Those Who Can't, Preach

Lee Henry encounters NI's comic oddities

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Belfast-based comedy performance group Those Who Can’t are Stephen Beggs, Rachael McCabe and John Kelly.

Hailing from Belfast, Antrim and Glengormley respectively, Those Who Can’t formed in 2001, playing their first gig in Belfast’s Menagerie Bar. They have since gone on to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as writing for Radio Ulster’s Don’t Make Me Laugh programme and BBC NI satirical flagship, Folks On The Hill.

Having experienced the trio’s own quirky brand of humour as part of a one-off writer’s workshop in the BBC’s Blackstaff House in 2005, I was a little apprehensive about meeting up with the group at our scheduled rendezvous in Belfast’s Old Museum Arts Centre.

Those Who Can'tTo interview comedians, journalists must be prepared to joust and duel with minds invariably sharper than their own. The thought of dividing the dictaphone equally between three such adversaries was daunting.

It was a definite disappointment to learn that only one third of Those Who Can’t could make it on the day. I was frightened of the diminutive Miss McCabe. Anyone who has seen Those Who Can’t perform their brilliant Newsnight sketch, in which McCabe stutters through a terrifying portrayal of the poet-critic Tom Paulin, will understand.

As intimidating as it seemed, I was still interested in meeting her and the group’s talented straight man, Mr Kelly. However, the former was busy performing solo in Edinburgh, the latter was tied-up acting out nightmare scenarios for corporate pygmies - a pretty cool peripheral gig for working actors.

This left Mr Beggs, dressed head to toe in black, bounding through the Old Museum Arts Centre doors like a monochrome Joker. I half expected him to bow flamboyantly before shaking my hand. Instead – and to my eternal mystification – he excused himself for a minute or two and returned holding a cup of coffee. He didn't immediately strike me as a man that needed perking up.

NI has produced its fair share of comedians over the years. From Patrick Kielty to Nuala McKeever and all the way back to Jimmy Cricket, we have a tradition of producing individual talent, high on home-grown sarcasm and provincial self-deprecation.

Stephen Beggs, Rachael McCabe, John KellyWhen it comes to Those Who Can’t, comparisons are scarce. The Hole In The Wall Gang would be an obvious choice. Like Those Who Can’t, they write and perform their own sketches, revel in characterisation, and travel in packs. But Beggs is quick to dispel any myths. Those Who Can’t have their own style, and they’re sticking to it.

‘I’m not aware of any other comedy groups working in NI apart from ourselves and The Hole In The Wall Gang, who are a very different kettle of fish to us,’ he professes, wiping a thin film of sweat from his brow.

‘They’re quite political, you know, very Norn Irish, whereas we wouldn’t choose to write satirical comedy or anything with a particularly Northern Irish slant.

‘I can’t stand writing comedy that deals with Northern Irish politics; endless jokes about Ian Paisley; the kind of stuff that The Hole In The Wall Gang or Paddy Kielty are very good at and always come back to.

It has its audience and it’s very funny if you like that kind of thing, but neither I, Rachael nor John have ever been too enamoured with that kind of comedy.

'We’ve always been of the opinion that there are plenty of other things that appeal to us as a writing partnership that actually have nothing to do with the Troubles.’

The lack of Northern Irishness in their writing sets Those Who Can’t apart from their comedy contemporaries. In fact, to see them perform live can be something of a shock to the system. You won’t hear the words Shankill or Falls mentioned at all, and there are no 'Uncle Andys' lurking in the background.

Citing comedy luminaries like the Goodies, Monty Python and the Mighty Boosh as prime influences, it’s no surprise that Those Who Can’t prefer an altogether wackier sort of comedy. Think The League of Gentlemen meets May McFetridge and you won’t go too far wrong.

‘With us I think it’s more like going to the theatre to see a comedy show rather than paying to see somebody like Colin Murphy perform stand-up,’ Beggs explains. ‘We’re not stand-up at all. We’ve done a lot of performing in bars here and there, but we’ve never really been able to perform in established stand-up venues like the Empire.

'We’re more at home at events like the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival or the Edinburgh Fringe, where audiences like to see different kinds of performance.’

Although the trio feel most secure performing at home in Belfast, Beggs admits that there are always valuable lessons to be learnt for comedians willing to step outside their comfort zones.

‘We’ve toured all over Northern Ireland, in places like Derry, Downpatrick and even Lisnaskee - the centre of the comedy circuit,’ Beggs quips.

‘Sometimes those audiences don’t quite know what to expect. They may find our show a bit surreal, with our wigs and our foreign accents and the like. Yet there will always be a section of the audience who will come up after the show and tell us how much they liked it.

'That’s not to say that others don’t sometimes seem entirely nonplussed. But you take that risk with comedy, I suppose. You learn to play to your strengths. These days we tend to perform in Belfast.’