Thursday, 16 May 2013


Gary Mitchell's latest work is less about rock and more about reconciliation

When we arrive at Derry-Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre, one hopes that the "punk rock play" we're about to see, Re-Energize, will be as ceaselessly alternative as the weather outside appears to be. And it looks like playwright Gary Mitchell and director Conall Morrison have a tough task on their hands, for "rock" is an exceptionally tough genre to innovate both cinematically and theatrically.

Most rock stories fall into the bracket of "sticking it to the man", "triumphing against the odds" or "falling in love" while several catchy tunes allow viewers to gloss over the triteness. But recent films such as Killing Bono and Good Vibrations have pushed the envelope a little bit, offering the opportunity for exploring the very fine line between the true stars, the has beens and the wannabes.

Re-Energize retains the tone of these efforts, making the music a side note to what is really happening on stage: a gripping battle of internalised conflict. It also contains elements of The Full Monty and School Of Rock, with the characters taking precedence over the music, but feels less commercially calculated and more homely than either.

The play is a sequel to 1999's Energy, where a wannabe punk band rehearsed, argued amongst one another and tried to sort themselves out in time for their all important first gig. It all ended in tears. Thirty years later, the band members, all split up, in their fifties and living in the Rathcoole housing estate, are still trying to sort themselves out, in the hope that they will be able to re-form for another shot.

The lives of Dave (Chris Corrigan, returning from the original production), his brother Humper (Andy Moore, likewise), his housemate Pete (Michael Liebmann) and his lost love Alison (Jo Donnelly) are occupied by drugs, debt and depression; and in Humper and Alison's case, wayward teenage children, Benji (Gavin Peden) and AJ (Niomi Liberante, soon to appear in the BBC's 6Degrees) respectively.

Mitchell's script is cliché-laden, but this is no detriment to the play. Sure, it features angst-ridden songwriters penning lyrics around their loved ones; alcohol dependent wannabe rockers; lots of swearing; naïve, hormonal teens; absent and/or incapable fathers; and a clearly defined villain, the debt-collecting Young Cecil (James Doran), who earns that name from following in the footsteps of his father, Old Cecil. But what's commendable here is the delight and conviction Mitchell, Morrison and the cast show in playing with and sometimes subverting these clichés.

Young Cecil, for example, is fun to watch, one of those Horrible Bosses who walks, talks and acts like Colin Farrell's character in Seth Gordon's 2011 film. He takes great pride in the power he holds over our protagonists. Even as you understand his position, he milks it so heavily that you can't help but wish for his comeuppance.

Also interesting is the play's illustration of its paternal and maternal relationships. Notably, Benji holds so low an opinion of Humper that he sees playing music with his two "uncles" - yes, he feels that Pete is family to him, too - as a better alternative to spending time with his real father. Yet neither Benji nor Humper initially realise how similar to one another they actually are. Both are music lovers, and neither has any idea of what they want to do with their lives, nor do they want to face up to their own problems. It's an equally tough, if not tougher, situation between Alison and AJ, particularly when Alison is told to work for Young Cecil, and has to face the dilemma of holding down a job even though it may mean alienating those nearest and dearest to her.

But family does not necessarily conquer all. While one could certainly argue that the children's cleverness sparks the adults into literally re-energizing themselves, the adults must surely be smart enough to realise that re-inventing the band cannot and will not be the answer to everything. Mitchell has successfully tapped into a strong theme from Good Vibrations here: music may give you an energy rush, but it isn't the solution to all your problems. More importantly, getting bogged down in one's love of music can really be a hindrance sometimes: as Benji says about Dave and Pete, "They talk and dream, but they never actually do anything." Until near the end, that is...

Re-Energize largely resembles Eastenders in Rathcoole, with both the children and adults in the play repeatedly arguing and turning the tables on one another at a relentless pace. Except here, there is at least the possibility of a happy ending.

What one likes most about Re-Energize is that even though Dave, Pete and company improve as musicians as the play goes on, in very Once-like fashion, it is less about the band and more about the bond. By show's end, the sound of the revitalised punk, written by The Undertones' John & Damien O'Neill and performed by every character barring Young Cecil, will almost certainly leave everyone with a massive smile on their face. But we are even more elated to see a hint of Dave and Alison reconciling, Pete putting aside his differences, Humper bonding with Benji and AJ getting in on the act. And while we feel confident that the kids will be alright, we are happier at seeing the adults get what they always wanted: a second chance.

Re-Energize runs in Derry's Playhouse Theatre until Saturday May 18, and will tour to Belfast's Lyric Theatre from September 9 to September 23. For more information, and a full gallery of images, click here. All photos courtesy of GC Photographics.