Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Gift: an enchanting piece of immersive theatre by Cahoots, the masters of illusion & storytelling #bcf15

It’s like being in a fairy tale. Once you’ve found the empty shop unit right at the back of Castle Court’s first floor (behind the food court, opposite Argos), you enter a plush waiting room and before long you’re being led through a door – that appears out of nowhere – into a circular space with enough chairs and pillows to allow forty people at a time to see Charles Way’s enchanting piece of immersive theatre, The Gift.

It’s a story about what we offer each other – as much about presence as presents – and the wonderful gifts we can make the most of and can give to others by using our resources of time and money well. It’s also a tale that examines how a young child’s understanding of the world around them changes and matures as they grow up, and what we feel is important along the way.

The audience drift through a series of recollections from Mary’s childhood and youth. Played by Clare McMahon, Mary is a delicate child and recognised as a talented pianist who works hard to perfect her forte, whereas her older brother Keith (Niall Murphy) just picks up an instrument and teaches himself.

Their father (James Doran) is a largely absent sailor (one of “those who keep moving”), and their “stand in the one place” mother Noreen (Maggie Cronin) is joined by neighbour Ellie (Julia Dearden) in bringing up the children and steering them through their teens and into their twenties. Other characters are played by Keith Singleton (who makes a bubbly priest) and Jude Quinn.

While Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney always sprinkles some magic dust over his productions, The Gift is the most intimate piece of theatre I’ve seen him direct.

You’re never sitting or standing more than a couple of metres from a member of the cast.

The unexpected feeling of movement in the first room is only the start as the actors and the audience move through a series of interlinked spaces – including the family house, a wooded outdoor scene and a concert hall dressing room – before coming full circle back round to the beginning. While my nose stopped working twenty or so years ago, some of the children at tonight’s show explained to me afterwards how certain rooms stank and how you could smell the trees and the fusty house.

Garth McConaghie has been working his audio magic too with rich tracks of ambient noise accompanying each scene, off-stage dialogue and recollections of conversations. The variety of spatial sound sources and moody lighting mean you spend sixty minutes not realising you’re walking around an otherwise deserted retail space.

The script doesn’t feel like it’s been written specifically for a young audience but the more junior attendees tonight assured me that by the end it all made sense. As children we don’t always understand the full context of what the adults in a room are saying, and the opening scene captures this idea well. There will be empathy with the childish arguments and sibling jealousy, and the darker moments are lightened with jokes and a spot of dancing at a wake!

Between the acting, the live music and the quality of the set and staging, The Gift is an entrancing production that I strongly recommend.

Since it’s part of the Belfast Children’s Festival you should feel free to bring your own or borrow somebody else’s child to accompany you! With such limited capacity at each performance, book early as The Gift is sure to sell out quickly. Daily shows in Unit 70 at the back of Castlecourt’s upper mall from 6 until 13 March.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of Belfast Children’s Festival great programme (PDF). Narrow in the Lyric looks like another quirky show not to be missed this weekend.

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