Comedy Hijack

Zoë Seaton leaks her plans to Comedy Hijack gigs across Northern Ireland to Andrew Johnston

As the Hole in the Wall Gang drag Give My Head Peace around the country for what they claim is the last time – and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything – another Ulster comedy troupe is looking to the future.

Portstewart’s Big Telly Theatre Company hopes that Comedy Hijack will give a helping hand to some of Northern Ireland’s new writers and performers, perhaps launching the next Frank Carson, Jimmy Cricket or Patrick Kielty (or maybe even someone actually funny).

The project began last month with workshops in Portstewart, Omagh, Derry, Armagh and Belfast. These special events were designed to introduce local writers to the concept of developing work in a practical context, led by renowned dramaturg John Wright, founder of Trestle Theatre Company and author of Why Is That So Funny?

For Big Telly artistic director Zoë Seaton – the innovator behind Comedy Hijack – working with Wright was a rewarding experience in itself. ‘John’s a genius,’ she says. ‘I was a participant in a workshop he ran about 20 years ago, and I was totally blown away by him. I’m delighted that artists here have had the opportunity to work with him.’

The five best writers from the workshops – one from each town or city – will see their work adapted for performance at a range of events this month and next, in such unlikely settings as student lectures and country music gigs. The actual venues to be ‘hijacked’ are under wraps, but the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast is onboard.

‘I think the best events to hijack are not theatre events or comedy events, but music gigs, conferences, PTA meetings and so on,’ says Seaton. ‘It’s about market research, about test-driving material so that the writers – and all of us – can better understand what works. The only question we’re asking is, “Is this funny?” I think that question can be asked almost anywhere.’

Rehearsals take place in Portstewart from April 21 to 28, after which the five writers come together with the director, dramaturg and four professional actors to each develop a piece of work lasting three to five minutes. As well as the obvious benefits for Big Telly and for the writers, Comedy Hijack is intended to broaden Ulster audiences’ minds.

‘I want to challenge comedy’s lowbrow reputation here,’ says Seaton. ‘I want to work on material that is intelligent and witty. Live theatre is the perfect context to do this. Comedy is more than jokes.’

Big Telly underlined its credentials with a recent production of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon, the debut stage adaptation of the late comedy genius’s 1963 novel. Seaton includes Milligan in her list of influences, also name-checking the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh.

‘On TV, I love Lead Balloon and The Mighty Boosh,’ she adds. ‘But I like theatre that has everything, and I think that the darker the play, the more lightness needs to be found to counteract it. I’ve directed Hamlet twice, and even it has a lot of laughs if you look for them. So, Shakespeare’s up there too.’

Big Telly has big plans beyond Comedy Hijack, and has enlisted Vanessa Haynes of Kudos Generator Television – the joint venture between Kudos Film & Television and Northern Ireland film indie Generator Entertainment – to act as a consultant on the project.

‘I think the time is ripe for a UK network, Northern Irish-based comedy,’ says Seaton. ‘My priority is to find writers to commission for Big Telly, but I’d be delighted if they went on to write for TV.’

Northern Ireland has struggled to produce a national small-screen comedy show to stand with the likes of Still Game (Scotland), Gavin and Stacey (Wales) and Father Ted (southern Ireland), but Seaton hasn’t given up hope. ‘It’s worth pointing out that Give My Head Peace was a regional comedy and wasn’t commissioned for the UK network,’ she comments.

The irony of Ulster folk having a winning sense of humour in everyday life, yet rarely being able to parlay this into successful screen or stage comedy, is not lost on Seaton. ‘I think there is a lack of confidence in the Northern Irish voice, which leads us to parody ourselves,’ she says.

‘Even Belfast performers who are hysterically funny offstage will accentuate their accent, put everything in quotation marks and preface clichés with an even worse one – “as we say here in Norn Iron”. Nothing makes me cringe more.’

The Comedy Hijack events take place on April 29, April 30 and May 1. Venues or promoters interested in hosting a performance are invited to email Zoë Seaton. For further details, visit the Big Telly Theatre Company website.

Andrew Johnston