SPUD! - Have they made the famine funny?
After 170 years what more is there to be said about the Irish Famine? Well, that it wasn't Irish for a start. Bimpe Archer talks to comedian Conor Grimes about finding the funny in the island's biggest tragedy for new play `SPUD!'.
CONOR Grimes is rueful when asked whether the mass starvation of one million people is really a good subject for a comedy - it is clearly one that has come up many, many times since he conceived his new play with fellow comedian Kevin McAleer.
"As Kevin said, it's been 170 years, how can it be too soon?"
The glib answer belies the fact that 'SPUD!' is not the coarse chortle at the expense of the suffering poor which has sparked outrage when featured as throwaway lines for stand-up comedians.
On the same basis that 'only a Jewish person could write Springtime for Hitler', this reclaiming of the Great Hunger by Irish playwrights and performers and director is able to instinctively walk the line between taste and humour.
And the pair, who conceived the idea 18 months ago, have approached their subject as seriously as any drama, with exhaustive research of the era.
For Grimes, 'SPUD!' is about the untold history of the famine.
"I wanted to know what else was happening at the time? What was happening in the cities? What were the middle classes doing? How were people living?
"All our impressions of that time are of people dying on the sides of roads because the work houses were too full to take any more, but I wondered how was life going on around that."
Their research took in the music hall/vaudeville entertainment of the time which continued throughout the period and also unpicks the retrofitted, post-independence narrative.
"People always talk about the 'Irish Famine' but Ireland wasn't an independent country. It was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
"There was no Irish Famine. It was the United Kingdom's famine. It was a part of the United Kingdom.
"The more you research the famine the more you realise that the people were not just starving, they were starved. By a nonchalant ruling class."
The famine provides the backdrop for what essentially is a play about relationships.
The two-hander is stet in the claustraphobic interior of rural cottage of brothers Robert and Felix Story, at a time when the proverbial 'two pay cheques away from the street' had never been more ominous.
Missed rent and food stocks dwindling down to the titular 'spud' sees fraternal bonds stretched beyond breaking point as a crazy and complicated game of cat and mouse develops.
The humour, for humour there is a plenty, comes from the characters and their responses to their circumstances.
Grimes explains that, in the mid-Ulster vernacular, they are a pair of 'clifts' - clownish individuals. While emphatically not "an Irish Waiting for Godot", the surreal does feature heavily.
As for all comedies, the rehearsals have been gruelling - bringing the funny is hard work. And it is a new experience for both the two leads and their director Conleth Hill.
"Kevin has to keep reminding us that this is his first play and being directed by an Olivier Award-winning actor has it's own challenges," Grimes says.
He's looking forward to opening night on Saturday when rehearsals a behind them and the trio can finally present their labour of love to a live audience at the Lyric Theatre.
'SPUD!' runs from 31 August - 14 September at the Lyric Theatre (7.30pm and 2.30pm) www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or 028 9038 1081