Ards Comedy Festival

Forget Belfast and Derry~Londonderry – founder Victoria Armstrong invites everyone to the east coast this weekend

It is undeniable that the grassroots stand-up comedy scene in Northern Ireland has exploded in recent years, with new branded gigs and comedy collectives springing up on, it seems, a monthly basis.

While visitors to cities Belfast and Derry~Londonderry inevitably are often spoilt, comedy shows are relatively few and far between in Northern Ireland’s smaller cities and towns. Stand-up comic and promoter, Victoria Armstrong, believes it is time for a change.

'I think it is so important to nurture our local comic talent. Not only can stand-up be great fun for audiences, but it is a fantastic learning tool for performers, particularly younger performers. I think sometimes people don’t realise just how much goes into it. As a Comber spud myself, I’m really keen to bring comedy close to my home town.'

With this sentiment in mind, Armstrong (who runs the successful Comedy Closet at Victoria’s in Belfast) decided it was high time that her locale should have its own comedy festival.

'I recently performed at the first Newtownards Comedy Club night in Molly Brown’s and it went down a storm,' she recalls. 'Having run my own company, Laughter Shed, for a while now we thought it would be great to bring some more comics down to the wider Ards area.'

With three nights of comedy taking place across Newtownards, Comber and Greyabbey this weekend (May 25-27), the premier Ards Comedy Festival features an array of rising local talent.

This includes Belfast-based sketch group FNT (who have been selling out venues such as the Black Box and have even caught the attention of South Park writer, Toby Morton), All Ireland Poetry Slam winner Seamus Fox, Lurgan’s Micky Bartlett (who recently supported Paddy Kielty at his homecoming gig in the Odyssey Arena) and many more.

One of the biggest names on the bill is New Zealand-born comic Danny Dowling, also known as the Mad Hatter, set to perform at St Andrew’s Memorial Hall in Comber on Saturday, May 26. Dowling, who is based in Galway, is similarly excited about the blossoming comedy scene in Northern Ireland.

'I just love gigging up north,' he beams. 'It’s just so raw and exciting, and the crowds are always ready for it. Certainly it is a scene that is still growing, but it won’t be long before the current crop of comics hit it big – Paddy Kielty did it and so can they.'

As well as organising the festival, Armstrong is all set to perform at a selection of the events herself. She remembers her own first steps into the stand-up comedy scene.

'We were at a comedy club in Galway a couple of years ago and all my friends were egging me on to give it a go. When I got back home I decided to step up to the plate and Graeme Watson [founder of Big Laughs Belfast] gave me a gig at the Black Box.

'After that I was hooked and decided not just to keep going, but to set up Laughter Shed. As well as running the Comedy Closet at Victoria’s in Belfast, we’ve also put on events for National Women’s Day et cetera. Hopefully we’ll bring the same success to Ards at the weekend.'

Armstrong believes that while Belfast and Derry naturally attract well-known acts, and boast larger programmes of comedy in many and varied venues, the rest of Northern Ireland has a lot to offer, and should not be forgotten about by promoters keen to expand.

'Look at William Shatner,' she argues, 'he’s been a respected actor for years, but he still regularly returns to his home town in Montreal to perform stand-up. It’s important to play to the people closest to you to make sure you’ve still got it.'