Stand Up Man

Playwright Derek Murphy explores the complicated life of the comedian at the Grand Opera House

At base level, the description aptly fits Thaddeus McGuinn, a burnt-out, middle-aged New York comedian, struggling onto a stage at every paid opportunity to regale unresponsive audiences with his rambling, downbeat routines, which impart in queasy personal detail his disintegrating marriage and unhappy home life.

The exhortation rings out in his own head, complete with comma and exclamation mark: 'Stand up, man!' Such sentiments are delivered on stage by his wise cracking alter ego, who is not averse to administering a verbal kick up the rear end when Thaddeus threatens to drown in misanthropy and self pity.

The professional comedian who is, in private, a tortured soul is an intriguing universal figure. Some of the finest comics of our time have been famously beset by inner demons, whose haunting presence adds a dark, dangerous edge to their comic material. Such a figure has the potential to provide a dramatist with both a fascinating central character and a challenging opportunity for flexing his or her writing talents on a combination of humour and tragedy.

This is the third time that New York-born, Belfast-based actor Nick Hardin has been cast in a play by the Dublin-born, New York-based writer, and it is clear that the two have developed something of an instinctive creative understanding.

c21 Theatre Company first came to Murphy's work through his double-hander Appendage, a tense thriller that was previewed at the Pick'n'Mix Festival of new writing in Belfast and then successfully brought to full production. Murphy recalls that the first draft of Stand Up Man lay slumberous on his desk for five years until Hardin persuaded him to show it to the company's producer Stephen Kelly, at which point, it was virtually a done deal.

Stephen Beggs, recently liberated from 11 years of administrative duties as company manager of Bruiser steps in as director and brings a light touch to a storyline in which the best is saved for the second act.

We first encounter Thaddeus at work and in uncharacteristically upbeat mode. An unscheduled lighting blip prompts a nifty ad lib from Hardin/Thaddeus as he stands at the microphone, treating his audience to a mischievous trip down memory lane into a childhood laced with bad behaviour. He describes himself as an altar boy so unattractive that no priest would abuse him.

In adolescence, he had little truck with the clergy, taking great delight in donning vestments and 'pointy hat' to dispense imaginary sacraments to his pals. In the unlikely event of a vocation to the priesthood ever having been an option, his unruly, irreverent conduct placed him in perpetual exile. Strange then that his inner being should turn out to be a renegade cleric with a Belfast accent, echoing perhaps the passing but unexplored reference to his mother's connection to the city.

Away from the spotlight and back home in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the bravado drops. Thaddeus's wife Maggie – played with quiet sensitivity by Cathy Brennan-Bradley – is a hopeless alcoholic, obsessed with cleaning, hoovering and downing copious quantities of Chardonnay. It all helps to take her mind off her absent son Buster and her loveless marriage to one of life's losers.

Niall Rea's suburban, split-level set needs a little more space to breathe than in the cramped performance space of the Baby Grand, where the front row of the audience is right in the actors' faces. Still, it effectively conveys a sense of domestic claustrophobia in which Thaddeus is belittled both by Maggie and by Father Thad, the perennial monkey on his back.

Much has been made of the casting of Tim McGarry in his first serious drama role, so it is a little puzzling as to why he is encouraged to deliver every expletive-laden one-liner in the manner of Da from Give My Head Peace or any of his other popular comic incarnations. Perhaps it is to produce an easy laugh, which it does early on in proceedings. But as the storyline unwinds it becomes a bit of a stretch to connect Hardin's stocky, grouchy, unfunny comedian and this lanky, cynical version of his other self, though the physical contrast is certainly a nice casting touch.

The first act registers somewhat on a single note. Is Hardin's bittersweet performance deliberately low-key or a considered portrayal of his character's inability to rise above the hell of his life, either personally or professionally? His response to Maggie's sudden, shocking death is almost non-reactive, best summed up in his feeble attempts to crack a few gags down the line to the emergency services.

The second act is considerably enlivened by the appearance of Kevin Keenan's well judged Buster, whose story fits the final pieces into the jigsaw. This troubled young man has taken off for a new life in LA, in a concerted attempt to get as far away as possible from the man whose name he bears and whom he thinks of as his father.

Unmarried, broke, condemned to a dead-end, poorly paid job in a bowling alley, he has returned to New York for the funeral of his beloved mother, an occasion which sees Thaddeus behaving even more bizarrely than usual while garnering some truly tasteless fodder for his act.

The two trade memories and hard truths at a low volume and through gritted teeth, while McGarry's invisible interrogator gambles gleefully around and between them. In some of these three-way exchanges the alter ego device does not entirely come off, underlining the fact that while Brian Friel makes it look so easy in Philadelphia, Here I Come! it is, in fact, a very complex dramatic trick to master.

On the first night of the run, this multi-faceted production feels as though it has yet to ignite the chemistry between the characters and enable them to achieve sharper theatrical definition. But Murphy's tantalising play gives them the ammunition to do so.

Stand Up Man runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until February 8 before touring to Island Arts Theatre, Lisburn; Riverside Theatre, Coleraine; Craic Theatre, Coalisland; Market Place Theatre, Armagh.