Thursday, February 11, 2016

Rams - frosty Icelandic farmland folly breeds sheepish black comedy (QFT 12-18 Feb)

Two bachelor brothers, estranged for forty years, live on adjacent sheep farms in the north of Iceland. Gummi and Kiddi’s frosty relationship is echoed by the harsh winter and the bitter wind that blows across the landscape.

While their love for each other has vanished, it’s their shared affection for sheep that pitches them against each other in best of breed shows. [Only one can bleat the rest of the competition.] Disaster strikes when a suspected case of scrapie is confirmed and the whole valley’s flocks are culled. The farmers face their worst fear with varying degrees of upset and resignation.

Kiddi (played by Theodór Júlíusson) won’t cooperate and turns back to drink. [Three sheeps to the wind?] Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) at first seems to steel himself to losing what one local describes as “mankind’s saviour and joy”. He cleans out his barn ready for the day the livestock ban is lifted. But having reared and protected his award-winning special breed herd, it’s hard to let go of the beasts.

At times the Icelandic moors look like the Glens of Antrim (with added lava trails). But with the snow comes an utter bleakness. Can the brothers’ cold war thaw? Is there a flicker of warmth left underneath their woolly jumpers? Can even one of them hollow out a space in his heart for the other?

Rams could have been turned into an absurd black comedy. But instead writer and director Grímur Hákonarson keeps the film in a low gear and allows the audience to race ahead. There are a handful of laugh out loud moments – often as a reaction to Gummi’s violent reactions – as well as moments of pathos that stop just short of bringing a tear to your eye. Music is used sparingly with a rumbling pipe organ often setting a troubled tone.

This film has got death, new life, family breakdown and a sheep in the baaaath. (If sheepdogs could win Oscar awards, Rams would be in the running for a golden statue.) In the end it’s more Shorn Identity than Rams locking horns.

Rams opens in the Queen’s Film Theatre [the independent cinema that only has eyes for ewe] on Friday 12 February and runs until Thursday 18. And keeping the sheepish theme, they screened the documentary Addicted To Sheep last weekend, and on Saturday 13 the QFT’s Jameson Film Club will be showing The Silence of the Lambs (8.45pm).

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Review - The Truth Commissioner - can he deliver truth, healing and closure?

The Truth Commissioner had its world première screening in front of a paying audience in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Monday 1 February as part of their Made in Britain season. The adaptation of David Park’s award winning book (reviewed) examines some of the complexity of the legacy issues Northern Ireland has yet to fully grasp.

Henry Stanfield is a serial peace-builder, a career diplomat who flies in to heal wounds and build bridges in conflicted regions of the world. And the Prime Minister has appointed him as Truth Commissioner for Northern Ireland. Aside from his formal role to listen to testimony from families, perpetrators and witnesses, Roger Allam (The Thick of It) portrays an aloof, lonely, loveless widower, struggling to repair his relationship with his daughter (who thought she had escaped him when she moved to Northern Ireland). His flesh is weak, his judgement is poor, his heart is often in nearly the right place: he’s a walking liability.

Connor Roche (played by Ciaran Flynn) was suspected of being a police informer and disappeared when the IRA discovered. His sister Maria Roche (Simone Kirby) and her mother seize the opportunity of the commission to discover the truth behind her brother’s disappearance.
We all want the truth, but what’s it going to cost?
James Fenton (Ian McElhinney) is a retired RUC officer, reluctant to be called to testify about his dealings with Connor. Sinn Féin’s Francis Gilmore (Sean McGinley) is an Executive minister, someone the British and Irish governments feel they can work with, but has a past that is catching up with him as rapidly as harder line colleagues want him to leave the stage. Finally, Michael Madden (Barry Ward) has been tracked down in Boston. With no family in Ireland and a minor role in Connor’s abduction, he’s the appointed fall guy to take the blame and protect more important people’s careers.

A moody Belfast provides the backdrop for the story, with the dark hills standing over the city’s stone buildings and modern glass architecture. (Derry’s newly renovated Guildhall provides the inside set for the Truth Commission chamber.)

There’s a clear liturgy as each new case is introduced at the commission. Families paint a pen picture of their relative, witnesses explain their involvement with the victim, and time is given for answers and reflection. We see a range of emotions and reactions through glimpses into other cases before Connor Roche’s family are called forward.

Through Madden’s flashbacks the audience build up a sense of Connor Roche’s fate. Snatches of news reports make clear that the commission’s work covers all sides of the Troubles.

Everyone involved has secrets. Each witness has someone standing over their shoulder shaping their story and covering up the truth. A shadowly MI5 spook is pulling strings while republican apparatchiks run rings around him.
Why would […] lie?

He thought he was telling the truth.
Truth doesn’t necessarily follow from honest testimony. Justice and healing don’t necessarily follow on from truth. Closure doesn’t require truth

Based loosely but not entirely on the South African model, this film’s value isn’t as an advert for a truth commission in Northern Ireland. As a fictionalised worked example, The Truth Commissioner exposes enough flaws in the approach to undermine its applicability. (Though the film’s director and at least one of its producer were still keen on the idea of a truth commission when they answered my questions at the QFT’s Q&A after the screening.)

However, The Truth Commissioner is a significant reminder that for all the promises in A Fresh Start and the Secretary of State’s reassurances that political agreement around how to tackle legacy issue is “closer than its ever been”, no set of structures – neither Historical Investigations Unit nor Information Recovery bodies – will ever expose the whole truth unless the people involved choose to accept the responsibility to tell their story wholeheartedly.

With a single case at the heart of the film, there’s an element of stereotyping of republicans, security forces and even families of victims. The blurred bridge between fiction and real life makes it difficult for NI minds not to speculate in the darkened cinema: fictional politicians from real political parties; a fictional murder but with heavy real life parallels with informers and the disappeared.

The sedate pace of the film is at times underwhelming, rescued by the atmospheric background music and the tension created by the large screen. It’s a deliberate holding back, with director Declan Recks allowing events – even the most explosive ones – to be observed at a distance, with close-ups reserved for key moments.

There’s imagery aplenty (with empty swings reminding viewers of missing children) and nearly too much mirrored experience across the lives of the main characters. The original sequence of events in the novel has been altered and some of the book’s characters and backstories simplified to fit the 99 minute film. Given David Park’s deliberate distance from the production – no involvement with the script and only one visit to the set – it’s testament to the quality of his writing and imagination that so many details from his novel along with whole chunks of dialogue made it unscathed into Eoin O’Callaghan’s screenplay and the edited film.

The Truth Commissioner will be screened during Dublin International Film Festival on Sunday 21 February, and will be back in the Queen’s Film Theatre and cinemas across Ireland from Friday 26 February. BBC Northern Ireland will broadcast the film on BBC Two NI over the coming months too.

Cross-posted from Alan in Belfast.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Archbishop of Canterbury reflecting on religiously-justified violence during his Belfast lecture

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was back in Belfast tonight to deliver the Church of Ireland’s annual theological lecture at Queen’s University, reflecting on the nature of religiously-justified violence and particularly on the nature of the conflict by (or so-called ISIS). He suggested that the elimination of this type of conflict would require building a new “narrative of beauty” based on love, hospitality and human flourishing.

Earlier he had met First Minister Arlene Foster (an Anglican and member of the Church of Ireland) and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (definitely not an Anglican). Before the lecture, he’d also spent time meeting students in The Hub, the Church of Ireland and Methodist Chaplaincy on Elmwood Avenue.

You can read the full transcript of the speech on the Archbishop’s website.

In an hour-long address, the Archbishop spoke about just war and the need for underlying objectives to support future military operations. He emphasised the need to be focussed on building peace and stable communities to which people can quickly return.

In Parliament at the beginning of December, the House of Commons voted to extend military operations in the Levant and Mesopotamia into Syria, in addition to the air campaign that was already going on in Iraq. And I spoke in the House of Lords at the same time on that debate and supported the extension.
But I’ve since been reflecting on that and thinking hard about it with my colleagues, and what I want to say this evening is a continuation in that debate that’s going on within myself and within the Church about the legitimacy of armed action and intervention. What I would say is that where an action is developed as a quasi-policing intervention against a group that is committing great crimes under international law, and where the objective is peace building and the resumption of stable communities to which refugees and IDPs can return, then, within the Christian tradition, I would suggest that it is justifiable.

He noted that religion is often used as the hook to describe a [much more complicated] conflict and after a while the pretext of being about religion becomes the reality.

Religion is most often not the principal cause of a conflict. But if you say to a group of young men, “You are ethnically disadvantaged by 19th-century struggles, further set back and marginalised through the colonial period, economically and educationally discriminated against because of the education system, economically part of a globalising, commercial process…” –  you’ve lost them, as much as I’ve lost you, halfway through that sentence. If you say, “You’re this faith and therefore you’re good and they’re that faith and therefore they’re bad," it’s pretty straightforward. And if you use the hook of religion for long enough, as a pretext, sooner or later it begins to become the reality. This is what we’re seeing.

Several times he touched on social media. In an age of 140 character statements it wasn’t possibly to adequately and completely react to an atrocity: condemning violence is not good enough, you must have something positive to contribute.

We need, therefore, to name and develop truth, as part of the theological narrative of reconciliation, not merely to condemn violence. I’m often asked, if there’s some terrible event, to say something in 140 characters on Twitter or a couple of sentences on Facebook that adequately and completely describes a bomb explosion that has killed 200 people. It’s absurd. How do we name truth? Condemning violence by itself is not good enough; there must be something positive that we can say. 

Truth is seen in practise, it’s seen at community level. In England we have something called the Near Neighbours programme – funded largely by government, led largely by the Church of England – in which different faith communities are brought together to encounter and work together for the benefit of their local community. You will be doing very similar things in different contexts here.
In those actions we create community. We integrate people when the demonic nature of Daesh and other groups is seen in the disintegration they seek. As was said recently: “Friendship is a counter-terrorism strategy.” We need to be honest and name truly history and global relationships – naming things well, identifying past failures. In the work that I’ve done overseas, travelling in many parts of the world with Muslim majorities, it’s often pointed out to me that only one Muslim country was not colonised by the Western powers in the 19th century: Saudi Arabia. By 1920, the world’s principal ruler of Muslims was King George V.

Daesh have used social media as a tool to build long term relationships (with a billion dollar budget). He compared this with issuing government press releases and pondered the opportunities for the well off to fund better online communications to counter Daesh.

Calling for a better understanding of theological hospitality, he suggested that when the refugee crisis was viewed through social media it tended to create presence without relationship, a situation where we see all and know no one. Solidarity requires more.

In addition to these questions of identity, we must reassert solidarity theologically, which has been vastly expanded in its potential scope by the development of information networks, and deeply undermined through our response to the refugee crisis in the short term, and through social media in the long term.

The refugee crisis and social media bring presence without relationships. We see all and know no-one. Through the smartphone in my hand I can go anywhere in the world. I can see stories that I would never have dreamed of and that my grandfather, or my father, would never have imagined he could every find out about - and if he did, they would have been sterilised through weeks for the news to travel and through it being in print without photographs. But now it’s here, in my hand, and yet I don’t know the person, I have no relationships, and it is rare that I weep. And so when we have all of this coming at us out of a screen, or through the news, of refugees, as we see across Europe today, threatened we retreat, rather than finding the sign of the Spirit of God at work, as with Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10.

Solidarity is lived out in the essential human dignity of every individual in creation and in salvation, and its demands increase in inverse proportion to the weakness of the person with whom we show solidarity.

He spoke about the loss of theological nuance, modern fundamentalism and dualism (quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and the wisdom of looking to history to recognise the impact of artificial boundaries, the consequences of previous wars. There is a need to recognise our “collusion” and lack of intellectual challenge [that has contributed to developing conflicts].

Justice is the twin sister of peace – there is a role for religious communities in helping society to be just by naming injustices in foreign policy now and in history, especially, in the Middle East, Palestine, with Christian fundamentalist perceptions of Israel (which must not collude with a monopoly over grievances). We must demonstrate how to use proper, democratic methods of expressing disagreement. We must affirm, as Christians, actions which are just and wise. Often we only criticise.

A fresh and ideological approach to international relations will empower a younger generation with visions and dreams of new identity. We can acknowledge our unintentional collusion and lack of internal challenge, we can be honest about such issues as financing.

On refugees he spoke of the need for generosity along with the incentive and aim of enabling return, and suggested it was a priority to revive local economies with micro finance and macro economic rebuilding (which the UK government is supporting) and to remove the need to hazard crossing the Mediterranean. He reiterated his earlier message that “any extension of bombing needs to be part of establishing safe havens to avoid refugees fleeing the whole region”.

The supply of refugees should further be restricted by a focused and deliberate effort to renew and revive local economies, especially in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. All ground taken should be part of that effort which must involve micro-finance as well as large scale macro-economic rebuilding. The UK Government is already doing this on a vast scale and putting large sums in. The God-given gift of work and an economy brings social dignity in a powerful way and eliminates the need to hazard the Mediterranean.

The hospitality that we offer to refugees should be more generous, but always with a clear strategy, incentive and aim of enabling return. To empty the Middle East of Christians removes diversity and sows trouble for the future.

The Church has responsibilities:
“We must lead in prayer, in love, in hospitality, seeking human flourishing, in leading hope, through religions communities who stabilise and serve.”

An interesting observation challenged western commerce systems that are impossible to engage with without using interest (usury).

We see, economically, a global trade system that was set up so it is impossible to engage in it without using interest, or usury. Since World War Two, American culture and products are pervasive and dominant. People like them. Postmodernity has become the global philosophy, with its abandonment of the concepts of absolute truth.

To be rescued by the ‘good Samaritan’ would have been a scandal and a disgrace. The Archbishop suggested if the UK was to show unconditional love it would involve: praying for each other; for commitments of love across faith; and for common action and shared grief.

And it is easy to call for Government action. The Church has its own responsibilities. We must lead in prayer, in love, in hospitality, in seeking human flourishing, in gracious and courageous action that demonstrates the beauty and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through religious communities that stabilise and serve. In this struggle, our lives must respond to the Spirit’s call and equipping.

Amongst the rich arguments and challenges, a number of soundbites jumped out a number of lines jumped out as soundbites.
“When you see a mosque, a religious community, do you see it through a counter-terrorism lens or as a potential partner for schooling?”

Speaking about radicalisation:
“Young people need role models not manifestos.”

Though the quote of the night had to be his quip that ...
“… one needs to remember that the symbol of a bishop is a crook ... and the symbol of an archbishop is a double cross!"
Having steered clear of commenting on Northern Ireland issues, he was drawn into the debate - though gave tactful answers - during a Q&A session.

Credit: main photo - QUB Church of Ireland & Methodist Chaplaincy

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Survivalist - extreme behaviour in extreme times (QFT until 18 February)

The opening titles of The Survivalist graphically set up the background to the fundamental changes that have devastatingly changed society: the collision of population growth and plummeting oil production. It’s a world that has had no option but to embrace vegan diets (large animals have been hunted to extinction), heat from wood rather than electricity, and survival of the fittest.

Martin McCann plays the titular Survivalist who has been living in a wooden shack in a clearing in a Northern Ireland forest for seven years. The forest supplies fuel, the stove provides warmth and a place to cook. He’s planted lines of crops in front of his hovel, though his choice of organic fertilizer is unusual (and frankly an unforgettable cinematic image).

Tin cans hang from trees as early warning signals of approaching foes. Everyone who visits is assumed to be an enemy and his paranoia is turned all the way up to eleven. It’s a case of shoot first ask later.

Mother and daughter Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré) and Milja (Mia Goth) approach the house one day. They’ve walked up from Monaghan and seek refuge. Desperate for shelter, after the initial rebuff the mother offers her daughter to the Survivalist for sex in return for lodging. They pair stay and help cultivate the land. However, they’re not the only people in the forest, and when their food supply is disrupted and diminished, drastic decisions have to be made.

It’s a shocking scenario. How extreme would circumstances have to be for a mother to prostitute her daughter? (Not so far fetched in today’s world when families are faced with brutal conflict and the high risk of death.) There’s no question that the mother might offer herself rather than her teenage daughter. In what kind of a world are welcome and hospitality exchanged for sexual depravity?

After a screening in the QFT, someone quipped “it’s all about the seed”. And that neatly sums up the post-event world that writer and director Stephen Fingleton has created. Power is wielded by those with something to offer. And the only resources left are the basic ones. It’s clear that Fingleton has done his research and made the environment as realistic as possible: nature is blooming while people are dying.

The Survivalist is not a zombie apocalypse film. Nor is it a filmic version of BBC’s Survivors with a community fighting back against a virulent strain of influenza. Fingleton’s world is much more isolationist and sophisticated.

There is no musical score, unless you count a few notes on a harmonica. Instead there’s the sound of breathing and the wind rustling through the forest added in post-production. No 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound: the majority of the film uses a mono feed through the front centre speaker to heighten the audience’s sense of sound. There’s not much dialogue: even when the shack’s occupancy increases, there’s not that much to talk about. But despite the stripped down sound design, Jamie Roden’s post-production mix is as beautiful as Damien Elliott’s camerawork.

Everyone looks weary. The cast’s emaciated bodies reflect the low-carb diet of mushrooms. Martin McCann looks like he’s been living in the forest. (While the cast did forgo showers during the filming, they didn’t go to quite the lengths of The Revenant cast and crew.) Olwen Fouéré’s long white witch-like hair belies a woman who is losing grip on her own destiny.

Trust is in short supply. Loyalties are complex. Affection may be a cypher for survival. The decision to take a life or save a life is more likely to be based on selfish reasoning than the urge to prolong life.

Ultimately the moniker ‘The Survivalist’ may belong to the young and virile who can make harsh choices and take opportunities when they arise. An elongated crane shot changes the perspective of the power play between the three characters, signalling the pivot point in the film’s narrative. Mia Goth depicts a young woman who is more in control that she lets others believe and can emotionally detach to boost her lifespan. Perhaps this is more like “Little Red Riding Hood in reverse” as the film’s director has suggested?

The Survivalist (18) is not for the fainthearted. But it’s a story and a set of circumstances that continues to haunt my imagination long after the credits rolled and the lights came up. 105 minutes of original cinema from a Northern Ireland writer and director who has been nominated for a the Outstanding Debut BAFTA. If he continues to question what we take for granted, his future films will be worth viewing too.

Queen’s Film Theatre is exclusively screening The Survivalist from Friday 5 February, a week ahead of its UK cinema and on-demand release.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Educating Rita … Educating Frank (Lyric Theatre until 5 March)

Rita White works in a hair salon and is fed up with the inane drivel that passes for conversation. She aspires to break free from superficial nonsense and chooses to enrol on an Open University course in English Literature to allow her to grapple with life’s more important issues. University lecturer and lethargic poet Frank agrees to tutor Rita after hours for the OU in order to subsidise his considerable bar bills.
“I’ve been realising for ages that I was out of step”

Piles of books on the floor overflow from the bookcases that line most of the walls of Frank’s generously sized office. He finds Rita to be a breath of fresh air as his protégé struggles into the room for her weekly tutorials. She isn’t fluent in the language of academics. Her original and often frank viewpoints are as fresh and valid as they are useless for passing an examination. If Frank is successful as a teacher, he will destroy the object of his fascination. Despite both characters’ enduring household dramas, momentary flickers of lust and sexual tension are brushed away by the education-thirsty Rita.
“Possessing a hungry mind is not in itself a guarantee of success”

Kerri Quinn thrives in the role of Rita, slowly evolving the thirty year old hairdresser’s mannerisms, accent and delivery as Rita’s confidence and study technique grows. At the start the contents of Rita’s furry pencil case are as flamboyant as her dress sense. But gradual costume changes between scenes – not to mention increasingly sober stationery – add further layers to her character’s development. There’s a lot of comedy in the script, and like an air-traffic controller guiding planes onto the Heathrow runway, Kerri lands the lines safely.

Every five or ten minutes the play races onto the next scene and we’re back in the office to get feedback on Rita’s latest essay. While she wants to learn, can she be taught? Will her husband give her the space to change? And will Frank ever return to his poetry?

Michael James Ford has mastered the art of bumbling around Frank’s office and being browbeaten by Rita’s staccato tongue.

After the interval the play accelerates towards its conclusion, with major changes affecting the lives of each character. The bookcases’ own special effect is another symbolic reminder of what’s going on inside Frank’s world. There’s a level of attention to detail across the whole production, down to sound designer Philip Stewart’s miccing of the manual typewriter, the radio clips used to anchor the action in 1980/1, and the meaningful selection of music to introduce each scene.

On Wednesday night the audience gleefully applauded each scene change as well as a number of set piece speeches within the play. Somehow Frank’s descent in melancholy doesn’t earn the full sympathy of the audience and the final scene lacks the assurance of the rest of the play.

In moving Educating Rita away from its Liverpool roots and getting Oisin Kearney to Belfastise Willy Russell’s original script, the Lyric took a risk. But it’s a risk that paid off for director Emma Jordan with a performance that entertains as well as examines the choices that education offers.

Educating Rita runs in the Lyric Theatre eight times a week until 5 March and is well worth catching.

Production shots by Stephan Hill

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Rev Frank Sellar – PCI’s moderator-designate & a “gospel radical” on 1916, outreach and his year ahead

Speaking this morning, moderator-designate of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Rev Frank Sellar reflected on Tuesday night’s vote at which he won the nominations of eighteen of the denomination’s nineteen presbyteries.

“I’m really humbled and honoured and appreciative to the Presbyterian Church throughout Ireland for entrusting this role to me. As someone who has received God’s great love for Christ I will be able to share it north and south of the border.”

Frank’s hopes for the coming year include extending what he describes as the three privileges of his calling as a minister: “to pray with and for people; to pastor people often at the most fragile moments of life; and to proclaim the gospel in all its fullness”. He’ll continue to do that, but with a wider than usual set of people. And Frank is keen that groups and organisations that mightn’t normally invite a moderator will approach him during his year of office that begins with the week of General Assembly in June.

Currently minister of Bloomfield Presbyterian in East Belfast on the corner of Cyprus Avenue and Beersbridge Road, Frank sees that the people he is “fortunate to pastor also have significant front line roles” in society. He aims to “encourage, enable, strengthen and enliven people for their ministry” in areas he could never be directly involved in himself.

“If the church is not for its non-members, it’s not fulfilling its mandate.”

Frank also led the Adelaide Road congregation in the heart of Dublin city centre for 17 years. The church building was renovated to better serve the local community, offering childcare provision, and working with refugees and asylum seekers as well as offering practical assistance to the unemployed.

Asked more generally about the church’s response to refugees, Frank was delighted by the work of the International Friendship Centre on the Lisburn Road which “works with people from 30 different countries” and gives “vital” support.

“It is not them who benefits from us so much as us benefiting from them” was how Frank described families from overseas in his own congregation. Having asked Frank on Sunday about the week ahead, one man in his congregation promised that “I will be praying and fasting for you”. This was an example of bringing “the light of Christ from other parts of the world and contributing to our society here”.

Asked about the continued lack of resolution around victims and legacy issues, the moderator-designate said he while he was “glad that A Fresh Start has broken the deadlock” but was “disappointed that legacy issues remain”. He expected the denomination to “continue to work publicly and behind the scenes” to bring about agreement.

While Frank accepted that the label of “conservative evangelical” was a good description of his style of faith, he would prefer to be seen as a “gospel radical”.

Asked for his opinion on the court appeal that was beginning half a mile away across Belfast, Frank commended Peter Tatchell for “being big enough to acknowledge his change of opinion” on the matter of the decorated cake that Ashers Bakery refused to supply.

News stories over the last year have sometimes been accompanied with the suggestion that Christian rights are being corroded in Northern Ireland. The East Belfast minister explained:

“I have a dog, I love my labra-doodle and it’s a privilege to be able to have a dog. I’d hate for someone to tell me I was unable to enjoy a pet. But with every privilege comes responsibility. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing but there are responsibilities.”

Should members of the clergy be allowed to be gay?

“Some of the people I admire most and respect most are same-sex attracted. And it’s vital that people hear that. There is no place for homophobia …”

He named Vaughan Roberts – Church of England cleric and director of Proclamation Trust – and Ed Shaw as clergy he admired. For Frank it was important to note that these figures he admired “have chosen to place their sexuality under the authority of the Lord Jesus and live under the parameters the Bible sets”. He repeated that “it is vital to say that as people so often make the simplistic assumption that Christians hate those in the LGBT community” and affirmed his belief (aligned with PCI General Assembly’s agreed policy) that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Frank was heartened by the strong attendance at the denomination’s recent conference looking at significant historical events in 1916. The Rising and Somme “impacted society and shaped our consciousness”. While “inevitably the majority of our members are pro-union, there are many north and south who are pro-republican”. He was “hugely impressed” by the conference contribution of Minister Heather Humphries TD (who worships in a Presbyterian congregation in Monahan) and is responsible for the Irish Government’s commemoration. The 1916 Rising was in Frank’s opinion a “significant event that’s worth commemorating” though he distinguished commemoration from celebration.

Taking over as moderator in June, Frank sees it as a “privilege” to represent the church at Somme memorial events which will have a poignancy given that two of his great-uncles were killed in the First World War.

Also - Belfast Telegraph and News Letter coverage.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

18th Belfast Children's Festival (4-9 March) - Ali FitzGibbon looks back over her time at Young at Art

Belfast Children’s Festival 2016 runs from 4 to 9 March and its programme (PDF) was launched at lunchtime today.
“Going to a theatre performance, going to an exhibition, taking part in a workshop, sends people on a journey that shows them that the world can be other than as it is.”

Festival director Ali FitzGibbon explained to me that Central Station was an appropriate venue for the launch since it’s the hosting the interactive I Think I Can (via Australia’s Terrapin Puppet Company and the Ulster Model Railway Club), inviting audiences to inhabit a miniature town and become active members of its tiny community. Watch out for the diminutive antics being reported in an online newspaper during the festival. I Think I Can is free and runs for the duration of the festival (8 years +).

The festival programme brings together international artists (Swiss Vorstadt Theater’s Bambi 4-5 March/8 years + and two clown shows from Norwegian Katja Lindeburg on 8 and 9 March) as well as performances from local companies like Replay Theatre’s fantastically named Snoozle & the Lullabugs (4-6 March for under 5s with profound and multiple learning difficulties or severe learning difficulties) and Maiden Voyage Dance’s Pause & Effect (5-8 March/4-8 years).

You can hear from authors and illustrators like Marie Louise Fitzpatrick (5 March/4-7 years) and Sheena Wilkinson (6 March/11 years+), Doodle Live in the Strand (5 March/7-10 years) and check out the portable Library of Stories (5-6 March) written by children and young people.

The Office of Important Art has relocated upstairs to the first floor of Castlecourt this year (opposite Costa coffee shop) and will host local artist David Turner’s autobiographical Ordinary Extraordinary images.

And don’t miss the Baby Rave (6 March/0-4 years) or the live bands at Pre-Teenage Kicks (6 March/8-teens).

- - -

Interviewed about the development of the Belfast Children’s Festival over past years, Ali FitzGibbon acknowledged that “there have always been artists who make good work for children in Northern Ireland”.
“There have always been really passionate and really dedicated people who create projects that work with children. What the Festival does is puts [this] into a very large international scale. It’s certainly put Northern Ireland on the map over the last 18 years.”

Ali explained that they consciously “use the Festival as a showcase and platform for local artists”.
“There are many people who have been working with children in Northern Ireland for many, many years who have received opportunities to travel and to have their work internationally recognised as a result of being in the Festival.

“I think people can trip off the tongue that ‘this is an international festival’ very easily. Children learn diversity. Children learn difference. They don’t start thinking ‘that person is different from me’. We’re very interested in what happens when you introduce children to the idea that other people see the world differently because they’re in – or from – an other part of the world.”

This year sees artists from Switzerland, Norway and Australia coming to the Festival.
“Children don’t have a lot of the inhibitions that adults have. They are very open to quite abstract and complex concepts of narratives and stories and themes of human emotion. They’re instinctive audience members and instinctive artists and participants. As we grow up we tend to start to code everything and say ‘that goes in that pigeonhole’ and we come up with responses.”

While adult-orientated festivals may find it difficult to build audiences for contemporary dance, this genre sells out at the Children’s Festival.
“Families and schools now understand that dance is a really interesting way to communicate with children. Dance is an amazingly powerful art form and children respond to it and talk about it. They see signals in the performance that they can take back into their home and back into their classrooms and discuss with their parents and their teachers afterwards.”

Baby Rave is a festival stalwart, a fun-filled disco for babies and parents with non-stop music, colourful visuals, soft materials and sensory toys. Ali explained:
“Baby Rave is my baby.

“In my second festival in 2005 we could see that we have people coming to us with four and five year olds and we couldn’t find anything we could use to bring in that younger age group. I had a very young child at the time and was trying to see what as a parent would I want? I wanted something very free style, very sensory … The Baby Rave comes from that.

“What we didn’t realise when I first brought a team together to make it was that nobody had done a baby rave. Subsequently we got to travel round the world doing Baby Rave.

“We were the fastest selling act in the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2007. We sold out in thirty seconds. The youngest we’ve ever had was 5 days old … You get young couples, lots of first time parents coming along and they really engage with its dancing, its visuals, its design and its really well selected music. It’s really informal and people can come in and out in the course of an hour … That gets people with us who haven’t come across us before and they stay with us on a journey.

“The festival goes up notionally to fourteen years old. So we now have the first baby ravers beginning to get too old for the festival. My big challenge is who’s responsibility is that to take over and what provision is there for 14+ because there’s a finite limit to what one small charitable organisation can do. And what I do know as a parent … is that fourteen year olds don’t want to hang out with four year olds unless they’re getting paid!”

(Outside of the festival, Young at Art work with young people all the way up to the age of 18.)

The public subsidy of arts organisations and events is sometimes criticised whenever there is fight back against cuts to cultural funding.
“The most expensive we have in the festival this year is something like £13. There are a huge number of free events. We have Big Festival Days Out – a new programme we’re running – which is about trying to get people to see some of the great venues we have: The MAC, the Lyric, the Strand and the Duncairn Arts Centre. Most of what’s going to happen in those spaces is going to be free of charge. For the whole of the week of the festival we have exhibitions on, [for instance] David Turner’s amazing toy exhibition in Castlecourt.

“If we introduce charges every single person who took part in something for the Festival would have to pay about £30. We know that people are struggling and a lot of families are under pressure.

“We also know that there isn’t a habit of going to arts events with your children [other than panto] … These experiences are the stuff of lifetime memories. I still have ten and eleven year olds come up to me at the Festival and they talk to me about things they saw when they were three years old …”

Ali will shortly step down from Young at Art after twelve years. Her most memorable highlights included Land of Giants, a collaborative community project in the Waterworks Park (that may have dyed the duckpond in the process!), as well as the ongoing Fighting Words project.

She perceives “a tendency [in the public sector] towards short term pressures versus long term investment” adding that “nobody in the arts sector is looking for handouts … but what Young at Art is looking for is some realistic investment” that values and delivers cultural experiences.
“In Northern Ireland we are way behind where cultural provision could and should be for children. If anything there’s a spreading-the-butter-very-thin approach which says that every child will have some element of experience and there’s not enough time being spent looking at the quality and duration of the experience, what kind of support they get within the school system and the youth sector.

“As an organisation we’ve had two or three of the most challenging years we’ve had in eighteen years. And it’s a sad thing when you look at an 18 year old organisation that has been on an upward trend, that has been growing and growing [but] last year because of the in year cuts we saw our numbers roll back a bit for the first time, largely because the free events had to be cut or bringing an international show costs a certain amount of money and if we don’t have that money in the kitty and can’t offset it with ticket sales then it doesn’t come.”

As an organisation, Young at Art don’t just look for public sector funding. Ali explained that “all the education programmes are financed through private trusts and donations”. Corporate sponsors are involved too, including Translink Castlecourt, Belfast Harbour and Easons.

Ten years ago, Young at Art’s board of directors came to the decision that “survival was not good enough”.
“Keeping in business is not worthy of merit. Keeping the doors open when so many people are on the brink of closing their doors is not good enough. You have to be good. You have to be good for your audiences. You have to know what’s coming up on the horizon. You have to see how your audiences are evolving. You have to see who’s not coming and try to find ways of making sure that they come. You have to be able to articulate purpose. And if you don’t do that, then you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Revenant - bladder busting, bloody gorefest

The internal rivalries within a fur trapping gang are stretched to breaking point as they come under attack from Native Americans and the much-diminished group of hunters begin to put their individual survival and profit above the well-being of the others. It’s a tale of arrows versus gunpowder, cross-cultural relations, close combat, plummeting temperatures and dragging yourself along the ground to get home no matter what your body is telling you.
“As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe... keep breathing.”
Having survived a CGI bear mauling, leader Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is buried alive as John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) abandons him and heads home to claim his reward for providing a decent burial. The weather is poor, the terrain testing, and as his mother must have warned him, Fitzgerald is reminded “be sure your sins will find you out”.

The cinematography in The Revenant is consistently outstanding. A seat in the front row of the cinema will allow you the perfect vantage point to naturally crane your neck as most shots are captured very close to the ground and allow the lean elongated trees in Louisiana coppices to stretch up to the heavens above the cast. Birds symbolically watch over the landscape. Herds of animals flock around on demand. Trees shudder on demand. The clouds move beautifully as it choreographed with a computer mouse.

In what was publicised as a gritty shoot that stretched the resilience of the cast and crew, there are still a surprising number of special effects. At times The Revenant looks more like a hyper-reality video game than a movie with characters dropping all around during the half hourly visceral battles with their prolonged shots emphasising the blood and gore as much as the bravery and determination. (Though Macbeth would beat The Revenant if there was an Oscar for blood-spurting.) The totally unexpected stunt with the horse close to the two hour mark is breathtakingly brilliant.
“You all have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The animals.”

Amongst the grunting and the remarkably clear yet mumbled dialogue (that’s obviously been ADRed on top of the forest soundtrack) there are a few nods to the history and morality of the conflict between pelt-collectors and the Native Americans. A couple of scenes that allow humanity to triumph over cultural hatred stand out against the rest of the binary clashes.
“I ain't afraid to die anymore. I'd done it already.”
The Revenant is unbearably long. Each scene is allowed to stumble along with fifteen or so minutes as the next chapter of grisly survival conflict unfolds. Glass’ resurrection – a third of the way through the film, so that’s not much of a spoiler – is rather unbelievable, as is his avoidance of hypothermia. In the end DiCaprio plays a combination of Bond, Bourne and Bear Grylls that allows his body to be continually punished while he finds nutrition in lichen and animal carcasses to sustain him. Hardy plays Fitzpatrick more like a pirate than a hunter.

For a while it all gets a bit Lord of the Rings with the action rotating around different groups – Glass, Fitzgerald, and the original gang – navigating the harsh environment as they make their way back to the Fort. (For a film set in 1832, there’s a crazy moment of cinematic awareness when one character deliberately breathes out towards the camera lens to fog it up with condensation.)

There’s no doubting the effort that went into the production: real blood, much sweat (and shivering) and plenty of tears. It might have been possible to overlook the absence of empathy built up with the audience if the film had been cut to ninety minutes. But as a 156 minute long slog, I can’t ignore the fact that director Alejandro González Iñárritu gave me no reason to care whether Glass lives or dies, and no reason to care whether Fitzgerald gets his comeuppance. I should be thankful that the final snowy manhunt wasn’t made into a second film.

A lot of people are going to love The Revenant. But be warned: by the end of this film your bladder will be bursting, your stomach rumbling and your fingernails noticeably longer. (Don’t combine those last two and bite your nails during the film!)

The Revenant is being screened in the QFT until Thursday 28 as well as Odeon, Omniplex, Moviehouse and numerous other cinemas!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Halfway House - Philip Orr’s new play exploring 1916 from the vantage point of 1966

On a snowy night in February 1966, two women take refuge from the blizzard in a pub on the Glenshane Pass up in the Sperrins. The Halfway House is midway between the events of 1916 and today, and through the sharp lens of Philip Orr’s fine writing, it proves to be a very effective vantage point to examine the past.

Wearing heavy coats and sitting around a table sipping hot whiskies to warm up, Valerie (Antoinette Morelli) and Bronagh (Louise Parker) start chatting. They share the same home town and occupation. Family members fought in the war. Their fathers both have medals: one is a veteran the Somme, the other the Easter Rising. Both women are looking forward to events marking fiftieth anniversaries of these very different conflicts.
“Sometimes an old grudge can last longer than a world war.”

At first there’s a fair amount of levity. But the banter lessens as the diverse cultures and family history are exposed. Tensions rise, but tempers stay under control. As the audience eavesdropped on their conversation in Larne’s McNeill Theatre last night, we may not have witnessed a meeting of minds, but the quality of listening on stage was echoed in the venue’s café afterwards as people sat round and discussed the play over a cup of coffee.

On top of the naturalistic script and the deft way that historical facts are lightly woven into its narrative, another aspect of the play’s success is the avoidance of preaching equivalence or seeking reconciliation. The use of women’s voices – and the considerable talents of Louise Parker and Antoinette Morelli – also contributes to a more rounded telling to what is so often a man’s tale.

If like me your history is somewhat lacking – neither the Easter Rising nor the Battle of the Somme made it into my history curriculum before I opted out of the subject – Halfway House is a thoughtful introduction that will provide some context at the beginning of a year on which the hand of history will rarely be absent from our shoulders!

You can catch Halfway House during January as it tours through Newry (Tuesday 19th – sold out), Lurgan (Wednesday 20th), Enniskillen (Friday 22nd), Omagh (Saturday 23rd) and Belfast (Thursday 21st, Tuesday 26th). Details of dates, venues and how to book on the Contemporary Christianity website.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

NI Science Festival is back with 120 events in 27 venues over 11 days (18-28 Feb) #NISF16

Around 50,000 people participated in last year’s inaugural festival. This year the programme is larger with even more opportunities for young and old to be curious and explore how science affects our everyday lives.

Find out about how your body works, take an exclusive 3D tour of the International Space Station (the festival coordinated local events to mark UK astronaut Tim Peake’s launch and rendezvous with the ISS), discover robotics, explore food security and sustainability, as well as looking at the natural world around us and how art intersects science.

Three organisations – Institute of Physics, British Council and British Science Association – are manoeuvring conferences into orbit around Belfast to coincide with the science festival. The festival’s own programme also includes events in Armagh, Derry and beyond.

Festival director Chris McCreery spoke to me about the 2016 programme [view the print version online] and highlighted some of this year’s top events.

There’s even a ship! AFBI Research Vessel Corystes will be sailing to Belfast and berthing at Titanic Belfast. The Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute’s gangway will be lowered and free booked-in-advance hourly tours between 10am and 4pm on Thursday 18 and Friday 19 February will offer visitors access to the crew and scientists to find out about the work they do.

BBC NI’s Make It Digital exhibition will be popping up with home automation, Raspberry Pis, coding, and lots of hands on demonstrations of the Internet of Things. Belfast City Hall on Thursday 18 February (3pm-9pm) and Friday 19 (10am-7pm) as well as Titanic Quarter on Saturday 20 (10am-6pm). Free.

Women in Tech promises an hour long event exploring diversity in traditionally male sectors with a panel and debate. Friday 19 February at 2pm in Black Box, Free.

How To Survive An Apocalypse. A practical session to work in groups to build roads and bridges, design alternative energy systems, build communities in case an asteroid hit the Earth or zombies took over. Costumes are optional (there’s a prize for the best post-apocalyptic survivor.) Saturday 20 February at 3pm, QUB David Keir Building, £3.

Ada, Ada, Ada is an interactive one woman show by Zoe Philpott about the fist computer programmer Ada Lovelace. You'll be roped into the performance as it explores wearable technology, storytelling and a celebration of the inspirational mathematician. Saturday 20 February in Crescent Arts Centre at 8pm, £10.

Elephant’s Toothpaste (2pm) and Deaf Scientists of the Past (4pm). Science experiments demonstrated in British Sign Language by Audrey Cameron and Gary Quinn, followed by a BSL-interpreted time machine visiting famous scientists of the past. Sunday 21 February afternoon in W5. Free.

Tenx9’s evening of storytelling will be themed around ‘Back to the Future’. Nine true stories, each no more than ten minutes long, from and about scientists. Sunday 21 February at 7pm in Black Box, Free.

The Luck Factor with psychologist and author Prof Richard Wiseman asks why some people seem to face repeated failure and sadness while others seem to lead happy successful lives? Monday 22 February at 5.30pm in Whitla Hall, Free.

The Wonderful World of Lieven Scheire makes concepts like the Theory of Relativity accessible and hilarious with his non-fiction stand-up. Tuesday 23 February at 8pm in Black Box, £8/£5.

You’ve heard of the Internet of Things and lost the chargers for all those connected devices inhabiting our homes? In this year’s Turing Lecture, Robert Schukai looks at the The Internet of Me and explores “our future in this hyperconnected environment, and how our lives will seamlessly drift into a work-life blur based on a ‘dayflow’ of activity”. Belfast City Hall, Thursday 25 February at 5.30pm, 14+, Free.

Sustainable Gastronomy. The highly acclaimed chefs from the Merchant Hotel will cook up a six course meal that has to use up every last part of local-sourced ingredients. QUB’s Chris Elliott will be on hand to explain the global context of food security, safety and sustainability as the meal progresses. Thursday 25 February at 7.30pm in Merchant Hotel, £38 (includes six course meal).

Exploding Custard and other culinary tricks in Ebrington Square in Derry on Saturday 27 February. Free.

Celestial Voyage in 3D to look out in space, travel through the International Space Station, explore the Solar System and even travel to Mars. Saturday 27 February at 2pm and 4pm in Belfast Black Box, £3.

The Science of Star Wars with author Mark Drake and TV science presenter Jon Chase. Sunday 28 February at 1pm in Belfast Black Box, £6/£3.

The World’s Favourite Number and Other Stories from Guardian journalists and author Alex Bellos. Sunday 28 February in The Dark Horse at 1.30pm, £8/£5.

The Science of Doctor Who. Sunday 28 February at 3pm in Belfast Black Box, £6/£3.

Prof Robert Winston lecturing on What Makes Us Happy: Reading the Human Mind. QUB Whitla Hall, Sunday 28 February at 4pm, £16/£10.

The Strand Cinema’s free educational film clubs will be going techie with four films being screened over the festival weekends: The Matrix, Wall-E, Bladerunner and Jurassic Park.

Room - celebrating motherhood in a melancholic, messed up incarceration (QFT & other chains from 15 Jan)

Ma and Jack live in a Spartan room with cork tiles on the walls: bathroom, kitchen and bedroom all in one compact 10’ x 10’ space. A skylight is the only source of natural light. A locked metal door ensures the pair cannot leave.
“The room’s not on any map.”
I found the first hour of Room incredibly tense as I was introduced to the backstory of how as a teenager Ma (played by Brie Larson) was lifted out of the real world and came to live for the last seven years in this ghastly alternative reality. Jack (Jacob Tremblay with incredibly long flowing locks) is five, the result of their captor’s nightly visits to deposit provisions and rape Ma. Misbehaviour results in the electricity cut off, and with it heating, warm food and television.

I remember reading Bye Child in English in school, a poem (by Seamus Heaney I now discover) about a boy living in a hen house. Bernard MacLaverty turned it into a screenplay and directed the fifteen minute short. As a schoolchild the poem was sad, but as an adult and a parent the concept of locking up a child is so much more disturbing.
“I’m your Ma. Sometimes I’ve got to pick for both of us.”
Ma’s priority is to keep her son safe, putting her body in the way to ensure Old Nick (Sean Bridgers, we never find out the devilish character’s real name) does not touch or harm Jack. The boy is unaware of his situation and knows no life outside the single room. What he sees on television, he files under make believe, as it has no parallel in his norm.

The pair’s security and insecurity are locked up in the room. A plan is hatched to escape, but can they really ever be free of the room. Can incarceration be excised from their psyche?
“Are we on another planet?”

New sounds. New smells. New colours. New views of a disturbingly large city and world. New rooms. New rules. New germs. New intensity of light. New loudness of sounds. New stars. New experiences of generosity. New infinities of ways to be overwhelmed. New questions. New disappointments. New ways to stretch inner strength to breaking point.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction captures both the restricted nature of the room and the oppression that awaits the pair outside the shed that has sheltered them for so long. Brie Larson beautifully portrays the young mother doing everything possible – including continuing breastfeeding – to nurture her son while coping with depression. Her onscreen chemistry with young Jacob is very convincing.

Based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room is a melancholic, messed up film, though one which celebrates the responsibilities of motherhood, albeit questioning what the right choices are for a new child born into this hellish situation.

Perspective is a word that has dogged me so far in 2016. One of the moral questions raised by Room is whether it was in Jack’s best interests to be kept locked up with his mother, or whether she should have insisted that Old Nick took her new baby away and left him to be found and cared for by someone ‘on the outside’.

While Room is a fictional account, it mirrors too many real world instances of young adults and children being held captive across the world, as well as those in slavery, labour camps and being trafficked. However, Room also echoes the decisions being made by parents in many conflict zones of whether to send their children abroad, to flee from war and internal displacement and seek a better life elsewhere in the world.

As I left the Room’s preview screening I remembered Gulwali Passarlay’s lecture at Belfast International Arts Festival in October.

His mother took the decision to pay for 12 year old Gulwali and his brother to be smuggled out of [Afghanistan] to safety. Soon separated from his brother, it was a year long tortuous journey with repeated arrests, multiple imprisonments, a crammed boat, and many escapes from authorities and institutions. If I caught his narrative correctly, 7000+ miles through Afghanistan -> Iran -> Turkey -> Bulgaria -> Turkey -> Iran -> Turkey -> boat -> Greece -> Italy (from where he escaped from the third floor of a children’s home) -> Belgium -> France (Calais) -> UK.

Room is showing at Queens Film Theatre from Friday 15 January as well as other local cinema chains. Expect a good ten minutes of tears midway through the film followed by instances of blubbing until the end.

A story of solo dining, loss and lemon chicken ... Tenx9's food night.

Tenx9 has a simple format. Nine people with ten minutes each to tell a true story. Once a month, Tenx9’s co-creators Paul Doran and Pádraig Ó Tuama select a topic and two hundred people fill the Black Box to hear the tales, three at a time before a short break to recharge glasses at the bar.

Last night was like a free nine course pot luck supper. Succulent stories, savouring the flavours of other places and other times, insight into the ingredients of the characters behind the microphone. Above all, everyone enjoying the freedom to earwig on other people’s experiences (and often their unintentionally comical misfortune).

Taking the subject of ‘Food’ to coincide with the Out to Lunch Arts Festival, each of the storytellers took a different approach. Here’s my story which long time blog readers may recall from my posts in 2007. You can taste a few more crumbs from the evening over in my post on Sugarpiece.  Tenx9 is back on Sunday 21 February in the Black Box with a “Back to the Future” theme for NI Science Festival. Paul and Pádraig would love to hear your story.

- - -

“You’re back. You’ll have your usual then? Lemon chicken, fried rice, a can of Diet Coke wasn’t it, and I’ll bring you some mixed hors d'oeuvres to start.”

No menu was offered. There was never any need. No questions about whether I was waiting for someone to join me, or whether I wanted to see the wine list. No fuss. Just a table for two, and a set of cutlery removed.

I travelled a lot to London over the years with work, staying two or three days at a time. I had some really good colleagues and bosses over the years, but I’m an introvert. Myers Briggs would give be a big capital I. So I need ‘me time’, time to myself away from constant conversation about work, fantastical dissection of the office politics and senior manager shenanigans, and all that frivolous stuff.

So I had a routine. Every town or city that I visited in over twenty years with BT, I’d no more than a handful of restaurants that I’d select from. Places of comfort. Places where a solo diner could slip in and out without being hassled.

The first time was always awkward, but if the waiting staff’s shifts matched up with my typical pattern of visits, they get to know you.

Fish and Chips in the Loch Fyne in St Albans, with Adi the waiter who could find me a seat if I caught his eye even when the manager had already said they were fully booked.

Ipswich was a tough city. A van reversed into the best restaurant and it had to close due to the structural damage. Nowhere else was ever as homely.

The third visit is the key one. If they don’t raise their eyebrows that you’ve just ordered the same thing for a third week in a row, I know I’m onto a winner. A new haunt has passed the test and been added to the list of safe places to eat.

So I walked the length of the main Chinatown thoroughfare in London. It had to be somewhere within a few minutes of the Curzon Soho – London’s version of the QFT, or should that be the other way round? – with proper films, independent and world cinema, only a few hundred yards from the big chains in Leicester Square and their weekly red carpet premieres.

The other requirement was the starter. I love sesame toast. It’s probably not very healthy. Definitely not healthy. But as your front incisors take a bite, your tongue feels the sesame seeds on top, and then you catch a taste of the prawns sandwiched between the slices of bread. Divine. They’ll serve sesame toast in heaven and it won’t put an inch on anyone’s waistline.

The sesame toast might even come with the bonus of a bit of crunchy green seaweed that you chase around the plate, unable to pick it all up, and a spring roll. Maybe even a bit of chicken on a skewer, or one of those yucky ribs that messes up your fingers. Urghh.

But on the menus in the windows or displayed on stands outside most of the restaurants, the words “mixed hors d'oeuvres” were immediately followed by “minimum 2 persons”, in brackets. One by one the potential eating places dismissed themselves from my evening dinner.

I was disheartened, and increasingly hungry. I reached the end of the main street and spotted a few more outlets facing me, running along Wardour Street. And there it was. Yungs. It was anything but glitzy with none of the gold mirrored fixtures and fittings that tarted up the other identikit restaurants. But it had ten or so tables downstairs and another 15 upstairs. And crucially it said “mixed hors d'oeuvres” with no brackets and no exclusions.

“You do the plate of starters for one?” I checked before sitting down. “Yes!” the waiter answered as if it was a stupid question.

And that’s how it started. Probably once a fortnight over four or five years I’d wander down the London street. More often than not, the tall young waiter would be standing in the doorway, trying to attract trade into the dowdy restaurant. He’d simply step back, push open the inner door and usher me to a table.

Sometimes I’d sit with a book or a magazine, or a thick bundle of treasury tagged papers for Audience Council that I needed to read for later in the week. Plates would be set down on the table wherever there was room. There was no rearranging: I owned the layout of the table, not them! There was no small talk. A few times I spotted a bit of chittering between staff: I was definitely on the eccentric watch list, but no matter. Asking for a VAT receipt to put into the expenses envelope was a complicated request: like many taxi receipts, sometimes I was left to fill in the slip of paper myself.

I walked past one night and the restaurant was dark. My heart sank. There was a note in the door. Family bereavement? Illness? Power cut? But the darkness was more sinister. The darkness that smoke and fire leaves on the inside of a window. The night before there had been a blaze in the kitchen and they couldn’t open. “Hopefully open in two weeks” said the notice.

Each time I’d walk past, but it was never open. I stopped passing as regularly, never replacing it with another Chinese – that would be disloyal, and besides no sesame toast and seaweed for one anywhere else. The Angus Steakhouse on the next street was soulless. The gourmet burger bar was noisy. I switched to eating in Covent Garden and then hightailing it back to Leicester Square (it’s faster above ground than taking the tube) and into the cinema.

While I’m that introvert who is happy to eat alone, I do enjoy the feeling of being on the outskirts of community in these remote locations. A home away from home to be accepted as you are into someone’s kitchen – okay, restaurant – to dine. There’s a sense of belonging when you get to feed football results to Adi in the Lock Fyne who had a book running with some of the other waiters and the chef.

But the loss of Yungs was a bereavement. Gone too soon. A relationship with a nameless waiter cut off. No more sickly lemon chicken.

Seven months later I walked past – out of habit rather than hope – and there was still no one standing in the doorway. But there was light inside. I went up the step, pushed open the door and the red padded chairs and furnishings were back. Musak was playing. Coming down round the narrow bend of the stairs was the young tall waiter. He smiled!

“You’re back. You’ll have your usual then? Lemon chicken, fried rice, a can of Diet Coke wasn’t it, and I’ll bring you some mixed hors d'oeuvres to start.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Lance - Join Kieran Hodgson for a two wheeled tour of fallen idols, Lycra and just doing it #otl16

From the moment he sprints onto the stage, Kieran Hodgson is bursting with energy. Flitting between characters like gears on a racer, the yellow jerseyed lycra-clad performer relates his bumpy relationship with cycling in general and his childhood hero Lance Armstrong (described as a “disgraced champion cyclist and cancer survivor extraordinaire”) in particular.

Whether outlining his own teenage heroic participation in a 26 mile cycle race with fellow Yorkshire scouts, reading out his fan letter to Lance, or remembering the ups and downs of student life in the zero-wheeled rowing club (defending the unimpeachable Lance), Kieran delivers wry observations, comic caricatures and a pretty good impersonation of a ubiquitous Irish cycling TV commentator.

One particular musical dream sequence had the audience in stitches with multiple connotations to him being lured “down south”! Amidst these musings there’s a lot of pedalling and a smattering of the champion cyclist’s imagined motivational and relationship advice.

Kieran’s revelation that Yorkshire would feature in the 2014 Tour de France offers hope, yet is dramatically tempered by the reality that the joy of cycling has been crushed by his fallen idol, like a bike under a steamroller.

While the energy fades towards the end (like my legs on a Belfast Bike approaching the end of a mile long cycle), the laughs were pretty constant, along with a stark reminder not to set heroes up on pedestals in case their steroid-filled thighs are made of clay and they’re slowing you down.

As Lance would say “just do it” and go along to the repeat performance of Lance at 8pm tonight in the Black Box as part of the 2016 Out To Lunch Arts Festival.