Friday, December 06, 2019

My Big Fat Belfast Christmas – full of heart and soul (Theatre at the Mill until 31 December)

Although their annual Christmas shows at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey are dressed up with humorous trimmings and larger-than-life characters, Julie Maxwell and Caroline Curran write with pathos about real issues with which audiences can empathise.

My Big Fat Belfast Christmas was first performed five years ago. The script was given a polish over the summer, not long before Julie Maxwell’s sudden death. Despite Maxwell’s sorely-felt absence from the tight-knit cast and production team, this year’s performance made me chuckle out loud – a rarity – as I watched Youcef travel over to his girlfriend’s home in Belfast to celebrate Christmas. The poor lad knew not what he was stepping into. And the host family were pretty up-tight about his arrival on Christmas Eve.

Social ‘entrepremanure’ Mags still lives at home with mum Mary and dad Joseph and doesn’t see eye to eye with her wee sister. But she’s buzzin’ to open her self-given present on Christmas morning. The spare room is filled with the beauty treatment stock she flogs to those she has online influence over. And with no room at the Premier Inn, wee Mary and her beau Youcef are having to stay next door with the neighbours.

Each of the main characters is harbouring a secret, something that will surely surface and change the whole complexion of the festive season in a grand farcical moment of catastrophe. When three strange men with gifts turn up at the door, you’ll begin to listen out for the bleating of sheep and a bright light over the theatre. Financial, familial and social stressors abound. Grief, anxiety and regrets abound. And Christmas only magnifies the problems.

Curran revels in the role of cheeky Mags, showing off her comic timing and facial expressions. Abigail McGibbon brilliantly plays the somewhat flustered Mum who is gloriously when tall and handsome Youcef steps over the threshold. The production plays up these uncomfortable moments to full effect, with director Fionnuala Kennedy elongating the pauses and giving each character a range of facial expressions and movements to create a horrific tableau of awkwardness.

As wee Mary, Bernadette Brown capably portrays a young woman who has returned home from the big smoke with trepidation, having to stand up to the exploits of Mags/Curran who throws shade like a champion dart player hitting treble 20. Dad Joe (James Doran) wanders around the house singing his own versions of classic festive songs, while Youcef pulls off the swaddling clothes that wee Mary has woven to protect his actual backstory and delivers a very amusing Stormont rap – “Brexit’s back … What’s the craic … Politics is cack …” – that would have been even better if Matthew Sharpe had thrown his whole body and hand/arm movements into the routine.

While there is much melancholy lurking in the front room, it’s covered up with sufficient levity that the final letter from the grave packs an emotional punch that hits you right in the tear ducts. Last year’s It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas was dramatically more sophisticated, perhaps a sign of how far Maxwell/Curran had progressed in their writing partnership. But My Big Fat Belfast Christmas is full of soul, wearing its heart on its theatrical sleeve and a reminder that no matter how awkward your Christmas dinner is, it’ll never top the carry-on at Mary and Joe’s house!

My Big Fat Belfast Christmas continues at the Theatre at the Mill until New Year’s Eve.

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