Women Writers Dominate Comedy Theatre

Jane Hardy discovers their secrets to success of Northern Ireland's new generation of female comic scribes

When it comes to writing comedy in Northern Ireland, sisters are doing it for themselves. In 2014, Mother Christmas handed out the entertainment treats as women performers and playwrights enjoyed a golden age of original seasonal comedy and drama.

Award-winning playwright Marie Jones's Mistletoe and Crime packed them in at the Lyric Theatre, and author turned playwright Leesa Harker followed up her recent success, Dirty Dancin' in Le Shebeen – featuring the wonderfully oversexed Maggie Muff – with Slimmer for Christmas in Newtownabbey's Theatre at the Mill.

Donna O'Connor and Sharon Maguire gave their dark comedy, Handbag Positive, an outing in Belfast's Errigle Inn, while comedian Nuala McKeever put on a Christmas lunch show at the Europa Hotel and starred in Tinseltown, Paul Boyd's new musical, which also premiered in Newtownabbey.

Now in her 50s, McKeever has written many shows for theatre and television, and believes that Northern Irish women have a 'special gift' in terms of writing for the stage. 'I think women are brilliant, of course, and bring different things to the stage. We're more understanding of human behaviour and why people do the things they do.'

An old hand at musical theatre, Paul Boyd agrees. 'I've worked with most of the female writers here, and to me a funny person, male or female, is a funny person. But there is a very strong tradition of women leading in Northern Ireland,' says Boyd.

When asked to consider why comedy theatre in Northern Ireland is fast becoming dominated by women writers, Boyd is quick to respond. 'In my formative years,' he recalls, 'I was surrounded by women and I think women listen more than men. And a comedy writer needs to work out what people say.'

McKeever defines female comic writing as comedy from a 'different angle'. It is, therefore, 'very human and not just gag, gag, gag. You also need a good story, of course, and emotional content.'

One of the writing team on The Ulster Kama Sutra, which broke down some of Ulster's sexual barriers before Leesa Harker burst onto the scene, McKeever muses on the differences between being 'popular' and 'good' at writing comedy – between selling well to the masses and being critically acclaimed at your craft.

'It is difficult to be popular and good,' McKeever observes, 'whatever good is. Marie Jones has done it, though, and manages to include good jokes [in her popular plays].'

McKeever's original plays include 2001's Carol's Christmas – which captured some of the comedy as well as the pathos behind the bling of December 25 – yet she reveals that she never attended Christmas shows as a girl. Despite the fact that seasonal pantomines are more popular with audiences in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK, McKeever saw her first panto at the tender age of 37.

'It was a vintage (May) McFettridge at the Grand Opera House and I went with a family we knew who always took their children,' McKeever recalls. 'Instead, we'd go to the cinema. The excitement when my parents said, "We're going to the cinema"! We'd see The Sound of Music during the Troubles.'

Leesa Harker, meanwhile, attended panto and musical theatre before writing for newest comedy for the stage, Slimmer for Christmas. Harker made her name as author of the top-selling pastiche novel Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue, of course, before writing herself a career around a new genre of crowd-pleasing, un-snooty comedy theatre. 

'I think Northern Irish women definitely have a gift for comedy,' ventures Harker. 'My mum and my granny were some of the funniest people I ever met. We'd visit my gran on a Saturday on the Shankill estate and she'd tell us about the couple down the road. There was a lot of oral storytelling in my house. I got the nickname Leesa-wait-till-you-hear-what-happened-to-me-Harker!'

The characters in Harker's works of fiction are clearly based on real people – characters who inhabit Belfast as well as towns and cities across Northern Ireland. It is Harker's ability to capture their larger than life voices, their unique sense of humour, that ensure that her books and plays sell so well.

Commissioned by Bernard Clarkson, manager of the Theatre at the Mill, Harker produced a new show that majors in what she does best: the angst and hilarity of the female condition. Although the tone of Slimmer for Christmas is upbeat, Harker wrote part of the play while undergoing chemotherapy after being diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in 2014.

'I'd just started chemo when I was commissioned,' she remembers, 'and you think, 'It'll be fine', but the effect is cumulative and you suffer from terrible fatigue. But it was a distraction and I even wrote some of the play while in hospital.'

Slimmer for Christmas is, in some ways, a departure for Harker. It doesn't feature Maggie Muff, for one thing. It isn't a one-woman show and it doesn't major in the slightly off colour comedy for which she is best known. But it does deal with her own anxiety about food – an anxiety shared by so many female audience members in the 21st century.

But there is a message, Harker says, in her first Christmas show. 'It's about the pressure on women to look a certain way, but looks aren't everything,' she says. 'I have two daughters and I sometimes feel terrified of the world they're growing up in.'

Donna O'Connor (51) had a big hit when she acted in and co-wrote the bittersweet comedy A Night with George, a kind of Shirley Valentine outing set in west Belfast, which subsequently underwent a festive rewrite. Was she in mourning after the Hollywood star's recent marriage. 'Oh, he didn't dare ask me [to attend his wedding] in case I upstaged his bride,' O'Connor immediately wisecracks.

O'Connor's theatrical career started when she was made redundant as an arts administrator at the age of 39. This gave her the opportunity to study for a couple of degrees, and to write. A Night with George eventually exceeded all of her expectations, and returned to ecstatic audiences in Belfast and elsewhere.

Handbag Positive, written with Sharon Maguire, was based on the premise that a woman's burden is never done, since, once the kids have flown the nest, the task of looking after elderly parents begins.

'I think women in this situation – both Sharon and I cared for our mothers who had dementia – use humour as a tool to defuse the situation,' says O'Connor. 'There are a few dark moments in the play, the title of which comes from medical slang for an elderly woman with dementia, which I learnt when I worked for a couple of psychiatrists. But there's humour too. You have to laugh.'

As the years wear on, O'Connor finds finally herself with more time to write. 'Now that my kids have gone, and my mother died three years ago, I can write, as the pressure is off. I don't have to work full-time and I'm really enjoying writing. I think I want to concentrate on writing plays rather than acting.'

O'Connor's next play will be titled My Mother Killed Buck Alec, famously one of Belfast's hardest men, who paraded around town in his heyday with a couple of lions on leads. It is perhaps not the most obvious subject matter for a funny play, but O'Connor feels that Belfast humour can be pretty dark.

'Looking back to my teenage days,' she says, 'there was mayhem around with the Troubles, but all I was interested in was the Bay City Rollers, going to the Garden Gate while stepping over soldiers with rifles and saying f*ck to people.'

She adds that she grew up in a family of 11 with a 'Victorian father' who would even turn off Little House on the Prairie because he believed it was indecent. 'He didn't like Blue Peter either,' laughs O'Connor, who then adds, with impeccable comic timing, 'Though he himself was clearly into procreation.' 

Whatever the focus of their work, it is clear that Northern Ireland's new generation of female writers are tackling what is traditionally one of the most difficult forms of writing – comedy – and succeeding. In 2014, audiences flocking to see their work in theatres across the country. 2015 has a lot to live up to.

Leesa Harker's Dirty Dancin' in Le Shebeen returns to Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey from January 30 to February 3. Mistletoe and Crime continues in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until January 11.