THEATRE: Milo's Hat Trick

Adapted by Paul Bosco McEneaney from Jon Agee's children's book, Milo's Hat Trick is indeed a hat-trick, in more ways than one. It features a trio of actors taking a trio of subplots and weaving them into magic, mystery and momentum around three-dimensional characters – all in the space of just over three-quarters of an hour, for children aged three and up. Looks like three really is the magic number for McEneaney and Cahoots NI.

In a sense, Milo's Hat Trick is a spiritual successor to Cahoots' brilliant The Elves And The Shoemaker, in that beneath a wondrous façade rests a dark heart about class divide. Except here, there is less time and only one voice – that of the cigar-chomping, European accented Popovich (Emer McDaid, beginning to feel right at home with ruthlessness), promoter of the titular magician (Jude Quinn). Popovich, the only singer in the play, is a throwback to the moguls of the studio system which you may remember from the likes of !Three Amigos! – the character is a reflection and critique of a time where everything in a performer's life, not just his or her pay packet, rested in the hands of people at the top who didn't take kindly to being told what to do. Everyone knows how combustible these figures of control are – nowadays, with the stars calling in the shots, they're easily perceived as spoiled brats who whine when they don't get their way. When those around them aren't emulating giant sponges who will just suck up everything thrown at them.

And yet. And yet this figure of no fun is no figure of ridicule – strangely, because Milo is essentially a sponge. At least at the beginning. Dubbed Milo The Magnificent, he is anything but, with none of his magic tricks coming off any more. The desperation in Popovich's eyes is palpable when Milo must use his wit and initiative to somehow put the magic back into his act. Otherwise he'll vanish from the public eye. Luckily, our hero comes across a rabbit and, later, a bear (expertly, uniquely puppeteered by Crystal Zillwood) who are more than willing to help – although ensuring that they do exactly what he wants them to will be tricky, to put it mildly.

That, for want of a better word, is part of the "magic" of Milo's Hat Trick. The play has a series of joyous illusions, featuring audience participation (be warned, Popovich might pick you to play along!) alongside a trio of genuinely intriguing plot strands on Sabine Dargent's set of five curtains. The curtains are a metaphor for the story itself – you never know exactly what will pop up when they open, and when it does, it evolves into something either immensely impressive or tremendous. Contrary to what The Wizard Of Oz told you, you have to pay plenty of attention to what emerges from behind the curtain – and McEneaney's guiding hand ensures that even the youngest mind will not lose track of things.

Perhaps most impressive to me is not so much the magic as the rather polyvocal acting of Emer McDaid, Jude Quinn and Crystal Zillwood. In other words, through expressions alone, they present multiple character perspectives to take in. One can be worn down by Popovich's oppressiveness, but also fear for the sanity. One can be sympathetic towards Milo, but also frustrated. And while we are amazed at the rabbit and the bear, and take delight in the wonder they give to Milo, Popovich and us, how long until they are thought of as no more than a commodity and the magic drains from their performances? It's a classically bittersweet undercurrent - the magic might not last, but when it's there, it's superb in the moment. A moment to be cherished by anyone lucky enough to see Milo's Hat Trick in the theatre.

Simon Fallaha

Milo's Hat Trick ran at Belfast's Lyric Theatre as part of the Young At Art Belfast Children's Festival until Wednesday March 13, before touring Ireland until the end of March. Tour locations, and dates, include the Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre, Limavady, on March 19, the Ardhowen, Enniskillen, on March 23, and the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, on March 30. For more information go to
Photography by Melissa Gordon.

Recent Theatre Reviews