Friday, December 05, 2014

Review: Visit the magical Family Hoffmann Christmas Mystery Palace in the MAC (until 4 January)

Even before the curtain went up, one of the members of the cast – Alexander (played by Hugh Brown) – was shuffling along the rows of families sitting in the MAC’s main theatre, looking lost and sounding confused as he did a few card tricks and amused the audience with his drĂ´le patter.

As the last member of the audience settled into her seat last night, he made sure that Paula took a bow to acknowledge the applause, before heading down to an eclectic drum kit and percussion collection at one side of the stage and began to narrate the show as master of ceremonies. Squeezed over on the other side, Chris Huntley and his band of musicians cranked up the tunes that accompanied the next two hours of action.

Sibling rivalry, badly-treated children, running away, laughing, clapping along, and magic: all the elements of a traditional pantomime were there. But Cahoots NI’s Family Hoffmann Christmas Mystery Palace was no ordinary Christmas show.

The illusions and tricks came thick and fast as Willard Hoffmann (Philip Judge) introduced his performing family who tour the country with a tent and their magical routines. Daughter Marie (Flo Fields) appeared out of nowhere inside a previously empty box, the first of many large scale illusions.

Having muscled his way into seat 22B, orphan Harold (Greg Fossard) astounded Willard by actually vanishing, and Margaret (Abigail McGibbon) from the local workhouse agreed to rent him out to the Hoffmann troupe for her own financial advantage. With the audiences for old-style magic dwindling, Willard knew that he needed a new act to attract punters back from the lure of the new-fangled cinema.

Stephen Bamford’s revolving stage allows the audience to switch from the magical front-of-house to see the behind-the-scenes action. The muted lighting helps build the enigmatic atmosphere. And as it’s the MAC, you’re never quite sure which door an actor will appear through next.

Given the nature of magic routines, there was a lot of superlative dialogue – “now is the hour of destiny” (the ghost of Kenneth Williams is in there somewhere) – as tricks were introduced and mumbo jumbo was threaded around the actual illusion. While Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney introduced some magic to the MAC earlier this year with Nivelli’s War, this festive show is a cut above his previous work, making the conjuring even more central to the plot and the character development, with it all wrapped up in Conor Mitchell’s music.

By the end of the first half, we see Willard Hoffmann as a hard taskmaster; Bess (Kirsty Marie Ayers) as the Cinderella-like sister left to sweep the floor while her older sister Marie performs on stage; and Margaret is the kind of workhouse beadle who sees no need to celebrate Christmas (and has shades of Miss Hannigan [Annie] about her).

But the second half rapidly moves the characters on – perhaps a little too quickly – as they live out Willard’s mantra that “a talent must not stand still, it must travel” and the action shifts to Paris. There’s a softening of relationships, dreams come true, true love blossoms and the show emphasises the importance of family.

The accents were hard to place and some of the singing seemed purposely discordant. It’s a technically complicated show, and together with sound effects and the music from the band, the sound ended up a little muddy and some of the lyrics became indistinct. However, that didn’t spoil the understanding of the plot. And Alexander’s range of percussion instruments meant there was never a dull moment at the front left of the stage. (Now he has mastered playing the saw he could make a fortune busking on Hill Street!)

It’s a noisy production, with some in the young audience experiencing theatre for the first time, tripping in and out to the toilet, and gazing up over their heads in wonder at the spotlight beam piercing the fog and dust. However, it’s a Christmas show for families, and the cast aren’t distracted by the commotion.

The Family Hoffmann’s Christmas Mystery Palace is a great original piece of family entertainment, with a convincing cast, and it’s the only place in Belfast you’ll see two women chopped in half this season!

I can’t begin to fathom how half the big stage magic tricks were performed. You can judge for yourself in The MAC until 4 January with adult tickets ranging from £12–£22 (typically £17) and children £10.

Update - Chris over at Pastie Bap liked it too.

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