Last year was the first time Nuala McKeever didn't fall apart on Mike's anniversary - 'I feel like I've started to come back to life'
Weight gain, the menopause, bereavement and becoming invisible - comedian and actress Nuala McKeever (54) tackles the challenges of middle age in her new show. She talks to Linda Stewart
What do you do when life gives you lemons? Some people might make lemonade, but if you're a comedian, you write a new stand-up show.
It seems a long time since Nuala McKeever shot to household name status in post-Troubles Northern Ireland as a star of the hugely successful Two Ceasefires and a Wedding and its follow-up series, Give My Head Peace.
There's been a lot of water under the bridge since then, most notably the tragic death of her partner, Mike Moloney, six years ago, and the long process of coming to terms with that loss.
Nuala's new show, Letting Go Or Losing It?, is about the struggles we face as we approach the second half of our lives, and it was clearly born during a ruminative phase of her life.
The production, which first aired at the Open House Festival in Bangor last autumn, gets its biggest dates yet at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast this week.
"I got the idea for this last year," says Nuala, who lives in Belfast. "It's called Letting Go or Losing It?, which is essentially what I reckon our two choices are as we get older and we face all the things that are happening in life, like getting older, the wrinkles, putting on weight, the menopause ... just all the middle-aged stuff.
"But what are you going to do? You can either lie down - and at least your stomach looks flatter that way - and take it, or you can stand up and laugh.
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"My partner died six years ago and, obviously, everybody who loved him had to let go.
"So, for anybody who's living with a death - and there's also people living with a divorce or not getting a job they wanted - you're always having to let go of your expectations.
"You don't always get what you want, basically, so if you don't let go, if you cling on to how it should be, or how you think it should be, you go a wee bit mad and you lose the run of yourself.
"To stay sane, basically, it's a process of constantly accepting. A huge thing that I learned through meditation was that accepting things being the way they are doesn't mean you like them.
"There's a wee bit of magic in all of this, which is what I love, when you give up trying to control how life goes.
"When Mike died, it was like a sudden shock of, 'Clearly there is nothing under control in life'.
"Trying to control it ... I always have an image of trying to make the waves go a certain way if you were on the sea. Whereas the best thing to do is keep your knees flexed, stay on the surfboard and let them (the waves) carry you in."
That sense of acceptance and letting go is one element of the show - and another is the sheer absurdity of life.
Nuala is perpetually tuned into those strange overheard conversations that become more and more nonsensical upon examination - like the woman at the waterpark bemoaning the price of everything in the shop - "...and I was like, youse are getting nahin - we're going to Spain".
Or the market stall man in Donegal warning a potential customer that one of the walkie-talkies works and the other one doesn't.
"I think I have my antennae out for just the absurdities of how we speak. I love how we speak in this part of the world - it really tickles me," Nuala says.
"(The play) is a combination of wanting to do something because I have to earn a living - and I have done my play In The Window a lot - and stripping back again, letting go of the props, the script and the costumes and the set, and saying 'Could I just be me?'"
Nuala credits the Open House Festival audiences in Bangor for giving her the drive to try out new things.
"The response from the audience has been so warm that I feel very at home. I think if people feel seen and heard and valued, they blossom," she says.
In the light of that welcoming atmosphere, you then feel encouraged to try new things, such as taking the show on tour, revamping it and doing bigger things, she adds.
Belfast-born McKeever was studying Spanish and English at the city's Queen's University when she met a group of boys who were writing sketches - the kernel of what became The Hole in the Wall Gang.
They did a few shows to raise money for worthy causes, then caught the eye of someone from BBC Radio. From there, it was local radio, then network radio and then the TV show.
"It was amazing - recorded and put out as live. I mean, nobody would do that now," Nuala says.
"We didn't have an autocue and we got changed at the side of the studio - it was unheard of to put out a live show that relied on that kind of timing.
"We had these elaborate openings. There was one of them when we came on in sidecars with all these big bikers, but it had to be timed to the second."
That led to Two Ceasefires and a Wedding and two series of Give My Head Peace, followed by Nuala's own UTV show, called McKeever, featuring characters she created herself.
"I'm not a mimic - I can't impersonate other people - but I tend to watch TV and repeat what I hear in the voice that I hear it," Nuala says.
"I didn't know I did it until I was sitting beside someone else who was doing it, and I thought 'That's what I do'.
"My brother, Brendan, is quite a good mimic, and so is another brother, John. Growing up, we would do these voices around the house - you know, posh voices and hard Belfast.
"I get paid now for doing what my mother always shouted at me for doing, which is listening to other people's conversations and repeating them.
"It's when you see the absurdity of something and you point it out, which is what Billy Connolly does.
"People love Billy Connolly ... it's that comedy of recognition. You go, 'Ah yeah, that's what I do'. Not that I compare myself to Billy Connolly, but that's the style of comedy that I do. We are all in the same place, but we all see it very differently."
After McKeever, Nuala's career took a downturn.
"I couldn't get arrested on TV," she admits. "I couldn't get anything on TV. I pitched loads of ideas for about a year and a half, but everything I pitched, Gerry Anderson had just done something similar or was about to do something similar.
"So, I started writing. I wrote a play because I wanted to do something. I made it a one-woman show because I couldn't afford to pay anybody because there was no money."
Now, looking back, she accepts that what seemed like catastrophes at the time turned out to be anything but - and even when work was slow, something always came along.
"I look back now and I can see that the things that seemed like the worst disasters were the jumping-off points for the best things that ever happened - and that seems to be a real pattern for me," Nuala says.
"When my back's against the wall, my survival instinct really comes out and I go, 'Screw this, I'm not going. I'm staying and I'm going to do something'."
Nuala has since written five plays, including a radio play, and performed in other people's pieces. She's co-written and performed in a live sketch show, It's Not All Rain and Potatoes, a radio sitcom pilot called Is It Me? and even a puppet show called The Ulster Kama Sutra, with her long-time director and collaborator, Andrea Montgomery.
Six years on from Mike's death, she has noticed a shift in her thinking.
"Last year was the first year I didn't fall apart on his anniversary and things started to... it's like I feel like I've started to come back to life in these last few months," she says.
"This year I made a wee declaration that I would say yes to things and that I would collaborate. I've got a bit of a thing where I have to do everything on my own and I think maybe I push people away.
"Whether we know it or not, we all give out a vibe, and I think I've been very closed-off."
Her new outlook was partly inspired by reading about Holocaust survivors Viktor Frankl and Edith Eger, and their message that it's how you respond to traumatic events that shapes your life.
"Something shifted for me in and around that idea of opening up... I think it comes down to trusting that there is abundance, or feeling scared that there's scarcity," Nuala says.
"When you're afraid of there not being enough, you cling on to what you've got, and if you're clinging on, that takes a lot of energy.
"So often, when people feel down, they're tired because it's exhausting feeling scared and feeling fearful.
"I do a workshop about this - fear is like the app that runs in the background and drains your battery. What a great analogy for the things that run in our unconscious and that, without us knowing, are taking up the energy that could go into joyfulness.
"It's that idea that you let go. It's not that anything changes in your life, but you suddenly are, 'I am fine, I have more energy, I am more curious, I greet the world more openly, and, surprise, the world responds more openly."
While Nuala likes to stay positive, she admits it's all to easy to become passive and frightened in the current climate.
"(But) I don't believe that's what we're born for," she says. "I believe we were born to more than survive, to be like the baby lying on its back with its legs and arms in the air, being, doing, belching, unselfconscious and self-expressing.
"Life becomes a series of 'stops' - don't do that, look at you showing off, what are you talking for? And I know, for me and for a lot of women and girls, a lot of it is about, 'Stop talking and don't be angry - you're not allowed to be angry."
Going through the menopause has also changed the comedian's outlook on life.
"That lid comes off and it's like, 'Right, bring it on, I'm raging!" Nuala says.
"Since I turned 50 and went through the menopause, I feel so free.
"We're terrorised by concepts - Brexit is a concept - but we're all human beings interacting and we forget how powerful we are.
"We project all this power onto certain people and onto organisations, and that consistently has the effect of keeping us, as individuals, feeling really powerless.
"We are more powerful than we realise. It's owning your own power, and coming out from behind the fear, that makes you powerful.
"I've had hard conversations and stood up for myself and I've found that really hard. But I've found my voice now and I can't shut up."
Letting Go or Losing It? is at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast from tomorrow until Thursday. Follow Nuala on Twitter at @nualamckeever7