THE FAR OFF HILLS/DIRECTED BY MIKEL MURFI @ THE HAWKSWELL, Thurs 20th Nov 14

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Sometimes (a lot of the time for me) you walk into a production completely unaware of what you’re in for. Maybe you’ve been invited for dinner and a movie, and the movie seems a secondary part of the evening, which you sign up for solely in order to enjoy the catch up with an old friend. Or perhaps you’ve won tickets to a concert of a band you’ve never heard of.

The majority of the time, things go according to plan and the gig makes hardly a dent on your consciousness; instead, your memories (if any) of the night, will stem from conversations, frustrated travel plans, particularly tasty cocktails.

And then there’s the rare one that makes your hair stand on end the moment you arrive. As soon as the lights go down, before the performance has even begun, you can feel that you’ve stumbled upon something very special indeed… simply from the energy of an audience far more informed and excited than you.

This is exactly what happened last night for me at the Hawkswell, when I went along to see The Far Off Hills, presented by Loco & Reckless Productions in association with Nomad Theatre Network. Already, I’ve typed a sentence that I didn’t understand until it was accurately and kindly explained to me by somebody in-the-know during the interval. And I think my ignorance made the experience all the more magical, in that I delighted in discovering not just a delightful comedy performed by truly talented actors, directed by one of the genuine stars of Sligo, but also a whole theatre scheme which is bringing such things to smaller regional venues in the north west and midlands. Here’s the science bit:

Nomad Theatre Network is a unique partnership of regional theatres, set up in 2006 with the aim of producing (and touring) new, high quality theatre and basically bringing more and better performing arts into the north midlands region, rather than all of it being solidly based in the capital cities. Each year one of the participating theatres commissions a production, which tours the region after opening in their own theatre.

So this year it was the Hawkswell’s turn to commission a new production, and they brought in a dream team with Mikel Murfi (actor, director, writer extraordinaire), Loco & Reckless Productions and a brilliant cast. Lennox Robinson’s already humorous and light-hearted 1928 play lives, breathes and pulses with joy in this energetic and colourful adaptation.

The play centres around a not-so-traditional family set up in rural Ireland, where the eldest of three daughters, Marian, rules the roost. Widower father, Patrick and two younger sisters, Pet and Ducky, grudgingly tolerate her strict dominance of the household, holding on for the day she finally follows her vocational calling and enters the convent. But a tricky cataract operation, various suitors and meddlers, and a little bit of feminine scheming soon enter the mix, leading to all kinds of ‘romantical’ farce.

Four extremely talented actors play a cast of ten, a fact which is explained frankly and directly at the beginning of the play, by the players themselves. This introduction, casual and friendly, inviting the audience directly into the front room, and in on the joke as it were, sets the tone for an unusual and incredibly effective co-conspiracy between audience and characters. Throughout the performance, there are several ingenious moments, where a particularly difficult switcheroo between two (or even three) different roles is acknowledged with the slightest facial twitch, the teensiest bit of deliberate “out-of-character” connection with an absolutely absorbed audience. So skilful was the multi-part acting in this production, and so effortlessly practiced without illusion or pretension, that when the curtain call came and the cast took their bows I found myself wondering where all the other characters were for a wonderfully confused moment. In the deftest of manners, director Mikel Murfi reaches out to his audience to offer them relief of the usual theatre/film tradition of ‘suspending disbelief’ while simultaneously drawing them headlong into the same as the story unfolds.

Steve Blount, who plays three very different central male characters throughout, held the audience in the palm of his many hands. At one point, the father in the play, Patrick, is represented solely by a pair of sunglasses and a walking stick, but so engaged were we, the audience, that our minds filled Blount in to the thin air around those props with little distraction.

Pet and Ducky (Sligo’s own Niamh McGrath and Roscommon actress Julie Sharkey respectively) demonstrated perfectly the art of physical characterisation, moving swiftly between teenage girls and gnarled old men, and Caoimhe O’Malley as Marian was intimidatingly sharp and pious, even as she softened towards the end. Her brief cameos as Ellen the maid were spectacular, providing such a clear distinction between the two characters and offering an almost surreal element to proceedings, as she occasionally appeared in a cloud of smoke and heart/tooth-ache.

All elements were perfectly aligned in this production of The Far Off Hills, from the wonderfully mood-enhancing lighting (the magic influence of Eeyore-like Harold Mahony’s presence on the light was one of my favourite touches), to the simple but impressive set design and the intricate attention to detail (sound effects are employed in a unique and engaging way, which plays right along with the audience participation element of the play). Which explains why it got an instant standing ovation from a full house at the Hawkswell on opening night.

The Far Off Hills will be touring until Christmas, and is a MUST SEE according to me (and I’m sure, everyone else who was present last night). Tonight it plays again in the Hawkswell, before moving off in the direction of The Garage Theatre in Co Monaghan. I highly recommend getting a ticket quickly before they sell out for tonight, and perhaps even travelling to see this production. Not only because it’s brilliant, but also because it’s one for Sligo to be very, very proud of. A lot of local people were involved in every element of this fantastic commission, and it’s things like this that put us on the map. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to go along and educate myself somewhat, in such a raucous and entertaining way…

BRAVO!

 

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