Friday, June 22, 2018

The Fall of the House of Usher - a study in mood (Belfast Ensemble at Lyric Theatre until 24 June)

The first rule of Belfast Ensemble is to expect the unexpected. In fact, they’d never be so derivative to steal someone else’s strapline. But it’s never what you’d expect.

I described one of their previous productions as “genre-busting” and it’s true for their new work, The Fall of the House of Usher.

Taking Edgar Allan Poe’s short story as their inspiration, the collective have created a visual and aural treat that suggests and confuses and amazes and challenges.

But what continues to set Belfast Ensemble apart from other theatre-makers is the way that the lighting, sound, set and acting all have equal billing and equal effort going into them.

Empty wooden frames hang down over the raised stage (that itself contains a belated surprise). The frames suggest that we’re looking through different windows into Usher’s life, an analogy used very effectively by the priest who conducted by late-Aunt’s funeral last year.

Seven musicians set the mood of Usher (Tony Flynn) who paces up and down the stage with the poise and purpose of a ballet dancer. Voiceless, but not without message, he examines his late sister’s belongings that have been packed into a suitcase. Distorted video projections are caught on the actors’ white painted faces while a recorded narration tells the story.

Abigail McGibbon – the only cast member who speaks live on stage – play’s Usher’s sister. Like an intense banshee wrapped in a red cardigan she powerfully spits out her words, adding to the sense of mental distress, throwing up the possibility of foul play.

Matthew Cavan tends to Usher’s corporal needs, with the placid actions and reactions at odds with the brooding tension that wordlessly is created between the characters.

Three or four different lighting scenes use height to change (and sometimes eliminate) the shadows cast by the frames on the stage while projectors map solid blocks of light onto the floor. And watch out for some clever trickery that turn Tony Flynn’s trousers and shoes purple.

Conor Mitchell’s score expertly weaves over someone’s cover of Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? It’s a beautiful moment, complete and fulfilling, one among many in this hour long performance.

The story of grief, upset, fear and instability is a study in mood. A demonstration of what’s possible when a group of people let their imaginations run wild and find new ways to express old stories.

It’s not an uplifting piece of theatre. The plot is creepy, the characters are sinister, and there isn’t really a moral backbone upon which the story can rest. However, The Fall of the House of Usher is stimulating and disturbing and a quality example of a contemporary musical horror book adaptation that you couldn’t have predicted would be so satisfying to watch.

Belfast Ensemble’s The Fall of the House of Usher continues at The Lyric Theatre until Sunday 24 June.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Zoo - elephant antics loosely based on the real life Blitz story of a Belfast Zoo heist (cinemas from 29 June)

In recent years, the story of the Belfast Zoo elephant which walked down from Cavehill each evening along the streets to the nearby home of a keeper for protection during the Belfast Blitz has become reasonably well known. During its 75th anniversary year, the zoo was able to trace the woman from an old black and white photograph which showed an elephant in a Belfast back yard. And so the story of 'elephant angel' Denise Weston Austin was uncovered and brought to newspaper and TV audiences.

Colin McIvor has taken this true story and thoroughly adapted it in the screenplay for his new film Zoo. The opening credits explain that it was "inspired by true events" and audiences are soon introduced to the fictitious Tom Hall, the son of a zookeeper who is distraught that the dangerous animals are being shot in case they escape during German bombing raids over Belfast. His father has been called up to serve overseas, and together with a small group of other children, he concocts a plan to sneak Buster the baby elephant out of the zoological gardens.

In a story that is as much about rescuing a girl from her drunk father, a bully from his controlling friends and a woman from her grief as it is about rescuing an elephant, there are a lot of characters to introduce and set up in the first third of the film. It's a slow burn that finally gels in the last 30 or 40 minutes when the characters and story settle into their final stride. But from there on until the end, it's a rewarding watch and tears will be shed.

Tony Jones provides comedy in his role as Charlie, an officious security guard who lives in the gate house and controls access to the zoo. Ian McElhinney's zoo manager is a heartless character who acts with his head rather than his heart. Mrs Austin is played by Penelope Wilton as an eccentric woman whose house is a veritable menagerie stuffed full of birds, reptiles and furry mammals. Early on, she is a figure of ridicule, but her backstory and warm heart come to the fore as the film progresses.

Young Tom Hall (Art Parkinson) has the passion to save Buster from being shot, but needs help to pull off his scheme. The characterisation oddly seems to shift back and forth from over-confidence to nervousness around people. It takes the cunning of ingénue Jane (a début performance by Lisburn-born Emily Flain) and the strength of reforming bully Pete (Ian O'Reilly) and his kid brother 'wee' Mickey (James Stockdale) to make the half-assed plan to sneak an elephant out of the zoo during the nightly curfew into an achievable heist.

There's a lot of atmosphere and sepia scenes as children practice wearing their gas masks and air raid sirens wail in the middle of the night and people rush to the community shelters. The terror of the Blitz is often balanced by moments of humour, though McIvor doesn't shy away from the deadly reality of the bombing raids and creates some moving scenes that take the story beyond one simply about an elephant.

Filmed in Canada as well as Belfast, local viewers will both recognise vistas and scratch their heads at some of the film's geography. Zoo will be screened in cinemas across Northern Ireland from Friday 29 June, just in time for the school holidays. (Also available on US iTunes.)

Friday, June 08, 2018

Ignition - infested by insects? or watching humanity? (Tinderbox at The MAC until 9 June)

The culmination of Tinderbox’s nine Play Machine course which focuses on the creation of new theatrical performances is a new work under the banner of Ignition that is staged by the performers, writers and theatre makers who have completed the course.

13 artists.

5 days.

1 provocation.

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong in the world.”

This year the performers produced a piece of physical theatre that used insects and their stylised movement. Each insect has a different set of movements. Walking about on all fours has become natural for many in the cast. Splayed fingers like spiders, the muscular movement of a worm, buzzy bees, nasty wasps, a floating butterfly.

Yet we were also watching the way that people fit in with the crowd, march to a leader’s beat, find themselves ostracised or demonised or attacked by their own, allow the weakest to be consumed by the fitter. Swarms of refugees. Lowly and impoverished workers. There was a richness to the scenes.

I’m shivering and desperately wanting to scratch my back as I type. Now my neck. I need a shower to stop imagining that small beasts are creeping up by short sleeved shirt. Mistake. A polo neck jumper may not be trendy or suit the good weather, but it may be the perfect fashion choice to see this work of theatre.

With little dialogue and little in the way of a narrative arc between scenes, a certain amount of head scratching can be expected. Like dance, this style of physical theatre often tells a story in your mind, building layers, editing ideas, before finally one scene – for me, the woman cleaning – clinches the deal and I finally think I know what I’m watching.

It makes be think of The Killers’ song Human:
Are we human or are we dancer? / My sign is vital, my hands are cold / And I’m on my knees looking for the answer / Are we human or are we dancer?

The ensemble cast each get a chance to shine/buzz/pretend to be at a spin class. Ignition is an imaginative show . Catch the final performance at The MAC on Saturday afternoon at 4pm.

Expressions of interest are welcomed for Tinderbox’s next Play Machine course which will begin in September and run for nine months.

I’m away to get some talcum powder.

Production photos: Ciaran Bagnall Design

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Belfast Book Festival – alt-right, autonomy, autism, football and politics (6-16 June) #belfastbook

Belfast Book Festival has begun, bringing 11 days of literific talks, readings and entertainment in the annual celebration of all things bookish.

The opening day gives a flavour of the breadth of the festival: Q Radio’s Stephen Clements looking back on childhood memories, war time campaign history from John Kiszely, local author Bernie McGill whose new book is set on Rathlin Island, an evening of Refugee Tales and an interview with Alastair Campbell.

Some highlights from the rest of the festival …

Thursday 7 June

Diarist, author and former-politician Chris Mullin is speaking about his new autobiography Hinterland in The Crescent at 6.30pm.

Friday 8 June

Kathy D’Arcy will read a selection of stories, poems, memoirs and essays from the book Autonomy she compiled and edited to explore people’s experience of being forced to stay pregnant against their will. The Crescent at 6pm.

I’ve a very short list of poets whose work I can bear to engage with. Performance poet David Brazil has a secure place on that list and will be taking part in an evening of spoken word – Hymn to the Reckless – in The Crescent at 9pm.

Saturday 9 June

It was only in her twenties that Emily Reynolds was diagnosed as bipolar. Reading from her “blackly funny, deeply compassionate and extremely practical” book A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind she discusses living with mental illness, dealing with it and understanding it. The Crescent at 6pm.

Sunday 10 June

Michael Walker’s Green Shoots examines why we (still) have two football associations on the island. It promises to be an engrossing account of the inside stories, dramas and dreams of the game in Ireland and a definitive history of a footballing nation and its many paradoxes. Strand Arts Centre at 11am.

Huw Kingston spent 12 months circumnavigating the Mediterranean, travelling 13,000km in a sea kayak, an ocean rowboat, on bike and by foot. Mediterranean – A year around a charmed and troubled sea tells the story of the physicality, the landscapes and the humanity he encountered in his journey to fundraise for Save the Children’s programmes with children affected by the crisis in Syria. The Crescent at 3pm.

Monday 11 June

Two authors address autism. Laura Jones wrote Odd Girl Out about her reaction to diagnosis in her mid-forties. Jessie Hewitson wrote the book she wished she would have been able to read when her son was given an ASD diagnosis. Personal, practical, inspiring and enriching. The Crescent at 6pm.

Tuesday 12 June

Join Lucy Collins, Maria McManus, Nessa O’Mahony and the HIVE Choir as they look back on women’s representation in literature and sound, from suffrage to the present. Who is silent? Who speaks? Who is listening? What is said? What is unsaid? What is heard? What happens in the space between? The Crescent at 6pm.

Wednesday 13 June

Mike Wendling is an editor at BBC Trending and has spent years covering extremism and internet culture for radio, online and television, and is author of Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House. He’ll be joined by Elizabeth Nelson Gorman to analyse the movement that was prominent during Trump’s presidential campaign. The Crescent at 8pm.

Friday 15 June

John Lennox will be in conversation with Stephen Shaw about Cosmic Chemistry: Do God and Science Mix? Fisherwick Presbyterian Church at 8pm.

The full Belfast Book Festival programme is available online.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story – The Great Train Robbery meets Hustle meets Robot Wars in space

Tucked in before the original Star Wars trilogy, Solo: A Star Wars Story portrays the circumstances and actions that led to Han Solo being sympathetic to the cause of the Rebel Alliance.

The film begins without the traditional Star Wars scroller, a heavy hint that the tone will be lighter and the plot less earnest than the main series of science fiction blockbusters. But it’s no Rogue One and while it’s satisfying to see how some of the main characters and space ships in A New Hope first met, there is not enough in the tale of escape, double crossing and heist to justify the 135 minute run time.

Han (played by Alden Ehrenreich) who as yet has no surname and girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to flee from the planet of Corellia. They are cruelly separated and years later bump into each other under very different circumstances (something which seems to happen with an improbable frequency in Star Wars films).

There’s a girl to be saved, but she can look after herself. There’s a precious substance to be collected to pay a debt. There are locations with exotic music and dancing, snow, sand and tribal tents. There’s a robot with a feminine swagger and beautifully drawn penchant for promoting equal rights.

At times John Powell’s orchestral score is overwhelming, burdening the onscreen action with stringy angst. Action sequences that are running out of room for manoeuvre simply skip forward to a few minutes, days or years later and continue on regardless.

Ehrenreich has enough resemblance to Harrison Ford to link this younger man to the more familiar character. Clarke is fabulously hard to read as Qi’ra and creates a loveable yet cryptic character, one of a number of strong female roles. Thandie Newton excels as Val, a fellow bounty hunter who steps into harms way without a second thought.

The plot is dogged by the ambiguous motivation of Han Solo which was always going to be an immutable conclusion given his role in Episode IV. The judicious tidying up of characters before the end only serves to highlight the unresolved ‘love interest’ that is left dangling and forces the conclusion that this tragic breadcrumb will be baked into a yet to be announced anthology film.

At ninety minutes Solo: A Star Wars Story could have been a snappy Force-free tale tucked into the canon of that far, far away galaxy. Instead it lack charm and is a disappointing addition to the latterly improving Star Wars universe. Until the Empire visit your local area, you’ll find it in most local cinemas.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Cyprus Avenue - bold NI theatre that stops short of suggesting solutions (The MAC until 26 May)

Standing in his Cyprus Avenue house, a fifty something Belfast unionist holds his baby granddaughter in his arms. As he looks down at the warm bundle of new life he sees Gerry Adams staring back. While the trademark beard and glasses are missing, the baby’s eyes trigger a volcanic eruption of identity angst, and ultimately brutality within the heart and mind of Eric.

At first David Ireland’s play Cyprus Avenue could be mistaken for a satire. It’s a quare stretch of imagination even for an east Belfast uber-unionist to be so haunted by the, then, president of Sinn Féin. Glee and merriment ripple across the Belfast audience who lap up the blatant on-stage sectarian expression and understand the phrase ‘fenian eyes’ without having to wait for the explanation in the script that helped London audiences in the play’s 2016 West End run.

Slowly it becomes apparent that Eric’s behaviour and utterances are not merely the wild imaginings of a playwright who wants to lampoon loyalism. Yet the resulting caricature of an extreme unionist standpoint is beyond the worst excesses of so-called ‘PUL culture’. Psychosis is at work and Eric’s poor mental health is being incensed by the political and religious zeal with which he surrounds himself.
“I am anything but Irish. I am exclusively and non-negotiably British …”
Stephen Rea adopts the detached persona of Eric, hunched over with the weight of unionism on his back, hand gestures kept close to his expressive face, giving unexpected answers to straightforward questions. Dressed in a suit and open neck white shirt throughout the one hour forty minutes he spends on stage, he doesn’t start out as a thug. Rea creates a monster who can dispassionately go to whatever lengths are necessary, and use whatever vocabulary most fits his rage, as the calm Cyrus Avenue household is turned upsidedown.
“If we don’t discriminate, we won’t survive.”
Amy Molloy plays his daughter Julie, the single mother of the child at the heart of the frenzy. She explores the twin motivations to protect her daughter while wanting to console and understand her troubled father who is thrown out of the family home by his underwritten wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine). Molloy’s unexpected song – a little indistinct given her prone pose – added some warmth and pathos to a particularly dark run of scenes.

When budding paramilitary Slim bursts into the script, the laughter peaks before the level of peril is punched up and it all goes a bit Tarantino. Anyone complaining about the crass depiction of loyalism in Cyrus Avenue needs to take another look at Chris Corrigan’s considered performance which echoes thinking loyalism’s grasp of Irishness amongst its more jingoistic British tendencies.

The large square of cream carpet in Lizzie Clachan’s wall-less set is only interrupted by some cream chairs and a small table. Paul Keogan’s lighting rig hangs low over the stage, creating a very natural home-like reverb and leaving the audience who are seated on two opposite sides with the option of either staring at the actors or staring across the stage to assess the reaction of other audience members.

Bridget is the only woman in Eric’s life who can stand up to him, who has the power to make him reflect on his words and his actions. When he directs an offensive term towards her, the unflappable phycologist played by Ronke Adekoluejo calls him out on it and he modifies his vocabulary (while demonstrating that he still doesn’t quite get why he needs to). Throughout the play she continues to quietly question his rational and probe for any signs of remorse or self-reflection.

While Cyrus Avenue left a slightly sour taste in my mouth, it also left me with the question of where were the Bridgets in Northern Ireland society? Where are the people who can make themselves heard as they calmly question the harmful nonsense that informs so much public and private decision making?

Martin McDonagh might have threaded a moral tale through such a dark tale. Abbie Spallen might have stuck to the satire. But David Ireland chose to cross fade from the hilarious to the harmful to leave audiences in a knot about their enjoyment of this horrific tale that spills a lot of blood on the cream carpet.

As I read the reviews from London this time two years ago I assumed that no Belfast theatre would be ‘brave’ enough to bring the play to Northern Ireland. It would be too close to the bone. I jumped at the chance when a spare seat became available for the nearly sold out run in The MAC. Yet the boldness of David Ireland’s visceral writing and the confidence of Vicky Featherstone’s direction delivered fabulous performances and brilliant theatre but lacked the profundity I read into the earlier reviews.

Identity, misogyny, false religion, extremist politics and bigoted delusion are thrown into the mix along with mental health, strong languages and violent scenes that will disturb in a play that at one level is a hate crime, at another makes comment on male violence against women during and after conflict, and at yet another is an analysis of unionist and loyalist identity that makes familiar points but stops well short of suggesting any answers.

Cyrus Avenue continues at The MAC until 26 April with just a handful of seats left for the final performance before the show heads over to New York.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

On Chesil Beach – an intense performance from Saoirse Ronan as Ian McEwan brings his novella to cinema screens (QFT until 7 June)

A young couple check into a hotel room to begin their honeymoon. Smirking staff stand awkwardly in the room, loitering to deliver ‘silver service’ for an unappetising meal. Cinemagoers’ stomachs will tighten and lurch as the onscreen discomfort becomes plain: neither Flo nor Edward is at ease with the unspoken agenda for their seaside stay.

Ponderous silences and unspoken fears allow extensive flashbacks to explore how the pair met, their courtship and the influence of their families on their circumstances. There is little freedom in their new marrital status and the hedonism of the swinging sixties is in stark contrast to Flo and Edward’s comfort zones. The vividness of Flo’s blue dress is at odds with her inner turmoil.

While On Chesil Beach’s anxiety-inducing scenes are superbly directed, the film’s storytelling strength is in the manner we learn about the characters’ foibles and watch how they both veer from being loveable twentysomethings to irascible partners with exploding emotions. And we discover the long term effect of a single moment or gesture on the rest of their lives.

Fans of Ian McEwan – who wrote the original novella and the screenplay – will be heartened by On Chesil Beach’s transformation from paper to screen.

Other than her very heavy violin bowing, Saoirse Ronan delivers an emotional intensity – expressed and suppressed – and excels in her convincing performance of an Oxford graduate who knows her mind yet is haunted by fears – and a hint of past abuse – that rules out any pleasure from even the most innocent gesture of intimacy. It’s another strong performance from Ronan, coming on top of Lady Bird in February.

Providing the clash of class, Billy Howle’s portray of Edward combines a bookish and introverted lad whose mother (played by Anne-Marie Duff and deserving of a spin-off movie) has shaped his family life, yet can switch to being rash and angry, losing his charm and (audience) lovability. While Billy’s osculatory technique is somewhat like watching someone chomp at an apple, it’s only a precursor to stronger scenes that serve up revulsion and humiliation.

Chesil Beach itself should surely win awards as a location which cinematographer Sean Bobbitt brings it to life, serving up wind, water, beautiful shingle and an innocently phallic shape (on screen if not on the map) stretching out into the sea.

The soundtrack of Chuck Berry, jazz and string quartets matches the mood of the story and helps give the final future-looking scene a bit more credibility than it deserves. Director Dominic Cooke could usefully have halted the film fifteen minutes early with the suggestion of regret left lingering rather than any demonstration of contrition.

Fans of Ian McEwan and Saoirse Ronan will love the film which showcases their talents. Those just wanting an evening of entertainment will soon be reminded that life isn’t a bed of roses and be drawn into the complexity of the characters and their stubborn journey towards regret.

On Chesil Beach is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 25 May until Thursday 7 June.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHOW continues in The MAC until Saturday 19 May.


Friday, May 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

Saturday, May 12, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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