Saturday, June 11, 2016

Smiley - a comedy five a side football heist as one man tries to repay a debt (Lyric Theatre until 2 July)

Smiley has a plan to pay back his debts which involves entering a team of less-than-amateur ringers in a local football tournament with a big prize fund. But when an ex-paramilitary god-mother intervenes, his odds of success change. Throw in a very credible Elvis impersonator, a drag-queen and a complicated set of interpersonal relationships, and you have a comedy tinged with peril.

Gary Mitchell’s new play Smiley looks at a society in transition where not everything is going forward. Characters bring their past lives with them into the locker room of life as they confront new problems with their old skills. The Northern Ireland allegory is kept very much in the background, so much so that for many this may only be seen as a funny heist about football.

For a stage play, Smiley has an incredible number of set changes with bulky furniture keeping the stage hands busy as the plot's overly complex twists and turns are revealed.

It’s probably closer to a film script that theatre. While this shows off Liam Doona’s artificial grass set and John Comiskey’s suspended lighting array, it adds a lot of injury time to the first half.

Smiley is at its strongest at the beginning of the second half, with the plot, dialogue and directing sprinting together up the wing with an assured pace that makes up for the lateness of the evening.

While the story revolves around Michael Condron’s shouty titular role, James Doran has the most rounded character to play with. Director Conall Morrison paints Malcolm as a menacing minder, but has the audience aahing in sympathy in a moment of vulnerable revelation before the vicious dénouement.

Jo Donnelly revels in being monstrous, though her intimidation fails to work on Smiley’s ex-wife Elaine (played by Kerri Quinn) who temporarily reduces her threat level. Gavin Peden brings to life Smiley’s son, a consistently weedy and androgynous lad with more imagination than talent.

Sub plots and themes litter the script. An exploration of homophobia is responsible for a sustained string of sexual innuendo that generates cheap laughs.

Ten years ago the play would most likely have featured fewer female roles: it’s a shame that the only way found to portray a woman as being confident was the use of a push-up bra and cleavage that should really apply for its own Equity Card. The gender bending is completed by Charlie (Roisin Gallagher), a successful woman footballer who is crowded out of the script by the more thuggish elements of the story.

While the stadium-like set looms darkly over the cast, at times the staging was nearly too ambitions. The clever rain effect on the bus shelter wasn’t echoed by the characters elsewhere on the stage. A phone rang on stage but the sound came from behind the audience. And the final spotlighted shadows failed to deliver the intended crisp shapes being thrown by Aaron/Elvis and Cameron (Tommy Wallace). Small niggles that may disappear during the run.

Smiley’s fast-paced humour has the audience in the stands guffawing throughout two halves. The final minutes of the play show off Gerard McCabe’s great voice in a scene reminiscent of Dennis Potter‘s love of throwing tunes at a show and allow the play to wrap up its loose ends and go out on a high.

With football in the air you can catch Smiley at the Lyric Theatre until 2 July. It’s fairly likely the local teams playing in Euro 2016 will be home in time to catch a performance before Smiley’s run finishes!

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