Give My Head Peace – The Farewell Tour

Belfast's comic stalwards bid farewell - again

Around this time last year the Hole in the Wall Gang toured Ulster's venues with supposedly the last ever live show of Give My Head Peace. It was a lucrative success, and so now they're back with a final, final farewell – until 2010, at least.

Tim McGarry, Marty Reid et al have made no pretence these Grand Opera House audiences will be the last to see them live. And as the comedy troupe are still capable of packing out the Opera House for six nights in a row – not to mention every small-town theatre from Banbridge to Cushendall – you can hardly blame them.

But is Give My Head Peace funny? Well, ignoring the ancient jokes, fluffed cues and snail's pace, yes, it is – sort of. Sure, The Farewell Tour is clunky and absurd, and the characters are grotesques, but the stage show certainly isn't as dire as the last 50-odd episodes of the Give My Head Peace television series.

The freewheeling plot, written by McGarry, Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell, contains scenes about a dead terrorist's Swiss bank account, a Karen Matthews-inspired kidnap scam and a cybersex relationship between Ma (Olivia Nash) and… oh, I couldn't possibly say.

Audience participation is a recurring element. McGarry's cash-strapped, dim-witted Da and his man-boy offspring, Cal (Quinn), stalk the theatre's front rows, rattling a collection tin for republican ex-prisoners. Then Uncle Andy (Reid) and Pastor Begbie (Patrick Jenkins) – two of the show's better observed characters – enter from a side door carrying the coffin of an Egyptian loyalist paramilitary…

Most people sink into their seats, but one hapless punter is bundled onstage to act as leading lady in Uncle Andy's protestant version of Hunger. It's excruciating to watch, but Reid and Jenkins carry the shtick well.

McGarry gets a stand-up spot during the second act. He jokes about his recently deceased mother, a devout catholic whose funeral took place on the 12th of July. This, he says, would be like burying Iris Robinson on gay pride week. Fair play to McGarry for pushing the boundaries of taste, but the gag comes across as forced.

The rest of his set plays on easy stereotypes: Peter Robinson is humourless, Caitríona Ruane is evasive, Michael Stone is in jail. A couple of references to the Eames-Bradley report keep it bang up to date, but McGarry's material could and should be more biting. This is Northern Ireland, for goodness' sake – one of the most ripe for satire countries on the planet.

Yet tell any of this to the young lad in the crowd who has a roaring good time during a skit featuring the motorbike-mad McDowell brothers (Reid and McDowell). 'McDooooooooowell,' he carps over and over, until the performers are creasing up themselves.

Indeed, most of the audience chuckle helplessly throughout the entire two-hour performance.

This one will run and run.

Give My Head Peace – The Farewell Tour is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, until Saturday, January 31. It then tours the country until Saturday, February 14.

Andrew Johnston