Friday, September 28, 2018

Under the Hawthorne Tree (Cahoots NI at The MAC until 7 October)

In retrospect it’s pretty shocking to realise that I emerged from primary and secondary education in Northern Ireland without being taught any Irish history. A mention of the Belfast Blitz and a factoid that Cromwell had travelled through Lisburn were the only real local insights imparted by the time I opted out of history lessons at the end of third year. A visit to the Doagh Famine Village in the summer of 2011 was the first time I’d encountered the Great Famine in any detail.

Cahoots NI has adapted Marita Conlon-McKenna’s 1990 children’s novel Under the Hawthorne Tree and brought it to life on stage in an eight-handed musical tale that follows the journey of three siblings who try to escape the disease and death that engulfs their town when the potato blight in the late 1840s.

It’s an aptly dark tale of bravery in the face of danger, stamina overcoming weakness, and an expedition of hope as Eily, Michael and Peggy trudge towards distant relatives who live far away on the coast.

Repeated elements of Carlos Pons Guerra’s choreography establish the children’s young ages despite the use of adult actors. Maeve Smyth thrives in her role as the protective eldest daughter, the one who keeps hold of common sense. Together with Philippa O’Hara and Terence Keeley, the main cast’s harmony singing is superb, accompanied by a live band who sit around the circular raised stage.

Cahoots’ trademark magic is more subtle than usual, but nevertheless can be seen in the prop-tastic trapdoors and in James McFetridge’s sculpted lighting that allows characters to appear on stage out of nowhere. Words and music penetrate the auditorium with clarity and Garth McConaghie’s hummable score shifts from Irish trad to gospel to lament as each scene requires.

Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney has created a show whose message will be understood and should be heard right across Ireland … and beyond as the 170 year old story has much resonance with contemporary migration journeys.

Under the Hawthorn Tree is a fitting piece of theatre that illuminates an important part of Irish history. While the subject matter is serious, the 65 minute performance has pace and moments of levity that will keep youthful audiences engaged without being overwhelmed by facts and education. There are daytime performances for schools and weekend shows for families in The MAC until 7 October.

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