Conor Grimes on Driving Home For Christmas at Lyric and why he loves 'the season to be jolly'

Gail Bell chats to Conor Grimes of comedy duo Grimes and McKee about staging their new 'alternative' festive drama Driving Home For Christmas and why the Co Tyrone man loves 'the season to be jolly'

Conor Grimes and Alan McKee are back with a new alternative festive offering
Conor Grimes and Alan McKee are back with a new alternative festive offering Conor Grimes and Alan McKee are back with a new alternative festive offering

CHRISTMAS, as the song proclaims, is the 'Most Wonderful Time of the Year' for Conor Grimes, bespectacled half of comedy duo Grimes and McKee – but it is also the most exhausting.

The Co Tyrone actor, currently starring with co-writer Alan McKee in energetic new show Driving Home for Christmas at Belfast's Lyric Theatre, believes being on stage is keeping him fitter than nightly work-outs at the gym.

"My heart is actually thumping after each performance," he says, while actually driving home (to Donaghmore). "There is so much jumping around and singing – I call it 'actorobics' and it definitely works for me."

Driving Home for Christmas is the latest 'alternative' Christmas show from the talented duo who penned The History of The Troubles (Accordin' to My Da) with Martin Lynch and who helped set a new trend for festive shows for adults with their first offering, Plucked and Stuffed, staged at the Lyric 20 years ago this season.

Their 2019 offering, featuring a cast of five alongside musician Rod McVey, adds a "spooky element" to a Yuletide yarn in which a disparate group of travellers become stranded on Christmas Eve in deserted pub, The Dander Inn.

"It's the worst snowstorm in a century and they all end up having to spend the night in a pub high up in the Sperrins… but the atmosphere soon turns chilly," teases Grimes, whose own Christmas at home with family is sacrosanct.

"I just love Christmas," he enthuses. "Everything about it really is wonderful; it's like a little bit of magic dust is sprinkled over everything and everyone. It’s the best time of year, when even grumpy people stop being grumpy.

"We have a big family party on Boxing Day and that is the best day for me, so I don't know how I would feel if I became stranded in the snow on the night before Christmas. Although, I do think, if you have to be trapped somewhere, there are worse places than a pub."

Along with McKee, he has been working on the script for several months and, following five intensive weeks of rehearsals, it was a case of putting it out to the audience on opening night – and "keeping fingers crossed".

"Those moments are always a bit nerve-wracking, as you’re holding your breath and just waiting for the audience to react," he says.

"Luckily, opening night went superbly and people seemed to think it was great craic. You can’t ask for more than that."

On stage, Grimes switches roles between oddball brother and sister Pat and Paddy, owners of the Dander Inn, while McKee plays a character called Frank Diamond, stranded traveller and member of a popular home-grown ABBA tribute band. Completing the cast are Gary Crossan, Rudy Campbell and Ali White, with Frank McCafferty directing.

"The travellers are all just random people trying to get home for Christmas, but personalities inevitably clash, adding to the mayhem," Grimes reveals.

"There is a religious saleswoman, two members of a tribute band, a young, married couple – different people who are forced to bond when spooky things start to happen and things go wrong."

Similar-type Christmas shows have become popular over the past number of years, says the 51-year-old, whose film credits include playing a policeman in the 2004 Terry Loane film Mickybo and Me starring Ciarán Hinds, Adrian Dunbar and Julie Walters.

"Marie Jones and her play Christmas Eve Can Kill You and our Plucked and Stuffed were the forerunners, I think, and now everyone has copped on to the fact that shows like these can be a great night out for adults and families with teenagers," adds the actor/writer, who borrowed the show's title from his favourite Chris Rea song, Driving Home for Christmas.

"It certainly beats a night out at the pub anyway – whether it's snowing or not."

:: Driving Home for Christmas runs at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until January 4. Tickets and show times at Lyrictheatre.co.uk