Kabosh Bring Inventors at Balmoral Show

Kabosh Theatre Company bring to life some of Northern Ireland's greatest creators at the annual agricultural show

Please note: This article was originally published in May 2013.

It's a little known fact, but true... Milk of Magnesia was invented in Belfast. In the mischievous hands of Kabosh and its artistic director, Paula McFetridge, it is down to an evangelical-styled salesman, a po-faced Amish farmer and a German expert in bovine artificial insemination to impart that small gem of information, but then the fun is in the telling.

Visitors to this year's Balmoral Show in Belfast's King's Hall are issued with an unusual invitation, to enjoy a spot of seriously funny live performance while picking up some fascinating facts about Northern Ireland ingenuity.

Inventors is the latest piece of site-specific work by the Belfast-based company, which specialises in bringing theatre to new audiences in unusual but entirely appropriate locations.

And while the public may come across names like James Murray, Samuel Davidson, Harry Ferguson and John Philip Holland in museums up and down the country, they will never have encountered their life-changing inventions presented with quite the same style, panache and hilarity.

'It's a very interesting show,' says McFetridge (pictured above), who commissioned four top notch writers – Carlo Gebler, Vincent Higgins, Seth Linder and Jimmy McAleavey – to write eight short plays celebrating the history of invention in Northern Ireland.

Bringing them to life are six versatile actors: Stephen Beggs, Shaun Blaney, Maria Connolly, Amanda Doherty, Vincent Higgins and Paddy Jenkins. In each play, the inventor will pitch to the audience a prototype of his particular work of genius.

'It's amazing how many really significant inventors came from here,' McFetridge continues. 'As I go about Kabosh's work in Belfast, using the city as the backdrop to our performances, I find all these little nuggets of information. I mean, did you know there's a plaque on Bridge Street to James Murray, who invented Milk of Magnesia and was knighted for his services to science?'

McFetridge has also brought on board the singular talents of musician/composer, Ursula Burns, and Paddy Bloomer, whom she describes as 'a modern day inventor'.

Burns, whom McFetridge praises for being 'so quick, so inventive', will accompany the actors on her own songs, specially created for each play and employing a dizzying range of styles, from music hall to jazz, folk to big anthemic numbers, cutsey American stage songs to traditional Irish laments.

Meanwhile, Bloomer – who describes himself as an artist, inventor, explorer and plumber, and whose work was shown at the 2005 Venice Biennale – has constructed a huge, cleverly customised barn, covered with a tarpaulin, which has been printed to resemble corrugated iron.

Situated beside the cattle marquee and cattle rings at the Balmoral Show – the annual agricultural showcase that brings together farmers, businesses, schools and more over three days in spring – it will provide an intimate performance space, a place where actors and audience will mingle and enjoy one another's company.

In the rehearsal room, just two weeks before the opening, McFetridge, Burns and four actors – Beggs, Blaney, Connolly and Jenkins – are firing on all cylinders. The atmosphere and levels of humour and creativity are electric, as ideas and suggestions ricochet between them.

As director, McFetridge has definite ideas about what she wants from cast and crew, but she is never more delighted than when one of them makes a suggestion that exceeds her own expectation.

They are rehearsing Higgins's surreal play involving the Amish farmer and the German scientist. At its core is Murray's famous invention. Beggs takes centre stage as a fast-talking salesman/preacher, pitching ideas for increasing milk yield in dairy cattle.

Inventors (1).

He acknowledges that Ulster milk is world renowned, but seeks advice on how increased production might generate increased profit. Jenkins struggles to keep a straight face as he suggests Amish techniques of Bible reading and hymn singing to accompany the hand milking process, while Connolly's manic scientist insists that cultural and environmental improvements will make for happy cows.

The craziness climaxes in the presentation of Volume 1 of Songs for Irish Milking, which includes such numbers as 'It's a Long Way to Milk a Dairy', 'She Mooed Through the Fair' and 'The Song of Wandering Angus'.

'It is great to be in this rehearsal room with this group of exceptional people,' McFetridge confides. 'What is going on here truly encapsulates the ability of the creative artist. It is so exciting to watch a piece evolve in the hands of such brilliant performers.

'What is key to me is that every piece of work should have an edge, some kind of political content, something that celebrates the individual. In times of economic downturn, we see the importance of the imagination, producing things that can change our lives.

'But there is an ethical question. Do these things create need or satisfy need? Is that need exploited for individual profit or channelled towards the greater good? It is fascinating to investigate the ethics, especially in a space that resembles a meeting house, a place where ideas and views can be aired and explored, a kind of Speaker's Corner.'

McFetridge reflects on a sense of serendipity about the production, which seems to be evolving at a number of levels. She was a close friend of the late Mike Maloney, co-founder of Belfast Community Circus School, at whose funeral she had spoken the previous day.

She joined the circus school at the age of 17 and, like many of the cast and production team, feels Maloney's positive energy and personal connections flooding through the creative process. Then there are the practical mechanics, which came together harmoniously in staging the show.

'I am on the committee behind the regeneration of The Maze/Long Kesh prison,' explains McFetridge. 'The Balmoral Show is going there this year for the first time. It marks a new phase for the show and I felt it was fitting that Kabosh should be part of it.

'This is particularly exciting for me, as I feel as though the show and its presentation is bringing together all the stuff I have done in my career – live performance, site-specific work, music hall, clowning, physical theatre, bouffon. That idea of spectacle.

'And it's all in one pop-up space, under one roof, in Paddy's amazing barn. I've done shows where I've had to promenade people around huge buildings. This will be far less complex. It should be a blast.'