Friday, July 27, 2018

Paperboy – coming-of-age tale of a Shankill lad delivers a treat (Youth Music Theatre UK at Lyric Theatre until 29 July)

Young Tony gets his first part-time job as a paperboy. It’s 1975 and he lives on the Upper Shankill Road. Over the new two-hour long musical Paperboy we watch the lad grappling with the chaos and division around him as he steps into young adulthood with a vision for a different future and his earnest pursuit of an elusive sweetheart.

Youth Music Theatre UK run an ambitious programme of new and devised work every summer with young performers. Auditions on the Shankill and Falls brought local acting talent into the cast along with young people from across the rest of the UK and Ireland.

Sam Gibson is the star of the show, playing Tony Macaulay whose popular eponymous memoir has been adapted by Andrew Doyle to create the book and lyrics for this musical. Only in Belfast could ‘vibration’ be used as a rhyme with ‘detonation’!
“The night as heavy with the smell of burning double-decker buses.”

Rarely off stage for the two-hour, two-act performance, Gibson clicks his fingers to step out of the action to narrate asides and anecdotes about his nascent understanding of what’s going on in the streets around his home, before jumping back into the singing and dancing. Auditioned on the Shankill, the 14-year-old Campbell College pupil starred as the Artful Dodger in last summer’s Grand Opera House's Summer Youth Project production of Oliver.

Gibson has a beautiful, well-pitched voice, and has his character’s pre-teen swagger down to a tee. There’s so much attention to detail in the performance, closing gates as thoroughly as his popular paperboy character would be expected to. His stage presence shines, with an ability to demand to be the centre of attention one minute and then to slip into the background when the spotlight is off him shows a maturity not always seen in full-on youth drama productions.

Erin Ryder plays the hair-twirling and bubbly Sharon Burgess who is the apple of Tony’s eye but turns out to be more of a forbidden fruit who whose affections lie with Ben McGarvey’s suave and worldly Big Jaunty. Another stand-out singing voice in the production belongs to Honor Brigg who plays Tony’s mum Betty.

With a cast of 35 playing more than 50 characters, along with puppets (and a great Ian Paisley impersonation by Patrick Connor), Tony’s family, a pubescent rock band, Sunday School, dream sequences, the surreal appearance of Tony’s science fiction fixations Mr Tumnus (CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia), Doctor Who (the fourth one with a long scarf) and Thunderbirds, there’s a lot – probably too much – going on in this first outing of Paperboy. It’ll take harsh cuts to select the themes that should survive in the subsequent runs that must surely follow for this intelligent and witty musical.

Natalia Alvarez’s set design wraps the Belfast skyscape as a newspaper-covered fence suspended above the uncluttered stage. Similarly-covered simple frames create doors, gates and seats. The costumes are fully of wide flares, wide stripes and colourful patterns. The script is littered with nostalgic references to popular culture, and audience-pleasing hits from the Bay City Rollers, whose rhythmic vibe extends into the Duke Special’s music for the show’s 28 songs.

Two numbers stand out. The History Lesson explains local history from each side of the peace wall, with the second half explanation of the Easter Rising and partition ending in a pastiche of a familiar dance formation! Near the end of the show, A River Runs Beneath Us accompanies a women’s peace march and aptly references the underground Farset meeting the Lagan as women from the Shankill and Falls come together.

With a focussed rehearsal period and a diverse cast, the co-directors Dean Johnson and Steven Dexter have achieved a lot in a very short timescale. At times, English and American accents clash with the more Belfast-sounding voices, but this can be forgiven in light of the energy and precision of much of the rest of the performances.

A lot of plays have been written from the perspective of different sides of the conflict. Few adequately explore people who chose to walk the middle line, discovering and questioning all traditions. Paperboy remains very true to Tony Macaulay’s history of peace building.

The extended and sold-out run of Paperboy, a coming-of-age musical that will surely make you laugh and may also bring a tear to your eye, continues at the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 29 July. Turn up early and queue for returned tickets if you want a theatrical treat.

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