Monday, June 20, 2016

A tale of the unexpected as the cast of IGNITION faced their fear (Tinderbox Theatre)

Four actors, a director and a dramaturg walk into an empty theatre. It’s like the start of a joke … or in the case of the cast, Patrick J O’Reilly and Hanna Slättne, a self-imposed five day nightmare.

The external instruction they received on Monday would shape the entire week.
“What could we do if we weren’t all so afraid?”

It’s a great question for the entire arts sector in Northern Ireland never mind the recently refreshed team at Tinderbox Theatre. [You can read my preview post for more background on the production.]

The Friday and Saturday night audiences had no idea what was ahead when they walked into the Upstairs at the MAC theatre for IGNITION. Unless the team had sat in the pub for the last week, between the group exercises and the perspiration accompanying the ever-closer deadline, they must have dreamt up something?

What happened next was reminiscent of some of the shows in the Old Museum Arts Centre. There was gentle audience participation as we took our seats, joining in the cast’s new ball game (a cross between a net-less-volleyball-badminton-baseball variant). Later the show paused for a moment of reflection and we helped servce refreshments.

The main show – which can’t really be distinguished from the moments of breaking the fourth wall – is a metadrama, increasingly self aware of the pressure under which it was created. Flipcharts and post it notes cover many of the walls around the stage. There’s an air of incompleteness and unanswered questions that drives the performance forward.

Snippets of contemporary news from a local newspaper propagate belly laughs in what becomes a roller coaster of emotion. Panic is stirred up by kill joy Keith Singleton. Louise Matthews and Michael Patrick are joined on stage by Julie Maxwell who doesn’t escape a shower of water (though less immersive than her previous role in the Upstairs theatre!) while her eyes have a lethal glare. There’s even room for some multi-lingual tongue twisting around the fear-ridden referendum.

One giggler audience member in the front row described it as a “pure geg” as the performance reached its conclusion. What we witnessed was what happens when six artists face their fear. There’s latitude within the scenes to ad lib and stretch the boundaries, while

IGNITION is a promising format. A sustained burst of creativity tested out on an audience before complacency and script rot can set in. A different cast and we’d have a totally discrete show. A different line of inspiration and we’d have been transported to a totally new destination. Nerve-racking for the company, pretty nerve-racking for the audience too. Not a bad way to light up an evening.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fire at Sea - facing up to tragedy at Lampedusa (QFT until 22 June)

Fire at Sea is a powerful if unusually crafted documentary based around the island of Lampedusa, about 200km away from Sicily.

The local fishing boats that set sail from the harbours are no longer the only vessels in the sea. Refugees pay to make the perilous journey from Libya across to Italy in boats packed with bodies. Standard fare sees you crammed into the dark hold, risking burns from the diesel fuel and death from the heat and dehydration. Pay double and you can perch on the deck.

The film follows three generations of a fishing family, often watching the play of young Samuele whose war games involve his slingshot and pretending to shoot with his pump action finger.

We hear the ship to shore radio communication between a boat in peril and the Lampedusa Coastguard station, and watch as naval vessels launch a helicopter search mission and sailors equip a boat’s passengers with life jackets before evacuating the most severely dehydrated, the walking wounded, and finally the dead bodies.

Running just shy of two hours in length – though unlike The Revenant, the time passed quickly – the narration-less documentary with its sparse dialogue patiently lingers over each scene, allowing the audience to spot moments of visual and thematic symmetry between the different strands of the film. Months spent safely out on the water fishing is contrasted with the treacherous flights to escape. An ultrasound scan looks eerily like the Coastguard sonar display.

The new life represented by the intertwined twins huddled together in the dark in their amniotic fluid contrasted with the refugees clinging to each other in the dark hold of the smuggler’s boat. The treatment of Samuele’s lazy eye: a reminder of need to correct the tunnel vision of many in society who would prefer not to do anything about the 60 million or more displaced people across the world.

A doctor bridges the islander and migrant communities together: 
“It’s the duty of every human being … to help these people”

People’s eyes speak out about fear, relief and uncertainty about the future. Official photographs taken with ID numbers but without the dignity of a name, and often with the country of origin guessed by a slow process of elimination.

There are no shortage of poignant moments in Fire at Sea, but perhaps the most soul destroying is the instant a rescued woman sitting on the deck of a naval vessel asks in desperation “Are all the black men on board?” before breaking down in tears.

While a few domestic scenes look less than naturalistic, the post production on Gianfranco Rosi’s film is very subtle and it’s hard to believe that a colourist was employed.

Fire at Sea is difficult to watch. It gently captures the human tragedy that sails towards Lampedusa on a weekly basis and personalises the staggering numbers of deaths. In the first five and a half months of this year 2,438 people have been reported dead or missing on sea crossings to Italy, and another 376 on their way to Greece.

Refugee Week runs from 20-26 June. You can catch a screening of Fire at Sea in the Queen’s Film Theatre until Wednesday 22 June.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Smiley - a comedy five a side football heist as one man tries to repay a debt (Lyric Theatre until 2 July)

Smiley has a plan to pay back his debts which involves entering a team of less-than-amateur ringers in a local football tournament with a big prize fund. But when an ex-paramilitary god-mother intervenes, his odds of success change. Throw in a very credible Elvis impersonator, a drag-queen and a complicated set of interpersonal relationships, and you have a comedy tinged with peril.

Gary Mitchell’s new play Smiley looks at a society in transition where not everything is going forward. Characters bring their past lives with them into the locker room of life as they confront new problems with their old skills. The Northern Ireland allegory is kept very much in the background, so much so that for many this may only be seen as a funny heist about football.

For a stage play, Smiley has an incredible number of set changes with bulky furniture keeping the stage hands busy as the plot's overly complex twists and turns are revealed.

It’s probably closer to a film script that theatre. While this shows off Liam Doona’s artificial grass set and John Comiskey’s suspended lighting array, it adds a lot of injury time to the first half.

Smiley is at its strongest at the beginning of the second half, with the plot, dialogue and directing sprinting together up the wing with an assured pace that makes up for the lateness of the evening.

While the story revolves around Michael Condron’s shouty titular role, James Doran has the most rounded character to play with. Director Conall Morrison paints Malcolm as a menacing minder, but has the audience aahing in sympathy in a moment of vulnerable revelation before the vicious dénouement.

Jo Donnelly revels in being monstrous, though her intimidation fails to work on Smiley’s ex-wife Elaine (played by Kerri Quinn) who temporarily reduces her threat level. Gavin Peden brings to life Smiley’s son, a consistently weedy and androgynous lad with more imagination than talent.

Sub plots and themes litter the script. An exploration of homophobia is responsible for a sustained string of sexual innuendo that generates cheap laughs.

Ten years ago the play would most likely have featured fewer female roles: it’s a shame that the only way found to portray a woman as being confident was the use of a push-up bra and cleavage that should really apply for its own Equity Card. The gender bending is completed by Charlie (Roisin Gallagher), a successful woman footballer who is crowded out of the script by the more thuggish elements of the story.

While the stadium-like set looms darkly over the cast, at times the staging was nearly too ambitions. The clever rain effect on the bus shelter wasn’t echoed by the characters elsewhere on the stage. A phone rang on stage but the sound came from behind the audience. And the final spotlighted shadows failed to deliver the intended crisp shapes being thrown by Aaron/Elvis and Cameron (Tommy Wallace). Small niggles that may disappear during the run.

Smiley’s fast-paced humour has the audience in the stands guffawing throughout two halves. The final minutes of the play show off Gerard McCabe’s great voice in a scene reminiscent of Dennis Potter‘s love of throwing tunes at a show and allow the play to wrap up its loose ends and go out on a high.

With football in the air you can catch Smiley at the Lyric Theatre until 2 July. It’s fairly likely the local teams playing in Euro 2016 will be home in time to catch a performance before Smiley’s run finishes!

IGNITION - 5 days, 4 actors, 1 new piece of theatre (Tinderbox 17-18 June at the MAC)

IGNITION is a new project by the rejuvenated team at Tinderbox Theatre Company. Starting on Monday morning, four performers will be locked in a rehearsal space with artistic director Patrick J O’Reilly and dramaturg Hanna Slättne to devise a new work that will be performed on Friday and Saturday evening in The MAC.

Alongside the rapid turnaround innovating, a one day State of the Arts dramaturgically led workshop will be held on Saturday. Ten other theatre makers will attend and be assisted in the development of their new ideas.

Tinderbox hope to run IGNITION twice a year in order to work “the wealth of talent we have here” in Northern Ireland. Over time they’ll use different performers, different styles and even vary the writers-to-performers ratio in the rehearsal room.

“We hope to find gems of idea that we want to develop with writers and make into larger pieces of work” says O’Reilly who has just finished touring Britain and Ireland with Big Telly’s madcap production of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon.

Time bound by one week, there’s isn’t scope for big sets and complicated productions. But that doesn’t put O’Reilly off: “for me simplicity is the key”.
“You can have a piece in development for over two years, which is great. But I also think you also have to enjoy the spontaneity and freedom of making something in a very intense, short period of time.”

He believes that stopping to perform or read a new work opens it up to discussion and fresh ideas, before picking it up for further development.
“It’s important to make art accessible to everybody so it doesn’t remain in one demographic. We can take shows to people’s homes, to community centres in very remote rural areas as well as playing in commercial venues. Theatre doesn’t fit one size …

“How we view theatre also needs to change. We need to take it away from that end-on fourth wall environment and find new ways to excite audiences and organisations and theatre goers.”

Book a ticket and head along to The MAC at the end of next week and see what Louise Matthews, Michael Patrick, Keith Singleton and Julie Maxwell have come up with.

As well as IGNITION, Tinderbox are planning a triptych of pieces – What We Are Made Of – to be performed in the autumn. Three forty minute shows will highlight new writing and new devising processes. They’ll be performed together over a two week season but will also tour on their own, with at least two hitting international circuits.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Love & Friendship … scheming towards matrimony in this whimsical delight (QFT until 9 June)

The lilting harp music that opens Love & Friendship is quickly followed by some light drumming, perhaps hinting at the emotional light and shade ahead in this entirely whimsical but utterly enchanting period drama.

Love & Friendship doesn’t take itself at all seriously: that’s immediately apparent from the captions that appear under the book-like introductions to the large cast. Yet it’s beautifully shot and moves along like a real page-turner.

Filmed in Ireland and based on an early Jane Austen novella, we step back into the highfalutin English Regency era where men wore wigs and tights while women sought husbands of wealthy enough to fund their lavish wardrobes.

Widowed Lady Susan (played mischievously by Kate Beckinsale) has escaped to her in-law’s estate while the chattering classes gossip about her morals. It’s all true. She’s as twisted as some of the old trees on the estates she flits between. But she’s a woman with a mission: she needs a man to fund her lifestyle, and so does her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) who’s nearing the end of her formal education (though her mother has a thing or two to teach her).
“We don’t live, we visit.”

Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) is a fool, and one who could fill the whole vacuum of space with inane twaddle unless someone interjected. He has proposed to young Frederica who has the wit to be repulsed by him. Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) is of fine stock but his parents warn him to be wary of any dalliance with the flirty widow. And then there’s the already married Lord Mannering (Lochlann O'Mearáin) and his hysterical wife (shrilly played by Jenn Murray).

In what becomes a fast-paced reality show complete with playground gossip of who’s going with whom, new plot points draw up to the door of stately homes by horse and carriage and through the delivery and reading of letters sealed with wax causing characters to travel post haste across England to steer men in and out of the way of Lady Susan’s charms. Chloë Sevigny plays Alicia, and American confidant of the devious star of the film.
“Facts are horrid things.”

A queen of manipulation, Lady Susan could talk herself out of anything. “Only clever tradesmen can evade” her charms and genius quips one wise character.

Before you know Whit Stillman has the ninety minute film all wrapped up and the credits are rolling. For such a sweet film, the succinct ending is a little unsatisfactory. While justice has perhaps been done, I can’t believe Lady Susan would go to all that effort and then be content with the eventual conclusion.

You don’t need to be familiar with Jane Austin to enjoy the film. It’s complete nonsense, but delightfully entertaining all the same. Love & Friendship is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 9 June.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Northern Star - the seven ages of Henry Joy McCracken (Lyric Theatre until 29 May)

“Citizens of Belfast …”

The clever set for Northern Star portrays the backstage area of a theatre, with piles of props and a cue station monitoring the action on the other side so the backdrop. It’s quickly clear that this a metaphor for Henry Joy McCracken’s seven reminisces on the eve of his arrest and execution. A noose hangs over the stage as another reminder of McCracken’s ultimate fate.

The script’s opening stage directions are read aloud at the start reminding the audience that the cast flit between characters during the play. A large Lambeg drums sits on its side at one corner of the stage, along with a piano and various other instruments. Members of the cast slip in and play.

McCracken is mostly played by Paul Mallon in a low key performance, while other male and female cast members get to wear his fetching green jacket too. He’s a leading light in the Society of the United Irishmen in Belfast (liberal Protestants who longed to end British interference in Ireland and bring about a shared social change).
“Every joke turning into a nightmare. Every nightmare into a joke. That’s an Irish lullaby.”

Words flow out of McCracken’s troubled mouth like a tap that is stuck open. He’s simultaneously eloquent, quotable, incisive and absurd. He’s hiding with Mary Bodle (Charlotte McCurry) and their illegitimate baby in a cottage with a loft in one corner of the set. She dozes upstairs with their daughter while he spends a sleepless night talking to the ghosts of his past. Mallon and McCurry are joined on stage by Richard Clements, Darragh Kelly, Eleanor Methven, Rory Nolan, Robbie O’Connor and Ali White.

Other reviewers who are more ‘in the know’ will explain how different scenes in the play are written by Stewart Parker in the style of other Irish playwrights (Wilde, Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Beckett etc). But that device is lost on the average audience member who like me will merely notice some abrupt changes of language and style.
“It isn't true to say they forget nothing. It's far worse than that. They misremember everything.”

Heavy themes of identity, nationhood and legacy run through the play. There’s a little humour – Wolfe Tone has the most outrageous costume and the dark glassed beret wearing duo cut a comedic pair in the second half – but it’s mostly pretty serious.

In the end Lynne Parker’s direction and Zia Holly’s set couldn’t overcome the obstacles in the original script to transport me back to 1798. The clash of styles and the density of the language left me exhausted and I came out of Northern Star only a little the wiser. The thrust of Stewart Parker’s Pentecost proved much more accessible when performed on the same stage last year.

Rough Magic’s Northern Star has toured through Dublin and Glasgow and plays in the Lyric Theatre until 29 May.

Green Room: a battle of the bands followed by blood and red laces (QFT until 26 May)

It takes a while for Green Room to make sense. Why has a van come to a halt in the middle of a maize? Why are the four passengers (played by Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner) asleep? Why do they carry around the necessary piping to siphon petrol from other cars rather than buying ‘gas’ for themselves?

The Ain’t Rights are a punk band and they’re touring on the cheap. A gig falls through but they’re promised a slot in another out of town red-neck venue. Twenty minutes into the film and one band member’s chance sighting of the aftermath of a stabbing casts a dark shadow over their own longevity and their future as a four piece group. The white supremacist venue’s manager (Macon Blair) struggles to keep a lid the situation, holding the band hostage in the green room along with a beefy bouncer and the dead girl’s friend (Imogen Poots).
“I’m not keeping you: you’re just staying.”

For the next seventy minutes, we witness what happens when the blood, gore and violence faders are slowly turned up full in a tense and often brutal slasher movie. Along the way there’s some industrial bandaging with duct tape, a DIY zombie look when a fire extinguisher is discharged, and dogs that you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. Patrick Stewart gets to be evil, playing the venue owner and man in charge of handing out the coveted red laces to the neo-Nazi group.

Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier is wedded to the soundtrack, happy to cut away where others would have lingered. (Despite the heavy influence of the punk scene, unlike last week’s release Everybody Wants Some, there’s no rendition of Alternative Ulster to cheer everyone up.) The slow motion mosh pit scene easely on is artistic and a moment of relative calm before the storm around the corner.

I’m not a fan of horror films, so when one character asks “Shouldn’t we be panicking?”, I know that anyone with a nervous disposition (who’s left) in the screening has already mentally answered “We are”. The special effects, slashes and blood spurting are high quality. The characters are hard to love, with very shallow backstories and a sense of increasing expendability.

Green Room is screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 26 May. Update - also playing in Omniplex and Moviehouse cinemas.

As The Tide Ebbs - seeking truth amongst the post-Troubles squalor (Rawlife Theatre at the Lyric until 5 June)

Pearse Elliott’s new play As The Tide Ebbs explores the life of a couple of ex-combatants and a younger man seeking the truth about his family.
“This place is my home. It might be a shit hole but it’s where I live … where I was brought up …”

Fuzzy (played brilliantly by Billy Clarke) lives in the wreck of his family home. He holds a bottle in one hand a rubs his face compulsively with the other. Nothing in this excuse for a domicile works except the multiple fridges used to keep the alcohol chilled, an unnecessary precaution given the lack of heating in the dingy squat. His speech is slurred and his logic is as pickled as his alcohol-infused, drug-addled brain. But these vices disguise the baggage he carries from the conflict.

Friends from the old days call in to while away the day. Shasu (Marty Maguire) carried out a lot more “jobs”. He and Fuzzy reminisce about old war stories over a ‘gargle’ or two. The language is colourful and, as we’ve come to expect from Pearse Elliott, there are west Belfastisms aplenty to spice up the dialogue.

After twenty minutes, the younger Wishy (Michael Liebmann) joins the pair. He brings curiosity along with clinking blue bags of comfort into the house. There’s a normalcy to killing “the enemy”. Conversation about murder intertwines with notions of home improvement and women. It’s not just another topic: it’s also the topic that most burdens their lives.

Even with an hour of acting before the interval, it’s well through the second half before the big reveal and the Fuzzy and Shasu face up to their past. The characters – particularly Fuzzy – are satisfying to watch, but there’s definitely room to prune the text (and remove some of the repetitions) as well as inject more variation of emotion into the play. Although the tension in the audience rises when the threat of violence enters the house, our fears are betrayed when the play’s conclusion is reached. The final scene is fitting and well staged. However, the run up to it leaves us unsated.

The audience sit along the front and side of the stage in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio. Don’t be scared: the best seats are at the side, very close to much of the action director Martin McSharry has engineered. Niall Rea’s fabulous set sprawls over the confines of the usually cramped Naughton Studio stage. While fictional, there’s more than a whiff of fact about As The Tide Ebbs with the house and some of the characters and situations obviously familiar to some in the audience.

Your political and cultural background will somewhat determine how you appreciate the play. Themes of touts, the Disappeared, the Hooded Men and the yearning for truth recovery float to the surface. There are moments of laughter – and loud snorts from some in the stalls – among the banter. But it’s noticeable that different sections of the audience laugh at different jokes. Writing and directing so close to the bone dampens many of the collegiate giggles a play like this would often expect to earn.

In 2015, every play in Belfast seemed to use a projector. (As The Tide Ebbs plays an extended video at the start of both acts that is projected across the set, the imagery indiscernible and the context lost on this reviewer.) This year theatre involves lots of opening bottles and drinking and singing. The on-stage threesome prove that they have strong bladders and good voices, with a particularly tuneful rendition of a Dylan song. Though the lyric at the close of the show is perhaps most apt:
“It makes no difference how far I go / Like a scar the hurt will always show”
As The Tide Ebbs is unrelentingly masculine. The dark post-Troubles play is at times more tragedy than comedy, but it succeeds in shining a light on a cadre of activists who society leaves in the company of their consciences while surviving family members still crave for closure on the fate of their loved ones.

Rawclife Theatre’s As The Tide Ebbs runs in the Lyric Theatre until 6 June.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Channel 4’s Pedro Cosa: TV and data is a clash between art and science #BigDataBelfast

A couple of years ago I unexpectedly ended up working on a ‘big data’ project. The term had existed since 2001, but was only beginning to permeate the vocabulary of IT professionals and the wider world along with a growth in NoSQL and high performance denormalised database technologies.

With a stream of metrics being recorded every few seconds and intermittently spat out by servers hosted in data centres around the world we ran the risk of being data rich and information poor unless the significance of what was being gathered could be visualised and deviation from the norm could trigger intervention before catastrophe.

UK broadcasters have long relied upon overnight viewing figure information from BARB which collects data from set top boxes in over 5,000 homes and delivers reports to the desks of channel controllers at 9.30am each morning. TV bosses have long measured success based on reach (the number of people watching) and share (the proportion of people watching). More sophisticated metrics like the Audience Appreciation Index slowly joined the stable of indicators.

The advent of video on demand, second screen apps, short content shared or promoted on social media have revolutionised the possibility of what audience behaviours and actions can be instrumented and measured. The challenge for the broadcasters is to avoid drowning in this sea of numbers.

Pedro Cosa is speaking at the Big Data Belfast conference on Thursday 2 June. He is Channel 4’s deputy head of data analytics. He explained to me that the broadcaster began seriously mining its data five years ago.

TV in itself as a medium has changed very dramatically in the past few years … the way that people are consuming is driving change. Content is available across many different platforms and many different formats. Live TV is still really big, but young audiences – that are more likely to watch Channel 4 – have new ways of consuming content which is starting to transform the whole industry …

We are changing from a broadcaster’s perspective which is ‘one to many’ (broadcasting to as many eyeballs as possible) to a ‘one to one’ relationship and we are now entering this world where you can engage on a one to one basis with each one of your viewers.

How is the availability of richer data changed Channel 4’s decision making?

Channel 4 has always been very open and ambitious with data. We wanted the data to be used across the channel, not just for pure commercial purposes (which in itself has got a massive advantage). Across every single part of the business we’ve been trying to investigate how data can help.

We’ve been creating a structure where we’re understanding how the business works, what the processes are, how decisions are made … and where we can identify where [each] opportunity is.

As well as the obvious feed into commercials/ad sales, Channel 4 are using the data they gather to better target their own marketing and promotion of content. But it doesn’t stop there.

We are also using this to enhance the relationship with our viewers. We now have 13.5 million registered viewers, one in two of the UK population aged 16-34 …

Pedro was clear that Channel 4 take their customer data seriously, with a “promise” to viewers around the use, retention and right to delete each individual’s records.

The most challenging aspect for his team is to “help the creative side of the business” with proofs of concept to demonstrate that data can lead to better decisions. “TV is very creative,” explains Pedro. Bringing TV and data together is like “a clash between art and science” with data sometimes seen as preventing creativity.

Many of the tools and techniques have been invented by Channel 4 as they ploughed their data furrow ahead of other broadcasters. Rather than collect data and then figure out what to do with it, Channel 4’s methodology is to start with a business challenge – something to change or fix – and then look at how the data might help.

Training and developing talent in this area is something we have to do for ourselves and for the industry. We’re conscious that Channel 4 may become the power house of big data for TV.

Channel 4’s own ‘IT Crowd’ aren’t hidden in the basement of Horseferry Road. Instead, the team deliberately sit up in the middle of the second floor amongst the rest of the business. The broadcaster works with universities like UCL to create a flow of graduates, with sponsorship of masters and PhD students.

Is serendipity lost when machine recommendations take over? Pedro admits that their video on demand service has so much content that it’s “almost impossible to navigate”.

Because we are a public service broadcaster we have this remit to fulfil. For us it’s not just about generating more views and more money, it’s also about fulfilling that remit. That means we wouldn’t be using normal recommendations to maximise the number of views, revenue and return.

So they’ve built their own in-house recommendation engine to avoid simply promoting already popular programmes and making them even more popular.

Are there surprises in the data?

More than surprises there are things you didn’t know existed but when you see them they make sense. We’ve been trying to understand relationships between programmes, especially with video on demand you can see how people are self-selecting what they watch (as opposed to the more linear schedule on TV where there is a legacy and you keep watching).

They’ve created a huge universe of relationships around how programmes are watch and “generated micro-genres”. As opposed to the well known genres like drama, factual, entertainment, Pedro’s team can see how very specific niche programmes cluster with each other (eg, teen American drama with a bit of comedy). This is helping drive commissioning decisions to fill gaps or feed interests.

Visualisation is a big part of our data programme. For every single thing that we do we have some sort of deliverable that is a visualisation. Normally these are the more interactive online tools so you can start moving things around and exploring.

When Pedro speaks at Big Data Breakouts, he’ll bring the perspective of an organisation that didn’t just start to exploit existing data but innovated to generate new data and use it for the benefit of the organisation and its customers (viewers).

Up and running for three years, the data analytics team stopped being a cost centre and became a profit centre within Channel 4.

We paid of all the investment in terms of our IT systems and people … It’s a very successful story [about] how we managed to quickly delivery back value to the business …

The team has learnt to say no, only producing reports when it’s clear what the business transformation will be on the back of the data crunched.

[To make] business impact and transformation we tend to avoid reporting for the sake of reporting, being just happy delivering a report and placing it on someone’s desk.

We want to make data actionable and see the results coming from it.

More information on the Big Data Breakouts website and Twitter feed.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!! ... or ‘Men Behaving Badly’ (QFT 13-26 May)

I feel shallow for even sitting in the cinema to the end of the preview screening of Everybody Wants Some!! (The two exclamation marks are part of the official title, there’s nothing I can do.)

If film reviews had executive summaries, this one would say:
Life’s too short for a 117 minute film about a bunch of college jocks whose minds are as filthy as the puddle of mud one wrestles a female party goer in. The woman wins … which is perhaps the message of the film.

The action begins three days before the start of term when freshman Jake (played by Blake Jenner) and a couple of other new scholarship students arrive at the dilapidated house shared by the baseball team. 1980 culture is laid on thick: it’s the era of pinball, space invaders, and handlebar moustached young men cruising the streets in beat up cars armed only with a set of chat up lines that have less chance of success than putting me into bat at a game.
“Only been at college an hour and I’m already pulling in the groupies.”

The screenplay takes wild swings at pranks and parties, initiation and humiliation, and majors on the competitive personalities that make up the team. But it’s a total strikeout.

There are so many continuity errors between cuts in scenes that it must be a deliberate device. Much like the inclusion of lame dialogue and the clunky way Jake appraises his housemates about the messed up narcissistic, macho culture and confirms out loud what the audience have been thinking since the third minute of the movie.

Unfortunately Jake also dabbles in the very same behaviours he criticises, though his well signposted relationship with the “auburn haired girl” (Beverly played by Zoey Deutch) is finally dropped into the second half of the script and he moves around the bases at a little more leisurely pace than his teammates would. While a fair few women willingly fall under the spell – possibly smell – of the sporty students, a healthy number demonstrate a more discriminating attitude.

There’s very little of merit in this unsophisticated, testosterone-driven Richard Linklater film other than the soundtrack, which rips through disco, country and punk tunes like a Spotify playlist 1980’s jukebox on autoplay. (Get ready to laugh with everyone else in the cinema when a local punk favourite appears sixty minutes into the movie.)

The ending is abrupt – practically mid scene – and long overdue. I wasn’t left with any sense of desire to know what happens next. While Linklater received plaudits for Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!! deserves none.

If you go and see Everybody Wants Some!! at the Queen’s Film Theatre between 13-26 May leave a comment below and let me know what you thought.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Shakespeare's Women (CQAF) - polished and expressive, thoughtful and great fun

Shakespeare’s Women is a real treat. The two night run up in The Barracks is over (and was sold out), but you can be sure it’ll reappear on a local stage before two long.

Clare McMahon (Unhome) and Siobhan Kelly play Jules and Fi (better known to students of English literature as Juliet and Ophelia). Their situation is gradually revealed and it becomes apparent that they’re trapped together in limbo. Hanging around the waiting room of the dead with nothing to do, they talk about their lives and loves.

It’s clear that they’ve been together for some time and are familiar with each other’s stories. They rehearse key moments from their stories, lapsing back from everyday Belfast dialect to Shakespearean vernacular. Subtle accessories – scarves and shirts – transform their grey and denim afterlife uniform into the characters.

At first the mirth emerges from their dissection of Romeo and Hamlet (who “could be a little self-centred!”) before they reach back into the Collected Works and pick out other tragic couples. The audience chortle at the idea of Juliet leaning out the balcony having a sneaky fag (and thinking about Romeo, obviously).

The hour long performance (written by Clare McMahon and directed by Benjamin Gould) rips along with only an odd moment of silence punctuating the boisterous and energetic delivery of McMahon and Kelly, with their clear diction, raised eyebrows and sideways looks.

Large portions of speeches and conversations are interwoven into the two women’s voyage of discovery. The not quite 14 years old Juliet was only married a matter of days before her unfortunate end. But she’s wise beyond her years, the queen of understatement, and ventures to chasten and challenge Ophelia and the other characters they survey. So many women die at the hands quill of Shakespeare’s imagination. Can the dead take back control?

One of the joys of the piece is the slow disclosure of the characters’ state of affairs. We don’t need to know too much too quickly, so Clare has the confidence to withhold detail. The ending is explosive.

Shakespeare’s Women is a thoroughly polished and expressive performance, thoughtful and great fun. And part of a rich vein of new theatre being performed a part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival - like a Pick'n'Mix revival - in the all-black The Barracks (a newish venue up the alley way beside The Black Box).

Mustang - misplaced desire for chastity leads to isolation in this sad Turkish tale (QFT until 19 May)

Mustang is an incredibly sad film: a story about being confined, isolated and forced to make difficult choices. (A recurring theme in films being screened at the QFT so far this year.)

It begins with a mixed group of children mucking about on the beach at the end of the school year, displaying the Turkish equivalent of joie de vivre [possibly yaşam sevinci depending on the quality of Google’s language skills].
“Everyone’s talking about your obscene behaviour.”

Word of the five orphaned sisters’ horseplay in the surf reaches home before them and their grandmother (played by Nihal Koldaş) berates them for inappropriate contact with boys. Their uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) starts to fortify the house, and they are immediately cut off from friends and the freedom they’d enjoyed.
“The house became a wife-factory.”

Home schooling switches to a curriculum of cuisine and home-making. The girls are kitted out in “shit-coloured, shapeless dresses” and only appear in public to parade down an impromptu catwalk to catch the eye of families who may fancy them for their sons.
“If there was the slightest doubt you wouldn’t be able to get married.”

The village community depicted in Mustang has an unhealthy obsession with chastity and physical virginity. While intimate checks are made by compliant doctors to produce ‘virginity reports’, it’s sickening to discover that an adult male in the family is abusing at least one of his nieces.

The grandmother is torn. Along with her sister she reacts sympathetically when the girls seize an opportunity to escape their incarceration. But she bows to the pressure of wanting the girls married off without fuss before she dies.

This is not a coming of age film that oozes sexuality and hedonism. After a moment of voyeurism, director Deniz Gamze Ergüven (making her feature debut) steers the film back towards the five teenage sisters facing the very adult prospect of being rapidly married off to strangers … or taking matters into their own hands. Gradually, the house’s defences are reinforced and the youthful laughter subdues as each child faces their future with varying degrees of hope and doom. The contrast of emotion is heart-breaking.

Barely any religious practice is betrayed. Mustang is not a film that rails against religion or is totally damning of arranged marriages. One sister puts her foot down and selects her beau. The girls’ custody is both physical and emotional. Even when some escape the house through marriage, contact is irregular and there’s little effort to come back to help the sisterhood who remain. And where’s the knock on the door from a curious school principal to find out where five pupils have gone?

The off-screen narration by the youngest sister Lale (Güneş Şensoy) jars a little in the opening scenes but is soon forgotten as the scandalous situation unfolds. Lale witnesses what’s happening to her sisters and while she may have a few years to wait, she wastes no time in planning ahead. A local truck driver Yasin is perhaps the only honourable man in the whole film, a rare saint among sinners.

Deep strings and piano accompanies some scenes, intensifying the sick feeling in the audience’s stomachs. Mustang is troubling to watch and raises questions about how men - and women - behave, how society cares for its youth, and how different cultural norms can be squared against a western sensibility of what is right and proper.

Mustang will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 13 to Thursday 19 May.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Son of Saul - one's man futile ambition amidst death and depravity (QFT until 12 May)

Son of Saul invites audiences to step inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp for 36 hours to see life from the perspective of a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner Saul Ausländer (played by Géza Röhrig) who works as a Sonderkommando, disposing of corpses in return for privileges and a temporary reprieve to his own certain death.

The camera never leaves the presence of Saul and László Nemes’ use of a 40mm lens at eye level captures the prisoner’s field of vision, with much of the background detail blurred or out of focus.

We hear the noise of inmates in the gas chamber, but don’t see behind the closed door until Saul enters to “move the pieces” and stack up the bodies so they can be moved for cremation in the next stage of the deadly production line. The sounds of the camp and Saul’s environs are often as important as the images on screen.
“You’ll help me bury my son?”

The title is a giant spoiler: Saul identifies one young naked body as his son and in a defiant act of humanity decides to smuggle the child away to be buried in accordance with Jewish tradition. This desire propels him through the rest of the 107 minute film in a bid to find a cooperative rabbi.

It’s never clear whether the child is really Saul’s son, or whether he adopts the tragic youth as a last protest against the system that is squashing his little remaining life force. While Saul plans his own act of insubordination, the Sonderkommando plan a revolt to escape the camp and evade the gas chamber that awaits them as ‘bearers of secrets’.

The story telling is chaotic as we move around different sections of the camp following Saul. We share his vantage point, but not his thinking and the audience are forever playing catch up with the action. This adds to the feeling of futility mixed with fear. Shots are allowed to run on a lot longer than usual, intensifying the feeling of proximity to the action.

A dark and unsettling watch, this movie has deservedly accumulated a bulging table of awards for debut director László Nemes, including the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It’s a reminder both that desperate people can be pushed to do desperate deeds, but also that desperate people can still yearn for normalcy and respect in a dehumanised and nearly emotionless environment.

Son of Saul is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until 12 May.

Here Comes The Night - ambitious tragicomedy set in 1966 and 2016 (Lyric until 14 May)

The first half of Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Here Comes The Night sets up an extended study of a less than budding republican writer (played by Michael Condron) who is otherwise workshy and lives with his pregnant wife Mary (Kerri Quinn) and her younger sister Jenny (Susan Davey) in a mostly Protestant street in east Belfast.

Vincent Gallagher’s fired-up prose is affected by his celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and Mary worries that this will engender a notoriety that will put the family at risk from local loyalist activists and enlists the help of her priest (Niall Cusack).
“Who do you thing you are? Wolfe Tone?”

Another man of letters, Freddie the postman (Thomas Finnegan), is their link to the dominant local community.

His cross-community fondness for young Jenny is perhaps not his most disruptive trait when menacing troublemakers gather outside the Gallagher house.

The pace and satire are moved up a notch in the second half when the same cast return playing new characters who have moved into the same house fifty years later in 2016. Marta (Davey) is a Polish community worker who is supporting Syrian refugees being resettled in Belfast. She’s moved in with local boy Jim (Condron). Again the couple are outsiders, at a distance from the local community and keen not to be brought to their attention. Displacement is all around.

The arrival of a mustard trouser wearing representative of the Ulster Historical Society and a blue plaque to be erected to mark the home of the utterly unremarkable yet newly rediscovered Vincent Gallagher causes a stir. But it is the entrance of Donna Ni Duineachair (Quinn), Minister of Culture Arts and Leisure, that blows the situation up into a storm. Racism is layered on top of sectarianism and a post mortem is swiftly carried out on the new Northern Ireland.

It’s a relief to find that the second half does not completely mirror the first. The ghosts of 1966 are subject to revisionism. Old difficulties are faced but new mistakes are made. Real life figures like 2014-15 poet laureate Sinéad Morrissey invade the script. The Culture Minister Donna is remarkably familiar: the Socrates/Sophocles reference is from a real speech delivered in Cultúrlann that I recorded and published online!

The period costumes pick up the 1966 brown theme of the confined living room created by Linbury Prize-winning Grace Smart. The scene changes and air guitar playing sequences overlaid with (mostly) 1966 music are a little too prolonged. A snatch of Bowie after the interval pins the action in contemporary times.

Jenny’s dancing feels quite exuberant, even for the swinging sixties though Davey offers a sophisticated portrayal of Marta, a heavenly messenger turned fallen angel. While everyone is a foil for Condron’s comic timing, every character is blessed with laugh out loud lines including Father Black who accuses Vincent of “fighting the British with your Schaefer”. There are some great original jokes in the play and the Lyric audience titter along with glee.

The set is small, but Here Comes The Night’s ambition is huge and director Jimmy Fay takes advantage of the play being staged in the Lyric’s main auditorium. The placement and direction of Philip Stewart’s sound effects stand out from most plays, with a baying crowd, stones on windows and the odd call of a sea gull.

Jenkinson explores the freedom of artists to “be free to write what they want” as well as the politicisation of culture and remembering in Northern Ireland. There are also nods towards a writer’s immortality versus controversiality, a fine line that writers of satire must tread. An off stage, off colour joke in the second half pushes boundaries and audience buttons; the anxiety in the stalls lightens when, after a pause, the character acknowledges what they’ve done.

References to a “culturally monolithic community” resonated with echoes of Jenkinson’s earlier play The Bonefire [script available on Amazon]. Maybe one day, along with David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue, it will be staged in Northern Ireland.

Here Comes The Night is an entertaining tragicomedy with novel humour and an outsider’s perspective. It runs in the Lyric until 14 May. It’s funny, sassy and surely an apposite reminder that it’s possible to reference the Troubles in drama without revelling in the conflict or merely squeezing out cheap jokes rather than challenge.

Photo credit: Steffan Hill / Lyric Theatre Belfast