Wednesday, October 22, 2014

All aboard The Holy Holy Bus as Brassneck's brand new production takes audiences on a side-splitting tour #BelFest

The Holy Holy Bus left the front of Clonard with its three passengers and tour guide setting off on its annual pilgrimage around Ireland’s religious shrines and relics. Last night’s packed Waterfront Studio audience strapped themselves into their seats as Brassneck Theatre Company delivered an exhilarating and entertaining performance of their brand new production which is premiering at Belfast Festival.

Lily (played by Stella McCusker) is coming to terms with illness and old age. She’s the kind of woman who confesses to murders to wind up visiting priests. Her daughter Sally (Roisin Gallagher, fresh from Pentecost in the Lyric) is childless, divorced and reluctantly agrees to accompany her mum on “one last big adventure”.

Tour guide Perpetua (Claire Connor) is devout, devoid of a sense of humour, and takes a condescending attitude to the loud Shankill taxi-driving bleached “pradestant” Rita (Caroline Curran, bringing a copy of 50 Shades with her) who joins the other three women on the bus “for the craic”.

Five picture frames mounted across the simple black backdrop ground each scene with simple images and the occasional well-placed video.

The laughs flow continuously with banter, truisms, facial expressions, a touch of slaggin’ and topical references to Garth Brooks and the Metropolitan Tabernacle. One joke about Bulimia jars amongst the otherwise measured script. Audience members couldn’t keep themselves from joining in the singing and humming along with the music played between acts.

As the play progresses, the Holy Holy Bus morphs into a secular bus and spiritual renewal is totally replaced by dreams of sexual fulfilment. In fact, some of the material in the second half – and the ad nauseum references to “black bamboo” – perhaps unnecessarily turns it into 15+ show. While the production moves substantially beyond the initial character stereotypes to get to the heart of the pain that is driving each woman, humour ultimately propels the show towards its finale as much as true healing.

The mother/daughter scenes between Stella McCusker and Roisin Gallagher are incredibly fond and moving to witness. While going on a physical journey could have become an enormous cliché around the production’s neck, Pearse Elliott’s well drawn script, strong cast and Tony Devlin’s intelligent direction mitigate the risk and deliver a great night’s entertainment.

The Holy Holy Bus is the tightest, feel-good comedy theatre I’ve seen in years, with believable on-stage chemistry and a cast with the ability to switch an audience from belly laughs to silent pathos in an instant.

This isn’t high theatre with beautiful soliloquies and speeches that school children will ever be forced to learn by rote. However, it is the kind of populist alternative pantomime deserves to be the worthy successor to the tired Grimes and McKee yuletide shows. Last night’s Waterfront Studio audience – young and old (the most diverse I’ve seen at this year’s festival so far) – loved it.

The Holy Holy Bus departs from the Waterfront Studio at 8pm every night (except Sunday) until 31 October before going on tour to Lisburn, Newtownabbey, Newry, Strabane and beyond.

Now if I could only get the tune of Hallelujah out of my head …

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Grania McFadden's review of The Holy Holy Bus in the Belfast Telegraph.

Other theatre worth checking out later this week includes An Enemy of the People (Thu-Sat), More than a Flag (Thu-Sat) and Makaronik (Fri-Sun)

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Update - The Holy Holy Bus will pull up at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast between 30 June and 10 July 2015. 

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