Northern Ireland’s theatre bounced back in style in 2022, emerging from the privations and challenges of the long pandemic interregnum with batteries recharged and a new generation of emerging writing and acting talent bolstering established names.
In a year in which startling new work sat comfortably alongside reworkings of Greek tragedy and revivals of classic musical theatre and contemporary Northern Irish texts, here are my top 10 shows of 2022. Impossible, invidious to rank them, they appear in chronological order.
Darren Murphy’s X’ntigone (after Sophocles’ Antigone) from Prime Cut Productions at The Mac, Belfast was a concentrated two-hander that laced Sophocles’ ancient tragedy with bitingly topical, concentrated fierceness. Ciaran Bagnall’s striking set and concise direction by Emma Jordan (also responsible for a finely finessed revival of Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney’s The Border Game at the Lyric, Belfast and on tour) made for a provocative start to the theatrical year.
Northern Ireland’s only professional opera company was on a roll in 2022 under artistic director Cameron Menzies’s stewardship. The year ended with a sumptuous, searing La traviata and began with a vivid revival of Into the Woods, the impressive ensemble cast’s local accents illuminating Sondheim’s intensely personal interrogation of fairy tales on Niall McKeever’s stunning set in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.
In a remarkable year for the Lyric, Amanda Verlaque’s This Sh*t Happens All the Time was a pointed commentary on homophobia and the region’s problematic relationship with LGBTQ+ politics, Verlaque’s wise, witty, quietly angry, autobiographically-laced second play (following 2021’s Distortion) was the best of several thought-provoking monologues on Northern Irish stages in 2022.
The Lagan-side venue also co-produced Brian Friel’s Translations with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, where it also enjoyed a long run before touring across the south of Ireland. Friel’s masterpiece about colonial occupiers overwriting language in oppressive denial of native identity has never seemed so relevant. Caitriona McLaughlin’s meticulously observed revival earned the Lyric a deserved nomination in The Stage’s Theatre of the Year awards.
As Northern Irish politics remains in a state of suspended animation in post-Brexit turmoil, Shaun Blaney delivered a bravura solo performance as the Guildford Four’s wrongly imprisoned Gerry Conlon in Richard O’Rawe and Martin Lynch’s In the Name of the Son, produced by GBL Productions and Green Shoot Productions at Belfast’s Grand Opera House. A reminder that prejudice and injustice still holds sway in the region and of its terrible cost.
Back at the Lyric, Commedia of Errors made its debut on the main stage with The Gap Year to see writer Claire McMahon claiming her place among a growing roll-call of exciting young female writers and directors in the region. A comical and warm portrait of three sexagenarian women touring Ireland’s 32 counties in a campervan, light and dark themes deftly interlaced to winningly suggest that 60 is the new 40.
In its centenary anniversary, the legacy of the Irish border was the focus of two revived plays, The Border Game and Lawrence McKeown’s pointed and poignant Green & Blue. First seen in 2017, it remains a compassionate yet excoriatingly incisive critique of enforced segregation superbly performed by James Doran and Vincent Higgins for Kabosh.
Dublin-based B*Spoke Theatre Company brought Frank McGuinness’s Dinner With Groucho to Belfast’s The Mac to eavesdrop on a surreal encounter between Nobel laureate poet T S Eliot (Greg Hicks) and zany Hollywood film star Groucho Marx (Ian Bartholomew). With McGuinness at his most playfully quixotic and winning, it proved erudite and entertaining in equal measure.
Set in Cold War-blockaded Berlin, Conor Mitchell’s Propaganda boldly blended Big Band exuberance, Broadway brashness and operatic bravura for an ambitious musical theatre experience second to none. Co-produced by Belfast Ensemble and the Lyric, its collision of politics, music, theatre, dance and video boasted impeccable ensemble playing on an audacious set by Conor Murphy.
Paul McVeigh’s return to the stage after 20-odd years, during which he became an award-winning novelist, was his searing, autobiographical monologue Big Man at the Lyric. A deeply personal take on being gay in Northern Ireland, engagingly performed by Tony Flynn, it potently argued that love—whatever its gender—is love.
Kudos, too, to Bruiser Theatre Company for its Irish Times Theatre Award for its revival of Owen McCafferty’s Mojo Mickeybo, and to Belfast’s Frank Matcham-designed Grand Opera House, newly resplendent after a £12.2 refurbishment and restoration, for being named the UK’s third and the world’s eighth most beautiful theatre in a survey commissioned by the Premier Inn hotel chain.