Friday, June 07, 2019

Belfast Girls – transplanting an online character to the stage (The MAC until 23 June)

The MAC’s Luminaire Club is back with its cabaret-style tables and drinks service, producing a less formal and stuffy theatre environment. The now familiar tunnelled set with its rich array of lighting creates an intimate atmosphere that shows can exploit.

The Belfast Girls – Bernie Greene (Michael Mulcahy) and her friends Betty (Christina Nelson who also directs) and Michelle (Jazzmin McClure) – fancy a week away from Andytown in the sun. But when Bernie’s DLA is threatened, and boyfriend Shankill Joe’s affections wander elsewhere (though he always seemed shifty with an odd love for Bundoran), a dark cloud drifts over her tanning plans. The plot is flimsy and realistically just a vehicle for localised parody songs and some situation comedy as Nelson and McClure pop in and out of a range of secondary characters.

Extending a Facebook/YouTube sketch character into a 90-minute show is clearly difficult, particularly when the central actor’s unenthusiastic dancing skills are as laboured and lethargic as Bernie’s stiffened movement at her PIP assessment. The dialogue is puerile, the only effect of the constant expletives is to pad out sentences, and every “wee tramp” or “hoor” seems to be repetitively “talking shite”.

Nelson’s crotch-grabbing Shankill Joe is particularly memorable, and McClure’s Anne-Marie (Bernie’s posh, bobbed sister) adds a little villainy (though Mulcahy’s script allows the jeopardy to be revealed and then resolved in a single scene). Well-produced videos entertain between scenes, an enhancement to last year’s Waterfront run.

Aside from the lighting, the show’s strongest elements are the songs: I’m a Barbie Belfast Girl is well-crafted, the Venga Boys’ We’re Going to Ibiza parody betters the original, while the final reprise of How Dare You Speak To Me Like That got the audience up on their feet and singing.

Belfast stages have been blessed this week with two light-hearted shows that engender a febrile, hen party-like atmosphere in the audience. The Grand Opera House bar sensibly stays closed before and after The Real Housewives of Norn Iron’s interval, whereas the round table layout and the lure of the bar overpowered the plot leaving some MAC audience members wandering in and out.

The transaction with these shows seems to be offering simplistic entertainment in return for putting money into actor’s pockets. That’s not to be sniffed at, and it’s a long-established genre that owes a lot to James Young and many other fine performers who have graced club stages over the years. But what does it achieve?

The ladder that venues wish replenishing audiences to climb up may be somewhat mythical. But if it exists, I see little aspiration in extended sketch shows, never mind some local pantomimes, to hook people into anything more ambitious than splitting a few sides. It may keep the lights on in venues at a slow time of the year, but does make them more viable in the longer term? Contrast this with It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas at the Theatre at the Mill last December which managed to shine a tight spotlight on mental health at the same time as serving up the funny bits. It proved that it is possible.

Belfast Girls continues its run at The MAC until Sunday 23 June.

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