Little John Nee, storyteller supreme

Sitting in a pub in London one evening after work a lifetime or three ago, an English colleague told me that I was typically Irish. He’d asked me a question and after half an hour he still hadn’t received an answer. And I’d been talking the whole time. Being Irish, in his mind, meant never taking the direct route. It meant, at best, answering a question by asking another, and at worst, prefacing the answer with a story, or series of stories, that took ages to get to where they were going. Patience wasn’t one of his virtues.

As a people, we’re renowned for our ability to tell stories. The kernels of truth they might contain vary according to the audience and perhaps the time of night they’re being told. It’s not a conscious thing – it’s almost automatic. If there’s a more colourful way to illustrate a point, we’ll find it. Plain, hard, facts are the purview of others. We like to embellish. We like a little nuance with our nouns.

But a good story must have rhythm. The words must sing. They must lift off the page and transport the listener to the point whereby they’ve often forgotten what their original question was, so enthralled are they with our tale. And this is something we share with Hungarians.

On those rare occasions when Irish storytellers come to Budapest, they deserve an airing. And next week, on Thursday, at 8 pm, one of Ireland’s finest will pull up a stool in Beckett’s Irish Pub on Liszt Ferenc tér to regale the masses. John Nee is passing through with his Small Halls and Potholes tour, en route for Croatia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Austria.  And he’s not to be missed.

john-neeTechnically, John is Scottish. Born in Glasgow of Irish parents, the family returned to the ould sod when he was 12. He grew up in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal and now lives in Galway, probably two of the country’s most beautiful counties. He goes by the stage name of Little John Nee, a nod to his father’s fascination with Little Richard. Back in the 1970s, he fronted Joe Petrol and the Petrol Bombers, a punk band that was famous enough in its day – if you believe the stories.

When working on the building sites in London, he got involved with the Dalston Junction Alternative Cabaret and later, took a turn doing Charlie Chaplin on the streets of Dublin. A much-commissioned playwright and an intrepid musician (he outed his affair with a ukulele on national radio), Nee is no stranger to TV, stage, and screen. He has worked with the likes of Neil Jordan and is perhaps a little bit famous for playing the part of Postie in an Irish-language TV silent comedy Fear an Phoist (The Postman). Silent comedy, I hear you wonder. And I’m bigging him up as a storyteller?

The versatility of his talent – a storyteller who uses the medium of theatre and music to weave his magic –  is evidenced by the sheer variety of names mentioned when trying to describe just how good he is. A quick traipse through reviews of his shows sees mention of writer John McGahern (a personal favourite of mine), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tom Waits, Shakespeare, and Patrick Kavanagh. Now, imagine these greats, and more still, wrapped up in one body and you might come close to imagining John Nee.

But you don’t have to imagine. Because he’ll be here, in Budapest, for one night only. Mark your diaries. If you’ve any interest at all in the art of storytelling, in the magic of words, in the power of performance, then get ye down to Beckett’s on Thursday for 8pm to see the man himself in action.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 November 2016

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