Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Bah, Humbug! – a fresh, musical updated allegory (Lyric Theatre until 5 January)

A spreadsheet-powered property developer plans to release apartments in the new Waterfront Plaza complex on Boxing Day. He has no qualms about desperate prospective buyers ruining their Christmas break by queueing up outside over the festive period to reserve their place. The same miserly figure treats his staff with contempt, and long ago turned his back on his niece, whose mother died in childhood.

If every generation needed an updated Ebenezer Scrooge, this cynical and ungenerous property magnet driving around Belfast in his shiny Range Rover is surely perfect for 2018.

The Lyric Theatre’s production of Bah, Humbug! enjoys comedy master Michael Condron in the central role, setting up a character with whom the audience can share some sympathy and empathy before pushing him that little bit further beyond their natural tolerance. There’s a little bit of the Pastor O’Hare (Sinners) about Condron’s Ebenezer, even throwing in a Hallelujah! at one point.

The opening number of Don’t They Know Christmas Time is a Con, adapted from the Band Aid hit, sets up the musical prowess of the performers, with sure-footed harmonies. A quality cover of Flying Pickets’ Only You (not quite a cappella but very in tune and with great da dums) is followed by more soulful echoes of the motifs from musical director Rod McVey, perched to one side of the stage providing live keyboards and effects.

Sophie Harkness is the epitome of a new age, vegan hipster rolled up in a yoga mat. Despite being cast as a figure of ridicule, she conveys warmth and affectionate charity in her interactions with Uncle Scrooge. Then she turns into a mean, no-nonsense, booted Ghost of Christmas Past.

Conor Grimes avoids some of his well-worn (verging on worn out) characters from Martin Lynch’s plays, and creates new mannerisms and verbal tics for Bob Cratchit and his other roles. Writing partner Alan McKee takes on the darker role of former business-partner Jacob Marley and channels his inner Miami Vice while flaunting a dashing pink suit and a mullet.

Roisin Gallagher’s brief rendition of Once in Royal David’s City is as beautiful as her Cockney accent, but it’s her Mrs Cratchit that shows off her comedy side as she expands into the role of being mother to Tiny Tim and his kleptomaniac sister.

An element of audience participation adds a frisson of excitement to the production, and will keep the ad-libbing cast on their toes during the run as the blood alcohol level in the auditorium rises with the surge of pre-Christmas work nights out.

Jokes about the arts and Cathedral Quarter went down well with the press night audience – Primark still seems to be too raw to laugh about – yet it was the later gags about leafy south Belfast that felt more grounded for a performance in the Lyric. References to 1980s technology appeal to one generation, while an Alexa with attitude is neatly incorporated for modern times.

Grimes and McKee are on form and Bah, Humbug! is a huge improvement on last year’s frivolous and shouty What the Reindeer Saw. Hats off to the writers and director Frankie McCafferty for creating something fresh for the festive season that doesn’t rely on innuendo and sectarian clichés for its entertainment.

The lengthy first half is rewarded with a string of musical numbers and interesting characters. Energy dips after the interval and the shorter second half never quite regains the momentum and Scrooge’s turnaround happens very quickly and decisively.

While the salutary lesson about the ruthlessness of property developers may fall on deaf ears, this warning about greed, the pursuit of self, and the need to share time as well as resources with family and community is both timely and well told.

The bean counters at the Lyric Theatre hope that Bah, Humbug! and its updated allegory of Ebenezer Scrooge will pack out their auditorium and drink their bar dry between now and 5 January. They’re unlikely to be disappointed ... unless he builds a one bedroom apartment in the box office!

Photo credit: Steffan Hill

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