John Dunne… my theatre saviour!
My friend, my good friend, employer, co producer & author of many plays I’ve been in John Dunne has died.
It’s just sinking in that I won’t see John again, that we’ll never go off on any more tours again. I’ll miss him very much, more than I can say really.
John had told me in 2017 that doctors had given him 6 months to live, he didn’t seem scared & told me very matter of factly. John was never an attention. seeker or drama queen!
It was me that was that!
I had a big falling out with him in September 2015 whilst acting in a Yeats play at the poorly run Pentameters theatre in Hampstead village & we didn’t talk for 2 years, but John never one to bear grudges invited me to read a Paddy Kavanagh poem for Christmas 2017 for one of his monthly Celtic craic nights at London irish centre to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Paddy’s death. Patrick Kavanagh, John & I had quite a bit of history by then!
The Irish centre in Camden Square was so hugely linked to John, I was in at least 6 different productions that John produced & were either rehearsed or were performed there between 2007- 2011. I also went to see many plays that he produced & directed there, both his own work & others. He was always extremely supportive of new writers & ran a writers group there for ages. When the Irish centre lost John they lost their greatest, creative force I think.
I first met John over 20 years ago when I was in his play 1916 about the Easter rising in Dublin, it was directed by his friend Syd Goulder at the Kings Head in Islington. It was pretty awful & chaotic with a cast larger than than the tiny Kings Head stage could manage, but only in the realisation, John had actually written a great, great play about something difficult to write a play about. Syd’s extremely basic style of directing & unwillingness to be open to suggestion, poor John told to fuck off if he tried to suggest something important & helpful & banished from the room. He took a lot of shit from Syd. The heavy artillery sound effects that drowned out a lot of the dialogue were symbolic of a great play being blasted to pieces as much as the Dublin GPO in 1916!
I liked John & we talked a lot about Irish history, we even planned to do a follow up play about Sir Roger Casement, when I expressed an interest in playing the English republican sympathiser, although sadly that never happened.
John was mostly always sadly denied money for his plays, but his tenacity never let what he saw as a minor hiccup thwart him in his desire to stage plays. John had started off adapting classic plays, always performed on a shoestring, he always made me laugh talking about his production of the Railway Children with just one actor! He was very inventive with his writing & got round practical obstacles like not being able to find enough or pay enough actors by creating a way of doubling up or just by simple storytelling.
I next worked with him when I saw he was looking for an actor to play Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh in a play called ‘On Raglan Road’ by Tom O’Brien. I knew of Paddy Kavanagh & relished the idea of playing him. This was the start of 3 different productions between 2007-2009. The play was rather plodding & the initial direction had little feeling, as the director Russell by his own admission had little interest in the subject matter, but we were were all good actors. John as well as being an excellent writer was a fine dramaturge & helped Tom no end with his plays, many of which he produced.
In 2008 we went on the road touring Ireland with On Raglan Road, the play edited by John was better, unnecessary characters jettisoned & it became a 3 hander. Jimmy O’Rourke, who was playing Brendan Behan & I had a great time sightseeing all over Ireland in our free time & although there were hairy moments with worrying about whether we were going to get paid week by week & if we would make the 3/4 weeks away!
We did make it, crucially because John relied heavily on the goodwill of the Irish venues that would pay him immediately the curtain was down, something that was unthinkable in England. He was a hugely nice guy, very personable & wholly genuine so people in Ireland really took to him on this his first tour away from England. Yes the play struggled for an audience occasionally particularly sadly in Tom’s home county of Waterford & maybe we as actors could have done a more to help get bums on seats but we were off enjoying the culture instead!
The play evolved into a 2-hander for its final incarnation, called Kavanagh, virtually completely rewritten by John, ditching Brendan Behan, which although I love Brendan was for the best as the original play had his character just rattle off all his famous quotes & little else & we had a different actress, Aisling playing Paddy’s muse Hilda Moriarty which although the original Hilda, Jo was absolutely brilliant & had this beautiful singing voice, created a completely new dynamic! This version which we again toured Ireland with, was by far the best because it really got to the heart of the relationship between Paddy & Hilda & ditched the rather cut & paste biography feel of Toms original play.
However John & I had bust ups when he cut corners & added dates without telling us, we were often told we’d have to do something unscheduled like be over a hundred miles away for 10am the next morning in the bar after the show. Goodwill & tolerance were needed & John himself got very stressed out in impossible situations of his own making, like double booking venues. Since the first tour of On Raglan Road we’d had nightmare, nonsensical scheduling like performing in Donegal one day then the next day travelling to the other end of the country for a morning school’s performance & then travelling back up to north again the next day. Poor John he was on his own & to cap it all his marriage was falling apart. I felt for him.
John loved Ireland with a passion, and the vast majority of his plays were inspired by this love. He also loved theatre & was never happier in his trademark working stage blacks, shirt & trousers & then relaxing in the bar afterwards with a pint of the black stuff, Guinness.
It did get very stressful on the last tour of Kavanagh & I didn’t help, getting cross & accusing him of running a “Mickey Mouse theatre company”, a comment that he never forgot & often reminded me of afterwards!
I bought this big Raven from a toy shop in Cork city, who I named Brendan, (after Behan because he reminded me of him) Very realistic was Brendan & that’s all I’ll say about him & he certainly helped to diffuse tensions between us & I’d tell people for years afterwards that he saved the show, which wasn’t that far removed from the truth!
John asked me to play Oscar Wilde in a play about his friendship with Toulouse Lautrec, we’d fallen out when I told him he wasn’t a really a director, so he got this fella called Robin Dunne in, no relation who was so unfeeling & odd that it made me really miss John!
I look back on it all now & think was I just being a cunt, blaming my insecurities on John? I honestly don’t know now. It wasn’t easy working with him, if you cared about doing your best, invariably his shows were shambolic, undisciplined with actors not turning up for rehearsals, getting fed up & leaving. And John for all his “let’s just get on with it” approach was not a director with any flare or vigour. Nor was he a good organiser of people. Goodwill was needed, but goodwill only goes so far. I said to him once, what’s the point of doing this if we’re not going to do it properly?. I think he thought, yes I was just being a Prima Donna!
I always regretted our spats, even though I later would come to laugh about them with John, they didn’t help, hurt us both. I rarely saw John angry, he’d mostly just get a bit huffy. I on the other hand had some real queenie fits. John was such a nice man & a good mate, that it gutted me to fall out with him. John liked to play the hard bitten, thick skinned creative, but I knew he was far from this. But God he could be infuriating, but then no doubt he felt the same about me, it’s just that it wasn’t in his nature to get over dramatic.
The thing I’m most grateful to John for was that he kind of saved my sanity, not to mention my whole confidence with acting once.
This had taken an immense battering when a paid theatre job I was on, a touring production of Charley’s Aunt fell apart because of a stupid mistake someone had made with my CRB check, the company who weren’t very good anyway, didn’t stand by me, made me feel like shit, even though the mistake was revealed within a couple of days, they were actually horrible, gave me no option other than to quit. I took a case to Equity & eventually won compensation.
However I was extremely depressed, feeling at my lowest ebb.
Then John called me up like a theatrical saviour & offered me a tiny part in a play that he was directing called ‘My Father’s Watch’ from a book by Patrick Maguire, (who at 13 had been imprisoned as one of the ‘Maguire seven’ wrongly convicted of the IRA bombings in Guildford) it was being produced at The Emerald Roadhouse, this big venue in West Belfast & John kindly told me I could stay rent free with him in his rented cottage near Newry..
I’d been in a play in the same venue, a year or two before, a big rambling play about the real life Visteon/Ford car factory dispute that a fella who had been actively involved in it all, John Maguire had written. John was producing & lending his dramaturge skills to no end.
He was always generous in this, taking no fee if he believed in something, no credit, no glory. I didn’t know what a dramaturge was until I met John, but he made it into a fine art.
Yes John in casting me as this psychotic English policeman in this play saved me & I never forgot it. I was hugely grateful & always reminded him so.
In 2013 John helped me by co producing my play about Beatles roadie Mal Evans on a tour of England & Ireland, a year after doing it in Edinburgh.
Yes I needed help in publicising it as I was spreading myself too thin, but John had no more talent for publicity than I had for it & the English run was with a few exceptions a disaster with loads of cancelled shows because venues hadn’t sold enough or any seats. However the Irish leg of the tour was happier & apart from a few hitches a good experience & saved the show.
Although the whole experience put me off ever producing a play again, I’m glad I did it, it made me aware of just how hard it is to be a theatre producer & hugely emphasise with what he had to go through. I will always be thankful to him for helping me realise a tour of Beatle Mal, for being the only one who stepped up to help me, particularly because he was no Beatles fan!
The last time I saw him was BC. Before Covid! We met up at his old stamping ground, The Kings Head an we nostalged like hell, reflecting on past collaborations, good and bad and laughed. I told him honestly that the best times I had had in acting were with him and I apologised for all my queenie fits over the years and harsh things that were said, He was vague when I asked about his health, mentioning in passing that he was on drugs so new they didn’t have names & he seemed so vibrant & well. Never for one moment thought I wouldn’t see him again.
We continued on in his favourite restaurant nearby and then later to The Compton Arms pub . We talked about how much we would both love to tour again and once again take Paddy Kavanagh to Dublin and although I didn't see him again we continued to message hope for this through the lockdowns.
I was actually all set to see him in May this year, we were going to meet on his suggestion again at the Kings Head again. But then a week before John messaged to ask if I could come over to the house instead, as he’d had a fall & maybe we could go for a beer & a curry at his local.
Then with just a couple of days to go he messaged me to say he wasn’t feeling too good & could we take a rain check? I never thought to ask him about how it was all going with the cancer, wishes I’d phoned him & now it’s clear things were not good. Though again I never thought I’d not see him again.
I’ve lost a dear mate & it’s a huge loss, Yes selfishly I still desperately want to tour with him again, turn up at a B&B’s, have a veggie breakfast each,
John was such a lovely guy that once when we were staying with Aisling’s family in Galway & we were delayed getting there in bad weather. They got up late at night to make us bacon sandwiches, I politely declined tho didn’t tell them I was a veggie, but John not wishing to appear rude said nothing & tucked in!
Oh I miss the long drives up and down Ireland listening to Bob Dylan, the setting up, John’s own particular idea of the half hour call & yes even his late lighting cues! But most of all I miss a bloody good mate who I didn’t see nearly enough of, even less of when I came to live in Dorset.
I think I realised even on all those tours that these were the best of times, my best times with acting were being with John in Ireland, and I have the best anecdotes which I have been tempted to relay here now, but I want this to be about him. Oh yes we had our ups & downs & when living with him at the cottage he rented on the Irish borders when doing Beatle Mal we became a bit like a bickering odd couple who at times got on each other’s nerves, but through & through we were good mates.
I haven’t been back to Ireland since November 2013 when we did the last night of Beatle Mal at Whites Tavern in Belfast, always imagined I’d go back with him. Well now when I do go back & if because I won’t go on my own & it won’t be easy not to be acing there, but if ever I do I’ll imagine John with me as clear as a day with him. Ireland which I love more than any other country on earth will always be indelibly linked to himself.
ps:I have looked around for suitable words in Irish poetry, even Paddy Kavanagh! I’m afraid though, like the stacks of pictures I took on our tours of Ireland, suitable famous words have evaded me. So instead I found this…
in 2014 on his request John asked his theatre friends to each write him a testimonial so that he might get a foothold back in the Irish centre, something he’d lost in the politics & petty jealousy of someone at the centre.
Hi John, as you requested by way of a testimonial. Put the cheque in the post! Lol. See you when you get back.
I have worked with John Dunne for many years and have always been always hugely impressed by his tenacity & drive in creating theatre, frequently undaunted by lack of funds, in a business when a lot of people can be looking out for themselves, he displays a rare unselfish spirit.
I played Patrick Kavanagh for him in a series of productions over a few years, as well as Oscar Wilde, exciting shows all of which previewed at the London Irish centre. Johns tenure here proved him to be just the right man to be organising artistic events, as he has the imagination, vigour, coupled with a level headed ease, which was often what was needed when faced with at times seemingly insurmountable odds
John Dunne is London Irish Theatre, his passion for his country, Ireland is evident in his all his canon of work, he also bravely goes out on the road with his plays, as Irish Theatre presents, as well as tirelessly championing the work of others, both in Britain and Ireland and this just get on with it approach, as well as natural good nature, goodwill and unshakeable belief makes him an especially ideal ambassador for the rich pool of Irish creative talent in London.