Why Belfast’s theatres aren’t just for panto
If you haven’t experienced the best of Belfast nightlife lately then there’s never been a better time to sample a bar-scene, with great pubs old and new, that can hold its own with any city.
That’s not to mention a cosmopolitan atmosphere that has the tourist guide books lauding Europe’s new night out in our small but vibrant capital city.
However, Belfast has a theatre scene that has never been in better health. And it is all too easy for local people to overlook the great choice of theatres on our doorstep as simple places where we watched panto as youngsters.
The truth is that our theatre scene – jewels in the crown of Belfast’s night-time economy – offers much, much more and can be a central part of an unforgettable night out.
Returning to the theatre for the first time since childhood, myself and my partner Elle skipped some of our normal cinema visits (recommendation: The Strand, QFT or any Cineplex, preferably Omniplex) to rediscover the atmosphere of a live show in the heart of our beloved city….
Lyric Theatre Belfast
What is it?: A stunning theatre in a landmark new building in South Belfast. Friendly, relaxed and surprisingly homely with an ultra-modern feel.
Our visit: We’ve watched Pillowman, Dancing at Lughnasa and the Night Alive. Incredibly, never paying more than £15 and sometimes just £10 for a midweek show.
Perfect for you if: You want an outstanding range of shows and a buzzing but laid-back atmosphere that will make you want to return again and again.
How to make an night of it: Walk down to Stranmillis before and after for an excellent choice of eateries such as the wonderful ‘Welcome’ Chinese and a choice of smart, modern bars.
What is it?: The newest addition to Belfast’s arts scene. A gallery, bar and conference venue with an urbane feel in the bustling Cathedral Quarter. Beautifully-designed and extremely welcoming.
Our visit: We watched the high-tech, high-adrenaline Gulliver by Northern Ireland’s very own Big Telly Theatre Company. We’re still recovering.
Perfect for you if: You want to enjoy the art exhibitions and savour modern Belfast in its most urbane and vibrant form.
How to make a night of it: A post-show pub crawl to visit some of Belfast’s outstanding and long-established pubs – which are the envy of any European city – like White’s Tavern, the John Hewitt or Bittles. There’s also the option of newer, slicker offerings like The Perch and Bert’s Jazz Bar.
Grand Opera House
What is it?: Grand by name and grand by nature, Belfast’s Opera House has offered nights out in sumptuous and timeless surroundings since 1895.
Our visit: We saw a Puccini opera called Turandot. Completely new to opera, the finer points were lost on us but the epic experience of sight and sound wasn’t. We liked the bit where they were singing.
Perfect for you if: This is a venue with a sense of occasion and dripping with history, perfect if you want to see a variety of shows in the best of surroundings.
How to make a night of it: With a central location, the Opera House leaves you with the city at your feet. However, Rhubarb Fresh Food Cafe and Ginger restaurant are both excellent. There’s also the Sun Kee on Donegall Pass which never disappoints.
The Strand Arts Centre
What is it: A glorious 1930s Art Deco venue in heart of the East Belfast many of us already know and love.
Our visit: For classic film shows, kids screenings and live music. Non-profit. Provides arts events including a recent Withnail and I performance and big-occasion cinema nights such as a ‘Spectre Spectacular’. Full disclosure: we love this place.
Perfect for you if: You have a love of history, a love of classic Belfast at its finest or a love of movies and ‘proper’ cinemas.
How to make a night of it: With Belmont Road and the wonderful urban village of Ballyhackamore nearby you can take your pick. The Italian restaurant Il Pirata is one of the best restaurants in Northern Ireland, in our humble opinion. The Mandarin City Chinese next door to Il Pirata is very good.
Don’t forget: the choice of venues in Belfast’s doesn’t stop there. Far from it. There are arts venues as The Crescent as well as concert halls including the much-loved Ulster Hall and the Waterfront Hall (with, strangely, an incredibly high wafty-scarf-count when we last visited).
It would be a shame to keep the theatre for panto. There’s a world of entertainment worthy of your support in Belfast and at a much wider range of cost and tastes than you might think.