Propaganda at the Lyric Theatre Belfast

Propaganda at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast
Propaganda at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast Propaganda at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast

MORECAMBE and Wise had a brilliant sketch with conductor André Previn whom they nicknamed Andre Preview.

Eric’s punchline, after he’d tortured a bit of Grieg’s Piano Concerto under Previn’s baton, was: “They’re the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.”

You could say that of stellar composer Conor Mitchell’s new musical, Propaganda, now running at the Lyric Theatre in the Belfast International Arts Festival.

He takes a serious subject, the Berlin blockade in 1949 which led to the construction of the infamous wall, and borrows from the American songbook and people like Kurt Weill.

That’s no bad thing and there are some nice Cabaret-like passages in part two. The problem is that we begin in the middle, with a potential opening half-way through the first half.

And because we don’t get the context, we don’t really care enough about our characters and their battle with the shifting tectonic plates of mittel Europe.

I know Aristotle said you should start with stuff happening, and we did. So our band of creatives stuck on the wrong page of history, La Bohème types with photographer Slavi (Darren Franklin), his muse Hanna (Joanna O'Hare), the woman with a past Magdalene von Furstenberg (engaging Rebecca Caine) and Gerhardt (Matthew Cavan).

There were projected snippets of history lesson above Conor Murphy’s Brutalist set made of scaffolding, but the politics weren’t always clear. We had a Big Brother figure, Comrade Poliakoff, nastily pulling the strings which worked pretty well, thanks to stern acting skills from Sean Kearns. Ruddy, the black comrade with a thing for Magdelene, was nicely outlined by Oliver Lidert but couldn’t change her story.

The Belfast Ensemble played the score, originally conceived five years ago, with enthusiasm.

You realise that musical theatre and indeed opera depends on great narratives. Not always believable, but they harness the other elements. Mitchell’s tale, taken from the 20th century’s tortured Pathé News narrative, with uncle Joe Stalin popping up on a poster, was, you could say, Orwellian.

It’s a shame the show couldn’t be shorter and restructured a bit as the themes are very interesting. The focus on love, survival, not to mention some mildly risqué stuff (we do see lovely Hanna in her period undies, with stockings and suspenders) is significant.

As in 1984, where Winston Smith’s affair with Julia represents an act of defiance against the State, what may save us is love...

We also gained some Irish history, with 1916 lobbed into the mix. It is of course an important strand of 20th century history, but seems a bit out of place here.

There was an enjoyable big musical number which sounded like an ending. But the actual conclusion was abrupt and nasty, when the silent men came for our heroine.

But Mr Mitchell, whose Abomination was so memorable, could shake the Propaganda kaleidoscope a bit.

  • lyrictheatre.co.uk
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  • belfastinternationalartsfestival.com