Northern Ireland comic writer Stephen Large: If your play doesn’t provoke - what was the point?
Production planner for a Bangor carpet company by day, comedy writer by night. When Stephen Large set up satirical Facebook page Dundonald Liberation Army, he couldn't have imagined the doors it would open for him.
While juggling a young family, comedy writing and a full-time job, Large has penned a chart-topping book, sell-out theatre productions and skits for BBC Northern Ireland which have racked up over 20million views online.
Following its huge success last year, Three's A Shroud returns to the Waterfront on September 20. It stars Matthew McElhinney, Nuala McGowan and, of course, BJ Hogg, who you'll fondly remember as Big Mervyn: the burly, leather-clad loyalist from Give My Head Peace.
Here we find out what makes him tick..
How did you get into comedy?
I only started writing about four or five years ago and, at the start, it was literally two years of banging my head against the wall. You would have approached people and basically harassed every comedian on Facebook, asking, "How do I get into this and who should I speak to?"
I was getting nowhere fast so I decided to set up the satirical Facebook page, Dundonald Liberation Army, and it just took off from there. BBC Northern Ireland contacted me just before the Euros saying they were putting together online content based around both Irish sides’ participation in the tournament and asked me if I would like to submit some ideas. I did and, thankfully, the stuff that I did got a really good reaction online. Then they came back to me and other things have come from it.
You're also a chart-topping Kindle author... how did that come about?
I was hoping to get a book deal and I had a meeting with a publisher. They had said, “we really like the DLA page and we think there’s mileage in it," and I came out of there thinking, “we’ve got a book”.
Then I got an email while I was in the chippy a couple of weeks later saying they had decided not to go ahead with it. I was gutted. So, I decided to self-publish on the Kindle via Amazon.
A lot of people will turn their nose up at that and say, “Well, just because you got a guitar for Christmas doesn't mean you should book out Wembley stadium. But I decided to go for it and released the book online. It topped the Kindle charts and exceeded my wildest expectations, and, again, that opened a few doors for me.
It was a very frustrating couple of years in the beginning, so I created my own opportunities and just went from there.
When did you decide to take your writing to the stage?
I literally just said to my wife one night in May 2016, “I think I'll try and get a play put on this Christmas.”
So, I wrote a Belfast adaptation of A Christmas Carol, sent it to a few producers and a couple read the script and wanted to meet me. It got picked up and went into the Strand Arts Centre and the Balmoral Hotel so it was a very small scale production but it sold out and did well.
Then I was bouncing ideas back and forth with director Martin Lynch, and we came up with this idea of feuding Belfast undertakers. The first run of Three’s a Shroud went on stage last October and it got a good reaction, so Martin decided to bring it back again this year.
I think I prefer writing for stage because it’s truer to what my sense of humour is. BBC NI have been fantastic with me and have given me so many opportunities but they have to be very careful about what they put out there. When you’re writing for stage there’s no one telling you, “you can’t say that”.
I’ve watched recordings of last year's show probably around 20 times to spot what didn’t work and rewritten large sections of the play as a result. That’s also the good thing about writing for stage - it constantly evolves and can be improved. Make something for TV or radio and there’s nothing you can do about it, but with stage you can.
What can an audience expect from Three’s a Shroud?
If people like the material that’s on the DLA page, it’s very similar to that. It’s basically lampooning the whole political situation here in Northern Ireland and tells the story of two rival undertakers - one Catholic, one Protestant - who're at each others throats. Then a Polish undertaker comes along and she undercuts them with the price, so they team up to get rid of her. Good old Northern Ireland, where we can come together to hate someone else.
The play tries to get us to look at things and maybe not take them as seriously, you know, looking at parts of republicanism and loyalism and the mannerisms of people who would be involved in that and having a good laugh at everyone's expense. There’s no bias or agenda - everyone gets it in equal measures.
I think in Northern Ireland we have a fascination with death. We’ve had to have a good sense of humour because things were so bleak years ago. People became maybe even desensitised to death because there was that bloody much of it. It’s just a reminder to everyone to not take ourselves too seriously. If you look at the political situation here and some of the things people do and say - it writes itself.
There will be a few bits an audience will wince at it I'm sure. A few people decided to walk out during last years’ show because they just couldn’t take any more. A Canadian couple left during the interval. They were absolutely horrified. But to be honest, you want to provoke that sort of reaction. If someone watches your play and it doesn’t provoke anything - what was the point?
There was a woman who had some sort of procedure on her nose, or whatever the case was, who laughed so hard at one point that her nose actually ruptured. She had to come out because she was covered in blood.
You specialise in local humour but have you got any plans to do anything more mainstream?
You are wary of being branded as, 'only does local humour'. The reality of the situation is that there have been a lot more opportunities for me in Northern Ireland, but all of the online content that I've been doing for BBC NI has been shared on the BBC Comedy Facebook page and its had a really good reaction. The content that I’ve written for BBC online has 20 million views, and it’s all written by a Northern Irish guy, the actors are Northern Irish, but it’s still translating to a mainland audience.
I think there is a market for our kind of humour out there. I have a screenplay that I’ve written about 1998, post-Good Friday Agreement and the dancing and music that was on here at the time. I think there is an appetite for that nostalgia looking back on the 90s period now. Derry Girls is an example of that.
Three's A Shroud returns to the Waterfront September 20 - October 6. Tickets can be purchased at www.waterfront.co.uk
Belfast Telegraph Digital