Tuesday, December 06, 2022

The Shop at the Top of the Town – nostalgic evening of festive comedy (Theatre at the Mill until Saturday 31 December)

The Theatre at the Mill’s production of The Shop at the Top of the Town takes audiences back to the Belfast of the early 1970s. The security barriers have created a ring of steel around the city’s retail centre. Michael Cameron has dreamt up a romantic comedy, a less smutty version of Are You Being Served, following the lives of the staff in Hoffman’s department store in the final throws of the pre-Christmas rush. Trading under the motto “if it’s possible to buy we’ll sell it”, the shop’s love department is doing brisk business with plenty of duds being returned and new partnerships being considered.

We meet the store’s owner, Felix Hoffman (Sean Kearns), a German Jew who came to Belfast to escape the bombs and barriers. He’s an outsider, with a firm but (mostly) fair attitude to his staff. His glamorous and sultry wife (Mary Moulds) spends her husband’s money in order to find alternative pleasure, right under his nose.

Out on the shop floor, tall and reliable Mr Kennedy (Rory McCollum) is seen as management material, but he longs to find someone with whom he can share his life outside working hours. Mr Fenner (David Marken) is a cad and a bounder, with ambitions well above his tawdry station. Flora (Libby Smyth) – it’s a time when older women on the shop floor were referred to by their first names! – revisits painful memories every Christmas. Then there’s the mayhem-inducing drunken Santa (Marty Maguire), sacked last year from the grotto in the Co-Op. Into this mix steps young Miss Newman (Rosie Barry), who can talk her way into employment and out of trouble, but perhaps not into a meaningful relationship.

Death, loneliness, depression, unfaithfulness and redundancy are dark themes. Yet there’s a merciful lightness to the performances, much aided by Sarah Jane Johnston’s extensive choreography and Colm G Doran’s brisk direction that won’t allow any scene to tarry.

It’s 28 years since Anderson and McAuley shut its doors for the last time, so anyone under the age of 40 will miss a lot of the references to ‘old’ Belfast, the retail giants of yesteryear, and the effect of the Troubles on everyday life. But they’ll still be rewarded with great banter between the shop staff, fun moments of physical theatre, a festive music box with a novel tune, a smattering of fine innuendo, and Garth McConaghie’s jazzy big band soundtrack and songs that unpack the emotion and the internal baggage. The score’s repeated ascending motif neatly echoes the store’s grand rising staircase, while the first act duet Somehow I’m Stuck With You really captures the spark between Mr Kennedy and Miss Newman even though they don’t see eye to eye on so many levels.

Ciarán Bagnall’s two-level set oozes big department store quality with wooden panelling and solid fixtures and fittings, while the cut of Rosie McClelland’s costumes adds style to the brown and beige plaid uniforms worn by the Hoffman staff. The biggest glitterball in the north spins, and the audience are transported back to enjoy a nostalgic evening of festive comedy brought to life by a cast who are on top form.

The Shop at the Top of the Town continues at the Theatre at the Mill until Saturday 31 December.

Photo credit: Stephen Davison and Ciarán Bagnall

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Unknown said...

Terrible play! From Curtain up. Til Curtain Down!

Anonymous said...

Awful play. Very amateurish and boring story.

Anonymous said...

It's a rip off of alot of Christmas movies nothing original about it .. Read between the lines and you know its a rip off