Sparkplug: “Imagine Garrison Keillor relocating to Ulster’s northwest in the company of Tom Waits and D’Unbelievables and you get an idea of Nee’s singularly enjoyable production” Mick Heaney Irish Times 13/9/12 Star Rating ★★★★
Sparkplug: “…bringing to mind something like Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love, with its traveling carnival, as Tullyglen community looks forward to “vintage day”, or John McGahern, with its clear-eyed take on a world that is not as it first appears.” Siobhán Kane irishtheatremagazine 11/9/12 Star rating: ★★★★
Sparkplug: “A mesmerising piece of theatre balanced somewhere between the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a zen meditation session. The evening made me feel as if I was a child again, enthralled by a magical story…” Michael Harding Irish Times 22/3/13
Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown “Mesmerising. Enchanting. Magical. Touching. Ingenious. Innovative. Quirky. Endearing. Experimental. Different and highly imaginative. All words that appropriately describe Barabbas’ latest theatrical offering. This time it’s a collaboration with Little John Nee, an inimitable and very Irish troubadour, storyteller, writer, actor and (even if he might baulk at the description) avant-garde clown, in the broadest meaning of our hitherto historically circus-confined red nosed buffoon. Actually, in the case of Little John Nee and this production, Shakespearean Fool and Patrick Kavanagh-esque village idiot aka parochial-meaning-universal poet is a more fitting appellation.
“Reminiscent of something akin to an Irish Tom Waits, Little John Nee’s charming, skilled tunes and their at times, Dylan Thomas-like lyrics and words veer magnificently from the sublimely poetic to the rough and vulgar as if to mirror the twin ingredients of gold dust and excrement that fertilise many a creative imagination.” Irish Theatre Magazine
The Mental “Little John Nee, as actor and writer, has become a representative Irish figure and commentator, and never more so than here” The Irish Times
The Mental “Its beauty lies in its charm, but its depth lies in its message: we are all just a step away from one another after all” The Sunday Independant
Limavady my hearts delight “Nee’s apprenticeship as a street entertainer on Grafton St. stands him in good stead, and the performance hinges on his unrivalled comic ability and his chameleon-like capacity to transmogrify from hapless hero to a range of other characters with minimal props and utter conviction…His command of gesture, voice, pace, pitch, accent and dramatic pause is second to none, his singing lusty and the idiom very much his own…Little John Nee does for the craggy rocks of the north-west what Dylan Thomas did for the lush valleys of Wales” The Irish Times
Rural Electric “A unique talent” –“Irish Theatre Magazine
Rural Electric “a masterpiece of storytelling” ***** The Guardian
The Derry Boat “Scotland needs to see more of Little John Nee and soon” -The Scotsman
The Derry Boat “Full of pleasant surprises, the chief one being Nee himself” -Washington Post
The Derry Boat “I don’t think I’ve seen anything this funny in years” -Sunday Independent
Country and Irish “An extraordinary performer…absolutely authentic characters…the whole of Ireland will love this show” – Rattlebag, RTE Radio
Country and Irish “This show is ferociously funny” Galway City Tribune
Salt o’ the Earth “Nee is a genius…mesmeric and hilarious” – Irish Times
“The thing that makes Nee’s work so poignant, funny, tragic and real is that it is instantly recognisable; be it his characters, their circumstances or the situations they find themselves in. The biting wit and self-defacing humour allows him to cut through such harrowing issues as alcoholism, spousal abuse, poverty, loss, without ever belittling such topics.” –“The Donegal News”
THE MOTHERS ARMS Great hair and an opinion: Little John Nee & The Highly Strung …
‘You could’ve seen Tom Waits for €120 in The Phoenix Park
You could’ve seen Little John in The Mall for a tenner
And though it’s my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
Johnny Patterson The Singing Irish Clown by Barabbas
Written by Little John Nee
Directed by Raymond Keane
Irish Theatre Magazine Reviewed 30/10/09 by Patrick Brennan
“Mesmerising. Enchanting. Magical. Touching. Ingenious. Innovative. Quirky. Endearing. Experimental. Different and highly imaginative. All words that appropriately describe Barabbas’ latest theatrical offering. This time it’s a collaboration with Little John Nee, an inimitable and very Irish troubadour, storyteller, writer, actor and (even if he might baulk at the description) avant-garde clown, in the broadest meaning of our hitherto historically circus-confined red nosed buffoon. Actually, in the case of Little John Nee and this production, Shakespearean Fool and Patrick Kavanagh-esque village idiot aka parochial-meaning-universal poet is a more fitting appellation.
The ostensible subject here is the life and tragically premature death of arguably Ireland’s greatest clown, Johnny Patterson. A folk hero whose songs and wit regaled audiences in Ireland, England and even the USA in the second half of the nineteenth century, Kilbarron-born Patterson, who was orphaned at a young age when his parents died within a year of each other, was taken care of by his uncle, a nailer. Johnny was all set to follow his uncle into the nail-making business but for his aptitude for music. His uncle enrolled him as a drummer in an army regiment in Limerick and after a few years Johnny bought himself out of the military and set off on a life in the circus. Young Johnny quickly established a new role for himself as a wit and singer who interacted with his audiences and held them in the palm of a hand that would later develop alcoholic shakes when one of his daughters was killed by an elephant in a circus.
Patterson’s most famous song, ‘The Garden Where the Praties Grow’, is just one of many featured in this production. In a more organic way than any other Irish theatre company, Barabbas bring the imagination of European theatrical styles and experimentalism to everything they do. The musical and comic genius of Roger Gregg (Crazy Dog Audio Theatre) is brought to bear in the gloriously burlesque and surreal figure of Paddy Shoes, a one man idiosyncratic and eclectic orchestra of soundscapes weird, wonderful, inventive and downright mellifluous, as he insinuates his aural meanings and backdrops from the mostly stationary position of what appears to be a mobile front porch of a truncated wooden house.
Mesmerising. Enchanting. Magical. Touching. Ingenius. Innovative. Quirky. Endearing. Experimental. Different and highly imaginative.
Added to this Bryan Burroughs as Snowdrop, in glorious shaved head, looking like a mixture of a monk and a figure from the Comedia dell’Arte, etches out another space of meaning with his studied movements that can metamorphose into anything from an elephant to a drunken peasant, but that always complement and enhance or counterpoint the story as told by Little John Nee, who is both the writer of the tale and Johnny Patterson.
Patterson was also a source of fascination for Jack B. Yeats. One work by Yeats, ‘The Irish Singing Clown’, was the catalyst for the idea for the show in Raymond Keane’s mind. Thus, while this Barabbas production is on the surface about Johnny Patterson, it is also very consciously and overtly about the magic of all storytelling and artists and how they engage an audience or not, even as their personal lives crumble. Patterson was torn between his career and his family. After suffering the tragedy of losing his daughter and his wife, drink became an ever prominent companion.
Somewhat insanely, compared to today’s standards of restraint and etiquette, Johnny Patterson was killed whilst performing a song in his own circus. Johnny was an ardent follower of Charles Stewart Parnell and his Home Rule initiative but he liked to sing a song about reconciliation between the two sides called ‘Do Your Best For One Another’. It was during one performance of that song in Tralee, with Patterson wielding a green flag and a red one, that a fracas broke out wherein Ireland’s beloved singing clown was struck by a crowbar. He died a few days later on May 31, 1889, at the age of 49. The death in the show is rendered with marvellous, time-stopping suddenness by Bryan Burroughs.
Reminiscent of something akin to an Irish Tom Waits, Little John Nee’s charming, skilled tunes and their, at times, Dylan Thomas-like lyrics and words veer magnificently from the sublimely poetic to the rough and vulgar as if to mirror the twin ingredients of gold dust and excrement that fertilise many a creative imagination. The set design, minimalist and dream-like with circus stanchions (support or barrier?) rising high into and beyond the ceiling of the theatre, espouses that same battleground between infinity and the mundane.
Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown is incestuously and erotically Irish at its core. Barabbas bring to this cocktail such knowing and eclectic avant-garde theatricality that the end result is a highly sophisticated further extrapolation on the theme of the tears of a clown, and the idea that the best comedy always has the rattle of the coffin haunting its laughter, especially when it’s Irish.
Patrick Brennan was chief theatre critic and arts writer with the Irish Examiner from 1990-2004. He is currently writing a book on the theatre of Tom Murphy.