Actor and drama teaching innovator Brian McMahon on being back on stage with Bardic Theatre
An entertainer and educator, Tyrone-born McMahon's methods have drawn acclaim all over Ireland. He talks to us about his approach to learning and starring in a new production of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Actor Brian McMahon's life story would make a super play. His route from a schoolleaver with three GCSEs to Queen's University graduate, with a first in drama, is as inspiring as Billy Elliott. Speaking down the line from his home in Ballyronan, McMahon is thrilled to be playing Pato Dooley in the new production of Martin McDonagh's 1996 play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
'It's great being directed in this by Sean Faloon, who founded the Bardic Theatre,' he says. 'That became a great training ground for me and actors like Conor Grimes, writers like Emma Heatherington and producers.'
He comes from a family of performers in different fields. McMahon's late mother Ethna was better known as one of the Loughran Sisters, a traditional music group. 'Mum would have played with show bands and was good friends with Philomena Begley,' McMahon says. 'She left school early, then worked in her father's music shop in Ann Street, Dungannon.' Brian's father Aidan was a GAA player of note, captaining Tyrone and playing for Ulster in the 1970s as well as playing in one of the All-Ireland semi-finals. Naturally, he encouraged his three sons to play sports. 'I remember going out in the evenings to play.'
Yet theatre became McMahon's dream. He initially studied catering at Leeds University, but felt homesick and left to get on with his career. 'I wasn't prepared socially or culturally,' he admits. The Bardic Theatre has been a leitmotif in McMahon's career since he played Ray Dooley, his current role's younger, dimmer brother 16 years ago. 'Oh, Ray isn't quite the village idiot, just someone who's in a small town.' Asked whether acting in one of McDonagh's fascinating yet bleak dramas is depressing, McMahon says: 'I find McDonagh's work grand with a level of intensity and a wonderful use of language. His pauses are so important, you could say there is a Pinterish quality. They provide moments that reveal the relationships.'
In Beauty Queen, the relationship between Mag, the dependent, difficult mother and Maureen, her 40-year-old untouched daughter perfectly illustrates the stranglehold that the Irish mammy, and the broader family, have on the upcoming generation. This crops up in Friel and elsewhere, but is magnificently illustrated in Martin McDonagh's work. This play, written in his twenties, gained six Tony nominations and has been described as bleak but brilliant.
McMahon's career in acting progressed and he found himself in a variety of roles at Bardic, a sort of repertory theatre. 'I played Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace, was in Cabaret and acted alongside the late, great John Hewitt.'
In 2010, McMahon decided to put something back. His theory of improving education via dramatic practice was turned into a ground breaking company, B Dramatic. McMahon has taken his philosophy into over 180 Northern Irish primary and secondary schools, transforming young people's lives in the process. 'I've worked with children with special educational needs,' he explains. 'Sometimes the teacher will say "You won't get much dialogue out of this one." My satisfaction comes when you find that through drama exercises, they do participate and gain a lot.' McMahon has proved that the drama workshop approach to learning works not just in arts subjects but across the curriculum. 'There is much better retention of information when learning is accompanied by physical activity.'
McMahon is married and has two young daughters. At just four, Maisie is already exhibiting some dramatic ability. 'She is big into her musicals and dancing,' he says. 'I just love her energy.'
McMahon's brother Liam is also in the family business, having a CV which includes the role of the policeman who sorted out David Platt in Coronation Street. Brian even got an expected bonus for his young Cookstown cast when Liam invited him to the BAFTAs. 'I was seated at a table near Dexter Fletcher, a really nice guy,' he explains. 'He's associated with Bugsy Malone. having played Baby Face, and wrote a message of support for the group.'
Focused on The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which opened at the start of the month, McMahon says the production has been very successful so far. 'People are loving it and the reviews have been great. I'm enjoying getting back to acting which gives me fire in my belly. Also, it enables me to feed back some practical experience to my BTEC students.' The success rate McMahon achieves at the South West College is impressive, with students gaining places at prestigious drama schools in Liverpool and Dublin.
McMahon becomes exercised at the current practice of charging students for opportunities. 'It's terrible. Students may travel to Belfast or Dublin to audition, get the part on merit then have to pay for the privilege of getting acting experience. Recently I saw a course advertised here by the Rose Bruford College and it was expensive. This well known college was charging £6,200 for six weeks' tuition with no qualification at the end. How do young people find that kind of money?' He has been fortunate – and talented enough - to do a masterclass with Meryl Streep and shadow then National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner and would like that level of opportunity to be more widely available.
Then McMahon is back to providing the love interest and potential escape route to the anguished spinster in one of the great plays in the modern Irish canon. See the Bardic Theatre's production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry on March 14, the Burnavon, Cookstown on March 22, Coleraine's Riverside Theatre on March 23 and the Termon Complex, Pettigo on March 30. See venue websites/Box Office for ticket booking and more information.