Paperboy | Theatre Review
The Lyric, Belfast • Friday 27 July ’18
By Conor O’Neill
It’s 1975, a divided Belfast is killing itself, literally. The rattle of gunfire is never far from earshot, the bombs are blasting and the Bay City Rollers, are, well, rolling.
A plain white box sits in the centre of the Lyric’s main stage, leaning against it, a white Tele bag. As a full house settles, lights dim and suddenly there are 30 plus teenagers cramming the stage singing the opener The Big Boys. Oul Mac (Patrick Connor) sits on the box and our protagonist, Tony, goes through a rigorous and brief ‘interview’. Basically, turn up regardless of flu, the measles, mumps and any other ailment short of death. No thieving and no backchat are the order of the day. There are plenty of others to replace a simple Tele boy.
Based on Tony Macaulay’s memoir Paperboy, writer/lyricist Andrew Doyle and musician/composer Duke Special, along with Youth Music Theatre UK have teamed up to bring Macaulay’s memories of mid-1970s Belfast to musical life. With 28 songs to choose from and genres from rock to ballads, an easy on the ear jazz number, plus an octave rattling clarinet solo, all bases are covered.
The plot is simple and timeless, except not many tales of teenage infatuation have the Troubles as a backdrop. Boy meets girl and tries to win her heart. The Troubles are not that big a deal when that’s all you have known. The bigger trouble is that of Big Jaunty (Ben McGarvey). Tall, blond, dressed in John Frazer’s best and the double of David Cassidy, what hope has our wee man from the Upper Shankill have?
Brains, that’s what. Of only two from his primary to pass the dreaded 11-plus, Tony, excellently played by 14-year-old Sam Gibson, often the butt of elder brother Terry’s (Morgan Shuttleworth) jokes, ‘Catch a bap ya wee fruit’, the paperboy relies on wit to somehow scramble through a life where squaddies, hoods, thieves and religious authorities appear to be out to get him. Armed with an imagination fuelled by Lost In Space, Doctor Who and American adverts, Tony sprints his way from curtain up to standing ovation. Sometimes a lone narrator explaining the tribulations of a teenager caught in too many crosshairs. At other times, he’s almost lost in a mass of characters, sometimes on his side, more often not.
And the main object of his desire, except the catalogue bought sea-monkies – you’ll have to see it – stamps, his band The TITS, and other diversions is the apple of his eye, Sharon Burgess. Played by Erin Ryder, Sharon has the Shankill boys wrapped around her little finger. Tony simply wants her to be his Olivia Newton John. With news that the Rollers are to play the Ulster Hall our man hatches a plan, borrows a coin from Terry and buys two tickets. Like all ‘will they, won’t they?’ tales, obstacles pop up as often as his war with acne.
There are simply too many fab scenes to pick from. Two of my favourites are The History Lesson, with a tune to match the mayhem on stage, Miss Baron (Aishling Doherty-Madrigal) tries to control the ‘country’s top 1%’ as Judy (Elisa Sangrar) tells the Protestant side of Northern Ireland’s history, while Belfast’s Royal Academy’s sole Catholic, Thomas O’Hara (Luc Burns) sings of the ‘North’s’ plight. Second is Nan’s (Patrick Connor) rant as big Ian, a paper-mache puppet, of course, screams on about ‘the dangers of heathen diary products’, Galtee cheese being singled out with a special hatred. There is a line a minute to bring a smile to your face.
But, and unfortunately, there is one. I’ve read the book twice, loved it each time, and to my mind, writer Doyle has taken a few too many artistic liberties with the original and lost some of its purity. But with 386 people on their feet for close to five minutes, that’s a little aside. The kids and all involved were aces. Just wish I had not read the book before the show.
To judge yourself, phone the Lyric’s box office on 02890 381081 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org Paperboy runs until Sunday 29 July.
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