Friday, October 22, 2021

Department Story – site specific physical and online theatre from the masters of mayhem (Big Telly until 31 October) #BIAF21

Department stores have been disappearing from Irish high streets in recent years. But could Maguires be next? As the audience step inside the Royal Avenue store (or log on from home) there’s a frenzy of activity, some intense encounters, and plenty of emotion as word filters through the various departments and a veil is lifted about the retail changes afoot.

With a Big Telly production, you know you’re going to get lots of tomfoolery and physical gags. Two years ago, The Worst Café in the World included an actor climbing in the window in the middle of the show. But Department Story takes this unpredictability to a whole new level. There’s a lot of charging around, the mother of all wind machines, a vacuum cleaner with a mind of its own, and heavy items of furniture being shifted around. Other than a couple of clunky gear changes, the harried shop assistants keep the audience of late-night shoppers on their toes throughout the 75-minute performance, never quite able to second guess what will happen next.

Department Story also promises to offer a quality online experience for audience members at home who get a birds eye view of the mayhem supported by a roving camera, ceiling mounted moving heads, and microphones galore dotted around the two floors that stage most, but not all, of the action. Having dared to enter the store, I might have to return some night and do a bit of online shopping to catch the other view through AFEW’s Remote Control system.

Local writing (Cathy Carson, Jan Carson, and Roisin O’Donnell) along with adaptations of some classic tales make up the spine of the show. Niamh McGrath’s kickstarts a long and elaborate version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Red Shoes (moral of story: don’t wear the red shoes to church!) with a handful of quick changes as the shop assistants circle the audience.

Chris Robinson creates a haunted forest in the tent department (much enhanced by a brilliantly apt fit of hysterical giggling by an audience member at our show), while Cillian Lenaghan is rushing around trying to purchase the last remaining overcoat, and Laura Hughes is looking to cash in unwanted goods.

Department Story’s success is as much down to the attention to small details as the giant melodrama. like Nicky Harley casually snacking on a Greggs sausage roll or rearranging items in a shop counter drawer, adding depth to her formidable character on top of the larger than life shenanigans and timeless twerking she revels in.

Inside the store, it’s easy to forget – a sign of success – the technical complexity of producing and stage managing the multi-level, cue-tastic walkabout version of each performance, never mind supporting the online experience. There’s a rich soundscape emanating from all manner of speakers and devices that drives the tempo of many of the scenes (kudos to Garth McConaghie). And everything is drawn together into a coherent offering by what must be the much-bitten nails of director Zoe Seaton and tech manager Jack Hardiker.

It’s been a while – eight long years – since it snowed at a Belfast International Arts Festival show, but when it happens, it’s always good! Since the show I’ve walked a mile back to my car, driven home, and typed up this review. I’ve still a grin on my face remembering some of the antics and the feeling of being trapped inside Maguires unable and unwilling to escape. Catch Department Story in-store or online before the final offers disappear and the lights go out on 31 October. 

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

No comments: