Monday, August 12, 2019

31 Hours – tackling masculinity and mental health head on (PintSized Productions touring Belfast until 16 August)

Four men dressed in DayGlo orange hi-vis protective clothing and white helmets bustle through the audience to step onto the pub stage. The men are a Network Rail infrastructure cleaning team who mop up after incidents: chemical and, more often, human.

They’re also the vehicle through which playwright Kieran Knowles chose to examine the issue of male suicide. The title, 31 Hours, is the interval between deaths on British railway tracks. The four become proxies for all those affected by the actions of jumpers, wingers, platform crawlers, bouncers, poppers and cows (of the animal variety). A wobbly tightrope is walked to balance the selfish actions of victims while also engendering empathy.

(At the back of my mind I’m conscious that regulated broadcasters and self-regulated newspapers might well struggle to editorially justify the excessive detail of suicide methods contained in this play in their dramas or news reports that this theatre piece includes.)

There’s a thick lashing of gallows humour in this dark 80-minute drama which shifts across its spectrum of gruesome to … just a bit dark in an instant. The idea of being told to ‘man up’ is dissected. Each man, supposedly tough and able to mop up blood and body parts, also highlights the fragile state of most people’s mental health and the need for intentional intervention to ask people about their feelings.

Knowles doesn’t make it easy for any cast picking up his script. Real team work needed to utter the many sentences that are split across four mouths, piecing together the playwright’s fractured dialogue which is interspersed with rhyming performance poetry and monologues. The very physical style of Nuala Donnelly’s direction picks up on this intimacy, and choreographs the four men into tight cycled movements that squeeze them together onto the tiny upstairs stage of The American Bar as they swap genders and ages to pick up minor parts.

There’s an intensity to Robert Crawford’s performance while Richard McFerren has a particularly powerful gaze and gestures. Jonny Everett evokes the pent-up pressure of the constantly measured and monitored job. Matthew Blaney confidently manages the transition from wet-behind-the-ears newbie to become established in the crew. The masculine cast is balanced by the female creatives behind the scenes.

One of the most powerful scenes comes towards the end as three wives and a young son reflect on the worries and mood that the four men carry with them. They have the knowledge, but will they intervene?

What works less well is the localisation of some place names, mixing the Great-Britain nature of Network Rail’s territory with Northern Irish Translink destinations.

PintSized Productions are demonstrating an ability to tackle head-on the big issues in society. Last November’s production of Wasted was a powerful and timely examination of consent, while 31 Hours tackles masculinity and mental health.

31 Hours continues its short tour with public performances in The American Bar (7.30pm, Monday 12 August), Strand Arts Centre (7.30pm, Thursday 15) and Solitude, Cliftonville FC’s Social Club (7.30pm, Friday 16).

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Miami Showband Story – a promising new piece of musical theatre stuffed full of popular tunes and great live performances (Grand Opera House until 17 August plus Irish tour)

Marie Jones and Martin Lynch’s new project – The Miami Showband Story – is an ambitious musical theatre production that takes audiences on a studious but winding journey from 1950’s skiffle bands to the emergence of better instrumented showbands (omitting the downsizing big bands), explaining about the exciting transfer market between popular groups, the tragedy that tore apart The Miami Showband when their minibus was attacked and three band members killed along with two of the perpetrators, and the impact that had on one of its surviving players.

It’s a lot to squeeze into a couple of hours of theatre, probably too much. After a great improvised skiffle version of Puttin’ on the Style, the story jumps forward to 1963 and we pick up the story of Fran O’Toole (Niall McNamee) in Bray and Des Lee (Gary Crossan) in Belfast. The first half bulges with excerpts from songs (including the hit From the Candy Store on the Corner) that warm up the vocal cords of many in the audience who can’t help themselves but join in. They cheer at mentions of The Orpheus Ballroom, shout “he’s my favourite” when Joe Dolan gets a mention, and the defection of big names from one band to another still garners tutting 50 years on.

What’s really impressive is the live music. Ever-changing subsets of the six young male actors play drums, keyboards, guitars and brass to recreate the 1960’s hits with a strong beat and good harmonies. The wonder of in-ear monitors and wireless mics keep the stage free of cables. A serious concert-level speaker stack means that the music and vocals can be heard clearly across the Grand Opera House.

Chris Mohan makes a great upright Dickie Rock with the stage presence needed for the lead singer of a band. Connor Burnside provides a lot of the heavy lifting on drums during songs, while Gavin Peden nimbly jumps between bass, electric and keyboards. Gary Crossan’s expressive saxophone together with Gareth O’Connor on guitar and Niall McNamee on keys and vocals (great falsetto) make them into a credible band who have clearly practised with musical director Garth McConaghie as rigorously as they have rehearsed their dialogue.

What’s less good is the differentiation between the musicians. The second half becomes the story of Des, but there’s little signposting before the interval that he is the one to watch. In retrospect it’s obvious that Des and Fran are the only two with family, but with most cast members playing a couple of different roles across the simplified history of showbands, the script and direction (Ruth Carney) tends to allow the lads to merge into a sea of coloured jackets.

There’s a bit of gear-crunching with some overly-abrupt and functional dialogue and a rather clunky first mention of the politics of the island (the civil rights march in Derry) which becomes important in later scenes. The show’s handbrake turn which switches from musical celebration to response to tragedy of 31 July 1975 (which killed Tony Geraghty, Brian McCoy and Fran O’Toole) and and the immediate grief is sensitively-handled, though an extraordinary and bizarre mashup of Zulu classic The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Paul Brady’s The Island probably works better on paper than on stage as it tries to capture Des Lee’s trauma, years after the loss of his bandmates.

The honesty of telling Des Lee’s story and battle with alcoholism is commendable and adds a real human touch to the story that for so long is about a collective rather than focussed on any individual. The writers wisely steer clear of piecing together the background to the UVF attack and the investigations, allegations and convictions.

The two female actors have the dance moves of the 60s and 70s down to a tee but don’t get much story or dialogue to work with. At times they are left providing backing vocals hidden off-stage, though Fiona Carty’s demonstrates her wonderfully warm voice with Have I the Right? early in the first act, and Aileen Mythen belts out a fabulous R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the final medley. Enda Kilroy completes the cast as the hard-to-trust Miami manager Tom Doherty and UDR patrolman.

The show’s repeated premise is that The Miami Showband “didn’t change the world with our music but we brought people together”. The efficacious recreation of the music and vibe means that The Miami Showband Story is the most musically-ambitious show on a Belfast stage since last summer’s storming Good Vibrations at the Lyric Theatre. As a piece of audience-pleasing nostalgia, the show is a great success; but the music ends up tighter than the dramatic aspects.

The Miami Showband Story runs at the Grand Opera House on Saturday 17 August and will then tour through Armagh, Derry, Killarney, Castlebar, Galway, Drogheda, Limerick, Waterford, Meath and finishing up with a week in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin.

Friday, August 09, 2019

The Old Curiosity Show – imagination runs riot in this dark and deathly triptych (Amadan in The Vault as part of EastSide Arts Festival)

John Patrick Higgins writes words. Long ones and shorter ones. But lots of them at a time. They ooze out his pores. Seemingly unstoppable. He speaks with rich simile and a finely-tuned sense of criticism. But his written words are even sharper, loose in the sense that they’re not so honed to be frugal, but paint unanticipated and at times shocking scenes.

A previous script by John Patrick Higgins gave voice to a man whose mental health was in turmoil. His latest work is more upbeat, albeit in a dark and somewhat deathly fashion.

The Old Curiosity Show is a triptych of gothic, somewhat rude, tales of the unexpected. And the free-flowing imagination suits the style of Amadan, an ensemble who revel in edgy and physical theatre that imposes upon the audience’s space and sensibilities, while delighting in the wonder of proper clowning about and their bouffon style of theatre.

The first vignette sees a well-to-do gentleman (played by Jude Quinn like an amalgam of elderly and deceased unionist politicians) step into Sweeney Todd’s barber shop (played by Helen Ashton) for a spot of restyling. While there’s an inevitability to the bloody razorblade action, what leads up to that moment and the reaction of finger-licking Mrs Lovett (Gemma Mae Halligan) provide drama and intrigue.

Amadan’s style invests heavily in posture, glances, and the physicality of performances. This was the first show, after years of attending productions, in which I’ve heard Quinn utter a line on stage. Before this week, mumbles and moans had always been sufficient. But the team wrap Higgins words around their miniature set and simple, reusable props to ramp up the absurdity and milk every line and pun for its laughs. This is the finest of controlled madness.

One melodramatic tableau is quickly threaded into the next and a governess picks up a job from a prickly parent to mind two young charges in a ghostly setting, before a deadly cleaner arrives to clean up a mess, aided by a giant pigeon seagull who had one audience member laughing nearly to the point of laying an egg.

Three actors create 26 characters so when a cast member appears around the side of the backdrop, you’re never quite sure how their base costume will have been accessorised, how their new teeth will affect their facial expression, and what they’ll be carrying. And when they open their mouth, Higgins’ creativity adds another level of mystery.

The Old Curiosity Show was a one-off performance by Amadan in The Vault as part of EastSide Arts Festival. Hopefully it will soon return to delight and surprise further audiences.

Photo credit: Campbell Photography

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Gaza – understanding lives that are trapped in a place where change is far from certain (from 8 August)

A new documentary film sets out to show what ordinary life is like in Gaza. What do people do in the 141 square mile strip of land? What are their dreams? What’s it like to live in the third most populated polity in the world, trapped behind controlled crossings on its land border with Israel and Egypt?

Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell’s film Gaza is at its least complicated and most powerful as they begin to shine a spotlight on 18 contributors, giving them a few minutes each to tell their story. A 14-year-old boy lives with a dozen siblings in a three-room home. A young woman practices her cello and longs to play internationally. A taxi driver dips into his passengers’ stories. Slowly the lives and experiences are woven together.

The interviews aren’t totally natural. They’re like the well-shot taster videos that precede hopeful artists auditioning on Saturday night TV shows. But the essence of life going on, dreams dashed, prolonged uncertainty and a lack of hope for a changed situation is clear.

The long coastline is a constant companion. You’re never more than seven miles from the sea in Gaza. The water at first offers respite from the daily power outages and the strain of living under blockade. The shoreline scenes suggest escape before the realisation that the open sea has an invisible border three miles out, beyond which boats must not pass. Sea trade and transit are forbidden. And with fish stocks diminishing, a child’s vision of growing up to helm a boat out at sea turns into a dubious aspiration.

For the first hour, the bricks are laid. Then comes an air raid that knocks them down and introduces the violence that accompanies the constrained living conditions and failing economy in Gaza. The tone changes as a middle-aged woman describes how past actions have stirred in her murderous thoughts.

For a few moments I wonder if the filmmakers didn’t trust the impact of the 18 voices. That they needed to show violence filmed from Gaza looking out across their border. Does it politicise the message? What measure of support is there for the young men that look like Davids slinging stones at the armoured Goliath over the border? How would I expect the story of 1980s Belfast to have been told?

Watching a programme or documentary about Palestine or Israel can be exhausting. There’s an instinctive fear that there’s a political agenda, that someone’s story will be told at the expense of someone else’s narrative which would challenge understanding. By even offering a view on this film, I’ll be accused of being someone’s sympathiser or spreading someone’s propaganda.

The documentary isn’t pro-Hamas and isn’t anti-Israel. As a film, Gaza offers a compelling and compassionate image of a population who have little individual agency to change what’s happening around them.

Its agenda is pro-human, pro-listening, pro-putting yourself in other people’s shoes. It asks how the whole world could know that two million people are trapped but so little is done to change the circumstances. A question that can be repeated for many different conflicted places around the world.

The final words “God help us” are well chosen given the preceding 90 minutes of footage that allow audiences to look through a window at life in the troubled titular region.

There’s a pre-release screening of Gaza on Thursday 8 August followed by a director Q&A at the Kennedy Centre Omniplex as part of Féile an Phobail, before the film goes is released to Irish cinemas from Friday 9, with screenings locally in Omniplex and Queen’s Film Theatre.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Blinded by the Light – music from the Boss ultimately stronger than the storyline (UK/Irish cinemas from 9 August)

There have been a rash of music-driven films in local cinemas over the last two years. Fantasy musical La La Land (I hated it first time round, loved it upon a second viewing), The Greatest Showman (stronger musically than visually), A Star Is Born (with a totally mesmerising Lady Gaga), Bohemian Rhapsody (totally ga ga story), Imagine (which thankfully puts the songs on a pedestal rather than the original artists) and Rocketman (not yet seen).

Blinded by the Light gets under the skin of a family living in Luton. Javed’s parents emigrated from Pakistan to England. The traditional paternalistic attitudes and values in his home are in stark contrast to the influences he bumps up against in sixth form college. It’s 1987, Thatcher is in power, the Vauxhall car plant is laying off workers, and the cool kids carry around ghetto blasters on their shoulders. Javed is an undercover writer – a diarist, a poet, and a lyricist – trying to assert some control on his present and his future.
“In my house, no one’s allowed opinions except my Dad.”

Introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen, Javed (played by the captivating Viveik Kalra) falls in love with the lyrics which he feels speak directly into his situation. He also falls in love with a left-wing activist friend Eliza (Nell Williams) whose Tory parents provide great comedy value when he goes around for dinner. Clashing against this backdrop of self-discovery and selfish desire are the plummeting financial situation at home as his Dad stops being the primary wage-earner and his Mum’s side-line making clothing becomes essential to the family’s survival.

The parental pressures are somewhat universal. A dancing-in-the-street scene is cut into the action. It’s clunky, because Blinded by the Light isn’t a full-on-musical, but it does manage to gently reinforce the premise that this is a heart-warming coming-of-age story that doesn’t want to stay too serious despite the bonhomie being peppered with explicit and implicit racism at every turn.

Then, drunk on Springsteen, the film’s finale loses the run of itself as writer/director Gurinder Chadha’s plot shelves the emerging romcom and abandons Eliza, instead allowing a blokey trip to the US with Roops (Aaron Phagura) to complete the two-hour movie and squeeze in some more tunes from the Boss.

Blinded by the Light (12A) shows initial promise but throws everything away in the final twenty minutes. Springsteen fans will enjoy its melodies, social anthropologists will appreciate the commentary on Thatcher’s Britain, haters of Luton will revel in the town’s grim portrayal, but I remain unconvinced about the structure of the tale being told.

Released in UK and Irish cinemas from 9 August 2019.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Paperboy – challenging youth musical eschews mere nostalgia to set down challenge about the lack of peace (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 4 August)

Paperboy premiered in the Lyric Theatre last summer. And this weekend the musical is back at the culmination of several packed weeks of rehearsal by the young talent enrolled in the local British Youth Music Theatre summer camp.

I’ve written previously about the outbreak of nostalgic theatre in Belfast over the last couple of years that has often looked back at incidents during the Troubles. Shows have a tendency to nod their heads towards dark moments and then allow audiences to belly laugh at aspects of behaviour and circumstance that should often really still appal us. Specific moments in history are allowed to make universal points about love and the power of music. Sometimes it works; often it’s a bit cheap; very occasionally it’s downright offensive.

Paperboy manages to avoid donning a pair of oversized rose-tinted glasses as it looks back at Tony Macaulay’s memories of living in the upper Shankill in 1975. Yes, it’s full of references popular culture, but it’s authentic and features the bands and science fiction shows that the writer obsessed over. Yes, it’s full of local vernacular, though an English guest at last night’s show confirmed that there were only three occasions when he couldn’t understand why the audience was laughing.

(If you pop upstairs in the Lyric you can see an exhibition of 1970’s memorabilia, including Macaulay’s certificate for taking part in UTV’s Romper Room!)

The success of Andrew Doyle’s lyrics and book comes from the poignancy of a group of 30 tweens and teens playing back part of Northern Ireland’s history and articulating young Tony’s hope that a time would come when things wouldn’t be like this.

A couple of months ago I might have argued that things were now unrecognisably better than the bad old days. And then I woke up on the 18 April to the 7am Radio Ulster news bulletin explaining that a young female journalist had been shot in Derry. I racked my brain to think who I knew who could have been reporting. Moments later, a live press conference interrupted the programme and a senior police officer named the murdered woman as Lyra McKee and I gasped. I wasn’t supposed to be part of the generation that would wake up to the news that a friend had been killed as part of the conflict. That was for other people, in an earlier time.

Through the idealism of young characters, Paperboy presents a strong challenge about incomplete change and unfulfilled dreams.

There’s some overlap with last year’s cast, so the show has a great foundation. Sam Gibson brings a cheeky charm to the central role as the only pacifist paperboy in Belfast and is pitch-perfect each time he walks through the rest of the cast who are finishing off the previous song while begins his in a new key. His resonant voice cuts through the wider chorus and his well-balanced narration keeps the story moving.

The creative team have improved the flow of the story, and the Peace People finale offers an emotionally powerful peak that captures Macaulay’s heart and ethic right before a toe-tapping medley demonstrates the musical and dancing talent across the cast, and sends the audience out with a spring in their step. Duke Special’s vocal harmonies are well executed by the cast, door and window frame props are combined with Julia Cave’s nifty choreography and patterns, while Natalia Alvarez’s wooden stockade backdrop quietly hints at Belfast landmarks, while it hides Matthew Reeve’s band. Amid the melee and youthful buzz, co-directors Steven Dexter and Dean Johnson give one explosive scene sufficient space to speak out of its silence.

There are plenty of monsters, as seen from the eyes of a young boy: with bossy soldiers, bullying teens, a strutting Cyberman and sea monkeys, not to mention a terrific political puppet who is quickly followed up with a lyrics about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and a surprisingly contemporary “God doesn’t love you”. But a very fine Mr Tumnus (Karl Johnston) and a useful Doctor Who are on hand to weather the paper round storms.

The classroom rendition of historical The History Lesson is a choral highlight of the first act. After the interval, the dreamy King and Queen of Nowhere World will be special once some pitch issues in hyperspace are sorted, and Honor Brigg (playing Tony’s Mum) delivers some spellbinding moments in the emotional triumph A River Runs Beneath Us.

The short run of Paperboy ends with a matinee performance on Sunday 4 August. Every ticket has been sold, and I’m sure there’s already a long waiting list at the box office. But you’d be a fool not to get your name on it just in case.

Photo credit: Chris Hill

Friday, August 02, 2019

Bugsy Malone – diminutive adolescents aping deadly adults in this classic musical (Grand Opera House until Saturday 3 August)

I counted at least 120 children on stage during the finale of Bugsy Malone. It was like a mob had descended as rival gangs, detectives and the speakeasy girls mingled under the proscenium arch.

Alan Parker’s book and Paul Williams’ music tell the story of a deadly power struggle between Fat Sam and Dandy Dan as witnessed by boxing scout Bugsy Malone. The war of weapons escalates while a flirtatious old flame upsets Bugsy’s new fancy and his chances of running away together. Oh, and this gangster tale is mockingly cast with children, armed with cream pies and splurge guns, making it a spoof on 1929 ‘Nue York’.

This is the second production of the summer by the Grand Opera House Trust who entertained audiences with an ambitious staging of Miss Saigon a couple of weeks ago. The Trust’s shows are a great opportunity for children to get over any stage fright and perform with a professional set, costumes, band and lighting.

Robbie McMinn confidently conducts the story. He’s more animated than most of the rest of the cast, and stands out, catching the audience’s eye, as he weaves his way through crowd scenes. It’s a vocally strong cast, particularly the principals, and none more so than Caroline McMichael who plays actress and singer Blousey Brown and belts out her songs with gusto. Jasmine Mirfield slips into Tallulah’s refined heels and steps between once cagey now romantically-inclined Bugsy and Blousey with some great dancing, backed by Rebecca Leonard’s choreographed ensemble.

There’s clearly been a directorial decision by Tony Finnegan not to milk Fat Sam’s character name and pop Fionntán MacGiolla Cheara into a fat suit to beef up his stage presence alongside his funny sidekick Knuckles (Finn Tyler). The comedy is at its sharpest when we observe diminutive adolescents aping the deadly adults, particularly Jay Lowey who makes an excellent rival gangster Dandy Dan.

Parker and Williams’ stage adaptation of their film has a lot of bitty scenes which could have sapped the life out of the musical if it hadn’t been for the very swift scene changes that at times move busloads of characters through the wings and emergency exits in a manner of seconds while stagehands are kept very busy up in the fly tower dropping in signage to set each new scene. Wilson Shields also helps keep the pace moving with the orchestra down in the pit (which includes some youth players).

The surprising entrance of a vehicle is becoming a motif of the Trust’s youth shows, and tonight’s pedal-powered limousine was an effective prop. With fine flapping and fast footwork throughout, the ginormous cast deliver a strong version of a slightly bonkers show that allows child’s play to innocently paper over the violent story that is being told.

Bugsy Malone continues at the Grand Opera House with a 2pm matinee and 7pm final performance on Saturday 3 August.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – two bickering boys battle augmented humanity and themselves to save a sister who swallows a timebomb (cinemas from 1 August)

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (12A) delivers a strange mix of tiresome bickering and banter between the two big boys (Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham reprising their roles as Hobbs and Shaw), a slew of estranged relationships to be patched up, a bionic Idris Elba who fails to spark in the rain, and a high-octane mix of low and high tech fight sequences as the action jumps around the world, from London and a pitstop in a deserted Ukrainian power plant before the long finale on the island of Samoa whose weather is as changeable as the casts’ mood.

The film’s weaknesses are its continual reliance on a series of time limits – a 30-minute extraction process, six minutes to block a satellite, and a super powerful explosive that has a simple timer and no remote detonation – and an obsession with referring to Game of Thrones.

The film’s strength is that if the audience have come back to this spin-off for another taste of the long-running franchise, they probably don’t care. Vehicles are smashed, ripped torsos and stubbly chiselled chins pepper the loose plot which is based around Vanessa Kirby’s character Hattie who has swallowed a programmable virus that could alter the face of the Earth and now needs to find a means to cough it up securely.

But the fact that Hattie doesn’t make it into the film’s title – and is initially described as ‘pretty’ – is a reminder that this testosterone-powered story has no intention of allowing any rounded female characters to develop on screen. From what we see of Kirby’s talents, she would more than justify being top-billed with the strutting cocks who are better suited at action than emotion.

An incarcerated mother (Helen Mirren) and insightful daughter (Eliana Sua) are introduced early on, but are not at all integral to the story (and the emotional arc is only loosely attached with worn out Velcro to the plot). Rob Delaney’s bit part is fun while it lasts, but so many characters are utterly disposable (including a fired-up Nobel prize winning scientist).

Spoiler alert: like a couple of Davids battling an augmented Goliath, Hobbs and Shaw realise that if they work together, they stand a better chance of defeating the enemy. Two female leads might have allowed the writers to find a more ambitious point to make.

Hobbs & Shaw’s length stretches out the entertainment like chewing gum that sags but won’t break. It’s humorous without ever being laugh out loud funny. Some of the early stunts are novel, and the mirrored action across two different locations is well shot and edited. The smart-arse dialogue is well written, the undercover agents’ cars are ostentatious, the baddie’s self-driving bike is neat (if overused).

It’s no Bourne film, and falls short of director David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde. But it is so much better than London has Fallen and takes itself so much less seriously than Mission Impossible that it’s a pleasant couple of hours (and a bit) in an airconditioned cinema screen.

Warning: a London bus and a toaster were seriously injured in the making of this film which preserves life for the first 90 minutes before knocking people off like an episode of The A-Team. Fans with weak bladders will want to know that there are two extra scenes in the credits.

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw is released in Movie House Cinemas and most other screens across the UK and Ireland from Thursday 1 August.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Open golf fans in Portrush are first in UK to experience Mastercard’s sonic brand

Golf fans at The Open up in Portrush are the first in the UK to hear Mastercard’s new sonic brand and see the associated animation when they pay for goods in the tented shopping emporium at the sporting venue.

Together with solutions provider Global Payments and card machine manufacturer Ingenico, Mastercard have developed technology to play its distinctive four-note melody on card payment terminals to indicate that a transaction has completed. Customers will soon become familiar with the company’s multisensory branding as it rolls out across physical, digital and vocal payment environments.

While often viewed as a credit card company, Mastercard nowadays position themselves as a technology company operating in commerce.

Their Dublin tech hub employs 550 people and is the global headquarters for Mastercard Labs. Executive vice president Ken Moore showcased the work of the Labs he heads up at an event on the fringes of The Open, of which Mastercard are the official card and a patron.

Moore described the role of the Labs as encouraging innovation and entrepreneurial muscle across Mastercard’s business and that of its customers. Separating the signals from the noise in the crowded tech space, he said that the Labs “convert [those] signals from emerging technologies and trends into opportunities”.

In light of AI and machine learning “making their way out of the labs and onto the high street”, accelerated by the power of new 5G mobile networks, Moore made three predictions:
  1. When improved connectivity is combined with the utility and power of the mobile phone, you will be able to operate [much more complex] banking processes on your phone than you can do today.
  2. Security will dramatically improve, with real-time processing able to spot patterns of bad behaviour.
  3. The utility of the value-added services that can now be built into electronic payments will dramatically increase and, as a result, the use of cash will dramatically decline. While acknowledging that it does take time for the public to become comfortable with new solutions, Moore was confident that the usage of cash will radically wane.

The Labs as a Service team consult with clients and help them ideate and launch new services. They also work with cutting edge startups and connect partners with innovators to shape the future of commerce.

Amy Neale, a Mastercard vice president, heads up their ‘Start Path’ startup engagement programme which identifies, mentors and partners with leading later-stage startups that want to scale and connects them with the payments platform company as well as its customers.

The six-month programme has worked with 210 startups around the world over the last five years. Irish startup RecommenderX was part of the 2018 alumni.

While the 37 or so fintech ‘unicorns’ (privately held startup companies valued at over $1 billion) steal a lot of press attention, Neale’s Start Path programme works with ‘rabbits’: real actual businesses building interesting tech!

Mastercard’s global R&D teams are experimenting with new concepts and technologies in Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, Internet of Things, mixed reality, new networks and quantum computing.

They have a goal of opening up financial inclusion for 500 million new consumers and 50 million businesses around the world, mostly in the poorest communities that do not today have access to financial services.

As well as modelling identity as a stool (with legs of people, devices and things), the Labs are working on new methods that can lower the cost of how a merchant can accept digital payment, as well as real-time proof of provenance techniques to address the estimated $5 billion cost of counterfeiting.

While barcode scanners are commonplace in grocery stores and even corner shops, not every good sold in a smaller independent retailers in rural parts of Africa may have a barcode, and it is common for multipacks (eg, nappies) to be split apart and sold separately in financially-challenged communities. A demonstration showed how a regular smartphone camera could scan goods passing underneath and match their shape, size and colour to pricing information, giving retailers transaction totals as well as accurate inventory information to inform their purchase of stock.

Another prototype projected a menu onto the restaurant table, allowing each diner to explore the menu and make selections. The same interface allowed bills to be split or combined by simple swipe gestures and supported contactless payment by tapping on the tablemat in front of diners.

The briefing and demonstrations from Mastercard suggest that the new sonic brand may not be the only innovation we see from their technologists in Dublin over the coming months and years.

Disclaimer: I took part in a technology briefing for journalists and hospitality at The Open at the invitation of Mastercard.

Miss Saigon – talented singing and a huge youth cast bring this heartbreaking story to life (Grand Opera House until Sunday 21 July)

The Grand Opera House Trust’s summer youth production for its seniors drops the audience into the middle of the Miss Saigon beauty contest in a seedy brothel in the country’s most populous city. The impresario – known only as The Engineer – profits from the US Marines who hire out his girls. A young rural girl, Kim, arrives and her innocence attracts a sergeant called Chris. But as you’d expect, love does not run smooth in this Schönberg/Boublil musical which uses flashbacks after the interval to fill in some gaps as the show hurtles towards its emotional ending.

Musicals have the potential to transport you to a different place in a different time, to jump into the middle of a story and make you believe that the characters are real for two or more hours. The production – cast, songs, and emotion – has to pull you in to care for the characters and the dilemmas they face. All this, despite the novel situations and the unnatural characteristic of minimal dialogue and maximum bursting into song. And each lead performer needs to know how to stand out and grab the limelight and catch the audience’s attention among large casts and busy sets.

With two pairs of leads alternating performances, Friday evening’s show featured the talented Niamh McAuley as Kim and Nathan Johnston as Chris. McAuley’s emotional range stood out from the first scene as she gingerly walked across the floor of the Miss Saigon contest, showing off a sense of vulnerability that seemed to melt away so naturally as her character began to take back control. While the chemistry between the pair of lovers took a while to warm up, there was a growing feeling of tenderness between them, and Johnston nailed his final scene with a passionate wail as the curtain came down.

The vocal star of the show tonight was Louis Fitzpatrick (playing Chris’ military colleague John) with a warm baritone voice that resonated around the auditorium, passing over any amplification issues that affected some of the less powerful voices. (The band tending to drown out the vocals in the first act.)

Harry Blaney’s Thuy was sinister and threatening, while his alter-ego in The Engineer’s far-fetched (and perhaps over-staged) The American Dream was carried off to a tee.

The school edition of Miss Saigon still has to deal with forced prostitution and death. Conor O’Brien’s easy charm and chutzpah lessened the sleaziness of The Engineer. McAuley’s voice comfortably wrapped around her key songs, particularly Last Night of the World, Room 317 (her confrontation with the impressive Lára Mulgrew playing Ellen) and The Movie in My Mind (an early two-hander with the talented Holly Topping playing the Gigi).

Tony Finnegan’s direction delivered some nice moments such as the initial reveal of the youngest cast member (who quite rightly proceeded to steal every scene) and Kim’s misdirection in the leadup to the flashback.

With upwards of forty-five on stage during some of the ensemble numbers, even the Grand Opera House deep stage can begin to look crowded. The iconic helicopter scene with its well-executed lighting effect was somewhat eclipsed by the outpouring of emotion by the frenzied crowd behind the wire fence the Fast scene changes with the elaborate folding set kept the show moving, as did Wilson Shields’ orchestra in the pit.

All kinds of questions nagged me from minutes after the curtain rose right through until Miss Saigon’s finale number: the appropriateness of the relationship between Sergeant Chris and young Kim; the accuracy of the story’s portrayal of the different sides to this story (the women, the US marines the Vietnamese soldiers and the Viet Cong); the level of sexualisation in parts of the story, the age of the senior school cast, and the varying levels of comfort as they engaged with the characters.

Miss Saigon doesn’t land in local theatres very often, and this ambitious and technically complex retelling of Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly by the team behind Les Misérables, and performed after just three weeks of rehearsals is worth a visit to the Grand Opera House before the run finishes on Sunday 21 July. The summer youth production by the Opera House Trust’s junior cast will be Bugsy Malone from Thursday 1 to Saturday 3 August.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Current War – Edison and Westinghouse competing for the electric crown while Tesla looks on in poverty (UK and Irish cinemas from 26 July)

Set in the late 1800s, in a time of rail and gas, The Current War tells the story of two men who can’t stop themselves from competing in order to sit down and collaborate and solve the technical problems that frustrate their prototype electricity production systems.

One is an inventor, constantly noticing small details – often natural occurrences – and applying them to novel situations that have yet to spark the public’s imagination. The other knows about business, buying up patents and exploiting them for profit. Both men have character flaws that press in on their decision-making.

One is Thomas Edison who is credited with the invention of the lightbulb and widely remembered; the other is George Westinghouse who rolled out a/c power to cities across the US and little heard of. And thrown into the mix is Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla, who had amazing vision of how to create new technologies and to solve major problems they would one day encounter, and whose instincts about technological choices were sound … and died in poverty. Though the epitaph “there’s never going to be anything named Tesla ever again” was thankfully short-sighted.

First screened at autumn 2017 film festivals, The Current War went dark with the collapse of Harvey Weinstein’s reputation and the bankruptcy of his eponymous film studio. It’s finally being released in the UK and Ireland on 26 July 2019, but won’t hit US cinemas until 4 October. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon got the chance to add five scenes and cut ten minutes from the original festival release, though if an additional ten minutes had hit the projector room floor, I doubt the story protracted would have suffered.

The score helps build up the tension around the rivalry. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison as a maverick, distant from his close family and principled up to a point. Michael Shannon’s Westinghouse is upright and bold, disguising his financial peril with confidence as the pair square up to win the public prize of lighting up the Chicago World Fair. They finally meet near the end, squaring up in a suitably anti-climatic way for two fallen heroes. Tesla is allowed to morph from brilliant thinker to more manic in the capable hands of Nicholas Hoult.

Wives are ancillary to much of the story; two of Edison’s children, nicknamed Dot and Dash, add a playful Morse Code side plot that fizzles out. There’s a sense of favouritism when the filmmakers and Michael Mitnick’s script give Edison the last word of the film, a privilege I’d have preferred to have gone to more far-sighted Tesla.

The film begins with lurching camerawork that could induce seasickness as wide-angled lens shots pan around intricate sets before camera shots looking up at people’s chins follow them around rooms as if shot by school children. Later the visual style settles down and the director of photography Chung-hoon Chung contents himself with magnificent shots looking down on busy factories. And then split screen is introduced – quite effectively for the execution by electrocution scene – as another style.

The parallels with modern-day hard tech entrepreneurs with brains that work at remarkable rates and whose logic is hard to read is obvious. Private planes and helicopters have replaced private trains. Outrageous statements to the press are sometimes still swallowed and regurgitated. Legal dramas and nefarious underhand actions are still assumed to be commonplace.

It’s obvious that lots of license has been taken with historical events: there’s a three-year gap between the first electric chair and the Chicago World Fair, but it’s a nice plot device. The cinematography is hard work at times. But the rivalry feels rough and the rivals both play dirty. In summary, this film could have been much worse, but that’s not the kind of plaudit I expect to see lit up on posters.

Expect The Current War to dimly illuminate local cinemas from Friday 26 July.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Stuber – so bad it’s good (if you’ve an appetite for violent comedy films)

By never taking itself too seriously, Stuber delivers hilarious laughs in the middle of really gruesome scenes. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch. The trailer promises a naff comedy with lots of driver/passenger shtick, yet the 93-minute film is a summer delight.

An explosive opening sequence lifts the hearts of Doctor Who fans who get to see what companion Amy Pond would have been like as an actual policewoman, albeit it without the miniskirt. Cool under pressure, gritty and aggressive. Playing Sara, Karen Gillan establishes that her police partner Vic (Dave Bautista) is a clumsy cop man who lacks tactics and is short on insight. I’d love to see a second film made that uses the first five minutes but sees Vic shot instead of (spoiler) Sara.

We pick up six months later as Vic makes the poor decision to get laser treatment on his eyes on the same day as his daughter’s sculpture exhibition will open. Enter Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), his Uber driver who works in retail by day and this evening is about to pick up a fateful fare. Vic has a lead on the gangster who killed his partner, and over a long and ferocious evening, the pair traverse Los Angeles on a mission of justice, all the while straining against the unseen face of corruption and duplicity.

The magic of Stuber is that it walks the tightrope between pastiche and comedy flop, balancing an on-screen self-awareness of its genre without just playing for laughs or becoming a violent gorefest. Director Michael Dowse knows what’s doing with Tripper Clancy’s script. The Hillary and Tedtalk jokes are apt. The social media torture scene is inventive. Gunfights have comedy moments. The snowglobe is a great visual moment. And there are dogs. Relationship sub-plots for both idiotic lead characters gently add to the jeopardy and provide a wholesome payoff at the end.

A Disney film with an odd couple who teach us about masculinity and male insecurity, about the limits of electric vehicles, and an Uber driver who goes the extra mile to get five stars. Who’d have thought?! ‘So bad it’s good’ should be the screaming quote on Stuber’s movie posters. Nearly perfect summer viewing.

Stuber is currently playing in most local cinemas.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Anna – if only it had been a novel rather than a Cold War female spy thriller movie where the action gave the plot a good pasting

Anna is another entry into the growing genre of female kick-ass spy thriller: Red Sparrow, Atomic Blonde and Salt. Usually these plots are far-fetched and quite secondary to the action sequences. In Anna, the reverse seems to have been the intention with a couple of quite original fight scenes setting the audience up to want more before being fed a complicated dramatic structure that probably looked better on paper than the final edited film.

We learn that Anna is orphaned, in an abusive relationship, and desires to be free. Early scenes establish her physical ability to take care of herself, though the plot more heavily relies on her mental steeliness to be resilient while under pressure. She is drafted in to be a KGB agent with an assurance that five years of service will by her safe passage back into normal life. When that promise is punctured, she begins to look for a way out.

The plot relies on an increasingly tedious and repetitive jumping backward and forward in time to reveal unseen details that unlock the audience’s understanding of the characters and allow the next part of the narrative to be unveiled. I’d love to read the novel upon which the film Anna is based … except, disappointingly, the film’s director Luc Beeson wrote the original screenplay, and there’s no source material to go back to.

It’s often obvious that there is a twist, and sometimes even obvious what the twist is. So the enjoyment of the film becomes a slightly meta game of feeling rewarded as you second guess your way through the final hour, trying to stay a step ahead of the big reveals.

While Sasha Luss excels in Anna’s fight scenes (dangerous with a broken dinner plate and sporting X-Men skill levels of spatial awareness) she becomes more and more sullen as the film progresses, even when ‘in character’ as an undercover agent who is meant to be enjoying themselves. Fellow model, Lera Abova does more with her small part as Mona, Anna’s best friend and lesbian cover partner, while the KGB recruiter (Luke Evans) is a lot more convincing in his role than his hackneyed CIA counterpart (Cillian Murphy).

The most interesting character is the irascible spymaster Olga (Helen Mirren) whose Dame Edna Everage glasses feel like they should have been a MacGuffin but are in fact just untrendy spectacles.

While set mostly in the early 1990s, why is sex still the most common method women are allowed to have on screen to exert power over men? Why can covert surveillance teams not spot another covert surveillance team in the same small park? Why is there a plot excuse to use English (rather than Russian) in a few scenes before pretence is dropped and everyone just speaks in heavily-accented English? A better script would have eliminated these questions and the spare time that audiences have to ask them.

While we wait for the anticipated remakes of Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow (which has three novels to rely on) to be produced, you can still catch Anna in most local cinemas before this pallid fare quickly disappears to streaming services and TV channels with very high numbers.