Saturday, July 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuber is currently playing in most local cinemas.

Monday, July 08, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Presbyterianism and dissent

Following General Assembly discussions on what dissent within our denomination means, for the July/August edition of the Presbyterian Herald magazine, I looked back through history at how dissent has shaped the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Full magazine available to read online for £1.20.

Dissent has long been part of the Presbyterian tradition. The still-quoted phrase “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter” is a reminder of those on this island who opposed state interference in religious matters, and refused to conform to the established Church of Ireland.

While internal dissent has been foremost to the minds of many over the last few years, the denomination has a strong legacy of external dissent. Roger Courtney’s book Dissenting Voices contains the remarkably rich and varied stories of 300 Presbyterians who over 400 years showed courage and leadership, integrity and conviction.

Presbyterians signed the Ulster Covenant and the women’s Declaration, were involved in the Society of United Irishmen, helped revive the Irish language, formed communities of reconciliation, sought justice and protection for the vulnerable, and call on politicians to exercise balanced accommodation and recognise their collective responsibility for the common good.

At its meeting in October 2018, the General Council appointed a task group to draw up a report on Presbyterian decision-making and the place of dissent following a summer of kirk session meetings, letter writing, media comment, anger and frustration by some about decisions taken concerning the Church of Scotland and the communicant membership of same-sex couples and baptism of their children.

Dr Bill Addley rose to speak at this year’s Assembly and congratulated the task group on their draft report which will now be sent down to presbyteries for comment. The former professor of Practical Theology went on to provide his perspective on the internal dissent that is a regular and recurring feature of the denomination: “It struck me recently that about every 50 or so years there’s a crisis or a controversy which threatens to create a division or a split in the church.”

He explained to me afterwards that “the Arian controversy in the 1820s showed the limit of dissent because having questioned the whole deity of Christ, the 17 ministers seceded to form the Remonstrant Synod [which would later emerge as part of today’s Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland].”

Fast forward to the ‘organ wars’ that followed the 1861 installation of a harmonium in Enniskillen Presbyterian Church. Opposition to this innovation in worship worked its way through Presbytery and Synod until the General Assembly debated the matter in 1868. Some expressed the view that there was nothing in the laws of the Church to prohibit organs, while Dr Henry Cooke argued that they were “alien” to true Presbyterian worship. Writing about this period in 2007, Very Rev Dr Ken Newell noted that “for 30 years hostile pamphlets flew to and fro, angry letters were written to the press, and some ministers who espoused the changes were labelled ‘apostate’”.

In 1873 the General Assembly banned organs, and a movement emerged to stand against “this pollution of organs, the growth of stained-glass windows and the building of spires”. But they still kept being installed and, in 1888, 200 ministers threatened to leave the denomination. A five-year truce was negotiated.

Dr Addley noted that “every year the Assembly passed a resolution condemning the innovation, and every year a large number of churches ignored it and no action was taken against them. And eventually, in 1891, the General Assembly decided to ‘pass from the question’ and that’s where it was left. They just resolved it by parking it.”

The next major crisis was the heresy trial where charges were brought against Assembly’s College Rev Professor Davey in 1926 for holding and teaching allegedly liberal doctrines contrary to the Word of God and the subordinate standards of the Church. After a long trial, he was acquitted and the appeals brought to General Assembly in 1927 were dismissed.

By the 1970s, the controversy was about membership of, and subsequently withdrawal from, the World Council of Churches. Some members of today’s General Assembly will remember arguing vociferously on one or other side of that prolonged argument.

“Those who initially dissented from the decision to remain in the World Council of Churches came back every year and eventually they won. They wore down the others who said this is really diverting us too much and it’s not as important as other things.”

The desire for the denomination to stay together proved stronger than the wish to continue to disrupt and divide.

And now, nearly 50 years later, the church is divided over how to react to another set of issues.
In the moments following June 2018’s General Assembly decision to change the nature of the formal high-level relationship with the Church of Scotland and United Reformed Church, 81 members of the House recorded their dissent and their names were noted in the Assembly minutes.

Two days later, another 16 members recorded their dissent in the minutes at the decision to receive the report of the Doctrine committee which suggested that the children of same-sex couples could not be baptised due to the need of the parents to make a credible profession of faith.

“The Assembly has done things with which I haven’t agreed” Dr Addley admitted. “I have never thought that signing a document of dissent added anything and so I never have. What you’re doing is disassociating yourself from the decision so that everybody knows you were kosher … But you [still] have to obey.”

Before the summer, the Clerk of Assembly Rev Trevor Gribben, acting on behalf of the General Council, issued a letter to all ministers concerning a number of matters. One section recognised that debate and discussion could take place outside the formal structures of the church, whether privately or in more organised ways. However, the letter cautioned against bringing the Church “into disrepute” by speaking in public in a way that might cause “scandal injurious to the purity or peace of the Church”. Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence, he clarified that ministers were not being censored: “People are free to debate in public – it is the nature of that discourse that is important.”

Former moderator Very Rev Dr John Dunlop summed up his stance, saying: “I think you can be a dissenter without being a deserter.”

By early July, 232 teaching and ruling elders signed a letter entitled ‘A Cry from the Heart’ to “acknowledge, and indeed share, the profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger currently being expressed in the wake of decisions taken at our 2018 General Assembly.” (In the interests of transparency, I should acknowledge that while having no part in the writing or signing of the letter, I was approached in a professional capacity to circulate that letter to the Moderator, Clerk and Irish media outlets.)

In mid-September, another letter with 602 signatures of Presbyterians sought to express “loyal dissent and the need for continuing public discourse” around the breakdown in inter-denominational relations and asserted the “long held right of Presbyterians to exercise their God given right of private judgement.”

Some voices noted that hundreds of ministers and thousands of ruling elders – the majority – hadn’t signed any letters or made any protest.

In his letter, the Clerk offered advice on how to change decisions of the General Assembly and the Presbytery of South Belfast proposed a Memorial that if successful would have allowed a vote in June 2018 to rescind last year’s decision to break high-level relations with the Church of Scotland. With 187 votes (35%) cast for and 353 against (65%), the prayer of the Memorial was not granted.

Of course, dissent operates at many levels and on many planes. The reports from the Council for Training in Ministry expressed dissent about the import of Queen’s University’s changing relationship with Union Theological College, and presented an alternative narrative that challenged the review process.

It’s surely natural and to be expected that the denomination will sometimes dissent against the state and other authorities? “If the church doesn’t dissent it’s not being true to the gospel” said Dr Addley, “because there are fundamental issues where we differ from the state.”

Dr Dunlop notes in the foreword to Courtney’s book: “all institutions, including churches, are led, or indeed misled, by people like ourselves”. History suggests that dissent may sometimes be part of upholding and promoting standards distinctive to Presbyterianism on this island. Or it may be part of a process of discernment around the need for further reformation. But it doesn’t inevitably have to lead to division.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Double bill of plays addressing alcoholism and other mental health issues (The Bright Umbrella Drama Company until 6 July)

In a sideways shift from their recent run of Shakespearean productions, The Bright Umbrella Drama Company are this weekend presenting a double-bill of plays dealing with some of the tough issues we tend to shirk away from discussing in Northern Ireland: alcoholism and mental health problems.

First up is Philip Orr’s Hope & Alcohol, a melancholic monologue by school bus driver Alan who describes how his life has careered out of control and come crashing to a halt as he loses grip of his family, girlfriend, job and health. Karaoke numbers sustain the pace while some gentle humour at the start helps Trevor Gill set up the character sympathetically. In this one man show, Gill morphs into numerous other figures that Alan comes into contact with.
“I thought that people didn’t know … I was a heavy drinker … [but] everyone knew it.”

Commissioned by The Hope Centre in Ballymena and first performed in Larne last October, the 40-minute play is a sobering yet unpreachy insight into the reality of alcohol addiction and its impact on the lives of those affected.

After the interval, the action switches to the three-handed Pure Mental which lies somewhere between an illustrated lecture and a sketch show. The trio immediately launch into an examination of stigmatising mental health insults before psychiatrist Professor Hertz van Rental (complete with shocking white hair as bleached as his white coat) reveals his musical Five Steps to Wellness.

Glenn McGivern, Kieran McKernan and Trevor Gill have written and enthusiastically perform a series of sketches that are spliced together to gently impart the health and treatment messages designed to overcome male unease at opening up and talking.

The mood bounces from mirth to morose with a Mastermind quiz commendably reminding the audience about some stark statistics on suicide (which somewhat justify the all male cast), while commentary on historical figures reveals how they lived with – and sometimes died from – untreated mental health problems. Being luvvies, the words and characters of Shakespeare and Beckett make an appearance. The ending needs tidied up a little, but it’s both entertaining and engaging, no mean feat for a show dealing with such a serious matter.

Tickets are still available for the final performance on Saturday 6 June starting at 7.45pm in The Little Theatre in the church hall of Mountpottinger Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, 1a Castlereagh Street, Belfast, BT5 4NE.

The National Lottery Community Fund are enabling Pure Mental to go back out on tour to eight venues, and BUDCo are keen to hear from any youth groups or organisations that feel they would benefit from the production paying them a visit.

Assembly Required – holding a robot mirror up to bad yet normal human behaviour (Headrush Ireland at Lyric Theatre until 6 July)

Assembly Required is the third new play from Headrush, Ireland, a creative collective formed in late 2017 by recent graduates from Queen’s University. They’re back with another psychological thriller, this time a Black Mirror-lite piece examining the dangers of artificial intelligence.

Mia believes that her apartment is haunted. But it turns out that she has more to fear from the ghosts her commitment-phobic boyfriend carries around and the new female automaton she has ordered to keep her company since he won’t accept her invitation to move in.

Debra Hill’s brilliantly contrasts Ali’s movements and speech patterns with the two human characters, walking around with her arms still and making ninety degree turns as she moves about the schematic floor-plan of the apartment blurting out overly-bubbly speech while she sizes up her new owner. It’s really well observed and disciplined, making her later transformation all the more powerful.

Fresh off the other Lyric stage from Pirates of Penzance on Sunday evening, Ciara Mackey proves that she can apply her acting talent to a lot more than musical theatre as she portrays Mia, a broken soul, clinging on to the still hopeful embers of love while spiralling down into desperate patterns of destructive behaviour. All the while dressed in silky pyjamas and dressing gowns, and holding down some kind of never-described part time job.

Her boyfriend Rob is tall and strong. Elliot Lloyd lets a hint of control and untrustworthiness linger in the air and fester as the tension builds up and dependency deepens.

Artificial intelligence is an ambitious topic to tackle, and there’s a definite maturity about the ethical issues that are drawn out. There’s a sense that the play is also trying to be about the nature of love and lust – an apple with a bite out of it sits symbolically on the glass coffee table in the trendily-furnished flat – but that theme is eventually drowned out by the strong incoming tide of Ali “trying to be as human as I can” and learning too many bad habits from her human masters.

There’s a lovely moment as sound designer Katie Richardson places the song Animals alongside another night of senseless drinking by the couple who don’t live together but seem to spend every night falling asleep and every morning waking up separately strewn across Mia’s flat. The side-on lighting also helps paint the early morning and late-night scenes.

Normally exhausting to watch, this latest Headrush production swings to the opposite extreme with a one act play that is stretched over 90 minutes. Jonathan M Daley’s script is initially brimming with ideas and some great early laughs about cutlery and mimicking human behaviour, while Conal Clapper’s direction includes some nice moments that catch the eye of the audience, and well-executed mirroring by Ali/Rob of Mia/Ali’s earlier actions. But the somewhat flabby play would benefit from being pulled much tighter with some dramaturgical advice and shorter scene changes. Having just one ending rather than the three potential final scenes in the prolonged conclusion would also prevent the somewhat-signposted twist being wrung dry.

Headrush remain an exciting new theatre company to watch, writing and producing their own new work as they build up experience and work with a widening range of talented actors and creatives.

Assembly Required runs in the Lyric Theatre’s Naughton Studio until Saturday 6 July.

Photo credit: Headrush Ireland social media

Monday, July 01, 2019

The Pirates of Penzance – what happens when a sense of duty is taken to extremes (The Belfast Ensemble at Lyric Theatre)

When the conductor/ director tells the audience to feel free to hum along with any tunes they recognise, you know it’s a relaxed performance for both those on stage and the punters in the stalls who can afford to sit back and enjoy and evening of entertainment.

Coming at the end of The Belfast Ensemble’s Bash weekend that showcased two of their previous works and premièred another, the gala concert performance of The Pirates of Penzance allowed the cast, orchestra and crew to let their hair down at the same time as demonstrating their ability to work with a larger number of players, chorus and line-up of singers.

There’s still something deeply political about Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1880 democratising opera, despite its comic overtones and a much-parodied tune.

The ludicrous set-up is that a band of pirates are up to no good off the coast of Cornwall. Having been accidentally signed up to life on the high seas by his beautiful nursemaid Ruth, Frederic has turned 21 and is at the end of his apprenticeship and able to escape from the motley crew of soft-hearted bandits who draw the line at ravishing orphans. Frederic is rejected by a group of young women he stumbles over on a beach, all except Mabel, one of the Major-General’s daughters.

As well as sending up the establishment, much is made of people’s strong sense of duty that leads them to follow through with obviously poor decisions. It certainly has a contemporary flavour.

Darren Franklin gifted his warm tenor voice to Frederic and was well-matched by soprano Rebecca Murphy’s bright and giddy Mabel, particularly in a moment of duet in Act II. Matthew Cavan added to the overall absurdity by giving the Pirate King a waxed chest, while Tony Flynn may not have been as tall in stature as most Major Generals, but he certainly brought a fine comic style and powerful voice to his performance and made the best known song of the show his own with an enthusiastic and tongue-twisting solo.

Playwright Marie Jones made her opera debut and showed off her deep and husky voice as the Chief of Police. Standing beside her, Ciara Mackey demonstrated her versatility (The Young Pornographers, April 2019; The Jazzabelles, April 2018; Spamalot, October 2017) playing Kate, alongside sister Edith (Marcella Walsh). Gavin Peden played pirate Samuel.

Behind these nine soloists stood two rows of singers making up the chorus of pirates and young women. A 14-strong orchestra, conducted by Conor Mitchell, powered their way through the two-act performance, with leader and first violist Clare Feehan rarely getting a moment’s rest in the busy score.

The Lyric’s sound engineer Ian Vannard could be a virtual member of The Belfast Ensemble with his sympathetic mix that amplified the orchestra with its sampled percussion, while keeping the soloists in front of the chorus. It’s the kind of show where any element could have drowned out another, but that was never close to happening last night.

Despite the limited rehearsal time, the costumed soloists and chorus went beyond merely singing their parts and injected plenty of acting, gestures and pouting into their roles. The Ensemble’s trademark projection was very simple and abbreviated, though still images might have eliminated all distraction from the on-stage fun.

A great ending to a strong weekend of performances that celebrated the last two years of The Belfast Ensemble’s work, and send them off to the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre on Sunday 7 July, before heading up to Hull on Saturday 13 as part of the New Music Biennial.

Apollo 11 – letting the first manned mission to the moon tell its own story (QFT until 11 July)

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon is just weeks away. While I’m not old enough to have been alive when lunar module Eagle touched down on the Moon’s surface, NASA’s space flights were the focus of displays and exhibits at childhood visits to Armagh Planetarium.

There’s no single authoritative and complete account of the mission. Last year’s First Man provided a window into the character of test pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong. Nineteen years ago, The Dish told the quirky story of how pictures from the mission were beamed – or nearly, not beamed – around the Earth.

In recent weeks, it has been fun to dip into BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast which uses the final descent as its hook to explore hair-raising moments on that voyage as well as the build-up to the mission over the previous decade. Recommended listening.

Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 constrains itself to the period of the launch until the crew arrive back on Earth and sit out 18 long days in quarantine. Never guilty of under-documenting anything, NASA’s film footage from numerous angles in the launch and mission control rooms and from the Saturn rocket, command and lunar modules is combined with the 30-track tapes of voice recordings.

There are no distracting talking heads. No looking back through halcyon spectacles. The complexity and significance of the mission is allowed to speak for itself. Split screen effects allow different perspectives to be compared. Simple graphics signify increasing speed and convey where we are in the timeline.

As we walk through the stages of the mission, Matt Morton’s excellent sound track provides the only external interference, setting a sense of tension and manipulating emotion as it pumps out booming heartbeats during the launch, and piano/string sequences as the Eagle heads back to dock with Columbia. The crew’s portable tape player supplies John Stewart’s Mother Country and the extraordinarily-apt lyric “just a lot of people doing the best they could”.

Rows of men (reckoned to be just one woman among 500 men) dressed in white shirts and ties (except a few extroverts with a sense of occasion wearing bowties) sit behind banks of warning lights, green on black monitors and sensor printers. Audience chests tighten and the cinema barely seems to breathe as we discover the three astronauts are being strapped into the rocket while a couple of engineers use wrenches to fix a leak somewhere below them on the huge structure.

Moments of mission audio jump out, phrases like Buzz Aldrin’s expressive comment “magnificent desolation” and his alter understatement “it’s been a long day”, as well as Neil Armstrong speaking of the “symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown”.

Apollo 11 offers a fresh look at a well-understood space mission. The over-familiar stock of photography is replaced with multiple angles of moving images from inside the heart of the mission, some of the footage being used for the first time.

There’s no subtitling, conveying the sense of sometimes garbled audio links that left experts on the ground fitting incomplete information together to understand the mission status. The panicky significance of the 1201 and 1202 program alarms flagged up during the lunar descent is somewhat lost to the inexpert cinema audience who are watching in real time. Armstrong’s manual search for a safe landing place is the subject of a quick discussion after they are safely landed.

In some ways, the hype-less Apollo 11 film underplays the drama of the mission. The filmmakers trust that the implicit danger and the obvious dedication of the NASA staff and Apollo crew are sufficient to carry the 93 minute film. Their bet pays off with a documentary that still enthrals and excites.

Apollo 11 is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre as well as Dundonald Omniplex.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Belfast Ensemble's triptych of work - Usher, Catherine and Lunaria - a celebration of quality and perseverance (Lyric Theatre, 28-30 June)

Belfast Ensemble’s weekend ‘Bash’ is a bit like having enjoyed a few episodes of a new programme and then sitting down to binge watch the boxset, with the added bonus of a new episode revealed at the end. It’s very satisfying to nestle into your theatre seat and let the performances challenge your senses and explore your mind, even if the dark themes of chaos and white noise pervade the two and a half hours of entertainment.

Never content to sit on their laurels and rehash an old production, Conor Mitchell and his assembled masters of musical theatre have restaged and further refined two of their previous works.

The House of Usher (reviewed with a longer title this time last year) introduces the notion that life is out of control with its heavily raked set. Convention is broken with the silhouette of a dark figure pacing around the lit floor, his eyes and mouth mostly invisible, but his whole body and demeanour emoting in tandem with the narration (based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story). Video projection (Gavin Peden) both provides blocks of light with which Usher (Tony Flynn) can interact and a garbled, blocky, noisy representation of his state of mind.

The soundscape (Ian Venard) is rich with a ticking clock at one point that propels the story without every dominating. It’s just one example of the expert balance that The Belfast Ensemble brings to their combination of dramaturgy, music, acting, lighting, sound, set and projection to create multi-layered performances which – like a good film – reveal more upon repeat viewing.

Part of me longs for an audio commentary to accompany The House of Usher. There’s richness in the production that probably only the cast and crew fully comprehend. Yet the magic is that not understanding the full complexity never dilutes the effect or harms the experience.

The C*** of Queen Catherine was back on stage after the interval. The third version that I’ve attended, and the first which didn’t require that the audience perched on beanbags.

The Castillian princess reveals that she’s more than the first in a tragic line of six wives of King Henry VIII, looking back over her life and in particular the ramifications of her earlier disappointing marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales. Gender and reproduction are at the heart of her story – hence the piece’s unbroadcastable title* – yet are not the only lens through which we can view her life and legacy. References to building a wall add a dash of Brexit realism and help ground the piece in 2019 as well as 1531.

White pant-suited Abigail McGibbon is as sure-footed in her extended music-backed monologue as she is navigating the slanted set with its adapted table and chair. Light and shade (Simon Bird) once again enhance the drama. A bed of mellow viola (Aoife Magee) beautifully underscores some of the most intimate moments of Catherine’s self-realisation. For the first time, projection is introduced, and while it animates the stormy voyage to London, for the most part it feels like less would be more and McGibbon’s emotional range is sufficient to carry the piece.

*During the second interval you play the game of inventing new titles for the piece. The Cats of Queen Catherine was my favourite out of some of the suggestions I heard which included, Cows, Cock and Cyst …

As if two old favourites weren’t enough, this weekend’s audiences at the Lyric Theatre are being treated to the première of new commission (PRS Foundation) that will shortly be performed in London and Hull as part of the 2019 New Music Biennial. Lunaria (a flower that blooms every two years) takes verbatim news reports and Hansard transcripts from the last two years to create an ingenious overlapping 11-minute performance that highlights the confusing, contradictory, unexpected and often inexplicable nature of UK politics.

In this local staging, the orchestra and actors are arranged in concentric circles with their backs to the audience who mill around the performance. An agitated score sits beneath Matthew Cavan, Tony Flynn and Abigail McGibbon’s readings of long and dense passages that cover a General Election, Brexit negotiations, and the death of Lyra McKee. Brexit, borders, rights, agreement, discord, backstop: it was all there.

For me, that final and unanticipated section with its cacophony of contradictory and contrapuntal sources – the Real IRA statement, a news report and then Father Martin Magill’s powerful funeral address – converged to create a very emotional moment. Yet ensuing melee was also a reminder that the distressed news agenda that reflects our stressed identities, aspirations and values across these islands is often now heard as noise that oppresses our senses and further confuses us, rather than painting a picture that we can follow and buy into.

As a triptych of original, international-standard work, the fusion of The House of Usher, The C*** of Queen Catherine and Lunaria are a good match in the one evening. While the intimacy of the earlier in-the-round treatments with their overhead sets has been reduced, I found the distance refreshing, giving a wider perspective and space to imbibe each production’s themes and story.

The final performances of the Bash triple bill are on Saturday 29 June.

Hats off to The Belfast Ensemble for persevering with their vision for excellence in musical theatre. They’ve quickly become one of the most prodigious producers of new work in Northern Ireland, and deserve to cross these shores and increase their reach and impact.

At a time when Belfast theatres seem to be totally risk-averse and more financially-stretched than ever before, and only seven months away from the Grand Opera House stages going dark for major refurbishment, it’s refreshing to see edgy and thoughtful productions in a sector that has been lost a lot of its innovative verve, mostly through being financially winded with year-on-year cuts and politicians that on the whole talk a lot about the negatives of some types of culture but can’t sell the benefits of this kind.

Aside from all this, The Belfast Ensemble still have one more exuberant celebration of musical theatre up their sleeves. On Sunday night they’ll be back with a gala concert version of The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan’s irreverent comic opera about a group of undesirables that take on the establishment’s sense of duty and redefine the notion of a sea border. In the continuing chaotic context of Brexit, it could be more modern horror than mirth, but the promise of some guest stars (Marie Jones making her operatic debut) and the teasing sound of rehearsals wafting up through the floorboards one evening make it feel like a Sunday night treat.

Friday, June 21, 2019

We The Animals – a feral coming of age tone poem for the silver screen (QFT from 21 June)

We The Animals is the cinematic version of a tone poem. Director Jeremiah Zagar projects a mood onto the silver screen rather than telling a story. We learn a lot, but hear little. This isn’t a taxing film to watch. Yet once the first half hour had passed and I had got over the initial life-is-too-short-for-this-pace-of-non-story feeling, it grew on me.

An abusive parental relationship swings from sunshine to violent gales as three young boys look on. Their Dad (Raúl Castillo) can be lovey dovey, but is mostly domineering, selfish and often absent. Their Mum (Sheila Vand) cares for and protects them when she can drag her lethargic body out of bed. The feral children creep around the house dressed only in shorts, scavenging for food and finding their own entertainment. Lying under his bed, the youngest, Jonah (Evan Rosado), processes what he sees by drawing disturbing pictures. A older teen with a penchant for explicit chatline TV ads triggers a gentle sexual awakening.

Very quickly it becomes apparent that the scenes are strung together without much of a narrative. Occasional surreal sequences communicate the out of control feeling at the hearty of the youngest child. The naturalistic filming is sometimes stretched beyond believability.

The final, fragile song over the credits beautifully wraps this coming of age drama about a tight-knit family gang who learn how to stand up for themselves – even when that means the father’s violent hand passes from one generation to the next – and leap towards aspects of adolescence far too quickly.

Despite the posters, it’s no more like Moonlight than it can be compared with The Florida Project, but We The Animals is perceptive and intelligent, and screening in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 21 June.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse (NI Opera, touring NI until 22 June)

Just half-an-hour long, with colourful costumes, live music and a quirky plot, Northern Ireland Opera’s latest production, The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse written and scored by Greg Caffrey, is aimed at children aged seven and over.

Pamplemousse is upset when he discovers that the creatures entering his kitchen through a hole in the skirting board share a similar name but fail to accept him as one of their own. The five sartorially-elegant mice mischievously scamper around (and over) the auditorium. When Pamplemousse is moved to tears at their intolerance, they leech off his sweet yellow tears, collapsing in a drunken stupor. He is elated by this bonding until the sated mice lose interest in his dried-up tears. But the appearance of Apricot (with a silent T) stirs something in his fleshy inside as he finds a velvety soulmate to snuggle up to in the fruit bowl.

With each performance preceded by a music and craft workshop, NI Opera have gone to a lot of effort to maximise the accessibility of the production, with a programme that answers questions, and a playful set that young audience members want to invade at the end.

Countertenor Francesco Giusti’s falsetto voice bursts out from his red and yellow grapefruit costume as he portrays the fruit in a middle of an identity crisis. Narrator John Porter is particularly strong as he recaps the story and keeps the audience on track. While Caffrey’s libretto doesn’t dumb down its vocabulary for its young audience, it does contain lots of repetition which overcomes a common operatic problem of crucial information being camouflaged behind the singing.

Enhancing Pamplemouse’s visual feast are the costumed members of the Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble conducted by the their musical director Sinead Hawes. Percussionist Cathryn Lynch is kept particularly busy as she glides between drum kit, vibraphone and wood blocks in one sequence, all the while blowing a whistle.

It’s good to see familiar faces from the NI Opera Studio performing in the troupe of mice. The range and regularity of their studio performances over the last year or so have been a welcome initiative to open up this genre to a wider range of audiences with shorter and more playful works that are less intimidating than the classic opera repertoire.

Belfast Ensemble’s concert version of Conor Mitchell’s The Musician was part of this year’s Belfast Children’s Festival. The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse is hopefully the start of another annual opera performance aimed at the youngest audiences who can easily engage with the colourful, larger-than-life characters and surreal situations.

The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse is touring through Newry (11am, Monday 17 June), Enniskillen (11am, Tuesday 18), Omagh (11am, 19 June), Armagh (11am, 21 June), Derry (3pm, 22 June).

Friday, June 14, 2019

A Night in November – an amazing evening of theatre not to be forgotten (Lyric Theatre until 21 June + NI tour)

The 25th anniversary production of A Night to Remember is a remarkable piece of theatre. Marie Jones’ 1994 script captures the internal battle as dole clerk Kenneth Norman McCallister wakes up to the sectarian hatred and discrimination which he has been part of and begins to question the shaky foundations of his Protestant identity.

While it’s a Troubles play, Jones doesn’t engineer the audience to laugh along with the sectarian behaviour. At least not the way her son Matthew McElhinney expertly directs the play. Nor does she turn it into a pity party. A Night to Remember is about getting under the skin of Belfast residents of the 1990s and understanding their motivations.

The intelligent script is brought to life by Matthew Forsythe who owns the stage as Kenneth from start to finish, while weaving in and out of everyone else he encounters and talks to along his journey. Multi-roling is more and more common in plays, but this is a level above what’s normally seen. Rehearsals must have been like a brutal boot camp in order to drill such sharp yet nuanced shifts of stance and demeanour into the performance. But the work and attention to detail has paid off. Veterans of Mydidae will smile in the second half as Forsythe bashfully makes a quick change!

The first half – nearly a complete play in itself – sees Kenneth accompany his father-in-law to the Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland qualifying game in Windsor Park. The behaviour of the NI fans audibly upsets some in the theatre audience, with tuts and gasps to be heard above the chanting and racist impersonations on stage. But Kenneth’s reaction and revulsion puts this horror in context.

After the interval, the pace intensifies with an explosive dinner party and another football match, as Kenneth breaks free from the traditions and conduct with which he is longer happy to abide. The emotional crunch near the end is very moving as the euphoric bubble of victory is burst with the news of a murderous attack back home (dovetailing in with an excellent documentary film).

Garth McConaghie’s soundscape envelops the stage. The domestic sound of a vacuum cleaner is warm and rich and allowed to fill the whole space much like the roar of the crowd in Windsor Park. Together with Conleth White’s lighting design and Chris Hunter’s mirrored set, these elements enhance the acting.

While by no means conclusive or certain, recent election results suggest that a portion of the Northern Ireland electorate have shifted in how they want to express their politics. It feels very apt to watch Kenneth break free from his old habits and explore new and very unexpected ways of expressing his identity and his aspirations, albeit dressed up as some sort of mid-life crisis that allows him to abandon home and work without telling anyone. Watching A Night in November brings home the distance we have travelled, while underscoring how many old suspicions and tensions and chants (on and off the field) remain just under the radar.

If a show ever deserved a standing ovation – which Belfast audiences tend to hand out at the drop of a hat – then the combination of Marie Jones’ writing, Matthew Forsythe’s acting and Matthew McElhinney’s direction merit long applause for a very special piece of live theatre that captivates and engages throughout.

Playing in the Lyric Theatre until 21 June, Soda Bread Theatre are taking the show out on the road and visiting Bangor, West Belfast, East Belfast, Newcastle, Limavady, Mullingar, Ballymena, Enniskillen, Cushendall, Armagh, Newtownabbey, Lisburn, Coalisland, Monaghan, Antrim and Derry in August and September.

Photo: Chris Hunter