Tales of the City: Belfast’s 400th Birthday inspires Lyric’s new season

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Next year marks 400 years since Belfast was founded and to mark the anniversary the Lyric Theatre is producing a season of plays which capture the spirit of the city – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Belfast which means `mouth of the sandbanks’ has grown significantly over four centuries and with the sands of time it has etched out its own unique identity which has both inspired and perplexed playwrights.

There could be no better quartet of writers to document the city’s evolution than St. John Ervine, Graham Reid, Marie Jones and David Ireland, each with their own voice and perspective on Belfast past and present.

The four plays chosen for the Lyric’s Tales of the City season have characters and stories firmly rooted in Belfast but the themes are universal. At the heart of each play is a family story that resonates with audiences both at home and further afield.

The first play of the season is Mixed Marriage by St. John Ervine which tells the story of a respectable Protestant father who acts to calm the sectarian tension being stirred up by politicians for their own ends. Set on the eve of the Ulster Covenant, John Rainey successfully unites Catholic and Protestant against the machinations of the factory owners, the nationalists and the Orangemen. But at home, it is a different matter altogether when he discovers that his son wants to marry the beautiful, innocent Nora, a Catholic.

Although the play was programmed several months ago, events of recent weeks have given this masterpiece about Belfast and sectarianism alarming topicality. Acclaimed director Jimmy Fay helms this brilliant new production which offers a powerful insight into the destructiveness of all forms of prejudice, beyond the narrow confines of Ulster.

Love, Billy

No season of Belfast plays could be complete without one of the city’s most famous families on stage or screen. The Lyric has commissioned Love, Billy, the fifth instalment in the now legendary series of Billy plays.

First televised by the BBC in the 1980’s, as part of the infamous Play for Today series, the Billy plays by Graham Reid made a huge impact not only across the island of Ireland but also the whole of the United Kingdom.

Love, Billy, which has its world premiere at the Lyric this May, sees Billy Martin returning to Belfast after 25 years, having left mysteriously without telling anyone. He comes back to a city that he hardly recognises and family grudges to resolve.

Another premiere in the season’s programme is the first play written for the Lyric by former Playwright-in-Residence David Ireland, one of Northern Ireland’s hottest young writing talents. Ireland has teamed up with star of stage and screen, Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) who directs the romantic comedy, Can’t Forget About You.

Following a painful break-up, 25-year-old east Belfast man, Stevie meets and falls in love with a woman twice his age. Their fledgling relationship is challenged by the expectations of Stevie’s conservative Christian mother and his ultra-unionist, Ulster-Scots-speaking sister who work hard to break the pair up.

Marie Jones’ classic

The Tales of the City season concludes with more humour in the Marie Jones’ classic comedy, Weddins, Weeins and Wakes which returns to the Lyric in June and July and is directed by Lyric stalwart, Ian McElhinney.

Few writers better capture the ordinary lives and humour of Belfast locals than Marie Jones who has had a string of hit plays that have catapulted the city to audiences worldwide.

At the heart of this engaging story are neighbourhood biddies Mona and Molly who gossip into life the daily trials and tribulations of the Watson family: rearing their families, marrying them off and then burying them.

Richard Croxford, the Lyric’s Artistic Director said: “The Lyric is the natural home for a season for drama hand-made in Belfast. For over 60 years, the Lyric has been Northern Ireland’s only full-time producing theatre, employing local writers, directors, actors and creative teams to deliver outstanding drama that is relevant to local audiences and revealing to visitors to the city.

He added: “During the Seventies and Eighties, events on the streets of Belfast were often mirrored on stage at the Lyric in plays by writers such as Graham Reid, John Boyd, Christina Reid, Patrick Galvin and Martin Lynch. Belfast has many tales to tell and the Lyric is part of that story.

“And we know money is tight everywhere, so we are offering recession-busting prices, with £15 tickets for many preview and matinee performances, £10 tickets for students and unwaged, a £10 standby ticket for Sunday matinees, and £5 for community groups. In addition, there are discounts available for booking 3 or more shows in the Tales of the City season, so we do have truly great drama with prices to suit everyone’s pocket.”

Dark comedy by Conor McPherson

For those who fancy a break from the Belfast theme, the Lyric teams up with Perth Theatre and director Rachel O’Riordan to stage The Seafarer by acclaimed writer Conor McPherson, best known for his hugely popular play, The Weir. This darkly funny play tells the tale of fisherman-turned-chauffeur James ‘Sharky’ Harkin who returns to his family home in the Irish capital where he battles the demon drink. But when Sharky joins a Christmas Eve poker game with a mysterious stranger, he finds the stakes higher than he first realised. The Seafarer runs from 28 February to 23 March on the Danske Bank Stage.

Roisín McDonough, Chief Executive Arts Council of Northern Ireland, said: “As principal funder of the state-of-the-art Lyric Theatre, the Arts Council is delighted that Northern Ireland’s only full time producing theatre has enjoyed such an eventful and memorable opening year. With a string of theatre and architectural awards, the Lyric can rightfully claim to have helped put Northern Ireland back on the artistic map. The theatre is primed to build on its success in 2012/13 with the £2.4million invested by the Arts Council continuing to protect, strengthen and develop the arts infrastructure here while stimulating the economy through cultural tourism.”

Rhonda Gibson, Danske Bank Corporate Affairs Manager said, “Once again another great season will see the Danske Bank stage play host to the local theatre for which the Lyric is so well known and loved. There is much to look forward to in this Tales of the City season, featuring local writing, production and performance talent – from the return of much loved Belfast characters to new writing talent.”

Tales of the City season:
· Mixed Marriage runs on the Danske Bank Stage from 30 January – 23 February
· Love Billy runs on the Danske Bank Stage from 1 May – 26 May
· Can’t Forget About You runs in the Naughton Studio from 23 May – 16 June
· Weddins, Wee’ins and Wakes runs in the Danske Bank Stage from 13 June – 7 July

All tickets range from £10 to £24.50. To book contact the Lyric box office on 028 9038 1081 or online at www.lyrictheatre.co.uk

Post Author: Belfast Times