Lyric Theatre: Tales of the City

Graham Reid pens a fifth instalment of the Billy plays for the Lyric's forthcoming season, which also features works by St John Irvine, David Ireland and Marie Jones

2013 marks 400 years since Belfast was founded, and to mark the anniversary the Lyric Theatre in Belfast is producing a season of plays that capture the spirit of the city: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Tales of the City features a quartet of writers who have documented the city’s evolution: St John Ervine, Graham Reid, Marie Jones and David Ireland, each with their own voice and perspective on Belfast past and present.

Lovers of Graham Reid's Billy plays, which originally aired on BBC Northern Ireland in the early 1980s starring a young Kenneth Branagh in the lead role, will be excited to learn that Reid has penned a fifth instalment, Love, Billy, which sees the much-loved protagonist return to Belfast after many years spent abroad.

The other three plays in the Tales of the City season are St John Ervine's acclaimed Mixed Marriage, David Ireland's new play Can't Forget About You, and Marie Jones' classic Belfast comedy, Weddins, Weeins and Wakes.

'The Lyric is the natural home for a season for drama hand-made in Belfast,' said Richard Croxford, Lyric Theatre artistic director. 'For over 60 years, the Lyric has been Northern Ireland’s only full-time producing theatre, employing local writers, directors, actors and creative teams to deliver outstanding drama that is relevant to local audiences and revealing to visitors to the city.

'During the 1970s and 80s, events on the streets of Belfast were often mirrored on stage at the Lyric in plays by writers such as Graham Reid, John Boyd, Christina Reid, Patrick Galvin and Martin Lynch. Belfast has many tales to tell and the Lyric is part of that story.'

Mixed Marriage, which runs from January 30 to February 23, tells the story of a respectable Protestant father who acts to calm the sectarian tension being stirred up by politicians for their own ends.

Set on the eve of the Ulster Covenant, John Rainey successfully unites Catholic and Protestant against the machinations of the factory owners, the nationalists and the Orangemen. But at home, it is a different matter altogether when he discovers that his son wants to marry the beautiful, innocent Nora, a Catholic.

Although the play was programmed several months ago, events of recent weeks have given this masterpiece about Belfast and sectarianism alarming topicality. Acclaimed director Jimmy Fay helms this new production, which offers a powerful insight into the destructiveness of all forms of prejudice.

Love, Billy, which runs from May 1 - 25, is the fifth instalment in the now legendary series of Billy plays. First televised as part of the BBC's infamous Play for Today series, the Billy plays made a huge impact not only across the island of Ireland but also the whole of the United Kingdom.

Love, Billy sees Billy Martin returning to Belfast after 25 years, having left mysteriously without telling anyone. He comes back to a city that he hardly recognises, and with family grudges to resolve. The Lyric hope to attract members of the original cast back to perform on the Lyric stage, though no casting has as yet been made.

Another premiere in the season’s programme is the first play written for the Lyric by former playwright-in-residence, David Ireland. Ireland has teamed up with star of stage and screen, Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) who directs the romantic comedy, Can’t Forget About You, which runs from May 23 to June 16.

Following a painful break-up, 25-year-old east Belfast man Stevie meets and falls in love with a woman twice his age. Their fledgling relationship is challenged by the expectations of Stevie’s conservative Christian mother and his ultra-unionist, Ulster-Scots-speaking sister who work hard to break the pair up.

Tales of the City concludes with more humour in the Marie Jones’ comedy, Weddins, Weeins and Wakes, which returns to the Lyric from June 13 to July 7, directed by Lyric stalwart, Ian McElhinney.

Few writers better capture the ordinary lives and humour of Belfast locals than Marie Jones, who has had a string of hit plays that have catapulted the city to audiences worldwide. At the heart of this engaging story are neighbourhood biddies Mona and Molly, who gossip into life the daily trials and tribulations of the Watson family: rearing their families, marrying them off and then burying them.

'We know money is tight everywhere,' added Croxford, 'so we are offering recession-busting prices, with £15 tickets for many preview and matinee performances, £10 tickets for students and unwaged, a £10 standby ticket for Sunday matinees, and £5 for community groups.

'In addition, there are discounts available for booking three or more shows in the Tales of the City season, so we do have truly great drama with prices to suit everyone’s pocket.'

Roisín McDonough, chief executive Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commented: 'As principal funder of the Lyric Theatre, the Arts Council is delighted that Northern Ireland’s only full-time producing theatre has enjoyed such an eventful and memorable opening year.

'With a string of theatre and architectural awards, the Lyric can rightfully claim to have helped put Northern Ireland back on the artistic map. The theatre is primed to build on its success in 2013 with the £2.4million invested by the Arts Council continuing to protect, strengthen and develop the arts infrastructure here while stimulating the economy through cultural tourism.'

Visit the Lyric Theatre website to book your tickets for the Tales of the City season.