Monday, November 30, 2009

Howl! (Lyric Theatre // Elmwood Hall, beside QUB Students’ Union)

It’s difficult to know what to say about Howl! The exclamation mark-adorned show is one half of the Lyric Theatre’s Christmas season and tells the story of a small mediocre drama group creating a mediocre show to perform at Christmas.

Jackie, Johnny and Patrick - Howl! Lyric Theatre, Christmas 2009

Taking a strong swipe at luvvie stereotypes, the cast of five spend the first half of the play brainstorming, workshopping, facilitating, ad libbing and eventually agreeing to stage Little Red Riding Hood. In the second half they rehearse and finally perform the première of their new show. But amongst the sweat and angst, each character has a demon.

  • Writer/director/producer/wardrobe mistress Patrick (played by Conor Grimes) is a recovering alcoholic (in the West Wing Leo McGarry sense that alcoholics are never fully cured) with an eye for a pretty young girl.

  • His old friend Johnny (Alan McKee) is a low-ranking celebrity actor no longer about to get TV parts playing doctors and with a massive fear of going back on-stage.

  • Dex (Ciaran Nolan) may be the show’s composer, but he’s got more sense of direction than musicality – and he gets lost every fifteen minutes throughout the show – and a magic mushroom addition that the St George’s Farmers’ Market won’t be able to help.

  • Jackie (Doireann McKenna) is straight out of drama school, new to the trade and hew good looks make her vulnerable to lecherous men.

  • While Siobhan (Maria Connolly) is Patrick’s ex-wife and has fallen from glam weathergirl to spandex nutcase.

The danger is that the audience sitting in the Elmwood Hall start to believe that the real cast are as bad as the parts they play. To pull off the lacklustre roles with consistency must require considerable talent. Yet the performance felt more like a good festival gig or a lunchtime show than a Lyric theatre production. Other than the superb song and dance routines – the safety announcement at the start is worked into a great Michael Jackson Thriller tribute – it’s only in the second half that the cast seemed to really shine.

Whether acting as the hypnotised producer – regressed back to his seven year old self and unable to return – sitting on a stool at the side of the stage holding his blue helium balloon, or loosing his temper with the cast, or under the influence of the devil’s buttermilk, Grimes got the best lines and laughs playing Patrick in the second half.

While the Elmwood Hall may not be a “proper theatre”, the show made great use of every door in the building as well as the simple but effective set. It was a shame that at times the background music and effects drowned out the on-stage unamplified dialogue.

The play is well constructed, and even without children present the adult audience threw themselves into the pantomime chanting. Shergar the magical unicorn made an appearance. Like much of the show, the ending was unpredictable and unexpected. The final song – “Rockin’ around the woodcutter’s corpse” – was brilliant.

There’s a dangerous line delivered by Little Red Riding Hood’s fictional writer and director Patrick J Masterson (Grimes). He breaks down at the end of the appalling dress rehearsal, exclaiming:

“I think it’s complete and utter unmitigated sh**e from beginning to end.”

It would be cheap and terribly unfair to say that the same line sums up Howl! But it is clearly a million miles away from the quality and humour of the only other stage show I’ve seen Conor and Grimes in – their classic collaboration with Martin Lynch The History of the Troubles (Accordin' to My Da).

I went in expecting to be left rolling in the aisle with laughter and my sides to be hurting: but it didn’t come to pass. Howl!’s 6pm show on Saturday night played to an audience of a hundred or so and it took a while for them to warm up. Most people’s second drink at the interval seemed to do no harm in generating much looser laughter for the funnier material towards the end. I suspect the fuller 9pm show will have had a better atmosphere and been better received.

It’s not great theatre and I suspect it will be quickly forgotten, but it outclasses the locally written and produced town pantomimes I remember sitting through in the local technical college.

As an adult play, the bad language isn’t gratuitous, but the sexual innuendo and lewdness is repetitive rather than clever and might make it an uncomfortable night out for the Mothers’ Union. Joe Nawaz sums it up well in his up-beat and far too enthusiastic review over on Culture Northern Ireland:

“They may have their de-tractors (see what I did there?) but Grimes and McKee know exactly what they’re about – delivering a heady seasonal brew of smut, innuendo and farce with the fourth wall so irretrievably broken by the end you’d need planning permission to re-erect it. This is adult panto in extremis, and the adult audience, glutted on a year of existential melodrama at the Lyric, are happy enough to loosen up, sit back and be entertained.”

If you’re looking for a few laughs over the coming weeks without bus loads of kids screeching in your ears, head over to the Lyric’s booking site and pick up a ticket. But if you’re looking for a family night out or some serious theatre, I’d suggest you give Howl! a miss. (You can also check out Jane Coyle’s review over on The Stage.)

If you’ve been to see it and appreciated it more – or less – than I did, please do leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

(Disclosure: I attended the show on a free ticket. Photos from Lyric Theatre.)

10 comments:

Miche said...

You have Grimes and McKee mixed up. Conor Grimes plays Patrick, the writer-director-etc; Alan McKee plays Johnny, the name-dropping actor.

Alan in Belfast said...

Oops - thanks. Didn't have a programme and the Google photos I used to identify them both had them labelled the other way around!

Jordan McClements said...

Aye - The safety announcement was pure genius. Was bored by the first half, maybe you'd 'get it' a bit more if you were a 'thespian'.. Second half was great though. Raport with audience great, and on balance - well worth the money. but if you have seen the duo before (Grimes & McKee as opposed to McKee & Grimes) - you'll already know if you are going to like this production or not...

gemma said...

yes i agree. felt uncomfortable with some of the lewdness in the first half, but i really enjoyed the 2nd half and it seemed to go a lot quicker too. went to the 9 o clock show last nite and there was a very good atmosphere in the crowd which also helped.

Anonymous said...

dreadful waste of money and an evening. Stupid childish humour. Lavatorial wit suitable for morons .

Anonymous said...

so o o o dissapointed. We eagerly look forward to our annual grimes and mckee play, christmas would'nt be the same without it but this year (16 of us that went ) we all felt it was well below parr. The first half was so slow it was painful although the second half was more enjoyable. Maria Connelly was so difficult to understand with her constantly changing accent and not having a mike added to this problem.

Anonymous said...

I wonder would you all get over yourselves !!! I seen this play at the very start of the run and and was so impressed I've booked to go again on the last nite. It delivers exactly what you should expect at this time of the year ( light hearted fun with a cast who obvoiusly are not sniffing there own arses ). Its so refreshing to see actors not taking themselves to seriously but delivering superb performances to rapturist audiences. Yes, when I was there they got a standing ovation at the end.
Re - These guys are actors sending themselves up by playing actors, and do it superbly. keep it coming Connor and Alan - Cat wait to see that sketch show on ITV.
As for the girl that commented on Maria Connolly's accent - I think you see a little bit to much of yourself in Siobhan and thats why you didnt like it. Her performance was magical, because SHE WAS CHANGING THE ACCENT ON PURPOSE TO PORTRAY THE TYPE OF PERSON SIOBHAN IS. I cant imagine there's too many actresses out there that could sustain that level of concentration to do this every nite. Well done Maria. It's just a shame your professionalism and talent was lost on some people.
Well, hope thats cleared a few things up for those of you who are not too high brow and full of yourselves to appreciate good old fashioned humour at its best. Cant wait for the next show guys. Ooh La !

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with last comment. This show was not meant to be taken seriously and the people who have made the negative comments are exactly the type of idiots that the show is aimed at taking the piss out off. Wise up !! Do none of you realise what Grimes and McKee shows are about !! LIGHT HEARTED FUN !! As for Maria Connolly's accent, well it was hilarious and summed up that type of character who we have all met at one time or another in some posey bar in Belfast !! Well done to the cast and thanks for the laughs. Lets do it all again next Xmas !!

Alan in Belfast said...

Let's not have an anonymous flame war ...

Anonymous said...

.. now, now, everyone has a right to express their opinion on another persons opinion be it right or wrong and if you wish to remain anonymous - so be it. Lets put it all down to healthy debate and put out these flames xx