Darren Matthews

The Newry comic is off to crack Oz, but Northern Ireland's comedy scene is strong enough to survive without him

Having spent the past year performing stand-up around Northern Ireland, Newry comic Darren Matthews is moving to Australia in an attempt to conquer the comedy scene there. Before he leaves, however, he has one last treat for his local fans: an hour show entitled The Story So Far And Off We Go, with a gaggle of comedy compadres supporting.

First to the stage in a jam packed Auntie Annie’s is MC for the evening, self-proclaimed ‘most honest man in comedy’, Omagh’s Terry Keyes. Kicking off proceedings with some irreverent wordplay about a sex tape featuring the Orange Lodge’s Grand Master (complete with fairly graphic actions), Keyes strikes the perfect balance between charming, colloquial and bawdy.

Managing the rowdy audience is no mean feat, and Keyes handles the job with professionalism. Furthermore, he revels in Northern Irish humour (paninis were apparently invented by Omagh people shoving sandwiches in their back pockets at football matches) without getting bogged down in hackeyed Troubles gags.

The first support act comes in the form of Conor McGinley. A single dad who has spent his life moving between London, Manchester and Belfast, McGinley begins by addressing his ‘speech impediment’ – not his lisp, but his broad English accent.

What follows is 15 minutes of frantic, hilarious ranting about the redundancy of popular vernacular (‘someone said I had a sick tattoo…. Is it terminal?!’), the challenges of being a single parent on the dating scene and, er, the Chuckle Brothers. McGinley observes Northern Irish life from the perspective of an outsider, and this short set exemplifies how cathartic stand-up can be for both audience and performer.

Next up is Cookstown’s Cormac O’Donnell. Best known for his alter character Igor Bolshoikirov, O’Donnell plays it straight tonight, painting a vivid picture of Cookstown life in fantastically deadpan tones: an excellent counterpoint to McGinley’s frenetic flip-out.

Highlights include a true story about receiving death threats after making a joke about Maghera on Facebook, how his mother only rings him to play the ‘guess who’s dead game’, and how the best thing about being a Catholic married to a Protestant means he gets to go to Portrush and Bundoran for his holidays. This is a concise, polished set from a man who uses surreal imagery to great comic effect.

When Darren Matthews finally takes to the stage, he is met with thunderous applause. Born in Newry (or Londonnewry, he is quick to point out), Matthews launches headfirst into his set, which covers everything from his Bessbrook, first taste of the stage in a schools Grease musical, touring Europe with various bands and finally getting involved in the comedy scene.

The routine is tight. More used to shorter sets, Matthews’ has obviously put in the time and effort to perfect the longer format, and his understanding of the importance of a clear narrative is more than apparent. He pauses only to put down occasional hecklers with jovial skill (‘I’m not saying you have a receding hairline, but it must take you a long time to wash your face’).

Anecdotes about the comic’s family life sit well alongside topical one-liners (‘What do you call a man from Dublin with a job? A time traveller’).

In many ways, the evening represents some of the best aspects of the blossoming Northern Irish comedy scene, even if Matthews is soon to leave for sunnier climes. It might not always be glamorous (the acts can be seen rushing around before the gig, ensuring that everyone present has a seat), but tonight is an embodiment of the punk rock ethos of a talented, determined breed of Northern Irish stand ups.

Darren Matthews plays Amplified in Newry on Saturday, May 5.