BELFAST FESTIVAL 2:
Fallen Angels/Out Come The Bastards/The Cherry Orchard/
The Wedding Community Play
Various venues, Belfast
November, 1999

The final arts festival of the UK season is still officially known as the "Belfast Festival at Queen's", and continues to suffer from the local misapprehension that the university connection means it contains nothing for "ordinary people". However, not one of the shows I saw during my ten days in my home town was presented on university premises, and the most inspired and inspiring of the lot drew its immense power and verve from the fact that it came from the grass roots of both the city's communities.

The briefest of mentions, then, for Centre Stage's presentation of Noël Coward's Fallen Angels (Europa Hotel) pleasant enough, but with a strong whiff of weekly rep in its performance style and a central quartet ranging from noticeably to risibly too old for their roles; likewise for Sean Caffrey's Out Come The Bastards (Crescent Arts Centre), a solo play about a Loyalist kingpin who finds God in the Maze prison and which is well written and solidly performed but frankly undistinguished. Even the scrupulous thought and attention evident in the Small Theatre of Vilnius's The Cherry Orchard, presented only in Belfast as an accompaniment to their UK tour of Lermontov's Masquerade, was eclipsed for me by The Wedding Community Play.

"Love across the barricades" has long been a cliché of Northern Irish drama (hence, perhaps, the two versions of Romeo And Juliet in this year's Festival), but this collaboration between writers Marie Jones and Martin Lynch and a clutch of community theatre companies from East and West Belfast decides, with magnificent inspiration, to present things literally. Meeting in the city centre at lunchtime, the audience is bussed first to a house in the Catholic enclave of the Short Strand to eavesdrop on the bridegroom's family's wedding-day preparations for what we now prefer to call a "cross-community" marriage, then around the corner but across the "peace line" into the Protestant Templemore Avenue area (where my own mother was brought up) to peek likewise at the bride's family. Then it's back into town to Rosemary Street Church for the ceremony itself, and thence to Laganside nightclub The Edge for the reception (with complimentary wedding cake and buck's fizz).

The size of the terraced houses means that the audience (of fewer than 80 to begin with) is divided into staggered groups in order to fit into each room. This also means that scenes are playing simultaneously in three rooms of each house, with and here is the stroke of genius actors moving in real time from one room and one scene to another, just as in Alan Ayckbourn's recent diptych House And Garden (although the Belfast project arrived at the idea entirely independently). Consequently, with actors having to play their domestic scenes six times in a row each day, everyone is ready for the musical exuberance of the ceremony itself when the entire audience comes together: the cues for numbers like "Leader Of The Pack", "Respect" and "Everlasting Love" are cheesy but fun.

The tub-thumping element of the play surfaces most blatantly in the final act at the reception, played in flashback after a waitress informs us that we have missed all the fun, and does it so convincingly that many of the audience wonder whether they have come to the right place. By now, though, the explicit pleas for peace, love and understanding are almost superfluous after the natural, unaffected delights of the first two acts. The Wedding Community Play is a project driven entirely by the "ordinary people" who so often believe the Festival holds nothing for them, and it is utterly wondrous.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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