Family Hoffmann’s Christmas Palace

Cahoots NI salutes one of their most successful shows for children with a festive special at The MAC

You would have had to be going around with your head in the clouds these past few of weeks to have missed the presence of some exotic new arrivals into Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.

Who is that dashing, moustachioed fellow with chains wrapped around his bare torso? What is the name of the glamorous redhead in the tight-fitting silvery gown? And what is the story behind the woebegone, wide-eyed urchin boy?

They are just three of a dazzling gallery of characters who have sprung to life on the billboards promoting The Family Hoffmann’s Christmas Mystery Palace, a new Christmas show at The MAC co-produced with the award-winning team at Cahoots NI.

Their striking, larger-than-life faces form the cornerstone of an imaginative, and highly effective, marketing campaign, which has already sold out all the schools performances. This high profile publicity is a sign of the confidence that the venue has placed in the quality of the show and the ingenuity of its producing partner.

'As a child, I remember experiencing wonder,' reflects Cahoots co-founder and artistic director, Paul McEneaney. 'It's something I try to hold onto in the way I make theatre. We don’t need to ask questions, we don’t need to know how things work. We simply accept that magical, theatrical things can, and do, happen.'

It was McEneaney's very evident and infectious passion for mystery and magic that inspired the promotional team at The MAC to try something different in what is traditionally a very crowded seasonal marketplace.

'We were inspired by the story of the Family Hoffmann and the sense of magic it will bring,' says director of marketing, Áine McVerry. 'Our campaign has been themed around the idea "you won’t believe your eyes".'

Northern Irish illustrator, Jordan Henderson, helped to bring the theme to life. 'He really took on our brief,' adds McVerry. 'His stunning characters capture the essence of the show.

'We've dispensed with the usual show flyer and instead created packs of free trick cards, to inspire young children to learn some magic of their own. Then we approached celebrity mind reader, David Meade, who generously gave his time to create a special behind-the-magic video, showing children how to do the tricks.

'The climax of the campaign is the big reveal of The MAC's Christmas window, which harks back to the windows that used to be seen around Belfast in big department stores like Anderson & McCauley. The MAC is reviving this much-missed festive tradition, so expect lots of surprises in the St Anne's Square window.'

Under McEneaney’s tireless inspiration, magic and Cahoots have become inseparable. When it comes to creating groundbreaking work for young audiences, his imagination brooks no refusals.

Since the company's inception in 2001, a string of world-class productions have kept coming and coming, each exceeding the wonder and brilliance of the last. Leo and the Place Between, Egg, A Spell of Cold Weather, The Incredible Book Eating Boy, The Musician, Death, Duck and the Tulip, The Snail and the Whale, Nivelli’s War… the list goes on.

Back in 2009, a charming little show entitled The Family Hoffmann’s Mystery Palace set new performance parameters for the company. In keeping with the theme of a troupe of travelling players, Cahoots toured the country, pitching a gaudily striped, Victorian-style marquee in school playgrounds, village greens and common grounds and introducing excited children and their adult companions to the flamboyant Adelaine Hoffmann and her magical mystery show. Five years later, the story is taken up anew.

'The first incarnation of the family took place in that tent and was a show about the history of magic,' explains McEneaney. 'This time around I wanted to find a story for those characters to grow and exist in.

'The story has all those magical elements, cranked up to a new level, but its theme is much simpler and universal – what matters, above all else, is family. I think that there may be a full stop for me at the end of this show, as the work of the company has gone in a different direction over the past few years.'

One hopes not, for the Family Hoffmann have become firm friends to many children up and down the country. The head of the family is now Willard Hoffmann, a savvy impresario, who lost his wife to the perils of the business and who gingerly watches his two daughters, Marie and Bess, following in their mother’s footsteps.

But times are tough. Things are looking grim for the Hoffmanns until Willard stumbles across the orphaned Harold, a budding young escapologist, whose shy genius will take the show into new realms of wonder and human achievement.

'The show is a nod back to yesteryear, to the age of magic in Victorian times,' says McEneaney. 'These were the days of famous mystery palaces like the Egyptian Hall and St George’s Hall in London. People flocked there to see things that they didn’t think were possible and to enjoy what was an intensely theatrical experience.

'As a society, that is something that we’ve lost, that unquestioning sense of wonder. Things happen now at the click of a mouse. What is disappointing is that after that golden age, things did not progress. We went back down the ladder.

'Magic was downgraded into a kind of inferior art form, and it’s still regarded in that way. Performers like Dynamo and David Blain are something different altogether. What killed the Egyptian Hall was Peter Pan. There may have been a levitating lady at the Egyptian Hall, but down the street people were queueing up for another kind of entertainment.

'They didn’t mind seeing the strings because they were so taken up by the narrative. Magic shows didn’t learn from that, but my strong belief is that by far the most important thing – and the thing that really holds an audience – is the story.'

In crafting the strong storyline at the heart of this colourful new show, McEneaney has joined forces with another singular talent and old sparring partner, the virtuoso composer and musician Conor Mitchell.

Together with visual artist Oliver Jeffers, they were the driving forces behind The Incredible Book Eating Boy, the first Christmas show at The MAC, which scored high on visual spectacle but whose score and lyrics proved just a tad too cerebral for some audience members.

McEneaney says that lessons have been learned from that earlier experience and it is clear from the crackling atmosphere in the rehearsal room that the young cast of musical theatre-trained professionals are totally signed up for the story they are charged with telling.

'The music is tricky but wonderful,' says Swansea-born Kirsty Marie Ayers, who plays the role of the diminutive Bess Hoffmann. 'There is one section where Greg and I have time changes in every other bar. It’s like learning Sondheim. It’s amazing.'

Under McEneaney’s beady gaze, Ayers, Greg Fossard, (who plays Harold), Dubliner Philip Judge, (who plays Willard) and English soprano Flo Fields (who plays Marie Hoffmann), probe and experiment in their roles, trying out new approaches to text and music, gradually crafting the kind of instinctive understanding that will delve into and deliver the inner workings of the Hoffmann world.

Intriguingly, there are two generations of actors on stage – these three fresh young performers, playing alongside the highly experienced trio of Judge, Abigail McGibbon and Hugh Brown, a Cahoots stalwart, who divides his home life between Belfast and Cambodia. The chemistry between them and their director is palpable.

McEneaney is very much an actor’s director; as a performer himself, he has stood on a stage and bared his soul to an audience. In rehearsals, with musical director Chris Huntley and choreographer Rachel Birch-Lawson alongside him, his concentration and focus are unbreakable. He misses not a single beat. This approach, he says, reflects the way in which he and Mitchell together embarked on the creative process.

'The story started in my head, then Conor and I worked intensively on unpacking that story. Ours has been very much a collaborative effort and one of the fantastic things about the making of the piece is that Conor has found melody. In my opinion, he is an absolute genius, who completely immerses himself in the intelligence of music.

'In working together on this show, we were both passionate that, above all else, we must deliver the story but that there must be a conviction to the music in the middle of it all. Our major concern was that the piece must connect emotionally, rather than just on the page.

'We go right back to the very start of the notion of illusion and theatricals. At its core is a touching and very human tale, centred on Harold, a young boy from the workhouse, who has this incredible but unrealised talent. It was Conor who pointed out that this poor little guy was invisible and had no voice in the world. Everybody ignored him. But when he put on a cloak of invisibility people started to notice him – by becoming invisible he made himself visible.

'We are constantly searching for new depths in the performances, questioning the characters’ motivations and relationships. The piece is historically accurate and does, I think, play into the public’s growing taste for nostalgia and treasured things from the past. The show will be spectacular, no doubt about that, but there will be much more than that. You can’t just create a spectacle. It has to have a heart.'

The Family Hoffmann’s Christmas Mystery Palace runs at The MAC, Belfast from December 3 to January 4.