Edinburgh Festival: Death becomes him

Stand-up comic Sean Hughes is starring in two plays about dying. Has he turned serious, or is he discovering the last laugh?
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Two new plays being premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, Dehydrated and Travellin' Light, feature castration, incest, poisoning, child abuse and parricide - and that's just in the first 10 minutes. So what are these searing pieces? New, hard-hitting political works from Harold Pinter, perhaps? Or how about freshly-unearthed history plays by Christopher Marlowe? Er, no, they are the latest humorous offerings from two comedians.

Owen O'Neill and Sean Hughes are just two of the comics at the Fringe this year who are steering away from the sunny uplands of straight stand- up towards darker and more difficult territory. In Travellin' Light, they play the sons of a man so tyrannical he has banned laughter in the house and beats his children for wearing his wellies without permission. In one poignant scene, the brothers ask each other: "Do you think he ever loved us?"

Dehydrated has O'Neill and Hughes as estranged brothers meeting for the first time in 10 years at their mother's funeral. O'Neill's character had been banished from his home town for having an affair with his aunt. With these new plays, the comedians are putting the dead into deadpan.

To mark their 25th anniversary appearance on the Fringe, those veterans of the Comedy Store Players, Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen, have also come up with a play about death. In Danny's Wake - advertised as "not suitable for guilt-ridden Catholics" - they play a pair of old mates who bump into each other at the funeral of a mutual friend. In both this and Dehydrated, a coffin stands centre-stage throughout the show. Meanwhile, in separate Edinburgh shows, the comedians Parrot, Geraldine McNulty and Marcus Brigstocke all explore various aspects of mental health. It's hardly the usual subject for knockabout humour.

"Every subject has been done in stand-up," says Hughes, unwinding in the bar after the show. "I haven't done stand-up for a year because, unless you do something different, what's the point? If you're 34, you can't just say `here's another show about sex'. It's alright to do that stuff when you're just starting out, but comedians who are longer in the tooth are just going through the motions if they're not coming up with new ideas. It may sound pretentious, but there is more to say through a play. With stand-up, people expect that predictable rhythm. But with a play, you're not tied to the same routine of `line 'em up and knock 'em down'. Plays allow you more time and space to make points.

"We're trying to make deeper observations about the human psyche. We do pepper the shows with silly lines, but there still needs to be some oomph, some substance there. Like anyone else, I still like seeing people fall over on stage, but the best comedy comes from the heart."

Hughes, whose last stand-up show featured a moving section about the death of a close friend, has never been afraid to touch on subjects more profound than, say, the difficulties of getting undressed after a major drinking session. "My comedy has always been about serious stuff," he says. "I love The Larry Sanders Show, but because I find it sad rather than funny."

Last year, O'Neill toured Off My Face, a powerful show about his battle with alcoholism in which he portrayed a man so desperate for a drink he sold the wedding ring that had slipped off the finger of an aunt wasting away with cancer. Like Hughes, he tries to avoid "frivolous" comedy. "It's never been `have you heard the one about...?' Without finger-wagging, I like to do something that packs a bit of a punch."

O'Neill feels the plays' tragi-comedy will strike a chord with audiences because "everyone comes from a dysfunctional family in some way. We can all identify with these characters: we've all got a mad uncle or cousin."

Sweeney, who wrote Danny's Wake, hopes that his play has universal resonance, too. After all, everyone must confront intimations of their own mortality. "Steve Steen and I are both at the age now where we're nearer to the end than the beginning. You're aware that death is there. You sit and watch the telly and think `so and so has died and he was only 89'. When you're 44, that's very close. The coffin on stage puts death into sharp focus. That's reflected in a line in the script: `Nobody I know has ever died before.' Without getting too heavy, the play is about those times where you stay up all night talking and drinking and asking questions like `Have you ever thought about dying?'"

Sweeney relishes the forbidden laughter that comes from jokes about taboo subjects. "In one scene in Danny's Wake, the characters get into a surreal fantasy about taking the coffin down the pub for a drink. That could be deemed a little dark."

But Sweeney doesn't want to come across as the clown who is yearning to play Hamlet. "I come from an improv background, and I thought that it would be nice to get back to something which had more depth. But I never said to myself `I must re-educate audiences'. I just wanted to write what came out of my head, and that happened to be death, doom and despair."

The departure into play-writing does not come easily to many comedians. The discipline demands many of the things stand-up often blithely ignores: structure, plot and character. After years of improv, Sweeney did not find writing simple. "I had four days staring at a blank screen trying to think up an ending. I was almost thinking `we'll have to improvise it'. I hated that. Now I have enormous admiration for anyone who writes - even someone who writes a note to the milkman."

We're hardly seeing the birth of a new breed of Chekhovs here, but it is intriguing to observe that as comedians of the so-called alternative generation mature, they are increasingly searching for new ways to invest their work with added resonance. The appeal of the knob gag can't last forever. And in case you're wondering what Hughes is doing next, he is just about to publish a new novel. About suicide.

Owen O'Neill and Sean Hughes's `Travellin' Light' and `Dehydrated' are at the Assembly Rooms (0131-226 2428) to 30 Aug. Jim Sweeney's `Danny's Wake' is at the Gilded Balloon (0131-226 2151) to 30 Aug