Monday, January 15, 2018

House Belfast opens its hotel doors on Belfast's Botanic Avenue

More than a thousand new hotel bedrooms will become available in Belfast this calendar year. However, away from the major chains, one boutique hotel is planning to make its mark as it opens its doors on Botanic Avenue after a £2 million investment.

House Hotel is trading in a location that has been occupied by a hotel for at least 55 years – The York Hotel opened in around 1960 before Madison’s took over in 1995 – yet previous visitors may not recognise the inside of the building following its latest renovation.

If you frequented Madison’s, you may not recognise House Belfast once you walk in off the street past the outdoor garden area. The front four bedrooms have been removed to create an impressive double height atrium hosting a main bar dominated by a blossoming cherry tree, a separate whiskey bar and a coffee dock that can double as a cocktail bar at night. Upstairs there’s a balcony space and a quieter carpeted snug holding around forty five people that can be booked separately for parties and events that has its own bar.



I spoke to Michael Stewart on Friday afternoon while the finishing touches were being made to the new venture. He’s been overseeing the refit of the hotel which closed its doors back in April but opens again under its new brand today. With 31 years in the hospitality trade under his belt, Stewart describes House Belfast as “a great bar that has bedrooms” that will contribute to “a rising tide” on Botanic Avenue with other small hotels like Dukes at Queen and Town Square sitting alongside quality outlets like Kaffe O and Tribal Burger.

House Belfast’s décor and facilities are designed to attract a 25+ clientele rather than the students living in the area. As well as catering for overnight guests, House Belfast will be open to the public for breakfasts from 8am as well as lunch, afternoon tea (from springtime) and dinner.



A lot of effort has gone into the hotel’s interior design. The boutique-styled rooms have distinctive copper detailing and artwork that will appeal to business travellers wanting to shun the identikit big brand hotel rooms, as well as families exploring Belfast and enjoying family celebrations in the city. Baths have been replaced with luxurious rainforest showers, bedside tables are attractive pieces of furniture rather than chunky wooden boxes straight out of an IKEA catalogue. Rooms start at £110/night.

The old basement nightclub will be redeveloped later in the year and is likely to incorporate dining as well as retaining some element of dancing. But the emphasis is on staying classy, pitching at 25 year olds and older, and delivering a quality experience whether in the bar, dining, meeting spaces or accommodation.

Photos from House Belfast gallery plus author's own.


Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Out To Lunch Arts Festival: Making January Great Again! (until 28 January) #otl18


In its thirteenth year of brightening up the dark month January, The Out to Lunch Arts Festival is well under way in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. The majority of events are hosted in the main space within The Black Box or it’s front Green Room, with a few others in The Duke of York, Oh Yeah Centre and The Empire.

The ticket price of weekday lunchtime events tend to include a fabulous warm lunch. Lots of the events have already sold out, but here are a few highlights of the best of the rest of the programme.

While Wednesday 10 January’s evening with Andrew Maxwell as sold out, tickets are still available to hear the cutting edge comedy and social commentary in Showtime on Thursday 11 at 8pm.

Joanne McNally went on an amazing diet and lost weight, jobs, friends and fellas. Come along to The Black Box at 1pm on Thursday 11 to hear her one woman show Bite Me and how, realising she had lost her mind, she enticed it back to recover her sanity.

The Irish Video Game Orchestra will bring over 30 years of classic video game tunes (including The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros) to life in a concert in The Black Box on Saturday 13 at 2pm.

Robin Ince’s new stand up show Pragmatic Insanity looks at ideas about creativity in science and art, and asks why we believe we see what we see and why we believe what we believe. 1pm and 8pm on Tuesday 16.

Monthly storytelling evening Tenx9 (which now has its own podcast) is back on Wednesday 17 at 7.30pm. It’s free, so turn up early to hear nine ten-minute stories on the theme of “Never Again”.

I last heard Bernadette Morris at Out To Lunch back in 2012. It was a fabulous gig – her first one headlining in Belfast – with her lilting voice and fiddle bringing folk songs to life. She’s back launching her EP upstairs above The Duke Of Work at 8pm on Thursday 18.

Traditional harpist and singer Amy McAllister will entertain a lunchtime audience at 1pm on Friday 19 January with original material alongside traditional airs. Deirdre Galway from Realta will accompany Amy in The Black Box.

Dead Ringers’ Jan Ravens brings her Difficult Women show to The Black Box at 1pm and 8pm on Tuesday 23 with impressions Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Diane Abbott, Hillary Clinton, Kirsty Wark, Lyse Doucet, Fiona Bruce and more. She asks why women are perceived as being ‘difficult’ when they are just being decisive, ambitious and tenacious?

Young comedy talent Alison Spittle – star and writer of RTE sitcom Nowhere Fast – brings her touring show Worrier Princess to The Black Box at 1pm on Wednesday 24.

The Leading Ladies – a trio of songstresses Michelle Baird, Ceara Grehan and Lynne McAllister – will be blending their richly flavoured voices on stage in The Black Box and entertaining the lunchtime audience with their repertoire of stage, screen, opera and swing. 1pm on Friday 26 January.

Iain Lee and Katherine Boyle’s live podcast The Rabbit Hole will be streamed from The Black Box’s Green Room on Sunday 28 January at 7.30pm, rounding off the festival. With interaction from people phoning in as well as those in the room, there’s no way of knowing quite where the conversation will go.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Darkest Hour – Churchill's political battle for war & victory instead of appeasement (Movie House from 12 January)

Darkest Hour attempts to turn the early weeks of Winston Churchill’s premiership into a political thriller as the unorthodox and unwanted Prime Minister (played by Gary Oldman) faced the Nazi advances across western Europe and feared that Britain would be invaded before long.

Over the new permiere’s shoulder stood the peace-talks-promoting Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and the former PM (and still Tory party leader) Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), both of whom were included in Churchill’s War Cabinet (on the basis of keeping enemies close).

It’s a film about external bravado and internal conflict: the war in Europe, the strife at Westminster and within the Cabinet War Rooms, the new Prime Minister’s relationship with the monarch, Churchill’s legacy of military failure, his feeling of self-doubt and weakness … bolstered only by his long-suffering wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his shorter-suffering-but-loyal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
“The last ten years I was the only one to tell them the truth, until tonight”

There’s a poignancy in 2018 – a year in which the phrase ‘fake news’ is still not far from some politicians’ lips – watching the scenes showing Churchill misleading the public about the extent of the Nazi advance through France in an effort to stoke up their hope and resilience.

This is not the only film released during the last 12 months that features Winston Churchill during World War Two. In last June’s Churchill he was depicted with depression in the four day run up to D-Day, whereas in in Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright shows off the desperation and despondency that overshadowed his early days at Number 10. (Churchill’s words were included in last summer’s Dunkirk, but the politician was not included on-screen lest the film would get “bogged down in the politics of the situation”.)

A braver edit would have excluded the scenes of war from Darkest Days and kept the focus on politics. A shorter edit would have concentrated on story rather than biography. Instead, the film wobbles along for the first twenty minutes, picking up pace slowly, all the while underserved by Anthony McCarten’s script which is packed to the gills with factual detail and over-explained commentary.

As director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel has given Darkest Hour a distinctive dark and sepia tone lit by rays of natural light that conveniently flood each new location. Often low angle shots look up at characters. Trance-like slow motion streetscapes accompanied only by piano music are observed out the window of Churchill’s car (twice). Amongst this filmic flair there are moments when successive shots jar, for example when Churchill looks out of an airplane window and the film cuts to an overhead shot only a few metres off the ground.

Towards the end of the film, an invented scene thrusts Churchill amongst his subjects and allows him to show off his charm and rapport, and to discover that his fight-to-the-end mentality is echoed by the  population at large, even if not by all of his war-fearing colleagues. Despite being dramatically useful, this emotional scene of nationalism is a clunky device and unrealistically long, ruining the desire effect.
“He’s an actor who loves the sound of his own voice”

The best moments are based around Churchill’s famed rhetoric, watching him pace up and down, dictating passages and corrections to his secretary. The preparation is skilfully woven in with their delivery in the House of Commons and radio broadcasts. (The real life Elizabeth Layton wrote a book about her time working during the war: Winston Churchill by his Personal Secretary: Recollections of The Great Man by A Woman Who Worked for Him.)

While the heavily made up Oldman is heavily made-up and hiding behind prosthetics: he’s no Churchill lookalike, but his facial expressions are watchable and he captures the conflicted leader. Scott Thomas is as brimming with love and loyalty as she is with glamour. James manages well her character’s journey from demure typist to confidant aide. Chamberlain’s twin battle with dogma and cancer is delicately portrayed by Pickup whose health visibly fails during the film, while Dillane keeps a stiff upper lip as the well-connected member of the House of Lords keen to enter negotiations.

Despite its flaws and its quirks, if you stick with Darkest Hour for all 125 minutes it rewards you with an intelligent critique of Winston Churchill’s first month in power that is careful not to relegate those supporting appeasement to easy-dismissed one dimensional characters. The moral and military tussle around deliberate sacrifice and the sanctity of independence was largely missing from my childhood education about WW2, and the conflicted Churchill was nowhere to be found in the two primary school projects I completed about the famous character.
“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”

Darkest Hour’s themes and dialogue resonates at a time when the UK is retreating from Europe and a US President seems to feel that you can’t negotiate with a leader like Kim Jong-un.
“He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”

In the future if anyone wants a six hour DVD marathon, Darkest Hour followed by Dunkirk and then Churchill would be a good order to watch the three recent films. In the meantime you can catch Darkest Hour in Movie House cinemas (and elsewhere) from Friday 12 January.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Hamilton: it's great to be in the room where it happens (Victoria Palace Theatre, London West End)

It’s very unusual to sit through a theatre production in an auditorium packed full of people who already know that they love the show before a single actor walks onto the stage. But that’s the case with Hamilton in London’s West End. Every seat sold for the first few weeks (maybe even months) of the run is occupied by people (and their friends/families) who booked back in January 2017 when the tickets went on sale.

I’ve been walking past the Victoria Palace Theatre – or what was left of it behind the scaffolding – monthly for the last two years. In November and even early December, there was no hint that there was a finished theatre in behind the ongoing construction works. So I was somewhat surprised when the delayed previews were able to go ahead and Hamilton opened a few days before Christmas.

Stepping inside the restored theatre on Thursday afternoon, past the friendly-looking sniffer dog, it was a relief to see no sign of builders wearing hard hats indoors, though a fire warden did continuously tour the aisles and corridors (when the show wasn’t on) so there must be a fair amount of unfinished work.

The hip-hop musical takes liberties with the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries as it creates a dramatic narrative around his rise to power and premature exit from the political stage. The deliberate multi-racial casting presents a vision of modern-day America rather than the whiteness of political and military movers and shakers in the late eighteenth century.

It’s a story of a driven man – “I am not throwing away my shot” – who climbs the ladder of power, chooses the post of Treasury Secretary over control over the State Department (thereby creating a much longer and harder-to-unpick legacy of structural change rather than tickle and reversible foreign policy) yet in the end is a kingmaker but never the king.

The character of Hamilton in the musical – and in real life according to historical biographies – was no saint. It’s somewhat ironic that his legacy was only secured (and promoted) through the actions of his cuckqueaned wife Eliza after he pays the price for being competitive and losing everything at the hands of his convictionless competitor Aaran Burr who introduces himself as “the damn fool that shot him” in the first song.

Technically, the West End production of Hamilton was impressive and incredibly precise. Given the steep ticket prices and the waterfall of lyrics to follow to keep up with the plot, the quality of sound was both reassuring and essential. While the micced-up performers were fed through speakers dotted around the auditorium close to the audience, the live band boomed out from the base of the stage, keeping the lyrics crisp and every word intelligible. The lighting rig often bathed the seemingly simple wood and brick set* with warm and natural hues, throwing unexpected shapes (one of which hit me quite emotionally – a bit of a first!) and even created subtle movement during scene changes. [* the back wall of the set may not be quite as static as it looks!]

After witnessing the brute force necessary to manually rotate the Lyric Theatre’s stage in two shows this Christmas, Hamilton’s smooth and effortless rotating stage with independent inner and outer rings was a revelation. The automation that brought little wagons of candles on and off stage, guided by a groove in the floor, showed the attention to detail (and the money available to pull off such a design). Yet I’ve no idea why two ropes were anchored to one side of the front of the stage at the beginning, only to be removed and never used.

Success, failure, forgiveness, leadership, ambition, death, politics, economics, military strategy, migration, rights, human relationships … at times, Hamilton was closer to an opera than musical theatre. There was an intensity to the performance that never let up.

Jamael Westman physically towered above the rest of the cast playing Alexander Hamilton. He was rarely off-stage, and commanded attention as he dashingly strutted about in his boots, clashing with Giles Terera’s Aaron Burr (the clear baddie dressed in black).
“Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?”

Even if you’ve been experiencing Hamilton vicariously through the Broadway cast album and Youtube clips (as we have been subjected to in our house), the level of hilarity was totally unexpected as the live cast injected personality into the music.

The West End’s King George III was ridiculously effected and played to marvellous extremes by Michael Jibson who wandered around the stage, inserting looooong pauses into his songs and jabbing his finger in the direction of the audience while promising to send a fully armed battalion to remind us of his love. He also voiced the tongue-in-cheek pre-recorded mobile silencing announcement at the start: for once, the instruction was obeyed.

With much of the cast double roling, Jason Pennycooke stood out as a gloriously laughable and impish Lafyette in Act I, before morphing into a more serious Thomas Jefferson after the interval. The controlled slow motion choreography in the eye of the hurricane was just one example of its artistic quality.

The three Shyuyler sisters – Eliza, Angelica … and Peggy (Rachelle Ann Go, Rachel John and Marsha Songcome at the performance I attended) – provided the non-political thread to bind together the rest of the show. Songcome was impressive as Maria Reynolds in Act II. While the female characters were in a sense underwritten (though still critical to the plot), then gender mix in the ensemble dancing was refreshing and beautifully arbitrary.
“Don't modulate the key then not debate with me!”

There were little moments of endearing self-awareness that winked at the audience and acknowledged that this was theatre and not a straight history lesson.

Why a musical about an American founding father should work as a show in London is down to the quality of the Lin-Manuel Miranda’s writing and the wholehearted performances delivered by the entire cast rather than the actual events upon which they are based. Hamilton is similar to Evita in taking a relatively obscure story and giving it a dramatic and musical flourish (the running piano phrases that step out of so many of the songs are magical) that delights rather than confuses.

Hamilton is a musical that has been carefully designed to maximise its chance of success. Investment is on show everywhere, from the sumptuous costumes that set the tone of each scene (even if the knee breeches look like jodhpurs and make you wonder whether one of the ensemble dancers will soon enter stage right on a horse) to the automation, lighting and sound design. Musical Director Richard Beadle’s head and occasionally his hands popped up from the orchestra pit to keep the chorus starting and stopping together, even conducting the bows at the end of the show and giving the instruction for the cast to leave the stage.

Yet despite the level of programming and control, Hamilton was a show that emotionally connected. No one on stage was just going through the ritual of phoning in their performance (like I found at Fame one afternoon in the West End while on honeymoon some fifteen or so years ago). It was performed as much as it was produced, with and had heart and soul, energy, rhythm as well as an engaging way of telling a story that resonates on many different levels: racially, economically, politically and culturally.

Hamilton is not perfect. If your concentration wavers for a more than a few seconds you can miss a lyric and be left wondering who a character is, or what the significance is of an action on the stage. There are moments when you wonder whether the symmetry and plot twists are just a little too contrived. A mic was left muted for 20 seconds when King George III walked onto the stage, and one singer struggled with high notes. But those niggles barely add up to anything.

The enormous ambition of Hamilton is very definitely achieved, and achieved through the skill and talent of a wide range of people behind-the-scenes as well as up-front on stage. If you can afford tickets and can make it to London you’ll experience an example of musical theatre that sets the bar high even for the West End. It certainly left me wanting more.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Human Flow: Ai Weiwei’s perspective-giving primer on global migration (QFT 5-11 January)

Rather than pick a few interesting personal stories out of the millions of displaced people across the globe, Ai Weiwei keeps his focus on the scale of the worldwide Human Flow in his new documentary.

By stretching the narrative across 23 different countries, Ai Weiwei also zooms out from the handful of countries normally associated with refugees and fills in gaps in western public consciousness. Twenty three countries are visited over a year including Bangladesh, Gaza and Mexico as well as Germany, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Macedonia and Pakistan.

A mixture of cinematography showcases serene drone shots which demonstrate the scale of movement with handheld footage getting up close and personal with refugees. Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei often somewhat self-indulgently wanders into shot, filming what he sees on his camera phone and talking to people on the move. A UNHCR spokesperson adds the scale marker to the picture that the filmmaker is creating: 65 million people have been forcibly displaced across the world.



The opening scene of a bird flying across a blue sky is quickly contrasted with an overhead shot of a small boat packed with people making its way across the blue sea. Freedom vs organised smuggling or trafficking. There’s poetry and unspoken narrative in these moments of high quality cinematography, later repeated with shots that soar over refugee camps, showing off the block layout and fire breaks between rows of tents and semi-permanent huts and caravans. But these arty shots are not allowed to dominate the imagery.

The shaky bodycam and phone footage shows refugees being given blankets and warm tea as they step onto the European shore. Women describe living under the ‘rain’ of missiles, fired and landing without warning, and drone footage once again takes viewers to the flattened suburban landscapes from which they fled.

Over 140 minutes Ai Weiwei tours areas of displacement across the world, walking and talking alongside families and individuals making their way towards safety. The white infectious disease protection jumpsuits worn by rescued refugees are suggestive of dehumanisation. While the ethnically cleansed Rohingya community now living in Bangladesh are labelled as ‘stateless people’ and ‘boat people’, the film notes that they are primarily humans.

One contributor sums up her aim:
“… on a daily basis make people feel like human beings and know that we really care about them.”
The contrast between beautifully-crafted footage and guerrilla filming (complete with the howl of the wind in the uncovered mics) prevents the audience from sitting back in their seats to take a clinical at the problem. It is rough and ready, and in our faces. The film’s editing is deliberately ragged: some cuts are very sharp, other shots are allowed to linger and give space to think.

Fifty minutes into the film there’s a sobering reminder that this is not a travel documentary, and that while sea crossings are inherently dangerous, crossing land brings with it risks of rape, torture, slavery and death.

Wherever Ai Weiwei takes his camera, there are long trails of people walking along roads and tented camps of different shapes and sizes. There are flows of people seemingly perpetually on the move, never staying still, searching for alternative security and overcoming natural obstacles like rivers.

The only thing that halts the movement are man-made barriers: border fences have multiplied six-fold since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film visits politically-sealed borders with barbed wire and guards between Greece and Macedonia, as well as the patrolled border between the US and Mexico. Grown men cry with the helplessness of neither being able to step forward, nor step back to return home.

Palestinians living in Gaza speak about the difficulty of younger people growing up with stereotypes, not knowing the area before the walls and not having the opportunity to get to know and understand Israelis. Symbolically Ai Weiwei includes footage of Laziz the tiger being rescued from a cramped Gaza ‘zoo’. In a cruel irony, the tiger is helped to escape through Israel to enjoy a new life in South Africa, unlike the humans left behind in the caged-in region.

With 26% of global refugees hosted in sub-Saharan Africa, the cameras call at Dadaab in Kenya, a cluster of five refugee camps. They also visit the refugee camp inside Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport, an Ideal Home Exhibition-like vista of roofless cubicles built indoors. Normal patterns of life – births, marriages, deaths and even haircuts -

Cash grants are used as an incentive for Afghans now living in Pakistan to return home. With the best will in the world, after 30 or 40 years they cannot always return to their family’s plot of land, and their villages may still be insecure. So they remain displaced and dislocated, just no longer in Pakistan.

The reality of arriving in Europe is somewhat at odds with the continent’s reputation of human dignity and respect. In my screening, applause broke out when former Syrian astronaut Muhammed Faris gave his perspective of looking down on Earth and realising how humankind shares the planet.

Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder at the effort and ingenuity that governments invest in securing and surveilling borders as opposed to changing the many different reasons that continue to cause forced migration around the world.

Human Flow’s distribution in UK cinemas was brief and patchy: however you will still find it playing in London screens and some larger independent cinemas. And the producers welcome opportunities for churches, museums, schools and other organisations to register their interest in showing the film.

Avoiding the temptation to over-moralise or point too many fingers – though European Union policies do come under its microscope – Human Flow provides a global perspective on a global problem and its duration is sufficient to give each audience member time to react to the scale of the story on screen.

Human Flow is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 5-Thursday 11 January.

Cross-posted from FocusOnRefugees.org

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Game of Gnomes and Trump's Big Bad Belfast Christmas (C21 Theatre)

Two very different one act plays graced the stage of The Black Box in Belfast last night.

Brendan Quinn stumbled up first with his fifty minute solo show Game of Gnomes. His alter ego, an aspiring out of work actor Brendan Sythe (a proud product of Larne community drama classes), explained to anyone willing to listen in the make-up truck how he’d got this big break on a well-known film set.

Deftly switching between characters, mannerisms and accents, Quinn whipped up laughs as he outlined the confusing audition process, a bizarre bootcamp, and his subsequent experience working as a Castlecourt Elf. Around a dozen roles populated the piece, including a grumpy yet worldy-wise Santa, a coy female Elf and an outrageous mother who mistook him for a gnome.

Tom Finley’s direction brought to life well-written overlapping conversations that comically fused together and utilised the limited set (three black cubes) to create height and movement on the diminutive stage. By the end, the audience were hooked on the story and whooping along with the finale. While Sythe may not have initially seen the potential in his festive “great character piece”, the Black Box audience certainly lapped up the story acted out by Quinn.

After the interval bar break, it was the turn of Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas, with two local actors reprising roles they had played elsewhere in recent weeks in a new satirical play by Rosemary Jenkinson.
“If there’s one thing Northern Ireland has a talent for, it’s building walls; though we’re good at building bridges too … with peace money.”
Escaping the White House staff eggnog-fuelled party, US President Trump (Miche Doherty) flies to Belfast in ‘North Ireland’ to find out about our beautiful walls which have kept people apart all these years. DUP leader Arlene Foster (Maria Connolly) is his willing tour guide, her party name temporarily confusing the Republican president. Darlene and Donald slip, incognito, into a loyalist bar for an eventful pint!

Doherty’s impossibly long red tie, well-coiffed wig and glare brought this not-so-fantastical world leader alive despite his trim waist and unclassifiable accent. His bravado-filled performance captured the essence of the mulch-maligned president. Connolly never stepped out of character, eyes constantly darting around, and switching between gloom and glee as she tried to manage the erratic big wig.

Despite only being scheduled for two performances, and the rehearsals accelerated, cast were confident with their lines and hammed it up to the delight of the audience who joined in with the reworded Fairytale of New York (more Nightmare on Newtownards Road) and the boisterous finale Summer Christmas Lovin’ (“She ate sausage / I had some champ”).

As well as the brutally cruel lampooning of there two well-known political leaders, the refracted image on stage gave a quasi-international perspective on some of the ways and customs we take for granted and so often forget to critique in Northern Ireland, as well a chance to question how different or similar we are to our 50 state cousins.

A triumphal evening of festive comedy from C21 Theatre Company which finished their year of productions with a definite bang.

You can catch more of Arlene in Michelle and Arlene Holiday Special: Planes, Trains and Tractors in Accidental Theatre’s 12-13 Shaftesbury Square venue on Thursday 21 and Friday 22 December, and C21 Theatre are back with another Rosemary Jenkinson play May The Road Rise Up in the Lyric Theatre from 20-24 February.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Sanctuary - consenting to a season of good will to all people in this sweet yet challenging coming of age film (QFT from 29 Dec to 4 Jan)

Sanctuary is a coming of age film that sees a group of young and not-so-young adults leaving their day centre to go on a festive trip to a local Galway cinema. Their normal work of stuffing folders with leaflets is coming to an end, and in the new year there will be skills-based workshops, but no more paid work.
“The way things are going around here I might not get another chance.”

For the tight-knit group who describe themselves as being “intellectually disabled” (in the UK we might be more used to the phrase ‘learning disability’). With the help of his key worker Tom (Robert Doherty), Larry (Kieran Coppinger), who has Down’s Syndrome and works in a fast food outlet, has engineered the opportunity slip across the road during the screening with his epileptic girlfriend Sophie (Charlene Kelly) to spend quality time in a hotel.

When Larry asks for a condom, Tom realises that he is stepping well over the legal line that criminalises sex outside of marriage* in the case of into hot and deep water. “Would it be different if we were normal?” asks Larry, using the ‘n’ word that Tom is professionally uncomfortable with.

Meanwhile, away from the dancing and romancing, interest in the film is waning – no surprise since it wasn’t chosen with anyone’s cinematic preference in mind – and the curious and shepherdless sheep start to scatter across Galway city centre. William (Frank Butcher) and Andrew (Patrick Becker) go out on the tear, Sandy (Emer Macken) flirts endlessly with Peter (Michael Hayes), Rita (Jennifer Cox) falls asleep before having a spliffing time, while Alice (Valerie Egan) and Matthew (Paul Connolly) go on a shopping spree and melt the heart of a burly security guard. Director Len Collin manages the mayhem beautifully, always stopping short of farce, but never afraid to let levity lift a scene’s mood.

Aside from the central challenge about consent and capacity to consent – which is dealt with both sympathetically and realistically – there is a second challenge to cinema audiences about whether they are well enough informed to hold prejudices about people who they may feel are different from them. The point at which shoppers, guards and cinema staff finally engage with the mutineers who are temporarily freed from Tom’s care, the barriers break down and they all relate to each other with a common humanity.

Larry displays a tenderness and compassion towards Sophie that is endearing, compensating for her tremor by pouring her tea and acting as the very role model of a complete gentleman. His confidence and aspirations meet Sophie’s past, and it’s a privilege to watch the pair’s intimate conversations.

Across the rest of the characters, there’s a mirroring of this compensation and complementation as the street smart and the logical, the impetuous and the thoughtful, combine into brilliant couplings that supply sanctuary to each other.

The twist at the end of this comedic movie is cruel yet credible as the superheroes finally bump into society’s buffers. While each of the day trippers clearly has more sense than their key worker Tom, should his transgressions be allowed to severely impact their lives and freedoms?

The 87 minute long film isn’t too tinselly - Christmas is the excuse for an outdoor market, bright lights and some super drone footage – but if this is truly the season of goodwill to all people, then Sanctuary is a timely reminder.

It’s one of art’s purposes to challenge stereotypes and give power to the marginalised. (You’ll find that in Rosemary Jenkinson’s play Lives in Translation which will tour again in 2018.)

Based on Christian O'Reilly’s play for the Blue Teapot Theatre Company and using its gifted cast, Sanctuary is a must-see film this Christmas. The performances are a tribute, in particular, to Coppinger and Kelly’s acting talent as they, along with the rest of the cast, lift the characters off the stage and onto the silver screen.

Sanctuary will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 29 December to Thursday 4 January.



- - -

The Republic of Ireland’s Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 made sex with someone who was ‘mentally impaired’ (the Act’s term, not mine) an offence, along with anyone soliciting or importuning. The legislation was there to protect vulnerable people from abuse. However it also overruled autonomy and the opportunity to consent. The 2017 Act amended this to outlaw sex with a ‘protected person’ defined by a ‘lack of capacity to consent … by reason of a mental or intellectual disability or a mental illness’.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi - a dreary and dissatisfying tale of Star Wars: Hope Snuffed Out


Two years ago I started my review of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens with the statement that ‘I’m not a big fan of Star Wars’. But the retro, derivative and cliché-ridden reboot of the franchise has grown on me – think of it as Indiana Jones and the Lost Droid – and last year’s Rogue One was a decent science fiction movie.
“My disappointment at your performance cannot be underestimated”

There’s a performance management comment that will be wheeled out in many a year-end review this year! And it applies to my impression of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. It was a big disappointment.

Things started well with an soundtrack rich with stabs of strings and brass. However, the effect of the John Williams motifs faded over time as the problematic storyline took centre stage. The early instances of humour lifted the feeling of worthiness from the convoluted plot and the overly wordy Empire stooges who annunciate each new thought.

There were space dogfights, parries with light sabres, a visit to a seedy watering hole, creeping on and off enemy ships, flying big ships through tight tunnels, and a holiday trip for Rey to an Irish island – Atishoo Ahch-To where it rained and there were disturbing puffin-like critters which after a while demonstrated great facial expressions and toppled into the comedy list – all of which led to an awakening.

But the lack of hope was endless. The ‘force’ had not topped up its card at the filling station and was running perilously low.
“The greatest teacher failure is”

You’ll have to guess which character spoke that line, but he was an welcome addition to a scene that (perhaps symbolically) burnt stuff while the Resistance complained about needing a spark. And he was just one instance of many force-fuelled apparitions of characters in remote locations.

The best battle was saved until the end. The red salt lying under the covering of snow was a fabulous invention and provided the strongest visuals of the film. However Snoke’s red domed (and perhaps doomed) lair with its shiny floor looked like unfinished CGI.

I enjoyed the slower pace, even if it contributed to the 152 minute run time. The characters had time to breath and the space to develop had that been written into the script. Yet at times this rather robbed the plot of much needed jeopardy and my heart never raced.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) had a much more sedate role, separated from the main cast. He see her grow emotionally and spiritually, but her combat abilities are saved for one late tussle. Princess General Leia (Carrie Fisher) overcame the physics of a vacuum (the force is a great gift). So there’s a definite gender rebalancing of the force-ful characters.

Resistance maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is a breath of fresh air, putting principles ahead of reverence and hero worship of Finn. Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) has a short but interesting character arc, playing an uncomfortably safe battle strategy in charge of the Resistance’s last ship before making a fatal yet effective manoeuvre.

Yet despite these strong and interesting women, I noticed that it was men (like Luke Skywalker) who heroically arrived in situations to rescue the many. Men who never showed emotion while the women were allowed to shed tears at will.

But the dissatisfaction comes from convoluted plot devices which send characters on a mission to find someone to break in somewhere to turn something off which of course never happens and makes things a hundred times worse than they would have been. That’s on top of battle decisions that stupidly further diminish the Resistance fleet. Self-inflicted misery.

Overall, it felt like Rian Johnson had set out to write Star Wars: Hope Snuffed Out. Episode VIII may be a credible part of the overall Star Wars canon, but it’s a dreary two and a half hours that fails to live up to the magic of best of the rest of the trilogy of trilogies.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Spectacular Aladdin: pantomime, but not like you’ve ever seen it before! (SSE Arena until 27 December)

With only 18 months between inception and the opening night, planning a brand new show using a team of largely local creatives to stage an arena pantomime for the first time in Belfast is a remarkable achievement. Joe Rea and Martin Lynch have shown incredible ambition to pull this off.

Last night’s performance of The Spectacular Aladdin was loud, brash, full of movement, and it seemed to delight many of the youngest members of the audience who could sing along to S Club 7 anthems and dance Gangnam style in the aisles.

It was definitely pantomime, but not as we know it!

The storyline followed the familiar tale of young Aladdin (played by Jake Carter) defying ‘pain of death’ to gaze upon Princess Jasmine (Nadia Forde). His Mum, Widow Twankie (Chris Robinson) runs the local laundry. The evil Abanazer (Rhydian) is on the hunt for Aladdin, believing that he can provide him with a magic lamp to make him rich. Add to this Wishie Washie (Christina Nelson, who inducts the audience into her gang), a Police Chief with a bushy moustache (Marty Maguire), the Empress mother of the princess (Nuala McKeever) along with the Slave of the Ring (Naomi Rocke) and The Genie (Ross Anderson-Doherty).

Packed into the front third of the SSE Arena, the venue presents its own challenges and opportunities. The stage is incredibly wide and director Dan Gordon has done well to fill it with a relatively small cadre of actors, dancers and child performers that bring the action as close as possible to the tiered seating.

At regular intervals cast members paraded through the wide aisles in the ground floor seated area in front of the stage, and at one point the Genie of the Lamp appeared over my left shoulder in row Q to sing a long distance duet with the Slave of the Ring about 40m away on stage!

It’s a strong cast, with Rhydian stepping comfortably into the shoes of Abanazer though it was only in the second half that he got the boos his malicious character deserved. It shouldn’t have been any surprise that Irish pop artist Jake Carter had a great voice (and played guitar on stage for a quick cover of Galway Girl), but he also played Aladdin with a confidence that belied his lack of theatre experience. Nadia Forde couldn’t quite compete with her heart throb’s dulcet tones.

The job of audience participation fell to Widow Twankie and Wishie Washie. Pantomime dame Chris Robinson persevered with his scripted jokes, innuendo and ad libbing and was much more confident and rewarded with audience reaction after the interval. Human dynamo Christina Nelson never stopped moving and delivered a relentlessly energetic and quick-witted performance the whole time she was on stage.

Naomi Rocke as Slave of the Ring carried a lot of the show’s narration, with lots of flourish-ridden poetic lines, and her duets with Ross Anderson-Doherty were amongst my favourite moments from the show. Nuala McKeever’s wit was underused in her small role as Empress.

Other than a few large rotating pieces of set, projections against the back wall of the stage replaced traditional flown backdrops to place each scene in context. Animation was employed successfully, often synchronised with lighting effects, to increase the sense of drama. While the width and height of the SSE Arena could allow performers to be flown in and out on wires, Aladdin’s ‘flying carpet’ relied this year on more basic trickery. There were lots of sound effects to cartoonify the on-stage action and a live band of five accompanied throughout.

The first act of the pantomime ended with a big song – Reach for the Stars – but there was a lack of jeopardy to carry the plot into the interval: for a minute I thought that the show was over and reached into my pocket to fish out the car park ticket. There were gentle nods to the sponsors throughout (though BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan gets more mentions than Q Radio’s Stephen Clements) and eternal favourites like The Time Warp and a Twelve Days of Christmas skit (complete with Super Soaker squirting) are woven into the show.

The size of the auditorium dents the precision of some performances. While the dialogue was quite clear, much of the sung lyrics were lost in the echoey and muffled sound. (It’s a problem I don’t remember from musical On Eagle’s Wing when it played in the Odyssey back in 2004.) Seated much further away from the action than any other stage in Belfast, I leant forward to squint at the characters on stage. Despite Susan Scott’s bold and glittery costumes helping to make the cast stand out, follow-spots were only used sporadically and at times it felt like some of the action was taking place in relative gloom, particularly when characters moved away from the centre of the stage.

While it’s popular to complain about noisy sweet wrappers in theatres, the concession stands remaining open during the performance (just as they would do during an ice hockey match) created the most disturbance with a constant stream of people in our row squeezing past our legs to go out for more fizzy drink, followed up by a run to the toilet.

Taking a pantomime out of the theatre and into a larger, more open arena was a high risk move. The energy of the performance on Saturday night compensated for a lot of the issues caused by the novel venue. I left the SSE Arena a little bewildered about what I had just witnessed, but satisfied that it was both spectacular and a pantomime.

M & J Pantos seemed to be learning to walk before they ran in their first year of operation with relatively straightforward staging and no pyrotechnics. The team plan to return next Christmas with Cinderella and if they build upon this year’s success and learn lessons from their inaugural run, their annual pantomime may present more established competitors (admittedly with more seats during longer runs) with a challenge to improve their offering.

The Spectacular Aladdin continues in The SSE Arena until Wednesday 27 December.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Happy End - a fabulous piece of dark and brooding storytelling

Michael Haneke is a bit of an evil genius when it comes to screenwriting and directing. And his new film Happy End adds to his fabulous body of thought-provoking and unsettling work.

The film begins with some shaky vertical smartphone footage of a woman’s nightly bedtime routine, with every action anticipated with a typed comment as she brushes her teeth and hair etc. It’s the first sign of a youngster with a penetrating eye and a disturbed attitude towards life, suffering and death. Later we’ll realise that darkness runs in the family genes. (It’s also a nod to Haneke’s pervious film Caché (Hidden) which had surveillance footage at its disquieting heart.)

With her Mum hospitalised, Eve (Fantine Harduin) moves to Calais to live with her father (Mathieu Kassovitz, who walked out of her life years before and has now remarried). Three generations are housed together, each living with their anxieties and insecurities about health and wealth. Eve’s aunt (Isabelle Huppert) is running a struggling construction company that is collapsing before her eyes, not helped by her unstable son (Franz Rogowski), her boyfriend (a rather dapper Toby Jones who is battling with North Sea offshore workers) while her morose father (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is recovering from a car accident.

Happy End is a misleading title, or perhaps just an aspirational one. In truth, this dark family soap opera is more about the ‘end’ than the ‘happy’, at least for those who have a choice in the matter. To say more would be to spoil the story that is very slowly revealed over 107 minutes.

The camerawork is very distinctive, with very long takes keeping a tight focus on people’s heads and keeping as much of the background out of focus (so you can never quite make out the posters on walls as characters walk around). Much of the film is either spent looking into a scene as if through someone’s eyes (or standing just behind them) or standing at a distance, unable to discern what is being said, but able to watch interactions (which at times can be violent).

Much of the dialogue is subtitled in French. Facebook Messenger exchanges intelligently incorporate the subtitles into the on-screen user interface, while a smaller font size is used when eavesdropping on other people’s dialogue.

As the screen went dark and the credits rolled in silence, there was a ripple of nervous laughter across my screening as if the final unresolved unhappy non-ending was a relief.

The inclusion of refugees in and around Calais helps ground the film in contemporary France. The casual racism and maltreatment of the Laurent family’s servants push them over the edge to be thoroughly hard to like yet fascinating to watch.

There’s a lot of death, a lot of longing for death, and a fair amount of engineering it too. Not for the fainthearted, Happy End is a fabulous piece of dark and brooding storytelling.

Ferdinand - good for children, harmless for adults (from 15 December)


I think that the best way, as an adult, to tackle a viewing of Ferdinand is to imagine you’re watching a comedy Bourne film, particularly when it comes to the chase sequences. Otherwise, you’ll wallow in the realisation that this doesn’t measure up to the quality of a Pixar or Disney animation, and is nowhere near as appealing as the original Ice Age.

The first part of the film deals with the origin story: a bull calf (voiced initially by Colin H Murphy, who later hands over to John Cena) with a traumatic upbringing who rebels against the system and escapes when his father doesn’t return victorious from the bullfighting arena in the lorry the young bulls grow up calling the ‘winner’s truck’.
“You can hurt me if you want, but leave the flower alone.”

Along the way he meets a little girl Nina (Lily Day), who so nearly becomes his sidekick before being cruelly replaced by a streetwise goat called Lupe (Kate McKinnon). The little calf grows up, realises that he is more at home in a meadow full of his favourite flowers, becomes confident in his otherness, eschewing violence and simple stereotyping.

On the farm, Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) is a bully, like his father. Bones (Anthony Anderson) is labelled as an underdeveloped “weirdo”. Guapo (Peyton Manning) is nervous and provides the sustained and wretched throwing up jokes.

Ferdinand’s 107 minute journey loops him back round to familiar places, building up momentum, and allowing some of the characters to shake off their wicked ways.

The animation is good and never distracting, and the gentle acoustic guitar-heavy soundtrack is a particular joy to listen to. The beginning of the film is surprisingly morose as Ferdinand’s insecurity is explored and many of the jokes in the script fall flat until the arrival of the comedy hedgehogs.

The bull in a china shop scene is brilliant for its sense of reserve, and the chase sequences with trains and traffic are the points at which the film really comes alive (leading me into my Bourne fantasy).
“You’re either a fighter or you’re meat.”

Set in Spain, it’s a while before you hear any foreign accents, never mind Spanish ones. But over time you’ll hear the German dancing ponies who separate the bulls from the meat factory that conveniently sits a few fields away. “I’m a bull not a doctor” knowingly shouts Angus, the long-fringed bull voiced by David Tennant who gets some of the best lines of the film.

Being an animated kids film doesn’t forgive the many plot holes. The need to escape through the house (a fun albeit prematurely curtailed sequence) is later contradicted by the possibility of galloping through over the fields to the strangely unpopulated slaughterhouse.
“I can’t wait to show you to the rest of the guys! They’re gonna fertilize the yard.”

That’s not a quote I wanted to reuse on the way out of the screening. The young children at the preview seemed to enjoy Ferdinand. This bigger child found it somewhere between Moo and Meh.

Ferdinand is good for children and harmless for adults. It’s a satisfactory animation that suffers from a poor script, and by next Christmas will be gracing supermarket DVD shelves and appear in a less than prime time slot in the festive Radio Times.

In Movie House Cinemas and elsewhere from Friday 15 December.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Preview - Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas (The Black Box on 20 December)

Having paired up satirical versions of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill in her series of Michelle & Arlene plays produced by Accidental Theatre, Rosemary Jenkinson’s latest work teams the DUP leader up with US President Donald Trump in a visit to Belfast. The short play – Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas – forms one half of C21 Theatre’s two-part Christmas production in The Black Box on 20 December.
“I’ve been longing to do Trump for ages. From the beginning of the year I’ve been thinking that he’s manna from heaven for a satirist. He makes so many great proclamations and even his style of delivery makes him a great, larger than life character that any writer would love to tackle.”

The premise for Trump’s visit to Northern Ireland is his desire to investigate our famous peace walls, and the former First Minister is on duty to show the Republican president around the city.

Jenkinson agrees that there’s a “bizarre paradox about our walls … our shame is also our pride” and Trump would definitely be impressed with their height, longevity and maybe even the murals. Maybe he’d fancy himself drawn like King Billy?!

Because the President is already quite outrageous in many people’s minds, Jenkinson says that as a writer she can “go much more crazy and push the boundaries further, and people will go with whatever scenario you produce”.
“Arlene Foster is more serious and watches what she says, and although Trump takes himself seriously, he has no filter and is inadvertently hilarious … As long as you have [Trump] with grounded characters [like Arlene Foster] he can soar and you can let him be as wild and out of control as you like.”

It’s Jenkinson’s first chance to write a Christmas show, although she has no plans or inclination to write a children’s pantomime (“which would be too conservative for me”). The playwright has no problem with satire being entertaining. In the case of Trump’s Big Bad Belfast, “it’s a Christmas show so it has to have a lot of jokes and I want the audience to have a great time”.
“But it’s not just a case of ‘let’s have a light laugh here’. Everything has an edge and everything has a political reason for being in the play.”

The show will touch on the right to bear arms in the US and its history of mass murders – “lampooning the American way” – showing up cultural differences through a fictional incident involving the handling of a weapon when Arlene and Trump are out and about in Belfast.

With a total of three rapid response plays produced this year, Jenkinson says that she enjoys the “immediate response rather than waiting to see whether your work will be produced”. But she still values more traditional writing which allows her “to work on an idea and do research so you know you’ve got something more real than this kind of [short turnaround] fantasy”. Her recent play about asylum Lives in Translation (produced by Kabosh as part of Belfast International Arts Festival) will return to NI stages in 2018.

The cast of two are already familiar with the characters they’ll be playing. Miche Doherty (who recently played Trump in Shannon Yee’s rapid response play All The Best Words at Accidental Theatre in November) will be joined by Maria Connolly (who plays Arlene Foster in the Michelle & Arlene series of short plays).

Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas is paired up with another short play, Brendan Quinn’s Game Of Gnomes (a one man festive show about the actor Bernard Sythe who is working as a CastleCourt Elf).

You can catch The Chronicles of Christmas in The Black Box at 1pm and 7.45pm on Wednesday 20 December. Doors open half an hour beforehand.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Making the Grade: a documentary of distinction about learning to play the piano

Not every film has to be flashy. Not every film has to be unusual and in-your-face challenging. Sometimes it’s good to appreciate something that is well made, keeps its focus, uses structure, and is heart-warming. Particularly at Christmas when quality seems to have a habit of going to the wall.

Making the Grade is just such a film.

It presents a series of vignettes captured over seven months with learners and teachers across Ireland, loosely arranged using the framework of the eight music grade exams.
“The best thing about playing the piano is when you get it right: then you thing you’ve done your job.”

At the FilmHubNI Christmas screening, director Ken Wardrop told the assembled cinephiles that he was drawn to make the documentary by his mother who strangely wanted to take her piano with her when she moved house, despite not having played the ‘very fine piece of furniture’ for forty years!

What could have been a very boring sequence of similarly framed interviews is transformed by the quality of the cinematography, the quality of the sound, the quality of the people on show, and the quirky yet relatable stories that are conveyed.

One of the Microsoft ‘Tips of the Day’ used to suggests that “It's never too late to learn to play the piano”. Young and old compete for viewer attention and Making the Grade includes people who have been badgered into learning as well as those who have returned to the ebony and ivory keys after many, many years away. Some find it therapeutic, many find it frustrating, but all seem to enjoy getting their fingers wrapped around the music and working towards their next examination.

There are smouldering volcanoes of teachers as well as ones who are more eccentric, joking, flirting or free flowing. At times the portraits are quite confessional: we learn a lot about the hopes and dreams, hurts and disappointments of life. While there’s a prevalence of beautiful kitchens and well off families, we are also introduced to learners who practice on plastic keyboard while standing in their narrow hallways.

You don’t need to be a great music lover to appreciate the richness of the documentary, with the variety of teaching methods, musical styles, instruments and piano stools (the upturned hands are my favourite).

Ken Wardrop’s documentary Making the Grade demonstrates the importance of relationship, trust, stickability, confidence and enjoyment. And it showcases a talent for telling a simple story well. With a distributor now in place, expect to see this film back on the silver around April 2018.

Sleeping Beauty - confident, pacey and upbeat pantomime that did not disappoint (Waterfront Studio until 7 January)

Even before the curtain opened, the audience were screaming and booing as the evil Maleficent burst through to introduce himself. Then the curtains swished to the side, revealing the set and introduced the rest of the six-member cast of Sleeping Beauty. It’s a powerful – and probably text book – beginning to a very upbeat pantomime that went out of its way to keep the audience involved all the through the two hour show.

Baby Beauty is cursed by the dark and sinister Maleficent (played by Gary Crossan). Belfast drag queen Truly Scrumptious (Gordon Crawford) plays the dame, Nana Banana Magee, who along with two fairies, Muddles (Nuala Davies) and Stardust (Emer McDaid) whisked the infant off to grow up in a cottage in the magical fairy kingdom woods.

This cued up a great opportunity to work The Time Warp into a Christmas show as the characters jumped into the future and picked up on the story on the eve of Princess Beauty’s sixteenth birthday. Jolene O’Hara plays the Princess who inevitably fell for the long lustrous locks of Prince Harry Stiles ‘with all the styles’ (Gavin Peden). He delivered some of the cheesiest chatup lines in Belfast: my favourite was “Is your name ‘Wifi’? Because I’m feeling the connection!”

The curse was ‘activated’ (though maybe the youngest audience members would have preferred a less technical term?), the princess fell down to the floor, and a rousing song drove the performance into its long interval.

The second half briefly became a bit too frantic, losing a sense of where the plot was going with so much action, before recovering and guiding the show towards a bake-off, audience singing, Maleficent’s powerful rendition of Man! I Feel Like a Woman, and an all too short grand finale.

The colourful costumes worn by Nana Banana and the two ‘Little Magic Mix’ fairies matched the brash set. Leather cowboy chaps with bizarre codpieces were the uniform for Prince Stiles and Maleficent (who had a fine set of metallic robes to add to his horny helmet and bushy beard). While the ogre’s outfit and prodding fork didn’t quite fit the look of the rest of the show, the dummy ‘sleeping’ Princess Beauty was a comedy masterstroke.

The humour in Patrick J O’Reilly’s script was relentless, crammed full of jokes and puns and relatively little innuendo. There was a regular reprise for anyone in the audience who missed any important dialogue or lyrics. Crawford’s rich solo singing voice stood out while the ensemble harmonies were very effective.

Fighting and violence was very hands off and cartoonish, with great sound effects. Sarah Johnston’s fresh choreography gave the cast a move and a pose for nearly every line.

Together this created a very coherent and professional pantomime that director Lisa May kept going at a blistering speed and more than gives the old dame down on Great Victoria Street a run for its money despite the smaller set, smaller cast and smaller ticket price.

If you’re looking for a family friendly Christmas show with audience participation, pace, laughter and lots of pantomime charm, head down to the Waterfront Studio to see Sleeping Beauty. It was my first ever festive visit to the venue, but one that did not disappoint. GBL Production’s Sleeping Beauty continues until 7 January with up to 13 shows a week.