Friday, February 22, 2019

My Sweetheart & Me – a summer of love in a nostalgic musical (touring Lisburn, Newtownabbey & Coleraine)

My Sweetheart & Me is a nostalgic musical telling the parallel stories of three couples who back in 1967 frequent the Suntree Bar in the town of Cheerysville. Ruby is fed up with ‘happy’ Sammy, who soon turns back to his old vices and spirals towards oblivion. Yvonne and Cyril’s matrimony turns out to be built on sandy foundations that cannot prevent a collapse. Meanwhile their son, ‘Bookworm Bob’ has caught the eye of Sheena, but an unexpected source of romantic competition threatens to wreck the chance of a summer of love.

Introduced with the song What a geek, the earnest wannabe teacher Bob is played by Daniel May who has a lot of stage presence and a warm voice that wraps around the lyrics. Caitlin Martin confidently portrays a frustrated Sheena, longing for friendship but bereft of talent in the sleepy backwater. While we see no sign of the ferocity of their attraction, Sheena’s ballad I thought that love would never find me indicates an unseen velocity. Their titular duet has a mellow heat to it, and We said our last goodbyes definitely hits the love-sick puppy mark.

Frank (Andy Bradford) is kept busy behind the bar, gluing a lot of scenes together as well as constantly topping up his paying punters’ glasses. The direction keeps a very consistent sense of movement in the characters scattered across the bar. Jenny Long switches between playing the snobbish wife of Cyril (Den Falls) and the fierce partying wife of Sammy (Gary Greenfield) with a swinging handbag.

Cheerysville is remarkably cosmopolitan with an English barman, a bookworm with a mid-Atlantic twang, and Coleraine-sounding Sheena hanging around with her broad Belfast pal Barbara (Elaine Abroi) who enjoys some of the funniest lines and banter, though tonight’s Lisburn audience shamefully forgot to engage their laughter. Sammy’s dream sequence Gonna be a winner tonight also deserved more audience reward and was neatly stage-managed.

Into this mix are thrown two curveball characters. Kenneth (Ken Knocker) is straight out of panto, like a wise-cracking comic who wanders through the audience and breaks up the show while other cast members are getting changed back-stage. In My Sweetheart & Me, he threatens to stall the plot, though his comically misspelt sandwich board lets the audience join in with a pleasant singsong at the end,

But the real wildcard is Dandy Dan, a vein and verbose, Eton-educated lad dressed in ruffs, frilly cuffs and a cape who thinks he is God’s gift to women but neglects to realise that he’s single for a reason. Theo McGeough plays this deliberately over-the-top cad, and his ironic rendition of I’m all man providing a hint of the consent-less melodrama that would come later in the second half.

While the cast of nine have to chew their way through some the dialogue (“right I’d better get going, there’s a bus due” followed by a swift exit stage left), they rejoice in Gary Greenfield’s catchy songs, accompanied by a live psychedelic four-piece band in the corner of the stage led by Karl Bennett. The cast can all hold a tune and their voices blend well together. While the exposition sometimes hesitates, when the musical numbers come along they are packed with oomph and you’ll be humming the final drinking song in the car on the way home.

It takes a lot of nerve as well as talent to write, produce and direct a musical and stage it in a handful of regional theatres. It also requires a cast that will give it their all and bring the script to life. Aspects of the plot are outlandish and too contrived, but they’re well-constructed and the music carries any looseness in the script that lacks a consistent comic punch but has a lot of promise.

With year-on-year reductions in arts subsidies and the need to experiment with fresh talent, shows like My Sweetheart & Me that jump over the hurdles and miraculously find ways of staging themselves, are important to experience and encourage.

My Sweetheart & Me is playing in the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn on Friday 22 February before Suntree Productions takes it on the road to the Theatre At The Mill, Newtownabbey on Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 March, and the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine on Friday 3 and Saturday 4 May.

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