Thursday, December 03, 2015

Christmas Eve Can Kill You - yuletide drama in the back of a Belfast taxi (Lyric Theatre until 17 Jan)

It’s like “real life acting out a soap”. That’s how taxi driver Mackers (played by Tim Loane) sums up his annual Christmas Eve fares. An ensemble cast of Julia Dearden, Dan Gordon, Jazzmin McClure, Matthew McElhinney, Tara Lynne O’Neill, Louise Parker and Katie Tumelty play more than twenty characters across the two hour play, with a few tight costume changes to manage.

Set in 1992, it’s twenty years since Marie Jones’ play Christmas Eve Can Kill You was first performed, with Tim Loane and Dan Gordon reprising their original roles. This may be the last time the play can be performed before it truly becomes a museum piece. Mobile phones were still rare, with the first text message only sent on this day (3 December) in 1992.

Young squaddies may no longer set up roadblocks on the streets of Belfast, Ford Sierras have become extinct, and it’s obvious from the play that inflation has hit the fares taxis charge, yet the tragedy and stresses of yuletide remain the same.

Old people whose pride won’t allow them to admit they’re alone at Christmas, jealous mistresses, lotharios whose imagination is stronger than their pulling power, children estranged from their parents, and young fools in love. And who can fail to laugh at an English actor on a BBC taxi account who can’t pronounce Ormeau!

Earlier characters reappear in increasingly unexpected and unconventional combinations as Marie Jones plaits the threads together. Her trick is to long withhold a key facet about each character and then suddenly drop it into the script to change how the audience view their motives.

Tara Lynne O’Neill and Katie Tumelty are like the twins of the Lyric stage and slip comfortably into accents and characters that Marie Jones has gone on to develop in later plays. Louise Parker could tear strips off a book of ballot tickets with her tongue as she jumps between moods and emotions. Dan Gordon juggles being ridiculous, pathetic and vulnerable. While he’s far too young to remember it, Matthew McElhinney has the military red torch waving down to a tee.

There are raised eyebrows and quick asides as well as lengthy monologues as Mackers leans forward and confides his thoughts with the audience, even when he’s driving. Laughter ripples across the auditorium. By the time we’d reached the interval, Wednesday night’s audience had begun to applaud those getting their comeuppance and hiss those who needed to wind their necks in.

Theatre venues are challenged by the need for multiple shows to cohabit the same stage over Christmas. Lighting, set and sound designers double up across production to ensure a graceful fit. Other than a white door frame that most passengers step through onto the stage, the only fixed set on the all black stage is the white mesh outline of a car and a steering column. Five traffic lights flicker in the background as the car moves along the imaginary city streets picking up and dropping off fares. While the cue list must be endless, Garth McConaghie’s gentle sound effects when the taxi is moving make up for the lack of slammed car doors.

If you see a taxi registration ABZ1347, go easy on him. He’ll already have had some actual back seat drivers tonight and while there’s a choice of music on the radio that suits every situation, you jump into the back of Mackers’ taxi if you dare. He’s all ears, but don’t be expecting him to laugh at your turkey jokes.

Christmas Eve Can Kill You runs at the Lyric Theatre until 10 January until 17 January (run extended).

PS Did I mention the snow and the dog? If the Lyric sold stuffed dogs on the way out of the theatre, they’d make a fortune!

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