REVIEW: The Assistant's Revenge

A brilliantly crafted noir for children and adults, Paul Bosco McEneaney's The Assistant's Revenge is an adventure and a warning at once, a magical, musical murder mystery and a cautionary tale for every child aged eight and over who would dare to dream of being a magician’s assistant. It is, in some ways, like Pinocchio's darker, more hard-boiled cousin, but with a showman more tragic than tyrannical.

The showman in question is The Fabulous Felix, played by Gary Crossan with elements of David Tennant's Doctor and Hugh Jackman's PT Barnum, minus their magnanimity. An egotistical stage hogger of the highest degree, Felix takes great joy in repeatedly challenging himself with increasingly difficult escapes against the odds.

His series of magic tricks have thrilled audiences but have alienated his sister Crystal, played by the show’s composer and co-writer, Ursula Burns, and his present assistant, Molly, played by Maeve Smyth. How far will he go before an assistant, past or present, snaps and takes the titular vengeance?

Enter Kyron Bourke as private eye Sam Sullivan, doing his best possible Humphrey Bogart. Playing the piano because it helps him think ("Play it again, Sam", indeed), it's not so much the barely surprising whodunnit that intrigues him as the whydunnit and the howdunnit, which gives the show its compelling thrust. As he says, his job is less about discovering the truth as uncovering the lies: what really makes Crystal, Molly and Felix tick?

In other words, inner character. Of which, despite the relatively short fifty-five minute running time, there is plenty. Smyth, soon to take the title role in Bruiser NI's The Colleen Bawn at the Lyric, plays Molly with the appropriately mischievous deviance that lurks beneath her sweetly ingenuous façade. Burns is equally affecting – when she's not strumming harp strings in the backdrop, assisting with her own expressive score, she's expressing the devastation within her scorned persona. There's something rather sinister about the manner in which Smyth and Burns sing about the danger of Felix's stunts to the watching children – but it’s entirely befitting for the show and the people in it.

The truly troubling undercurrent in The Assistant's Revenge arises when considering the damaging effects of egotism on both an individual and the collective he or she initially inspires. Like Jackman's Barnum, Felix is smart enough to break boundaries in the pursuit of becoming "fabulous", but too misguided to understand that his ruthless ambition and true love cannot go hand in hand in a business such as his. It's like being alive and alone at once. Persistently chasing the dream is all very well, but if you have no foundations to fall back on, where does that leave you?

And imagine where that leaves people like Molly, when she discovers that the glamour she looked forward to enjoying as an assistant was never really glamorous in the first place. That she and Crystal always have been, and always will be, unless one of them does something about it, commodities. Marionettes in servitude of a puppet master who doesn't even realise he is a control freak - worse, someone who repeatedly exploits women for personal gain until, in his eyes, they have outlived their usefulness.

That McEneaney and his Cahoots theatre company have incorporated these adult fears into a children's show while maintaining just the right tone is nothing short of phenomenal. Moulin Rouge may have taught us that "the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return" – but, as talented and successful as you may be, never forget the value of the family and close friends who helped put you on the map to begin with. At highlighting that, The Assistant's Revenge is more than great children's entertainment – it's a fantastic and important lesson for adults and artists. This Greatest Showman's story will certainly endure.

Simon Fallaha

The Assistant's Revenge ran at The Factory in Belfast's MAC as part of The Belfast's Children's Festival and was a production by Cahoots NI

Photography by Carrie Davenport.

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