Oscar Wilde and the Men of the Hour

Literary history turned on its head

The Cathedral Quarter in Belfast has come a long way in the last ten years, when considered alongside other cobblestoned, jazzy, pub lined streets in the UK like Ashton Lane in Glasgow, the pedestrianised centre of Oxford, or the Grassmarket in Edinburgh.

As the Duke Of York becomes overcrowded and the Merchant Hotel remains overpriced, one of the main attributes and attractions of this unique area of Belfast is the Black Box. It remains the closest to the artistic ethics of the aforementioned areas in Scotland and England, with its bar, main stage and cafe offering intimate acoustic gigs, local ale and homemade pizzas. 

It is to the Black Box that I head for the latest offering from upcoming comic writers and performers Raymond McGahan and Jonathan McCoy, entitled Oscar Wilde and the Men of the Hour: Tragedy of Doom.

The evening starts off nicely with the acoustic offerings of local band Kitty and the Can Openers. The interior design of the Black Box does something for live music. The minimalist, snare/hi-hat drumming, the soft, funky bass lines, the folk-style guitar playing and the lead singer’s combination of delicate keyboard instruments and lyrical vocal melodies compliment the serene atmosphere of the venue. It is a great half hour of music before the main event.

A nice touch to the beginning of the comedy is the inclusion in the programme of a slip of paper on which audience members are encouraged to write a short poem for one of the writers, McCoy. There is also a bit of history on the fictional time travelling team of Victorian writers and thinkers who make up the cast list: Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemmingway, George Eliot and Friedrich Nietzsche.

We're given a detailed description of the group's ilustrious past. Venice, 1519: Leonardo Da Vinci, first leader of the Men of the Hour, passes away. His last words and only regret – 'I jumped the gun on this whole time travel thing'. Illinois, 1899: Ernest Hemingway is born, fist first. At the age of 18 he begins a great literary career, mainly by writing words.

The programme works as a way of introducing the audience to the brand of humour on display within the piece itself, which is at times cynical and sarcastic, at times puerile, but always intelligent and quick-witted.

The story centres around the aforementioned band of time travelling Victorian writers, as they attempt to prevent both Dan Brown from writing another book, and a group of evil fairies from destroying fictional Irish towns such as Fair City, Glenroe and Ballykissangel.

The gags and arguments between the characters come quick and fast, and the action is framed by the presence of a narrator (Patrick Murphy), upstage in an arm chair, and dressed in a tux. Murphy delivers his narration in the dry, Wildean style reminiscent of early Oxbridge comedy - a good example of McGahan’s creativity as a director.

All four of the main performers make an excellent job of the tight script, especially David Fleming, who plays a camp Nietzsche, a slightly manic Seamus Heaney married to a bog monster from the 1970s and a confused WB Yeats who, in his final moments, having been attacked by the evil fairies, attempts to get a message to Wilde by leaving it on a mobile phone and throwing it into the air, encouraging it to spread its wings and deliver the message personally.

McGahan is spot on in his depiction of Wilde as a flamboyant, arrogant and dry dandy, often playing the straight man in a matter of fact, cynical manner. Geoff Gatt’s portrayal of Hemmingway as a slow off the mark, chronic alcoholic who is always the last to say the collective ‘Oh no!’ requires a lot of comic stamina on his part.

Helen Murphy's ironic depiction of first-wave feminist novelist George Eliot as an eccentric cross dresser who dons an elaborate disguise of fairy wings in order to penetrate the band of fairies is also worth a mention, whilst McCoy’s brief but hilarious part as the evil lord Dan Brown is evidence of his ability as a comic performer and modesty as a writer.

The evening finishes with the prize giving for the best poems, all of which have been embodied in photographs of McCoy in various seductive poses, presented on a projector screen one at a time for the audience’s benefit.

They would have been forgiven for milking Oscar Wilde and the Men of the Hour at a few other venues, but McGahan and McCoy, both Belfast-based amateur performers, are not ones to rest on their laurels, and are currently working on a new script which they hope to perform during the summer.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for McGahan performing original monologues at The Menagerie and other venues. Hopefully it won’t be long before his group yet again turn history and high-brow literature into forty five minutes of silly voices, farcical story lines and elaborate gags. Here’s to the next installment.

Iain Todd