It’s the second day of the Belfast Children’s Festival and the city is buzzing. In the foyer of the main venues and in the surrounding streets, a chorus of accents and languages emanates from performers, delegates and visitors from around the corner and across the world, generating an atmosphere of creativity and solidarity which transcends international boundaries. And everywhere can be heard the chatter and laughter of excited children, totally immersing themselves in this, their very own festival of arts and culture.
Saturday 10 March is a day that will go down in Cahoots NI’s history; a day on which it was possible to see three different shows on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Upstairs in the MAC, Penguins was celebrating a triumphant return home after a hugely successful premiere at the Birmingham Rep, co-producers of this delightful piece for small children. Meanwhile, The Assistant’s Revenge was playing to a packed house in the Factory on the MAC’s top floor. And if you dashed out smartly and jumped aboard a flight to the States, you would just about make a performance of Shh, We Have a Plan in Madison, Wisconsin.
Penguins is the sort of young people’s theatre that should be preserved in aspic and taken out for a little peep from time to time. Inspired by the true story of two male penguins in Central Park Zoo who hatch out an abandoned egg, it gently offers up an alternative view of modern day family life.
As six year-old Matthew, sitting beside me, astutely put it: “So are they mummy and daddy or daddy and daddy? But they’re penguins, so it’s ok.”
Such is the sure touch of McEaneany and his creative team that a complex current issue can enter small hearts and minds and imaginations, inviting children into a world full of wonder and encouraging them to ask profound questions.
The piece is cool, very cool, from the jumble of ice boxes that form Sabine Dargent’s deceptively simple set to Garth McConaghie’s syncopated jazz-inspired score and Carlos Pons Guerra’s brilliantly expressive choreography, which draws from performers Corey Annand, Osian Meilir andJack Webb an amazingly lifelike combination of dance, facial agility and gymnastics.
Whether swimming in the freezing waters, fluffing out their feathers and ecstatically rubbing heads, Ray and Silo delight in each other’s company. But something is missing from their lives. They find it by pure chance. When their precious egg hatches into a gorgeous baby, whom they love, nurture and protect, their happiness is complete.
If there is a slight caveat it is that, charming though the whole thing is, the central section feels a tad over-extended and choreographically repetitive. If it were pared back just a little, the sweet, wordless narrative would impact even more powerfully.
From a tale of innocence to a tale of bitter experience. Two hours later, the mood changes abruptly as the dark mystery of The Assistant’s Revenge unfolds. This time McEneaney has joined forces with two other long-time collaborators, the flamboyant, musically subversive Ursula Burns and the award-winning playwright Charles Way, who whisk us into familiar Cahoots territory.
We are drawn inside the creepy world of a travelling show, ruled over by Felix the Fabulous, a famed escapologist and illusionist, swaggeringly played by Gary Crossan. His pretty assistant Molly – a vulnerable Maeve Smyth – is clearly in his thrall yet desperate to escape his clutches.
But beneath his bluster, Felix is scared. In the middle of the night, he calls Sam Sullivan, a burnt-out special investigator and tells him that someone is trying to murder him. Who would have the motive? Frightened Molly? Felix’s older sister and former assistant Crystal (Burns in threateningly sweet voice), whom he heartlessly traded in for a younger model? A woman scorned and all that …
A grizzled Kyron Bourke exudes world weary seediness as Sullivan, seated at a honky tonk piano and perfectly bookending Burns’s glamorous harp and keyboard presence on the other side of the playing space. Ruthless plotting and black arts are ratcheted up by a succession of ever-daring illusions, building to the death defying bullet catch where Felix’s life depends on lightning sharp reactions and strong teeth.
It’s all a bit bonkers but terrific fun and it comes as something of a relief that the actors, still in costume, are at the door to greet us as we leave, bidding us farewell and sending us out smiling into the chilly night.