Belfast’s Lyric Theatre located on a hill overlooking the city’s River Lagan continues to offer some of the best live productions in Ireland for the enjoyment of visiting tourists and residents alike, often hosting two separate performances on the same evening.
Such was the case recently with ‘Sinners’ a new play by well-known writer, Marie Jones on the main stage, and a superb solo performance of ‘In the Window’ by local actress Nuala McKeever in the Naughton Studio.
A truly enjoyable evening of theatre means much more than simply sitting down and being entertained and this is where the Lyric wins extra kudos. Not only can patrons enjoy pre-show drinks in a lively, buzzing atmosphere but also well-prepared, pre-show dinners in its cozy restaurant. Add to this the friendly nature of its staff, from helpful receptionists at the downstairs ticket desk to enthusiastic, young bar staff, and you have a terrific evening to savor.
The impressive helpfulness of staff was more than obvious during a recent performance of ‘In the Window.’ Seeing my elderly mother (89) being assisted in from the street by my companion, friendly staff member Patricia McGreevy, arriving for work, went out of her way to give advice about a nearby elevator so they wouldn’t have to climb steep stairs. A few minutes later, she approached us in the bar area upstairs offering to reserve seats near the front of the theatre to make it more convenient for my mother. As there was no designated seating for the show and that it was fully booked out, this kind gesture proved to be invaluable.
As for the show itself, words seem inadequate to describe the full quality of McKeever’s performance, one fully deserving of the standing ovation she received at the end. Upon learning the Belfast actress also wrote the script, one’s admiration inevitably rises even more.
One sometimes hears that great writing often emerges from an emotional well-spring following a trauma, and this tragically is the case with ‘In The Window.’ McKeever’s partner, Mike Moloney, died suddenly in an accident several years ago, leaving her grief-stricken, lonely and lost. Watching her portrayal of the central character, Margaret, alone at night with a bottle of wine and a glass full of pink pills in her hand, one can only but imagine a sense of fiction reflecting reality. One also has the sense that McKeever’s writing and performance of ‘In the Window’ must be immensely therapeutic for her as she struggles with the grieving process. For those lucky enough to get a ticket, it was also an immensely enjoyable evening.
While the opening scenes depicting Margaret settling down to a quiet sitting-room suicide seem foreboding, dismal and grim, this is far from the overall tone of the play. Rather it is charming, well-crafted and ultimately an uplifting vindication of human nature. Sharp one-liners will make you laugh, while other moments may make you teary-eyed (my companion did both in equal measure). While McKeever does not flinch from inviting audiences into the mind of a person overcome by loneliness, she does it with beguiling dark humour.
Without spoiling the plot, of which there are many dramatic twists and turns, suffice to say it involves a nosy neighbor, a young Belfast street-smart teenager and a Scottish-sounding policeman, all played brilliantly, by an obviously extremely-talented actress, one confident and secure in her own abilities. Here is a performer contentedly basking in the pure joy of acting.
From the moment Margaret steps on stage, wriggling her bum and swaying from side to side while singing her out-of-tune rendition of ‘New York, New York,’ with Frank Sinatra, swift- moving dialogue whips audiences from subjects as diverse as ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ and the Taj Mahal to the idea of water-skiing naked.
Such is the rich pace of dialogue and the complexity of plot, one hardly notices that all the action takes place on a minimalist stage comprising a lampstand, a record player, an armchair, a coffee-table and a pair of stilettos. This must-see show is skilfully directed by Andrea Montgomery.
‘Sinners’ by Jones who also wrote ‘Stones In His Pockets’ and ‘A Night In November,’ focuses on an American preacher from Oklahoma whose charisma seduces people in a small rural northern Irish community to the point where they donate much of their hard-earned savings to him, with one man even signing away his family farm. The play is loosely based on Moliere’s Tartuffe.
I’m unsure whether Marie Jones wanted to deliver a menacing atmosphere and a moral lesson about the corrosive power of religion preying on people’s fears, or as the preacher puts it ‘the witless adoration’ of people searching for meaning, or a zany comedy on the same subject.
I’m banking on the latter, mainly because the jocular elements far outweigh the serious and any potentially menacing scenes are largely overshadowed by overriding light-heartedness, including a strangely likeable – almost comical – preacher character, who – when caught out – is forthcoming enough to explain why he embarked on his manipulative scam. When you add to this the buffoon-like nature of the central father-husband figure, his wife’s hilarious best friend, his outspoken brothers and a bearded poet with his proverbial head in the clouds, it is hard to take the moral lesson too seriously. If the preacher was nastier in a more Machiavellian manner, however, and if the other cast members were not so over-the-top colorful, it would perhaps have made the moral lesson too dour and dismal for an enjoyable evening out.
As a fast-paced situational comedy farce, ‘Sinners’ is entertaining with scenes such as a family dinner and an attempted seduction among the highlights of the show.
An innovative aspect of this production is the use of a revolving floor-to-ceiling curtain which not only makes scene-changes easier but also allows the director to project images on to the curtain, in this case of a religious choir singing hymns.
Upcoming productions this month at the Lyric include ‘The Ladykillers,’ an adaptation of the classic Ealing Comedy, written by renowned writer Graham Linehan (Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Black Books) and described as “a riotous, blackly comic tale of deception, greed and afternoon tea.” This show is directed by Jimmy Fay, the theatre’s executive producer.
As part of its ‘New Playwrights Programme,’ the theatre is also hosting public workshops and masterclasses led by key writers and directors, to help aspiring new playwrights develop their skills. The first free workshop takes place on June 17 in the Naughton Studio led by Graham Whybrow, an associate director of the Royal Court Theatre in London and course director of the MFA in Playwriting at The Lir Academy, Trinity College Dublin.