FRIDAY, JULY 7, 2023

Good Vibrations (2023)

Production Photo: Carrie Davenport

It comes to mind after a period of rumination that the Lyric Theatre of Belfast's musical production of Glenn Patterson & Colin Carberry's Good Vibrations, directed by Des Kennedy, is transcendent in its reminiscence and overall impact, not solely in light of performance and performance levels but also posters and poster children. The posters of actors, writers, musicians and so many more, and the poster children representative of the arts, pivotal to society. It's about what the images plastered on our bedroom and arts venue walls represent - a sign or preview of promise at the very least, a gateway to idealistic dreams, and a picture of who and what we either already idolise or may yet idolise. And it's also about the people within, an emblem of life and livelihood in all its capacity for momentary vibrancy and enduring energy. Once glumly, heartbreakingly viewed as something of a distant hope on the "Playhouse For All" poster against the wall of a closed Lyric, we can now see them, once again, on a multitude of colourful posters outside the doors of open and thriving Lyrics, Grand Opera Houses, Metropolitan Arts Centres and their ilk. It's like temporary, unavoidable emptiness paving the way for a reflective, restorative and ultimately inspirational atmosphere which encapsulates the potential of theatres in general, and also the tone of this very play.

Here also, in this 2023 revival of what was already a tremendously enjoyable experience, we find a genuine revitalisation of "the friend for life" that I once said the 2018 theatrical adaptation of Belfast punk legend Terri Hooley's life provided - punk not as an act of rebellion but as a means of releasing pent-up vigour while seeking new structure and stability where neither are guaranteed. It's creativity reinvented and exhibited as the storm that keeps you alive and as a reminder of the calm that keeps you from being alone - our relationships at home and in the outside world, how they dovetail accordingly or otherwise, and how we, in turn, are affected.

"If you find somewhere good, you have to hope that good people will follow". So speaks the optimist in Terri with an "i", an especially symbolic final letter of a name which tells us of the eye Terri Hooley lost in childhood and hints at the individual who "saw the light" through inspiration from a certain Hank Williams song. It's a spotlight for the enthusiastic and imposing presence of Glen Wallace, playing Hooley, to lead himself and various members of a strong cast repeatedly in and out of a limelight laden with contradictory but compelling impulses. Musical impulses, mainly, in DJing, record store owning and more, which offer Hooley something of an electric interlude from his down-to-earth conversations with his father (Marty Maguire, impressive) and play their part in entrancing his first love, Ruth Carr (Jayne Wisener, excellent). It is Ruth who tells Hooley on early sight that he doesn't look like a man with that many friends, but this reads not so much as appearances being deceptive as fascinating, an instance of potentially unlikely but wholly understandable connection.

Into Hooley's life and onto the stage come a band named Rudi, along with their own desire to literally hit the Big Time. The narrative is accelerated, and one of several Katie Richardson-directed musical numbers kicks into high gear, surely encouraging many an audience member to get moving or even singing in their seat. All on a marvellously designed and flexible Grace Smart set, which astounds not only in detail but in capturing the homely and economical vibe worthy of Groundhog Day. And that is a compliment. In a similar kind of way to how Bill Murray and Harold Ramis worked skilfully to develop character through the art of varying routines within a limited space over a short period of time, Good Vibrations' cast of twelve wholeheartedly embraces entertainingly emotive and powerfully pensive possibilities within a relatively concise and compact arena. For the meaning of the play lies not only in the songs we hear, but also in the friends, families, colleagues and acquaintances we see - the relationship between the music and the people we love, and how a community can be defined as much by a soaring note as a piercing word. Knowledge, as much as kineticism, is key to this discovery and maintenance of soul in more than one way.

Production Photo: Carrie Davenport

Good Vibrations isn't just akin to punk rock - it is the very essence of punk rock, and the wide emotional and rational spectrums that we must grapple with to at least try and give the likes of Rudi and The Undertones their shot at the Big Time and their Teenage Kicks respectively, all while maintaining familial and social foundations. Many a price is paid for strong emotional investment in anything, in any time, in any place, and the play smartly relays this to us - we get a hint that even if one may need more time to fully engage with what puts them in their element, this is time they can't realistically afford to give, and that there is as much a time and place for peace and quiet as rock and roll. Tie this in alongside a genuinely troubled backdrop and the brief but sad image of a burning fire, and the harsh reality of any artistic paradise really kicks in – avail turned a veil over sudden loss.

But rather than a traditional rise and fall story, the core of this Good Vibrations appears to be more like sudden loss transitioning to enduring legacy. In highlighting that transition, the play is brave enough to face what arises from the abrupt confrontation of issues that one may never really dismiss but may preferably choose to ignore in favour of persistently putting on a show of confidence in apparently rewarding public places. It's a theme that runs through perhaps every single one of my favourite works in theatre and film - that of performance versus reality, and how the latter is likely to catch up with the former whether one likes it or not. And it's something that both Wallace and Jayne Wisener really shine when conveying, the painful and inevitable pressures of parenthood and arrested development clashing passionately and believably. Lessons are at the very least invited to be learned, Hooley's father poignantly tells his son that victory doesn't always look like how other people imagine, and, in the context of necessary sensibilities, we're reminded that it is perfectly fine to not aspire to be everyone, everywhere all at once, however often our feelings may persuade us otherwise. In this sense, one can picture Good Vibrations going hand in hand with not only Hank Williams' Light, but also Michael Masser and Linda Creed's Greatest Love Of All - a potentially awesome reality where we can believe the poster children on stage really are our future, and where we, as an audience, can receive them well and help them lead the way.

Simon Fallaha

A Lyric Theatre production, Good Vibrations ran at Belfast's Grand Opera House in May and is currently running at New York City's Irish Arts Center until July 16. For more information, click here.