Christmas 2022 in and around Belfast is a rattle bag of festive shows: Dame May McFettridge & Co up to their usual antics in the Grand Opera House pantomime; at the MAC, a sparky new take on an old favourite, plus a saucy show for adults; an affectionate homage to Christmas past at Theatre at the Mill; a tipsy Christmas special of Murder She Got Wrote Off at Accidental; and, at the Lyric, a fresh new musical version of The Snow Queen, a raucous night of comedy and craic from Grimes & McKee, and Pigeon & Plum’s quirky neo-Victorian Cabaret. To paraphrase the late Stephen Sondheim, there’s a little bit of right and a little bit of wrong, a little bit of this and a little bit of that to choose from.
Paul Boyd’s association with the Lyric dates back to 1998. Since then he has presented a succession of thought-provoking, family-friendly Christmas musicals, which appeal across the generations. The invitations keep coming because of the freshness and ingenuity of the works and their consistently high production values.
This year’s offering is no exception. A musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s icy fairy-tale The Snow Queen presents a number of challenges, in terms of messaging and the fact that the original is written in seven fragmented narratives.
But the result is thrilling. The characters are spirited and identifiable, the songs are witty and melodic, the stylish sets and costumes mutate subtly as the story builds and the snappy dialogue is only a tad too prolonged. With an eye to the familiar elements of Andersen’s tale, Boyd’s poignant fable about belonging is navigated by a thoroughly modern moral compass.
We follow an innocent girl called Gerda (Calla Hughes Nic Aoidh) as she journeys from her sunny favela home to the permafrost land where her best friend Kai (Ben McGarvey) has been lured by the Snow Queen. Our doughty heroine embodies stirring examples of female empowerment, self determination and the healing balm of the natural world.
As, initially, Gerda’s flower-seller grandmother Rose, Christina Nelson sashays seamlessly between the roles of three sisters who possess the natural elements of earth, fire and water. Frida Kahlo lookalike Hughes Nic Aoidh is an exciting new presence in the central role, while Ruby Campbell’s imperious Snow Queen steps straight out of a picture book, her frosted chiffon robes and siren voice acting as a defence against the hardships the world has inflicted upon her.
Expectations are always high for the Cahoots Christmas show at the MAC, where, over the years, this award-winning children’s theatre company has delivered some extraordinary productions. This year it’s the turn of good old Cinderella, but with a new twist.
Midnight Princess is written by the distinguished playwright Charles Way and directed by Paul Bosco McEneany, whose boundless imagination and mastery of magic and illusion have propelled his company’s work to worldwide acclaim.
The production was scheduled to have been staged before the pandemic and the delay handed the long-established Way-McEneany creative partnership an opportunity to further develop a script, which grafts intriguing contemporary angles on to the familiar rags-to-riches storyline.
What is hinted at is very much a tale for our times, focused around a grieving girl whose only friends are her unearthly godmother (Jayne Wisener) and the bluebird in her late mother’s garden; a troubled prince (Conor Quinn), who yearns to be an ordinary boy; children who have lost a parent; second marriages; a bereaved king struggling to assert his authority. Sound familiar?
The whole thing speeds along and looks gorgeous, thanks to Diana Ennis’s charming set and costumes and McEneaney’s genius with magical special effects. The fairy-tale unfolds beneath the stone arches and stairways of King Leopold’s castle, where Richard Croxford’s dishevelled, bereft monarch is barely holding it all together. Outside the castle walls, a jumble of miniature houses, lit from within, allow glimpses into the little lives of subjects for whom time has stopped.
[ Enter stage left: Mary O’Malley and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre ]
Those subjects include the put-upon Cinderella (a cheery Corrie Earley) and her humble clockmaker father (Morgan Cooke), who has no chance against his domineering second wife (Allison Harding) and her common-as-muck daughters (Philippa O’Hara and Catriona McFeely). The line-up is completed by the appearance of Wolfie, a high-camp, diamanté-clad Mozart Doppelgänger (Edalia Day), whose compositions, mystifyingly, form the basis of Score Draw Music’s undercooked songbook.
Over the past few years, Theatre at the Mill, a few miles outside the city centre, has carved out a highly successful brand of Christmas entertainment via a string of specially-commissioned festive comedies. Its new management team has turned its attention towards childhood and the days when the city’s big department stores were, at this time of year, places of wonder and enchantment.
Writer Michael Cameron cherishes his own memories of trips into town to see the Christmas lights and the winter wonderland window displays. In a cross between Are You Being Served? and the Hollywood classic The Shop Around the Corner, he has served up a thoroughly enjoyable, warm-hearted romantic comedy, The Shop at the Top of the Town, set in Hoffman’s department story.
The dialogue may be corny and the storyline predictable, but with an authentic 1970s set by Ciaran Bagnall, a melting medley of songs by Garth McConaghie, costumes that capture every kitsch vintage detail, and a hugely experienced ensemble cast, it scarcely puts a foot wrong.