Arts

Comedy trio The Nualas on bringing Glam Slam to Belfast

With generous helpings of innovative song and wit, The Nualas always prove a big hit with Belfast audiences. Here, founder member Sue Collins tells Gail Bell that the trio's new show, 'Glam Slam' is as glittery as ever – and how she is, at last, turning into her mother

The Nualas with their trademark purple wigs
Gail Bell

WITH her bright purple wig and glittery dress, Sue Collins is having the last laugh on her younger self's misguided ambitions of being a 'serious' actress.

One of the original members of acclaimed Irish musical-comedy trio The Nualas, Dublin-based Collins says she was initially a bit affronted at her tutors at the Dublin School of Acting who had the audacity to tell her she was more funny than serious.

"They said I was quite funny and I was going, 'No, what, me?' but they insisted – so that was the first clue I was not destined to play Lady Macbeth after all," she tells me.

When we spoke, the comedian, actress and mother of four was enjoying a welcome festive break from writing and performing and before the curtain rises on The Nualas new show, Glam Slam, which comes to Northern Ireland in February.

There are no regrets, however, as Collins (wife of actor Phelim Drew, son of Dubliner Ronnie Drew and grandson of noted Co Tyrone republican Dr Patrick McCartan) enjoys every comedic moment as 'Blonde Nuala' – and, also, as one half of successful partnership The Dirt Birds, in which she collaborates with Dundalk native Sinead Culbert.

So far, the hilarious conversations between fictional Dublin mums, Carmel and Debs, and competitive mothers Eleanor and Eimear which constitute the majority of Dirt Birds sketches have not played out in the north – but that is something under review for the comedian whose musician father, Archie lived in Portadown.

"I would love to bring the Dirt Birds to Northern Ireland and that is something I'm going to really think about, as I love all that character stuff and lampooning a certain type of woman – like Carmel, a 'northsider' from Dublin who is full of malapropisms and who isn't really the brightest," she says.

"I met Sinead about 10 years ago and we started to write TV sit-coms, one of which was picked up as a pilot for BBC3. It never went to full production, but working with people there proved a masterclass in comedy and we really honed our writing skills."

It was a much earlier visit, though, to Dublin's famed Comedy Cellar, that first set Collins' heart racing in the direction of alternative comedy.

Having become "disillusioned" with theatre after a particularly gruelling stint as a witch in a touring show for toddlers, she discovered a cool new strain of comedy, helping to set up the Dublin Comedy Improv with other comics and performing alongside the likes of Ardal O'Hanlon and Dara O'Briain.

"When I first set foot in the Comedy Cellar, I couldn't believe what was happening on my own doorstep," Collins recalls,

"It was a revelation and and I fell instantly in love."

But, while northern fans may have to wait a little longer to see the Dirt Birds live on a stage – the sketches became an internet sensation after being posted on Facebook over a year ago – that other 'masterclass' in comedy, The Nualas, are set to burst on to the stage at Armagh's Market Place Theatre in February and at the Lyric in Belfast in March.

The Lyric, notably, is one of "the best gigs" for the popular trio – spontaneously created in a Dublin kitchen after a party in 1995 and also featuring Anne Gildea (co-founder) and Maria Tecce – and they make a point of entertaining their dedicated Belfast fans there once a year.

With an original mix of song and comedy, the performers venture irreverently where others fear to tread and virtually nothing is off limits when it comes to poking fun at the vagaries of life and "the real stuff" that women like to talk about.

It's a moveable feast ranging from botox and couples' counselling to beauty bloggers and Facebook – although the topic tickling Collins' funny bone at the moment is a new style of song, teasingly titled Turning into My Mother.

"I do like this element, as it is spoken word with music," Collins explains.

"I wouldn't call it rap and it's not a poem either; it is something in-between."

An a-capella arrangement "in the style of The Andrews Sisters" is also on the offbeat playlist, which has proved a winning formula for The Nualas.

The name, incidentally, was all a bit 'random' for Collins, whose look developed as a "nerdy" take on The Spice Girls, with "spectacles and extra pounds" (weight, not money).

"We had no idea who we would be on stage and then we thought, 'why not have different girl characters?', so we came up with the Blonde Nuala, the Brunette Nuala and the Red-head Nuala as a sort of reference to The Spice Girls zeitgeist," she explains.

"We also wanted to tap into the humour of the west of Ireland and reference a country girl who was now living in town. We needed a name that conjured up that type of woman – and everyone knows a Nuala."

The trio broke up for a spell before being successfully reborn in 2011, taking national and international audiences by storm. By Collins' own account, their musical humour incorporating genres as diverse as hip-hop and Irish ballads has "travelled well", despite its inherent 'Irishness'.

"That was a surprise for us, in a way," she reflects, "as not all Irish comedy travels well, because there are so many 'inside' jokes, but nothing was lost in translation, whether we were in Edinburgh, London or Melbourne, Australia.

"I think the comedy is universal and something everyone can tap into – we talk a lot, for instance, about the pressure women are under to look a certain way.

"There is an irony in that, as there we are on stage not exactly slim, the message being, it's not all about the way you look.

"The songs come first and there is definitely a surreal element to the humour. Literally, anything can spark an idea, although we tend to stay away from political topics – but Donald Trump gets the occasional mention. How could you not?"

There are no short-cuts, however, and Collins works hard to be funny, often "practising stuff out" in front of husband Phelim and her sister, who will wait patiently on the sofa in the family home for Blonde Nuala to unveil her latest kooky routine.

"With no 'comedy schools', like drama schools, to learn your craft, you just have put it out there and wait and see what happens," she adds.

"Luckily, it has all been good so far."

:: The Nualas begin a 13-date Irish tour in February including shows at Armagh's Market Place Theatre (February 10) and The Lyric in Belfast (March 18). Full dates and ticket info at TheNualas.com

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