Howl!

Grimes and McKee's Christmas show has Joe Nawaz roaring with laughter

As firmly fixed now in the local cultural firmament as Julian Simmons’ Coronation Street links and casual racism, the Grimes and McKee Christmas Show rolls into town to allow the normally grown-up Lyric audience to rediscover their inner-teenager.

They may have their de-tractors (see what I did there?) but Grimes and McKee know exactly what they’re about – delivering a heady seasonal brew of smut, innuendo and farce with the fourth wall so irretrievably broken by the end you’d need planning permission to re-erect it. This is adult panto in extremis, and the adult audience, glutted on a year of existential melodrama at the Lyric, are happy enough to loosen up, sit back and be entertained.

Their latest slice of festive fun is Howl!. As unlikely as it seems, Howl! could loosley be described as meta-fiction in so far as it’s about a play within a play – that play being Little Red Riding Hood.

The plot of Howl! is simple enough: Patrick, a recovering alcoholic director with an ego the size of Alaska assembles a cast and crew of comedy archetypes for his latest Christmas show. These include his embittered ex-wife Siobhan who happens to be a fading former weather girl; Johnny (Alan McKee), the successful TV star returning to his ‘first love’; the stage, musical director and wide-boy chancer Dex; and finally, lithe and limber drama school ingénue Jackie, who may or may not have been picked for her acting chops.

The evening kicks off with a Michael Jackson song and dance routine by the cast – the kind of thing every local Christmas comedy revue has to have by law. This tickles the crowd into an early, even premature frenzy before the real ribaldry even begins.

But G ‘n’ M know their audience only too well and have them in their sights from the off. There are some amusing drama school jokes about the director as 'facilitator' and the cast 'multi-roling'. Grimes and McKee obviously enjoy sending up the preciousness and pretentiousness of much of theatrical practice.

King-size luvvie Johnny delivers some cringing gems, like the toe-curling revelation that he builds his character literally, 'from the shoes up'. It’s all good clean fun but the biggest laughs are reserved for the physical comedy, much of which involves young Doireann McKenna as Jackie ending up in several compromising and uncomfortable positions with Grimes as the uber-letch Patrick.

The first act is based around Patrick as he puts together a monstrous script for Red Riding Hood, which takes in magical realism, political allegory, epic theatre and, well, everything but the girl really.

Naturally, the whole thing unravels and with it tee-total Patrick. The second act is the play being acted out by the cast with a now out-of-control director drifting on and off. It must be said that Grimes is very, very funny as the control freak losing his grip. He brings a modicum of sympathy to what should be a two dimensional character. Special mention must also go to Maria Connolly’s comedy turn as Siobhan the shrill, celebrity has-been with the horribly elasticated vowels.

Every call was responded to, every knowing reference was gratefully received, no joke was left unappreciated. That’s the mark, surely, of a successful Grimes and McKee Christmas extravaganza – and why they’re now beyond criticism.

As the A-list personalities, D-list politicians and list-less hacks leave the theatre with big stupid smiles on their faces, the one prediction you could safely make about Howl! is that it’ll run and run. Well, until it closes in January at any rate. Then the Lyric and Messrs Grimes and McKee can focus on the deadly serious business of theatre once again.

Howl! runs at Belfast's Elmwood Hall. Check out Culture Live! here for more details.