Monday, March 04, 2024

Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics (18-24 March) … a preview of the more overtly arty events #ImagineBelfast

Happy birthday Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics. Ten years of delighting, educating, and engaging the grey matter of citizens of Belfast and beyond. Running between Monday 18 and Sunday 24 March, there are more than a hundred films, talks, gigs, walking tours, exhibitions, panels, workshops and theatre shows. This year’s strapline seems very apt: top enterbrainment.

I’ve posted on Slugger O’Toole about some of the policy and political discussions and panels. But what about the more arty events in the bulging programme?

Shoot Belfast’s studio and gallery space on Chapel Lane is hosting two plays.

Mother! The Story of Mother Jones // Tuesday 19 and Wednesday 20 at 7pm // A play about once the most dangerous woman in America. Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was 9 years old when she emigrated from Cork to America. Overcoming inconceivable personal tragedy, she became a fearless advocate for workers’ rights and child labour law reform., testifying before the US Congress in 1917. Prosecuting attorneys and corporate landlords described Mother Jones as “the most dangerous woman in America”. Written by Mike Broemmel, Mother! Starts DJ De Jong as Mother Jones and is directed by Greg West and produced by produced by Jennifer Dempsey, Colorado Theater in Non-Traditional Places (TINTS). Their team of writers, actors and directors create original scripts that highlight individuals whose achievements have been under-recognised.

I’m Harvey Milk! // Thursday 21 and Friday 22 at 7pm // A play about Harvey Milk – the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. As 1977 San Francisco City Supervisor, Milk battled against anti-gay initiatives and sponsored bills banning discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Described as a “visionary who imagined a righteous world inside his head and then set about to create it for real for all of us,” Milk was assassinated by co-worker Dan White who claimed the so-called Twinkie Defense. Starring Ben Beasley plays Harvey Milk. Written by Mike Broemmel and directed by Greg West.

Storytelling as Activism // Tuesday 19 at 1pm in Accidental Theatre // What happens when we encounter injustice? There are traditional routes to righting wrongs, although the outcome is often less than satisfactory. When we look to the arts, we discover that creatives have always been telling stories that pique our imagination and stir our sense of morality and empathy. Amanda Verlaque wrote the play This Sh*t Happens All the Time in response to a homophobic hate crime. (I reviewed a rehearsed reading of the play by Nicky Harley back in the 2019 Outburst Arts Festival. And returned when it was staged in the Lyric Theatre as a co-production with Imagine! in 2022.Now Nicky Harley returns to the central role this March in the Grand Opera House’s studio theatre.) At this event, Amanda will use her play to guide the audience through the importance of recording and sharing LGBTQIA+ stories to maintain visibility and encourage justice.

The Art and Science of Songwriting – Muse or Maths? // Monday 18 March at 8pm in Crescent Arts Centre // Chuck Berry said it all came down to mathematics, but you don’t hear people singing Pythagoras’ Theorem down the pub, do you? Join Nuala McKeever for a relaxed, fun evening of conversation and performance with singer-songwriters Anthony Toner and Brigid O’Neill about what makes a great song that stays with people for years and decades. As well as performing some of their best-loved songs, Brigid and Anthony reveal the secrets of their own writing and discuss the work of their favourite artists as they explore the nature of their craft – is it inspiration, perspiration or computation?

When Music and Politics Collide // Wednesday 20 March at 8pm in QUB Harty Room // What’s music’s role in shaping and reflecting the political landscape? Songs of protest. Becoming the theme tune to a particular era’s zeitgeist. Inspiring change? Or celebrating a political movement. Lifting a message off the page and bringing it to life. Musical performances and a panel discussion with Dr David Robb (Reader in Music at Queen’s University Belfast, Joby Fox (musician and activist) and Charlotte Dryden (CEO of the Oh Yeah Centre).

Cultural Diplomacy and the Art of Soft Power // Thursday 21 at 3pm in The Black Box // What has been and is the role of art and artists in shaping Ireland’s international image, north and south? What is the role of cultural diplomacy in a polarised and divided world? How can cultural diplomacy pave the way to wider cooperation and dialogue, and foster a better understanding between cultures and nations? A talk on the Art of Soft Power by Evgeniya Ravtsova (International Programmes Manager at the Victoria and Albert Museum) will be followed by a panel discussion with Sheena Barrett (Irish Museum of Modern Art), Cian Smyth (Ulster Presents) and Richard Williams (Northern Ireland Screen).

Poetry and Politics: Paul Muldoon in conversation with William Crawley // Friday 22 at 8pm in Crescent Arts Centre // County Armagh-born Pulitzer-winning poet Paul Muldoon will examine the relationship between poetry and politics and the challenges of addressing contentious and ‘difficult' political and cultural issues. The conversation will be interspersed with readings.

How many Bardic Harpers does it take to change a lightbulb? // Friday 22 at 8pm in Crescent Arts Centre // If serious poetry isn’t your thing, then join Ursula Burns at the same time in a different part of the same venue for a walk through 30 years of dangerous harping. The harp is an iconic part of identity on this island. From the Bunting Manuscripts of the Irish Harpers Assemble to Guinness, Politics, Weddings, and Funerals. Wafting through the mists of time, Ursula asks, “what got lost in our harping history?” Ursula will explore her relationship with Belfast through song-writing and finish her talk with a performance of new instrumental compositions that demonstrate her unique technique.

Henry Normal and Nigel Planer // Sunday 24 at 8pm in The Black Box // Festival regular Henry Normal returns for an evening of poetry, stories, jokes, Q&A, fun, knitwear and surprises. Accompanied by Nigel Planer, a prolific poet and author, probably best known as Neil in The Young Ones. As well as novels, plays and TV and radio scripts, Nigel has been writing and publishing poetry for over fifty years.

Just a sample from the full programme available on the Imagine! Belfast festival website.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Mousetrap – a triumph of whodunnit legend over drama (Grand Opera House until Saturday 2 March)

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is like a historic rodent that has been trapped in amber. It’s an artefact that people come from far and wide to study. A blast from the past that has escaped the confines of the West End and is travelling around the UK and Ireland on its 70th anniversary tour. But being old and successful doesn’t automatically make something good. The play’s attraction is clearly its longevity.

Back on the 27 November 1952, the Guardian’s critic – back then, the Manchester Guardian – wrote a scathing review that dissected the play like a pathologist looking for answers at a post mortem. “… as the snow piles up around the isolated guesthouse in The Mousetrap at the Ambassadors Theatre, the false clues drift across the stage, deluding the less alert in the audience and appearing to deceive characters in the play who ought to know better. Agatha Christie's comedy-thriller, like a more expensive production which Miss Tallulah Bankhead once commented on, has ‘less in it than meets the eye’. Coincidence is stretched unreasonably to assemble in one place a group of characters, each of whom may reasonably be suspected of murder in series … Yet the whole thing whizzes along as though driven by some real dramatic force, as though the characters were not built entirely of cliches and situations not all familiar.”

It’s hard to disagree with the unnamed reviewer. As new proprietors of Monkswell Manor Guest House, Mollie and Giles Ralston (Neerja Naik and Barnaby Jago) are still getting to grips with the heating system and how best to handle their guests. Christopher Wren (Shaun McCourt) leaps around the stage and throws himself on the sofa like Frank Spencer after three cans of Red Bull. If Wren was any more cliched, his costume would include a badge spelling it out. Mrs Boyle (Gwyneth Strong) is an irascible killjoy who could turn a bottle of milk sour even if it was sitting outside in a snow drift.

Major Metcalf (played by Todd Carty who escaped Eastenders 21 years ago when Mark Fowler rode off on his motorbike) leaves no door handle unturned as he explores the country house like a military man on a mission. Mousy Miss Casewell (Amy Spinks) has booked in for a spot of mysterious letter writing. Mr Paravicini (Steven Elliott) and his strong Italian accent drops in unexpectedly hoping to find a bed for the night when his Rolls Royce hits a snowdrift. And before too long, the oppressively shouty Detective Sergeant Trotter (Michael Ayiotis) is shaking the snow off his skis as he arrives to investigate a murder with his notebook, pencil and an ability to join dots that no one else would think to connect.

With one cast member found dead at the end of the first act, after the interval everyone’s alibi is undermined, and the woodworm-infected backstories are supposed to cast doubt in every direction … bar the one you’ll already be looking. Flukes and coincidences mount up like the drifting snow outside the guest house. Directors Ian Talbot and Denise Silvey allow the play’s tone to skid between the verges as banter and giggles totally ignore the dead body now lying out of sight. The cast wholeheartedly inhabit the ill-assorted characters who create the so-called melodrama. But the gruel is thin and lacks substance … and is much less witty than the recent film See How They Run which was based in the world of the long-running London production of the play.

In my days of working in London, I walked past St Martin’s Theatre countless times on the way to dinner with a colleague in the nearby Café Rouge. It’s good to have finally seen the play, even if it proved to be an anticlimax. This time two years ago, another troubled whodunnit graced the stage of the Grand Opera House. Catch Me If You was a star vehicle for Patrick Duffy (better known for playing Bobby Ewing on TV), but like 2:22 A Ghost Story, pulling off surprises in a theatre can be challenging. It all adds to the bulging evidence file that proves beyond reasonable doubt that constructing an entertaining one room mystery for the stage is a stretch even for an expert in the field like Agatha Christie.

The Mousetrap continues its run in the Grand Opera until Saturday 2 March

Photo credit: Matt Crockett

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Saturday, February 17, 2024

Granny Jackson’s Dead – join the mourners at this sad time of loss (Big Telly Theatre Company as part of NI Science Festival) #NISF24

“Sorry for your loss” accompanied by a firm handshake seemed like the most appropriate thing to say as I stepped out of the mizzle and walked inside a house on the Malone Road to meet a line-up of grieving relatives.

Granny Jackson may be dead, but she’s living on in the hearts of her family, the folks who live next door, and the many audience members mourners who are turning up at her wake during NI Science Festival. It’s a Big Telly Theatre Company production, so expect to be whisked between bedrooms and the kitchen, given a plate of ham sandwiches to deliver elsewhere in the house. Expect to be gently involved – perhaps even emotionally – and then expect the unexpected as the cast move from their individual stations to construct the dramatic denouement.

The deceased’s daughter Susan (Shelly Atkinson) is agitated now that she’s been shaken out of the distance she clearly maintained from Granny Jackson. Grandson Darren (Gavin Pedan) and his business partner Chad (Aidan Crowe/Michael Curran Dorsano) have set up a digital memorialisation company and Granny Jackson was the first person whose memories have been captured for posterity. But that’s not to everyone’s taste in the family circle.

Ronnie (Emily Tracey) is taking a more spiritual approach to wishing farewell to the old dear. Maureen (Rosie McClelland) from next door is sitting quietly beside the coffin in the good room, remembering better times with the lively 83-year-old. Meanwhile Joe (Ciaran Nolan) sees the mourners as potential housebuyers for a property that he is trying to sell with undue haste.

Granny Jackson’s Dead asks its audiences to consider how and why and what we remember about people we cared for. Do we want to be able to forget aspects of their lives and character? Do we want to hear their voice again? Do we realise that modern technology could put words into the mouth of someone who is deceased? Are the dead being monetised? The concept of digital memorialisation isn’t laboured – though there are a rich set of technology demonstrations and artefacts woven into the storytelling. (Do check out the creepy jars in the downstairs en suite.)

The cast are constantly adapting, injecting storylines into the narrative while ad libbing around the fertile imaginations of each new group of mourners. An interdisciplinary team from the National Centre for Social Research and Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Theatre and School of Digital Art have been involved in the development of the production. They correctly credit Big Telly director Zoë Seaton as “a hijacker of the familiar”. A good 45 minutes after the wake ended, a majority of those in attendance were still sitting in The Harrison’s front bar next door discussing what had just happened.

At the best of times, death and control of the rituals that follow can be sources of tension, as relatives wrestle for control over the choreography and the narrative. Secrets are spilled rather than shared. Big Telly accentuate those divisive moments and neatly needle Susan from being a digital sceptic to someone who suddenly appreciates what (selfish) comfort it could offer. And since it’s a wake, do expect a bit of a singsong.

The show has been so carefully crafted to gently explore our attitudes, tolerances and reaction to death, grief tech, and the ethics of loss. Attending any wake or funeral can involve a bit of acting: there’s often a vocabulary, a tone, a measured way of unexcitedly addressing the communal grief. Waiting in the queue outside the venue, even before we entered the building and met the family, another audience member mourner and I began to discuss our imaginary backstory for the unknown woman at the heart of our evening’s entertainment. The more you enter into the spirit of the event, the more your mind will engage with the themes and challenges it presents. Conscious that I have friends and colleagues who have experienced loss very recently, it’s probably also important to add a reassurance that it’s all done in the best possible taste.

Big Telly’s Granny Jackson’s Dead continues at NI Science Festival until Sunday 25 February, and there are plans for a wider (UK) tour. It’s good to see that so many will get the opportunity to pay their respects to the women who one family member quipped was such “a wild ticket”.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Madame Web – the one about a man with spidery superpowers who takes violent action because he feels threatened by five smart and principled women (cinemas from 14 February)

Madame Web’s multi-threaded plot is fairly knotted and the act of mentally untangling it distracts from enjoying the film.

A pregnant woman searches for an elusive spider in the Peruvian jungle.

A paramedic (Cassie played by Dakota Johnson) starts to have premonitions after a near-death experience. Her ambulance partner’s name (Adam Scott as Ben Parker) sounds familiar … but wash your mouth and mind out with soap as this is absolutely nothing to do with Spider-Man no siree.

Three young women (Isabela Merced as Anya, Sydney Sweeney as Julia, Celeste O'Connor as Mattie) don’t realise that a strange man (Tahar Rahim as Ezekiel) is tracking them down.

The women all share a connection with the paramedic but that’s totally redundant within the plot.

45 minutes into the film, you’ll be asking whether it’s a story about spiders, a story about changing the future through déjà vu, a story about a man with superpowers who takes violent action because he feels threatened by three (actually at least five) smart and principled women, or whether the lovely scene-stealing stray cat who slurps milk will turn out to be really important.

The four parentless stars of the show are well-drawn and interesting characters. Cassie is reluctantly maternal; Anya is rational (and copies of her t-shirt “I eat MATH for breakfast” are available online!); Maddie is impetuous; Julia is shy and thus wears her name as a necklace in case she doesn’t introduce herself. But the plot weaves a tangled web around their potential to shine.

Ultimately, a lot of unacknowledged innocent people die in a bid to save the lives of three young women. Pepsi turns out to be bad for your health.

Hard to believe that paramedic Ben doesn’t hesitate when asked to swallow Cassie’s tall tale and immediately agrees to look after her young charges. At the end, I must have blinked and missed the moment that Cassie sustained the injuries that transform her sight and mobility before the final scene. It feels like a lot

The cat and the use of The Cranberries’ song Dream over the credits are the film’s best moments. There’s no end-credit scene … probably for the best that no one extends this miserable arachnoid universe or speaks of it again.

Madame Web is playing in local cinemas from Wednesday 14 February. Is it a tense thriller? Is it a Marvel superhero film? Is it a giant pile of spider poo?


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Monday, February 12, 2024

American Fiction – a misrepresented author fights back against the system and realises that he’s also misrepresenting himself (QFT and other cinemas)

American Fiction is a well-painted takedown of the tendency to pigeonhole culture and the creatives behind it into simplistic categories without examining the actual art. In this case, middle class, middle of the road academic Dr Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison’s worthy literature is filed under African American Studies rather than its true subject.

Acting out of frustration and spite, he writes a book under a pseudonym that professes to be based on his experience of life as a gangsta who’s on the run from the police and has witnessed serious trouble in his life in the ghetto. It’s made-up poverty-porn with an unhealthy sprinkling of violence, but it excites publishers, publicists, award judges and mass market readers in a way he could only dream of for his true work.

But success brings its own stress. As the deception grows in scale, Monk is faced with a continuing dilemma of whether to fess up or whether he should run with his unwanted but lucrative success. All the while, drama within his own family adds to the pressure.

Jeffrey Wright shows versatility as Monk’s mood and body swings between depression, futility, hope and occasionally happiness. Screenwriter and debut director Cord Jefferson wisely makes Monk a failed hero. While Monk is angry about the literary world’s injustice, the author is also faced with the reality that he is a flawed son, partner and colleague. Playing his sister Lisa, Tracee Ellis Ross makes a very positive but all too brief contribution to the film’s setup of the Ellison family dynamic with blunt conversations that wake Monk up to his responsibilities.

The film’s finale acknowledges that film producers and audiences expect a neat ending that will resolve any remaining threads of uncertainty. In a neat albeit meta device, several conclusions are offered, but – bravely and deliberately – none that quite scratch the itch that the 117 minutes of cinema has created as we watch Monk’s act of absurd revolt.

The satire at the heart of American Fiction is the cause of great hilarity. It’s also unsettling as you start to wonder whether you’re being played as you sit watching the film. Are you participating in a piece of reductionist art misrepresenting the source work? (I’m off to read Percival Everett’s novel Erasure to understand the translation between the page and the screen.) Who’s making money out of this story of misrepresentation and ill-treatment? All questions that I think the director and original author will be glad to crowd your thoughts with as you watch the film.

American Fiction is playing in Queen’s Film Theatre until 12 March as well as a limited number of other local cinemas.

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Saturday, February 10, 2024

Little Women – four sisters break away from the paths the world would prefer them to take (Lyric Theatre until 2 March)

It’s not often that I sit in the theatre and can forget everything else around me and be entranced by the storytelling on stage. It’s much more likely to happen in the cinema. Theatres are much more chatty places, particularly on press night, full of buzz and distraction, long before the curtain goes up.

The Lyric Theatre’s production of Little Women has an incredible intensity right from the off that held my attention with a vice-like grip. The four March sisters are gadding about the house and within minutes we’ve learned that Meg (Ruby Campbell) is the eldest, sensible, very conscious of her good looks (“her face will be her fortune”), a teacher and a wannabe homemaker. Jo (Marty Breen) is a writer at heart, a self-confessed tomboy with a beautiful sense of non-conformity,  and Meg’s wingman when they head out together. Beth (Maura Bird) is forever tinkling the ivories on the family piano, a shy homebird who is essentially honest and good, enjoying an incredible bond with big sister Jo. Amy (Tara Cush) is the youngest and least mature, delightfully mixing up big words, quite unfiltered when expressing opinions, not quite sure how of how to define herself but in the meantime very keen to be seen to please and quite jealous of her sisters.

This version of Little Women is very character driven. Based on the original books by Louisa May Alcott, Anne-Marie Casey’s witty – and sometimes a bit barmy – script creates generously proportioned scenes that allow time to explore the sisters and establish their quirks and motivations, rather than bouncing the audience through lots of quick scene changes in race to the plot’s end. While it adds to the run time – and the pre-show warnings are a little daunting* – it also adds to the enjoyment of the storytelling.

* Just don’t drink in the hour before the show starts and nip to the loo when you arrive and you’ll be fine! It’s no longer than Greta Gerwig’s film which didn’t have an interval.

Little Women is Emily Foran’s main stage debut as director. Her back catalogue of work on smaller productions has always impressed. Ploughing through the script and giving every scene the time it deserved must have been a Herculean task during rehearsals and tech. But the finished product has such a quality feel. Foran’s direction is delicate and detailed, and begs the question why she has only got this opportunity now. The second act scene featuring a family death will be hard to forget in years to come, with the emotion in the moment of loss handled with such sensitivity.

Tracey Lindsay’s two storey set serves the story well, and the layers of scenery which drop down in front to temporarily take the audience to parties and New York are very neat. The backdrop visually supports the change of seasons, along with some delicious dustings of snow and an icy adventure. Altogether, it makes for another great main stage debut. Stuart Robinson’s soundscape is at its strongest in the first act with some lovely flourishes like when it takes over from Beth’s piano playing, but the string pads between some scenes feel laboured rather than setting a clear mood for what’s coming next.

While the whole play revolves around the four sisters, their journeys are supported by five other characters. Allison Harding’s Aunt March is agreeably abrupt, a decisive and a disruptive influence each time she marches on stage. Marmee (Jo Donnelly) is the matriarch who is all stiff upper lip uttering truisms as she cares for her daughters on a meagre budget while her absent husband is off being chaplain for the Union Army in the Civil War. As the run progresses, there’s definitely room for Marmee to develop a few more rounded mannerisms to go alongside the straitjacket of duty that requires her to be deadly serious so much of the time.

Cillian Lenaghan allows next-door neighbour Laurie’s heart to be melted every time he’s in the presence of Jo. Shaun Blaney plays Laurie’s tutor and overcomes obstacles to cement his role as Meg’s love interest. After the interval, Friedrich finally introduces Jo to European culture, and Ash Rizi very quickly establishes his character’s respect for Jo as a peer, and his abject disappointment that she continues to write pulp fiction for money rather than pursuing her true talent. (Go and see American Fiction in the cinema for another take on the value of different types of writing.)

Meg and Amy embrace their femininity: after all, they have been brought up to believe that the game they’re playing means “men have to work, women have to marry for money”. But from the first moment Jo shoves her hands into the very practical pockets in her dress we get a sense of her nonconformity. At every point in the story, she wants to be fully human, not constrained by stereotypes. Without laying it on thick, this production does allow – perhaps encourage – a queer reading of the story, albeit one with a marriage that is maybe borne out of friendship and respect rather than romance. Breen delivers a mesmerising performance, a tender triumph that continues to fill out Jo’s sense of self all the way as the character grows up throughout the play.

This production of Little Women is a good story very well told. It might be set in the 1860s, but I was drawn into the sisters’ world through the quality of their accents, their interactions and the decisions they each make to break away from the paths the world would prefer them to take. It was an absorbing evening of exceptional theatre. 

Little Women continues its run at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 2 March. Tickets are scarce – just a couple of single seats available for some performances – but well worth seeing.

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

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Sunday, February 04, 2024

Belfast Girls (An Táin Arts Centre and Quintessence Theatre at Lyric Theatre) – fleeing famine, seeking freedom in the face of yet more subjugation

Ireland has a lot of shameful history and another part of it from mid-1800s has been captured in theatrical form by playwright Jaki McCarrick. Belfast Girls is the story of women who boarded the Earl Grey ship in Belfast Harbour to set sail for a new life and better opportunities in Sydney, Australia.

Judith (Donna Anita Nikolaisen), Hannah (Leah Rossiter), Sarah (Carla Foley) and Ellen (Fiona Keenan O’Brien) have barricaded themselves below deck at one end of the sleeping quarters and built a wall of cases to keep the unruly girls from elsewhere on the island out. While they all joined the ship in Belfast, only Ellen is local and the rest come from further afield. For Judith, this is the second voyage of relocation in her short time alive.

They’ve faked their way on board the vessel that was supposedly transporting 200 fair maidens from the Emerald Isle down under to start new lives in the male-dominated country that needed wives and workers. But most of those on board are fleeing a life of being bought and sold by rich pimps, and escaping from starvation brought on by the famine. And they may not be as free as they think. They’re soon joined by a pale and sickly Molly (Siobhan Kelly) who is also hiding her own secret past.

Can they throw off their histories to “become mistresses of their own destiny”? Or are they caught in other people’s plans, as free as wasps caught in a sticky jam jar?

(The British Secretary of State for the Colonies – Earl Grey – ran the Female Orphan Emigration Scheme which sent over 4,000 “morally pure” young women aged 14-18 to Australia on board 20 ships between 1848 and 1850.)

Dramatically there’s a lot to play with. The characters are cooped up below deck, fighting the waves and the weather, other occupants, a scary matron, and each other. Their resilience is tested beyond breaking point. They have time to explore Marx and Engels, forge alliances, develop mistrust, and let a spot of bloodletting spiral out of control.

Director Anna Simpson creates a real feeling of claustrophobia in the wood-panelled set. The cast skilfully veer from harmony to hysteria in seconds. In a well-choreographed scene, the women are convincingly tossed around their living quarters and left feeling queasy. The dialogue is suitable antiquated though the coarse language is very familiar: patterns of swearing seem to have outsurvived many other idioms.

The passage to Australia is long, and that’s also reflected in the play’s run time (well over two hours which caught out an audience member who answered a call from a taxi driver out on Ridgeway Street disturbing a later scene).

Elongated scene changes involve slow-motion dancing and songs that don’t always advance the plot or change the mood. On the whole I found them to be a distraction from the otherwise gripping acting. Despite the unrushed movement on stage, there are some jarring transitions in the soundscaping when tracks aren’t allowed to gently fade from one into the next. A moment of tenderness between Judith and Molly seems to exist in McCarrick’s script simply to advance the plot a few scenes later and deserves further examination.

Belfast Girls is a story of making choices for yourself while others choose on your behalf. Understanding how and why the famine occurred – and was allowed to have the devastating impact it had on the poorer classes – is a recurring theme. Dialogue about powerful landlords applies equally to today. The motivation of churchmen and those with control over women in 1850 is questioned. Modern-day audiences can apply those same questions to more recent times and ask whether much has changed. Much of the play’s exploration of class and womanhood is pertinent in the run up to the Irish constitutional referendums in March 2024.

Having finished its short run at the Lyric Theatre, An Táin Arts Centre and Quintessence Theatre are now touring Belfast Girls through Drogheda (Friday 9-Saturday 10 February) and Navan (Friday 16-Saturday 17). Not to be confused with the other Belfast Girls (which is back in The MAC in May).

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Tuesday, January 30, 2024

All Of Us Strangers – a very solid soundtrack lights up a frustrating plot about being gay in the 1980s and today

All Of Us Strangers portrays the isolation of being gay by physically sequestering two men at opposite ends of an otherwise empty new modern apartment block. It’s metaphorically – and we soon discover, metaphysically – rich storyline.

Adam (played by Andrew Scott) is a screenwriter who is flirting with the idea of writing about his parents who died when he was a young child. Three decades later he still feels their loss keenly and seeks connection with them and an opportunity to talk through what’s happened since their car crash. Harry (Paul Mescal) lives closers to the ground. He drinks a lot and makes a pass at Adam, turning up late in the evening at his apartment’s door with a bottle and a proposition. This too plays on Adam’s mind.

As he processes his childhood, Adam wonders what his parents would think of him if they knew how he grew up? Would they appreciate his job writing scripts for films? Would they accept him being gay? To explain anything more would be to enter spoiler city. However, it’s important to note that Claire Foy steals the show playing Adam’s mother – you’ll have to ponder whether this is a flashback or some other device – and her moment of saying goodbye finally tipped me over the edge and her heartbreak provided a much-needed emotional connection to the film. Another ending later on was less impactful.

Scott and Mescal act their socks off (in several senses). Their characters’ intimacy is believable even before what will forever be thought of as a ‘Saltburn’ moment. They are invested in each other. And the sadness within their characters’ lives is palpable: All Of Us Strangers says something important about what it was like to be gay in the 1980s – Adam’s childhood – and still today. It’s clearly a story that is personal for writer/director Andrew Haigh to explore. However, the structure of the story is a weakness of the film and I think it’s understandable that the Academy Awards skipped over this good-but-struggling-to-be-great film.

Aside from Foy’s performance, the other undeniable joy of All Of Us Strangers is the pitch perfect soundtrack. Pet Shop Boys’ synth-tastic Always On My Mind is the film’s second emotive dip into the band’s 1980s catalogue. But it’s the final number – The Power of Love by Frankie Goes To Hollywood – that heightens the intense feeling of loneliness as the story, and Adam’s love, runs dry.

All Of Us Strangers is playing in Queen’s Film Theatre as well as most other local cinemas. 


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Monday, January 29, 2024

The Zone of Interest – are the Commandant’s family really living the dream next door to the Auschwitz concentration camp?

The Commandant’s family reside next door to Auschwitz concentration camp. While Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) spends his time with engineers trying to build ever more efficient methods of killing and burning prisoners in the camp crematoriums, his family enjoy the use of a large garden, an outdoor swimming pool, and the best of clothes taken from Jewish prisoners arriving at the camp. Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) urges him to take the family back on vacation to a spa in Italy. He is noncommittal as he broods over his new orders to leave the comfort of Auschwitz and take over a role closer to Berlin.

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest contrasts domestic bliss – though Hedwig isn’t aware of the female prisoner who visits her husband in his office – with the mostly unseen but always heard horror on the other side of the camp wall. We see smoke billowing out of the tall chimneys that dominate the skyline from the house and garden. Licks of flame light up the night sky. But the ever-present soundscape that betrays the mass killing is the dull drone of machinery, marching and occasional gunfire.

Rudolf is portrayed as a cold fish. His most tender moments come when he says goodbye to the horse that he rides across the road to work each morning. Hedwig is living the high life and doesn’t want to let go of the current perks of being married to the Commandant. The couple’s children don’t have much freedom, and while they’re living in total comfort compared with the prisoners nearby, the camp’s presence and unspoken activity distresses them.

The film occasionally escapes the unsettling humdrum home life to watch a young Polish woman from the local town leave apples for the prisoners to find when they’re out working the next day. It’s just about the only act of compassion in the 105-minute film.

The unseen horror is constantly contrasted with the banal life of the high ranking Nazi family. In later scenes, we see Rudolf in his new quieter work environment. Gone are the fumes and the noise of death. But we seem him nearly throw up as he leaves the building late one evening. The audience have been mentally retching for an hour or more at this point.

The Zone of Interest is being screened in Cineworld Belfast, Omniplex Cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre.


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The Color Purple – joyful songs sharply contrast with the harrowing life of Celie Harris

Musical films are undergoing a renaissance at the box office with Wonka and Mean Girls getting high profile releases in recent months. Blitz Bazawule’s The Color Purple dives right in with an opening number featuring two sisters singing on the branch of a tree while a man playing a banjo rides past on a horse. Peak musical you may think … and that’s before a piano is played on the back of a horse-drawn carriage!. But it turns out the strumming minstrel will be an important antagonist throughout the next two hours twenty minutes of the film.

The Color Purple tracks the life of Celie Harris (played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and then Fantasia Barrino) over four decades starting in 1909 Georgia when as a teenager her abusive father forced her into an abusive marriage with a local farmer ‘Mister’ (Colman Domingo). Losing touch with her much-loved sister Nettie takes its toll. The arrival – and swift departure – of feisty daughter-in-law Sofia (Danielle Brooks) brings comfort followed by sadness. The visit of Mister’s old flame Shug (Taraji P. Henson whose character sure knows how to make an entrance) adds the sound of jazz to the neighbourhood but the outbreak of extramarital harmony in the home is fleeting.

While Celie’s life is harrowing for the majority of the film, the songs are upbeat and hold the promise that life could be so much better. Large-scale dance routines add a sense of vibrancy to the melancholic story of enslavement, violence and abuse. Ninety minutes in, the fightback begins and the tables are turned as Celie begins to live the life of promise and joy that she deserves.

Based more on the stage musical than Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film that adapted Alice Walker’s novel, this new version of The Color Purple isn’t full of hummable tunes. It’s a long watch, and perhaps ends with everything too well sewn up. You’ll leave the cinema with a heavy heart, wondering why no one intervened over the first two decades of Celie’s marriage, or the six years of Sofia’s incarceration, and whether the situation is still all too common today. Well worth seeing on the big screen. 


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Created F-Rated: Short Film Night – celebrating local female-driven filmmaking

Hats off to Maeve Smyth for producing an evening of short film screenings at the Strand Arts Centre to celebrate eight female-driven films. An event that didn’t just applaud the writers, directors and actors, but also remembered women who filled a host of other roles from make-up to director of photography behind the camera.

There was a lot more diversity on show than just sex or gender. The films were varied: rural and urban, fiction and documentary (though I was convinced for five minutes that the one about the UFO hunter would turn out to be a dark satire when it was indeed a true story), comedy, tragedy and everything in-between. Witches, aliens, surviving, belonging, prejudice, cross-cultural relationships, the construct of being ‘wife material’, satisfaction in the bedroom and beyond, single motherhood, maternal mental health, assisted dying and much, much more.

The question of whether some of these stories would have been created or showcased if the projects hadn’t been led by women was asked. There’s no definitive answer. But it’s clear that a more diverse pool of creative talent – which remained stubbornly male and white but has now begun to open up – will produce richer stories and shine a light on previously unexplored subjects.

An F-Rating can be applied to all films which are directed by women and/or written by women. If the film also has significant women on screen, it receives a Triple F-Rating

Filmmakers’ responses to Marie-Louise Muir’s questions after each screen highlighted the value of NI Screen Short Film and BBC Two Minute Masterpiece schemes (available to view online), which often created opportunities for people in adjacent sectors to diversify and try their hand at writing and directing short films.

Events like this and the wonderful Film Devour Short Film Festival (submissions closed but tickets now available for their 34th event coming up in The Black Box on 26 February) are good opportunities to enjoy what local short film producers are creating, to build up the confidence of those involved (there’s nothing like your peers applauding your efforts), and to recognise the talent that is out there.

Diana Cheung, Louise Parker, Erin O’Rawe, Edel McCormick, Lauren McCune, Maeve Smyth, Emily Foran, Katie Bridget Murphy, Jennifer Atcheson and Aisling Daly ... in a few years time, will one or more of those up on the Strand Arts Centre stage be writing or directing their first feature?

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Teechers – school dayz of opportunity amid the despair (Bruiser Theatre Company at The MAC until Saturday 10 February + tour)

Three 16-year-old students celebrate the end of their school days and give thanks for the one teacher who offered them hope and gave them a passion for theatre. John Godber’s Teechers is fertile ground for Bruiser Theatre Company which has a long and illustrious history of producing multi-roled, face-paced physical theatre with striped back staging. A scarf, a false nose, a couple of chairs, a row of tall lockers and some smaller ones that can be moved around are all the three cast members really need to bounce between characters and locations.

Teechers gets off to a roaring start as the three eejits bounce onto the stage. Neither Gail, Hobby nor Salty – played by Nuala McGovern, Mary McGurk and Chris Robinson – seem to be pupils likely to sit still in any lesson. The arrival of naïve and idealistic Mr Nixon as a new drama teacher slowly opens their eyes to new possibilities. Ultimately, the three students tell the story of his first year in school in an end-of-year play they stage on their final day in Whitewall High School.

For an hour, there is no let-up in the frantic pace. Scene transitions are like a race with the cast repeatedly moving props and performing a choreographed action as if the director might walk out at any time, blow a whistle and send one off the stage for being late. That they only start to sweat after 50 minutes suggests that rehearsals have engendered a high degree of fitness! The final 10 minutes is given a little more space to breath as the pupils sum up their admiration for Mr Nixon and their despair as he counts the cost of teaching at Whitewall and contemplates finding a hole in the fence to escape through.

The script requires that some of the characters – particularly Mr Basford the deputy head who is played with glasses and a false nose – bounce between different actors throughout the play. The fact that this becomes seamless is testament to how the cast have been drilled by director Lisa May. The staging might be minimal, but it has some lovely surprises, particularly the way it transforms to represent the nearby St Pius grammar school.

Originally set in the mid-1980s, aspects of the dialogue and some cultural references have been updated. There’s a great rant about all ability education that cements the central theme of class within the education system that sadly hasn’t aged at all. A group of what could only have been teachers at my performance roared with laughter at some of the situations, seemingly recognising staff-on-staff agitation, the veneration of the timetable, the cantankerous caretaker, and familiar pupil misbehaviour. However, I wonder whether today’s school children will notice the absence of the all-pervasive mobile phone and social media from the scenes that deal with bullying?

Ultimately Teechers rejoices that good teachers can get under the skin of any pupil and spur them on to go beyond the stagnant scholastic curriculum and embrace their creativity and talents. Teachers can value children and change their life direction, offering opportunities that may even compensate for a system that deems to label some pupils as failures. Yet pupils and teachers are cruelly trapped in the same system.

Bruiser’s Teechers is in The MAC until Saturday 10 February before touring through Dundalk (Wednesday 14), Armagh (Thursday 15), Newtownabbey (Tuesday 20), Omagh (Wednesday 21), Lisburn (Friday 23), Downpatrick (Saturday 24) and Derry (Sunday 25).

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Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Full Monty – quite a serious play about depressed communities disguised as story about Sheffield strippers (Grand Opera House until Saturday 27 January)

Once you strip away the exuberant anticipation of the final scene, and once you move past the audience whipping themselves up into a frenzy anytime the mere whiff of a bum cheek might be proffered, there’s a serious piece of theatre lurking on the stage.

The Full Monty captures the hopelessness and depression that can wash over a community hit by mass redundancies as old industries contract and replacement work is nowhere to be found. Set in Sheffield as the steel industry collapses under the watch of Margaret Thatcher – whose portrait hangs in the local Conservative Club – the working class men are struggling.

Simon Beaufoy’s theatre script is a simplified version of his successful movie screenplay. Out of work Gaz (Danny Hatchard) can’t keep up with his maintenance payments and risks losing access to his son Nathan (played last night by Theo Hills, who nearly stole the show giving his Dad a piece of his mind before the finale). Dave (Neil Hurst) is gaining weight and losing libido. Gerard (Bill Ward) hasn’t had the courage to tell his wife that he’s been workless for the last six months. Horse (Ben Onwukwe) has all the moves but his body is seizing up with age. Guy (Jake Quickenden) wears a mask of confidence is inwardly devastated by the loss of the love of his live. And shy Lomper (Nicholas Prasad) is suicidal, at his wits end until he falls in with the Gaz and the get rich quick scheme to go out on a limb and better the thonged Chippendales and sell out the local pub for one night only of going ‘the full monty’.

Michael Gyngell’s direction actively keeps the saucepan of audience adulation gently simmering rather than allowing it to spill over prematurely before his story is fully cooked. He tempers scenes of hurt and loss with longer moments of silence than most touring productions would allow. Probably a shade too long and energy draining, but it certainly emphasises the bleak futility. Jasmine Swan’s versatile but very solid set consists of three two storey platforms full of doors and stairs that can be slowly pushed and shoved to spin them around to create a disused factory, Gaz’s ex’s house, the job club, a police station and the inside of the local pub.

Several gnomes suffer injury and disrespect during the performance. The costume team must have a large box of replacement rippable white vests at the ready. Other than the half buzzing half drooling audience, the main objectification comes from the men themselves rather than women. Dave’s wife Jean – played with visible empathy by Katy Dean – offers compassion and understanding when he finally dares to open up.

After two and a half hours of build-up, the main cast shed their mic packs (nowhere to hide the batteries in the final choreography!) and the audience get what they’ve been waiting for … though they may realise that it’s more a celebration of body-positivity than a raunchy performance. Along the way they’ll also have realised that Thatcher’s Britain isn’t so different from 2024. Heavy industry is still contracting, and some of the more tech-orientated firms can quickly shed jobs as they rebalance their books. Alimony and rights to see your children, poor health and aging, relationships, impotence, sexuality, weight, body image and poor mental health are still common today. Along with issues like addiction which haven’t been squeezed into the plot. The answer for most won’t be to strip off in the local club, so the relief directly offered by this play may be limited. Not my cup of tea, but the show might spark conversations when some of the audience members get home and see parallels under their own roofs.

The Full Monty continues its run in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 27 January. Spare a thought for the ushers who have to police the “no cameras, no phones” rule that is strictly enforced throughout the performance to “respect our actors”. A rule that seemed to be adhered to last night, though ring tones and audible text message notifications still underscored many serious moments of the play.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

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Monday, January 22, 2024

Anyone But You – a smiley solid albeit at times crass romcom that is nearly rescued by a patient koala but is ultimately much ado about nothing

While the overall construction of Anyone But You is solid and it’ll make you smile, it’s crying out to be written off as ‘much ado about nothing’ (upon which the story arc is based) and it will never make you cry like Richard Curtis can.

An ostentatiously wealthy wedding in Sydney with beach-ready guests – most of whom will find at least one opportunity to tip off most or all of their clothes – straight out of any number of Netflix shows set in Cape Cod or The Hamptons, a clumsy bride’s sister, a bloke who is half-scared fully-beefcake, misunderstandings galore, second chances that are blown, a DJ whose deck wasn’t plugged in, a very patient koala, and an unexpected (prosthetic?) anteater that was nowhere near as crude as the unnecessary down blouse shots.

Last year’s Rye Lane was a cheaper and better romcom! 

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