“It’s like a wholesale GAA nightclub in Dublin”

Life looked bleak for Paul Howard in 2012. He was weeks away from opening his first musical, which was about the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank. Howard — and his co-producer Darren Smith — spent most of their time in meetings with attorneys rather than in the rehearsal room. Despite pressure to kill the show, which included threats from former Anglo CEO and chairman Seán FitzPatrick, the couple decided to go ahead.

“We were lucky we didn’t go to jail,” says Howard. “I remember before a meeting to talk about the legality – or not – of the show, and the likely implications for us, Darren turned to me and said, ‘Damn, we should have done Coppers: The Musical.

What started as a joke came to fruition. In 2018, Howard created Copper Face Jacks: The Musical, which takes place inside the walls of Dublin’s legendary nightclub on Harcourt Street (which opened in 1996). Her second foray into musical theater was a resounding success.

“Darren and I knew Coppers very well,” says Howard. “We knew it was an Irish social institution. Unlike Anglo Irish Bank, it is an institution that has happy associations. We said to ourselves: why not pay homage to him on stage? A bit like a Moulin Rouge with cutting and new cut denim.

The plot revolves around a love triangle: Noeleen, a comely young girl who has moved to the capital for work; her abandoned fiancé, Mossy; and Gino Wildes, a cad, car blocker and captain of the Dublin Gaelic football team. The cast includes Johnny Ward, returning as Gino; and Mrs Brown’s Boys star Fiona O’Carroll.

“The thing about Coppers, the nightclub, is that it’s like a basically GAA nightclub in Dublin,” says Howard. “You could be in Tullamore. It’s like a local nightclub, but in Dublin. Door policy is not difficult. If you have a girl gang from Donegal or a gang of guys from Cork for a game they know they are going in. They knew they would not be fragmented and that they would wear their GAA colors.

“For people moving to Dublin from different parts of the country – gardaí, nurses, teachers or, in the case of our heroine, a claims clerk at VHI – it’s a little piece of home. It has this folksy, warm feel. DJs are not pretentious when it comes to playlists. Sweet Child o’ Mine could be followed by The Lion Sleeps Tonight. All of these great floor fillers. He doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Howard was a regular at the club in his twenties. “I loved that no one was judging you. I couldn’t get into Reynards and Lillie’s Bordello until I became the voice behind Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. I was turned away regularly from both nightclubs. I’ve always been too ugly to get in. There’s only so many different excuses you can get from bouncers: “Your shoes are too casual.” ‘I don’t know your face.’ “You have to be a member.” After a while, you realize they think you’re just not going to improve the aesthetics of this nightclub.

Before putting his musical on stage, Howard had to get permission from Coppers owner Cathal Jackson because he needed his imprimatur to use the Copper Face Jacks brand. Jackson wasn’t sure. He said he wanted to give the green light, but he wasn’t a theater or live music man, and he wasn’t sure that would make or break what was a thriving brand. Jackson agreed to come read – with six or seven trusted friends – to pass judgment.

Copppers cast: Johnny Ward, Sarah Gordon, Stephen O’Leary. Photo: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

“The reading was a hundred times more tense than normal,” says Howard. “Actors are normally nervous anyway during a reading. I’m nervous because I wrote a show and I don’t know which jokes are funny and which jokes aren’t funny. It was that extra tension.

“Cathal and his friends have arrived. They seemed to be mostly gardaí. Big guys. You could tell by their cut – like, “the guards are here in civilian clothes.” One of them was [former Dublin football manager] Paul “Pillar” Caffrey. They were all standing against the wall. We were at the table reading the table. Honestly, we were all terrified to see what they were doing with it.

“About 10 minutes later I looked up and all I could see were red faces and shoulders going up and down. They were laughing, including Cathal. We got to the end of the first act and Cathal came over and he said, ‘I don’t need to hear anymore. I love it. Go for it.’ That’s when it really became a thing.

The musical Howard’s Coppers returns for its third run this summer. The public voted with their feet, stoning their numbers out loud like the coming-out song I’m gay, I’m GAA and Whoops, I’m back in Copper Face Jacks. Howard, who has won the Irish Book Awards four times, is jaded by the arrogant critical reactions to the series.

“You don’t write a show like this for the critics. Popular theater is never well received by critics. A lot of theater critics are snobby about it. I saw a few theater reviews at a show recently and they seemed to be from a place where something terrible had happened. I can’t remember the last time a comedy won a drama award. I don’t know if it’s beyond their knowledge, but it’s just not for them.

“I’ve seen shows where I’m sitting there checking off why the lines are funny but people aren’t really laughing. I would hate to write something like that, to be in a theater and no one is laughing. I saw a Richard Brinsley Sheridan comedy a few years ago. We were all sitting there. Nobody laughed. Then everyone left saying how funny it was. If comedy doesn’t make you laugh – to me – it’s not comedy.

Howard says he wrote the musical to make people laugh. “The only criticism that really matters is when you’re sitting in the theater and people are laughing? I didn’t write this show hoping theater critics would like it. You write it for an audience. I would much rather have the laughter of an audience and the violence of a theater critic – than the other way around.

  • Copper Face Jacks: The Musical is at the Olympia in Dublin until August 20; and Cork Opera House, August 23-28. See www.corkoperahouse.ie