Owen O'Neill

Tyrone funny man goes Out To Lunch

Saturday lunchtime and like an enthusiastic Andrex puppy on amphetamine, comedian Owen O’Neill bounds onto the Black Box stage to a galloping riff from Rory Gallagher.

Resembling nothing so much as the mutated flame-haired love-child of Michaels Jagger and Rooney, the improbably youthful-looking O’Neill draws us immediately into his evocative and reassuringly familiar world.

There’s stuttering IRA men in too-big three-piece suits, the joys of growing up as one of 16 children in the unfortunately named Fenian Row and Liam Neeson’s hitherto unheard of inability to keep a sod of turf intact, to name just a few choice highlights.

The show, a ‘greatest hits’ of sorts, collates the best of his previous seven Edinburgh shows. It’s variously confessional, conspiratorial and convivial but always with a thread of pure comic thrill running through it.

O’Neill is first and foremost a brilliant raconteur - combining expert, intimate yarn-spinning with affectionate characterisations of people we will never meet but instantly recognise.

His recounting of one childhood misadventure which culminates in O’Neill facing the terrifying prospect of a punishment shooting beautifully balances the humour and the horror of the situation. An irate Provo with a speech impediment and an ill-fitting suit is still an irate provo after all.

What prevents him sounding like a graduate of the Peter Ustinov School of After-Dinner Speaking, however, is his winning streak of self-deprecation and his totally disarming conversational style.

You get the impression that O’Neill is a joyful spectator in his own life, constantly bemused at his current circumstance - experience becomes experiment as evidenced by his very funny recollection about recently returning to confession, 35 years since his last visit.

His ability to tease absurdity from the seemingly mundane is the gift of all great observers. His unfolding revelation, matter-of-factly, that he’s been stalking Mick Jagger and his family in a bid to persuade him to retire is received entirely sympathetically by the audience.

Even with the growing, uneasy realisation that his activities may have crossed the comedy/creepy boundary, you still want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The payoff, with footage of a balaclava-wearing O’Neill holding the cadaverous Stone to ransom in his house is funnier than it has any right to be and vindicates your trust in him.

It is further testimony to his personal charm that even when the Jagger footage is delayed by a technical hitch (never rely on Windows technology when you’ve got a grand finale planned), O’Neill doesn’t miss a beat, moves on with the show and you just don’t mind.

As long as he’s talking, you’re happy – surely the mark of a man with something to say that’s absolutely worth hearing.

I was reminded after the gig that he was holding a comedy workshop that evening for aspirant stand-ups. The one thing the Tyrone funny man has in abundance that I suspect can’t be imparted is that winning comedic cliché – a child-like wonder at life’s little absurdities.

In an Out to Lunch Festival studded with precious performances, Owen O’Neill stands out like the big ginger gem that he is.

Joseph Nawaz