Mistletoe & Crime at the Lyric Theatre

Dan Gordon on directing Marie Jones' tale of PSNI officers caught up in Christmas chaos for the Lyric Theatre

Christmas is the season of the pantomime, beloved by some, abhorred by others. If cross-dressing, bawdy rags-to-riches stories are your idea of hell, then the Lyric Theatre in Belfast is the place to be. This Christmas it is playing host to Olivier Award-winning playwright Marie Jones’ brand new show, Mistletoe & Crime.

This festive production has a bit more bite than your average Christmas show. Jones – the Northern Irish writer who found international acclaim with Stones in His Pockets and A Night in November – has written a funny, festive piece with edge.

The play is set in Belfast on Christmas Eve and centres on two PSNI Women Police Constaples attempting to keep order on the streets as party season chaos ensues. For one of the WPCs, it is their last night on the beat. For the other, it Is their first. To make matters more fraught, their police issue Land Rover has gone missing and the people of Belfast are in dire need of assistance.

 

T’was the night before Christmas, the city is heavin’?
There’s shoppin’ and gurnin’ and drinkin’ and thievin’…

The play is directed by Dan Gordon, perhaps best known for portraying the loveable nutcase paramilitary Red Hand Luke in the BBC Northern Ireland television series Give My Head Peace. Gordon recently wrote and performed in two-hander, The Boat Factory, a play set in the Belfast Docks and produced by Happenstance Theatre Company.

The show ran in Ireland, the UK and New York, where Gordon has performed before, notably in Jones’ A Night in November. In 1998, the New York Times described his performance of Jones' Kenneth McCallister as ‘deep, detailed’ and ‘remarkable’. It is an exciting prospect for local audiences, then, that Mistletoe & Crime sees the pair collaborating once again.

'Yes, Marie and I have a great relationship,' says Gordon, taking time out from directing as the show reaches its halfway point. 'I think it’s because we’re married to other people and not each other,' he laughs. 'She tells me constantly, "The play is funny, you’re not. Just do it the way I wrote it”. I’m thinking of seeing a counsellor, as I can’t get a divorce.'

Unlike their previous collaboration, Mistletoe & Crime is not a two-hander, but a much larger, more ambitious affair, in that sense at least. 'It’s a full cast of seven actors playing 20 characters,' confirms Gordon. 'Audiences can expect to be entertained.'

Befitting the time of year – with the party season in full swing and the weight of a long, hard year finally beginning to lift from our collective shoulders – Misteltoe & Crime is, first and foremost, a comedy. 

'It isn’t too taxing,' says Gordon. 'But there’s a little food for thought as well as some for the soul. It is the tale of two PSNI WPCs attending incidents with the help of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service.

'They are called everywhere from the YMCA to the BBC. We hope to help folk unwind watching other people taking the strain. Christmas is the time when traditionally everyone gets a little uptight.'

Gordon and Jones approached casting with an eye on humour, and ultimately selected Tara-Lynne O'Neill – best-known for her role as Joanne Ryan in Eastenders – and Katie Tumelty in the lead roles, two actresses with a solid background in comedy theatre.

 

'I was looking for people who are naturally funny performers,' recalls Gordon. 'People who are experienced actors, who can do serious too and know the difference between that and funny. People who have great comic timing and who love audiences.'

Unlike the majority of the country, who can look forward to a period of time off work in the coming weeks, Gordon and his cast and crew have a heavy schedule ahead. The best thing about working on a Christmas production is, according to Gordon, is 'the fact that we only have Christmas day off to do Christmas and then we can get to go back to work and escape the madness'.

The worst thing, on the other hand, 'is when it finishes, because being part of everyone else’s madness is glorious'. When the production comes to an end on January 11, Gordon will also miss being back in the Lyric Theatre, one of the city's most valued and loved spaces, for audiences and theatre practitioners alike.

'The Lyric is brilliant,' says Gordon, wistfully. 'There is very little I would change apart, maybe, from making visiting it something everyone has to do at least ten times a year.'

Gordon won't have long to wallow in post-production misery, however, as he is already working on his next venture. It will be a break from the large-scale nature of a show like Mistletoe & Crime, and will deal with a subject close to Gordon's heart: the late Northern Irish comedian, Frank Carson.

'I’ve a one man show on the go about a comedian we all knew and still love,' reveals Gordon. 'It's called, Frank Carson: A Rebel Without a Pause.' A suitable title indeed, given Carson's insatiable appetite for comedy and unerring ability to deliver endless one-liners.

For the time being, however, there is Christmas to contend with. Gordon returns to work with a spring in his step. It remains to be seen if that enthusiasm continues after a Christmas dinner and a few late nights on the boards.

Mistletoe & Crime runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until January 11, 2015.