Saturday, August 03, 2019

Paperboy – challenging youth musical eschews mere nostalgia to set down challenge about the lack of peace (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 4 August)


Paperboy premiered in the Lyric Theatre last summer. And this weekend the musical is back at the culmination of several packed weeks of rehearsal by the young talent enrolled in the local British Youth Music Theatre summer camp.

I’ve written previously about the outbreak of nostalgic theatre in Belfast over the last couple of years that has often looked back at incidents during the Troubles. Shows have a tendency to nod their heads towards dark moments and then allow audiences to belly laugh at aspects of behaviour and circumstance that should often really still appal us. Specific moments in history are allowed to make universal points about love and the power of music. Sometimes it works; often it’s a bit cheap; very occasionally it’s downright offensive.

Paperboy manages to avoid donning a pair of oversized rose-tinted glasses as it looks back at Tony Macaulay’s memories of living in the upper Shankill in 1975. Yes, it’s full of references popular culture, but it’s authentic and features the bands and science fiction shows that the writer obsessed over. Yes, it’s full of local vernacular, though an English guest at last night’s show confirmed that there were only three occasions when he couldn’t understand why the audience was laughing.

(If you pop upstairs in the Lyric you can see an exhibition of 1970’s memorabilia, including Macaulay’s certificate for taking part in UTV’s Romper Room!)

The success of Andrew Doyle’s lyrics and book comes from the poignancy of a group of 30 tweens and teens playing back part of Northern Ireland’s history and articulating young Tony’s hope that a time would come when things wouldn’t be like this.

A couple of months ago I might have argued that things were now unrecognisably better than the bad old days. And then I woke up on the 18 April to the 7am Radio Ulster news bulletin explaining that a young female journalist had been shot in Derry. I racked my brain to think who I knew who could have been reporting. Moments later, a live press conference interrupted the programme and a senior police officer named the murdered woman as Lyra McKee and I gasped. I wasn’t supposed to be part of the generation that would wake up to the news that a friend had been killed as part of the conflict. That was for other people, in an earlier time.

Through the idealism of young characters, Paperboy presents a strong challenge about incomplete change and unfulfilled dreams.

There’s some overlap with last year’s cast, so the show has a great foundation. Sam Gibson brings a cheeky charm to the central role as the only pacifist paperboy in Belfast and is pitch-perfect each time he walks through the rest of the cast who are finishing off the previous song while begins his in a new key. His resonant voice cuts through the wider chorus and his well-balanced narration keeps the story moving.

The creative team have improved the flow of the story, and the Peace People finale offers an emotionally powerful peak that captures Macaulay’s heart and ethic right before a toe-tapping medley demonstrates the musical and dancing talent across the cast, and sends the audience out with a spring in their step. Duke Special’s vocal harmonies are well executed by the cast, door and window frame props are combined with Julia Cave’s nifty choreography and patterns, while Natalia Alvarez’s wooden stockade backdrop quietly hints at Belfast landmarks, while it hides Matthew Reeve’s band. Amid the melee and youthful buzz, co-directors Steven Dexter and Dean Johnson give one explosive scene sufficient space to speak out of its silence.

There are plenty of monsters, as seen from the eyes of a young boy: with bossy soldiers, bullying teens, a strutting Cyberman and sea monkeys, not to mention a terrific political puppet who is quickly followed up with a lyrics about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and a surprisingly contemporary “God doesn’t love you”. But a very fine Mr Tumnus (Karl Johnston) and a useful Doctor Who are on hand to weather the paper round storms.

The classroom rendition of historical The History Lesson is a choral highlight of the first act. After the interval, the dreamy King and Queen of Nowhere World will be special once some pitch issues in hyperspace are sorted, and Honor Brigg (playing Tony’s Mum) delivers some spellbinding moments in the emotional triumph A River Runs Beneath Us.

The short run of Paperboy ends with a matinee performance on Sunday 4 August. Every ticket has been sold, and I’m sure there’s already a long waiting list at the box office. But you’d be a fool not to get your name on it just in case.

Photo credit: Chris Hill

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