‘Right everyone, stop rubbing Norman.’ Andrea Montgomery pushes open the double doors at All Souls Church Hall in Belfast, and declares: ‘Culture Northern Ireland is here.’
Norman, in case you are wondering, is the genie in Carol’s Christmas, a new seasonal comedy written by comedian, author and actor, Nuala McKeever. 'You can’t have a Christmas play without a genie, can you?' remarks actor Karl O'Neill, who plays the dude in the turban.
Carol's Christmas is McKeever and Montgomery’s eighth collaboration. They brainstormed the idea when on a long drive home together early this year, and both author and director agreed that they wanted to end the year ‘with a straightforward comedy, something that was a lot of a fun’.
What came of that conversation was a fast-paced, physical play with a lot of heart, if rehearsals are anything to go by.
The eponymous Carol, played by Red Lemon’s Caroline Curran, works in the Mirror Mirror Giftshop and lives in the flat upstairs. When her horrible boss, McKeever’s Sandra, decides to sell to a Russian minigarch (the under-performing son of an oligarch) Carol faces a Christmas without a job or a home.
‘Carol is a typical romantic heroine,’ Curran says of her character. ‘She goes through a lot of ups and downs. The play is basically about her trying to make everything be like the movies, where everyone gets a happy ending.’
Well, almost everyone. After all, a feel-good resolution demands that the villains of the piece get their just desserts. Although there are only four actors in the play, there are eight characters. Each actor gets to play their own good and bad side.
So McKeever plays the money-grubbing Grinch-boss Sandra and salt-of-the-earth, ‘real Belfast lady’ Val. Dermot Hickson is both Vlad the thickly-accented minigarch and Danny the hapless love interest. Norman’s actor is also the mild-mannered café-owner/inventor Herbie, and even Carol gets an alter-ego as Sandra’s horrible niece, Tiffany.
‘All the moving around certainly gets us warmed up on these freezing days,’ McKeever chuckles, rubbing her hands together. As if to prove it, the actors are the only ones in the rehearsal room not wearing multiple layers. ‘It’s a sweaty show for us,’ O'Neill agrees. ‘But it is great fun for the audience.’
For Montgomery, who confides sotto voce that she is a great fan of farce and who doesn’t have to do the running around, it has been a 'treat' to work on something so physical. The intense timing and physicality, reminiscient of both French and Italian theatre traditions, create something ‘almost like a Laurel and Hardy ballet’.
She cites Buster Keaton and Bugs Bunny as good reference points for the audience. If you like them, she confides, you will probably like Carol’s Christmas. ‘I like the opening and closing of doors and popping out from settees and all that malarkey,’ she explains. ‘And there’s a lot of malarkey in this.’
Comedy isn’t all that Carol’s Christmas has to offer, however. There is also a romance sub-plot between Carol and Danny, complicated by the attentions of the horrid Tiffany. Montgomery describes it as the ‘big, strong motor’ driving the plot.
‘Curran is a charming young actress,’ Montgomery says. ‘I’ve never worked with her before but she really appreciates physical comedy, while still going for the truth.’
Montgomery is also quick to praise McKeever, noting that it is 'always a pleasure' to see the comedian's acting skills in action.
‘There’s a moment with Val where your eyes just well up, just for a second,’ Montgomery says. ‘That’s how it should be. Yes, we want to have a laugh. Yes, it’s Christmas and, yes, we want to have a drink in the interval and come back for an even bigger laugh. But we always want to have our hearts touched too.'
Montgomery believes that people appreciate the emotional side of Christmas. It's not all about spending money on 'expensive handbags and holidays and stuff', she says. Rather, people want to get that 'happy, snuggly feeling'.
McKeever agrees. She didn't have themes in mind when she wrote the play, but the overall message is that 'there's someone out there for everyone, even for Sandra. It's very heart-warming'.
Carol's Christmas is at Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, from December 20 - 31.