The Faerie Thorn

After a promising preview, Big Telly bring Jane Talbot's North Coast fables to the stage in a fully realised adaptation fit for the company's 30th year

… in a field, a potato’s throw from Man Donaghy’s cottage, stood a single faerie thorn. Now, if you don’t know about faerie thorns, you should.

One might add – if you don’t know how good The Faerie Thorn by Big Telly Theatre Company is, then you really should know that too. Celebrating its 30th birthday this year, the Portstewart-based company has once again worked its own particular kind of magic to deliver a production that will have you in stitches one minute and in sombre reflection the next. Yes, the wit and the wisdom of Big Telly is here to be enjoyed once more and it’s coming to a theatre near you soon...

Opening night of The Faerie Thorn is at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, and this inaugural show draws a large local crowd who are keen to see the production. Indeed, Big Telly recently decamped from Portstewart to Bushmills for a few weeks, inviting the public to watch the odd rehearsal, so appetites have been well and truly whetted, and anticipation is high.

In honour of the theatre company's big anniversary, audience members are treated to a pre-show drinks reception along with nibbles to celebrate, which is a nice touch. The town's Waterstones branch is also on hand with copies of the book that inspired the show – The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories - written by Ballymoney-based writer, Jane Talbot.

Described by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne as ‘a collection that delights with its sparkling style and rich imagination’, The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories is full of delectably dark and gruesome tales. Rooted in local myths and legends, the stories also emulate the traditional oral storytelling style and so are perfect for the stage. In adapting two stories from the book, along with a new one specially written by Talbot for the show, Big Telly also adds its own unique ingredients to ensure a production that loses none of that ‘sparkling style and rich imagination’.

Faerie Thorn Big Telly

Having attended the scratch performance of The Faerie Thorn at last year’s Open House Festival in Bangor, I’m keen to see how much has been changed since then. Also – will it still be as funny, and what will this new story be like? How will the production tie together the standalone tales in Talbot’s book?

The answer, of course, is that everything meshes together rather brilliantly; the funny bits are just as funny, and everything links up quite nicely – including that new story.

Adapted by Shelley Atkinson and Zoë Seaton, the production includes the title tale of Talbot’s book - The Faerie Thorn - along with The Merrow of Murlough Bay and that newly penned plot. In the first act, we meet farmer, Man Donaghy, played by Seamus O’Hara, who has a faerie thorn on his land. He subsequently becomes well acquainted with the wee folk who live beneath it when he decides to get rid of Wife Donaghy – played by Colette Lennon - replacing her with New Wife Donaghy (Nicky Harley). She, however, ultimately has the misfortune of meeting a trio of trolls who live under a bridge and right by a hell-gate...

About those trolls… With their swagger and one-liners, they’re definitely a highlight of the show and fortunately, they make a fair few appearances. There may not be the same ad-libbing from them this time around - which was well received in the early preview – but they’re certainly just as funny as before. Harley’s troll, who delivers his lines in a broad ‘Norn Iron’ accent, is a definite scene-stealer, though Shelley Atkinson and Rory Corcoran ensure this is a trio definitely worthy of their own show.

Without dropping any obvious spoilers, it’s great to see that the faerie king has been kept in more or less the same guise as the work-in-progress show, which has great comedic effect. We were asked after that initial performance last year how else he might be represented but sometimes simplicity is best and so it holds true here.

Faerie Thorn Coleraine

The five-strong cast take on multiple roles throughout the production, as is usual in a Big Telly show. O’Hara, for example, later appears as the Merrow of Murlough Bay, who’s expelled from his underwater home and forced to live on land, where he suffers a rather gruesome fate…

Harley, meanwhile, also takes on the role of a rather formidable but frighteningly familiar local character keen on exorcising a young boy who isn’t all that he seems. And Corcoran later plays a helpful soul (a bit on the bony side) called Malock, while Atkinson is everything from a faerie king to a bereaved mother and more.

Indeed, the cast of The Faerie Thorn has a lot to keep up with in this production, which includes everything from mask work and dancing, and dancing while in masks, to illusion and home-made sound effects. The Big Telly crew are masters of creating spellbinding performances using minimal props and using them to great effect, and the cast’s versatility in adopting different characters gives it that extra spark. It all makes for a vibrant and engaging performance, which hooks you from the outset and keeps reeling you in throughout.

Always to be relied upon for surprises, laughs and heartfelt moments, while inspiring audiences to contemplate the ups and downs of life, Big Telly Theatre Company never fails to deliver the goods. With The Faerie Thorn tour now underway, theatre-goers can subsequently look forward to an atmospheric adaptation of three dark and funny faerie tales that won’t easily be forgotten. Catch it while you can. After all …

‘… if you don’t know about faerie thorns, you should.’

The Faerie Thorn is now on tour and will be at the MAC, Belfast, from April 25 – April 29, before travelling across Northern Ireland, the ROI and the UK. For more details on the tour schedule visit www.big-telly.com.