The gamut of performers at Fringe brings with it a spectrum of experience; from shiny new student companies, powering forward on naive enthusiasm and off-brand energy drinks, to veteran performers, showcasing an elegance and economy of style granted by years of experience. There’s a lot to like about both ends of this scale, energy and inventiveness vs. master craft. However, the shows that really stick with you, that you feel privileged to have seen, are those that touch on both - a deeply personal work, immaculately executed. ‘Greater Belfast’ is one of these shows.
What’s on show here is theatre in a very pure form - simple, elegant, effective.
Taking the UK’s most troubled city as its subject matter, you’d be forgiven for expecting an hour of conflict and destruction but writer-performer Matt Regan digs deeper. The Troubles are present but they’re only part of the personality of a city with roots stretching back to the Middle Ages. Instead we start with the foundation of the place, the ubiquitous sediment called ‘sleech’, and build upwards; through dilapidated mills and shined-up museums, scuzzy punk clubs and upscale bars - a geological survey core, the grit and grist of 800 years of Belfast life.
This perspective is probably a symptom of Regan’s age. At twenty seven years old, his experience of the city’s more recent violence is firsthand, but seen through the eyes of a child. This means that when he describes the events, he does so with none of the politics, making them more emotionally real, and easier to integrate into the bigger picture of the city.
He paints this picture with a keen ear and awareness of the rhythm and shape of the Northern Irish accent. Early in the show, he presents it as one of his bugbears - all harsh ‘k’s and vicious staccato ’t’s - but then proceeds to turn into a percussion line, underpinning the show’s forward motion, with his extensive vocabulary and phrasing being the harmony.
Regan’s supported in this by a backing track skilfully arranged to link every era of the city’s life, allowing Regan to slip and slide from past to present to possible future and back again. The on-stage string quartet is an inspired choice, taking the basic sounds of the twiddly, twee fiddle music associated with picture-postcard Ireland, and subverting it, slowing it to create yet another line of texture.
Throughout the show, Regan manages to sustain so many threads that, when they come together at the climax, it’s a little overwhelming. However, there’s a such a fierce momentum that it’s best to go with the flow. What’s on show here is theatre in a very pure form - simple, elegant, effective.