Bruiser's Lisa May on taking Mojo Mickybo on the road – and overseas...

David Roy chats to director Lisa May about Bruiser Theatre Company's revival of Owen McCafferty's 1998 hit Mojo Mickybo, coming soon to a theatre near you...

 Lisa May in rehearsals for Mojo Mickybo. Picture by Hugh Russell
 Lisa May in rehearsals for Mojo Mickybo. Picture by Hugh Russell

"WE'RE all geared up and very excited," enthuses theatre director Lisa May of ongoing rehearsals for Bruiser Theatre Co's production of Mojo Mickybo, which will be touring Irish theatres from next week.

"We've done a schools tour and a brief run at the Lyric when everything was socially distanced back in September last year – so it has been great to get back in the room and get cracking on getting it back on its feet for a wider audience."

Owen McCafferty's fast-paced and humour-laced drama centres on the friendship between two young boys from opposite sides of the north's religious divide during the earliest days of the Troubles. It was first staged to rave reviews back in 1998 and a well-received film adaptation directed by Terry Loane, Mickybo & Me, was released in 2004.

Bruiser's revival stars Michael Condron and Terence Keeley as the titular Mojo and Mickybo, with both actors also responsible for portraying a slew of supporting characters.

"It's only an hour long, but the beauty of Owen's writing means that you still keep finding new things every time you come back to this piece," explains May, founder and artistic director of the Belfast-based theatre company, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

"He's just so clever, using these two boys as a vehicle for showing the absurdity of sectarianism, but that message isn't rammed down your throat – it's not preachy.

"I know it's kind of a traditional 'Troubles' play, but it's much more than that. It's about friendship and there's so many ways an audience can connect with the characters that are different from a traditional 'Troubles' play. It's cleverer than that."

It helps that Mojo Mickybo positively zings along at a cracking rate of pace, with audiences having to 'lean in' to keep on top of McCafferty's rapid-fire dialogue and the multitude of character changes.

"Owen's writing is really speedy, almost filmic," explains May.

"Our two 'boys' Terry and Michael play not just Mojo and Mickybo but everybody else – it's not like 'scene, break, scene, break', it's very fluid and there's no costume changes.

"So the audience almost become implicit because they have to kind of piece things together and just keep on top of it. It becomes quite an intimate experience."

She adds: "I love that type of theatre – you feel you've kind of 'worked' for it and you get a pay-off at the end. I'm just really excited for other people to see it now."

Terence Keeley and Michael Condron in Mojo Mickybo
Terence Keeley and Michael Condron in Mojo Mickybo

As well as being Bruiser's first live performances since last summer, the upcoming tour for Mojo Mickybo includes another major milestone, as its Derby-born artistic director explains:

"We've been doing a lot of co-productions in Belfast over the last few years, so it is really lovely to be going back out to visit these venues and bring a Belfast play to them," says May.

"We're also taking it to London, which will be Bruiser's first time taking a show over the water to England, so we're really excited about that."

In a way, it's fitting that Bruiser should be making their English debut at London's Union Theatre with an Irish piece like Mojo Mickybo, which the director admits "fits us like a glove".

"It's like Owen has written it for us," she enthuses.

"I've always loved the play. I saw it in its first guise over 20 years ago and I thought, 'Ooh, that would be ripe for Bruiser to get stuck in to'.

"As it's coming up to the 25th anniversary of the play being written, I just thought it was the right time to revive it. Belfast has changed so much and it gives us a chance to reflect on how far we've come, what's changed and what we still need to work on."

The impact of Covid not only curtailed last year's planned live dates for Mojo Mickybo, the shift to online content during the pandemic also forced Bruiser to embark on their first professionally filmed theatre production with the show.

"That was a total challenge," admits May of their home streamed version of the play.

"Normally we would archive our productions [on video] but we'd never filmed them 'properly' before. It was a total learning curve for me.

"The whole process was different, because at one point you're directing it for theatre but then you're also having to think about how it will look on screen as well.

"I remember the videographer going, 'Oh, I didn't realise it was this fast-paced': it was like 'go to camera one – two – three – four'. It was just wild.

"And then, of course, once it's filmed you're then looking at it and editing and re-editing, which was very peculiar I mean, I enjoyed it and I learned a lot, but my heart is still with theatre really – I like that live experience."

However, Bruiser also found themselves ahead of the curve (pardon the pun) during the early days of the pandemic: they actually had an online home learning/teaching package already prepared as part of the company's school outreach programme.

"We'd already been planning a digital education programme with our two education interns," admits the Bruiser founder.

"So we were kind of ahead of the game. I think we kind of jinxed the world by doing that, but it gave us the time to actually invest in content for that and getting our digital support for schools up and running.

"I think all theatre companies have worked harder than they ever have during Covid, because you'd make plans and then they'd change on an almost hourly basis. You were chasing your tail nearly every second of the day and doing 20 times the amount of work you'd normally do – with very little to show for it.

"But things are changing again and we're feeling positive. We've got a great artistic programme outlined for the next few years."

As mentioned, 2022 marks 25 years of Bruiser, which May founded as a Theatre Studies graduate fresh from the University of Ulster in Coleraine.

"I can't believe it – I started Bruiser as a mere child," she chuckles.

"We thought at that time there was definitely a gap in the market for touring theatre with a remit for education and professional development. So, with the best will in the world and absolutely no experience, we started.

"I think the polite term is that it was an 'organic process', but actually it was two graduates going 'aaaghhh!' and learning on the job.

"Would I have thought then that we'd still be going 25 years later? I'm honestly not sure."

However, Bruiser are not only still going, but going from strength to strength – so much so that they haven't even had time to think about proper anniversary celebrations.

"I think we'll maybe have a little bit of a party later in the year, but at the moment we're still just getting back up to speed, really," May admits.

"The plan is to do another Bruiser In a Box eduction tour around schools later in the year, and then we are hoping to go to America with Mojo Mickybo next year to tie in with its 25th anniversary."

:: Mojo Mickybo opens at the Garage Theatre in Monaghan on March 8 before touring to The Old Courthouse in Antrim (March 9), Marketplace Theatre in Armagh (March 10), The Playhouse in Derry (March 12) and onwards to The MAC in Belfast from April 6 to 10. Full tour dates and ticket details at bruisertheatrecompany.com/mojomickybo.