Patrick Kielty

Though Paddy McDonnell and Micky Bartlett win over the Falls Park audience, it's not all plain sailing for the hard-hitting headliner

This year’s comedy night at the Féile an Phobail sees three homegrown funnymen take the mic before a cheery crowd in Falls Park in the week of the internment commemorations. It’s a tough room, as they say, but Patrick Kielty, Micky Bartlett and Paddy McDonnell aren’t the kind to shy away from a challenge.

A black taxi driver by day, local lad McDonnell seems a safe bet as opener. With half the audience apparently former fares and the other half family members, it doesn’t take long for this supremely confident and instantly likeable performer to take proceedings by the scruff.

McDonnell delivers half an hour of material, much of it finely tuned to the audience’s perceived sensibilities. ‘We’re having festivals, and on the other side of the wall they’re having riots,’ he says to wild applause, while later he holds a mock auction for ‘the very brick that hit Nigel Dodds in the head’. It’s shameless stuff, but it gets laughs, and that is, after all, what comedy is all about.

Next up is Bartlett. The Monumental and LOL star is from Lurgan, but has even deeper reservoirs of demographically skewed schtick. ‘There are a couple of Protestants sneaking in over there,’ he jokes, pointing to a dark corner of the tent. ‘... get them!’ Elsewhere, gags at Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazer’s expense – ‘The drum is beating, but there’s no one walking behind it’ – also get big laughs.

As self-deprecating as he is assured, Bartlett segues effortlessly between declaring himself ‘funny as...’ and expounding on his supposedly wretched love life. It will take some time before this reviewer can get the mental image of a one-eyed Drumantee woman with a camogie helmet and a watersports fetish out of his head...

By the time the strains of Tom Jones’s ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ herald the imminent arrival of the headliner and his Home show, the marquee is awash with chatter and knee-deep in empty beer pitchers. But Kielty has the crowd onside within seconds. ‘It’s taken me 25 years to get up here,’ he beams, marvelling that he hasn’t played west Belfast before now.

That playing a show barely two and a half miles from a city centre where he has gigged literally hundreds of times warrants mentioning may seem strange, but as everyone knows, west Belfast can be a world away. And so it is tonight, as the same show that last year won rapturous applause in the Odyssey Arena skirts close to causing serious offence on more than one occasion.

While the support acts brilliantly mined the political and religious beliefs of the audience for laughs at the other side’s expense, Kielty is the only performer tonight whose material could be properly described as challenging.

On paper, gags about opening a ‘hunger strike café’ and renaming Northern Ireland ‘the People’s Republic of Britain’ may make perfect, logical sense (the butt of the joke remains idiots and bureaucrats), but here in Falls Park, it takes a brave comedian to deliver some of this stuff (though, ironically, it’s a Whitney Houston line that seems to get the most hackles up).

At some points, he’s losing them, not helped by repeated boasts about his private life – the homes in London and Los Angeles, the celebrity wife. But pay attention and you see it’s always to set up a punchline. ‘I’m like the SDLP,’ he smirks, referencing his marriage to Cat Deeley. 'Happy under British rule.’

Such is the nature of stand-up, material about Titanic tourism, the Iris Robinson affair, Rihanna’s Ballymena misadventure and Barack Obama’s Irish roots that may have been bang-up-to-date this time last year now seems a bit creaky.

It’s unlikely Kielty can go on staging Home without a major rewrite. But the section about Van Morrison never gets old, and the comic’s crisp, controlled delivery remains a thing of beauty. There are also some winningly improvised asides.

A line about how Protestants and Catholics are all the same may be corny, but that doesn’t make it any less true, and it’s difficult to imagine many performers other than the almost pathologically charming Kielty being able to end a show by having the audience join arms and sway in time to ‘All You Need Is Love’.