My Big Fat Belfast Christmas Theatre at the Mill, December 12th, 2019
By Conor O’Neill
My Big Fat Belfast Christmas is at times moving, then laugh out loud and loud moments by the bucket, but with a sincerity that’ll bring you back to Earth. The play has progressed massively since I first watched it back in 2015. Hard to think cowriter and co-star, Julie Lewis had only sent Curran her last script the day before her untimely death in August of this year.
The core is of course Caroline Curran, this time without her buddy and cowriter and actor, Julie Lewis. But you wouldn’t think it if this was your first visit to this show at Newtownabbey’s beautiful Theatre At The Mill.
It’s about three quarters full. Most in their late 20s, 30s and 40s. Many of us have grown up with Curran and company. Yet, like all shows, this a far from one actor/character show. Though Curran as Mags is simply crucial to this close to two hours of adult Christmas fun.
She’s too old to be living with her mum and dad but like Del Boy she’s only a minute away from saying ‘This time next year Rodney, we’ll be millionaires’.
A You Tuber, an Instagrammar and an influencer. Mags is going somewhere: slowly. Her da Joe (James Doran) is the hard-working type, goes out every morning, comes home every night at the usual time, yet something is not quite right. Mother Mary (Abigail McGibbon) with two daughters of marrying age is gong through the change… what change will be revealed later on but half the audience with more than two brain cells can see it coming long before.
With all the laughter and giggles the audience is never far from forgetting the soul of this piece of theatre. Grandma Lily’s framed photo never shifts. The loss is still raw. All the three characters named, in quiet moments talk to the picture and her memory in a confessional way.
But hey, let’s not get all emotional. Curran as Mags simply cuts through sentiment crap. Life’s too short. Dressing in pink leggings and a top preaching ‘Frankie Says Relax, Yer Ballix’ and we know we’re in for rooting-tooting good night. The ‘entrepreneur’s’ life isn’t quite going to plan and she’ still lives at home. Mother Mary is rushing about like a headless chicken and dad Joe simply goes out to work every day.
Pride of the family Mary Junior (Bernadette Brown and filling the shoes of Lewis) is due home for Christmas. Like all involved she too has a surprise in tow. Though she’s no plans to hide him away. Tall, dark and handsome, Youcef’s (Matthew Sharpe) colour and name are the source of many a gad, though not in the Alf Garnett way. Society has moved on too far for that. The humour is a total reaction to racism. Dad Joe in particular has trouble trying too hard to appear to not be racist. These gags are subtle and not over-played. Add to that Youcef has mum Mary and Mags drooling on every occasion. He hardly has a fresh change of clothes on when something gets spilled over them, usually in an awkward place.
Another layer to the Christmas cake is ‘Wee’ Mary and Mag’s apparent hatred for each other; the former forever putting her sister down for her lack of success.
The one thing I found didn’t work years ago when I saw it years ago was the neighbours Saul (Sharpe) and Ester’s (Brown) inappropriate house calls. Some of the gags are undoubtedly funny but like in 2015 I think the two take away more from the fun than they add. Curran plays a number of other characters, and all with great comic effect.
But with the family and Youcef getting ready for a perfect Christmas all the pent up lies and clashes of character are bound to turn pop. And when they do laughter flows.
The words of director Fionnuala Kenedy, a veteran from the original run, puts to paper what the essence of this play, and the truism that Christmas is really about family.
And the matriarch Lilian has one more surprise up her sleeve.
Since its debut the writing pair has been brought up to date: RHI gets a mention, as too does the election the Kardashians, hashtag-buzzing-soon-will-be and other little asides all get their share of laughs. As for the long-suffering Alexa? I think she may be the singularly most abused search engine in Belfast.
You’ll laugh and cry, you’ll get the true meaning of Christmas and not all the commercial crap, but most of all you’ll have a great couple of hours not always laughing. Possibly lost on me on first viewing was how the piece of Christmas mirth also deals with grief and how people go about it in different ways and how these ways can bring up resentment and guilt. Hardly a topic for panto, but in a play aimed at adults, Christmas may just be the perfect time to bring up such matter.
My Big Fat Belfast Christmas runs up to and including December 31st
For booking tickets visit http://www.theatreatthemill.co or call the box office on 02890 340202