Slimmer for Christmas

Leesa Harker updates Pride and Prejudice for the 80s generation

Leesa Harker's newest play, Slimmer for Christmas, is both literally and metaphorically a show of two halves.

The beginning is a little slower than those hoping for a real Maggie Muff-style outing, like previous play Dirty Dancin' in Le Shebeen, would like, while the second half is potentially very strong. Once the endings have been sorted out – one will do – it should send us audiences home happy.

Gift-wrapped for an enthusiastic audience at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, it plays to the usual Harker hen do – now Christmas do – crowd. Slimmer for Christmas is essentially Bridget Jones revisited but with a different denouement and, let's face it, Helen Fielding via Jane Austen is not a bad template to follow.

Our heroine is Sami, whose quest for a slimmer outline, and the affections of her boss, Mark Bond – he would have to be a Mark, wouldn't he? – provides the main narrative. Julie Maxwell performs some great comic scenes – such as getting out of a panty girdle during a disastrous blind date – helping to make this is truly a rip-roaring, make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, kind of evening.

The woman who has become a one-person drama factory after the success of book turned play Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue in 2012 moves away from her original foul-mouthed, gutsy and lovable Maggie Muff to a cast of oh, tens, but Harker doesn't betray her roots.

So we return to a world of gutsy Belfast women, focussing on a girl who needs to get over her addictive romantic hankering for a control freak boss (handsome, believable Cillian O'Sullivan) and sundry Northern Irish comic types, including a positive Big Sally-ann double at a Flabbusters performed by Caroline Currans, all brilliantly done, in the main.

We follow a group of friends – Sami, Ally, gay but troubled Gav and Trish – as they negotiate that difficult journey into their early 30s – adulthood, in other words. Trish is so desperate for a baby she practises having a bump and spends most of the play with a cushion up her frock. Gavin is unable to come out to his mammy, although he has no trouble telling the butcher he is gay.

Ally, played with her usual gravel-voiced brio by Caroline Currans, has twins – who use the coal scuttle rather than their potty – and a stressful life. Our heroine is looking for Mr Right and agrees to her friends setting her up with one or two Mr Wrongs to get back into the dating game. The slimming club, meanwhile, offers the women the old illusion that by shedding some pounds, all their wishes will be granted.

It is set in Harker's own golden years, referencing the 1980s with appropriate music and namechecks of long-gone clubs like the Swiss Chalet, which gets the audience in a reminiscent mood. 

Parts are vintage Harker, including some of the gags. So we have the usual Malapropisms, which include a diamond piece of dialogue when sexy Trish says to Sami, 'Have you tried tantric?' to which our food-obsessed heroine replies, 'No, I have a slow oven!'

While the first act is at times slow – with the plot ploddling along as characters establish themselves – the second part goes with a bang, following a terrific build-up to some marvellous scenes, topped off with several Christmas and non-Christmas musical numbers, the icing on this particular cake.

Neil Keery's Gavin is funny and moving as he attempts to tell his ailing mother about his sexual orientation, something we aren't suprised to learn that she has already guessed. When he tries to tell her as she falls asleep and misses his big announcement, we get a blend of pathos and comedy. Maybe this could have somehow been combined with the reveal, when Caroline Currans' mammy says that she has always known and loves him regardless, in spite of being a bit 'Christiany'.

Sarah Lyle's turn as Trish is superb, and her transition from one of the most irritating and sanctimonious vegan Hare Krishnas to a swearing lush – when she discovers her beloved husband Neville has strayed – is a bit of a masterclass.

As we head towards that seasonal closing group scene, we pass another potential ending when Sami sees through Mr Bond and, slightly shaken if not stirred, determines to find independence and someone who will appreciate her for what she is. Using a Marilyn Monroe quote handed to her by Trish – 'A girl doesn't need anyone who doesn't need her' – she bravely moves on.

Played out against a rather good set by David Craig, with a massive full fat Coca Cola can and a giant burger in the background, the happy ending does finally arrive – of course it does. It is Christmas, after all. 

Slimmer for Christmas runs in the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, until January 3.