Nuala McKeever: Why I felt suicidal
Ulster comedienne Nuala McKeever (41) steps back into the limelight next week when she brings her one-woman drama Out of the Box to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Here, she talks openly to Karen Ireland about her comeback - and the difficulties she has faced during her 'wilderness' years.
She's been dubbed Ulster's 'funny girl', but life hasn't exactly been a barrel of laughs for Nuala McKeever in the last couple of years. The comedienne who found fame as a member of the original Hole in the Wall Gang before landing her own UTV chat show admits to suffering from depression, feeling suicidal and having to turn to professional counselling to "sort her head out".
She quips: "I can just see the headline now - Nuala is nuts and is seeing a shrink."
The Nuala I meet is certainly not nuts. She is excited and bursting with enthusiasm about her play, Out of the Box, which runs for three nights in Belfast next week. Plans are also afoot for an autumn tour, including a run at the Edinburgh Festival.
Today, chatting over coffee, Nuala exudes a new-found calmness and contentment, too.
"I got rid of a lot of baggage and I do feel much lighter for it," she reveals. "I am happier now than I have ever been but it has taken a lot of work, and been a long process to get here."
I push her in an effort to find out if her happiness relates to someone as opposed to some thing, but all she will say is: "I have been there and done that. I poured my heart out in interviews before and am not going down that road again. I'm not someone special and I don't think it's of any real interest to people any more. Who really cares who - if anyone - I am seeing?"
Nuala, who's from Belfast, had a somewhat public split from her husband, writer Sean Carson, five years ago. He is a nephew of comedian Frank Carson.
"I was married for nearly four years and I'm not now," she says. "Sean and I are still in touch. It's all very amicable and, yes, I have dated since. End of story. To be honest, it all feels like a very long time ago for me now."
But that said, there's still lots to talk about with the new and improved Nuala. Like where she's been since her show, McKeever, was axed from UTV and how she's ended up going it alone in her ambitious one-woman show.
"I've been in the wilderness don't you know," she jokes again, before revealing that it was a well-paid wilderness which afforded her the luxury of taking a couple of months off last year to concentrate on writing.
"I've been doing this and that. I did a lot of after dinner speeches and presentations, some radio work and I worked on a CS Lewis documentary last year.
"Yes, there were bleak times along the way when I would wonder what on earth I was doing. I would worry about work or the lack of it and feel like a failure. I had no real direction in my life and there was a lot of weeping and wailing.
"I can't honestly say I thought about committing suicide, but I certainly had suicidal thoughts when I would think the world would be better off without me and at least then my family would get some money for my insurance and they could sell off my car."
It's a far cry from the bubbly, outgoing and confident Nuala we all knew and loved in her many guises, such as Mickey's Ma and North Down snob Hilary Hamilton.
"I think everyone puts on an act at some stage in their lives," she says. "I was lucky in that I did it for a living, but the act didn't stop away from work either.
"Somewhere along the way I realised that I didn't even really know who the real Nuala was. All my life I had drifted into things without really thinking about what I wanted or what the consequences would be.
"I drifted into the Hole in the Wall Gang after university, I drifted into marrying Sean and then I drifted into my comedy act.
"Don't get me wrong, I don't have any regrets about any of the things I have done or decisions I made, but I think it was just time to grow up and start taking responsibility for myself and my actions."
Nuala realised that she needed help, someone to talk to outside of friends and family, and that she needed to work through "some stuff".
She explains: "I'm not ashamed to admit that I needed counselling. It saved me. I think we all hide behind things and put up a front for fear of telling people the truth and letting others see how we really feel, but what does that achieve?
"One of the turning points was a Landmark Education course which I did in Dublin. It looks at where you are at in life, how you got there and where you are going.
"When I came back from that I realised that I was forever starting things and never finishing anything. I would get impatient and move on to the next thing.
"I decided that what I really wanted to do was write a play. I was tired of pitching ideas to people and telling them what I could do. I wanted to show them instead. But I needed to do it there and then - to start writing, to book a theatre and just go for it."
Luckily, she was able to take some time off from everything else and get stuck into the writing.
"In the past I had worried too much about falling flat on my face and everyone laughing at me for being a failure," Nuala says. "This time I was determined to see something to the finish and I finally got rid of all that fear of what might be.
"Somewhere along the way I had lost all my confidence and I was full of self-doubt. Suddenly, I had a new confidence in myself and my abilities.
"After all, what was the worst that could happen? People could hate it - but so what?"
Far from hating Nuala's theatre debut, the first run of Out of the Box, during Belfast Festival at Queen's last October, was a complete sell-out, as was a recent run at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine.
The play sees her collaborating with Andrea Montgomery, artistic director at the Riverside ("Andrea has a lot of talent and can do all the things I haven't got a clue about. We have really gelled and work well together").
But Nuala reveals that Out of the Box is not the comedy many people expect from her.
"I like to joke that the only thing you won't know about me after seeing this show is my shoe size," she explains. "It's funny, sad, dark and light all at the same time.
"It's all about one woman's journey and how she deals with growing up and facing some tough choices in life. It's quite raw in places and certainly geared for an adult audience."
Is it autobiographical?
"Well there's a lot of me in it - the reflections and observations I have drawn from my 40-plus years here - but essentially it's a drama. I play all the different characters, about seven in total, which is a challenge in itself.
"I think a lot of the time we live our lives through the relationships we have with people in our heads, forever analysing what they think of us and making up things without a lot of fact. That's what Kathy, the central character of the play, does."
Nuala is very proud to feel that for the first time she has stood on her own two feet; that something she has done has had a beginning, a middle and an end.
On the back of the success of the show, she has been asked to write a proposed pilot drama for the BBC.
"I am just so excited about what opportunities are out there for me now I've got rid of all my old fears which were holding me back," she says.
"I read a book once and there was a line in it about not being frightened of taking risks and that it's only when you jump that the net will appear.
"I'm not frightened of taking chances any more and I am trying to get to a place where my head, heart and mouth are all at the same place, and what you see is what you get.
"I've healed a lot of old hurts and I feel completely free now. I used to be obsessed about my age and turning 40, but once I did, it was almost a relief.
"Now I feel ready for whatever life has to throw at me."
And is she searching for a happy ending in her personal life too?
She rolls her eyes to indicate that this particular subject is closed, then relents to add: "When my marriage ended it killed some of the magic for me ... I thought that when you got married it was forever.
"I don't know what the future holds for me, but I certainly won't be rushing - or in my case drifting into - anything again.
"I still have pangs about wanting to be a mother but I know I am not alone in that and there are so many people out there who want to be parents and who for one reason or another can't.
"I am changing all the time. I suppose I am coming out of my own box."
Out of Box will run at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from Thursday to Saturday, March 30 to April 1, with performances at 8pm.
Ticket details, tel: 9038 1081.