Venue: Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey
Christmas would be a pretty dismal affair without copious quantities of turkey and tinsel but take a look around our streets and it soon becomes clear that that’s the reality for many people. In fact, Christmas is a time when social deprivation and the ripples spreading from it become even more pronounced.
Since saving his dad from a burning office and taking over from him as branch manager of the local Credit Union, Geordie Bailey’s mission has been to lend a helping hand to society’s have-nots. Geordie is known for never refusing to go the extra mile for his customers. He is always on hand with a smile, a warm word and a generous gesture. He has a happy, loving family and his community thinks the world of him. So, as he closes up on Christmas Eve, why is he deeply depressed and suicidal?
The thing is that this is not how Geordie sees himself. He considers himself a failure, an apology of a man who has never lived up the expectations others have of him. More importantly, in his own mind, he has not fulfilled his expectations of himself. And this is the dilemma at the root of his illness.
The storyline is immediately familiar. Caroline Curran and Julie Maxwell have given the screen classic It’s a Wonderful Life a broadly comedic Belfast treatment but, in the process, have handed themselves a tricky balancing act.
Theirs is an accomplished writing/acting partnership, who have become a staple item of Christmas in this beautiful venue. In Fionnuala Kennedy they have teamed with a director who specialises in socially aware theatre. It takes artistic courage to attempt to combine the serious issues of mental health and poverty with salty seasonal humour. They have effectively delivered each respective element, but there are junctures where the two do not sit comfortably cheek by jowl.
Heading an excellent cast, James Doran finds himself stretched to his considerable limits in the darker, long drawn out segments of the central role, while Curran is an outrageously funny Angel Cara, winning her celestial wings by convincing Geordie that life is worth living. Alongside, Maxwell, Abigail McGibbon and Patrick Buchanan are riotous as a procession of colourful characters, most of them dealing with difficulties in their lives. Their stories remain in the mind long afterwards, particularly at this time of year where the festive spirit is in short supply for many people.
Runs until 31 December.
A shorter version of this review was first published in The Stage on 7 December 2018.