- 22 Sep 17
The Magical & Mellifluous Musings Of Mr J. Fish
It’s hard to believe, what with the silicon dockers and the five euro cups of coffee, but Dublin’s Bord Gáis Theatre stands on a one time den of iniquity called Misery Hill. The gentrification of the area surely warranted a change of name, but the street sign remains. A glance back in history shows the appellation was well earned. Home to a leper hospital in the thirteenth century, it was here the bodies of those hanged at Gallows Hill, which was located between Mount Street and Baggot Street, were displayed as a warning to others, some five hundred years later. On a lighter note, it’s also the spot where the late J.P. Donleavy’s Balthazar B had the bejaysus scared out of him by a ‘grey bewhiskered face’. Jerry Fish appropriates this quasi-mythology to frame a panegyric to himself, Misery Hill: The Songs & Tall Tales of Jerry Fish. It is the job of the artist to offer their story to the world, and his is more interesting that most.
Water and the sea play an important part in the tale. The stage set is a mix of a between the wars Berlin version of the Little Mermaid and a silent movie set, and, after the opening song, bemoaning the lot of the ageing artist, is out of the way, Fish opines the show as “a tale of two rivers, the Liffey and the Thames, and the boy who swam in both.” His invitation to read between the lines will become clearer as the show progresses. “Fortune favours the brave, roll the dice, drop the penny in the well” is the carnival line as this barker, shaking maracas like a snake charmer, beckons us in. The first stop is South London, where the young man develops a cockney sensibility from the pearly kings but he’s still an Irish bastard, and every Irish heart is a broken heart. Another son of the smoke, Charlie Chaplin, offers a cure, and Fish gives out a few bars of his ‘Smile’. The full toothed grin is almost a trademark, along with the fantastical ‘tache. In the right light, wrapped in a blazer that’s seen better days, with his short back and sides, our host resembles a young Joseph Stalin, beaming at you as the blade slides in.
His mother’s love of the sea brings the family back to Dublin, most specifically Ringsend, merely a stone’s thrown from the Hill. Now he’s an English bastard, in the city where every bowsie has a molly on his knee. He falls in with local Romany gypsies, boxing amid the buttercups and wild horses. The Southwall, which extended from Ringsend into the bay, was where passengers arriving in Dublin used to land before the Liffey was cleared, so naturally the place has a history of chancers and ne’er-do-wells. The river has tried to take it too; water ran over the low ground between Irishtown and Beggar’s Bush in the seventeenth century. Fish embellishes the place with stories of beached whales and ghost ships, reminding us that “we are all from the sea”.
Have you heard the one about the white men who told the Native Americans to look to the sky to see their God, and then stole the ground beneath their feet? It’s an historical, cosmic con. Read between the lines. These are the tall tales. The whole show is a confidence trick, a slight of hand, a theatrical version of the three shell grift. “We’re just killing time, who get’s the china when you up and die, who’ll bring you flowers?” Life is the ultimate grift, a carnival show, smile though your heart is breaking, you’ve been had, but we’re all in it together, “We’re all God’s children, follow your heart, not your head, Celebrate!”
It should be obvious that this is a very different animal from the usual Jerry Fish show that’s playing at a festival near you this very weekend. And it’s hardly an unqualified success either – the songs, just him and a piano, need finishing and a bit more melodic variety, and the audience participation goes too far when he brings all the men in the audience on to the stage and keeps us there for a full song. Hot Press didn’t mind much, but the next bloke was quietly furious, especially when he then had to waltz with me. This kind of thing is not to everyone’s taste. The material also needs to be acted out, rather than just read from notes, but I suspect this is very much a work in progress. All that being said, it was curious and entertaining. In the bar afterwards, Fish admits to being genuinely nervous while performing the piece, so different is it from his usual shtick. His artistic restlessness and ambition are to be applauded. The man is never less than interesting, which is all anyone can ask of anyone else.