Derry's Diona on performing to windscreens, making IVF funny and being a stepmum
Derry-born actress Diona Doherty, is a natural-born comedian who's now holding her own at stand-up. She tells Gail Bell why she never shies away from hard work or making personal experiences funny on stage
VERSATILE Derry actress and comedian Diona Doherty is known for stretching herself to the absolute limit, but even she is wondering if her latest challenge, “performing to a sea of windscreens” might be a gear-change too many.
The real-life Derry girl, best known for television roles in Lisa McGee’s hit series, Derry Girls (as guest lead, Ukranian, Katya) and Tracy Jones in BBC comedy mockumentary, Soft Border Patrol, will be performing to a live audience (seated in cars) this weekend.
Diona will be part of the comedy line-up for the Lough Down Drive-In Festival at Queen’s Island, Belfast, alongside her comedian husband, Sean Hegarty (who acts as MC) and Micky Bartlett, all performing stand-up at the two-day event which features a mix of music, theatre and family entertainment from well-known names across the industry.
Organised by Belfast events company MayWe, the two-day festival aims to provide a “creative alternative” in these Covid times – and while debating over how exactly to make eye contact through a vehicle windscreen, Diona believes the drive-in festival will help performers and fans feel a little bit normal again.
“I don’t think any of us have performed for windscreens before, so not seeing faces, not reading faces, will be a challenge,” she concedes, “but, on the other hand, we’ve got to do something. It’s been six months with no stage work and no screen work and that aspect of lockdown has been a real struggle – you worry that you might forget how to do it!”
Luckily for the 31-year-old actress – who has recently become a ‘regular’ in TV’s Give My Head Peace as Uncle Andy’s daughter, Grainne – the funny lines come instinctively, along with a canny ability to “think on the spot”; a talent put terrifyingly to the test while acting in Soft Border Patrol.
“I think Soft Border Patrol was the most exhausting, but most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, because there is no script and you just have to improvise and talk as much as you can,” she says in a soft Derry burr, untainted, so far, by tones of Co Armagh where she now lives with Sean and her three stepsons, James, Charlie and Tom.
Having only branched out in stand-up earlier this year, Diona decided to take another brave step by talking on stage about her IVF journey with Sean, taking something intensely personal and making it relatable to others.
“My comedy tends to be about my own experiences, truthful things that have happened to me, and then I’ll embellish them with ridiculousness,” she says. “Like this year, I have started to talk about IVF in my comedy because that’s a journey we’ve been on – and are still on – but I just never talked about it before.
"It’s something I’ve found I really enjoy talking about on stage and it has been the best therapy. And most of the time after a gig, I’ll get someone messaging me on Instagram telling me they are also going through IVF and saying, ‘Thank you very much for talking about it and managing to make it funny’.
“Last week I was doing a gig in the Limelight in Belfast [supporting Holywood comedian, Shane Todd] and straight after, a girl messaged me saying she and her husband had been poking each other all night because they were going through IVF and hadn’t told anybody. She ended by saying they were now going to start telling people and I thought that was great – why shouldn’t we talk about it?
“It’s not something that makes me cry or makes me sad and it’s not some great taboo or anything. It helps me and if it helps one or two people in the audience, then I feel glad to have put it out there.”
Again touching on the personal, her other ‘role’, that of step-mum to three boys aged 16, 13 and 11, is also to come under scrutiny in a short film she has been commissioned to write by the BBC, intriguingly entitled Sh*t Stepmum.
“It’s a comedy for BBC iPlayer about the experiences I’ve had being a stepmum and the ‘i’ is asterisked,” she hurriedly explains, laughing at the intentional shock factor of the title.
“My stepsons are crackers – they’re really funny and they’re great, but it’s just about how being a stepmum can be both funny and disheartening at times because you obviously take on the responsibilities of a parent, but you can still lose out on those unconditional bonds that you would have with your own kids.
“I’ve been with the boys since the oldest was three, so I’ve helped raise them and be part of their lives and I’ve seen them grow from wee kids to teenagers and it’s been such a privilege. It’s mad, because I’m 31 but still think of myself as a teenager, so when I see them acting like teenagers, there’s a part of me that wants to join in.”
Graduating from Queen’s University with a degree in Drama (which she went back to complete after leaving to study a more vocationally orientated Performing Arts course at Belfast Metropolitan College), she landed a variety of roles, including one in Irish-language film Aithrí/Penance as well as romantic drama film 27 Memory Lane and thriller The Butchering.
With such an eclectic mix of work behind her – she has also written five plays which were scheduled for theatre dates this year – it amuses her greatly that today she is more often recognised for her Lidl TV advertisements or a “little 45-second online video” uploaded by her husband several years ago.
“It is so strange, but you would be surprised how often I get recognised for Lidl before anything else,” she says. “And a short Derry/Londonderry comedy sketch Sean and I did 10 years ago from BBC NI’s Late Licence show went viral, so loads of people will still mention that. It’s funny what people remember.”
But, while work is constant and varied – she also starred in a Channel 5 drama (coincidentally, like her earlier film, called Penance) in March with Neil Morrissey – this Derry girl is happy to have quietly pushed ahead in her profession without the proverbial ‘big break’.
“I don’t feel I’m someone who has had that big break, but I’ve had consistent work for the past seven or eight years and I’m happy with that,” she says. “I’m really happy that I can be considered for such a variety of things because I haven’t had one major, ‘defining’ part which can be both a blessing and a curse. I’m happy to have my finger in lots of different pies.
“I love exhausting myself and working really hard on something that doesn’t come easily – whether it’s improving my Irish language for two Irish films and an Irish play I was in, improvising for Soft Border Patrol, or now making people laugh in their cars. I don’t like things to come too easily.”
Lough Down Drive-In Arts Festival at Catalyst, Queen's Road, Belfast, takes place this Saturday and Sunday. Tickets from £10-£20 per vehicle are on sale at loughdown.eventbrite.co.uk