The Shop at the Top of the Town, Theatre Review, Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, December 20th, 2022

By Conor O’Neill

Michael Cameron’s scope for themes and the humanity behind the big stories never ceases to amaze. From Ruby! which detailed the life and times of Belfast born singer, Ruby Murray, to his focus on the birth of Northern Ireland in Carson and the Lady, he had now turned his gaze to childhood memories of glitzy Belfast department stores at the start of Northern Ireland’s recent Troubles.

Like the former, The Shop at the Top of the Town is born out of diligent research and his trademark sprinkling of the tiny details which bring the viewer’s focus on to the ‘little’ people while acknowledging the bigger picture.

*Full cast – photo courtesy of Stephen Davidson*

I’m just a bit too young to remember the hey-days of Anderson & McCauley or Robinson & Cleaver, but sit a while as this play breathes and it doesn’t require much imagination to be transported back to 1972. Soldiers are on the streets, the locals are doing their best to carry on as normal, and inside the fictional Hoffman’s the staff are excited as the big push for Christmas sales and just as importantly, to have the best window display in town, is on.

The seven strong cast features some stalwarts of Northern Irish theatre, plus a few new names bringing fresh talent to this lively Christmas dander down memory lane. Sean Kearns plays Felix Hoffman, a man who fled war to start a new life, Marty Maguire plays the happy-go-lucky Peterson – and a drunken Santa – with ease, Libby Smith plays the permanently late, but with reasonable excuse, Flora: if it’s not going through security three times getting felt up by British soldiers, it’s the man from Radio Rentals trying to upgrade her old Bush to a brand-new Hitachi TV.

*From back, left to right – Peterson (Marty Maguire) Miss Newman (Rosie Barry) Mr Fenner (David Marken) Mr Kennedy (Rory McCollum) photo courtesy of Ciaran Bagnall*

The new faces hold up to the demands of the script, the direction of Colm G Doran and the choreography of Sarah Jane Johnston with as much skill as the older cast members. Frank Fenner, played by David Merken, is a slightly sly character, one with his eyes on a higher status. Mary Moulds plays mild-mannered Roisin as well as the man-hungry Mrs Cilla Hoffman, whose love of money is a constant threat to Mr Hoffman’s profit margin.

*Left to right – Frank Fenner (David Marken) Mrs Cilla Hoffman (Mary Moulds) and Arthur Kennedy (Rory McCollum) photo courtesy of Stephen Davidson*

Given their pivotal roles in this piece of musical theatre, it’s of little surprise that Rosie Barry and Rory McCollum are arguably the star turns of this show. Upstart Ciara Newman (Barry) and the apple of Mr Hoffman’s eye, assistant manager Arthur Kennedy (McCollum) hate each other from the off. Each have secret loves outside the shop and the tension between them is palpable. Both these stars shine through the brilliance of their acting, on-stage chemistry and for Barry at least, her beautiful soulful singing voice.

*Ciara Newman (Rosie Barry) and Arthur Kennedy (Rory McCollum) – photo courtesy of Ciaran Bagnall

Again, the words for the half dozen or so songs that bring this comic-play to musical are from the pen of Michael Cameron. Thes words teamed up with the score and melodies by Garth McConaghie result in moments of plain outright fun to pieces of intimacy and unlikely duets and big solo numbers.

If you’re into quality, nicely paced, quietly sentimental and intriguing Christmas indulgence, the The Shop at the Top of the Town is the show for you.

The show runs up to and including Saturday, December 31st, 2022.

For booking info and show times visit http://www.theatreatthemill.com or simply phone the box office on 0330 1237788

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ENDS

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