O Holly Knight!   Ruby Campbell as Holly Knight and Richard Croxford as Bob Baxter in 'O Holly Night!'
Photo courtesy of the Theatre At The Mill

Thematically weighty and beautifully performed, Michael Cameron's O Holly Knight!, directed by Colm G Doran and staged at Newtownabbey's Theatre At The Mill, is a dark but swift seasonal fable where the pressures of the time of year are uniquely, inherently and compellingly expressed. It takes the common theme of professional and societal pretending, for the better and for the worse, to a whole new level, thoroughly and smartly reflecting the prices of living a life through the media spotlight, especially during a heavily publicised and glossy holiday such as Christmas, for a prolonged period of time.

Having underlined what I believe O Holly Knight! is, however, I do feel the need to also highlight what O Holly Knight! isn't – and why this is no hindrance. If you walk into the theatre expecting something like Cameron & Doran's magical The Shop At The Top Of The Town from last year, you may be disappointed – this is a less fluid and more vignetted work. But I do emphasise the "may" – because what you will get is a bolder and arguably richer character drama with both lead and supporting performances to savour, featuring more rather marvellous set design from Ciaran Bagnall, colourful costuming from Diana Ennis, clever Chris Warner compositions and Sarah Jane Johnston's vibrant choreography.

Driven by another tour de force in acting from Ruby Campbell, title character Holly Knight is a smart subversion of multiple character archetypes reflective of the play's 1960s setting and beyond. Not entirely, but a bit like, a manic pixie dream girl, agony aunt and ace journalist rolled into one, she appears pigeonholed into what those who tune into her radio show, read her newspaper columns or enjoy her company expect, or worse, demand her to be ahead of who she is and who she can really be. The difference between the what and the who, between how a person serves a purpose to various elements of a society still in need of progression and the need to explore themselves, to live and breathe on their own terms... one could actually argue that it's similar to Margot Robbie's character arc in Greta Gerwig's Barbie, except done right in a better setting.

Darren Franklin as Brett Beaumont and Rosie Barry as Miss Boyd in 'O Holly Night!'
Photo courtesy of the Theatre At The Mill

The brilliance of this is that all this expression and growth is not limited to either Campbell or Holly. There is much interest to be found in the story of Holly's friend Johnny (the dependable Rea Campbell-Hill), and also in Rosie Barry's nuanced portrayal. As Miss Boyd, secretary to newspaper editor Bob Baxter (Richard Croxford, in fine form throughout), she too must contend with hierarchical demands and tension, which escalate due to the arrival of film star Brett Beaumont (an understatedly charismatic Darren Franklin). Efforts to make a newspaper relevant again, let alone great, are conjoined with the attention Holly receives from Brett and how it affects both Holly and Miss Boyd. Barry’s take on the character hints at a rather twisted Cinderella, someone who burns any pre-conceived perception of Cinders to cinders. It isn't that Miss Boyd is trodden upon and bullied for certain, it's that she feels that way – and it appears as true now as it does in this scenario that feeling, rather than being, reads as a prominent factor in cultural appreciation and appropriation at the centre of society.

If all that wasn't enough, you also have Jo Maguire's very impressive multi-character playing to enjoy. It is a lot to take in, and it is to director Doran's credit that the overall tone of the piece, funny as well as compelling, remains relatively stable the whole way through. Laughs are frequent and thought is plentiful in O Holly Knight!, without doubt, and perhaps best of all is that underneath the potential for and reality of the darkness, a very Christmassy vibe about being inspired to go the extra mile to put on a show for the public remains – the kind of thing that the actors and production team certainly do as they work to ensure we truly engage with the production.

Simon Fallaha

O Holly Knight! runs at the Theatre At The Mill, Newtownabbey, until Saturday December 30. For more information, and tickets, click here.