Wednesday 13 December 2017

LOL: Stage is set for funny girl 's love story

From fling to thing: Sonya Kelly in How to Keep an Alien, a tale of love and red-tape
From fling to thing: Sonya Kelly in How to Keep an Alien, a tale of love and red-tape

Maggie Armstrong

You might have noticed that although this is a stage column, we haven't yet ventured into comedy. This correspondent is more at ease with the notion of funny plays than funny persons: with watching a group of people whose chemistry happens to be funny, rather than a human being labelled "funny", who loses it then dies of a heart attack at 45. That and too many memories of pained silences at pint-drenched comedy clubs, of red-faced Irish men with bulging eyes whose jokes might upset my mum.

It's good to find someone who feels the same. "I have a maxim. Funny by accident. Not funny by design," says Sonya Kelly, writer, actor, comedian. We met before her hit show, How to keep an alien: a story about falling in love and proving it to the government.

"I love going to see comedy, but I find the deliberateness of it intimidating, and the gladiatorial succeeding and failing. If you fail, you're rubbish, and that's all they see you as. Rubbish."

Sonya grew up in seaside Blackrock about 30 years ago. Her uncle is Frank Kelly (Father Jack) and he Heimlich manoeuvred her from choking on a boiled sweet at a family gathering when she was four. "It was one of those Foxes Glacier Mints. It went down my windpipe and he grabbed me and put me upside down."

Growing up, she developed severe sight difficulties. "I was profoundly myopic, pathologically myopic. But I didn't get glasses until I was seven. When I did, it was like, whoa. The glasses were cartoon-thick. They looked like those ones you bought in the joke shop."

A kind aunt in Derry sent her the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and humour was her saviour. "I was teased a lot," she says. "Teenagers are cruel. But if you have theatre, and you can be clever with a comeback, you have something that 'You look weird' can't compete with."

While Sonya was studying Drama at Trinity College she started filling notebooks with things she overheard on the bus, turning them into character sketches and witty poems. When she got her first acting roles in The Gate, playing "maids and silly daughters", she was also doing stand-up on the quiet.

"I was working in The Gate on Private Lives, a Noel Coward play. I was playing the maid and in the second half of the show I used to put my civvies underneath my maid costume, my jeans rolled up, and then I'd run off stage, tear off all my clothes, run down O'Connell Street and to get to the International Bar to do seven minutes." Here she met an abrupt man sitting on a back step, David McSavage, who brought her into his TV show, The Savage Eye, where she played "guards and nuns and politicians' wives".

Sonya became a regular on the stand-up circuit, once short-listed for a UK funnywoman award. But she found comedy rather lonely. She recalls sitting alone in an Ibis hotel in Liverpool before a gig, a "journeyman" with no friends.

She wrote her breakthrough play, The Wheelchair on my Face, about her own sight disability, and How to Keep an Alien is her second show directed by Gina Moxley. She has left the stand-up life behind.

"Theatre, you're nervous - comedy, you're frightened," she says. "I found that having to make it funny all the time was a little bit constricting. I just wanted to be able to drift through a story for five minutes and come back to humour. But comedians will often talk about their JPM, their jokes per minute.

"I think humour is a great function. And I think that's why I've gone in this direction of trying to marry the immediacy of stand up and the lyricism of theatre. Where it can be funny, and it doesn't have to be funny all the time."

How To Keep an Alien is a bag of LOLs, many agree. It is about how Sonya's romance with her Australian stage manager, Kate, turned into a bureaucratic nightmare when it came to securing Kate a de facto Visa. "A fling with an alien becomes a thing with an alien becomes a ring with an alien," writes Sonya.

It's not a play about "issues" like being gay or direct provision for immigrants, though all sorts of profound and sad observations creep in behind a funny charade.

"Humour is a great can-opener for the brain," says Sonya. "If you place jokes and facts very close together you can almost see people going 'Oh'. The placement of humour and truth has a very important function. Some people say, what's funny? Funny makes you laugh. What's witty? Witty makes you laugh and think."

How to Keep an Alien opens at Dunamaise Arts Centre, Portlaoise, on July 21 before touring Ireland and to the Edinburgh Fringe.

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