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DLA man Stephen Large's new play takes a look at the funny side of death

Stephen Large is emerging as one of the north's new comedy talents. He tells Joanne Sweeney about his new Martin Lynch-directed play and how he fits his writing in between having a demanding day job and three young children

Stephen Large talks to the Irish News ahead of his play Three's A Shroud in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast Picture: Hugh Russell
Joanne Sweeney

THERE'S nothing funny about death or undertakers, or so you might think. But when renowned playwright and director Martin Lynch set comic writer Stephen G Large a challenge, he succeeded in seeing the funny side of the final destination which awaits us all.

The result is the writer's second play; Three's a Shroud, which opens at The Waterfront Hall Studio in Belfast next Wednesday (October 4), running for 16 nights. Large, as one of 12 new talents being developed in the BBC's Writers Room, has hit a purple patch with this and two new radio comedy projects due to be broadcast later this autumn.

Three's A Shroud is described as a 'hilarious' new comedy which reveals the farce that occurs when the unthinkable happens in Belfast: a Protestant undertaker starts to bury Catholics and a Catholic undertaker starts to bury Protestants. As a coffin war hots up, the arrival of a young Polish woman's cut-price, new-age interdenominational funeral home threatens them both and an uneasy alliance is required to deal with the threat.

Veteran actor BJ Hogg, probably best known as Big Mervyn in the ever popular TV series Give My Head Peace, stars as Catholic undertaker Gerry McSorley, with Shaun Blaney as his Protestant counterpart Basil Gray. Newcomer Nuala McGowan plays Polish usurper Irena Bukowski and Matthew McElhinney, son of acting, writing and directing duo Marie Jones and Ian McElhinney, also appears as Gerry's sidekick Simon.

"Trying to get Three's A Shroud done and ready for the opening night has just been a real monster," Large acknowledges. "It's been a real struggle getting time to do everything and there hasn't been a morning in months that I have not been up writing. But I'm really looking forward to it and can't wait to see how it goes down with the audience."

In the flesh, Stephen G Large – the G is for Glenn to distinguish him from his father, also called Stephen – is not what I had expected the creator of the satirical Facebook page Dundonald Liberation Army, a fictitious cross-community paramilitary organisation which basically lampoons the absurdities and abnormalities of everyday life here, to be.

For a start, he's not the bearded hipster surgically attached to a tablet or smartphone which I had conjured up in my mind before meeting him. Rather he's a suited and booted executive-looking young man who's preparing to head into work as a production manager immediately after our interview.

If there's a hint of exhaustion on the 35-year-old's face. It could be down to the fact that he's finding himself much in demand as a comedy writer in the middle of being a very hands-on parent of three daughters – Darci (8), Harper (5) and Pyper (2) – a task he shares with his wife Tammy. He minds his daughters in the evening while his wife works, and so snatches writing time late at night or early in the morning.

It was his love of jokes that led him to where he is today.

"I've always loved comedy and jokes and used to watch comedy on the TV all the time as a lad," says Large. "I'm quite quiet and would never do stand-up but my mates thought I was hilarious, so I started to write jokes down and made up stories and then I started the Dundonald Liberation Army Facebook (DLA) page over a year ago."

His unique way of writing about local life gained him a 30,000-strong following within months. When he self-published his Dundonald Liberation Army book on Kindle last March, it went straight to the top of the comedy reads.

"After my book came out, I wanted to get a play put on but I was completely naive about it and didn't have the first clue,” he says.

His first play, Carol's Christmas, was produced by Tony Devlin's Brassneck Theatre last year and an initial foray into staging the DLA story with Martin Lynch's GBL Productions hit a snag earlier this year.

But Large wasn't too disappointed and says, "I don't want to be pigeon-holed with the DLA page and for people to think that's all he does. I don't want to be regarded as a one-trick pony.

"Martin set me a challenge to do something different and there’s nothing harder to write something funny about than death and funerals. I had heard a few stories about funerals and things which had happened and the idea just snowballed from there.

"When we decided we wanted to do the Protestant and Catholic thing, we wanted it to do it in a different way, to show the different practices around death from each. When the undertakers decide to branch out into each other's territories, that's where the comedy comes from.”

:: Tickets for Three's A Shroud (October 4-21), from GBL Productions, are available online at waterfront.co.uk or by calling 028 9031 5337.

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