REVIEW: Bah Humbug

Conor Grimes & Alan Mckee are Christmas’s ultimate know-what-you’ll-get pair at Belfast’s lyric theatre. That is to say, famous seasonal literature, iconography or music (or perhaps all three) given a contemporary slant with enough pop, culture or political references to frequently raise the spirit or tickle the funny bone.

At least that seems to be their mission statement. It doesn’t always click, mind.
For every hearty Nativity, from 2016, there’s last year’s What The Reindeer Saw, which saw talented director Tony Devlin and an equally talented cast battle with an underwhelming muddle. I am happy to say that Bah, Humbug!, with Frankie McCafferty back at the helm, is a more fluid, vibrant and pleasing work.

Originally performed at the Lyric in 2007, it’s been revised and updated with all new topical winks and nods, and all new performers, with Roisin Gallagher and Sophie Harkness taking their places alongside Grimes & McKee as those who help the play’s Scrooge to learn from the Ghosts Of Christmas Past, Present And Future.

As played by Michael Condron, Scrooge is less a stage-hogging grump than weary and exceptionally reserved, the property developer of Ebenezer Plaza who’d like it if the Cathedral Quarter was stripped of its artistic splendour and had cheaper cobblestones in the streets. (Ouch.)

Like the most famous Scrooges, he takes the "every man for himself" mentality to cynical extremes, perceiving Christmas and the less fortunate as fiscal novelties.

Time, of course, for the spirited supporting cast and Rod McVey’s jolly but sparingly used musical direction to change that. And change that they do, as only Grimes & McKee can.

In a way, less is more for Grimes & McKee this time, Stuart Marshall’s uncomplicated but colourful set and Condron’s mostly low-key performance complementing Scrooge’s journey of redemption rather than shouting to be noticed.

It might actually be said that Condron is the unsung hero of this party piece – his regret at missed opportunities feels genuine, and his delivery as McKee’s Ghost Of Christmas Present takes him on a “magic carpet ride” over Belfast is worthy of the great Gene Wilder.

More openly appealing is Deborah Maguire’s bouncy choreography, reaching its highest point in the Cratchit family’s hilarious pre-interval song and dance to Lily The Pink (with alternative lyrics, naturally). But as fun as the big set-pieces can be – particularly when audience participation is called for – it’s the little moments that really shine.

Among my favourites are the Alexa with an attitude, a not-very-Tiny Tim (McKee) who must have his Paul Pogba pyjamas (or else!), and Gallagher’s simply lovely rendition of Once In Royal David’s City. There’s also the slightly debatable inclusion of a burnt Primark bag while smoke emerges from the back of the stage. (Ouch, again.)

What’s not debatable is the application of the entire ensemble, director McCafferty’s deft hand a comforting, inspirational tonic for Grimes, McKee and the supporting players.

Applying more than a little of the liberated physical and vocal mimicry that served her so well as Beverly in Abigail’s Party, Gallagher has an absolute ball with her multiple roles, namely Scrooge’s heartbroken fiancé, a dancing Mrs Cratchit and Scrooge’s pocket dynamo of a little sister. Harkness, once of Number Twos fame, is less expressive but no less impressive, her hard-as-nails Ghost Of Christmas Past the ideal wake-up call for Scrooge’s eventual appreciation of her significantly kinder characters.

Not a laugh riot but a clever and warm-hearted romp with several smart comic ideas, Bah, Humbug! gives you no reason whatsoever to run, or hide, from its charm – if you’d like a simple pick-me-up, the production’s black humour and genial appeal might just be the wonderful, wonderful lift you’re looking for.

Simon Fallaha

Bah Humbug runs at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre until 05 January, 2019. For more information go to Photography by Steffan Hill.

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