Sunday, July 05, 2015

Tall Ships Races 2015 - Parade of Sail

Tens of thousands of people took a chance on the weather - a good bet in the end - and flooded Titanic Quarter and the Belfast Harbour this morning to see the Red Arrows fly past and the Tall Ships depart to the north coast start line of their race.

Crowds lined the shoreline as the event seemed certain to hit its target of half a million visitors to Tall Ships events in and around the LIDL Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival.

Soon the ships were motoring out into the lough to get into position for the Sail Training International race start off Portrush at 10am on Monday and heading to Ålesund.

Ships like the Guayas started to unfurl and set their sails - wouldn't fancy being the sailor at the top of each mast!

Other vessels kept an eye on the ships ...

Heading back into Belfast Harbour just before 5pm, the crowds had gone, the blue t-shirted volunteers and liaison officers volunteers all but two tall ships had departed, stalls were being disassembled, the Belfast Telegraph souvenir programme sellers had given up flogging the good-but-overpriced brochure [£6 on Thursday, dropped to £5 on Friday and £3 after the Red Arrows had flown over this morning] and Belfast was returning to normal.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Tall Ships Belfast (2-5 July)

I’ve a single memory of the Tall Ships being in Belfast the first time. I thought I was younger, but I’ll have to believe everyone who says it was 1991. I remember walking along a quay, in the middle of waste ground in a Belfast harbour I’d never seen before, and there were boats with tall masts tied up. I’ve absolutely no memory of getting on board any of the ships.

That’s what I wrote in a blog post in 2009 when the Tall Ships returned to Belfast. The land around Belfast harbour was mid-way through its transformation for the second visit of the vessels whose masts reach up to the clouds. Chip vans had been replaced with a Continental market. It was my turn to drag my daughter around the Tenacious.

They're back! Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival – otherwise known as “the Tall Ships” – runs from noon on Thursday 2 July until 4pm on Sunday 5 July. The best tip from 2009:

The people that I’ve met with the most vivid experiences of the Tall Ships seemed to be the ones who wandered or cycled down to the Odyssey late on Wednesday or Thursday night. No crowds blocked their view of the assembled fleet.

This year 50 vessels of different sizes and classes are expected to berth in the various docks. The Guayas is already over in Pollock Dock beside the BBC Experience and will host The One Show on Friday evening. (You can also catch Hugo Duncan broadcasting his afternoon radio show from the Odyssey car park on Thursday and Friday.)

There are markets and fairgrounds on both sides of the river. Hot air balloon displays, kite workshops, Victorian games and … tall ships too. And the Dock Cafe is sure to be open. The Brazilian Cisne Branco is moored right beside the Odyssey and boasts the largest flag in Northern Ireland!

There’ll be fireworks at 10.20pm on Saturday evening. But perhaps the most spectacular part of the whole event will be the Tall Ships Parade on Sunday, when the whole fleet set sail from Belfast at 11am (preceded by a flypast by the Red Arrows who’ll go on to do a full display over Carrickfergus) and head around the coast as they head up to the Causeway Coast and the start line of the race for Monday morning.

Two Park and Ride sites are operating, one in Boucher Road playing fields, the other Airport Road West (Ikea exit).

A free shuttle bus can take you from Wellington Place (near Belfast Visitors Centre) down to Pollock Dock. Lots more details on the Tall Ships Belfast website.

Out on the water on Wednesday afternoon, the sheer scale of the event was obvious as we manoeuvred in and out of docks and followed a couple of smaller vessels up the lough and into their berths.

The four masted 100m long barque Statsraad Lehmkuhl [that must be close to the length of the City Hall?] will dwarf everything else when it arrives since the Royal Princess cruise ship will have long gone!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Yer Granny ... eating up audiences in the Lyric Theatre until 27 June

The Very Hungry Caterpillar in human form is the easiest way to describe the stockinged centenarian grandmother that Gregor Fisher plays in Yer Granny. “S’at yev goat? [What’s that you’ve got?]” is the constant refrain as she eats continuously while on stage.
  • sweets
  • meat from a pot
  • a cake
  • crisps
  • biscuits
  • chips
  • someone else’s sausage
  • potatoes
  • mayonnaise
  • and more.
It’s rare for actors to receive a hearty cheer and applause when they walk onto a theatre’s stage. Last night’s Lyric audience was full of Rab C Nesbitt and Naked Video fans, and a majority of Yer Granny’s cast were familiar to these connoisseurs of those Scottish comedy shows.
[Charlie:] “The only living thing older than Nana is a Giant Redwood.”

In the National Theatre of Scotland’s touring production, Jonathan Watson plays Cammy Russo. His Minerva chip shop’s profit margin was negatively affected by his mother’s ability to eat her way through the stock and new plans to resurrect the business are wobbling. His wife Marie (Maureen Beattie) is running out of patience with Cammy’s inability to lead the family out of poverty.

Brother Charlie (Paul Riley) is a ‘creative’ and makes up for his lack of musical talent with a finely tuned ability to avoid labour. Their Aunt Angela (Barbara Rafferty) looks after her mother 'Nana' and surprises everyone with her entrepreneurial flair when she starts to dispense “happy tablets” to high rise flat dwellers when Cammy’s naive daughter Marissa (Louise McCarthy) encounters the police on her late night “pharmaceutical” rounds.

And for good measure there’s a chip shop war with miserly Donnie (Brian Pettifer) across the road in the San Francisco Fish Bar. Donnie only enters the action after the interval and quickly drops the tone so far down it can be found lurking in the dirt under the wobbly fridge in the corner of the kitchen.

Happy-go-lucky Nana typically loiters around the kitchen, quietly consuming spuds from a pot she’s lifted off the cooker ... distracting at least half the audience from the dialogue and action on the other side of the stage. With few lines, Nana gurns and chews, and steals the show with her grotesque-yet-innocent behaviour.
[Cammy:] “Oh I’ve pictured the scene many a time. Her Royal Britannic Majesty will saunter in, quite the thing. She and I will exchange a few pleasantries … a natural chemistry between us … And after a bit of chit-chat I’ll turn it all round to business: And what may I get for you Ma’am?”

Graham McLaren’s direction is somewhat unusual, with some monologues – particularly Cammy’s imagined encounters with the Queen who is due to visit the town during her Jubilee tour of Scotland – delivered looking forward at the audience and away from the rest of the cast. Everyone is mic’ed up: necessary for some of the larger venues Yer Granny is playing in this run, but unusual for plays in the Lyric. Together with the recreated late 70s radio broadcasts that blast out and punctuate the scenes, it’s more post-watershed TV sitcom than theatre.

The two hour twenty minute, three act play takes place in an open plan kitchen/living room. The heavily patterned carpets in Colin Richmond’s beige set beautifully clash with the flowery curtains. A window on the right hand wall gives a sense of time of day, allowing warm sunlight to stream in and cast shadows across the stage.

The comic timing is really sharp and most of the audience roared with laughter at wave after wave of masturbation jokes. However when the script requires the youngest character Marissa to repeatedly bend over and suggestively wiggle her bottom, sadly you know that you’ve entered the greasy land of Benny Hill with no remote control to change channel.

La Nona was written by Argentinian playwright Roberto Cossa and first performed in 1977. In the original play, the never replete Granny represented the state, swallowing up the nation’s resources (with foreign debt interest repayments) and driving citizens into poverty. Regrettably much of that subtlety and satire is lost in Douglas Maxwell’s old-fashioned adaptation and any sense of allegory is replaced with a less than farcical sitcom set in Glasgow at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

Yer Granny runs at the Lyric Theatre until the food runs out Saturday 27 June and then transfers to Dundee Rep Theatre. Many shows are nearly sold out, though the Thursday and Saturday matinees have seats available. How Gregor Fisher will manage to eat double on those days is beyond my understanding!

Photography by Eoin Carey.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Open House Belfast Architecture Festival (17-19 July 2015)

Ever wanted to see inside Belfast Central Fire Station? Or to be one of the first inside the new Ulster University building? Or to don a hard hat and walk around the new Exhibition and Conference extension on the side of the Waterfront Hall?

Open House Belfast Architecture Festival is offering guided tours of these facilities and fifty more across the city between 17 and 19 July.

You should find the full list of buildings and sites on the PLACENI website. Booking is required for a few of the free tours. Printed programmes will also be available in arts venues, libraries and tourist sites.

Some highlights from the programme:
  • The MAC: 45 minute tours led by architect Mark Hackett at 2pm on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 July.
  • Belfast Waterfront Exhibition and Conference Centre Tour: 45 minute tours led by project team representatives from Todd Architects, McAdam Design and McLaughlin & Harvey 15 10am, 11am and noon on Saturday 18 July.
  • Belfast Central Fire Station: 45 minute tours led by Station Commander Al Cunningham at 10.30am, 11:45am and 2.15pm on Sunday 19 July.
  • Jump on board the Wee Tram for a 90 minute guided tour around Titanic Quarter by self-confessed Titanorak Chris Bennett at 10am and 2pm on Saturday 18 July.
  • Ulster University, Belfast Campus Development Phase 1: hour-long tour with architect Cormac Maguire of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios at 11.30am on Saturday 18 July.
  • The Soloist in Lanyon Place - 40 minute tours at 10am, 11am and noon on Saturday 18 July.
  • Divis Tower: visit the only remaining structure from the Divis Flats complex, tour the top floors and hear from residents - 40 minute tours at 11am, noon and 1pm on Sunday 19 July.
  • Architectural practice Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios: a lunchtime talk to look at some of their projects and learn how an initial scribble becomes reality - 1pm-3pm on Saturday 18 July.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Scratch Bang Wallop - dramas in development seek audiences and feedback (Accidental Theatre)

Seven short dramatic performances over three nights in the fourth floor of a city centre office building.

This weekend, Accidental Theatre hosts scratch performances in their Wellington Street base (down the side of the Danske Bank headquarters) to help playwrights and dramatists get feedback on their works in development.

Last night, audiences were treated to Adam Turns’ extended examination of the Retrogradatory Power of Nicki Minaj’s (appalling) rap Only, with the chance to perform it, imagine the writing process, listen to a textual analysis, and finally draw our responses to it.
[Tied up lyricist:] I haven’t eaten food for days!

[Composer:] Excellent. Your other song-writing senses will be heightened.
Don’t Call the Shantyman by Megan Armitage took a high-energy look at the friendship between two young women as they peeled back the layers on years of hurtful words and actions. When did the relationship start to fall apart?

Second, Minute, Hour performed by Paula O’Reilly (and developed along with Patrick O’Reilly - no relation) watches Tanya’s lonely addiction to alcohol spiral out of her control. Waking up and tripping over an empty wine bottle on the floor she caresses last night’s source of comfort and quips: “didn’t realise you’d stayed over!” Fast-paced, performance art, and the bottle – along with Paula – deservedly took a bow at the end!

Accidental’s scratch series continues on Saturday and Sunday evening (7pm for 7.30pm).

  • The Premise (Michael Draine): Two men try and make a decision.
  • Juliet’s Balcony (Aisling McGeown): A chapter of Juliet’s life unfolds on her balcony as she takes a chance on love and on her first serious boyfriend and learns that surprises aren’t always as happy as they seem.
  • Jellyfish (Alice Malseed and Sarah Baxter): Growing up, Alice was promised the world. What happened? This one woman show will rollercoaster you through 10 years of her life, from Belfast to London.
  • The Deconstructed Coffee Episodes 2 & 3 (Gary Crossan and Chris Grant): Featuring a disgruntled waiter, a lesson in types of comedy and of course Percival Snoutington the tea-cup pig.
There’s a small bar up on the fourth floor venue. Doors open each evening at 7pm and the first performance begins at 7.30pm. Tickets available online or on the door.

This time twenty two years ago I was starting a twelve week placement as a summer student with BT up on the fourth floor of Wellington Buildings, sitting behind my VT220 terminal creating a training database using Oracle Forms on a VAX mainframe. It was strange to see the same blue window frames, the diffusers/reflectors on the fluorescent lighting that I helped to fit along with another student, and hear the same irritating ping of the lift through the double doors onto the floor!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Gifts of courage, friendship, and becoming comfortable with complexity and paradox

Nearly every week, a church story seems to scream out from the front page of the News Letter or the Belfast Telegraph. Religious views are being discussed in the public square. It's not all wholesome. And it's not all presented with a great deal of context. But it's a trend, and circulation figures will prove to the editors whether the stories are selling papers.

Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren are over in Northern Ireland from the US to lead a week-long spirituality and peace-building retreat in Northern Ireland. On Sunday night, before the retreat started, the pair spoke in All Souls Church on Elmwood Avenue. The recordings of their talks are echoey - due to my poor placement of the recorder! - but are audible if you concentrate.

The evening was organised by the Progressive Christianity NI group who explained the purpose of the event:
For centuries, Christianity has presented itself as a system of beliefs. That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences - from colonialism to environmental destruction, from subordination of women to stigmatization of LGBT people. What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith - not as a system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in action, that makes amends for its mistakes, and is dedicated to beloved community for all?

Belfast-born social scientist, writer, film buff, festival curator and dreamer Gareth Higgins began the evening by telling a story about an experience in Paris near the Eiffel Tower 18 years ago. Later he reflected:
We're a community bound by the idea that there was a teacher two thousand years ago that had something profound to say that transcends everything else. We're a community, many of us who have been wounded by our attempts to follow that teacher within the structures that we got born into, or that we got saved into, or that we got landed into, or that we founded and we tried to lead. We're telling the story ...
One of the lessons he said he had learnt from that night in Paris in the late 1990s was:
You never know when a story's over ... especially when you're in it ... perhaps most especially when you're trying to tell it ...

You don't have to control the story. The story can change and things that you once held dear float away and things you thought you'd never believe can become the most obvious manifestation of love.
He added:
While church institutions and individuals have done much harm over the years, many damaged people still feel a connection to Christianity and their story is not yet at an end.
Some of Brian McLaren's books have been weighing down my bedside table for a long time: some completed, some still in a half-finished state. For some his book A New Kind of Christian was liberating, filled with keen insights that threw off the fatigue of evangelical busyness and dogmatism.

The US author shared three conversions that are already happening in Christian communities around the world, sometimes just beginning, sometimes well under way.
  1. Christianity converting from a system of belief to a way of life.
  2. Conversion in our understanding of God.
  3. Conversation from institutions to movements (that will continually challenge and transform institutions).

Coming back to the lectern, Gareth Higgins outlined four pillars of authentic religious practice that he wants to participate in:
  • to lament our sorrows and celebrate our joys, and to do that in community;
  • to educate for the realities of the world - not overstating how bad things are - in its hopes as well as its challenges;
  • to make communities gather in a way that marks the important moments of our lives: our births, our marriages, our divorces, our deaths;
  • to inspire change in the world.
The great thing is that these traditions already exist.
Gareth explained that he feels called to ...
  1. participate in rituals that create a sense of the sacred and support human struggle and celebrate achievement. He explained how this could apply to dealing with the past;
  2. celebrate community and bind wounds and celebrate joy together;
  3. religion which is not politics and is not the media but has a public role is called to - what scripture names as - prophetic witness.
He finished by commenting on two contemporary issues. Firstly:
The impact of welfare reform is a Gospel issue and the people suffering from it need to be heard, just as much or even more so than the public leaders.
And secondly:
The LGBT community doesn't just need to be supported, affirmed and sometimes defended by the majority community. We who are members of the LGBT community may actually have gifts to share with everyone. Gifts about courage, about friendship, about becoming comfortable with complexity and paradox.
During the Q&A afterwards, Brian and Gareth were asked about how to deal with theological disagreements in churches. Brian responded with a model of stating that you disagree (“Wow, I don’t agree with that!”) but not immediately jumping in with your alternative opinion, deferring any explanation until the other party comes back to discuss with, starting a genuine deliberative conversation rather than an instant heated debate.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly – its decision making body – voted at the close of its June 2015 annual meeting not to send the Moderator over to Edinburgh to the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly next year. While the number of delegates – ministers and elders – present for the debate and vote was small in comparison with sessions earlier in the day, a majority of those left in the hall took umbrage with the Church of Scotland’s recent acceptance of the ordination of ministers in same sex civil partnerships.

It was as if some at PCI had never heard of Relate and had no clue about relationship counselling, perhaps forgetting that communication is at the heart of relationship. Snubbing the Church of Scotland and staying away is akin to dropping eye contact and deciding not to bother putting any effort into a personal relationship that in this case has lasted more than any one person’s lifetime. If only there had been a decision to explore the tension between the Irish and Scottish reformers over coffee in Edinburgh rather than in a vacuum.

While both Gareth and Brian have their detractors - and one was standing outside on the pavement wearing a sandwich board on Sunday evening - in a season in which conservative views and methods seem to dominate the public narrative about Christianity in Ireland, Gareth and Brian offer a much more generous and grace-filled approach to exploring difficult issues and dealing with the tensions that need to be addressed.

The Christian church's influence in the public square will be fundamentally affected by the tone of voice it adopts, its ability to relate to society, and how it is seen to deal with difference.

cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Shadow of a Gunman: an energetic production of Sean O’Casey’s version of Coronation Street at the Lyric

Donal Davoren (played by Mark O’Halloran) is a poet and remains on set for the entire one hour forty minute duration of The Shadow of a Gunman. He’s a thin sockless figure, hunched over a manual typewriter on which he batters out poems when he’s not distracted and disturbed by the ever more colourful people who barge into his presence.

It’s May 1920, and Davoren enjoys being the mysterious lodger in the tenement. He plays up to the seemingly romantic notion that he might be a runaway IRA volunteer, giving rise to his private admission that he’s only “the shadow of a gunman”. But in the midst of ambiguity, some locals make false assumptions and their interactions with Davoren have extreme implications and repercussions.

Seumas Shields (David Ganly) peddles brightly coloured children’s toys, though he has the bushy beard of a man who may have been asleep for 50 years or more. He wishes the conflict would end and spars endlessly with Davoren.

While sticking to O’Casey’s text with its Dublinisms and deliberately mistaken words, director Wayne Jordan has created a very distinctive version of the classic Irish play. The language is dense and it took me a few minutes to break into the rhythm and accents. Even towards the end, some dialogue descended into muttering.

There is more than a hint of Schaubühne’s An Enemy of the People about The Abbey and Lyric Theatres’ joint production of Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman. The basic one-room set is built from wooden panels of wood, like an enormous study in brown by Sean Scully. There’s larger-than-life, animated hand-waving acting. There’s a use of distance between characters coupled with the invasion of personal space. The cast rearrange the set between acts accompanied by a booming soundtrack. So many contemporary theatre boxes ticked.

With a cast of eleven, there is no part-sharing in this full-scale production. Character development is unusually minimal: the cast adopt the personas sketched out by O’Casey and remain remarkably consistent from the moment they appear on the stage until the curtain drops at the end.

Adolphus Grigson (Dan Gordon) is a treat that playwright O’Casey and director Jordan reserve for the second half of the play. The bombastic, alcohol-infused Orangeman quotes from the Bible and disrespects his long suffering wife (Louise Lewis) as the nightly curfew is briefly overtaken by farce.

Amy McAllister, who plays the 23-year old patriot Minnie Powell, is perhaps the most watchable character on stage with her fidgety feet and expressive eyebrows that charm Davoren and later get her into trouble.
“That’s right. Make a joke of it. That’s the Irish way all over.”

Last night’s packed audience laughed and giggled their way through the play, finding the laughs that O’Casey buried even at the darkest moments in the play.

There’s deliberate incongruity in the costumes and props with an anachronistic mix of styles and decades. The otherwise drab set is brightened up by costumes (including a 1960’s A-line mini dress and some tracksuit bottoms that wouldn’t look amiss on any number of local estates) that are in contrast to more sedate Davoren and Shields (who wears long-johns and holds his trousers up with braces).

There’s no interval, yet the play takes its time. While there’s plenty of movement on stage, two minutes pass at the start before a word is uttered.

Sarah Bacon’s one-room wooden-walled set with a single door to enter includes two picture windows overlooking a back alley that is frequently integral to the action. It’s implausibly larger than an 1920’s flat, but the expansive floor space allows characters to be placed with a beautiful proportion across the room.

Leaving the Lyric last night, some people I spoke to were unimpressed with the extravagant gestures, modernist set and animated acting. Certainly, the enormous moon that descends was a surreal step too far! Yet the moments of modernity mostly work and are there to remind audiences that the themes of O’Casey’s play are still relevant today. Written only a couple of years after the ending of the Irish War of Independence, O’Casey already knew that it’s the civilians who can suffer the most in conflict.

A poignant play that balances tension and humour so delicately that it failed to build up empathy and left this member of the audience impressed by the energetic production but less than enthusiastic about the original writing.

The Shadow of a Gunman runs in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre until 6 June before transferring to The Abbey Theatre in Dublin (12 June - 1 August).

Photos by Ros Kavanagh

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Theatre for all ... Interview with Martin Lynch ahead of CRAZY opening in the MAC (26 May-14 June)

Crazy is a new play from the pen of Brenda Murphy that’s coming to the MAC’s stage at the end of May. I spoke to director Martin Lynch on Thursday and he explained the premise of the play:
It’s about three people who live in a house together and the central character is a woman called Ruby who is unlucky in love and is in search of a man. She’s also obsessed with the 1950’s singer Patsy Cline …

There are two other eccentric characters in the house: Gary is the owner and “is secretly in love with her” though she doesn’t recognise it; and Eddie, a “ducker and diver” who is “always making a mess of things and getting in the way of Gary and Ruby getting together … he’s like a magpie who comes in from the street and messes things up”.

Ruby’s search for love takes her on internet dating sites and a series of dates with “crazy nutcases”. Martin Lynch describes it as an “intriguing storyline of a triangle of people who have a very dysfunctional relationship set up between them”.
“It’s a comedy. It’s about fun and a good night out with the whole Patsy Cline music thing thrown in.”

Like much new theatre in Belfast, Crazy has a very small cast, though they all have the comic timing the director wanted: Caroline Curran (The Holy, Holy Bus; 50 Shades of Red White and Blue), Ciaran Nolan (Mistletoe and Crime; Man In The Moon) and Marty Maguire (Shoot the Crow; BBC’s Number 2s).
[Small plays are an] economic necessity these days. I remember when there was an interest in my work from different theatres and they would say to me 'Martin ... no more than a four hander ... we can’t pay any more than a four-hander'. And now that I produce plays I end up saying that to people like Brenda Murphy and other people who write for me. If you give me a six hander or a seven hander I won’t be able to do it.

Looking at the website for Lynch’s company that is producing Crazy, it’s populist stuff, raucous and in your face.
There’s probably two or three types of different theatre. I run two companies. I run Green Shoot Productions which is a not-for-profit and that’s where I do the plays that have strong social and political comment or content. My last play was My English Tongue, My Irish Heart which I wrote and directed, a very strong play about emigration themes. GBL Productions is the other company I run and that’s purely for entertainment, for people to have a good night out at the theatre. So this play Crazy is a comedy about a women who’s looking for love and obsessed with Patsy Cline and it’s right in that whole good night out category.

At a Stormont committee inquiry, Martin Lynch was very outspoken about the MAC theatre last May: “I do not accept that the MAC has a wide enough approach to the arts.  I think that it is elitist.  I think that an elitist smell comes off the building.  There is a middle-class ethos about the place that does not make it particularly comfortable or a warm house, if you want to use those political terms, for working people.” [The MAC strongly defended their practice and approach to the arts in their oral submission to the Culture, Arts and Leisure committee.]

So was it an uncomfortable conversation to talk to the MAC about performing Crazy on their stage when he had criticised them?
It’s been incredibly uncomfortable with the MAC from the very start because I would like to think that a new theatre that opens up in Belfast city centre should be a theatre that straight away should have programming that attracts the widest possible … The Belfast Telegraph in their editorial one time said I wanted a working class theatre. Let me clear this up straight away. I do not want a working class theatre. I want a theatre that is accessible to all. All. A. L. L. And that means the working classes as well.

Unfortunately I thought the MAC’s programme initially was aimed at excluding those communities, particularly the communities that are adjacent geographically to the MAC: York Road, New Lodge Road, Lower Shankill, Lower Falls.

If I was running that theatre I’d be directly making contact with those communities to see what they wanted, getting theatre work from them, putting playwrights in there, actors, writers. None of that has happened or did happen.

Since that initial row with the MAC I have had two or three productions on there. It’s an uncomfortable relationship which I would rather not have. I would like to have a theatre that welcomes me and the work that I bring, both the Green Shoot social and political work and the GBL more entertainment factor. And in fairness they have had those shows in the last couple of years and I’m delighted about that. But I feel that we’ve foisted that on them rather than their programming allowing for that or reaching out for that at the start …

I want all people to like a good night out at the theatre.

Martin Lynch sees big improvements in the local theatre industry.
I think Northern Ireland punches well above its weight. We have a very, very good generation of theatre makers … There’s a really good set of actors, directors ... I remember 20-25 years ago there were no theatre directors in Belfast. You had to go searching for a theatre director. Now there’s loads of them ... I’ve noticed the difference in working with actors 30 years ago till today and the level of skills there are today that weren’t there before.

Crazy is not the only show the director and playwright is working on at the moment.
Between Green Shoot Productions and GBL we do seven or eight productions of theatre a year. That’s a high turnout. At the minute we’ve just finished My English Tongue My Irish Heart for Green Shoot … straight into rehearsals for Crazy for GBL … I’m also working on a new draft of a play that Brenda Murphy’s doing called My Two Sore Legs which is going to the Edinburgh Festival … on top of that GBL’s putting out a regional tour of Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue … also working with Grimes and McKee to develop a follow-up to The History of the Troubles Accordin’ to my Da … and we have the franchise for the Waterfront pantomime … it’s non-stop.

Martin Lynch agrees that some local humour is lost in translation whenever Northern Ireland plays transfer to other countries. But his focus is on reaching local audiences.
Every play is different. Some plays transfer easier than others. In my own work I very specifically tend to try and connect into a specific Northern Ireland audience. It’s what I do. I’m not excited by an audience in Belgium* watching one of my plays. I couldn’t give two tosses if one of my plays goes on in Belgium ... it just doesn’t float my boat.

What matters to Martin Lynch is connecting with people and communities he knows.
If I think we write a play about a community or are involved in a community project that makes an impact there I like all that. It’s a big flaw and fault in my character as a playwright that I don’t aim for universal playwriting but it’s not what I’m interested in.

[* Brassneck Theatre seemed very happy that Man In The Moon went down so well with Belgium audiences in March!]

Despite this ‘flaw’, Martin’s had success with his own play Chronicles of the Long Kesh which sold out at the Edinburgh Festival, and toured as far as Tasmania. And given the “universal family theme” in Brenda Murphy’s play My Two Sore Legs, he’s planning to take it to Edinburgh Festival later this year and further afield afterwards.

Does Northern Ireland need to try to get our playwrights, actors and plays out there, exporting them to the rest of the world?
Very much so. I’ve been to the Edinburgh Festival, the New York First Irish Festival, the Brighton Festival and so on. Culture Ireland … has been sensational. The amount of money they’ve had to bring Republic of Ireland product all around the work is amazing. And they’ve also helped out northern companies: they helped us to go to Australia. But when you go to the Edinburgh Festival they have a big launch of their own, a big lavish reception where all their works are put out there and promoted. And coming from Belfast we were left standing with our arms both the one length feeling a wee bit the poor man’s son …

The City Council, the British Council and the Arts Council should get together and really start to promote Northern Irish work abroad because I do think Northern Irish theatre punches well above its weight. There’s lots of really good product that comes out of Belfast. It’s just a pity that at the moment we don’t have the focus and the resources to give it that springboard onto an international platform.

If you've got a lot of rhythm in your soul, check our Crazy in the MAC between 26 May and 14 June. All are welcome!

Lanciatore: an everyday household suffering from Wonga economics, set in Medieval Italy (until 17 May)

A young man is ambitious to provide for his family. He could never hope to earn what he needs to move to a bigger house, so he takes out a loan and then foolishly gambles it all away in a bid to grow his stake, leaving his family in peril of losing everything.

Sounds like an everyday household suffering from Wonga economics with society’s obsession for prosperity clouding all notions of sensible saving before spending.

It’s also the premise of Paul Kennedy’s new tragic comedy Lanciatore which sees the eponymous juggler (played by Terry Keeley) in Medieval Italy borrowing from an impatient money lender (Michael Liebmann) to play cards with the Vagabondi and put everything he’s built up for wife Victoria (Roisin Gallagher) at risk.

“Don’t be doing anything stupid” shouts Victoria, a former contortionist and now stay-at-home-mother. They make a sweet couple, one quietly ambitious, the other content and so forgiving. Roisin gets to channel her inner Lally The Scut as she mixes gentle love with emotional frustration and angst.

Three Ragazze (buxom wenches played by Claire Connor, Jo Donnelly and Julie Maxwell) provide the narration, often rhyming their way through extended sections of scene setting and reflection, weaving their lines around and on top of each other. They also play the Vagabondi card sharks [you'd count your fingers after shaking hands with them] and the money lender’s two bailiffs, humorously named Rack and Ruin who ponder “How can he juggle with broken fingers?”

Michael Liebmann alternates between playing the money lender (whose repayment policy quickly boils down to ‘your money or your wife’) and a needy priest who would prefer if confession included some decent sins to get his teeth into.

The cast are totally committed to their characters and the use of masks and accessories prevent costume changes and clearly differentiate the multiple parts being played. The venue – Belfast Circus School – chimes with the lead character’s occupation and his previous work in a circus.

Paul Kennedy’s script has rhythm and is peppered with word play: “I’m just havin’ a giraffe” [laugh]; “Any bin lids?” [kids]. Everyone becomes a victim, even the money lender when the bailiffs decide that he is bringing his trade into disrepute and they call in his own debts.

Lanciatore is a stripped back production that would fit into the back of a small van if Rawlife choose to tour. Niall Rea’s wooden box set conceals actors, props and is easily pushed around and rearranged by the cast to signify a change of location.
“I’m out of time and beyond help.”

Only an hour long, and playing to an audience of 50 or so sitting around three sides of the set, Lanciatore is a well-balanced and pleasing piece of theatre in which the script makes its point and moves on without delay. The ending is the play’s weakest point: it’s hard to build up to an energetic crescendo when the denouement has to be so tragic.

Co-directors Martin McSharry and Patrick J O’Reilly have brought the script to life in a way that’s interesting but not so overpowering that the message is hidden behind layers of choreography or over-the-top acting..

Lanciatore contains live juggling and some strong language. Having played as part of the recent Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Lanciatore is back in Belfast Circus School until Sunday 17 May. Tickets available for £12.50.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Spooks: The Greater Good ... shorter than Bond and Bourne, but no less enjoyable

Sir Harry Pearse is like the Robin Hood of fictional intelligence services. He sees it as his job to make the tough decisions, to weigh up levels of probable bloodshed, and to work with the big picture in mind rather than individual incidents and mounting death in service payments for his unfortunate staff.
"The Americans feel we're no longer fit for purpose - we need a scalp."
The plot's setup is that Harry (played as always by Peter Firth) goes on the run believing that someone inside MI5 helped the CIA's most wanted terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) escape from a gridlocked prisoner handover convoy. Intelligence chiefs blame Harry for putting possible civilian collateral damage ahead of the prisoner's continued detention.

The narrative thrives on ambiguity. Where do junior agent June’s (Tuppence Middleton) loyalties lie? Could Harry do a deal with a terrorist to flush out a rat from amongst his colleagues? Is there anyone Harry can trust? Can anyone trust Harry?

With two people on the loose, the film criss-crosses UK locations and the German capital (with the Isle Of Man ably standing in for the south coast of England) as MI5 search for Harry who they hope will lead them to Qasim. Kit Harrington plays Will Holloway, a decommissioned agent that Harry – and then MI5 – reaches out to; his Game of Thrones sword swapped for a firearm that fits into the back pocket of his jeans.

There's a nod to deceased stalwarts of the BBC One series and some familiar old faces reappear. While Harry believes most ex-agents can be categorised as "the drunk, the mad and the dead" it's a relief to see that over the 86 television episodes some people retired alive from Harry's wider team.

It's classic Spooks, wrapped up like a feature length end of series episode. Characters you've just grown to like are sacrificed with a pull of the screenwriter's trigger. The fanciful MI5 teeters on the edge due to one botched job, completely overshadowing the hundreds or thousands of other operations and threats they manage. The instability of state organisations is vastly overplayed and nearly stretches the plot beyond a reasonable level of infeasibility.

The audience can be thankful that there are fewer long, pointless chase sequences than Bond or Bourne. Running short distances is cheaper to shoot when the franchise's brand appeal is unknown and money is tight. Product placement is restricted to a white cat and black 4x4 vehicles favoured by police and security services.

Spooks has successfully transitioned from television to the big screen. The familiar grey vistas of the London skyline and concrete building are there, though the film budget extends to helicopter shots, trips to Berlin, and CGI explosions.

Where the film is less successful is the director's insistence on placing the Houses of Parliament, St Paul's Cathedral, The Shard or the London Eye in the background of every shot in London. And for some reason the pain-in-your-chest tension so familiar to fans of the ten television series is completely absent from the cinema experience. Maybe watching the 11am screening in an otherwise empty cinema changed the mood!

All in all, if you're a fan of the show, Spooks: The Greater Good is well worth a trip to your local cinema.