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Big laughs in Belfast Pt 1

By chief hack Ignatius Rake

Posted July 02, 2015
Marcus Keeley at Voicebox Comedy in Belfast
Voicebox Comedy: Deserving of a standing ovation. © Ignatius Rake

A long weekend of comedy in Belfast kicks off with push ups at Voicebox.

It had been a year and two weeks since I'd left Belfast.

Now, just hours into my return, my eyes filled with the sight of a dead body.

But it wasn't the corpse of an innocent slain in some random sectarian killing.

Neither was it the leader of a breakaway paramilitary faction nor indeed the cadaver of any such person one might expect if, like myself, you had been raised on the standard fodder of images slopped out by the mainstream media.


This was the body of a sportsman.

A champion.

The champion.

The greatest exponent of Munich Rules Push Ups Northern Ireland has ever seen.

And as I sat there, can of Guinness in my hand, I couldn't help but laugh like a drunken floozy.

Welcome to Belfast.

Welcome to Voicebox Comedy.

To my shame, I must confess that during my 16 months as a resident of the city, I had never once been to a Voicebox night.

However, I had seen its founder, Rake & Herald local soak Marcus Keeley, do stand-up a fair few times, including a spot at the Pavilion Bar in which he'd slapped me round the chops with an inflated washing-up glove.

Consequently, I didn't know quite what to expect as I made my way to the gig but I was certain it wouldn't be dull.

And to this end, I was quickly proven right.

"I wanted there to be local acts doing unusual, memorable things," Marcus exclusively tells the Rake & Herald via email.

"More established nights like The Empire usually have quality UK acts visiting, doing the circuit."

"I don't have any issue with that – they put on a good show – but you were unlikely to see a performer doing something other than the polished circuit routines."

Hence in 2008 Marcus did what too few people seem to do these days.

He got off his arse and put his ideas into practice, launching Voicebox at the now defunct Safehouse Art Gallery on Donegall Street.

"The curator, the late Danny Burke, loved the idea of the night and allowed us to use the gallery's facilities for free to help cultivate the scene and the night," Marcus reports.

"We had fancy computers, access to the space whenever we wanted for rehearsals or workshops, a screen and projector."

"With all of this at our disposal, we had an unprecedented level of potential to really get something going."

Marcus Keely at Voicebox Belfast
Man of action: Voicebox founder Marcus Keeley. © Ignatius Rake

"At that time the scene was so small, so having an amateur comedy night was already different, never mind the fact that the performers were challenging themselves as well as the audience," he continues.

"Each show would generally have characters, videos people had made, Powerpoint presentations, music, poetry – all built on a firm foundation of stand-up."

"The stand-up itself, like everything else on the bill, would usually be subversive; different to the comedy you'd see in the other established nights."

"Because we had so much freedom in the night itself, I wanted to extend that to all the acts."

"They were free to do whatever they wanted, provided they felt they were doing something new and unique, with as much support that I could give to help them accomplish their vision."

"It's not an open mic night for new stand-up material, it's a night where the performer can truly step out of their comfort zone and do something that couldn't be done in the more established nights."

"Our audience has always known they're coming to see the unexpected, so they are always on the performer's side if they're trying out something considered 'weird'."

And the Friday night that I was there (24/4/15), that something 'weird' was the 24th Annual Northern Ireland Push Up Championship.

Kieran Majury as Hugo First
Get ready to rumble: Reigning push up champ Hugo First limbers up. © Ignatius Rake

The dead body, if you hadn't already guessed, wasn't really a corpse.

Rather, it was the-still-very-much-alive presence of Kieran Majury, a local comic in a pound-shop moustache playing the character of Hugo First, Northern Ireland's greatest Welsh-born push up champ.

As previously detailed on the Rake & Herald, the night commenced with Majury as First all set to defend his title against a trio of hopefuls hell-bent on stealing his crown.

Sadly, though, they'd all just died in a bus crash, so over the course of the 2.5-hour night three quick stand-ins were plucked from the audience to give First some competition.

But, of course, no contest worth its salt can take place without rules and regulations strictly enforced by a suitably qualified official.

Cue Aaron Marshall as the pube-splitting jobsworth-with-a-clipboard Dr Christopher Goodfellow of the Department of Sport, Culture, Arts, Leisure and Determination (SCALD).

Them's the rules, son: Aaron Marshall as Dr Christopher Goodfellow. © Ignatius Rake

Over individual heats sandwiched between a combination of stand-up, magic, quizzes and Marcus's drink-in-hand emceeing, these valiant contenders were each given 30 seconds to notch up as many regulation push ups as possible while a cheesy Rocky-esque soundtrack blasted out around them.

As becoming his status as the champ, First naturally went last, facilitating a climax to the night that saw him dying of a broken heart after a visitation by his dead wife, aka Caitlin Magnall-Kearns in a wedding dress.

From start to finish, the whole thing was a whirlwind mix of off-the-wall humour and raucous belly laughs neatly sewn together with what Frank Zappa might have termed 'conceptual continuity'.

And had he been there, he would probably have laughed his tits off too.

You see, one thing I definitely learnt in my time in Belfast is that the local sense of humour is rapid, razor sharp and quite literally second to none.

And trust me, you'd have to have been one miserable stoney-faced mardy-arse not have cracked up under the onslaught.

Voicebox: it was a relentless barrage of mirth.

 Caitlin Magnall-Kearns as Hugo First's dead wife
Vision of love: Caitlin Magnall-Kearns as Hugo's dead wife. © Ignatius Rake

"The Push Up Championship night was the first time we've really pre-assigned a 'theme' that runs throughout the night so consistently," Marcus explains.

"Prior to that night we had Aaron Marshall do a few different characters some months, with the first being a really quite daft character who would stage invade while I was emceeing, offering people some Poundland 'scrummy buns', only for me to beat him away with a newspaper, broom, water squirter, etc."

"The night ended with him singing an original song about said scrummy buns."

"We felt it was a lot of fun and a nice alternative to me talking shite between every act."

"We didn't spoon feed the audience either – there was no true explanation to the scrummy buns man."

"We wanted it to be as unpredictable as the rest of the night, so the audience were kept on their toes."

"After that, Aaron assumed the role of Christopher Goodfellow, the civil servant from the Department of Humorous Affairs, who was auditing my night and providing me with another amusing foil while I was emceeing."

Brent, one of the valiant contenders
You'll do: One of the valiant contenders pulled from the crowd. © Ignatius Rake

Fair enough, but where did the idea for the Push Up Championship come from?

Well, like all great art, or indeed a good spy's cover story, the idea was firmly rooted in truth.

"The Push Up Championship was based on a true story where Kieran Majury was ejected from a bar for doing push ups just to spite the bouncers," Marcus reveals.

"We combined this idea with bringing in Aaron as the civil servant again and the more we talked the more ambitious we got with it, pulling in Caitlin Magnall-Kearns at the end of the show for a dead-wife dream sequence."

"I'm always so grateful for those who are so enthusiastic about making the night great and the extreme level of commitment they bring."

"That night was notable even after the show ended, with Kieran as the champ making the decision to lay dead on the floor for nearly an hour afterwards until all paying customers had left."

Now, that is commitment.

Especially when pretty much everyone else had decamped to the pub for some post-gig pints.

But was the Push Up Championship a one-off or are there other themed nights on the Voicebox agenda?

"We definitely want to do more – Aaron and I have a few ideas," Marcus says.

"We really outdid ourselves with the Push Up saga so we want to take our time."

"Ideally it'd be something we'd do every show, but work and other creative commitments prevent that [and] we want to get it right."

Among other things, one such creative commitment is the Wonder Frog improv group of which Marcus, Aaron and Kieran are all members.

However, don't assume that Voicebox is just some closed-shop Wonder Frog offshoot because it most certainly isn't.

Wonder Frog members Kieran Majury, Marcus Keeley and Aaron Marshall
Frog Chorus: Wonder Frog improv members Kieran, Marcus and Aaron. © Ignatius Rake

"Caitlin [who is not a Wonder Frog member] just loved the idea we recruited her for and continues to be incredibly enthusiastic in helping Voicebox, whether it's for a part we need her for or bringing her own skits to the night," Marcus continues.

"With people like them, and the stand-alone performers who I consistently ask to do the night, such as Lorcan McGrane, Ruaidhri Ward, George Firehorse, they always deliver with new, imaginative routines and ideas."

"I like to think of them all as the supporting cast of Voicebox and the night wouldn't be the same without them making regular appearances."

So what about the future?

"Ultimately, I would love if the night morphed into a Vic & Bob-style variety show, with a wide range of acts, styles and performances."

"We're heading that way more and more with the recent 'themed' or narrative-based interludes between the billed acts."

But if you're worried that Voicebox is somehow turning its back on stand-up, take a deep breath and relax.

It's not.

Chris Montgomery on stage at Voicebox Comedy Belfast
Stand-up from Kells: Chris Montgomery takes the Voicebox stage. © Ignatius Rake

 Mary Flanigan on stage at Voicebox Comedy Belfast
Thirsty work: Mary Flanigan with bottle at the ready. © Ignatius Rake

 Adam Laughlin on stage at Voicebox Comedy Belfast
Stream of consciousness: Adam Laughlin with an even bigger bottle at the ready. © Ignatius Rake


As well as the Push Up Championship, the night also featured the laconic wit of Chris Montgomery, the high-energy observations of Mary Flanigan and the motor-mouthed mayhem of Adam Laughlin.

All three of these acts largely followed the traditional stand-up format as they broached such topics as, respectively, life in Kells – "not the one with the book" but the one near Ballymena where they "frown on books"; English middle-class naivety when it comes to solving the problems of Northern Ireland; and, of course, that old chestnut, suffering cramp while a Glaswegian bird pulls you off in a former smack pit in Spain.

The other two acts on the bill, meanwhile, went much more down the audience-participation route, with the aforementioned George Firehouse blending prop-based gags with some mind-bending adult-orientated magic, including some pretty darn impressive Profanisaurus-themed mind reading.

Think Roger Mellie meets Derren Brown then throw in a toothbrush, a glove puppet and some comedy glasses and you're nearly there.

George Firehorse on stage at Voicebox Comedy Belfast
Pick a card, any card: George Firehorse (in red) with a couple of volunteers. © Ignatius Rake

Taking an even bigger step down that particular path was the comedy quiz of Richard J, aka the pun-tastic Unknown Accountant, who managed to meld Pictionary with Countdown and a series of trick questions that completely befuddled his two randonly selected contestants.

Well, one anyway.

Yours truly, although I did eventually walk away with a free copy of the Sun, my prize for actually getting something right.

But more than just furnishing me with a load of printed bumwad, these latter two acts further helped break down the boundaries between the performers and the audience in a way Bertolt Brecht could only have dreamt of.

Indeed, the whole night was marked by a high degree of two-way banter and silliness.

But don't assume annoying heckling here.

Instead, think fully encouraged interaction.

Yes, the spotlights may have been trained on the performers but a major component of the night was the audience itself, with many a laugh borne of the mouths of the crowd.

Yet while the quality of the night would have shone through had Voicebox been staged pretty much anywhere (except perhaps an abattoir or a death camp), much must be said for the excellent venue, which proved highly conducive to uninhibited laughter.

Is that you final answer? Richard J prepares to scramble minds. © Ignatius Rake

For the past year Voicebox has been running once a month at LOFT Belfast, an 'art space' on the top floor of a slightly dishevelled building on the city's slightly dishevelled North Street, just up, in fact, from where until a matter of weeks ago Terri Hooley, 'the Godfather of Northern Irish Punk', operated his Good Vibrations record shop.

With its lack of a stage, mish-mashed seating arrangements and walls bedecked with paintings in various stages of completion, the whole setting wouldn't have looked out of place in an East Berlin squat: the Belfast comedy underground albeit three stories up above street level.

Moreover, the lack of a bar meant that the audience had to bring their own booze, giving the night the air of being round at your mate's house rather than in a club per se.

At the same time, the informal and intimate atmopshere was further enhanced by the lack of mics and amps, the need for which was done away with by the relatively small size of the place and which again only fostered the feeling it was all taking place in someone's admittedly flippin' ace living room.

As such, there was something very punk about the night, something of which Terri Hooley would no doubt approve.

Good vibrations indeed, sir.

"After Safehouse closed in 2011, I was lost for a place to do the night," Marcus says.

"I tried it for a while in various venues, but it never felt right."

"I had heard about LOFT doing 'Drink and Draw' events, where people could come and sketch, bringing their own booze."

"This sounded perfect for Voicebox and I reached out to Brian Kielt, a member of the LOFT collective."

"I was completely blown away at the space and the incredible talent of those at LOFT."

"Their art is amazing and I'm always looking forward to doing Voicebox because often a lot of their work-in-progress pieces are dotted around the room."

"We really couldn't ask for a better backdrop each month."

"They really do go above and beyond, with LOFT photographer Jan Gorman lending her talents and documenting our nights through her lens each month."

"Voicebox wouldn't have a home if it weren't for those at LOFT allowing us to take over their space to do our thing."

"They have been very accommodating and encouraging with the night and for that I'm very thankful."

Marcus Keeley, Aaron Marshall, Brian Kielt and Kieran Majury at Voicebox Comedy, Belfast
So who's gonna bury him? Marcus, Aaron and Brian pay their respects to Hugo. © Ignatius Rake

"The best part of doing this and giving people a platform is seeing performers really go for what they've brought to the table and seeing that it can work in the right circumstances," Marcus states.

"Then they go away and tinker with their 'weird' ideas and then bring it to a more mainstream audience with the confidence and the know-how and absolutely killing it."

"In the early days there were fewer of us and we were all really busting our holes to bring something new and exciting to the audience."

"It felt like a community and we were doing it for the love of it."

"That feeling is still there with some performers who were there from the start and have a real fondness for the night."

And from what I experienced, I think I can understand why.

It may have been my first Voicebox, but I certainly hope it won't be my last.

And if you want further convincing of Voicebox's virtues, consider this.

The previous night I'd seen Dylan Moran perform in Harrogate.

It had cost me £25 ($39) plus a £2 booking fee.

I laughed twice.

Voicebox cost me three quid online and within minutes I'd laughed 10 times that if not more.

Yep, Voicebox Comedy: top night, top acts, top value and a damned sight funnier than Dylan Moran.

And yeah, you can quote me on that.

In fact, please do.

Voicebox is held at LOFT Belfast towards the end of each month, with tickets costing £5 on the door and £3 online. For more info, including upcoming gig dates, make sure you check out the Voicebox website, FaceBook page and Twitter feed here, here and here, respectively. What's more, if you fancy taking part in a future Voicebox gig, feel free to contact Marcus via the aforementioned channels.

Meanwhile, have a click of this to learn more about LOFT and also listen to the LOFT Talk podcasts, in which Brian Kielt interviews artists from around Northern Ireland.

This Rake & Herald report on comedy in Belfast will continue with reviews of Yardbird Open Mic Comedy at the Dirty Onion and Monday Night Comedy at the Pavilion Bar. Hopefully, these will be posted up shortly. However, please bear in mind that the Rake & Herald is a Cornish international news service and therefore does things dreckly, which is a bit like mañana but not so hurried.

See also Push up champ dead!, posted 5/5/15, and The push up champ speaks, posted 15/4/15.

Ignatius Rake
is a freelance journalist, geographer and world traveller who has visited more than 70 countries on six continents. He has written on numerous subjects for various publications and is available for hire and commissions. He can be contacted by email here.

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