Dave Duggan play featuring live jazz band back at Derry festival

Chezzie gets another Chance at this year's City of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival, after first impressing audiences with its relatable, real music-driven story

The City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival, one of the highlights of the North West's cultural calendar, is almost upon us again – and with it will return a very popular piece of theatre.

Following a very successful premiere run at last year’s festival, Chezzie’s Chance, written and directed by Dave Duggan and co-produced by Blue Eagle Productions and the festival itself, comes back to the Millennium Forum Studio from Friday May 3 to Sunday May 5.

The production ties great jazz tunes from the legendary likes of Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to Duggan’s well-known narrative of everyday people and the everyday strains on them in differing circumstances.

Such strains await Donna, the mother of the titular Chezzie, when her son takes her to a jazz club and tells her that he plans to be a singer. The joy is in how she deals with it – and whether or not he literally takes his chance.

Chezzie's Chance 2
Conor O'Kane as Chezzie and Orla Mullan as Donna

Actors Orla Mullan and Conor O’Kane, both alumni of Coleraine’s Loreto College, return in the roles Donna and Chezzie respectively. And Mullan, singer with The Swingtime Starlets (who will also feature at the festival), is thrilled to again be working in a story which combines two of her favourite things – theatre and music.

'It was something that instantly captured my attention,' she says. 'It had never been done before at the Jazz Festival, and I loved the idea of combining theatre with that iconic sound and being part of something that little bit different.'

Donna seems the typical Duggan heroine – a single mother bringing up her only child while running a vintage clothes shop. Theirs, I am told, is a loving relationship – he is a high-flyer at school and the world is his oyster, while she is endlessly proud of him and wants nothing but the best for him in life.

'The sparkle and love between Donna and Chezzie reads so brilliantly in Dave’s dialogue', says Mullan. 'And what’s most interesting about playing Donna, for me, is that the story reminds me very much of my own parents’ concerns about me pursuing a life in the arts. When I was 18 and going to drama school in England, I was Chezzie in every way. All his hopes, his determination, and ambition – it was all there.'

Chezzie's Chance 2

Yet it was a greater challenge for Mullan in a time when going to study acting wasn’t as common as it is today. It was only natural, therefore, for Mullan’s parents – and many like them – to worry not only about stability but competition in the acting world. Relaying their experience on stage nearly two decades later has been, and will again be, hugely gratifying for the actress and singer. 

'The play is about letting go of your ‘baby’ and hoping that a world you have more experience in is kind to them. Being part of it has made me appreciate my own parents so much. It’s helped me to see the situation through their eyes, to understand how lucky I am to have their support and encouragement. That’s what Donna wants for Chezzie. It’s a universally appealing, tenderly told story of a parent and her child – laced, of course, with Derry humour.'

Producer Jonathan Burgess generally concurs with Mullan’s optimism. 'I want Chezzie’s Chance to be an inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale – something which encourages anyone to explore their artistic side to their maximum capacity. As someone who has battled to make a career from the arts for 25 years, I’m definitely all for it!'

And there certainly seems little doubt that Chezzie’s Chance will play its part. For those who go to a Jazz Festival primarily for the music – and let’s face it, that’s all of us! – theatre is kind of a breather. In this case, 75 minutes. But this is a play that, with a soundtrack of roughly ten tunes, never loses sight of music, giving supplemental, narrative depth to what is already set to be a buzzing occasion.

Dave Duggan
Writer Dave Duggan

'The play is always the thing for me', says Burgess. 'And what we have here is not a musical, but a play with music. Staging it in the Millennium Forum Studio, too, gives it a kind of a clubby vibe. Something nice and niche, festival-specific. The studio is a fairly non-specific room, and you can perform from any corner you wish. So we’ve set the stage up in one corner with the audience sweeping around two performance areas. One’s for the band, one’s for the two actors, and in between that, there’s a space where the actors can break out and sing.'

One big change from last year will be a new band leader, guitarist Peter Vail replacing trumpeter Linley Hamilton. Like Hamilton, Vail, a 'bit of a jazz head in the city and further afield' will bring his own distinct style to the studio and the story, but this time the guitar will drive the music. 

An all new kind of energy for a refreshingly familiar and potentially revitalising production, then - which promises to be as good this year as it was last year.

Chezzie's Chance runs at Derry-Londonderry's Millennium Forum from Friday 3 to Sunday May 5. For performance times and tickets, click here: https://www.millenniumforum.co.uk/shows/chezzies-chance-2/. For full details of the City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival including tickets to headliner Marc Almond on May 3, go to http://cityofderryjazzfestival.com.