Jimmy Ellis: Home Again

James Ellis, adapted by Glenn Patterson
Blunt Fringe Productions
Andrews Gallery, Titanic Hotel Belfast
to

Better known as purveyors of high-end musical theatre, the Belfast-based Blunt Fringe Productions have now produced a little gem of a piece based on the poetry of one of the city’s most famous and affectionately remembered sons, actor and director James Ellis.

Ellis, who died aged 82 in 2014, was a pioneering figure in Northern Ireland’s theatre scene and found fame as Bert Lynch in the popular police drama Z Cars over 16 years from 1962. He was also an accomplished poet and it’s in that guise he’s remembered in Jimmy Ellis: Home Again.

Adapted by the novelist Glenn Patterson from Ellis’s own Portrait of a House—a collection of poems about his childhood in East Belfast overlooking the city’s fabled Harland and Wolff shipyards—it’s a touching portrait of a lost age. And a hymn to the simple virtues of family life and community.

First seen in 2018 and revived for Belfast’s Maritime Festival, the Titanic Hotel (a skip and a step from the dock that birthed the ill-fated luxury liner) provided a poignant setting. But a problematic one, too, the bland, function-room anonymity of the Andrews Gallery diluting the intimacy of Patterson’s honed and concentrated adaptation and Martin McDowell’s gently discrete direction.

Delivered with modest bravura by Stuart Graham, Ellis’s honest, image-rich and lyrical poetry threads together a ribbon of memories of life in a house populated by assorted lodgers and held together by Katie Tumelty’s wise, resourceful and ever-grounded mother.

Individual episodes are accompanied by a selection of well-chosen songs—popular hits of the day, traditional Irish ballads, hymns and Handel—by Conor McFarlane and Christina Tedders, who also deftly double as the various lodgers, with Oliver Stevenson’s Young Jimmy appearing in flashback vignettes.

Despite its pocket theatre-sized limitations, there’s much to admire here in well-measured performances and a production of gentle warmth and wit that movingly conjures Ellis’s rich evocation of time and place.

Reviewer: Michael Quinn