Pick 'n' Mix Festival Review

Jane Coyle signs up for a day of total theatre, seeing four new plays in a day and keeping in shape by dashing up and down the stairs of the OMAC

Saturday, June 20 in Belfast and while the shoppers are out in force in the city centre and the anti-racist rally is at full throttle outside City Hall, the Old Museum Arts Centre in College Square North is also packing in the crowds.

The Pick’n’Mix Mini Festival is a showcase for new work, a mixed bag of rehearsed readings, work-in-progress', sneak previews, premieres and early try-outs. It’s the place for gauging audience reaction, making mistakes in public and discovering unexplored treasure.

Even before the first show of the day gets underway, the box office computers are as tired and emotional as their operators. Queues get longer, start times are delayed and the punters just keep on rolling in. But everyone’s in incredibly good form, enjoying the buzz of a packed programme of new plays, new dance pieces, new companies and the arrival of lots of familiar faces.

This year OMAC goes for broke on its sugar-coated theme, with gorgeous candy-striped streamers and gigantic cellophane-wrapped sweeties providing a feast for the eye as well as huge potential for tooth decay.

Buoyed up by this sugar rush, I sprint up four flights of stairs to the handsome Red Room, with its stucco ceiling and wrought iron spiral staircase, for Transition, an as yet unfinished play by 21 year-old first time playwright Susan Jones. She’s part of Ransom’s Write on the Edge initiative, aimed at developing female writers in Northern Ireland and linking them up with top level practitioners in London and beyond.

Jones sounds a fresh and welcome new voice, whose take on the changing city that is post-conflict Belfast is filtered through the experiences of the affluent protestant professional classes. Not since the plays of Robin Glendinning has that voice been heard on stage. The reading is directed by George Perrin, co-artistic director of the London company Nabokov.

In the hands of Bronagh Taggart, Niall Cusack, Susie Kelly and Claire Rafferty, the story of much-loved only child Emily’s great break for freedom - all the way from Methodist College to Queen’s, via home in leafy Malone - carries truth, humour and astute observation. One looks forward to the completion of the script and its future development.

With scarcely time to draw breath, it’s a dash back down those stairs to pick up tickets for Replay’s Mickey and Lionel. Then, as a well-known local actress breathlessly describes it, another ‘ascent of Everest’ sees us back in the Red Room, where the company’s new artistic director is waiting to introduce himself.

David Fenton has come all the way from Brisbane to take up the post vacated by Richard Croxford, who left Replay to become artistic director of the Lyric. Fenton has a lovely relaxed, enthusiastic manner, and the same can be said for actors Michael Lavery and Patrick Buchanan, as they act out the tale of shy Mickey and apparently fearless Lionel, in this new play by Vicky Ireland.

Ireland is an established children’s playwright, who has used the fable of 'The Mouse and the Lion' as the basis for this piece, conceived specially for Replay. Still in its early stages, there is some work remaining to be done in taking a sweet story about the power of imagination and inner magic into the realms of subtlety and complexity, the hallmarks of Replay’s work, even for very young children.

At the end, Fenton invites the audience to drop plastic worms into a hat to signify their interest in seeing the piece brought to full production. It will be interesting to discover the results of this amusingly unscientific survey.

Just time for a quick cuppa and a choccie bar in the OMAC snack bar before heading up into the main auditorium and those back-breaking chairs and sub-tropical temperatures. While we’ve been keeping our sugar levels up, the tireless backstage team have been hard at work again, setting the stage for the next show.

The most sophisticated offering of the day is Prime Cut’s The Girl on the Sofa, whose glossy, black-on-black presentation and high production values could, even as a rehearsed reading, hold its own in the public arena. The director is Sarah Lyle, better known as a sparky young actress, but here showing a new side to her talents.

With an excellent cast – Mary Jordan, Karen Hassan, Lalor Roddy, Kathy Kiera Clarke, Kerri Quinn, James Doran, Maggie Cronin and Miche Doherty - Lyle brings clarity and poignancy to Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s haunting, richly textured family drama, which must surely find a place on the Prime Cut programme before too long.

A blissful 45-minute break gives the audience the opportunity to step outside for a leisurely smoke, a turn about the block or even a bag of chips. But two more of Northern Ireland's leading independents are still lined up to perform. Last on the evening’s bill is Bruiser with a 60-minute preview of its next show, Gogol’s The Government Inspector.

Before that Tinderbox steps forward with a reading of a play whose subject matter is heartbreakingly apt for these fraught times. Another fine processional cast has assembled – Lalor Roddy, Paul Kennedy, Alexandra Ford, Helena Bereen, Richard Orr and young newcomers Sarah Melville-Watson and Shaun Blaney.

Award-winning writer Hannah Khalil drew on oral testimonies from people who have experienced displacement and domestic upheaval in the worst of circumstances. The result of her research is Plan D, at present a rather unwieldy piece, towards the end of which, under the direction of Tinderbox dramaturg Hanna Slattne, Roddy and Kennedy combine to craft a little piece of narrative magic.

But Pick’n’Mix is not all about the serious stuff of production and development. It’s about the entire performing arts community coming together for a weekend of craic, creativity and diversion. Roll on next year.