REVIEW: My Big Fat Belfast Christmas

One thing's for certain: Christmas is over too soon. In our rush to get the decorations up, buy and wrap presents, and prepare delicious holiday dinners, it is easy to forget that the giving isn't just in the material, but the personal. And that goes for everyone – how can we be expected to look after everyone if we don't look after ourselves?

Conor Grimes and Alan McKee touched on this nicely with Driving Home For Christmas, but writer-actress Caroline Curran and her co-writer, the late Julie Maxwell, have, for want of more appropriate words, thought a little bit bigger and fatter. Originally staged four years ago and returning to Newtownabbey's Theatre At The Mill again under the swift direction of Fionnuala Kennedy, My Big Fat Belfast Christmas is full-hearted, full-blooded and stuffed with laughter – a triumph where the turkey is both on the table and all over the stage in a family comedy of misunderstandings and errors for the always smiling audience.

Time, as far as the production is concerned, relates to the familiar and to the familial. That's the family of Da Joe (Jimmy Doran), Ma Mary (Abigail McGibbon), Wee Mary (Bernadette Brown) and Mags (Caroline Curran), a typically dysfunctional group who wish they’d had more time to spend with the now deceased Granny Lillian. Mags, similarly, needs time to fulfil her dreams of being a self-made millionaire, or ‘entrepremanure’, and what better time to capitalise than the holidays? Wee Mary’s fiancé Youcef (Matthew Sharpe) is meeting the family for the very first time. All while chatterbox Esther (a bespectacled Brown) and stoic Saul (Sharpe, wearing a hat) trigger the laughs by simply being who they are.

It's not about the time required for perfection, naturally, because if we had that time we wouldn't have such a funny show. It’s about the unexpected and the realistic, where various relatable situations force compromises that the family wouldn’t willingly make, but surprisingly fulfil their hearts, and ours. The flipside, in two contexts, is that at least a little time is necessary for the cast's chemistry to fully burgeon and for Youcef to go beyond first impressions. To develop from being a sheep amongst these wolves who are ravenous for attention. But when it happens we’re treated to a "Stormont Rap" which earns the gifted Matthew Sharpe much deserved applause, one of the finest moments in Christmas theatre this year.

In general, the lightly but smartly penned script is a sturdy foundation for some genuinely fantastic comic performances. Caroline Curran is a hoot as Mags, and her too-brief exhibition of one-woman multi-role mimicry is side-splitting. Bernadette Brown's Esther is a terrific creation, an interminable talker with an extraordinary brain that sadly has no filter other than one for the coffee which keeps it going. The lack of good manners and boundaries, which Jimmy Doran's Joe and Abigail McGibbon's Mary are more than game for, is a huge plus – giving our heads Christmas peace really is the last thing that this group of people would want to do.

Perhaps My Big Fat Belfast Christmas stretches itself a little to squeeze in a subplot about pregnancy, but given its chaotic inclinations, what happens is right in keeping with everything that goes on – and precedes a poignant finale. It all comes back to time in the end – time that, in the worst possible way, the death of Granny Lillian, on stage, and the much missed Ms Maxwell, in real life, reminded us we wouldn't have. But it isn't the time we regret that lingers in our memories as much as the good time we had – the legacy left by friends and family of the past to be carried forward by friends and family in the present. Laughing and learning about exactly when to switch off, loosen up, get our heads showered (in snow, maybe?) – and have a good (yes) time.

Simon Fallaha

My Big Fat Belfast Christmas runs at the Theatre At The Mill, Newtownabbey, until December 31.

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