Lyric Theatre, Belfast
26 to 29 July 2018
Producer: Youth Music Theatre
The Belfast Telegraph is a Northern Ireland institution, in its day widely looked upon by both communities as the gospel for news and current affairs. In brief, if it wasn’t in the Tele, it didn’t happen. The boys and men who delivered it around the doors and sold it on the streets are part of urban folklore, their task representing a coveted badge of honour.
Tony Macaulay grew up in the Protestant Upper Shankill area of the city. Paperboy, his vivid, autobiographical rites-of-passage account of life in Belfast in 1975 unfolds during a period when the conflict was at its height and everyday incidents of bombs and bullets provided the paper’s newsroom with its core content. Pleasingly mixed in with the politics of the day are small, sweet vignettes of family life, nostalgia for the daily round of a close-knit inner city neighbourhood and, above all, rose-tinted memories of what it meant to be a teenager in a troubled city, where spotty youths were obsessed with girls, bands, Dr. Who, Thunderbirds and the Bay City Rollers – just like spotty youths everywhere, in fact.
Macaulay’s best-selling memoir is now a stage musical, adapted for Youth Music Theatre UK by the tried and tested creative partnership of composer Duke Special and writer/lyricist Andrew Doyle. Dean Johnson and Steven Dexter’s production brims with youthful exuberance and is illuminated by the outstandingly engaging presence of fifteen year-old newcomer Sam Gibson in the title role. Gibson saunters on stage as if to the manner born; his mature singing voice is strong and melodic, his connection with the audience warm, immediate and unaffected. He is clearly a talent to watch.
Production standards are high and Natalia Alvarez’s staging, dominated by a newsprint silhouette of the city skyline, is pacy and imaginative. Matthew Reeve leads the live band, ripping through a substantial canon of original work, combined with nicely arranged and delivered 1970s pop classics. As expected, the Duke’s songs are charming, quirky and filled with musical surprises but the overstretched narrative diminishes significant threads like the father/son relationship, sectarian tension and the cross-community Peace People movement, though the emergence of the latter is movingly conveyed by Honor Brigg’s lead singing in A River Runs Beneath Us.
YMT’s stated mission is the provision of the highest quality training for talented young theatre practitioners and, with this in mind, one can’t help wishing that the direction had concentrated more attention onto the bigger picture and channelled the infectious energy of the 35-strong young cast into a collection of more focused, consistent performances.
This is an extended version of the review which appeared in The Stage on 29 July 2018.