THEATRE / A gathering of good friends: Noel Pearson is filling English and American theatres with Irish drama. Georgina Brown talked to him

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The Independent Culture
Noel Pearson has a lot to thank Norman Wisdom for. Twenty years ago, when the comic was bombing at Dublin's 1,200-seater Gaiety Theatre, Pearson offered the theatre's owners a one-man show about Brendan Behan. Such was their desperation that they took it on an unprecedented 50-50 deal. Titled Confessions, it sold out, and Pearson made pounds 1,200. 'Impresario? Piece o' cake,' says this ebullient imp of a man. So began a roll, a slow roll with some duff gambles and massive losses, but one which eventually led to homegrown projects - such as his first film My Left Foot, about the paraplegic author Christy Brown and Brian Friel's play Dancing at Lughnasa - spinning into Oscar- and Tonyland. And so it goes on. This week he brings Frank McGuinness's remarkable play Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, about three hostages chained to a Beirut cell, into the West End, from where it will go to Broadway.

The entertainment business almost lost Pearson - not once, but twice. First to the Church - he signed up to be a priest at the age of 14 but realised after three years' study that he had to return 'to the real world.' There, Politics got him. As a cost-and-work accountant in an English firm, it didn't take Pearson long to realise that while the white-collar staff, forbidden from joining a union, were getting paid pounds 5 a week, those on the shop floor, union members all, were getting pounds 15-16, overtime and the rest. 'Well this was 1960 - not 1860 - and not just a blue collar- white collar divide but a Catholic- Protestant divide - when I began there I didn't even know what 'Which foot do you dig with?' meant.' He set about organising the union and did that for three years ('A life spent at night meetings, bullshitting'). Then one day he was at a tennis hop, chatting to the band, and a guy said 'would you ever like to be in the music business?' Over a 7-Up and a Coke ('I didn't drink till I was 26'), he sealed a deal to become the band's manager, running it in his spare time. Soon afterwards he gave up his day job, and he has worked for himself ever since.

He went on to manage The Dubliners, who quickly became the first folk-band to make it in Europe and the States. Pearson has always set his sights on the international scene. He remained a music manager for 12 years, staging a smash-hit minimalist version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Then, thanks to Norman Wisdom, the theatre stole his heart. Following Confessions, his friend Alan Simpson (the first person to stage Godot in English, and the man who launched Brendan Behan in the pocket-sized Pike Theatre Club) suggested that they complete Behan's unfinished play Richard's Cork Leg with some big numbers from The Dubliners. Pearson took it; it sold out for a huge Irish tour and then came to the Royal Court in London, where it contributed to the hibernisation of the Court in the early 1970s.

Scratch any Pearson production and more often than not you find one of his chums. 'I think that talented people find it hard to make friends, and when they do make a friend of a producer they feel kind of relieved that they can explain what they think.' Take Christy Brown. 'I was his agent for about six months,' says Pearson, 'I didn't know anything about literature but he drank a lot - and he didn't want to think that he was bumming my company, so he said 'Be my agent, then I've an excuse to talk to you'. That was in '72 and I said 'Fine' as a joke. Christy was a terrific guy, a big fan of The Dubliners, and he used to go to all their concerts. When he died in '81, I tried to do Down All the Days but the rights were sold in perpetuity so I couldn't. Well, in '87 I got out My Left Foot and read it again and it reads like a child's book - very simple - but it's the same story.

'I decided that it would be tremendous fulfilment for me just to make it - I never dreamt of Hollywood or anything like that - and because of that we made no compromises, no concessions at all; this was Dublin as I knew it because I'd been one of 13 children and Jim Sheridan (who wrote the screenplay) was also from a working-class family. We knew every nuance of the film - and because we retained the integrity in the film of the actual family - it worked.'

Similarly the actor Richard Harris was at the root of his film The Field; and Dancing at Lughnasa happened because Brian Friel is a pal. At the end of the Eighties, there was a crisis at the Abbey Theatre, where Pearson was chairman of the board - 'The artistic director didn't work out, to put it mildly.' Pearson took over the job as a stopgap, and stayed for two years (on a weekly wage of pounds 168). Meanwhile, Brian Friel gave him his new play to read. 'I read it and I said, 'This is wonderful, I'm going to take this everywhere.' And he said 'I think your left foot has gone to your head' '.

Pearson was undeterred - and rightly so. Dancing at Lughnasa went from the Abbey to the National; then Bill Kenwright became co-producer and took it to the Phoenix Theatre in the West End and on to Broadway. At Gallagher's restaurant on the night the play opened in New York Pearson stood up and read from Frank Rich's dazzling review to a highly emotional crowd. Lughnasa won all the awards it could (at the Tony ceremony, Pearson dumped the award in Michael Douglas's arms and, rather than thank everyone he knew and loved, pulled out a book and read Yeats's poem 'Embroidered Cloths'). That was a year ago now, yet even Lughnasa is not playing to full houses. 'I'm beginning to think that plays only have a nine-month run in America,' says Pearson. 'A year is a long time unless you're Neil Simon, indigenous to New York.'

Perhaps inevitably, 'Blinkie' (Pearson's nickname, for the deliberate blink of those smiling Irish eyes) attracted flak from those who claimed that he used his position as chairman of the Abbey to get Lughnasa on the road. But as Seamus Hosey, producer of The Art Show on RTE radio and sometime theatre critic, explains, Pearson never downplayed the fact that Lughnasa is an Abbey production. 'It's fair to say that without him Lughnasa wouldn't have happened. Noel's a hustler, a mover and a shaker - he's gone to Hollywood, New York, LA. Too many people in the Irish theatre have been prepared to starve for their art, but he sees it as a business. He's hard-headed but he has heart. In a cut- throat world he has kept his head, and his old friends from the volatile theatre community.

'He's riding on the crest of a wave, but it's a wave that's partly self-generated. He looked abroad and saw that Irish theatre had a place there. And, to quote the song, in good times and bad times, he's still here.'

A reputed tax exile, with an apartment on Manhattan's Washington Square, Blinkie is still there, in spirit at least. He continues to be Dublin's local hero, even while on contract with Universal Pictures for two years ('Everything I've tried to make they turn down and everything they've tried to make - gangster pictures - I've turned down'). His latest picture, Annie, is about Dublin in the Thirties. Out of the blue the author, Paul Smith, who was 'wardrobe mistress' at Dublin's Gate Theatre when it was run by Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, dropped the script round to Blinkie's house. Pearson remains very approachable, perhaps because his success has been built on the lives of ordinary Irish folk. 'I come back to Dublin a lot - the good thing about Dubliners is that they never let you forget them.' Like all good entrepreneurs, too, as one success leads to another, Pearson takes many of his original team with him - and makes sure their contribution is acknowledged.

The key to his success is, he believes, 'reaction, intuition, arrogance - in a positive sense', but much comes back to his tremendous pride in Irish theatre and his determination to put his money where his mouth is. Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is a case in point. After reading it he slipped into the first preview at Hampstead Theatre and decided then and there that he wanted to take it on commercially. (The word is that a superb production has been lifted a notch higher thanks to the new member of the cast: the American James McDaniel has taken the part of the American hostage previously played by Hugh Quarshie.)

Pearson's name now opens doors where once he had to knock and wait, but production costs are still huge. 'It's dollars 300,000 (Pearson talks dollars) to take it a mile maybe two down the road - and that's not a lot of money. Then it's dollars 750,000 to take it to New York - that's a million dollars for two venues.'

So why bother? 'I kin'a like it,' he says. 'I don't believe in all that kind of educating the masses - that's what film makers at symposiums say - but I've taken quite a few people to see Someone Who'll Watch Over Me and I get a great thrill out of hearing them say 'Jesus, that's fantastic'. You know you're doing something right - giving people a good time in the best possible way. I spoke to Brian Keenan (Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is loosely based on the experience of Keenan and other hostages) yesterday. When I saw him on television when he came out I was really, really shocked that this innocent man had been whipped off. Without being high- falutin' about it, it shows the function that theatre should have of showing people what it was all about.'

'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' opens tonight at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2 (Booking: 071-836 9987).

(Photograph omitted)