Dirty Dancin' in Le Shebeen
Leesa Harker's latest saucy stage adaptation is flaccid, but Maggie Muff dances on
Maggie Muff, the east Belfast girl with the foul mouth and romantic heart, was first launched by Leesa Harker on an unsuspecting Northern Ireland in a spoof Fifty Shades of Grey blog. It went viral, Blackstaff Press spotted an opportunity, Harker published her book, Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue in 2012.
Shortly afterwards, it became a play. We laughed at Ulster finally saying 'Yes, yes, yes!'. But what made that show really powerful was the way in which EL James's original story of a passionate, abusive relationship involving partners from different backgrounds morphed into a Belfast story, and contrasted with Maggie's tangle of affairs and easy friendships with big Sally Ann and the rest.
Plus there was one hell of a plot. That, combined with Harker's much better writing – albeit of the comic variety – stimulated tragedy, comedy and every emotion in between. Sadly, however, although Dirty Dancin' in Le Shebeen again has the excellent Caroline Curran as Maggie, and although the gags are as good as ever, dramatically this novel adaptation is a little, well, flaccid.
It begins with Maggie, newly single (although never for that long) and eager to make her best mate's birthday special. She decides to put on a Dirty Dancing evening down the shebeen and, of course, everything starts to go wrong – principally, the disappearance of Sally-Ann's squeeze (she'd say 'buck', of course), the Russian Igor, whom Maggie jealously resents.
Needless to say, fake passports are found, favours are called in, and the tall Slav reappears just in time. There are some wonderful comic passages and, as ever, Curran peoples the Grand Opera House stage with many characters, although Harker's adaptation remains a one-woman show.
Muff's quest for strawberries for her strawberry Daiquiris throws up some neat vignettes, and a little bit of politics – when Maggie has to be restrained from decking the Mayor, who has removed her soft fruit option from the market – reimagines the office as a kind of fruity droit de First Citizen.
Later, Muff's shock at friend Billy's substitute – a couple of suggestive water melons – turns into delight as she realizes that the woman behind the shebeen's bar can indeed squash them into the next best thing.
In the second half, there is an attempted switch of mood to something more serious, in this case the value of female friendship. Maggie goes mushy about Sally-Ann, and Sally-Ann's mum and dad, who have provided an alternative family for her in the absence of her alcoholic mother and father.
For a moment, I almost believe that Muff is about to fly the pink flag, like sexy Anthony, who is so unavailable. But no, it is a genuine best mates thing. And we end with the two girls doing that Dirty Dancing number – a virtuoso piece of acting from Ms Curran, which ultimately gets her a standing ovation.
What does this latest stage adaptation do for the Maggie Muff brand – a brand that has already spawned a dictionary of east Belfast lingo and various other spin-offs?
The character – who has travelled to Dublin, Eastbourne, Bradford and is set for global domination with a trip to Australia – remains an engaging mix of emotional neediness and sentiment, and the trademark sexual freedom remains central to Harker's comedy. Muff's ability to fit in a quickie at almost any time, any place, reminds me of Erica Jong's heroine's quest for the 'zipless f**k' in Fear of Flying.
Muff still has the irrepressible, inventive gift of the gab that Belfast audiences originally fell in love with. Gems included this imprecation are the quote 'For the love of Peter Andre!', and her version of nostalgia, recalling 'sniffing glue with Sally Ann round the girls' toilets'.
Obviously, Muff still hasn't grown up emotionally and can't distinguish between the real affection she has with long-suffering Billy and the Bridget Jones-style crushes she develops on unsuitable Mr Darcy types.
Possibly another darker theme – a loss, or a birth, or something more grown up like the curdled SM relationship in Fifty Shades of Grey – would have anchored the rest of the Muffery. As it is, however, Dirty Dancin' is more like a couple of hours of Maggie M stand-up than a solid stage comedy with narrative.
And although there were a couple of flag – or fleg – references, there isn't much politics, which seems a missed opportunity. Do the ecstatic preview night audience care? No, of course they don't, because biggest ever hen party in history is having a damn good time regardless.
So, what next for Maggie Muff? Television, possibly, as Harker apparently has a sitcom treatment in development. Whatever you think of her work, it's just possible we may be witnessing the birth of the next Mrs Brown's Boys.