Thursday First Person: Hugh Brown
The Bangor-born performer (42) is a regular on the cabaret circuit with his clown act and lives part-time in Cambodia where he works with street children. He is a member of local theatre company Cahoots NI, whose latest play is at Belfast's Lyric Theatre
I've just missed the majority of the rainy season in Cambodia – it rained for two weeks where I live in Sihanoukville, in the north-west, and my neighbour's roof blew off, but the weather is usually beautiful and very hot from January to April.
I first went to Cambodia 10 years ago to do shows for a friend who was working with street children and I've lived there now for a year-and-a-half. I live by the sea on the Thailand Peninsula and I love it there; I've plenty of friends in the local and the ex-pat communities. I have got a bit of wanderlust as I've got older. It was a little bit of a culture shock when I first landed in Cambodia but not as much as when I went to India with an ex-girlfriend, when I was 30.
Cambodia is a different place entirely, although it has some Indian influences, as does all of Asia. It's far easier to get around for a start. The Cambodians have been to hell and back with the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. He tried to destroy culture. He killed thousands of artists and artisans and musicians and you can still see the effects of that attack on the country's culture.
The country is beginning to change slowly. The advent of the internet is a factor – Cambodia has a very young population who are embracing it. There is poverty everywhere and the divide between the rich and poor is huge, but at the last election the opposition party made some strides. The results were widely thought to be rigged in favour of the long-standing Cambodian People's Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since the much criticised 1998 election, following the bloody coup in Phnom Penh to overthrow elected Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
I work mostly with children who live along the train tracks. They respond well to the music element with Jitterbug Jackson – there's no language barrier. I can speak a little bit of Cambodian but Asian languages are very different to English, which thankfully is quite widely spoken there.
I perform for tourists too, and at the markets, and I play in an indie-rock band with some Cambodians and some ex-pats. We do our own stuff and some covers too, stuff by The Cure, Ash and The Undertones.
The children have never seen anything like Jitterbug Jackson before and they love him. My act owes a lot to my former drama tutor, the late Mike Maloney. He encouraged the circus aspect, which I blended with theatre. He was my mentor; he was a great man and his recent death was a terrible loss.
Death is the theme of this new Cahoots production we're doing – Duck, Death and the Tulip, but it is in no way morbid. It is based on a beautiful story I came across in the Winding Stair bookshop in Dublin about five years ago. I took it to Paul McEneany (Cahoots NI artistic director) and he was immediately struck by its life-affirming tone. My role in it is a storyteller, though I also sing and play lots of percussion.
It's a challenging theme for families; it's an honest show which pulls no punches about the connection between life and death. You can't have one without the other. The writer, Wolf Erlbruch, deals with the difficult theme of death with warmth and ease. Life and death are presented as close friends, where one cannot exist without the other in the natural cycle of life. We're very excited to be able to bring this wonderful book to life on stage for families across Northern Ireland this autumn.
e In Cahoots NI's heart-warming new production, a duck strikes up an unlikely friendship with Death, in a gentle yet compelling insight in to a subject matter not often associated with children's theatre. The simple, witty story by Wolf Erlbruch deals with the taboo subject matter of death in straightforward and thought-provoking way, featuring live music, illusion, dance and magic.
eDuck, Death and the Tulip is on at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, until Saturday, October 19. For details, go to www.lyrictheatre.co.uk