Ballywalter review – Patrick Kielty makes acting debut in taxi-ride bonding drama

You’ve got to admire comedian Patrick Kielty for putting his neck on the line in his first dramatic role. In Prasanna Puwanarajah’s directorial debut, Kielty plays Shane, a budding standup who can painstakingly recount favourite scenes from Only Fools and Horses but has no discernible comic skill of his own. Far from being a deranged Rupert Pupkin figure, Shane harbours a troubled past, which makes him well placed for some odd-couple bonding with Eileen (Seána Kerslake), an acerbic young cabby who ferries him each week from his self-imposed exile in the coastal village of Ballywalter to his comedy course in Belfast. Why can’t he take himself? Ah, that would be the driving ban. Tragic backstory alert!

It’s clear that Eileen has issues too, from the moment she reverses into a motorbike then zooms off, leaving the owner fuming over the wreckage – she’s a car-wreck of a woman. Luckily, the weekly 40-minute drive is just long enough for her and Shane to swap hard-luck tales and perform some mutual healing through friendship. After a sticky patch, they are soon bringing out the best, and the beast, in one another. When he challenges her to be “less of a bitch and more of a taxi driver”, it visibly delights her: at last, this sad sack is showing some vim. At his first gig, she encourages him to put the dad jokes aside and let comedy emerge from truth.

This happens only sporadically in Stacey Gregg’s script itself, which is big on signposted emotional beats, but low on distinctive detail. A showdown between Eileen – who has another job as a barista – and a catty customer replays a scene from Bridesmaids with an identical punchline, while it’s surely time in the wake of Fleabag and the 2018 film Animals to retire the urban fox as a symbol. Kielty succeeds in capturing Shane’s tougher side, but there is never quite enough happening behind the eyes for his more contemplative moments to seem convincing. It would also have been nice to see the supporting characters fleshed out; the excellent Conor MacNeill has bafflingly little to do as one of Shane’s comic compadres. Thank goodness for Kerslake, who drives the action, literally and figuratively. Her portrayal of the damaged but resilient Eileen is prickly, unsentimental and true.

• Ballywalter is released on 22 September in UK and Irish cinemas.