Thursday, May 25, 2017

Trainspotting Live - brutal, energetic and in your face (The MAC until 27 May)

It’s not often you come out of the theatre with your gut in knots. While the late lunch of a pint of milk and sausage roll gulped down at 4pm before a can of 7up was poured on top two hours later may have acted as an accelerant. But the rumbustious, immersive, hyper-real show currently playing in The MAC definitely leaves a shocking mark on its audiences.

Sitting through Trainspotting Live is a seventy five minute onslaught on at least three of your senses, possibly more depending on where you sit. Right from the start, the audience are embedded in the action, and often become extras in scenes as the cast lurch around across the tiered seating that straddles the stage.

It wouldn’t be true to Irvine Welsh’s original writing if there wasn’t plenty of swearing, drug use, violence, nudity and thoughtless behaviour that is ninety nine parts numpty and one part endearing. There’s also toilet humour … though not so immediately funny if you’re sitting next to it.

For the first half I remained quite confused by how the characters fitted together. Between the music, the shouting, and the way the audience is split on two sides, some pieces of dialogue are lost. Among the casualties are names. In the end, being able to tell Mother Superior (Finlay Bain) apart from Begbie (Chris Dennis), Tommy (Greg Esplin), Renton (Gavin Ross) or Sick Boy (Michael Lockerbie) isn’t that important or necessary. You’ll eventually recognise the Leith residents by their tattoos, bruises or willies.

While one failing of the unexpectedly superb T2 film was the near total absence of women, Trainspotting Live includes strong performances from Erin Marshall who brings a lot of emotional intelligence to the part of the grieving Alison, and Rachael Anderson (who plays June amongst other characters).

The scenes of gender violence are much more disturbing to watch than the simulated drug use. [Spoiler ahoy ... but the popularity of the book and film means most people will know the next part anyway.] The revelation of infanticide provides the final turning point of the play, but is emotionally more subdued that some earlier less important fulcrums.

Harry Gibson’s stage version of Trainspotting predates the film, though many sequences have a cinematic feel with on-screen fast cuts replaced with your neck jerking backwards and forwards across the long thin stage, catching a glimpse of boisterous action at one end, noticing that a new character has slipped onto the stage at the other, and realising that yet another actor is now sitting amongst the audience or pretending to be sick down someone’s back.

The cast’s energy is amazing and an act of endurance in itself, with three shows to perform back to back on Friday and then again on Saturday. Interaction with the audience provides many of the lighter moments of comedy throughout the intense show. One scene near the end is probably the most beautifully directed strobe-lit scene I’ve witnessed, testament to the skill of co-directors Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Greg Esplin, as well as lighting designer Clancy Flynn.

Trainspotting Live is a fond companion piece to Irvine Welsh’s writing and Danny Boyle’s film. Incredible performances underpin the portrayal of these hedonistic and self-obsessed lives in such a naturalistic way. The book’s non-judgemental approach to drug taking carries across into the play, but the constant repetition of “live giving or live taking” smacks of stupidity when the negative effects and repercussions of the characters’ habits are so clear to see.

Ultimately, while the play was exhilarating, shocking and a brilliant demonstration of physical theatre and non-consensual audience participation, the lack of more fulsome self-reflection saddened the overall experience as a piece of theatre and left this audience member brutalised and disappointed rather than fired up and thrilled.

Trainspotting Live continues its shocking, in your face, theatre in The MAC until Saturday 27 May before continuing its tour through Lancaster, Salford Quays, Oxford, Leicester, Sheffield, Falkirk, Preston and Edinburgh. Full details of dates and venues on the Trainspotting Live website.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Madame Geneva - a smouldering tale of the influence of gin (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 28 May)

Small theatre companies are producing some of the most exciting new work in Belfast at the moment. Fresh from Entitled, their sharply political critique of the welfare system, the company are back with Jo Egan’s tale of gin and prostitution, Madame Geneva based in the late seventeenth century and eighteenth century.

The ambitious show starts with a raucous musical number with much bodice tightening and rubbing of thighs as we are introduced to the so-called fallen women who are targeted (while men are overlooked) for virtue restoration having fallen for the evil charms of the devil’s drink which had recently arrived from Holland.

The action then bounces across to four men representing the reform movement who seek to eradicate gin – nicknamed Madame Geneva – from the streets of London and beyond, and plan to open the Magdalen Home for Penitent Prostitutes to teach “the habit of hard work”.

Alternating between the spoken word of stately figures of the patriarchy who are fond of a tipple and the musical expression of the poor, the show breezes through 60 years of history. Along the way we learn about the creation of the Bank of England to raise funds to create a permanent navy, witness the flip flopping government policies to encourage gin production (and benefit the MPs who own much of the farm land) and then prohibit its consumption, and hear how the Magdalen system was exported to Ireland.

Kerri Quinn pours everything into her on-stage personification of Madame Geneva, delivering a smouldering performance of speech, dance and song while rarely leaving the stage.

Tony Flynn brings gravitas and guile to his roles as Robert Dingley and William III. Rhys Dunlop impresses as artist William Hogarth (whose Gin Lane print adorns the cover of the Madame Geneva programme). Keith Singleton injects large measures of humour into the otherwise serious conversations as he plays a series of up-tight gentlemen. Guided by director Cara Kelly, the MACHA Community Company add another 12 bodies to the theatrical melee with some very confident performances, particularly from Andrew McClay.

The set is simple but effective, creating a gilded frame around which the audience sit in tiered banks along the two long sides of the floor-level stage. New groups of historical characters step out of a smaller framed door at one end.

The gin-fuelled rave is a suitably comedic anachronism. The image of an orange towel-clad, shiny-chested William of Orange discussing politics in a sauna will be burnt into the retinas of everyone in the audience. And the anthropomorphisation of the juniper berry drink as a banshee dressed up in evening attire least likely to be chosen as prom queen adds a real punch to proceedings.

I don’t easily warm to historical theatre. Much of the 1916-related drama has been hard to believe. But Madame Geneva creates an exciting combination of prose, poetry and song on top of Garth McConaghie’s soundtrack, Lisa Dunne’s intricate costumes and the enthusiastic contribution of the Community Company. The issues it raises – from attitudes to women and sex to taxation – are very contemporary. Definitely in my top three pieces of theatre seen in the last six months.

Madame Geneva is being performed in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 28 May. Check out the Lyric’s website for details of after show discussions about prostitution in NI, addiction, the media and government use of sexual violence against women in the context of welfare reform.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Colossal - an enchanting (& monstrous) tale of the unexpected (QFT until 1 June)

Gloria (played by Anne Hathaway) is an accident-prone, alcohol-fuelled, very forgetful, happy-go-lucky young writer who has been out of work for a year and shows no signs of pulling herself together to find a new job. Her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) packs her bags.
“… keeps moving, destroying things in its way, never looking down”

She returns to her home town, camps out in her parents’ vacant house and reconnects with Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a friend from elementary school, who runs the local bar. Unexpectedly, she comes to realise that what she does is linked to the actions of a potentially destructive monster that appears on the other side of the world and towers above the skyscrapers in Seoul.

Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, over 100 minutes Colossal explores how these personal and international catastrophes are connected.

Right from the start, the fine story-telling sets up a yarn that is unpredictable and keeps you guessing. The tale is so well told that you are securely reeled into the strange universe that has been created on screen. An element of surprise is always around the corner, usually accompanied with a dollop of humour.

Colossal could have been a classic anime film. Instead it’s closer to Certain Women as we watch a country-music accompanied character study of a woman sorting out her life in a dopey mid-west town. The devastating scenes from Seoul are mostly watched through footage on mobile phones and TV screens.

A film about private actions and hurt storing up public consequences and pain. A film bullying, jealousy and childhood trauma where men are the true monsters. But most of all, an enchanting tale of the unexpected.

Well worth a trip to the Queen’s Film Theatre to see Colossal before 1 June.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Power of Video conference returning to Belfast on Fri 26 May

The Power of Video conference is returning to Belfast next week, switching venue to St Anne's Cathedral. It's the brainchild of local filmmakers Billy May and Damien Gallagher.

Their programme will include YouTubers, filmmakers and content makers from the commercial and social media worlds. Shonduras, Philip Bloom, Daniel and Lincoln Markham, Zack Nelson, DevinSuperTramp, Toxic Tears and Cian Twomey are among those already in the schedule.

The Friday 26 May conference hosted again by David Meade is preceded by a hands-on day of workshops. In an expanded format, there will be a street food festival beside the Cathedral and satellite events across Belfast including NI’s first international professional Drone Race to be held in T13 in Titanic Quarter.

More details on the Power of Video website and ticket site.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Jawbone: a life on the ropes in a knockout film (QFT until 18 May)

Films sneak up and surprise you. There was a recent spate of films about jazz, a musical genre that turns out to be dark and moody and thus perfectly pitched to accompany the theatrical lives of key players over the years.

Jawbone is another such film. Men taking lumps out of each other while boxing for sport is not normally appealing to this reviewer. But Johnny Harris first screenplay, directed by Thomas Napper, delivers an intelligent and nuanced story as well as some tense fight scenes choreographed by the Clones Cyclone, Barry McGuigan.

While it starts off in a benefits office that cannot help but trigger memories of I, Daniel Blake. Jimmy McCabe (played by the film’s writer Johnny Harris) is not just fighting eviction from his home but is also up against the ropes fighting his demons and addictions.

A south London boxing club owner Bill (Ray Winstone) lays down the law when the prodigal son returns to train: no booze, no unlicensed fighting, no messing around. But Eddie, the boxing coach with an Irish lilt Eddie played by Michael Smiley, is less convinced by Jimmy’s comeback. This second chance calls the once rated fighter’s ability into question. But Jimmy needs money urgently and an unlicensed bid seems to be his only option.

Fitness, death, concentration and passion play out over 91 minutes along with a tense triangle of love, loyalty and trust between Bill, Eddie and Jimmy. This is an almost exclusively male film.

Much of the film is shot outside at night or in gloomy conditions, with atmospheric silhouettes throughout that benefit from a really dark cinema. Even when the action – somewhat inevitably – returns to the boxing ring, the brilliantly lit stage is surrounded by the baying crowd in darkness.

Paul Weller’s soundtrack of deep metallic strings emphasises the turmoil and distress. Such a great change from plinkity piano muzak. The camera allows the cinema audience to stare into the soul of Jimmy through his eyes. And in case they haven’t noticed, a line of dialogue helpfully reminds anyone not paying attention:
“Look at your man: when you look in his eye you see all of him”

The fight scenes are not allowed to dominate the film, but final bout was hard to watch and felt very much like a fight to the death. The make up and prosthetics illustrate why boxing is referred to as a blood sport.

Drink and boxing: if one doesn’t kill the other may, and Jimmy finds both difficult to give up. Harris, Winstone and Smiley are superb, balancing the emotional tension whilst teasing out the protagonist’s fight against addiction.

The ending is beautiful and has enough soul to irrigate your tear ducts. Jawbone is a story well told. It evenly matches great visuals, good sound, interesting characters and just enough sentiment to craft a tale of the unexpected.

Jawbone is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 18 May.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Sinners – theatrical ratatouille served with a sprinkling of spiritual snake oil (Lyric Theatre)

The muted tones of “Shall we gather by the river” being played on a Hammond organ was an appropriate call to worship as the audience filed into the Lyric Theatre for the opening night of Marie Jones’ new play Sinners.

Ohio-born Pastor O’Hare (Michael Condron) is now preaching daily in a tent mission erected on the Simpson family farm in rural Northern Ireland. Farmer Stanley (Charlie Bonner) has set down his pitchfork and swapped the muck of the cattle to pick up a ‘Job complex’ and a new clean living role assisting the preacher. His wheel-chair bound mother (Roma Tomelty) – steered around by a hilarious and underused Christina Nelson – is the only other member of the family to have signed the pledge form.

Alyson Cummins’ simple set consists of a enormous shower curtain on a circular rail that symbolises the canvass marquee and opens to reveal the farmhouse kitchen. It’s there we meet the rest of the family tree in a morning-after-the-night-before scene of debauchery and half eaten pizza with bodies strewn across the floor: agricultural son Dino (Patrick McBrearty), daughter Millie (Adele Gribbon) and her caricature of a poet boyfriend Jed (Michael Johnston), plain-speaking brother Sydney (Alan McKee), younger wife Tania (Séainín Brennan) and her tarty best friend Coleen (Louise Matthews).

Condron looks the part as a loud-mouthed, fast talking religious showman with more charisma than theology. While he lacks the deviousness of a serial charlatan, he’s clearly in comic heaven with the physical aspects of his part.

Bonner captures the essence of a County Down unionist farmer in his portrayal of Stan. In fact he has more than a passing visual resemblance for an independent councillor in that neck of the woods. The hold that O’Hare has over Stan’s life and chattels reminds me of the story of a real life Presbyterian elder in Crossgar who fell under the spell of Ian Paisley during the founding of the Free Presbyterian Church and sacrificed much before being discarded and disillusioned.
“I smell a fox on my land, a great big sleekit one.”

The fourth wall is raised and lowered as the theatre audience switches between spying on the Simpson kitchen soap opera and sitting under canvass lapping up the platitudes of the spiritual snake oil salesman who moves into the family home, and spreads his vegetarianism as fervently as his good news.

We sit back to watch the collision of Stan’s fledgling faith and his apparent need for atonement with those who love him the most and their plan to find an alternative salvation to reverse his lapse of judgement.

For all the talk about depravity, tabernacles and looking for signs, what could have been an acerbic deconstruction of false religion and piety instead becomes a mushy ratatouille of chopped up laughs, mixed with isolated farce and some overcooked acting.

There are plenty of giggles and great oneliners, but the second half fails to pick up the pace and deliver the sharp denouement that the concept deserves. Chekhov’s gun fails to be fired and despite the 50:50 cast, director Mick Gordon’s strongest scenes take place on an all male stage with the pastor, the farmer, his son and his brother. The inevitable seduction scene is more venus flytrap than honey trap.

When Alan McKee’s Sydney asks – cross in hand – about the kind of eejit who “sacrifice himself for a pile of heathen”, it could have been a jaw dropping moment of theatre. Instead the audience barely blinked.

The stakes rise but there’s little sense of anxiety in the audience. By the end, the plot has been painted into a corner and the play’s climax relies too heavily on a minor character to tie up the loose ends and dilutes the ‘twist’ with exposition about the nature of theatre, storytelling and religion. (Potentially this pays homage to Molière’s Tartuffe from which Sinners is loosely adapted or inspired.)

Too much of the dialogue is shouted with a hint of screech. A lot of fat could be trimmed from the script by cutting at least four of the cast of ten. At times, the script clumsily turns Tania into a on-stage director, handing out roles and ‘you do this, you do that’ direction to the remaining cast.

While not offering a fulsome redemption, there are some sweet and tasty mouthfuls along the way. The last supper tableau is well staged. The costumed stage hand is a neat touch (and should be listed in the programme as the eleventh member of the cast). The virtual choir adds another layer of humour with increasingly off-the-wall videography emphasising the size and prosperity of the mission. And it’s a sign of the times when the “turn your mobile off” message is now built into a playwright’s script: last night’s threat of “eternal damnation” seemed to do the trick.

Ultimately, Sinners tells the story of false religion and misplaced fervour, but settles for cheaper comedy over biting satire as the fake good news is exposed.

The Lyric Theatre tent mission is open and welcoming Sinners through its wide tent door until 3 June.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival - some remaining gems (until 7 May)

The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is well underway. What gems remain in its enormous programme full of ripe juicy events and gigs?

Wednesday 3 May

Join Anton in the Black Box Green Room as he delivers his sermon to save Belfast. Expect music, the slaughtering of sacred cows and a bit with a teddy. 8pm. £5.

Two back to back pieces of theatre by Tinderbox in The Barracks (Wednesday 3 and Thursday 4): #filtered by Sarah Lyle and Conscientia by Abby Oliviera. Always a treat. 7pm. £10.

Prime Cut’s award winning Scorch is back in The MAC (until Sunday 7 May)for what might be its final run in Northern Ireland for a while. Amy McAllister brings to life an exploration of gender, uncertainty and where the law meets teenage naivety. 8pm (and 3pm on Sunday). £12.50.

Thursday 4 May

Kieran Hodgon’s Maestro should be a very special evening in the Black Box as the performer explains how Gustav Mahler inspired him to write a symphony … something well outside his ability. 8pm. £10

Friday 5 May

Stephen Beggs’ new work My Father’s Chair opens in The MAC and runs until Sunday 7 May. A performance for young audiences (6 years+) and families about the nature of fatherhood. Times vary. £9/£6.

Sunday 7 May

Theatre critic and playwright Jane Coyle’s presents Both Sides, a double header of Beckett-inspired monologues in The Dark Horse in advance of an autumn tour. Me, Here, Me features a young woman sitting alone in a Paris café watching the life of the street unfold. But what is her story? In Before Before a woman sits in a Nice bar looking back on a turbulent life and a painful loss. Poignant stories accompanied by live traditional French music. 3pm and 7pm. £8.

Omnibus perform Mule in the Waterfront Studio. Inspired by the actions of the Peru Two this two-hander explores victimhood, media spin and personal tragedy. 7.30pm. £10.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Journey – a fictional look at how the Chuckle Brothers bromance might have blossomed

Over the years there has been much speculation about Ian Paisley’s change of heart to go into government with Martin McGuinness at his right hand. The transition from frosty political enemies to the so-called ‘Chuckle Brothers’ was acute.

Colin Bateman’s screenplay for The Journey presents a highly fictionalised account that explores what the early conversations may have been like between the two political minds.

The St Andrews talks have coincided with the North Antrim politician’s golden wedding anniversary party. The weather has closed in and it’s imperative that he returns to Northern Ireland in time for the planned evening of festivities. The British government has pulled strings and a private plane is made available. Sinn Féin are set to okay the gesture to get the ‘big man’ home. But Martin McGuinness adds a condition: he must travel on the same flight as the man who’s never spoken to him.

And so a toned down version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles begins as the two protagonists are whisked away, alone in the back of a people carrier, to be driven to Edinburgh Airport and to endure the obstacles that are thrown in their way.

Historically, much belief has been suspended, starting with the fact that his wife Eileen – recently ennobled Baroness Paisley – was at his side in St Andrews, such was the DUP leader’s ill health.

The Journey is a legend. Irish has a rich history of mythology, and there’s many a germ of truth hidden in the old stories.

The film’s wordy opening titles introduce audiences who were asleep during 2006 to the situation in Northern Ireland, framing McGuinness as the “mortal enemy” of Paisley.

Each actor in the nearly all male cast has been given a couple of tells to help the audience overcome their appearance and dodgy accents. Tony Blair (played by Toby Stephens) wears a red tie and is played as a bit of a buffoon, speaking in platitudes as if the hand of history was shoved up the back of his suit and operating his mouth. Ian Paisley Jnr (Barry Ward) wears his trademark blue striped shirt with a white collar.

His father (played by Timothy Spall) runs a comb and his fingers through his long white hair and laughs gleefully at his own jokes. While there’s the odd angry bellow, his belly laughs are absent.

The portrayal of McGuinness is the most rounded and consistent, except for his accent which has been rooted in west Belfast. But Colm Meaney captures the spirit of the folksy, family-orientated, stubborn yet wily political operator who has deliberately chosen to crack open the Paisley heart.

Cinematically, the story relies on a lot of overly elaborate narration in the form of words spoken into the Bluetooth headset of the driver (Freddie Highmore) from spooks who are monitoring the journey’s progress. In every sense of the word ‘progress’. The fairly clunky incidents used to ratchet up the dramatic tension, expose the insecurities, and force the relationship to take its next step.

But in the make-believe world of fantasy politics, they serve to introduce us to the religiosity of Paisley and the violent past of McGuinness. (Though those labels are threatened to be reversed at times.) The film slows down to remember Bloody Sunday and the Enniskillen bombing along the ninety four minute cinematic ride.

Bateman succeeds in making the audience smile. It’s a crazy excursion, and the author’s sense of mirth infuses much of the dialogue. There’s only so much drama that can be squeezed into the back seat of a people carrier, even one with room for a camera crew.

Yet the essence of truth is in there. Over weeks and months, dialogue not unlike this film’s script must have passed the lips of the two political giants as they grappled with their versions of the past and their twin hopes for the future.
“Save me your crocodile tears.”
That line was filmed in late 2015 but has unwittingly become even more humorous after the 2017 Assembly election campaign. If you were to plot a graph showing how the two ice blocks melted over the course of the journey to the airport, it would not be straight. McGuinness’s patience is stretched and like a volcano, every now and again the tired and drawn Paisley spouts rage.
“Sometimes my bark is worse than my bite.”
Slowly “Mr McGuinness” becomes the “boy” as he learns to play the difficult instrument he has chosen to sit beside and “Dr Paisley” morphs into the “big man” as the pair open their emotional kimonos and expose their frailty to each other.

McGuinness naturally laughs along with Paisley’s weak gags, sowing the seeds of the respect that kept the First and deputy First Ministers working together for their thirteen months in office.

Republicans and unionists – never mind Tony Blair – will be unhappy with aspects of portrayal. Victims and survivors too will question what is entertaining about the dramatisation of a car journey that did not happen but still encapsulates the worst of the peace process.

The Journey is unlikely to elbow its way into the race for the Academy Award for Best Picture next year. Nick Hamm directs The Journey as if it was a play set on a four wheeled stage. Pace takes a back seat in a movie that lasts nearly as long as a real leisurely drive from St Andrews to Edinburgh airport. (Only the aerial footage was actually filmed in Scotland!)

There are no Greengrass-style re-enactments of mass protests. There’s no need to bite your fingernails: we know how this story ends before it begins. The twists and turns drive the story forward but won’t make your heart race. Though there is an added sense of poignancy now that both the main characters are now dead.
“Why here? Why you? Why now?”
The film can’t really answer that question, other than offer McGuinness’s suggestion that “old men can afford to be bold”. You may learn more by reading David Gordon’s The Fall of the House of Paisley, or Ed Moloney’s Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat? (on sale this morning in Belfast Easons for £2), Mary-Alice C Clancy’s Peace Without Consensus: Power Sharing Politics in Northern Ireland, Henry McDonald’s A Farewell to Arms?: Beyond the Good Friday Agreement or perusing the archives of Slugger O’Toole and local newspapers in Belfast Central Library.

Martina Purdy aptly ended a BBC News report on the St Andrews negotiations with words that sum up the essence of Bateman and Hamm’s film:
“What better day to demonstrate your ability to commit to your new political partner than on your golden wedding anniversary?”
The Journey is an evocative and entertaining imagining of what might have happened if Paisley had got into the back of a car with McGuinness and their bromance had been hot-housed on the way to the airport.

Belfast Film Festival have organised the première of The Journey at Dublin Road Movie House on Thursday evening before the film goes on general release in some Movie House cinemas and the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 5 May.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Have I No Mouth: an uncomfortable insight - perhaps an intrusion - into one family’s grief

Right from the start, Have I No Mouth is an disquieting show to watch. A smooth-talking humanist psychotherapist leads the Lyric Theatre audience through a mindfulness exercise to ensure we’re relaxed.

If that isn’t enough to raise your blood pressure, the show is based around a series of conversations between a mother and her son about the death of her husband as well as the death of her baby many years before. With an over-polite therapist gently guiding the discussion with injections that begin “I wonder if it would be helpful if you shared what …”

While many parts of the 70 minute show are fixed, there is room in the chat for mother and son to go off script and genuinely explore their grief through discussion of objects that symbolise intimate moments in their family life.
“Will I tell you? / No. / Well I’m going to …”

Mother and son bicker. She answers questions the therapist intends for her son. She asks her son questions and then answers them before he can. Gently we watch two people reveal what they are afraid of and tussle with different attitudes to sentimentality. We feel the tension as they outline competing and contradictory memories of the same event.

It nearly feels inappropriate to name the performers, given that they are real people revealing their feelings and the inner workings of their family in front of a therapist. But this is a stage show from Brokentalkers (in association with Project Arts Centre) that won an award at the Edinburgh Festival and is now on its second national tour.

Feidlim Cannon plays is the son, and is on tour with his mother Ann (a Reiki master and spiritual healer) and the psychotherapist Erich Keller who worked as a consultant in early development workshops and became part of the show.

Erich initially sits to one side of the stage and runs out of dialogue about half way through the show. That’s not to say that his role in the therapy is over; instead he becomes much more intimately involved in Ann and Fiedlam’s memories as flashbacks bring to life painful moments from the family’s past.

There’s a lot going on in the show: a tribute video, balloons, a child’s game, and some unexpected camera work. It also added another new way of making it snow in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio theatre to my ever expanding list.

I can’t say that Have I No Mouth was a pleasurable trip to the theatre. What starts out as a therapy session turns into an explosion of a son’s pent up anger and emotion. The ending is a mix of humiliation and catharsis, quite upsetting to watch, and a far cry from the show’s new age beginning.

It’s an unusual piece of theatre, but it’s not brave or dangerous. The performers are close relatives and are in good relationship, even if Ann doesn’t like to hear Feidlim swear. A lot of time has passed and the grief is not as raw as it once might have been. Everything is under control.

The concept reminds me of Jo Berry’s series of public conversations with Patrick Magee, the ‘Brighton Bomber’ who murdered her father. Their conversations have quite an edge to them. Blood has been shed rather than shared. (You can listen back to one from June 2015 when they were joined by Ann Travers up at the Xchange Summer School in Derry.)

Instead Have I No Mouth is an uncomfortable insight – perhaps an intrusion – into one family’s grief. Uncomfortable because at times we’re laughing out loud at someone else’s misery, including the death of an infant (in front of his mother) and the medical misdiagnosis that prematurely ended the life of a husband and father.

Have I No Mouth continues its Irish tour with performances scheduled in Cork, Dublin and Bray in early May.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Faerie Thorn: Big Telly find a darker mythology in North Coast mythology (The MAC +tour)

Take three stories from Jane Talbot’s book of north coast mythology, add a pinch of Big Telly Theatre Company tomfoolery, prime it with a mischievous and madcap cast, decorate with a big soundtrack, lights, masks and puppets … and you’ve got The Faerie Thorn which is touring this island and beyond for the next month and a half.

Parts of the original fables are narrated from the side of the stage, preserving Talbot’s beautiful prose. Five actors bring to life the dark and bewitching tales with thirty year old Big Telly’s trademark injection of humour as the audience gather around the hawthorn tree that sits in a farmer’s field.

We’re introduced to Man Donaghy (played by Seamus O’Hara), the gangly farmer and one of the Big People. He doesn’t know a good wife when he is blessed with one.

Colette Lennon plays Wife Donaghy who feeds and tends to the enchanted tree, and is possibly the only truly good character on the stage. But her fertility displeases her partner who delivers her into the hands of the sweary King of the Faerie Thorn.

Nicky Harley injects sass into New Wife Donaghy, a “knows-everything-woman”. But she displeases the Little People and Man Donaghy pays a heavy price when he tries to tidy up his marital affairs.

The characters keep coming with Shelly Atkinson adding her droll charm and voices to a variety of roles along with Rory Corconan. We meet trolls dealing with the everyday kitchen problems of getting peas all over their frozen hearts. (Harley also deserves a plaudit for her masterful posture as a manspreading troll.)

And after the interval we dive into Murlough Bay with missing fishermen, the ugly-masked Merrows Men, Bright Blue and lots of clowning, screeching and a skinning scene that wouldn’t be amiss in recent horror film release Raw.

The wooden stage designed by Maree Kearns has hidden depths and there’s an extraordinary attention to detail with large scale puppets, live foley sound effects, and more costume changes than an episode of Strictly Come Dancing. The choreography is tight too with long co-ordinated sequences adding to the eerie feel.

Lennon’s lilting singing voice captivates throughout the show, and a gospel lament about some sea creatures stealing souls showcases the musical talents of the rest of the cast. Garth McConaghie’s soundtrack runs continuously, at one point layering one song over another, providing the atmospheric background for every scene, and often adding to the humour as well as the chilling of spines.

The cast are clearly still putting their own stamp to the show with each passing performance, and while some laugh out loud moments are evocative of Big Telly shows like Puckoon and Gulliver, The Faerie Thorn is less reliant on pure situational comedy and buries a darker humour within the enigmatic tales and the far-fetched imagination of Shelly Atkinson and Zoë Seaton who adapted Talbot’s novel.

There’s a richness in the dialogue that’s matched by the richness in the costumes, the masks, the gags, the soundtrack, the effects, the set, the props and the lighting. Big Telly clearly still don’t believe that “less is more”. And with this show telling three stories, that’s triple the number of ideas that have been thrown into the creative mix.

At times the sheer volume of creativity that blasts out from the stage becomes distracting, but who’s to say that you have to fully understand everything that’s happening in a single evening.

The Faerie Thorn runs at The MAC in Belfast until Saturday 29 April before touring Dublin, Newry, Cushendall, Enniskillen, Derry, Antrim, Monaghan, Armagh, Lisburn, Newtownards, Bellaghy, Waterford, Dundalk, Omagh, the Outer Hebrides and Western Isles, Oxford and Clapham. Be sure not to disrespect the Little People or harm their tree!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Raw – a triumph of prosthetic make-up over good taste and fleshy desires

I’m never going to be a good judge of horror. It’s not my taste in cinema. But new release Raw – the product of French director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau’s gory imagination – strangely falls between stools: I neither found it a breathtakingly scary horror flick, nor was it incredibly clever with a nimble plot that shone light on some facet of life.

The daughter of two vets, young Justine (played by Garance Marillier) was raised a vegetarian and avoided developing a taste for meat until she enrolled at the veterinary college that her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attended.

The anxious fresher is perturbed by the histrionic initiation ceremonies that overshadow her first week in college. Senior students are seen to pass on the hazing rituals they experienced, with teaching staff clearly aware but not intervening. Rabah Nait Oufella plays Justine’s gay-with-benefits room mate.

But this isn’t a film about student bullying and institutional blindness. Not is it an examination of youthful anxiety. Nor a treatise on fluid sexual identity. Instead it’s a fantasy horror built around cannibalism.
“You taste like curry”

Justine’s involuntary consumption of raw meat triggers both a physical and a mental reaction, and the film documents the cultivation of her new sense of taste and fleshy desires.

Throw in some sibling rivalry, a pissing contest, live cattle in a lecture theatre, animal dissection, and the realisation that some of the worst disorders might be inherited.
“An animal that has tasted human flesh isn’t safe.”

When the soundtrack fills with dance music, you know that no matter the sinking feeling in your gut, there’s nothing to be frightened by. But when the string quartet and piano emerges in the sound mix, it’s time to swallow hard and accept the next gory course being served up on-screen. Watch out for a waxing incident that will certainly make you involuntarily cross your legs.

The most bloody reveal near the end is unexpectedly funny. Not really laughing in a nervous sense of relief. Yet not exactly biting wit (if you excuse the pun), and certainly not enough to make it a black comedy. The final couple of scenes bring the film to a gentle if unsatisfactory conclusion that wraps up the story a little too cleanly.

Ultimately, Raw’s horror is served pretty rare, with the blood still dropping. While it’s good fodder for chewing over, it’s not terribly filling and left me hungry and certainly not queasy. Issues of identity and image are hinted at but nipped in the bud before they can blossom. If there is deeper meaning amongst the gore, it passed me by and left me marvelling instead at the prosthetic make-up.

Raw is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 28 April, as well as many other local cinemas.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review - The Promise - Terry George’s epic new film about the Armenian genocide chimes with twenty first century conflicts and displacement

The Promise documents the displacement and genocide of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. It’s a shocking piece of European history that director Terry George beautifully captures in his new epic film.

Michael Boghosian (played by Oscar Isaac) travels from his rural village to the bustling city of Constantinople and lives with relatives while he pursues his dream of studying to become a doctor. He meets fellow Armenian, a family tutor and artist Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) who lives with American journalist Chris Meyers (Christian Bale).

Michael’s somewhat idyllic existence – only complicated by his betrothal to a young woman back in his village – is shaken up by the upsurge in anti-Armenian sentiment and the attacks on property and arrest of community leaders.

A protracted love triangle illuminates the conflict’s human impact on the Boghosian family. This is woven around universal scenes of mass displacement, slave labour, battles, massacre and escape by sea that explain the vast scale of the genocide.
“I made a promise: I can’t go back on that.”
There’s a curious mix of sentimentality, romantic scenes (that seem cheesy due to the lack on on-screen chemistry) and cinematic coincidences that are balanced with the unfolding series of atrocities and an action-hero journey full with stunts, shooting and explosions. The end result mostly maintains its equilibrium, though the hand of history rests a little too firmly on the final scene.

The audience heart strings are evenly tugged in three directions – Michael’s relations and relationships, the Armenian people as a whole, and a specific group of orphans – yet the final string is never pulled quite so tightly as the first two.

As well as not spotting Tom Hollander’s brief appearance, you’ll leave the cinema without knowing the Ana’s surname. While she gets one of the key lines of dialogue – “Our revenge will be to survive” – she never gets to move the plot forward by her actions. That is left in the hands of men, chiefly Michael, his Turkish student friend Emre (played by Marwan Kenzari) and the cream-suited Chris whose reportage cleverly provides cinema audiences with additional examples of the state’s brutal actions.

Conversations around The Promise will mention other iconic films like Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List and it certainly has a splash of Titanic about it. Thankfully The Promise is more than a one-dimensional tale seeking to make its lead characters into heroes. Terry George has returned to the theme of genocide and explores the complexity of propaganda, state lies to cover up killing – “war, or the evacuation of the Armenian people to a safer location?” – conscripted soldiers, church-sponsored NGOs assisting the most vulnerable, trust and cross-community sacrifice.

The 134 minute run time doesn’t feel overly long. The craftsmanship underpinning the film is obvious and contributes to the serious feeling of the production. The editing avoids rapid cutting yet doesn’t leave shots to linger for a second longer than they need to. Golden sunshine floods wide shots of countryside. Eastern Orthodox choral laments are effectively used to signpost moments of terror. The foley work will win awards. The Fez rental bill must nearly rival the hire false moustache budget.

The Belfast preview of The Promise was held on 24 April, the annual day of commemoration for the 1.5 million Armenian people killed in the sustained genocide that peaked in 1915. The Turkish government – of the state that succeeded the Ottoman Empire – continue to deny that genocide took place

The mention of Aleppo as a place of refuge for Armenians fleeing their homes reminds modern day viewers that one hundred years after the on-screen atrocities, ethnic and religious cleansing and killing still carries on across the world. So too does the displacement of people, forced out from homes and areas that no longer feel safe to live in.

The Promise will be screened in Movie House cinemas from Friday 28 April.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Habsburg Tragedies – The Belfast Ensemble – Lyric Theatre (12-15 April)

The Belfast Ensemble are really putting themselves on the artistic map with their sumptuous and sensual production of The Habsburg Tragedies in the Lyric Theatre by Conor Mitchell.

The first half shone a light Mitchell’s verse cycle about Catherine of Aragon which previewed last year in The MAC under the apt but hard to market name of The C**t of Queen Catherine (reviewed last April).

Now called The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon, the audience watch the titular character pace around the room in which she is trapped. She is incarcerated, but not silent. Wearing an immaculate white pant-suit, Catherine, perhaps best known as Henry VIII’s first wife, rehearses the stages of her life and loves. Behind her, hugging the edge of the stage sit a seven piece orchestra who accompany her spoken words.

Abigail McGibbon’s acting is breathtaking and absorbing as she captures the tormented soul. Conor Mitchell’s piano playing, hand movements and nods to the other players compete for attention as his meticulousness and fine tuning of the performance become apparent.

The lighting invites interest too. Simon Bird’s artistry is beyond what you would reasonably expect for a show of this scale. Razor sharp lines cast from far above light the very edge of the stage. Precision fog sending rivulets of cotton wool clouds across the stage were another virtuoso stroke of genius.

The second, shorter act – The Final Confession of Juana ‘the Mad’ – switches to the less well-known story of Catherine’s sister. Again, locked up for a long time, Juana and her daughter Catalina act out a court room scene, using bottles of dead creatures preserved in coloured-formaldehyde as the other characters in their drama.

Again the lines are spoken, but this time very tightly syncopated with the music, with little room for hesitation or lapses in concentration. Jo Donnelly and Stella McCusker parry back and forth as Catalina facilitates Juana’s extended confession. Many of the same themes are explored – blood, virginity, power, disappointment, Europe – against the intricate accompaniment.

The brilliance of the lighting is turned up another notch in the second half, with some experimentation with colour and even darkness. Less nasally-challenged audience members told me how the smell of incense also added to the atmosphere.

At times I became distracted from the plot. But it really didn’t matter. The sheer level of multi-sensory performance squeezed into the show means that sitting through the show is exhilarating, incredibly satisfying and makes it very tempting to keep going back to experience more.

The emerging Belfast Ensemble have proved beyond doubt that their combined expertise and imagination can create beautiful art that is engaging and extremely rich. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Red (Prime Cut and Lyric Theatre until 23 April)

“What do you see?”
It’s a recurring question throughout the performance of Red in the Lyric Theatre. The plot tracks the relationship between abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (played by Patrick O’Kane) and his new assistant Ken (Thomas Finnegan). More than that it examines the motivation, ego and insecurity of the master creator who is all too aware that his ambition and significance are being truncated by the inevitable changing of the guard as the next wave of pop art painters bite on the heels of the current big thing.

Commissioned to paint a number of his trademark large format canvasses for a new high end Four Seasons restaurant, we watch Rothko size up and adjust the unwieldy artworks which hang from pulleys on equally unwieldy wooden easels on castors.

While the script has much to say about Matisse, Picasso and Pollock (of whom considerable animosity is expressed), and is dripping with artistic quotes and anecdotes at the start, John Logan’s fine play goes beyond providing a beginner’s guide to the abstract art world of the mid-twentieth century.

There’s a level of questioning that so obviously holds up a mirror to the impetus behind of whole (rarefied) world of creative and performing arts and the ways in which the public are expected to consume it.
“Not all art has to be psycho-drama”
Unlike much theatre, Red doesn’t just shift between the top two gears, but gives director Emma Jordan the full range of emotion, temper and pace to work with during the ninety minute, no interval performance. The two actors are joined on stage by a continuous soundtrack for much of the play, leading to a tense battle between Rothko’s classical tastes and his assistant’s jazz.
“The point is always the tragedy”
The tragedy of Rothko permeates each scene, building up like the layers of crimson tones on his canvasses. O’Kane becomes the doubting artist who cannot reach out and touch another human.

Ken’s own tragic family backstory is conveniently introduced late on and doesn’t quite affix properly to other layers that have been daubed on the plot. At first Ken is the over-dressed dogsbody to the paint splattered Rothko. But by the final scenes, two years have passed and the tables have turned and the young artist demonstrates a learned confidence as the dress styles swap and Ken’s opinion starts to unsettle his besuited boss. Finnegan manages this transition well and complements his senior on stage partner.

The set and lighting could only be from the imaginative hand of Ciaran Bagnall. As the curtain goes up at the start, the audience realise that they are flies on one wall of the painter’s studio. Yet no matter how firmly the two actor’s stare through that wall, they never catch the eye of an audience member. The diffused light falling on the canvass ceiling creates a beautiful effect as do the never-accidental shadows.
“Without movement paintings are what? / Dead?”
O’Kane and Finnegan’s focussed performance and control of energy and pace continues throughout the entire show. Choreographed scene changes carried out by cast members are now de rigueur in modern theatre – Three Sisters is a good example – but movement director Dylan Quinn has given it a sense of class and equipped the actors with motions whose scale matches the large artworks being shifted.

Red wouldn’t have been complete without a live-painting scene – though their fervent slap dash undercoating reminded me of a couple of East Belfast painters who once used a similar frenetic and messy technique on the interior walls of house.
“One day the black will swallow the red”
The cast and director of this production of Red deliver performances that the incredibly ambitious script deserves. Prime Cut Productions and the Lyric Theatre’s Red runs in the Lyric until 23 April.