Nuala McKeever Climbs In the Window

The playwright and comedian brings her one-woman show about loneliness and burglary to the Lyric Theatre from October 29

‘We all went to Edinburgh and did a show there. There were about 18 of us, 12 bags of costumes, 16 vans full of props for a sketch show which we all did in English accents because we’d never heard anybody doing comedy in Northern Ireland, really, apart from Jimmy Young.’

This is part of ‘how it all began’ for Nuala McKeever: actress, comedian, presenter, TV host, writer. The list goes on, though she is incredibly modest when speaking about a career that has covered much creative ground, from those early sketch shows while still a student at Queen’s University through to various radio, television, film and theatre credits, and many combinations thereof.

She has performed with the Hole in the Wall Gang comedy troupe, and starred alongside Tim McGarry and co in the much-loved BBC Northern Ireland sit-com Give My Head Peace. Her UTV show, McKeever, followed on from that.

There is a lovely randomness to the way she describes her work, as if it all just happened as she went along, unplanned and organic. There is also a sense that there are any number of ideas forming in her mind, some of which undoubtedly find their way into the column she currently writes for the Belfast Telegraph.

Her other writing includes four plays: Out of the Box, her first one-woman show; Belongings, a two-hander; Carol’s Christmas, involving four actors; and In the Window, which returns McKeever to the genre of single-handed performance. It opens at the Lyric Theatre on October 29 for a week-long run in the Naughton Studio.

The play was first performed in the Lyric last year, sold out and subsequently toured the country. McKeever was in the process of organising another tour of the show when her partner, Mike Moloney, director of the Prison Arts Foundation, died suddenly in April 2013.

McKeever admits that she refrained from working in the aftermath, but is now carrying on with her career, albeit with an altered sense of what really matters in life. ‘It will be very difficult [performing the play] without Mike being around,' she adds. 'He was a huge part of my life and was at nearly every performance of the last things I did, and was very supportive.’

In the Window centres on a woman living alone, thinking about ending her life, and planning – as the show’s publicity puts it – 'a home date with a bottle of wine and a big bowl of pink pills'. The play is a dark comedy, and also, according to McKeever, ‘a very heartfelt sort of piece'.

'She sets out her case very logically and very sympathetically as to why she’s just decided to go out on her own terms,' says McKeever. 'She just doesn’t think there’s much left to care about. And then she’s interrupted by this young guy coming in the window.’

The idea for the play came to McKeever a few winters back when it was freezing cold and she was feeling low. She describes that peculiar mood as ‘when your soul goes into a bit of a dip, a sort of a plateau. And a line came into my head. I thought, “You know, I’d almost welcome a burglar, just for the company”. It sort of made me laugh. It was the first thing that had tickled me for a long time.’

McKeever keeps a notebook and writes ideas her down, and it is from this ‘dark night of the soul’ and that notebook that the play eventually emerged. For the original Lyric run, she also produced. It was a steep learning curve, which gave her the confidence to persevere with the forthcoming run. But it's the writing that gives McKeever the greatest sense of satisfaction.

‘At the risk of sounding pretentious, sometimes something just has to be written. You close your eyes in bed at night and stuff comes out almost fully formed in front of you. Not always, but some good bits do, and that’s kind of where this was. At the moment I’m in a “feeding, learning, experiencing” frame of mind, and I think that next year I will probably want to write something based on what life has been like lately.’

Her sense of time, and how she looks at the future, is something rather more short-sighted than that of many people she knows, and she describes a peripatetic life in which ‘only once did I have the same job two years in a row’. Does she prefer it that way?

‘As much as I rail, and wish I had money and security, I kind of enjoy that there’s always something missing. I enjoy that I don’t know what’s around the bend of the river.’ She quotes a line from a Buddhist doctor whose book she read years ago: 'You’ve got the life you want. If you wanted something else, you would have it.'

McKeever has clearly thought about this, and concludes that there is something in it – a sense that her life is largely what she’s most happy with. ‘I do like the adventure of going into the inner world and finding out, you know, why we do what we do,' she adds. 'I find that fascinating.’

She likens it to theatre, an analogous art form that mimics life. ‘We’re all in a play, all the time,' she says. 'We write our own parts, and I think that we forget that we all have different ways of doing things.

'I do a workshop about this, about getting “caught in your act” – doing the same thing over and over, saying, “This is who I am, I’m very messy or I’m always late or I don’t like this sort of music”. You tell yourself all of this and you create your story and your character. When I understood that I create my own life, that was quite a major thing.’

In the Window also taps into McKeever’s sense of the universal. ‘It’s about the themes of asking what is life about. The longing that we all have to belong is very universal.’

It has been an extraordinary year for Nuala McKeever in so many ways, causing her to think about how short life is, and about what’s really important to her. Having looked back on it, she comments: ‘I’m very grateful that I have a sense of not being able to control everything, or at least I can see that when I do try to do that, I can look at myself and everybody with great compassion.’

She quotes a line from her play Belongings, about people being like ants in a Tupperware box. Only now does she really see the truth in that. She is a woman who wears her wisdom lightly, and returns to the analogy of life as a play to which we all know the ending. And yet, she asks, ‘Do you not find it’s a funny thing that even if you know the ending, there’s always a little part of you that somewhere hopes that this time it will be different?’

She has a terrific smile, a ready laugh, and there is a sense that no matter where the play ends, she will be more than happy with her lot – ready with pen in hand to turn whatever life has thrown at her into a gently comic expression of hope, belonging and community.

In the Window runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from October 29 to November 3.