Paul Boyd pits belief against world-weary cynicism in what is sure to be a smash hit musical
Throughout his prolific career, composer Paul Boyd has never been averse to a spot of glitter and sparkle, theatrical swagger and good old fashioned mischief. Alice the Musical, The Tale of the Beauty and the Tail of the Beast, Hansel & Grettel, Pinocchio… these memorable titles constitute a mere sampler of the 21 shows that have sprung from his restless, sometimes subversive, creativity.
But, for all the entertainment Boyd has brought to audiences at this time of year, Tinseltown marks the first time he has directed his impish sense of fun towards an entirely original, modern-day Christmas fairytale, which comes to Theatre at the Mill, gift-wrapped and gooey, as befits the festive season.
Boyd is on a bit of a roll at present, having recently clocked up no less than five nominations in the Broadway World West End Awards for Molly Wobbly, a risqué take on cosmetic surgery, which began life at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and is poised for a big revival at London’s Leicester Square Theatre in January. Under his unwavering direction, it is not difficult to envisage Tinseltown heading off on a similar path.
In keeping with pure fairytale tradition, it tells a story of goodness and light couched in darkness. It is a tale of lost souls and disappeared children, of unquestioning belief versus world-weary cynicism, of friendship, of belonging, of home. At its centre are two troubled boys, adrift in a world which feels alien and unwelcoming.
Long ago in a faraway land, peopled by strange beings with pointy heads and stripey legs, young Colin was adopted into a family of three sisters, with whom he played happily until the day he vanished in the outer woods. In contrast, Jack is a boy of our own time.
He has run away from home but cannot remember why or even where home is. Jack is an unbeliever. (Children, cover your ears and remember this is a made-up story, but Jack does not believe in Santa Claus nor Christmas!) He doesn’t believe in anything, really.
As such, he is ripe for the picking by the scheming Foofaleena Betrinklement, the last of Colin's three mystical sisters. Her mission is to convince the people of the real world that Christmas is a spoof, a silly fantasy designed for exploitation and blind faith. Under her spell, Jack comes perilously close to being complicit in its cancellation and the thwarting of a once-in-a-lifetime visit by Santa himself.
It is only when he meets the odd but enchanting Pookie Bogthrollop and her gormless sidekick Boke Nubbins that he slowly comes to recognise that there may just be another way, a door into happiness signalled by the appearance of the first snowflake of winter.
Boyd’s imagined setting is the town of Estincele, the old French word for a spark or a flash – Tinseltown to the uninitiated. David Craig’s three-dimensional design creates a topsy-turvy cluster of half-timbered, mullion-windowed houses surrounded by a thick forest of pine trees. It is a wonderfully atmospheric place, which, under Conleth Hill’s thoughtful lighting, changes from an idyllic never-never land to a cold, lifeless place devoid of the year’s greatest celebration.
However, this set is not modest in scale and rather overwhelms the stage, allowing for a confined performance space in which to accommodate seven adult professionals and a large cast of perky local children and teenagers.
Rhiannon Chesterman and Conleth Kane make a sweet pairing, with Chesterman charming and effortless as the helium-voiced Pookie. As Foofaleena, Jane Milligan – daughter of Spike – reprises the strong stage presence and gutsy singing she brought to her last appearance here as the witch in Hansel & Grettel.
Christopher Finn, meanwhile, gives a fine, accomplished performance as Jack, part mini-Chaplin, part Edward Scissorhands, and it is such a treat to see Richard Croxford, liberated from his artistic director role at the Lyric and back on stage as twinkly, confused Mayor Nelson Flung.
Finally, comedian Nuala McKeever doubles up as jolly baker Fertyl Baps and her bearded husband Craggy, though the two-sided comic role feels a tad bolted on.
There remains work to be done on a piece that is, at present, in its very early stages, but Boyd is definitely on to a winner here. When Tinseltown is at full throttle on a really big stage, nobody should forget that it first saw the light of day in Newtownabbey.
Tinseltown runs at Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey until December 13.