Friday, December 05, 2014

Review: Visit the magical Family Hoffmann Christmas Mystery Palace in the MAC (until 4 January)

Even before the curtain went up, one of the members of the cast – Alexander (played by Hugh Brown) – was shuffling along the rows of families sitting in the MAC’s main theatre, looking lost and sounding confused as he did a few card tricks and amused the audience with his drôle patter.

As the last member of the audience settled into her seat last night, he made sure that Paula took a bow to acknowledge the applause, before heading down to an eclectic drum kit and percussion collection at one side of the stage and began to narrate the show as master of ceremonies. Squeezed over on the other side, Chris Huntley and his band of musicians cranked up the tunes that accompanied the next two hours of action.

Sibling rivalry, badly-treated children, running away, laughing, clapping along, and magic: all the elements of a traditional pantomime were there. But Cahoots NI’s Family Hoffmann Christmas Mystery Palace was no ordinary Christmas show.

The illusions and tricks came thick and fast as Willard Hoffmann (Philip Judge) introduced his performing family who tour the country with a tent and their magical routines. Daughter Marie (Flo Fields) appeared out of nowhere inside a previously empty box, the first of many large scale illusions.

Having muscled his way into seat 22B, orphan Harold (Greg Fossard) astounded Willard by actually vanishing, and Margaret (Abigail McGibbon) from the local workhouse agreed to rent him out to the Hoffmann troupe for her own financial advantage. With the audiences for old-style magic dwindling, Willard knew that he needed a new act to attract punters back from the lure of the new-fangled cinema.

Stephen Bamford’s revolving stage allows the audience to switch from the magical front-of-house to see the behind-the-scenes action. The muted lighting helps build the enigmatic atmosphere. And as it’s the MAC, you’re never quite sure which door an actor will appear through next.

Given the nature of magic routines, there was a lot of superlative dialogue – “now is the hour of destiny” (the ghost of Kenneth Williams is in there somewhere) – as tricks were introduced and mumbo jumbo was threaded around the actual illusion. While Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney introduced some magic to the MAC earlier this year with Nivelli’s War, this festive show is a cut above his previous work, making the conjuring even more central to the plot and the character development, with it all wrapped up in Conor Mitchell’s music.

By the end of the first half, we see Willard Hoffmann as a hard taskmaster; Bess (Kirsty Marie Ayers) as the Cinderella-like sister left to sweep the floor while her older sister Marie performs on stage; and Margaret is the kind of workhouse beadle who sees no need to celebrate Christmas (and has shades of Miss Hannigan [Annie] about her).

But the second half rapidly moves the characters on – perhaps a little too quickly – as they live out Willard’s mantra that “a talent must not stand still, it must travel” and the action shifts to Paris. There’s a softening of relationships, dreams come true, true love blossoms and the show emphasises the importance of family.

The accents were hard to place and some of the singing seemed purposely discordant. It’s a technically complicated show, and together with sound effects and the music from the band, the sound ended up a little muddy and some of the lyrics became indistinct. However, that didn’t spoil the understanding of the plot. And Alexander’s range of percussion instruments meant there was never a dull moment at the front left of the stage. (Now he has mastered playing the saw he could make a fortune busking on Hill Street!)

It’s a noisy production, with some in the young audience experiencing theatre for the first time, tripping in and out to the toilet, and gazing up over their heads in wonder at the spotlight beam piercing the fog and dust. However, it’s a Christmas show for families, and the cast aren’t distracted by the commotion.

The Family Hoffmann’s Christmas Mystery Palace is a great original piece of family entertainment, with a convincing cast, and it’s the only place in Belfast you’ll see two women chopped in half this season!

I can’t begin to fathom how half the big stage magic tricks were performed. You can judge for yourself in The MAC until 4 January with adult tickets ranging from £12–£22 (typically £17) and children £10.

Update - Chris over at Pastie Bap liked it too.

NI Human Rights Festival (8-13 December) drones, Snowdon, film, quizzes & the forces of Fractocracy #NIHRF

The words “human rights” often seem to have special significance – and orange flashing lights around them – when used in Northern Ireland. They’re what people are denied … want … fear … celebrate. If you admit that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights exists, some will assume you have a well-thumbed copy in your back copy ready to beat them with.

And human rights are confused with civil rights: the former being fundamental rights considered necessary for human existence; the latter rights you enjoy by virtue of citizenship of a particular state.

Northern Ireland’s third Human Rights Festival is running next week from 8th to 13th December.

Monday 8 December

Waltz with Bashir // 8pm // Black Box // £3 // An animated documentary exploring the trauma of war and human right violations as Israeli director Ari Folman reconstructs his own memories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon through interviews with fellow veterans.

Tuesday 9 December

From War to Surveillance: Human Rights and Drones // 7-8pm // St Mary’s University College // Free // Professor Noel Sharkey (University of Sheffield) specialises in robotics and the ethics of military robotics. In his lecture, he’ll discuss what human rights commitments exist under conditions of war and conflict and the use of new technologies such as drones.

Superhero Pub Quiz // 8pm // Black Box // £5 // Combining superheroes of comic books and human rights, this pub quiz will test if you know Batman from Black Panther, Green Lantern from Green Arrow, Desmond Tutu from Mohandas Gandhi or Eleanor Roosevelt from Aung San Suu Kyi. There’s also a competition for the best comic book or human rights hero costume on the night!

Wednesday 10 December

Human Rights: From Conflict to Transitional Justice // 7-8pm // St Mary’s University College / Free / Ulster University’s Dr Louise Mallinder delivers a lecture examining what role human rights can play in post-conflict societies, and their importance in establishing peaceful and just societies with repaired community relations.

From a Republic of Conscience // 8pm // Sunflower Bar // Free // Inspired by Heaney’s poem, poets will share some of their own work as well a poem on a human rights theme that inspires them.

Thursday 11 December

Global Journalism – Fighting the Challenges // 12-3pm // Linen Hall Library // Free // At least 70 journalists lost their lives at work in 2013; scores were imprisoned unjustly. Syria, Iraq and Egypt are currently some of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist. over the years in Northern Ireland, journalists have been attacked, abused, injured and shot dead too. Local and international speakers – Kevin Cooper, Sarah Hunter (a Belfast photojournalist, based in the Lebanon for five years), Ciarán Ó Maoláin and Eamonn McCann – will discuss the dangers of striving to provide honest, accurate and unbiased reporting.

Love Music Hate Racism // 9pm // Whites Tavern // Free but bring a present // Robocobra Quartet (the sound of hip-hop interpreted by two jazz sax players, a punk drummer/vocalists and the FX-pedal-nerd bass player) supported by Scream Blue Murmer and Thomas Annang. Free admission, but you’re asked to bring a Christmas present for the children of refugees, some tinned food or warm clothes which will be distributed by NICRAS to refugees and asylum seekers in Northern Ireland.

Friday 12 December

I’ll see you in court: ten people silenced by our libel laws // 6.30pm-8pm // Crescent Arts Centre // Free but register for a ticket // Simon Singh and the libel Reform Campaign will outline ten discussions you cannot hear “due to the archaic state of the law of libel”: from scientists sued for casting doubt on dubious treatments, to tennis players and oligarchs.

Saturday 13 December

World Zone // 2-5pm // The Dark Horse // Free // Arts workshops, story-telling and music for children and the families with a sense of adventure and curiosity.

The Feminist Photo Booth // 2-5pm // Black Box // Free // Call into the Black Box and use a range of props, costumes and accessories – along with your inner feminist spirit – to be portrayed and photographed as a feminist icon.

Beware the Agents of Frackocracy // 3pm // Hill Street // Free // The forces of Frackocracy will attempt to take over Hill Street. Expect over the top costumes, music, and caricatures of the fossil fuel industry that make JR Ewing look like a cute bunny! You’re encouraged to defend the public realm from “their reckless ambitions”. Street theatre meets civic education.

CITIZENFOUR // 8.20pm / Queen’s Film Theatre // £6.50 // A portrait of Edward Snowdon filmed in secret in his Hong Kong hotel room as he prepared to become one of the most notorious whistleblowers by exposing global mass-surveillance schemes conducted by the NSA in the US as well as other governments. (Also showing at 6.30pm on Monday 15 December.)

There are also events looking at the legacy of the Magna Carta, children and young people, motherhood, reproductive rights, transgender, travellers, migrant culture, Rwanda, Congo, Kenya, and the Campervan of Dreams.

More details on the NI Human Rights Festival website, Facebook and Twitter @NIHRF.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone

Earlier this week I interviewed Julia Paul for a programme that will be broadcast on local community TV station NvTv sometime over the coming months. Perhaps best known locally as a BBC journalist who spent six years on Hearts and Minds, Julia also spent time training journalists in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other countries. Now an academic at Queen’s University in Belfast, she continues to work periodically with women in Afghanistan, encouraging writing and helping build confidence and recognition for their work.

As we chatted in the weeks before the interview, we discussed the subject of working abroad and the tendency for a sub-culture to emerge in foreign countries and trouble spots … perhaps turning people rich with dollars into ex-pats behaving badly. (Though I should add that Julia offered no evidence that she has ever behaved badly!)

It reminded me of Paul Conroy’s book Under the Wire [£7.99 paperback; £4.99 Kindle] which I read after attending the war photographer’s lecture at this year’s Belfast Festival.

It’s a challenging read, mixing selfish stupidity with selfless bravery, though I often wasn’t able to tell the difference. His madcap adventures – often with journalist Marie Colvin, and particularly centred around Syria where Marie was tragically killed in a rocket attack – point to a lifestyle choice that feels fear, suppresses the instinct to do anything about it, and instead finds ways of coping and even enjoying life in the middle of terror.

Julia mentioned another book in the genre that widens out the subject matter from journalism to international aid work and peace-keeping.

Nearly ten years after first been written and published by three relief workers, Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone [£7.19 paperback; £3.95 Kindle] has lost little of its hating challenge.

A New York social worker, a Harvard law graduate and a Red Cross doctor cross paths and forge lasting friendships in Cambodia around the time of the 1993 election. (There are a lot more desperate measures in the book that sex!)

Running away from a failed marriage, Heidi Postlewait finds refuge as a secretary in the United Nations and signs up for an exciting foreign mission posting helping run elections in Cambodia. Ken Cain wants to avoid corporate tax law and starts to conduct human rights surveys in the Khmer Rouge zone. Andrew Thomson saves lives as he negotiates to improve medical conditions in a series of inhumane prisons, yet can also saves lives by abandoning straight medicine and instead arranging the release of some of the men, often being held without due process.

The book alternates between the three authors, sometimes describing a situation from two or more viewpoints as it tracks their service through Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda and Liberia. The writing isn’t lyrical but it’s frank and relates how their daily exposure to death – both those killed as the result of brutal regimes and the targeting of UN peacekeeping staff and their local colleagues and friends – increases with each new mission.
As the sun sets over the Mekong, I down another one and watch mesmerized as pink tracer rounds curve in graceful slow motion over the shimmering water. (Andrew)
Sometimes the authors’ idealism weakens. But the beautiful – if battered – locales revitalise their spirits. A seemingly endless supply of reckless abandon, twinned with deep empathy for the victims and survivors keep them from running away from trouble spots.

So too do the relationships they foster with the wider aid/relief community and the military squads who surround them. The title refers to Heidi’s description of her desire for intimacy – or “emergency sex” – in the immediate aftermath of a near fatal incident with a sniper. To a large extent, like an extended sports team trip, what happens on tour stays on tour … unless your lover’s friend arrives to insist that you become a second wife to avoid bring shame on the family, or you write a book about it.
I’m about to explain that I’m not a licensed Lawyer in the U.S., but it’s anarchy here, that distinction matters in Cambridge [Massachusetts], not Mogadishu. (Ken)
Experience and stamina starts to matter more than qualification. Judgement becomes flawed. Workers start to believe that being there available to help counts the most when lives are at stake, the sick need tending, and vicious slaughter needs to be documented if the perpetrators are ever to be brought to justice.

The 1990s and early 2000s were an age of phone calls and letters in these countries. Reports were faxed up the chain of command. Satellite phones were cutting age. News spread deliberately and didn’t leak out through the internet people hold in their hands today. Families waited for news.

There’s a cost to the work. Colleagues die. Partners die. But the very work that is meant to be doing good can be destructive too.
There is no way for us to win. The more effective we are, the more damage we do. (Ken)
Establishing a justice system is important in a post-conflict regions. The opening ceremony of the new court in Mogadishu came under attack. Ken ended up calling in the raid to a startled Heidi manning the radio back at UN/US base, and arranging for the protection forces to rescue them. The next day a Red Cross worker reminded him “You killed twenty Somalis just to open your stupid American court!” Ken reflected: “I hadn’t thought of that yet. How many we killed.”

The authors are fiercely critical of western policy (particularly the US, through France gets a mention) and the United Nations’ very imperfect manner of operating. Inappropriate risks were taken – sometimes naïve, often deliberate – by local commanders. Valuing its staff more than those they serve, the UN evacuated its own people out of Haiti, abandoning the country’s citizens to certain carnage before returning to clear up the mess. Examples of embezzlement and highly inappropriate behaviour of UN officials went unchallenged despite reporting back to HQ. Why was the genocide allowed to happen in Rwanda?

Andrew led the forensic excavation of mass graves in Kibuye in Rwanda. “On this side of the lake, the newly dead outnumber the living.” Despite being double-gloved, washing parts of corpses from under his fingernails became part of his daily routine. The grave site was next to a Catholic church. Mid-dig, a new priest arrived and …
… insists we pay rent, in cash to him will be just fine, because we have installed our equipment and mobile morgue on church property. It’s to help the survivors he adds, looking me in the eye … [The government] want to return bodies to families for decent burials. The church’s man on the spot asking for money to dig up corpses …

From near the bottom of the grave we pull out the body of a young male dressed in full priest’s regalia. If this is the man we’ve heard about, he was with the people in the church, comforting the soon to be dead and refusing offers to be evacuated by boat at night to safety across the lake … Two priests, same church. One pays with his life, the other wants to be paid for the exhumation. The wrong man is in that body bag.
Andrew moved from Rwanda to more mass graves in Bosnia to gather evidence of the ethnic cleansing. He celebrated when he heard that Slobodan Milosevic was being flown to The Hague to be tried for war crimes that his forensic evidence would support. (Milosevic died before the trial could be concluded and was never found guilty of the charges brought against him.) Andrew reflected on the UN’s role in the tragedy.
If blue helmeted UN peace-keepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth so much less than theirs. I learned that the day we were evacuated from Haiti.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is never named in the book. Yet it is written clearly between the lines on nearly every page. Returning to New York between missions was incredibly uncomfortable for the workers. The banalities of conversation. The missing camaraderie with relief colleagues. The awareness that their skills could be better used somewhere else in the world. At times the longing to be needed read as self-aggrandisement. Yet their self-criticism, identification of personal weakness and searching assessment of each other in the book and is disconcerting.

As the years stretch out, their lives continue to collide and their friendship deepens. Ken writes:
I watch Heidi play with fire everywhere she goes, and I guess I enjoy watching. But we all understand that one day the romantic adventure won’t end well. And I watch Andrew twist his conscience and faith into a more and more intractable knot with each new impossible mission. They’re both trapped inside their own illusions. It’s all so clear to me. I wonder what’s clear to them.
Is doing their job more important than protecting their own lives? Is doing their job helping those in the countries in which they serve? Over how long a period does ‘good’ have to be measured? Months? Years? Decades?
I don’t know who saved the honor of mankind during my time in the field, but I do know that an ancestral memory of tyranny commands me to keep not silent. There is no ambiguity here. I am a witness. I have a voice. I have to write it down. (Ken)
Often shocking, at times annoying, but frequently heart-breaking, the tale of these three relief workers simultaneously captures the best and worst of human behaviour and experience. It’s a moving book that will make you weep on the train as you read it and catch glimpses of the horrors we so often choose to avoid noticing in our own land, never mind the countries in which the UN operates.
Andrew wanted to bind the wounds of innocent war victims, hoping to find grace. Heidi embraced the freedom-born-of-emergency determined to liberate herself and, in the process, as many women as she could touch. I planned toe harness the power of an ascendant America to personally undo the Holocaust. [Ken is Jewish.] Don’t laugh. We were young. We weren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to venture forth overseas with grand ideas. (Ken)
Believe it or not, this book was the Guardian’s top Christmas gift in its 2013 list of “what to give the aid worker in your life”!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Mistletoe and Crime - securing laughs in Belfast this Christmas at the Lyric (until 11 January)

They may only seem like background noise in a city of hundreds of thousands, but they’re the people Sue and Aileen will be serving this Christmas Eve at the Lyric Theatre.

It’s the night before Christmas and Sue (played by Tara Lynne O’Neill) is starting her last shift in the force. Recently split up from a married colleague with whom she was having an affair, her festive cheer is running low.

Aileen (Katie Tumelty, fresh from playing Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret) is a mature entrant into the PSNI and this is her first night on the beat. Together the pair patrol South Belfast sorting out the homeless, the abused, the lost, the criminal and ultimately themselves.

Mistletoe and Crime has been written by Marie Jones and directed by Dan Gordon. Unlike previous Lyric Christmas shows, this isn’t a sketch show that’s just playing for tinsel-laden laughs. But there was plenty of giggling in the theatre as the packed audience enjoyed the humorous examination of community policing in a familiar city through the eyes of our very own Cagney and Lacey.
That’s my Sue: 22 years in this place and you still believe in fairy tales!
There are no flags, no parades, and no protests. Instead, there’s a newcomer being thrown out on the street by her partner, a spide who hawks fake designer gear, a mother who’s lost and unwanted, a barrister who’s forgotten the Sandy Row bowl he was baked in, and a lovable tramp called Haribo (Ciarán Nolan) who’d like to spend Christmas in the warm cells. And inside the station, there’s a fly fishing-obsessed custody sergeant Mal (Gerard Jordan), a duty solicitor and a family who may be suffering the after effects of their mother’s trip to Turkey. (Maybe she should have gone to Phuket?)

The first act gently introduces the well-drawn characters. Mistletoe and Crime certainly passes the Bechdel Test with its two strong lead women and countless other female roles.
You’re a policewoman, not their mother.
While light-hearted, Mistletoe and Crime gets underneath the flak jackets to expose the humanity of neighbourhood police officers. They bend rules to do the right thing while adopting a no-nonsense approach. It’s clear that the play is inspired by real life officers and incidents. (If the senior command of the Pasty Suppers of NI book the front row of seats at the Lyric some night – can you imagine the reaction of the cast if ‘the Chief’ showed up? – I reckon they’d approve of the skills and attitude being portrayed.)



The play is at its strongest after the interval when the tempo is upped and each character faces up to their own personal predicament and finds resolution. A single beautiful song – performed by a wannabe Duke Special – captures the mood of the city and its theme carries the drama towards a surprisingly mellow conclusion.

Sharing the Lyric main stage with Sleeping Beauty, the set and lighting are relatively simple, but watch out for some great animal shadows, unexpected entrances, the SOS bus and a cameo by the Skiddle Dee Dee one.

In a season when the news is ridden with cynical politicians, cheap shots and historic abuse, Mistletoe and Crime offers an earthy and endearing alternative to pantomime that’s full of kindness and warmth. Catch it in the Lyric Theatre before the run ends on 11 January.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Equal to Rule: Leading the Way - Dr Trevor Morrow in conversation at Contemporary Christianity (Tue 25 Nov)


Amidst the Church of England formally adopting the legislation that would allow its first female bishops to be ordained next year, BBC News online indulged in a spot of hermeneutics to explore what St Paul said about women’s role in the church.

Contemporary Christianity (formerly known as ECONI) have organised a well-timed public conversation with Rev Dr Trevor Morrow on Tuesday 25 November at 7.30pm.

Back in June during the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland launched his book Equal to Rule: Leading the Way.

The organisers sum up the purpose of the evening:
Disagreements over women’s ordination or women in church leadership usually bring up two prominent attitudes: on the one hand, a number of people assume that the plain teaching of Scripture prohibits it; on the other hand, for a number of people, it simply feels right and they do not get to grips with biblical teaching.

Both parties end up in the same place; reluctant to study the biblical text freshly, objectively, with the willingness to go where it leads.

Dr Trevor Morrow has written Equal to Rule in order to show why churches like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland ascribe to full equality for men and women in leadership in the churches on the basis of the teaching of scripture. It is the fruit of years not only of biblical study and preaching, but also of experience in applying the gospel to the lives of women and men in different cultural contexts.
The event is free to attend, and whatever you believe you are encouraged to attend and engage with the retired minister of Lucan Presbyterian Church (and denomination’s youngest ever Moderator).

Head along to the Contemporary Christianity Office (3rd Floor, 21 Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, BT2 8HD) for the 7.30pm start on Tuesday 25 November 2014.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Elsewhere ... Carbon, Capitalism and Unsustainability ... and a disappointing SDLP conference

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about ...

Carbon, Capitalism and the Transition from Unsustainability with a report on Prof John Barry's inaugural professorial lecture at QUB on a very wet Wednesday evening.

Perhaps the only Professor of Political Green Economy, the academic and North Down Green Party councillor argued that "injustice and unsustainability go hand in hand" before critiquing a capitalism that is addicted to “orthodox, undifferentiated economic growth”.

His answer? Economic growth needs replaced with economic security, with Resilience (creating head room), Redundancy (a principle of long-term sustainability to not put all our eggs in the one energy/financial/resource basket) and Reducing resource and energy use. John finished by quoting George Bernard Shaw who said “all progress depends on the unreasonable man” … so let’s be unreasonable. You can listen to the lecture in two halves and browse some of the slides over on the post on Slugger.




Yesterday I blogged about the SDLP party conference. While there was mention of vision and a "New SDLP", the event - and not just the leader's speech - lacked passion and oomph. Deputy leader Dolores Kelly and ex-minister Alex Attwood delivered the sparkiest speeches of the day, and while there was plenty of Sinn Fein-bashing and an appearance by Mairia Cahill at a fringe event, there was little that seemed to lift the mood and morale of party members who are perhaps sitting in neutral waiting for a new leader. You can listen to the morning's debates on motions and Alasdair McDonnell's leader speech.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Damage (by Patrick J O’Reilly) - a new play exploring gay reparative therapy

Patrick O’Reilly’s one act play Damage grew out of a short story into a compact piece of theatre that squeezes in humour and surprise alongside the serious issues it addresses.
“We don’t look like a couple” ... “We’re not”
Two strangers sit nervously perched on the edge of a hotel bed. It’s mid-afternoon and their chatter is stilted and full of gaps. Questions that would usually be normal in conversation feel prying and unnatural as they try and break the ice.
“This is new for me and I feel anxious.”
Robert (played by Keith Singleton) can’t bring himself to say that he’s gay. In fact, he’s desperate to prove that he has put same-sex attraction behind him. Thus through a website he has arranged to meet Louise (Kerri Quinn) to further his conversion.

Robert is tormented by his ‘old’ self. Accompanied by Katie Richardson’s rambunctious sound track, he shakes uncontrollably, unable to settle in conversation never mind make a cup of tea or cuddle his companion.
“I hate myself. They told me I need to fight it, but I can’t fight it any longer. I just wish it would leave me alone.”
There are three personalities in the room - quite literally three in the very bed they’re sitting on - as Robert battles to repress his instinct and sexuality. A silent Matt Forsythe skilfully slips in and out of the action - and Robert’s attention - without hogging the limelight or distracting from the two protagonists.

It’s not all about Robert. Issues around isolation and the need to feel wanted are explored as Louise’s gentle yet assertive nature is tested when Robert’s attraction fails to ignite, and her patience turns to humiliation and rejection.
“... taught by my pastor, parents and friends to hate myself ...”
Robert’s use of religion - probably ‘religion’ rather than ‘faith’ – was fundamental to the damaging counselling he had received. The circumstances under which he signed up to this therapy wasn’t really explored. While “the church” isn’t made out to be the only bad guy in Damage, the aspects of evangelical fervour that promote gay conversion with its abusive practices as a healthy solution are clearly and deservedly criticised.

A play can never be a seminar, and the nuances and width of a subject have to be boiled down to a single narrative. But the experiences of Robert in the play don’t seem far fetched as the abusive practices in gay reparative therapy are explored.

Two thirds of the way through I felt the plot would resolve cleanly in one of two ways. And suddenly it took a third darker twist as the fifty minute play came to an end.

O’Reilly’s play has the good sense to stay short and leave plenty to the imagination of the audience. The audience in the upstairs Brian Friel space sat right up against the hotel bedroom set and found laughs in unexpected places as they witnessed the early awkwardness of the encounter and the turbulent emotions of the characters. While a difficult and challenging subject, the quality of the script and the intensity of the acting made it a very satisfying piece of theatre that deserves a longer run and wider audiences.

There are two further performances of Damage at 7pm and 9pm on Saturday 15 November in the Brian Friel Theatre in the QFT as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival.

- - -

Update - Jane Hardy's review of Damage on Culture Northern Ireland is worth a read. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Unhome ... a dark and deeply unsettling play by Tinderbox ... in the MAC until 22 November

Unhome is a new play by Jimmy McAleavey that explores what it’s like to no longer feel secure in your home and your mind?

Since her mother’s death and her father’s failure to cope, Kitty (played by Clare McMahon) has been brought up by her Granny Cait (Helena Bereen). The pair have a complicated relationship. Cait communicates through long-form story telling. Conversations frequently descend to frivolous wordplay slams as each vies to outdo the other with rhyming phrases and twisted retorts. There is a neediness – on both sides – with an active yet homebound grandmother increasingly relying on the presence and help from her young relation.
“The world is sick with dreams.”
Kitty is now in her twenties with a good job and fanciful dreams of going to drama school and living in a posh area of London. (It’s only really in the second half that the drama’s location is finally placed in north Belfast and Ardoyne.) The sale of her mother’s home is nearly agreed and her financial security almost guaranteed. Yet Kitty no longer feels at home in Cait’s house and is suddenly hit by a mental breakdown which her doctor describes as “a chemical imbalance in the brain”. More worryingly, she no longer feels at home in her own self.

Tinderbox Theatre Company previously staged Summertime in the MAC this time last year and Unhome certainly pushes further some of the themes of that disturbing play to the extent it makes Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows nuclear fallout story feel like a rom-com.

The action takes place in the claustrophobic environment of Cait’s front room. There’s shivering and jumping in seats as the shadowy lighting and the porous walls in Ciaran Bagnall’s set allows characters to come and go unnoticed. Actors Miche Doherty and Seamus O’Hara bring a physical presence to the sinister voices that succeed in unsettling the audience as their words rattle around Kitty’s head.

Appropriate for the mood and subject of the play, clouds move across the stage as the light streaming in through the set’s front window changes between acts. Watch out for some beautiful silhouettes created by Simon Bird’s lighting design as actors stand in doorways.

As the dark figures mercilessly prey on the young girl, an angel briefly appears to pray with her. But even this fleeting hope is quickly extinguished as the male voices from Kitty’s past become more personal and menacing. The audience watch and wonder whether Kitty will have the inner-resilience to remain alive? And what will be the toll on Cait?
“If you could tell me what it is I could take it …”
Unhome is absolutely exhausting to watch and with the dark play running for more than two hours (with interval) it felt too long. At times Justin Yang’s background soundtrack was less than ambient, jerking into earshot rather than gradually looming into the audience’s subconscious. Perhaps that will settle down during the run. If you’re playing Belfast theatre bingo, then put a big cross through translucent wallpaper, chalk and ghosts.

While the drama may accurately portray psychosis and auditory hallucinations, the near total absence of happiness and joie de vivre sucks all enjoyment out of the piece – much like the Death Eaters in the Harry Potter novel Kitty is reading – and left me feeling sick and gloomy rather than satisfied and challenged. The acting is strong, and Michael Duke’s direction makes it nearly impossible to emotionally detach from Clare McMahon’s despair and torment as she struggles with mental illness.
“Every home is a house of horrors”

Last night’s opening clashed with the first episode in the new series of The Fall. Northern Irish noir drama is absolutely in vogue, but very strong language, adult themes and a couple of sinister men you wouldn’t want to meet up a dark Hill Street may will put some people off watching this play.

Unhome runs upstairs in the MAC until 22 November. Tickets (£12-£17). If you’re under 25 you can take advantage of the £5 ticket offer by calling the box office on 028 9023 5053.

Production shots by Neil Harrison Photography.




Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Outburst Queer Arts Festival (14-22 November): theatre, film, photos & even some Doctor Who

Outburst Queer Arts Festival aims to bring “world class and new local theatre, performance, film, visual arts and discussion” to Belfast.

In the eight years since the festival began – never mind the 24 years of Belfast Pride – the city’s attitudes towards LGBTQ issues and communities has matured enormously. (Though many acknowledge that the Equality Commission action against Ashers Bakery could be a backward step in good relations as some conservative-leaning groups are choosing to fall out of relationship with LGBTQ communities.)

While not everything on the programme may be to everyone’s taste, there’s certainly a lot to make you sit up and think. Some notable events from the eight day Outburst programme:

Damage is a new play by Patrick J O’Reilly (Hatch; Emcee in Cabaret) that deals with the practice of “gay reparative therapy and the damaging effects of sexual repression and identity”.
Robert doesn’t want to be gay. Louise doesn’t want to be married. Meeting each other to find the reason why it’s all so very wrong.

Damage runs in the Brian Friel Theatre Studio (QFT) on Friday 14 at 7.30pm SOLD OUT and Saturday 15 at 7pm and 9pm. Tickets £12.50.

Regarding Susan Sontag is being screened in the QFT on Tuesday 18 at 8.30pm. The film studies “one of the most important literary, political and feminist icons of her generation”.

Aunty Ben is a play written for audiences from 7 years old and up looking at the experience of nine year old Tracey and her Aunty Ben.
It doesn’t matter to her that Aunty Ben is actually her uncle, or that he’s a drag queen … But when Ben meets her school friends, Tracey is shocked to discover that other people’s families can be very different to her own.

Theatre can be used to open up conversations and help people of all ages understand issues they face – or will face – from safe perspectives. After Belfast, Aunty Ben is heading to London. Sunday 16 November at 3pm. Tickets £6, £3 for under 12s.

Belfast Feminist Network are screening Derby Crazy Love in the Black Box Green Room on Sunday 16 at 2pm with a look inside “the adrenaline-filled world of women’s roller derby”. Tickets £5. It’s followed at 3.15pm by a craft workshop and at 5pm by adults sharing their most embarrassing teenage writing: teen diaries, bad poetry, love letters, the lot! And if roller derby’s your thing, In The Turn is showing in the QFT on Saturday 15 at 3pm.

A Week in my Homosexual Agenda is a photography project running in The Black Box’s Green Room café throughout the festical, with an interactive exhibition and a chance for local photographers to upload their shots as the phrase “the homosexual agenda” is explored.

And for anyone mourning the end of the latest Doctor Who series, as part of BFI’s Sci Fi Days of Fear and Wonder celebrations, The Black Box are screening some favourite episodes from Doctor Who on Saturday 22 November between 11am and 3pm. The title Gayllifrey: a queer celebration of Doctor Who reflects some people’s sense that sci fi mirrors the “otherness” of LGBT experiences. You can agree or disagree with that at the panel discussion and the team quiz. Tickets £5.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Preview of CS Lewis Festival (20-23 November): walks, talks, crafts, films & documentaries

Fifty one years after the death of CS Lewis, interest in the Belfast-born author is still high and this year’s CS Lewis Festival offers a packed weekend of events for adults and children between 20-23 November (PDF version of programme).

Thursday 20 November

Narnia Breakfast / Park Avenue Hotel / 8.30am-9.30am / Free / Join guest speakers Stephen Williams and Trevor Gillian for a “Narnia-themed breakfast” as they discuss “Lewis’ life and beliefs and his relevance today”. Places need to be booked by emailing heather AT eastbelfastpartnership dot org or phoning 028 9046 7925

CS Lewis – the Bigger Picture / Strand Church, Connsbrook Avenue / 7.30pm-9pm / Free – no booking required / The two experts are back with a longer session on Thursday evening. Booking required.

Friday 21 November

CS Lewis and the Great War / Ulster Hall / 1pm-2pm / Free / On his nineteenth birthday, CS Lewis arrived at the front line in the Somme Valley. Sandy Smith will “unfold the story of Lewis and his war-time comrade Paddy Moore”.

Children might want to drag their parents along to:

Aslan Masks Workshop / Belmont Tower / drop in between 1pm and 4pm / Free.

Doodlebugs Creative Workshop / Framewerk, 10 Upper Newtownards Road / drop in between 5pm and 7pm / Free – must book / Make your favourite CS Lewis character “move and groove around the iconic Narnia lamp post”.

The Man, the Myth and the Wardrobe / Strand Arts Centre / 6.30pm-7.30pm / Free – must book / Watch Moore Sinnerton’s BBC NI documentary, delving underneath the revered reputation and image of the author.

Saturday 22 November

CS Lewis Storytelling / Holywood Arches Library / drop in between 10.30am and 1pm / Free / Sit back on the bean bags and listen to a skilled Young At Art storyteller read some of CS Lewis’ work.

CS Lewis Nearly True Walking Tour / meeting at Campbell College / 12.30pm until 2.15pm / £3, family ticket £10 / A blend of historical fact with hysterical fiction as ‘Nearly True’ George guides you around the school on a colourful comic journey mingling fake facts with true stories. Dress for inclement weather! Repeated at noon on Sunday 23.

An Evening With CS Lewis / Campbell College / 8pm-10pm / £10 / In association with David Payne Drama join CS Lewis and a group of American writers at his home in Oxford as he recalls the people and events that inspired his thought and shaped his life.

Sunday 23 November

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe / Strand Arts Centre / 2pm and 5pm / Free / Screening of the 2005 film. Update – SOLD OUT

The Narnia Code / Strand Arts Centre / 8pm-9.45pm / Free – must book / I’m not too sure what to make of the title of this event and the promise, but researcher Michael Ward will walk the audience through “the complex spiritual symbolism and ancient cosmology underpinning the Narnia stories” and “tracking down the ‘secret imaginative key’ to Lewis’ masterpiece”.

During the festival, yarn bomber Redhead Thread will be creating CS Lewis-themed artwork around East Belfast. And you can pick up a CS Lewis trail to follow from the East Belfast Partnership Offices (278-280 Newtownards Road) or download one from the Community Greenway website (along with similar trails for Van Morrison, the Yardmen and George Best).

Nearly all events – including the free ones – require advance booking. More information available on the CS Lewis festival website, Facebook page  and Twitter feed.

Elsewhere ... #ChallengingRacism report and the launch of the NI Open Government network

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about ...

The #ChallengingRacism report was published by two QUB academics (reminiscent of the NI Peace Monitoring Reporting) who collated statistics across a range of topics – population, employment, housing, benefits, economy, healthcare, education, crime and social cohesion – in order to dispel (rather than substantiate) some of the myths about migrants.

Northern Ireland has welcomed relatively few newcomers to society. The NI Census from 2011 says that 5% of the population are blow ins from have a place of origin in England, Scotland and Wales. According to the census, less than 2% of the NI population are from Eastern Europe. The report also explained that "in places of high in-migration there is no link between rising crime levels and migration ... in fact, evidence shows that crime has actually decreased in these areas with higher percentages of migrants".

The NI Open Government network launched on Wednesday morning with a speech from Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, and analysis from Peter Osborne and Lizetta Lyster (from the Cabinet Office Transparency Team). You can listen back to their remarks - Felicoty Huston's contribution was particularly memorable! - and watch the three main speeches.




Sunday, November 02, 2014

Elsewhere ... council funding of bonfires and the complexities of parading

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about ...

Council funding of bonfires and asked whether this was burning public money or a necessary investment in good relations? Details of breaches of grant conditions (no flags, no political posters, no tyres etc) are now available for this summer's bonfires. However, inspections seem to be partially avoidable and evidence gathering isn't complete.

Fewer breaches found in 2014 than 2013. Most of those sites will not receive the full grant amount. Yet the ability – year after year – to still claim 70% of the funding isn’t much of a deterrent. Particularly if the shortfall is for part of the budget that isn’t core to the costs on the day.

Surely those sites which breach the conditions should only be offered a reduced grant if they apply the following year, restored to the full amount the year after if they successfully meet the full conditions.

A seminar on The Complexities of Parading was held on Wednesday evening by the Journey Towards Healing project of NIAMH Wellbeing (Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health). Gary Mason hosted the conversation, with remarks from Mervyn Gibson (minister of Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church and assistant grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland) and Sean Murray (Sinn Féin). The two talks were followed by Q&A with the thirty or forty people present in a Belfast City Mission meeting room, including challenging responses from Linda Ervine and Deirdre Hargey.


As an experiment, I filmed the talks using a tiny Polaroid Cube camera clamped onto the side of the side of the audio recorder. More about my impressions of the Cube



Friday, October 31, 2014

The Suit - stripped back South African theatre that enchants - don't miss it (Lyric until 31 Oct) #BelFest

Having thought that I'd run out of Belfast Festival tickets and shows, I'm very glad that I came out of retirement last night to watch The Suit in the Lyric. The steady stream of new people coming forward to access Victims & Survivors Services, never mind other troubling stories that have been dominating the local news, remind us that Northern Ireland is still coming to terms with the deeper consequences of how the Troubles affected society and in particular family life.

The Suit is a play from Théâtre Des Bouffes Du Nord that looks under the lid of the bustling 1950s South African suburb of Sophiatown as it prepared to be broken apart and sent 20 miles further out of Johannesburg to make space for white working class housing. In a middle of that civil disturbance, a marriage was also on the point of collapsing.

Philomen (played by William Nadylam) gazes over adoringly at his sleeping wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) as he gets up for work each morning, until one day he is told that his wife has an intimate visitor every day after he leaves.

Soon after Philomen arrives home, a man in his underpants runs out of the flat leaving his suit behind. The husband’s reaction is at first muted, but he formulates a novel punishment.
I see we have a visitor. We should show him every hospitality ... he will eat every meal with us and share all we have ... you, Matilda, will look after him meticulously ...
Propping the suit up on a chair, the trophy husband threatens to kill Matilda if she doesn’t respect their ‘visitor’. The suit is fed at mealtimes and watches over them in bed. Tension builds as the passive aggressive bully ritually humiliates his wife and the audience reevaluate who they think the real victim is.
It’s not like the explosion of a devastating bomb; it’s more like the critical breakdown of a intricate mechanism ...
The simple set fills the stage with painted chairs and clothes rails which are spun round to create new rooms, windows and even vehicles. The gentle lighting settles the mood with primary colours washing across the dark backdrop. The Lyric main stage acoustics allow Matilda’s singing to fill the auditorium with hope and joy.

Three musicians (Arthur Astier, Mark Kavuma and Danny Wallington) sit to one side accompanying the action with a muted trumpet, piano, accordion, guitar and an array of colourful hats. They also act the role of minor characters in the play. Despite the destructive - and deconstructing - relationship, Peter Brook’s direction (along with Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk) provides humour with some characters engaging with the front row of the audience and throwing in the occasional ad lib.

Actor Ery Nzaramba anchors many of the play’s crucial moments with his narration, though the other characters also speak of themselves in the third person, narrating their own circumstances and actions. It’s an unusual but distinctive device that works well throughout the unhurried 75 minute performance.
It’s not like the explosion of a devastating bomb; it’s more like the critical breakdown of a intricate mechanism ...
The Suit is based on a 1950s South African short story by Can Themba. Just as violence hangs over the apartheid society, in turn violence, humiliation and repression are present in the lives and relationships of those living in the black township. Northern Ireland audiences should ask questions about how the Troubles affected our society, and whether we have yet recognised the consequences and begun to properly deal with the aftermath.

Despite the miserable-sounding plot, The Suit is an enchanting piece of theatre that is well worth seeing. It is stripped back, at times whimsical, yet deadly serious about the repercussions of a violent society. Between the mellow music and the script, it’s an intimate piece of theatre that is just the right length and leaves you feeling satisfied - if a little sad - by the end.

The Suit’s brief run as part of the Belfast Festival finishes in the Lyric Theatre on Friday 31 October. So hop on your broomstick tonight and get yourself a couple of tickets for a cracking piece of theatre.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Elsewhere ... war photography, public opinion on abortion reforms, bandsmen reflecting on WW1 and reviewing Jamie Bryson's new book

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about...

Paul Conroy delivered the Amnesty NI annual Belfast Festival lecture when he spoke about his experiences of war photography in Syria and the death of fellow journalist Marie Colvin. For those who missed his talk, his book Under the Wire relates the dangerous and ultimately fatal assignment in detail. A version of the post appears on Amnesty NI's website.

Amnesty NI released opinion poll information that showed that the majority of Northern Ireland public support the three amendments to abortion legislation that are in the current Department of Justice consultation. Under the banner of their My Body My Rights campaign, Amnesty's headline figures show that a majority think that the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the pregnancy is the result of rape (69%), the result of incest (68%), or where the foetus has a fatal abnormality (60%). No matter how the statistics were sliced – by gender, age, social class, political preference or denomination – over 50% support the legislative changes. Support for abortion to be available if there is a fatal foetal abnormality is a little lower than pregnancy as the result of incest or rape, particularly amongst respondents identifying as catholic and nationalist. Good to see that my graphic to illustrate some of the research results was useful and made its way into other people's posts about the launch!


More Than A Flag ran in Ballymacarrott Orange Hall for three performances at Belfast Festival this week. I caught the dress rehearsal (and went back on Saturday evening) to see twelve young bandsmen remember local East Belfast men who served in the First World War. It was incredibly poignant to watch lads the same age as many of those went to war reading out names and addresses of fallen soldiers who came from streets only a stones throw from the venue. No flutes or drums, but plenty of speeches, poems, acting, dance and songs. And hope. The transformation of twelve guys from bandsmen into actors … and by the end of the performance, bandsmen who are actors.

Jamie Bryson released his latest book My Only Crime Was Loyalty on Friday, and I published an exclusive preview on Slugger O'Toole that morning with a review of the work and extracts from key passages. Now available in paperback (£7.99) and on Kindle (£8.04), the first hundred pages document his experience of being on the run, arrest, charge, bail, intelligence services and the Ulster People’s Forum. He also throws in how he came to read leaked copies of the Haass proposals.

Fundamentally Bryson has written the book to explain the background to his encounters with the PSNI over the last two years and his very long running court case. The process of writing may have been cathartic, but an increased understanding of his psyche and motivation, knowing that his bail condition variation requests were more about trying to humiliate and embarrass the authorities than ease the constraints will not change a lot of people’s minds about Bryson. Yet reading the book will allow Bryson to get under people’s skin and might just humanise the best-known face of the flag protests.