The Gift

Cahoots NI work with visually impaired children to create a tantalising sensory journey with the help of playwright Charles Way and composer Garth McConaghie

Gifts come in a variety of shapes and forms: artistic, sensory, material, financial. All, in their different ways, find a place in Charles Way’s intriguing new play, premiered by Cahoots NI as part of the excellent international programme for this year's  Belfast Children’s Festival.
 
The Gift marks a radical departure all round, for the writer, the director, Paul Bosco McEneaney, and the company, which has built its world-class reputation on fantastical stories wrapped around music, magic and illusion. Performed in promenade style at CastleCourt shopping centre in Belfast city centre, this is an infinitely more abstract piece than one has come to expect from Cahoots, structured in reverse narrative order and woven around an unsettling series of flashbacks.
 
Director and writer have been developing the idea for the past two years and a warmly instinctive partnership has evolved between them. Englishman Way has lived for quite some time in the Welsh borderlands, a mysterious, remote place, its magnificent landscape threaded with Celtic myths and legends, tucked in between the brooding Black Mountain range to the west and verdant English pasturelands to the east. 
 
 
As the finest writers are shaped and influenced by their home place, so have Way's many award-winning plays reflected the rich cultural heritage from which they sprang. But The Gift is something entirely different, a play written by a master of the genre, who, while knowing his constituency so well, is yet willing to go out on a limb in pursuit of something new.
 
In turn, McEneaney positively thrives on venturing outside of his comfort zone. His boundless imagination and theatrical risk-taking are inspiring; he is constantly searching for other ways of engaging and thrilling young audiences. In the making of this piece, Way and McEneaney worked closely with a group of visually impaired children. Thus, its starting point is an audience that may not see clearly but whose other senses are very finely tuned.
 
Sound designer/composer Garth McConaghie has weighed in behind them, plotting a tantalising journey through a maze of sterile, white box scenarios, with a single threatening diversion into darkness. His blend of music, aural sensations and stomach-churning vibrations forms an integral part of the story of two rival siblings, each blessed with a musical gift but travelling wildly divergent routes to fulfil them.
 
Claire McMahon’s far-seeing Mary is her parents' blue-eyed girl, whose effortless and uncanny talent for the piano simply cannot be explained. Niall Murphy’s surly, black-sheep Keith, meanwhile, has a permanent chip on his shoulder, not helped by the way in which his feckless father (James Doran) clearly favours his young sister.  
 
Maggie Cronin’s affectionate Ma strives to quell the stormy waters but is left sick and stricken when her good-for-nothing sailor husband returns to his ship and sails away over the horizon. It is left to an elderly neighbour Ellie – a big-hearted performance of real depth by Julia Dearden – to hold the family unit together in the face of hostile outside forces.
 
The storyline begins virtually where it will end, introducing Mary as a five year-old child with a precocious gift for classical music. But all is not quite as it seems in the misty, echoing, incomplete family portrait which opens proceedings. Slowly the pieces in the jigsaw fit together: the girl's red dress, the miniature piano her father brought back from his travels, the refrain that only she appears to hear, Keith’s overlooked passion for a different kind of music. 
 
When a neighbour leaves Mary in his will the gift of a sum of money to progress her professional ambitions, her success on the world’s great stages seems assured. But Keith will inherit from him too and will, in time, assert his astonishing artistic ability on an altogether different platform.
 
The Gift is at once a memory play and a play for voices, a family saga and a sensory pathway. Most tantalisingly, it is a play about music, about the struggle between the classical and traditional genres, between the discipline of the concert artiste and the instinctive touch of a natural fiddler – about what it means to have a gift.
 
The Gift runs at Unit 70 (former TK Max premises) in the Upper Mall of CastleCourt shopping centre, Belfast until March 13. Visit are available via the Young At Art website.