Bah, Humbug! The Lyric Theatre, Belfast, November 20th
By Conor O’Neill
Black Friday ads are tormenting, the Chrimbo lights have been turned on and the weather is once again brass monkey material. All of which can mean only one thing: panto season! And here’s one for the adults.
Since Dickens first penned it over 170 years ago there’s been at least 20 movie versions, it’s probably graced every amateur and pro stage on the planet and is as synonymous with the Christmas build up as cash-strapped parents, over excited children and the gruelling thought of elbowing your way through the masses to buy probably unappreciated presents. I am of course writing about A Christmas Carol.
Conor Grimes and Alan McKee first delivered their twist on this classic way back in 2007. 11 years on and the Lyric is packed to the rafters for version two point zero, one, eight. Straight to the point, it’s a hoot from start to finish.
Michael Condron leads with Ebenezer Scrooge, the sole actor of the cast to play one role. With his spanking new Range Rover, complete with a fridge for his foie gras, his ‘great coat’, fancy apartment with its 72-inch surround-sound tele, luxury recliner and collection of fine vintage brandies, Ebenezer seems to be living the dream. The only thing from the outset that seems to annoy him, apart from the poor, is his Alexa with attitude.
Grimes and Mckee, along with Roisin Gallagher and Sophie Harkness cavort their merry way through the essential ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and a myriad of other characters. Tiny Tim isn’t that tiny, Jacob Marley’s looks like he’s been hit with a bag of Ormo flour, Scrooge’s only living relative, Ash, is a lesbian with pretentions living the bohemian life at the right end of BT9, the Cratchits are filling their Falls Road coal shed to the neck with White Lightning and Ebenezer Plaza is soon to make the tight-fisted one a fortune.
Yes, we all know the plot, but thankfully the writing takes a 19th century morality tale and thrashes as much fun out of it as possible. Black Santa, AKA the Weverend Wobertson, an Eton educated English sergeant, a Tyrone builder with no concept of ‘the cowl’, a farthing begging urchin who, according to Scrooge, “must be in the wrong play” and a ton of other little asides and cracking, memorable characters makes for almost non-stop fun.
But behind the veneer Scrooge’s trip down memory lane at the end of afore mentioned sergeant’s gun reveals the younger Ebenezer’s childhood wasn’t all that he wished it could’ve been. His feisty sister, Fran, couldn’t always save him from the bullies’ turbo wedgies and backhanded nipple twists. With his past a torment we tag along with him as he and Jacob Marley (McKee) dazzle their way through the 1980s under the tutelage of the heavily eyebrowed and absurdly moustached mentor McFizzlewig (Grimes). Costume designer Chris Hunter deserves his pay packet plus some for Marley and McFizzlewig’s outfits alone.
Unlike Scrooge, Grimes and McKee aren’t tight when handing gags to the other actors. As April (Ash’s wife) the urchin and Mrs Cratchit, Roisin Gallagher gets more than her share of the laughs. With a rear end to make the Kardashians green with envy Bob’s wife, behind that eternal vape plume, is forever on the verge of “filling up.” Sophie Harkness’s street savvy, shap-lifting Petula Cratchit and sergeant are sure to have all sides splitting.
Director Frankie McCafferty and choreographer Deborah Maguire, along with Condron, Gallagher and Harkness will probably add Grimes and McKee to the luvvies’ list of ‘never work with kids or animals’ at the end of this run. And there in lies the core of this frolic. It’s near impossible to determine what’s scripted and what’s not. “Do you know May Mcfettridge has an actual beanstalk down the road?” quips Mckee as he carries Ebenezer over the many listed Northern Irish towns on his back simulating the journey from past to present.
The laughter is not only from the audience; all five cast members at times seem to be just about making it through the hilarity while maintaining their professionalism in scene reminiscent of The Two Ronnies or Morcambe and Wise. A little advice for the shy, book tickets close to the front at your peril.
Special mention to musical director Rod McVey who stoically sits stage left at his keys and parallels the script with melodies to fit the mood, plus the can-can, the congo, a twist on Do They know It’s Christmas, the Flying Pickets, Only You, Walking In A Troubled Ireland and a special treat for a finale.
For a great night of festive fun and flight of fancy through the decades phone the Lyric’s box office on 02890 381081 or visit http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk
Bah, Humbug! runs until January 5th, 2019. A captioned performance is on Wednesday, Janauary 2nd, and an audio described performance is on Thursday, January 3rd