Owen O'Neill

'To describe O’Neill’s act simply as ‘stand-up’ would do him a great injustice'

As prolific performer Owen O’Neill takes to the stage in Bangor Abbey Parish Hall as part of the Aspects Literary Festival, it is hard to know what to expect. After all, the Tyrone-born flame-haired peddler of belly laughs is known to the public in many guises – a stand-up comic, a poet, an actor, a director and a screenwriter to name but a few.

A cheeky grin slapped across his chops from the moment he strolls nonchalantly to a lone lectern, O’Neill may appear unassuming at first glance. However, what unfolds is a set of unbridled enthusiasm and unrivalled comic timing.

Kicking off with some local-based material about Bangor’s long-running nightclub the Boom Boom Room (and how an English friend feared it was a bomb factory), the audience is eating out of O’Neill’s palm from the get go. There is plenty of gag-based ‘traditional’ stand-up comedy on display tonight (including some very physical comedy about the perils of being a ginger in Australia and the ‘sexy sharks’ dwelling off the coasts there), but to describe O’Neill’s act simply as ‘stand-up’ would do him a great injustice.

Poetry plays a key part of tonight’s performance and the way in which O’Neill segues smoothly between gags to anecdotes to readings of his self-penned prose is highly impressive in and of itself. While some of these poems are highly comic, most tend to have at least an emotional core. One such piece sees O’Neill recalling falling in love in the cinema as a youngster before his date ran off with his pick ‘n’ mix, while another has him fondly remembering his inebriated father giving him money for a dance, while onlookers assumed he was just robbing a drunk old man.

The performer’s mastery of language is jaw-dropping, with his poems painting powerful images. These range from the distressing (referring to his sister’s cancer as 'the gasping yellow illness that turned her old') to the sublimely hilarious (the highlight of the show arguably an ode to his childhood schoolbag, 'a windmill of lethal knowledge that would bust your head wide open').

For a gig in a church hall, the running themes of drink and religion are quite close to the bone, especially with some of the fruitier language used. Luckily O’Neill has oodles of charm which helps keep the audience with him the whole way through, and he even has the decency to forewarn those with more delicate sensibilities before a particularly harsh expletive comes up.

Despite subjects as wide-reaching as working comedy clubs with the DTs, enduring childhood run-ins with paramilitaries and performing alongside Liam Neeson in Michael Collins, O’Neill is at his best when portraying the people of his home county. Tyrone-based tales pepper the entire evening and the comic has the idiosyncrasies of its inhabitants nailed, using his whole body to great physical effect (not least of all his seemingly rubber face).

As he recalls the time he and his childhood friends cut the tops off their school GAA goalposts (soccer was way cooler, apparently) and his grandfather’s ‘special technique’ for getting served at the bar, O’Neill strikes the perfect balance between making fun and showing his adoration for the country folk that have surrounded him throughout his life. Furthermore his show typifies a fundamentally Irish sensibility, juxtaposing the harrowing and the hilarious to great effect.

With the nearly two hour show building to a crescendo of splitting sides, O’Neill leaves the stage to well-deserved rapturous applause. The evening has been an emotional rollercoaster with tears of sadness amidst the tears of joy although the crowd leave on a high. As well as a great physical comic, Owen O’Neill is a conduit of the English language like no other and a highlight of the literary festival – let’s hope he’s back before long.