The Faerie Thorn on Stage

Big Telly Theatre Company hooks Open House Festival audience with scratch performance of their latest production

There’s a lot to be said for a theatre company which can engage an audience sitting within a hair’s breadth of them, with just three days of rehearsals, no set and minimal props. On Saturday (August 13), Big Telly Theatre Company pulled off all this and more at the Open House Festival in Bangor, with their scratch performance of The Faerie Thorn.

This time last year the book - The Faerie Thorn and other stories - written by Jane Talbot, was enjoying its official launch at the festival. Just 12 months on, it’s now getting a new lease of life with the Big Telly crew. Indeed, in the Q&A afterwards, Big Telly founder Zoë Seaton says she contacted the publishers, Blackstaff Press, about adapting the book within two hours of reading it, which says something about the strength of the stories within.

Weaving myths and faerie tales from the north coast into her collection, Talbot has created a book which most theatre companies wouldn’t dream of adapting. As Seaton explains at the beginning of the performance, stories about tiny faeries, dark underworlds and the like just aren’t very easy to take onto the stage. This, however, is what appeals to Big Telly of course – the challenge. Quirky, adventurous and highly imaginative is what they do best.

For anyone who doesn’t know what a scratch performance is, it’s essentially when the actors have had little or no time to rehearse and are just trying things out to see how they fit. It’s a very early stage in the production of a show and so the audience shouldn’t expect flawless performances, dramatic sets or a cast in full costume.

With a Big Telly performance however – scratch or not – you’re always going to get something good and The Faerie Thorn certainly delivers. Which only makes anticipation for the final production next April even more heightened. With a cast of five, The Faerie Thorn begins with a spot of narrating by the ever fabulous Shelley Atkinson, who sets the scene with ‘The First Bit’.

'A silvery cartwheel of plump harvest moons ago, in the large mossy space between a tick and a tock, there lived a farmer called Man Donaghy,' she reads. 'He was one of the Big People, all black-haired and broad and handsome-strong, with the dark, urgent eyes of a hungry dog.'

Man Donaghy (played by Damien Devaney) has a faerie thorn on his land, she adds. Cue Patrick J O’Reilly, Roisin Gallagher (who also doubles as Wife Donaghy), and Nicky Harley (later also New Wife Donaghy) bringing a faerie thorn to life with some choral chanting through splayed fingers. Though someone from the audience comments later that the clarity of diction here could be improved upon, the chanting is quite effective in making the mood a little eerie and yes, magical.

Indeed, the entire performance which follows blends comedy and creepiness together rather well. Big Telly fans will know, of course, that the company often tackles dark or unsettling subjects within their productions, getting the audience to consider serious issues within the relative safety of comedy. It’s a skill they seem to have honed to perfection.

Given the scratch status of today’s performance, Big Telly is leaning more heavily on the comedic side, which Seaton has already explained to us. However, while a few elements could be made darker, in keeping with the book, the cast still manages to deliver some shiver-inducing acting along with the laughs. It’s enough for one audience member to comment afterwards that one particular incident where Sellotape is used to depict a rather unpleasant physical transformation, seems ‘a bit abusive’.

For anyone who hasn’t read Talbot’s stories however, we aren’t dealing with Disney fairies here, but with creatures like trolls who strip the skin off people and send them to hell. There are tales of trees which murder people and ugly merrowmen who drown fishermen and chain their souls at the bottom of the sea. There’s a reason why the performance isn’t recommended for under-14s…

In The Faerie Thorn, our faerie king is brought to life with a little help from Atkinson in way of voiceover and a tiny troll doll roughly the size of a thumb. There is perhaps no real way to convey in words just how well this works, but it goes down a real treat with the audience, who love it. As the story goes, Wife Donaghy is ultimately bartered by her husband to the faerie king after they fail to have a child together. He gives the faerie king some gold to take her off his hands and she goes into the tree while he gets a new wife - New Wife Donaghy.

She too however, fails to conceive, suffering three miscarriages or, as Talbot would say – ‘three almosts-but-not-quites’. We know it’s not something to laugh about, yet we’re all having a merry old time watching the antics of the cast during the unhappy births.

After a run-in with a creepy crone, who transforms New Wife Donaghy into a horrifying creature with a distorted body, Man Donaghy decides to get rid of her too. This time, his only option is to deliver her to some trolls, who are brought to life brilliantly – and freakishly – with the use of half-masks. These, Atkinson explains afterwards, are designed to mould to the top of the actors mouths, forcing them to speak rather differently and helping them take on a whole new personality. 'It feels fresh every time,' she adds. 'So we’re never quite sure what’s going to happen.'

Ad-libbing is done to great effect throughout the performance, though as an audience member it’s sometimes hard to know what’s meant to be there and what’s spur of the moment. There are a few instances where it’s clear this is going on however, and it works well. This is, after all, a story about anarchy; one which is dark, with unpredictable, nasty characters, so we shouldn’t expect them to behave all the time… The trolls are both sinister and yet entertaining; we laugh, yet quips are followed by flaying and trickery of a high degree. Man Donaghy loses his heart (as in, it’s ripped out), his good Big People looks and his skin, before being dragged into hell by the wife he tried to send there.

In all of this, there are laughs aplenty but also, enough to draw us back and make us consider what it is that’s going on – the themes and topics the performance addresses. It’s early days of course, with the final production due for next April, but with this as the starting point, audiences are definitely in for a fantastical treat.

Big Telly will also be adapting another of the stories from Talbot’s book – The Merrow of Murlough Bay – a suitably challenging one, given that it’s about mermen…

'This is a new collection of stories set in the North Coast of Ireland which uses fantasy to tell us something important about this world we live in, and what it really means to be human,' says Big Telly on their website.

It certainly is that, and we await the final showdown with appetites firmly whetted.

The Faerie Thorn is due to open at the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine on April 17, 2017, followed by a tour of venues through till May. More information can be found on the Big Telly website.