- Jay Richardson
- 17 July 2008
The Stand, Edinburgh, Thu 17 Jul
An award-winning playwright, poet and subscriber to the theory that redheads are genetic ‘mutants’ (having conducted the required research for a BBC documentary), Owen O’Neill was one of the first Irishmen to perform on the UK stand-up circuit and almost certainly the first to do so inadvertently.
‘Between about ‘84 and ‘89 there was only really myself, Ian Macpherson, Kevin McAleer and Michael Redmond,’ the County Tyrone-born O’Neill recalls. ‘I’d been performing poetry at a vegetarian restaurant in north London, the Earth Exchange, very PC, where you used to speak from behind an open fire. Once, I left my notes on the tube, so I just went on and talked about losing them. The audience were laughing and I remember thinking this is great. Gradually the poetry became less and less and the chatting inbetween more and more.’
Nowadays, in intimate venues like the Stand, O’Neill mixes stand-up and verse with passages from his intensely personal one-man plays, loosely and variously based on him ‘being an alcoholic, having an obsession with Mick Jagger, wanting to go to LA and my son being a footballer.’
His recollections of his rambunctious father have caused friction with his family, yet O’Neill cites Richard Pryor’s autobiographical inclination and Alan Bleasdale’s blending of the comic and tragic as precedents. WC Fields is another inspiration and, perhaps most surprisingly for such a verbal performer, so is Buster Keaton.
Nevertheless, despite having worked in an abattoir, he’s keen to stress that his forthcoming Fringe drama, Absolution, in which O’Neill plays a murderer and castrator of paedophile priests, is his first solo production not derived from personal experience. Having spoken to abuse survivors and a retired priest, he maintains that they only supplied the tone for a darkly comic play that is ‘an exaggeration of what you would do if you were so angry about something that it claimed you psychologically and spiritually.’