McCracken Memorial Drama Society resurrect one of Sam Cree's 'downright silly' plays
I can still see them: handpainted posters in primary colours, stuck on noticeboards outside Portrush Town Hall, garishly advertising the weekly offering at that year’s Summer Theatre.
The names of the amateur companies who brought their productions to ‘The Port’ still resonate – Rosemary Drama Group, Ballywillan Drama Group, The Belvoir Players. Many of them came every year, and they provided my first real experience of live theatre.
The only playwright whose name I clearly remember is Sam Cree. The Northern Irishman's plays were staged repeatedly, their slightly saucy titles – Cupid Wore Skirts, Stop It Nurse, The Mating Season – piquing curiosity in an era when titillation of any kind was frowned upon, and all the shops were closed on Sundays.
Cree’s humour was, of course, spectacularly harmless and inoffensive, compared to what’s routinely laughed at and applauded in the theatre nowadays. Put it this way – you could always take your children to a Cree play, and Grandma, though she might judge some of the jokes a trifle risqué and daring, would probably chuckle along anyway.
All of which makes Sam Cree sound terminally outdated, and irrelevant to modern audiences. Try telling that to the McCracken Memorial Drama Society. For some years now they’ve specialised in mounting Cree productions at the McCracken Memorial Presbyterian Church Hall, on the Malone Road in Belfast.
This year they pack the hall again for two evenings with Family Fever, originally produced in 1968 under the aegis of the now defunct Belfast Arts Theatre, in the old Group Theatre space at the Ulster Hall on Bedford Street.
The plot, as usual with Cree, is thin to virtually non-existent. Christmas is approaching in the Galbraith family home in Belfast, daughter Myra is expecting a baby imminently, while daughter Linda is cooing in a lovesick fashion over the latest object of her affections, the kilted Scotsman Archie McNulty.
Stir in a pair of staidly disapproving in-laws, some slinky women’s underwear, a randy auntie, a nappy-changing scene where flour is used instead of talc to salve the baby’s bottom, and a generous amount of seasonal tippling, and you get the picture: it’s Feydeau meets Finaghy, French farce played out in Northern Irish accents, with never the remotest possibility that things will turn out less than swimmingly by the final curtain.
You need skill, nerve and stamina to drive this kind of situation comedy forward, and Roger Thompson certainly has it. Thompson plays the hen-pecked paterfamilias Alec, catching to a tee the fretfulness and irritability of the character, as well as his fundamental warmth and kindness.
Thompson has excellent comic timing, moves naturally on stage, and can improvise effectively when needed. At one point he raises the roof when, in the middle of an impromptu drinking session with his sidekick Willie Beatty, he includes a toast to the Mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who’s sitting in the front row of the audience as guest of honour.
As Willie, Ken Bamford is an effective foil to Thompson’s perpetuum mobile turn as Alec. Deadpan to a fault, his craggy face as drolly impassive as Tommy Cooper’s, Bamford milks the stooge-like role Cree gives him with evident relish.
There’s stalwart support for Thompson from Elsie Pyper as his calmly domineering wife Sadie, while Pyper’s real-life daughter Linda makes an apparently nerveless stage debut as her fictional daughter (also called Linda), showing plenty of potential for bigger parts in the future.
Eileen Lamb brings her long experience of directing Cree to the party, pointing up the many moments of visual and verbal comedy, while encouraging a style of acting which remains fundamentally naturalistic, and never panders to the easy thrills of cheap slapstick.
The set, co-built by Maureen Jelly, Ivor Kinghan and Roger ‘Alec’ Thompson (does the man have no home to go to?), authentically re-creates a middle-class Belfast living-room of the late 1960s, and David Courtney’s sound cues are all delivered in a crisp, timely fashion.
Need I add that the audience loved it? Innocent, innocuous, ‘corny’, and often downright silly – Sam Cree’s plays are all those things, and more. But he knew how to make people smile without guilt or embarrassment, and, for a couple of hours at least, leave the troubles of the outside world behind them.
That’s a rare enough gift for any playwright, and one that’s worth preserving. More power to the elbow of the McCracken Memorial Drama Society, and the other amateur drama companies who keep the Cree fires burning, for doing the necessary work of preservation.