x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

We talk to the Irish comedian Owen O'Neill ahead of his UAE performances

The stand-up comedian who refuses to let his main career define him.

Owen O’Neill is keeping his next project under wraps. Courtesy The Laughter Factory
Owen O’Neill is keeping his next project under wraps. Courtesy The Laughter Factory

Si Hawkins talks to the Irish stand-up comedian, scriptwriter and actor Owen O'Neill ahead of his performances in Abu Dhabi and Dubai this week

"People don't like it when comedians try to do other things - they really don't trust you," muses Owen O'Neill, who has become something of an expert on such matters.

The adaptable Irishman, who brings his stand-up skills to Dubai and Abu Dhabi this week with the last Laughter Factory show of the year, has also excelled as a poet, actor, playwright, screenwriter and film director over the past 30 years - causing much consternation along the way. It began when he first stepped on to a stage, in London in the early 1980s, as a rambling performance poet.

"The chatting in between got longer and longer," he recalls. "I'd get people saying 'this is supposed to be a poetry evening!'"

Britain's vibrant live-comedy scene provided a more welcoming environment and O'Neill became an influential figure, staging long-form shows that increasingly resembled plays. This "stand-up theatre" bemused many industry figures but also helped hone his acting skills, and he made his film debut in the fine Irish drama Michael Collins, after the director Neil Jordan caught one of his gigs. O'Neill got off to an awkward start with the leading man, Liam Neeson. It transpired that the pair had met before, when Neeson - then working as a nightclub bouncer - was forced to eject his future co-star. How was the reunion?

"One of those weird moments," laughs the comic. "He said: 'I hope I didn't punch you too hard.'"

Several further film roles followed, but O'Neill refused to put progress before principles. "I got an acting agent and they'd be pushing me to do ads. But I couldn't bear to do it. The agent was a bit annoyed. That's the story of my life really, not doing what I'm told."

His career is certainly not driven by fame or fortune, more a desire to tell tales in as many different ways as possible. He might have pursued a lucrative stand-up career in the US after performing on several big US talk shows, but relocating was "never an option" and, back home, writing began to take precedence.

O'Neill's scriptwriting skills made an early impression in 1991 when his black comedy Arise and Go Now was filmed for the BBC by a young Danny Boyle (who went on to direct the likes of Slumdog Millionaire). The stage continued to beckon, however, and O'Neill's ambitious adaptation of Sidney Lumet's movie classic 12 Angry Men - this time starring untried comedians - was a surprise hit at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival.

It led him to London's West End, albeit with an entirely different play.

"The rights weren't available for 12 Angry Men so one of us came up with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," he explains.

The Hollywood star Christian Slater was hired for the Jack Nicholson role, "with the rest of us all playing the nutcases", and the show enjoyed two hugely successful runs.

Six years on, O'Neill adapted another much-loved movie, The Shawshank Redemption, to much acclaim at Dublin's legendary Gaiety Theatre.

"Then these producers came in from London and thought they were going to make a killing in the West End," he recalls, with much indignation. "We fell out big time."

Thankfully, a new project is never far away. In 2008 he returned to movies as a first-time director, with promising results: his quirky short The Basket Case won film-festival awards as far afield as Boston and Brazil.

Rather than fixate on a follow-up, though, he is currently embarking on yet another new direction and co-writing a musical.

"I hate musicals. But I thought 'what musical would I like to see?' and I came up with this idea." That remains under wraps for the moment. Meanwhile, O'Neill's stand-up career continues and he promises fresh routines for Laughter Factory audiences, inspired by previous visits to the region. "I've got material about Dubai and Abu Dhabi," he says. "I like to localise it."

The Laughter Factory's last tour of the year begins tonight at Jambase, Souk Madinat Jumeirah with nine nights of shows in Dubai, Doha and a performance next Tuesday at Heroes in the Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi. Tickets are Dh130. Visit www.thelaughterfactory.com for more information