Saturday, May 19, 2018

SHOW by Shechter II – putting the wow into dance (The MAC until Saturday 19 May)

If you want to see dance where the music and the movement and the lighting all meld together into one, head along to The MAC to see SHOW by Shechter II, the apprentice company of young dancers aged between 18 and 25.

Seven dancers (normally eight) walk out of a haze that envelopes them (and the audience), forming patterns above them as the stage-mounted lights beam up behind them. It’s a startling first image of the performers who have many more surprises in store.

Once the music starts, with its deep tribal drum beat, the mesmerising performance doesn’t rest for 50 minutes. The circus costumes embrace white blouses, cricket cream tones and a few ruffs. There are no nods and winks, the music and lights are the only cues for the complex routines.

The emphasis is on collective motion rather than pure synchronisation. Each dancer is allowed to add a little individual movement creating richer yet still tightly choreographed sequences.

The Hofesh Shechter company describe the performance as “a bitingly comic vision of a topsy-turvy world where fools can be kings and kings fools, performed in the company’s unique and unforgettable theatre-dance-rock-gig style”. That sums it up better that I can!

The short opening piece gives way to the longer Clowns work that sees the ferocity of the performance build up as the pale dressed performers begin to pick each other off, dying and falling to the ground in ever more elaborate ways before getting up to join back in. The dancing and music become frenzied, with the music becoming an extension of the homicidal dancers as they cycle through many different genres of dance. No surprise that Hofesh Shechter was behind both the choreography and the music. The furious tap dancing is particularly effective with the harsh taps of the soundtrack overlaying the silent sock-soled performers.

The audience adulation at the end seemingly unlock a bonus dance as the company reprise themes and movements from the previous piece in truncated sequences broken up by the lights going dark for no more than a second or two before coming back on and revealing that the dancers have stealthily rearranged themselves into new poses across the stage.

Shechter II’s ownership of the space – do they rehearse blindfolded or in the dark? – is remarkable, working together while keeping their eyes fixed upon the audience for most of the performance. It’s a spectacular show. These are elite apprentices. And the restrained lighting design from Lee Curran and Richard Godin that keeps them in the dark as much as makes them clear adds to their brilliance.

While for others the history of the USA was being enacted in front of them, the storyline for me was relatively ambiguous. Watching fight scenes live on stage that could have been out of a highly edited Bourne film or the Sopranos yet retained a sumptuous feel and a breath-taking level of control was an amazing spectacle.

As an outsider to the world of dance, SHOW was certainly the most thoroughly entertaining and awe-inspiring performance that I’ve attended and reviewed. It’s accessible, fun, shocking, and a sensory treat. World class dance in Belfast at sensible prices.

SHOW continues in The MAC until Saturday 19 May.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Lovers: Winners and Losers - escaping or enduring marriage and religion? (Lyric Theatre until 10 June)

Lovers: Winners and Losers presents two loosely-coupled stories which together suggest playwright Brian Friel had a poor opinion of marriage and the role of the church and religion in ‘protecting’ it.

In the first act a man and a woman sit on either side of the stage wearing natty jumpers and narrating the results of the investigation into two young people found drowned in a lake. On a hilltop high above them, we see the two lovers meeting up to revise for their school exams. Weeks later they are to be married, and seven months after that they plan to welcome a baby into the world. Outcasts from the Catholic town, they have each other.

Mag is a scatty motormouth who has no filter and can emotionally turn on a sixpence. Ruby Campbell beautifully animates her character’s mood swings, set against the pregnancy and the script’s explanation of her family’s poor mental health.

Her beau is Andy, a studious lad who is re-evaluating his ambition to escape the small rural town to study maths at a London college. (He’s the only person I’ve seen revising integration by mostly reading a textbook rather than doing sums on paper.) Thomas Finnegan plays the often quiet and withdrawn seventeen year old who, when he finally comes out of his shell, turns out to be a great mimic.

Director Emma Jordan has given the young characters a hesitancy in reaching out and holding each other that underlines their juvenile nature. At first gently and then more forcibly, the couple’s different temperaments are shown to clash with each other. Home truths are blurted out. While the making up is great, their match is questioned.

The use of the cramped study space is good, topped off with a fabulous downhill exit. It took a while for my heart to leave my mouth as Mag and Joe clambered around the hilltop, a perilous platform tilted towards the audience, rising above three trees on the shoreline of a glassy lake.

Whether an artistic decision or driven by the first act being nearly twice as long as the second, there is an undue haste to the matter-of-fact stage-side commentary (Abigail McGibbon and Charlie Bonner) which Friel expertly wraps the around the love story, sometimes getting ahead, sometimes running behind. Similarly Jordan intertwines lots of humour with the heavier unfolding tragedy to prevent a dark cloud permanently settling over the audience.

During the interval, Ciaran Bagnall’s death-defying set was adapted to create an upstairs bedroom above a ground floor living room. Andy (Charlie Bonner) and Hanna (Abigail McGibbon) are an older couple. Randy flashbacks explain how Hanna’s bedbound mother (Helena Bereen) tried to keep them apart when they were curting downstairs.

Now that they’re married, the angina sufferer is as determined as ever to continue to rule the household from her elevated eyrie, perfect for earwigging and ringing the hand bell she may have stolen from the Lyric’s duty manager. The entrance of pious spinster Cissy (Carol Moore) injects a lot of laughs into the significantly shorter second act.
“How’s your mother? / Living …”

The aphorism ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’ sums up Andy’s predicament. Using flashbacks, he reflects on his mistakes and missed opportunities that have trapped him in a marriage that is leaking its store of love and hope. McGibbon’s switch from potential escapee to internee is subtle, her disappointment with Andy’s unsanctified outburst heartfelt.

The themes of escaping and enduring matrimony are at times both cynical, depressing and incredibly droll. Yet Friel’s script together with the rich characters and the precision of movement that Jordan’s direction mandates make breathes life into this 1967 play. Does religion continue to push people into poor decision-making? Does one generation curse the next with its views and behaviour?

Lovers: Winners and Losers is playing the Lyric Theatre until 10 June. Engaged couples should perhaps be encouraged to attend: they’ll either come away determined not to be like Mag/Joe and Hanna/Andy, or they’ll decide that their future is apart! For the rest of us, it’s a very well constructed piece of theatre.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Deadpool 2 – a sequel that turns the original film’s strengths and weaknesses right up to eleven (from 15 May)

As a sequel, Deadpool 2 is more violent, more sweary, more disrespectful, more offensive, and funnier: fans of the original will not be disappointed. There are many nods to the extensive Marvel Universe, a least one jibe at rival DC, references galore to other films and franchises, a Bond-like title sequence, closing credits bunged full of visual and auditory treats, as well as plenty of fourth wall breaking and self-awareness that this is a (relatively) budget superhero movie packed with CGI and scripted shortcuts.

There’s a family theme, even if there was never going to be a family-friendly certificate. Within minutes of the cinema lights going down and his first spree of killing being smooshed across the screen, Wade/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds who clearly has far too much control over the script) is snuggling up on the sofa with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) only to be rudely interrupted by an armed gang invading the flat. But there are some things that the self-healing protagonist cannot heal.

There’s a death to be avenged, someone (with a never explained New Zealand accent) to be saved, somewhere to be broken out of, and a stack of redemption, resurrection and rewriting to be done before the two hours are up.

The Lego Movie taught us that it is good to be part of a team, but the force that Deadpool assembles is less than awesome. It’s good to see Karan Soni back as taxi-driving Dopinder. Rob Delaney briefly showed promise as Peter while the longer-enduring Domino (Zazie Beetz) deserved more time on-screen to add sass and common sense to the Marvel mayhem into which appears time-travelling teddy-carrying frenemy Cable (Josh Brolin).

The sound track mixes Celine Dion, Dolly Parton and Cher with Peter Gabriel, A-ha and a familiar song from Annie the Musical. It’s unlike that there will be Deadpool 2 singalong screenings to match The Greatest Showman – though a crossover film would be fun –soundtrack sales will be strong.

Yet for all its supposed gender awareness, Deadpool 2 still delivers a majority white English-speaking male cast that repeatedly mock otherness. You’ll either forgive it as part of the film’s rule-breaking charm or see it as another side of its wicked failing. Some of the humour – particular in the ‘full Winnie the Pooh’ Basic Instinct sequence – is puerile, and a few of the jokes fall flat and only contribute positively to the film’s runtime.

The directorial switch from Tim Miller to David Leitch is seamless. There is no good reason not to expect a Deadpool 3 in two years’ time. Even more in jokes will be pulled out of the Marvel bellybutton and a new set of actors and directors will be simultaneously delighted and appalled to realise that they have been mentioned.

Deadpool 2 is released in cinemas across UK and Ireland on Tuesday 15 May.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Women Troubles - loves, auditions and rejections of three tenacious women (NI tour until end May)

Siobhan Kelly, Clare McMahon and Maria Quinn and have known each other since they were 13 and participated in the life-changing Rainbow Factory summer drama scheme. While none of them got to play Nancy in Oliver that year, their friendship has maintained over the years.

Women Troubles is their autobiographical story of growing up into womanhood and following their dreams to enter the acting profession. They find much to mock in the advice they received in school career classes never mind drama school coaching that failed to prepare them for their chosen profession. The description of a nappy being changed was both realistic and explosively amusing. But so too are the angst-ridden recollection of unhappy auditions, unsuitable boyfriends and inappropriate comments.

Staged in the American Bar on Dock Street, the three stool set was augmented with poster boards of photos, cards, letters, tickets and even clothes from their adolescence. The three women play themselves as well as morphing into the other figures.

They finish each other’s sentences, talk in unison, sing and rarely stop moving throughout the show which concludes with a celebratory paean of hitting 30 and learning that wrinkles, stretch marks and grey hairs are not as important as strength of character, resilience and perseverance in the pursuit of their calling to theatre.

The one hour performance steers away from turgid navel gazing and instead serves up a series of hilarious and sweary recollections of crucial moments from their lives: first loves, first kisses, first periods, first missed periods, first auditions, and the first of many rejections. Despite their harsh criticism of drama schools, Women Troubles demonstrates the threesome’s talent, versatility with accents, not to mention their tenacity and ability to see the funny side of life.

Directed by Benjamin Gould and produced by Pintsized Productions and Female Theatre Collective, Women Troubles is now on tour through Riverside Theatre Coleraine (Thursday 17 May), Island Arts Centre Lisburn (Friday 18), Cushendall Golf Club (Sunday 20), Sean Hollywood Arts Centre Newry (Thursday 24), Downpatrick Arts Centre (Saturday 26) and Strand Arts Centre Belfast (Sunday 27).

The Sword and the Sand – dark, funny and very shocking (Rawlife Theatre in the Lyric until 27 May)

xxx The Sword and the Sand revolves around Duff, an OCD gang leader who remains at the helm of an unnamed paramilitary ‘Organisation’. A power-crazed despot who insists that everyone around him remains loyal and obeys his commands, he’s post-republican, no longer believing in any 32 county cause. He gets his kicks out of torturing local drug dealers and has a real thing for needles. Getting his muscles the same way he tans his skin, through injections, is perhaps a hint at his wider belief that there’s no need to put in too much effort to achieve what he wants.

Marty Maguire plays the orange-faced evil Popeye figure with bulging biceps, shooting off jokes that attract laughs, yet have a sharp edge that always hurts someone. There’s a consistency to Maguire’s portrayal that makes the menace troublingly believable.

A series of characters circle round Duff, questioning his motives as well as their own reasons for participating in his scheme, but unable to break free from orbit. There’s his protégé Cricky (Gerard Jordan Quinn) who is well read and can tell the difference between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS, yet can also handle an ugly crowd intent on revenge.

A refugee who lost family and has witnessed persecution and violence is given shelter by Duff. Perhaps in Azir (Mark Asante) he recognises a kindred spirit, perhaps someone with experience of the trauma he metes out on the streets of Belfast? Or maybe he decided to select a suitably vulnerable man to be his next slave, cooking meals and working behind the bar while receiving next to no recompense.

Bernadette Brown plays Lala, a young woman who trades bringing pleasure to a man twice her age for … what barely passes as friendship. Taught to stay well away from his less sensual activities, she’s smarter than Duff realises and when she brings a family situation to his attention he can’t help but act on the information to further his criminal purposes.

Playwright Pearse Elliott sets these characters on a downward spiral, exploring how the monster’s cohorts begin to push back against the devilish Duff with independent thinking. The language is strong, the opinions often politically incorrect and director Martin McSharry keeps the atmosphere thick with menace and violence.

The beauty of the script is the way in which each character surprises Duff by attempting to stand up to him. Brown, Quinn and particularly Asante bring out hidden depths to their characters and carefully walk the fine line between being victims and collaborators. Paddy Jenkins emerges on stage after the interval. The brevity of his scene is inversely proportional to the effort he puts into the intense performance and his character’s valiant fight against the wit of Duff.

At one level, The Sword and the Sand is a reality check about some modern day pseudo-paramilitary activity, steeped in criminality and distant from any original cause. Yet it’s also a reminder that while our own ‘Troubles’ were brutal and bloody, they barely compare to some other places of conflict around the world. It’s also an object lesson on dealing with the consequences of poor decisions, and waiting too long to stand up for your principles.

It’s a fabulously dark, at times funny, and often shocking play that speaks loudly into Northern Ireland’s situation as well as global issues. The Sword and the Sand continues its run in the Lyric Theatre until 27 May.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Michelle & Arlene: Love in Las Vegas … yet deadlock at Stormont (Accidental Theatre until 12 May)

Michelle & Arlene: Love in Las Vegas is the third instalment of Rosemary Jenkinson’s satirical adventures of the former First and deputy First Ministers as they seek to find political agreement. The fine foemance have previously spent time in Ibiza and travelling through Europe, but you don’t need to have seen the previous episodes to pick up the story.

Passing through Belfast recently, former President Bill Clinton has invited Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster to leave behind their party colleagues and advisers and travel alone to the US to have intensive talks. But as usual, one need to make a decision leads to another, and the political duo end up in Las Vegas with hilarious consequences.

There is the sense that nine months and three rapid reaction plays later, these episodes may be coming to a natural end. It is tantamount to bullying to keep lampooning something that shows no sign of changing.

Maria Connolly and Mary-Frances Doherty are very comfortable stepping back into the shoes of their monstrous creations. Connolly’s grimaces hit new shapes and her union flag suitcase is a veritable mini-bar of Scottish whiskies while Doherty sports an Irish Rebel Alliance t-shirt, an enormous green bow in her blond wig and an infectious free-spirit.

Both political leaders are exhausted by endless non-agreements who are not motivated by the “negotiating salon” in New York. Connolly portrays a DUP leader that is trapped by her role, her party and her politics. So her escape to Las Vegas and entry into a Dolly Parton singing contest is not as surprising as the competition result. And for a minute I wondered if her rendition of Jolene would somehow refer to a Belfast councillor with the same name.

Stuffed full of songs and amusing video interstitials between scenes, there’s a rawness to aspects of the production that remind the audience that the play was rehearsed and staged in a week. But there are plenty of laughs throughout, never more so than about ten minutes from the end when the local political tit for tat rhetoric is exposed for its absurdity in an extended scene when the two protagonists face up to their ability to agree a deal about a personal crisis while still overshadowed by their political stalemate.

Interviewed a couple of weeks ago for a preview piece, Jenkinson explained:
“A lot of that stuff stems from truthful words. I don’t put things in that really don’t have a basis in reality. Something sparks it off [and] it’s not just me deciding to have a little stereotypical joke here.”

This factual foundation is what gives this type of satire its bite, moving it beyond mockery into sharp political commentary that questions the status quo and the public’s acceptance of recalcitrant behaviour.

Michelle & Arlene: Love in Las Vegas continues at Accidental Theatre (12-13 Shaftesbury Square, right under the big screen) until Saturday 12 May.

Friday, May 11, 2018

La Donna Abbandonata (Spark Opera as part of #CQAF18) – arias for abandoned women by a dumped and emotional singer!

Given the outrageous and far-fetched characters they often play on stage, I half expect every opera singer – male and female – to be a diva off-stage. Today’s performance of La Donna Abbandonata by Spark Opera Company gave that notion a twist and surprised its lunchtime audience with a performance by Marielle Murphy, who threw some shade as well as withering looks from her smoky eyes around the room.

Take opera off the stage and into a recital and much of the theatre is often removed. Director Kate Guelke wove a moody story of conflict and crabbiness around the seven ‘arias for abandoned women’ injecting drama back into the production.

Emotionally charged from the beginning, Murphy’s powerful coloratura soprano voice resonated around the hard surfaces of the Ulster Scots Centre on Victoria Street. Unhappy with her ‘agent’ (Colin Carnegie) her sung words of ‘betrayal’, ‘joy deserted’ and ‘bitter tears’ took on new meaning, albeit divorced from the fullest context of their original works, but given vigour by the new setting. Having the translated lyrics in the programme helps bring the story alive.

There’s a lovely interplay between the stormy singer and the calm accompanist (Keith McAlister) who has to cover on the piano for her absences when she barricades herself into rooms or wanders off barefoot through the audience. A teasing line from I Will Survive promises something that isn’t in the programme, but her effortless rendition of Danny Boy more than makes up from her retreat from a full on Gloria Gaynor cover!

La Donna Abbandonata is a fine Belfast debut for Marielle Murphy showing off her mastery of Rachmaninov, Schubert, Mozart and Donizetti, and another great performance in the always varied Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival programme. Tickets still available for the final performance at 1.30pm on Saturday 12 May (light refreshments supplied during the interval).

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Hubert and the Yes Sock – building confidence in the joy of socks (Tinderbox in The MAC as part of CQAF until 9 May) #cqaf18

What timid Hubert needs is an injection of confidence to help him find office camaraderie, friendship and love. Played by Dan Leith (who also wrote the show), the shy character is thrust into the spotlight by Mr Sock (Keith Singleton) who offers him the gift of the red ‘Yes Sock’ that can a-pair-ently turn his life around. But right from the start you suspect that this so-called ‘fresh start’ is as fresh as the November 2015 one up on the hill at Stormont.

Over 55 minutes, Hubert and the Yes Sock’s audience watch this excruciating well-crafted exercise in discomfort and humiliation as Hubert pulls on the sock and becomes a puppet in Mr Sock’s glitzy game show. The comic actors lean into long pauses and deafening silences, feeding off the audience’s laughter while director Patrick J O’Reilly creates boundaries on stage with jeopardy when they are breached.

There’s a creeping feeling of anticipation that “the sock that makes you want to say Yes” will create a second monster on the stage. Socksual innuendo was perhaps inevitable, yet when Hubert gets overexcited, the recourse to cheap school boy humour threatens to become the show’s Achilles heel. Watch out for the final Carly Simon twist: cruel and barely forgivable.

Audience participation cleverly heightens the sense of anxiety and tries to make us complicit in the charlatan confidence-building practice. As we giggle and guffaw, we question whether Hubert’s new found confidence is a cure for anything that needed to be healed and cotton on that the manipulative Mr Sock – he’s a bit of a heel – is empowered rather than empowering.

Hubert and the Yes Sock finds a lot of cheese between its toes, with a toy xylophone, glittery props and the sole mates’ brightly coloured polo necks (pink and green) and trousers (mustard and purple). Giver of the sock and game show host Singleton sports a thick gold chain and a sock medallion that could make a great Christmas gift on the Tinderbox website for mindful shoppers!

Dan and the Tinderbox team have created a memorable production that skilfully lace up the audience’s insecurities and shyness with the characters’ foibles in this slick and humorous performance.

Hubert and the Yes Sock runs in The MAC until 9 May as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The Winslow Boy – fighting over a trifle in court, an old play with modern resonance (Grand Opera House until Saturday 5 May)

Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy is a fictionalised version of a true story. A thirteen young lad who was studying at the Osborne Naval College. Accused of stealing a five shilling postal order and expelled from school, his family refused to roll over and fought the case to restore his honour and that of the family name in the courts of law as well as the court of public opinion. Letters in the newspaper opined on the issue and front page headlines screamed out the latest developments.

Parliament spent a day debating the trifle and some people wondered whether there weren’t more pressing issues (like the deteriorating political situation across Europe) that better deserved their attention. But what started out as being very personal become extremely political as one family took on the state and a military institution and demanded the right to a fair trial.

Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s revival of The Winslow Boy probably made sense to the producer with the suffragette movement centenary celebrations this year. But touring the show to Belfast in the week that the Supreme Court are sitting less than a mile away from the Grand Opera House to hear a case about a cake (or rather the absence of a cake) with the Attorney General involved was a scheduling master-stroke.

Misha Butler plays young Ronnie Winslow. Incredibly tall and clearly an example of height-blind casting, he plays the 13-15 year old at the centre of the story, a lad who is on the cusp of maturity and independence, but has neither fully let go of his childish ways nor learned to shun his mother’s hands-on care and attention. Much of the fuss goes over his head as people fight on his behalf but largely without his input.

The irascible and cantankerous father Arthur Winslow is played by Aden Gillett (last on our small screens with a role in Jackie Chan’s memorable spoof Troubles film The Foreigner, available on Netflix). With each new act, Arthur’s arthritis visibly deteriorates while his spirit stays strong. Often seated in the middle of the stage, the play revolves around this stubborn man who risks his all and undermines his children’s happiness to fight injustice. Gillett’s balanced portrayal keeps the audience on his side long after we should have grown annoyed that Arthur is a bully with no sense of proportion. Mostly this is due to the humour found in his bombastic behaviour.

Behind this failing brute of a man stands his wife Grace. It’s not the first time Tessa Peake-Jones has taken on the role of a character who has to adapt to her partner’s weaknesses to hold a family together, having played Raquel in Only Fools and Horses. She manages the level of household hysteria, engineering a sense of calm and civility that is only broken when the wonderful Soo Drouet bursts onto the stage as untrained maid Violet and blurts out any secret that is being suppressed.

The accusations levelled against Ronnie and the subsequent battle to clear his name bring suffering onto both of his siblings. Theo Bamber makes his professional stage debut as work-shy Dickie who enjoys a subsidised lifestyle pretending to study at Oxford. But it’s his sister Catherine who shines out among the cast. Dorothy Myer-Bennett encapsulates the tension between being seen as a feminist and a suffragette organiser while revelling in her love of thrifty fashion and her search for permanent companionship. Her character alone sees the wider human rights picture and parries with every male in the play – two or three of whom are suitors – and always comes out on top.

Opposition MP and prominent barrister Sir Robert Morton is engaged to fight the case. [William Crawley reminds me that the character is based on Sir Edward Carson – yes, that one – who was engaged to fight the Archer-Shee case.] His devastating cross examination of young Ronnie gives the audience plenty to talk about over the interval, and director Rachel Kavanaugh empowers actor Timothy Watson to milk the script for every last drop of ambiguity each time he encounters the strong-willed Catherine.
“Whatever you say will have little bearing on what they write.”

Throw in a fiancé (William Belchambers), an amorous solicitor (Geff Francis) and a frivolous reporter (Sarah Lambie) and you have a classic drawing room play that manages to connect 1908 with 2018.

The semi-transparent walls in Michael Taylor’s lurid greeny-blue one room set allow the audience to see characters approaching the doors back stage and give shape to the house the action is trapped inside. Playwright Rattigan plays fast and loose with the sense of time, stretching the four acts over a two year period but compressing the end of the court case into such a flash that the jury members’ bottoms would barely have been able to hit the seats in their jury room before they had to run back into court with their verdict.

On paper it looks like a vanilla period drama. But there’s a saltiness to the script that resonates in 2018 where issues of proportion, the “despotism of Whitehall” and the tabloid press are all still under scrutiny in a world that cries out “let right be done” but argues over whose rights are most important.

The Winslow Boy continues its run in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 5 May.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Preview: Rosemary Jenkinson’s Michelle & Arlene: Love in Las Vegas (Accidental Theatre, 10-12 May)

Rosemary Jenkinson embraced rapid reaction plays last year with a series of productions which were written, rehearsed and staged within weeks rather than the normal process of months and years.

Michelle & Arlene: Love in Las Vegas is the third instalment of satirical adventures of the former First and deputy First Ministers as they seek to find political agreement. (And Arlene met Trump at Christmas too.) The fine foemance have previously spent time in Ibiza and travelling through Europe, but you don’t need to have seen the previous episodes to pick up the story.

The first show was quite a risk as it relied on the NI Executive remaining out of action. The possibility that the institutions could be restored could have jeopardised the short run: this year, that risk doesn’t seem so real. Instead it’s nearly as if there’s a war of attrition between the satirising playwright and the political parties: one continuing to tease the others while they remain reluctant to find agreement and restoration.

“This one particularly has got more anger in it because of the arts cuts” says Rosemary. “During the Good Friday Agreement events, Arlene Foster tweeted about her pride in the building works going on across the city. It’s like she thinks that a country’s worth is valued by its themed hotels or whatever. A country’s worth is valued by its art and culture and that ignorance infuriates me. So there’s a little more bite to this one.”

This show is inspired by the recent political remembering. Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster have agreed to lose their party colleagues and advisors and travel alone to the US to have intensive talks. But as usual, one thing leads to another, and they end up in Las Vegas with hilarious consequences.
“Politicians love an American junket! In the play it’s a metaphor for the way that internationalism pulls you into looking outside yourself. Distance helps people come to an agreement. If they actually did go to America it would probably be a very good thing to get the blinkers off. Inside our country we’re so caught up in our green and orange dynamic that you need to go outside and see the big picture of what we’re not doing.”
Common to all three plays is the ability for the two political leaders to work together, particular when their backs are up against the wall and they need to rely on each other.
“My sense is that they like each other … and can do deals. It’s almost as if their parties pull back their individual desires to do business. Hence the need to take them away on their own [in the plays].”

Unless – or until – there is political progress, Rosemary says that she’s unlikely to write a fourth instalment.
“I’m not going to keep on lampooning the same things just because they are out. I need them to engage more politically to have real life material to bounce off.”
Writing about contemporary politics is a joy.
“It’s great doing political work because it’s constantly feeding you. With the ongoing RHI inquiry, I’m constantly having to do rewrites. It’s quite exciting for me to be under that pressure to reflect society, something that wouldn’t happen in a normal play. It keeps me on my toes which I love.”

Is the motivation around embarrassment, education or entertainment?
“My ethos is that it’s a light, entertaining play. The satire in it doesn’t beat you over the head. It’s deliciously barbed and takes up Oscar Wilde’s notion of ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’. So the intentions are entirely serious, but the view of it is to be incredibly funny and a great night’s entertainment. It’s not throw away like a review sketch night. It is a properly built play with a journey that will entertain people.”

While the two political figures at the centre of the drama might find the material rude, pass remarkable, and even insulting, Rosemary says that the jokes and barbs are based on real comments and reporting. Previous plays picked up on Arlene Foster’s comments in an interview when she described Michelle O’Neill as “blonde” and “attractive”.
“A lot of that stuff stems from truthful words. I don’t put things in that really don’t have a basis in reality. Something sparks it off [and] it’s not just me deciding to have a little stereotypical joke here.”

Maria Connolly and Mary-Frances Doherty have played Arlene and Michelle in all three shows. The first was written before anyone was cast. But since then the playwright has been able to craft the text around the actors present each character.
“When I write for them I know where I’m going to put particular little mannerisms and verbal ticks. It’s heightened Arlene’s disapproving mannerisms in the way that Maria picked up on them. Mary-Frances laughed a lot as Michelle. And Maria loves singing, so I’ve put in more songs.”
While Maria would love a Michelle & Arlene musical, this third show is a good compromise, with the characters travelling to Las Vegas.

She loves the liberation of the rapid response format and the flexibility of the Accidental Theatre space. “I can phone Richard Laverty and just like that we can take off any time. There’s no other director who would put shows up so quickly. It’s incredibly stressful on the actors and on the director. They do it because they love it but it’s still very difficult to do.”

The lack of set, minimal props, very simple lighting, lack of radio mics does remove a lot of the complexity of modern theatre. I wonder whether it’s a little like Shakespeare in the Globe Theatre with people sitting around the stage, up close as the actors do their thing, work off the audience and ruthlessly send up what the playwright sees and finds annoying?
“I like that comparison because there is a rawness and the actors are exposed. I know both Maria and Mary-Frances absolutely love it because it feels more live and more exciting that close to the audience with nothing for them to hide behind or rely on. They really respond to that basic visceral theatre.”
With Brexit and referenda never far from the news, there are plenty of topics that Rosemary could dip into for future work. But in the meantime, her next book of short stories Catholic Boy will be launched tonight in the Lyric Theatre. A sample story Revival that references Alex Higgins can be downloaded on Amazon.  (Aphrodite's Kiss was published two years ago and is still in print.)

2018 has started strongly for Rosemary Jenkinson. May The Road Rise Up (reviewed) has just finished its NI tour with C21 Theatre, and Lives in Translation (reviewed) which premièred at Belfast International Arts Festival also went back out on the road with Kabosh.
“It’s great to finally get another book out. It’s such a different world, from theatre: more sedate and civilised. With a play you’re always thinking of the audience and the actors and making it easy for them in some ways – or sometimes more difficult – but you’re thinking of other people. I love that it’s just me and the page with short stories: I don’t have to worry about pleasing people ... except the editor!”
Though with a book tour to do, the playwright does have to step out onto the stage for once as a writer and perform readings and answer questions. That’s a reversal of roles?

Rosemary laughs. “I do edit the stories [when I’m reading them out]. If there’s a passage that’s maybe too descriptive it will go because I understand the nature of performing. My only problem is that I’m never confident enough to put on accents for the dialogue! I’m not an actor. I can read but for acting you need total confidence and self-abandonment and I don’t have that. But I might improve …”

Tickets are now on sale for performances of Michelle & Arlene: Love in Las Vegas at 8pm on Thursday 10 to Saturday 12 May in Accidental Theatre’s latest home at 12-13 Shaftesbury Square, right under the big screen.

Mural painted by Jonny McKerr

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Titanic The Musical – a riveting show with a busy yet well-crafted story and an enormous cast (Grand Opera House until Saturday 28 April)

Squeezing the story of the Titanic’s maiden voyage into two hours and twenty minutes of theatre is no mean feat. Within fifteen minutes of musical director Mark Aspinall raising his baton, Titanic The Musical pulls out of Southampton harbour having introduced the architect, owner and captain along with a few crew members and the different classes of passengers.

Factoids about the dimensions and provisions are sung. The aisles of the stalls are used to give a feeling of length to David Woodhead’s largely flat set which consists of a two level gantry with metal steps on wheels that become quite a distraction with their constant movement after the interval.

Previous Titanic-related productions I’ve reviewed have concentrated on the building of the structure (The Boat Factory) or the inquiry held after its sinking (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912). This one just tackles the voyage.

The ensemble cast of 25 belt out the four, five and perhaps even six part harmonies that Maury Yeston has penned. In places, it’s nearly more operatic than musical theatre. The Morse Code riff was a noble way of explaining the Marconi operators. The best tune in the score – Godspeed Titanic – is cleverly reprieved at the end, lifting the emotion out of tragedy and back towards hope. The score’s success is not in crafting hummable tunes but in the way it sets of the mood for each scene. Elaborate violin bowing and frantic harpsichord playing on top of the deep cello tones are all very effective. Post collision, the cacophonous score ratcheted up the sense of panic.

Unusually for the Grand Opera House, the front of house PA is distributed with smaller speakers dotted across the auditorium. It definitely helped with the clarity and diction of the voices, but at times the volume of singing and position of the actors around the stage and aisles seemed to trigger feedback: but that’ll be quickly ironed out. More concerning was the noticeable whirring sound coming from somewhere above the audience’s heads during the quiet scenes: something up there has a very noisy fan. Howard Hudson’s lighting design cast some great shadows, with the upper railings creating a moving bow on the curtain below.
“God himself couldn’t sink this ship”

Subwoofers powerfully transmitted the collision of steel and ice throughout the stalls, though the sinking was very quiet and listless other than one final moment when the set sprung to life. Playing Kate McGowan (one of the three Kates), Victoria Serra’s voice soared high above the rest of the cast in the ensemble numbers. The sweet Straus family (Dudley Rogers and Judith Street) provided the most moving moment of the performance, though there was a poignancy to a memorial scene towards the show’s conclusion.

Director Thom Southerland never allows the myth of Titanic to overshadow the individual stories of passengers and crew. Despite the large cast and even larger set of characters, each is given space to weave their own tale into the overall fabric of the familiar narrative. (The scene in which two officers flap their arms like birds is one moment when the choreography loses its way.)

Having never quite fully jumped aboard the Titanic centenary bandwagon, I needed to be won round to why the world needed another nautical stage show. The quality of the storytelling shone through. Peter Stone’s book jams in a lot of moving parts with an analysis of class, the upstairs downstairs nature of the ship’s crew (though the tale of those below decks is the least well told aspect of the story), as well as the onboard tensions around the owner’s ambition for a speedy crossing.

The Thomas Andrews/J Bruce Ismay/Captain Edward Smith triangle and their fingerpointing number The Blame was particularly well observed, with Simon Green playing the owner towering above everyone else’s contradiction, and Philip Rham getting caught up in the safety-averse competitive race across the Atlantic. Italian-born Greg Castiglioni played Thomas Andrews with a fabulous Belfast accent.

“It could’ve been crass but it wasn’t” was how I phrased it to the Belfast Telegraph’s David Young during the interval. It’s much better than I expected: riveting in places and never dull.

Titanic the Musical is at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 28 April.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Tender Napalm - dark, unsettling, ambiguous but thought-provoking dystopia (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 21 April)

Philip Ridley’s 2011 play Tender Napalm drops the audience into an unnamed couple’s disturbing relationship. Actors Emer McDaid and Gavin Peden walk onto a stage that’s naked except for 10 white stools and a clothes rail. As Woman and Man they begin a verbal duel, shooting elaborate poetic insults at each other based around parts of the other’s body. The language and imagery quickly turns violent, physically and at times sexually.

Soon the parrying switches to another game. The aloof couple are marooned on a desert island. Letting their imaginations roam free they make up stories that revolve around the destruction of the other. Man tells a superhero tale of fighting a sea serpent which is as tall as three double decker buses. Woman imagines armies of little monkeys who help lock her Man in a cave. Over 100 minutes, bombs, unicorns and even UFOs are added to the presumed make-believe universe.

The pair’s games have rules. Each new chapter in the story cannot contradict previous canon. Ever more elaborate escapes are invented to recover from near fatal cliff hangers. Weaved into this fantasy is what could be the couple’s origin story. The truth is never clear. Ridley presents the dialogue and leaves those listening to rationalise what they are hearing. There are some clues that hint at traumatic events in their childhood, mental illness or perhaps violent loss as a couple.

Despite the intimate language, there is little intimacy between the couple, other than the echo of long gone better times. We’re watching an ex-couple, two people who have moved beyond tenderness to inhabit a world where they go round in circles dropping napalm on each other. The word ‘naked’ is so often repeated in the script that it becomes a Chekhov's gun that fails to be fired: what might be an almost deliberate shying away from anything sensual adds mystery to the narrative. (To be fair, I think I saw a whole year’s worth of – mostly male – nudity in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio in February alone.)

While the plot is ambiguous and disquieting, the quality of the acting cannot be questioned. The young pair are in total control of their unusual situation. Gavin Peden leaps around the stools like a caped crusader and petulantly interrupts Woman’s stories. He combines Man’s bouncy boyish nature with an aggressive streak while Emer McDaid is less harsh as Woman, calm and assertive with just a hint of menace (particularly when she holds the garden shears) right up until the point her character caves in. Director Breman Rajkumar has created an unfussy choreography that makes good use of the empty space and invites the audience into some of the scenes.
Contre un bon repas chaud / Nous prenait une toile / Nous récitions des vers / Groupés autour du poêle / En oubliant l'hiver

Other than a blast of the rather apt La Bohème by Charles Aznavour, the only sound effects are the metallic noise of white stools being moved or knocked over. The challenge for the cast of Tender Napalm is to make people believe that the relationship was once viable despite the nasty rhetoric and to keep the paying public hooked while the clues are slowly laid out on the bare stage.

When the actors change costumes at one point and travel back in time they both look and sound noticeable younger. Two lesser actors might have struggle with the stripped back set or sound, but McDaid and Peden deliver performances that are rich and magnetic. While I’m not sure any two people leaving the theatre will agree on what story was being told, In the Moment Productions have put on a thought-provoking and unsettling piece of dystopian drama.

Tender Napalm continues at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 21 April.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Abigail’s Party – a great production of a classic play with lush performances to match the 1970s décor! (The MAC until 5 May)

Into an orange and brown set that accurately captured trendy late 1970s décor strides Beverly, decked out in a floaty dress from similarly warm-toned material. A modern woman confident in her white shag pile rug-covered environment, slowly shimmying around the room setting out cheesy nibbles and making sure the drinks cabinet is in order.

Beverly’s husband Laurence is a hard-working estate agent with an faux penchant for the finer things of life (art, books and classical music) while his wife’s social climbing is rooted in more shallow pursuits.

Into their modern abode – brilliantly created by designer Diana Ennis – come new neighbours, a young couple Angela and Tony, and neighbour Sue whose unseen fifteen year old daughter Abigail is hosting a party next door.

What follows is a brilliantly observed examination of competitive aspiration, gender politics, and the culture of misogyny: a window into 1977 that still reflects into 2018 society. The radio news bulletin that acts as a prologue to the play hints that membership of the European Community/Common Market and sex discrimination and equal pay legislation were issues at the time.

Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party opened in Hampstead Theatre before an abridged recording was broadcast as Play for Today on BBC One. The MAC’s production stays true to the Essex accents and lets the themes within the story resonate while resisting the attempt to shift the story to Northern Ireland. (Though the set with its low seating and sideboards standing on spindly wooden legs do remind me of a house I visited as a child.)

Roisin Gallagher is at the core of every scene, never swerving in mannerism or accent as she plies her guests with often unwanted food and drink, abbreviating everyone’s name (other than her husband’s) to a single syllable, finishing every sentence with a question (“Don’t you agree with me Ang?”) and slowly losing her inhibitions as she gives way to the influence of alcohol and frustration. It’s a flawless performance that anchors the discomfort that director Richard Croxford creates on stage.

Laurence (played by Will Irvine) at first seems like a hen-pecked, later ill-suited husband whose patience is eventually stretched beyond breaking point with consequences. Brigid Shine plays a diminutive Angela who is full of chat but is definitely under the thumb of her often monosyllabic husband Tony who replies to most questions with ‘yeah’.

Like cracks on a wall, tensions between partners grow over the evening. But the wildcard on stage that acts as a quite catalyst is Susan, played brilliantly by Imogen Slaughter. Other than being a single mother previously married to an architect, Susan has no backstory. However, the ambiguity which Slaughter injects into the role leaves the audience longing for more information about why she is quite so uncomfortable as Beverly and Angela bombard her with questions about her past and her plans for the future. There’s always a hint that there’s something we’re not being told.

As the alliances and annoyances rotate around the five-some, Abigail’s Party turns into a fascinating character study. Music of the time is frequently referenced and the record player sitting in the metal framed bookcase is put to good use.

Angela’s dancing deserves a special mention as Brigid Shine once again proves that her character will try to do things for which she is totally unskilled. It’s a beautiful moment in a play that ends with Beverley taking a bow still with a glass in her hand.

Abigail’s Party is definitely the most entertaining play I’ve seen on a Belfast stage so far this month. It pulls off laughs without reducing the complexity of the on-stage relationships which are great fun to pick apart at the interval and the end. A great production of a classic play. Abigail’s Party continues at the MAC until Saturday 5 May. Catch it before Beverly drinks the bar dry …

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Colleen Bawn – Oirish melodrama given the full Bruiser treatment (Bruiser + Lyric Theatre until 28 April)

A fair maiden – Eily O’Connor, nicknamed the Colleen Bawn – lives on the other side of the lake. The man, Hardress, to whom she is secretly married plans to marry another, Anne, since his first wife’s use of the vernacular ill-befits his social standing. A friend Kyrle has long carried a flame for Anne. And Hardress’ mother has a problem with her mortgage which could see them all homeless unless she repays the twisted magistrate landowner, or accepts his hand in marriage.

Throw in a hunchbacked servant Danny who reckons one of the chess pieces could be permanently lifted off the board, a stray shot and a happy ending and you’ve got a convoluted tale based on a true story that was adapted into Gerald Griffin’s novel The Collegians.

First performed in 1850 in New York, Dion Boucicault’s melodrama The Colleen Bawn has been given the full Bruiser treating, with seven cast members playing many more characters with instant costume changes, quick asides to the audience, props thrown across the stage and scene changes that are nearly a rapid fire as the dialogue.

The first half is peppered with on-stage music from the cast of seven with three guitars, fiddle, flute, piano, tin whistles, percussion and great harmony voices injecting gusto into the plot that swirls around the audiences brains unless they’ve read the synopsis beforehand. The issues of class and dialect surrounding secret wife Eily drive the contemporary commentary stirred up by the play, and the reprise after the interval is incredibly useful to reduce the brain power being consumed by piecing together the story to begin to analyse what is going on underneath the dialogue.

The live music mostly disappears in the second half with Matthew Reeve’s soundtrack taking over and Grace Smart’s oak-beamed, low-ceilinged set providing the novelty.

(Though the script’s mention of no moon seemed to be contradicted moments later by the painted backcloth in the boat scene.)

The ensemble is incredibly tight and Lisa May’s direction creates a focus for each scene despite the majority of the cast staying on stage during the full performance.

Patrick McBrearty’s Danny carries the most pleasing west-coast accent. With a simple twirl, Cavan Clarke morphs from double-dating Hardress into the unorthodox Father Tom.Enda Kilroy bounds around the stage with a comedy-sized top hat worn at a jaunty angle like a superhero playing the local magistrate and wannabe detective.

Maeve Smyth captures the grace and simplicity of Eily, and is probably a little more ‘Colleen Ruaidh’ than dark-haired Colette Lennon Dougal (Anne) whose character attracts this moniker and is played with a spirit of always looking on the bright side. Jo Donnelly steals scenes and with her eyes and her great sense of comic timing.

Today’s Sunday matinee audience probably contributed to the performance being more sober than farcical. The overall the pace was much more comfortable than Bruiser’s overly manic The 39 Steps and it was an amazing choice of script to show off what Bruiser can do to bring out the jest and joy in a play.

The Colleen Bawn runs until Saturday 28 April and is a co-production between the Lyric Theatre and Bruiser Theatre Company. In a week that saw Bruiser Theatre lose 85% of its Arts Council grant, this quality production once again proves the company’s pedigree and distinctive place in the NI theatre sector.