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.
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.)