Friday, April 05, 2019

The Young Pornographers – concert reading of an exciting new musical work by Conor Mitchell full of brio and panache (Lyric Theatre)

Watching a reading of new theatre work is often exciting. The simple read-through of David Ireland’s Summertime was electric back in 2013’s Pick’n’Mix festival. Outburst Festival showed off three works in development in Brewing last November, and the Lyric’s New Playwrights Showcase has been a highlight of the last couple of Belfast International Arts Festivals.

Last night, the Lyric Theatre hosted a concert reading of Conor Mitchell’s The Young Pornographers. Seven performers backed by a fourteen-piece band brought to life this new work in an epic performance that wowed the audience and once more demonstrated the versatility, passion and talent of Mitchell.

The impact of the fences going up in 1953 Berlin is seen through the eyes of Stanislav and Hanna, a photographer and his muse. Trapped in the east, they scrounge a living through pornography. Always under pressure from pimp Ruddy, they trick a talented actress, Margot, into posing for an American magazine photoshoot. Her manager Gerardt has his doubts, but she presses ahead, aware that it’s not legit. But her sudden enthusiasm for the work and invitation for a critic to inspect it throws everyone’s life, safety and future into doubt right at the point Stalin dies.

It’s a Soviet story told through American-styled music, a mashup of cultures and ideologies that mirrors post-war Berlin. Taking full advantage of the considerable brass section, it kicks off with a big band sound, witty lyrics, some simple props and confidently modulates key mid-phrase. It’s big, it’s brash and it’s full on from the very start.

Mezzo-soprano Ciara Mackey plays pin-up girl Hanna, using hand gestures, glances and hard stares to portray her shaky co-dependent relationship with Stanislav (Darren Franklin). Each has a difficult backstory that only emerges later in the show, with Franklin then able to demonstrate the emotional power of his voice.

Zoë Rainey gives actress Margot huge confidence and smiling energy as she first steps up to the microphone to unwittingly enter into the grubby world of Stanislav’s studio. There’s an exquisite three-handed number with Mackey and soprano Rebecca Caine, before the actress’ off-stage playwright husband throws a spanner in her career and job security.

New modern musical theatre often fails the ‘could you hum it?’ test with nothing singable as you walk back to the car after a show. Not so with Mitchell, whose The Young Pornographers throws out song after song that are playful, intelligent, quite humorous and melodic. It’s an Almost Love leads on to the glorious Chaplain’s Coming, with Mitchell dancing along on his conductor’s podium.

Full of secrets, deception, self-preservation and unexpected proposals, the gradual revelation and understanding of the plot isn’t hindered by the concert-style performance which tells its story with brio and panache.

Steven Page’s arts critic Comrade Poliakov – who is later found to be manipulating his artists – gets his own song. The baritone’s lyrics are seeded with suitably review-like words like oeuvre, caprice and transfigured! A bit of Irish history is thrown in for good measure, requiring nimble fingerwork by Keith McAlister on piano. Sean Kearns (Ruddy) and Matthew Cavan (Gerardt) complete the able cast.

For a new work, the detail and subject-matter knowledge packed into the lyrics, together with the dramatic score is impressive. The former state anthem of the USSR pops up at the end of each half of the show with an increasing complex set of harmonies beautifully woven around the familiar rousing melody.

The feelings of being trapped, segregated by physical and political barriers, and manipulated as part of wider agendas, echo strongly around 2019 Northern Ireland and the UK’s shambolic Brexit negotiations.

Mitchell curates excellence in everything he does, and the cast, musicians and creatives for this concert reading are a medley of the very best talent he knows. The Lyric Theatre deserves credit for helping develop this musical through their New Writing Department, and giving it a public airing.

What has Belfast done to deserve Conor Mitchell?! The intelligent plot, the lightness of touch, the richness of the lyrics, the blending of the powerful voices, and the oomph from the orchestra and band made this world première concert reading of The Young Pornographers a real treat for those gathered last night in the Lyric Theatre’s main stage auditorium. A great piece of musical theatre that will hopefully now grow into a full production.

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