Unit 70, Castlecourt
6-13 March 2015
Working against the stereotypical conventions of theatre, ‘The Gift’ can be found amidst a sprawling floor of restaurants and shops in the Belfast Shopping Centre, Castlecourt. Stepping inside the seemingly small unit (which some may remember as TK Maxx), I was greeted with shoe covers which myself and the party of approximately only 15 others were instructed to wear – this of course left me to question myself what I was stepping into!
Being led down a corridor into a completely white room, it became apparent that as an audience we were beginning to enter the mind and memories of Mary (Clare McMahon) – the girl’s story we follow from in utero, right up to a stunning climax in the story that is revealed to the audience as being there all along.
The subject this story focuses on is Mary’s Gift for music and how it affects her life and those around her – namely her brother Keith (Niall Murphy) whose knack for mischief lands him in trouble while his and Mary’s ‘Ma’ (Maggie Cronin) is left alone and sick – just after we have seen that ‘Da’ (James Doran) has left to sail the seas and see the world – leaving Ellie (Julia Dearden) to hold it all together for the family.
As part of the Belfast Children’s Festival, it might seem on first reading that this story would be some heavy stuff for children to take in. On the contrary however, when speaking afterwards with cast member Julia Dearden, who played the part of Ellie, she explained to me that where theatre is concerned, children are not given enough credit – I could only agree with her too well as sadly very often we see theatre that is ‘altered’ and to be quite frank, insultingly dumbed-down for younger audiences because it is assumed that they won’t understand. This was certainly not the case with the Cahoots production I went to see that was aimed at 8 year olds in particular – the truth is, they get it!
Along the way, we also see stellar performances from Keith Singleton and Jude Quinn as their respective roles of the Schoolboy and Priest which add to the woven web of this beautiful, immersive story – at one point, we see a particular scene between these two actors, which actually took me aback a little bit with shock, only to draw me in more as only Cahoots NI have proved they can do with such maturity and control. Having seen their recent Christmas production of ‘The Family Hoffman’ at the MAC in December, this production took on a completely different format which was so new and exciting for me to not only ‘watch’, but to be a part of.
Literally walking inside the mind of Mary, this is not theatre where you can become too comfortable and let things wash over you, as you literally become a part of its workings, from being in a dark, wet forest to the safety and solitude of a warm, carpeted hospital room – an attribute I believe would work wonders for even the most restless child who only wants to get up, move about and join in.
For me personally, it did at first bear some resemblance to The Corn Exchange’s recent production of ‘A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing’, in that we follow a central character from her earliest days to what may possibly have been her last; although ‘The Gift’ is much more unique than what I at first took it for – writer Charles Way has written a piece of theatre that finds the beauty in how we affect each other and how some questions are best left unanswered (although I imagine many parents were quizzed on the car ride home on “what happened after mummy”) – even with this in mind, I would have liked to have seen more character development for Mary, who only seemed affected by what happened around her – while the play as a whole (thankfully) avoided the boringly tedious cliché, I was left wondering, that having been pushed into playing piano and constantly “practicing, practicing, practicing” – is it really what she would have wanted after all that time?
A hat-tip is also due to director, Paul Bosco McEneaney who brought together not only a show, but an immersive world in which the real magic is all around you and is literally a part of what you are not only watching, but experiencing. From sliding doors, spinning rooms and the strong scent of wet bark – more than a show, this is an experience that is accessible to everyone through its age-limitless story and use of sensory methods, including not only sight, but also sound, touch and smell – being so close to Subway, it’s a wonder the pungent smell of sandwich didn’t waft in!
A wonderful piece of immersive theatre. More information can be found on their website at http://www.cahootsni.com.