By Stanford Friedman
That raucous beat emanating from 11th Avenue is the sound of Good Vibrations, a production of Belfast’s Lyric Theater which has taken up shop at the Irish Arts Center, providing that lovely space with their first full musical and their largest-scale theatrical offering to date.
If the title smacks, to your American ear, of the Beach Boys, then you have another smack coming. Good Vibrations was actually the record shop, and subsequent record label, that gave a home to the Belfast punk rock scene in the turbulent 1970’s. Adapted from their true banger of a bio film of the same name, writers Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson again conspire to cage intense musicality within the true life story of the record company’s creator, Terri Hooley (Glen Wallace), the man who would become known as “The Godfather of Belfast Punk.” It’s rock musical meets biographical period piece, with moments that lag and others that bop.
The first half hour is mostly given over to exposition, beginning with the childhood bullying incident that left Terri with only one eye. It serves as an apt metaphor for the man he will become. He develops a singular vision for nurturing his label, while blind to the pain he brings to those closest to him, especially his wife, Ruth (Jayne Wisener). Speaking more romantically of vinyl than of love, he declares, “The seven-inch single. The most revolutionary object in the western world because these things change people’s lives.”
Terri’s tale is one of foolhardy, alcohol-fueled egotism, that can transform into spirited generosity when it comes to his love of music and his hometown dedication. He thanks Ruth for her selfless support by delegating her to second fiddle, more concerned with the bands he has raised than he is with the birth of their child. Meanwhile, those bands, including The Undertones, The Outcasts and Rudi, give a generation of downtrodden youth just the kind of nihilistic blow to the head they need to escape, for a moment, their bloody Northern Ireland existence.
Though the political violence is mentioned in passing or via radio broadcasts, the musical lacks what its film counterpart excelled in: the tension generated from the risks Terri took increased dramatically by showing the shootings, car bombings and other carnage that surrounded him on a daily basis. Without that close, visceral proximity to death, the musical misses out on its sharpest angle.
But when director Des Kennedy lets the tunes take over, the production shifts into overdrive. Among the 19 numbers we are treated to, there are renditions of “Big Time” by Rudi (“I see no point being alive/I see no point in keeping clean/I see no point in anything”) “Teenage Kicks” (The Undertones) and “Justa Nother Teenage Rebel” (The Outcasts). Terri’s early infatuation with the Shangri-Las and Hank Williams provide counterpoint, especially with Williams’s, “I Saw the Light,” haunting Terri’s subconscious at touchstone moments of his life.
Wallace and Wisener give heartfelt performances and are backed by ten ensemble players handling some 34 different supporting characters, requiring the audience to keep on their toes, especially given the fact that the play jumps through time faster than a DeLorean through a black hole. Dylan Reid rocks out as both Greg Cowan of the Outcasts and Feargal Sharkey of The Undertones. Marty Maguire portrays Terri’s stern father, George, famous BBC Radio disc jockey, John Peel, plus six other various walk-on roles. And Cat Barter and Darren Franklin find some depth in the underwritten roles of Marilyn and Dave Hyndman, friends of Ruth who try to keep Terri on the straight and narrow.
Gillian Lennox’s 70’s era costumes are appropriately gritty and odd, and Grace Smart’s scenic design functions well as a reflection of Terri’s shenanigans. Still, I was left wanting a streak of blood on a sleeve, a car chassis ravaged by fire.
Good Vibrations – By Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson; directed by Des Kennedy
WITH: Cat Barter (Marilyn Hyndman), Connor Burnside (Billy Doherty), Darren Franklin (Dave), Marty Maguire (George Hooley), Odhrán McNulty (Ronnie Matthews), Chris Mohan (Colin ‘Getty’ Getgood), Christina Nelson (Mrs. Hooley and Mrs. Sharkey), Jolene O’Hara (Polly), Gavin Peden (Brian Young), Dylan Reid (Feargal Sharkey/Greg Cowan), Glen Wallace (Terri Hooley), and Jayne Wisener (Ruth Carr).
Musical direction by Katie Richardson. Choreography by Jennifer Rooney. Set design by Grace Smart. Sound design by Ian Vennard. Lighting design by Jack Knowles. Costume design by Gillian Lennox. Produced by the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Irish Arts Center, 726 11th Ave., 888-616-0274, https://irishartscenter.org/event/good-vibrations-a-punk-rock-musical. Running time 2:30. Through July 16.