Theatre Review: ‘Dickens at the Ulster Hall’ at the Lyric Theatre

BY TARA McEVOY 

Upon Charles Dickens’ 1869 performance at Belfast’s Ulster Hall, Frank Finlay (then editor of the city’s Northern Whig), wrote that in addition to being a remarkable author, Dickens was also a truly ‘great actor’. Fortunately, the same couldn’t be truer of the man tasked with playing the writer – Belfast-born playwright, scholar and thespian Sam McCready, who this week brought his one-man show Dickens at the Ulster Hall to the Lyric Theatre.

Bursting onto the stage with all the energy and vitality of a character from one of Dickens’ novels, McCready presents to the audience an intriguingly structured piece of theatre – which actually takes the form of a rehearsal Dickens gives to ‘warm up’ before playing to a crowd in Belfast later the same evening. Such an ingenious format quickly dissolves any supposed barrier between actor and audience, as viewers are invited to play the part of the writer’s fans, eagerly awaiting his forthcoming performance. Audience participation is invited, McCready facing the crowd with a deadpan expression as he enquires as to whether those in Belfast are accustomed to pieces of the ceiling falling in mid-show.

The staging may be sparse – with only a few armchairs and a lectern on display, against the backdrop of a projected slide of the Ulster Hall’s interior – yet McCready’s comprehensive, humorous and poignant script truly immerses the viewer in the action; transporting us back not only two centuries in time, but also from the minimalist surroundings of the new Lyric Theatre to the opulence of the cavernous Ulster Hall.

Additionally, the fact that the play masquerades as a rehearsal allows for genuine intimacy, as we gain an insight on the enigma of Dickens – by turns a self-conscious, anxious novelist and resplendent orator. It’s in such moments where McCready’s true flair as an actor is evident, as the audience is treated to a gambit of emotions and a poignant conversation on Dickens’ marital woes. Striking too are instances where the character takes pause to read from one of his works, whether that be A Christmas Carol or Doctor Marigold.

Yet quite apart from discussion of Dickens’ plays and personal life, the play also forms an illuminating comment on the birth of industrial Belfast – a comment which strikes a chord with a contemporary crowd at the Lyric. Woven into the actor’s monologue are illuminating ruminations on the city’s burgeoning urbanisation, its stint playing host to a visiting Queen Victoria, the war for architectural dominance of the city between Charles Lanyon and William J. Barre (who would indeed go on to design the Ulster Hall).

Far from being a dry list of anecdotes, though, such tales enable McCready to evoke the fun of the city, impersonating a rowdy audience member (‘Mr Dickens, you shouldn’t have killed that wee chile’!’), giving voice to Dickens’ fondness of those who came to see him perform. ‘You’re rougher than the crowd in Dublin’ opines McCready, eyes twinkling. ‘Warmer, but rougher. I like that.’

If a thousand parallels could be drawn between the Belfast Dickens encountered upon his visit in 1869 and that of today, more still exist between the writer and the man behind this play. Over 200 years after Dickens was born, Sam McCready does a tremendous job in bringing his work to life like no other – infusing his stories with a wit, intellect and humility that in turn shed light onto both his personal struggles and love of a great city.

  Students get £10 tickets for all off-peak performances (Tues & Wed nights and all matinees)

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