Pick 'n' Mix Festival

Jane Coyle enjoys the bite-sized treats at this year's pop up festival

In these days of belt tightening and general economic gloom, the Pop Up Pick ’n’ Mix Mini-Festival gives a welcome shot in the arm to the Northern Irish arts community. Beautifully packaged – cheery candy-striped branding and sweeties galore – tastily programmed and oozing with fun and hospitality, it is a heartening sign of what can be achieved when the performing arts sector join hands in a spirit of mutual support.

This is the fourth Pick ’n’ Mix, organised by the MAC in conjunction with Aisling Ghear, Bruiser, Cahoots NI, Ransom, Replay and Tinderbox theatre companies. At the last festival, two years ago, the organisers were on home territory in the much-loved but soon to be vacated Old Museum Arts Centre, with its gravity defying staircases, quirky spaces and perilous on-street parking.

This year, with the spectacular new MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) rising steadily above the neo-classical arcades of St Anne’s Square, a different kind of festival has ensued – a pop-up event in the heart of the university quarter.

The Brian Friel Theatre, studio and rehearsal rooms at Queen's Film Theatre provide the spaces for an intriguing and impressive mix of never-before-seen new work, from opera to farce, physical theatre to contemporary dance, satire to plays for children.

'Nineteen companies are taking part and a total of 111 people are involved in making it happen,' said festival director Gillian Mitchell. 'We have come together in a spirit of collaboration, working in partnership. Fantastic things can happen when we join forces artistically – that’s when we’re at our best.'

With 40 performances to choose from, one has no option but to be selective. So, with apologies for those who fell down a black hole of programme clashes, time restrictions, meal and comfort breaks – and the general preservation of sanity – here is this punter’s weekend tour of Pick’n’Mix.

Replay’s rehearsed reading of Marianne Dreams is brought to life by Patrick Sanders’s delightful illustrations, drawn freehand as the tale unfolds. Susan Davey plays the sick child whose drawings lead her into a mysterious friendship with a reclusive young boy named Mark (Dermott Hickson). Mary Moulds, Rosie McClelland and Paul Kennedy read the adult roles. The full production follows next year.

Bruiser’s Stephen Beggs provides some of the weekend’s most surreal experiences, with a preview of Lee Hall’s rude and raucous farce Cooking With Elvis. Jo Donnelly, Paul Mallon and Nuala McGowan complete a terrific cast. Look out for the full production in September.

Tinderbox weigh in with Seven Days in June, three new short plays by Julie Dutkiewicz, John McCann and Jimmy McAleavey, all focusing on current events. Frankie McCafferty, Sarah Lyle and Patrick Buchanan work their socks off as a host of bizarre characters, from Alan Sugar and his acolytes to a Colonel Gaddafi lookalike and a trio of fraught civil servants.

Cahoots NI is on top form with a rehearsed reading of A Spell of Cold Weather by Charles Way. Maria Connolly (writer of the company’s second piece, The Chase), Richard Orr, Jude Quinn, Doireann McKenna and Liam Lavery provide a tantalising glimpse of what lies ahead when this bewitching, award-winning play goes into production.

Off the Rails Dance Theatre, led by Eileen McClory, present S(e)nsored, a stunning piece of high-energy contemporary dance for the digital age, set against Liam Donaghy’s interactive, computer-generated backdrop.

The second half of this Double Dip show is the edgy, Sarah Kane-inspired play Little Sounds of Pain by Lisa Keogh, performed by Hannah Coyle, Ben Maier and Jason McLaughlin. Two of the actors came through the Lyric Drama Studio professional training programme, and former LDS members popped up for several other companies, including Accidental and Guerilla Therapy.

Stephen Kelly and Nick Hardin for C21 do well with a rehearsed reading of Appendage, a double-hander thriller by New York writer Derek Murphy, which the company plans to develop and bring to production.

There were no words at the end of Ransom’s work-in-progress – Conor Mitchell’s emotionally charged Songs for Jean McConville: A Requiem for the Disappeared, directed by Rachel O’Riordan. Members of the McConville family join the audience to hear actor Richard Dormer read the links and Canadian singer Rebecca Caine perform five sections, in Latin.

And the most unexpected but exquisite treat came in the form of Sheelin’s Homebird, a musical interpretation of a poignant family story, performed in a sweet little vintage world of lace dresses, bone china teasets, embroidered cushions and bric-a-brac.

'We had almost 1000 people through the doors,' reports a delighted Gillian Mitchell. 'Now we’re looking forward to an even bigger and better Pick ’n’ Mix 5, when it comes home to the MAC in 2012.' Quite.