Grimes and McKee: Just remember, your kids are in the front row
Conor Grimes and Alan McKee took on the hallowed sport of GAA in their show St Mungo's Luganulk and won. Now the birth of Jesus is the focus of their comedic attention – with agoraphobia up next. They talk to Joanne Sweeney
CONOR Grimes and Alan McKee reckon that they are "Ireland's most successful cross-community comedy duo" – but that's only after Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, as McKee quickly quips.
Interviewing the actors and comedy writers is literally a laugh a minute as both are in rare form on a Monday morning over a cup of coffee at Belfast 's Lyric Theatre. They could be married by the way that they finish off each other's sentences, such is the ease of friendship that the two men have built up over the past 20 years.
While McKee has been acting in a 'straight' role in the theatre's critically acclaimed current play St Joan, they are back together again for a six-week tour of their hilarious GAA-inspired stage comedy St Mungo's Luganulk – kick-off for which is tomorrow in Éire Óg GAC, Craigavon – ahead of their brand new comedy The Nativity – What the Donkey Really Saw, which runs over Christmas and the new year at the Lyric.
St Mungo's has been going down a storm in GAA clubs, halls and local theatres since it first debuted in 2014. On the face of it, it's the story of 'how the worst team in history got into the All-Ireland final' but essentially it's about the vagaries of rural life.
For those who may not know, St Mungo is the saint of Glasgow and Luganulk is a rough translation of "bad wee hole" or as McKee interjects, "sorrowful little dip".
Grimes, who acts a great version of commentator Joe Brolly, explains: "It's about a fella Barry Maguire moving back from London who gets a site in a village and decides to take his wife and young family out of the rat race to peace and tranquility.
"He ends up out of the pan into the fire. He gets roped into St Mungo's and against his better judgment he gets sucked into it again."
The idea to write a show about the GAA is something that the men had been thinking about for some time and it finally took shape when Armagh club Collegeland O'Rahilly's asked then along to "just do a show".
Grimes says: "It came just from all of our experiences of everything and once we sat down, the show just wrote itself. We just put it all together and we didn't think or care about anything. But we were always aware of trying to be honest about the situations involved, rather than just go for a cheap laugh. People needed to identify with the truth of it, harsh as it is."
The fact that the show is about a small club works in its favour, according to McKee.
"One of the things that we've always found that the more specific you make something, the more universal it becomes," he says. "We are big fans of the Cohen Brothers' work. When you look at something like Fargo, it's about a strange little community but it's a massive hit all over the world.
"One of the things that we find very interesting is that you get a lot of people who see the show but don't come up and say 'That's like our club'. They say 'That's like the club down the road.'
"And that's at the heart of St Mungo's too – the bitter, bitter rivalry with the club two miles down the road.
"And we both like the reaction we get from various clubs when they realise that I'm a big fat Prod from Coleraine."
After taking on comedy writing with their hit The History of the Troubles (According to my Da) and the new version (According to my Ma) and the GAA, the pair gave their attention to another untouchable story – the birth of Jesus Christ in What the Donkey Saw.
As fathers of seven children (Grimes 3, McKee 4), McKee says that they have spent a lot of time watching school nativity plays.
"Your mind tends to wander," he says. "We looked at the Nativity and we always knew that what really happened was what fascinated us. Like where did Joseph work? And why do the shepherds have tea-towels on their head? What's the correlation between shepherds and tea towels. I don't understand it."
The pair play shepherds, wise men and Roman centurions with Kerri Quinn as their "cheeky monkey Mary", Terry Keeley playing Joseph and Tara Lynn O'Neill as one of their wise men.
Grimes says: "The donkey really has a special view on what happened. And it's not really a donkey of course, it's a budget donkey from Korea. It's a Hyonki" – cue guffaws of laughter from McKee.
"It's affordable, perfect for a starter family," McKee adds, "There's a bit of knack to riding them."
The two constantly bounce off each other and laugh at each other's jokes. They say they are like this when they sit down to write a new play in a business-like manner and, yes, they do fight and argue. But have they ever thrown any punches?
"I wouldn't get into the position where he could get me as he's much quicker than he looks," jokes McKee.
Grimes adds: "Arguing and fighting, it's part of the creative process. The great thing about having two is that if you are making the other person laugh, then we know that's funny."
At the moment, they say they are fascinated over agoraphobia – the fear of open spaces – and that's likely to be their next writing project. While they write great comedy plays, they are not comedians and make a distinction between stand-up and what they do to poke fun at some big topics for people.
They are certainly not like comedians Frankie Boyle or Alan Carr and don't want to be – even though they both enjoy those comedians' humour.
"We come from a different place and that's drama," Grimes says. "We are always haunted by the fact that our children will be sitting in the front row and our wives will say to us 'Just you remember that, no matter what you do, your children will be sitting in the front row.'"
McKee agrees: "You shouldn't make jokes about things that people can't change."
Grimes deadpans: "So the question of Alan's sexuality is off-limits".
McKee: "But my weight is fair-dos as I could change it – I could be fatter. And if the part really required, I would be prepared to fatten up."
:: St Mungo's Luranulk starts its six week tour tomorrow night in Eire Og, Craigavon. Further show and ticket information can be found on the show's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/St-Mungos-Luganulk-1456790421273310/?fref=ts). The Nativity: What the Donkey Saw will be showing at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from November 27 to January (www.lyrictheatre.co.uk).