I thought I’d be discovered in about two weeks. It took a lot longer and like so many other Irish men, I ended up carrying a hod on a building site.”
The Wexford Trilogy, which was also screened by the BBC, established Roche and also introduced Ireland to a new Irish playwright who had emerged fully formed somewhere else.
He turned 58 in January, his three daughters are grown up “and I became a grandfather at 57 in December”, but he still takes out his guitar most days and hasn’t forgotten he was a singer. The actor in him must be an advantage as a playwright - after all, he has an insider’s feel for theatre. “I know what it’s like to be a performer and that helps you understand how theatre works,” he says.
He tends to see the advantage in most things. Rather than declaiming defiantly how he first emerged in London instead of in an ungrateful Ireland, he says he was lucky his work was first looked at from the outside. When the first production of The Cavalcaders was cast in “about five minutes” (with “the great and now tragically late Tony Doyle the obvious choice for Terry”), Roche recalls director Robin Lefevre telling him “you should be Josie” - and that it is what happened. The play premiered in the Peacock Theatre before transferring to the Royal Court in 1993. Roche has also played Joe in Poor Beast in the Rain, Stapler in A Handful of Stars and, later, Dribbler in the revised Amphibians.
In ways, Roche seems to be caught in a sustained youth as well as retaining something of an older Ireland, but that might just be to do with coming from Wexford, as opposed to the west of Ireland, Dublin or the midlands. His boyhood was dominated by the local cinema, where he went to movies twice a week, and then there is all that music from the 1950s and 1960s, a rock’n’roll era that has left its mark on his generation. He mentions singers I’ve never heard of, but then moves on to familiar giants such as Dylan and Paul Simon and says “we all wanted to write our own Homeward Bound”. Still, first for Roche it was the acting bug.
“When I was at school, I intended to be an actor,” he says, not that common an aim for the second-youngest in a small-town, working-class family of six. Later, theatre definitively took over from music when he was in the audience watching a play and suddenly reckoned: “I could do that.” He did, becoming a writer at 30.
He has managed to live the life of a literary man without becoming isolated locally. There is no pretension, no angst. His days are spent writing, “messing around” with his guitar and piano, a bit of singing, walking the dog. The Cavalcaders is about a man who has lost his wife to his best friend and who takes consolation in the barbershop quartet started by his uncle. Terry is a doomed romantic, whose salvation has been the shoe repair shop - but now even that is being taken from him. Roche is fond of the play; it was important as its structure and concept brought him to new levels.
“Everything I knew about theatre at that time is in it,” he says. “It is kind of special and Terry, well, I gave him lot of problems and behaviour that would make him difficult to like, but, strangely enough, the audience forgave him. There was a sympathy. I see it as a pagan play that has been Christianised. It’s a kind of a Camelot play with the Camelot theme running through it.”
Every theatre needs a canon and Roche believes that The Cavalcaders has entered that canon. Later this year will see the 21st anniversary of the publication of his autobiographical debut novel, Tumbling Down, in which 17-year-old Davy Wolfe pulls pints in his father’s pub and, in his spare time, wanders the streets of Wexford town.
“I’ve revisited it and revised it and hope to find a publisher for it before its 21st birthday in October,” Roche says.
Having already emphasised the difficulty of writing short stories, does Roche, clearly given to creating dialogue, actually enjoy writing prose?
“It’s lovely to find yourself with the freedom to write descriptively,” he says. “In theatre, you don’t spell it out; not that I think it should all be spelt out in prose either.” For him, it is simple. “I ask myself what it is I want to say and then I find a way not to say it. The less said, the better.”
Logic shapes most of his observations and he remarks that “happy people are no use to me, I write about the unhappy ones. I like to think my characters are real”. Does he worry about how his plays change from production to production?
“My plays are like folk songs that are sung by different people. Even if the productions are different, they are still the same song,” he says.