Thursday, December 05, 2019

Motherless Brooklyn – fighting to find the truth in 1950’s New York (from Friday 6 December)

xxx Motherless Brooklyn tells the story of 1950’s New York private investigator Lionel Essrog who is chasing down clues and contacts to find out why his boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) was ‘whacked’. It’s more whydunit than whodunit as he traces his way through city authorities and a corrupt slum clearance programme.

But there’s a sense that you get two films in one with Motherless Brooklyn. Aside from the mystery, it’s also a character study about an orphaned man with Tourette’s navigating his way through professional and personal relationships and longing for acceptance.

Producer, screenwriter, director and actor Edward Norton has been working on this passion project for more than a decade, backdating Jonathan Lethem’s novel to root it in a very noir 1950s. Daniel Pemberton’s relaxed jazz score accompanies the well told tale and the two and a half hour run time never drags. In fact, half we through, the action more or less pauses while we sit in a jazz club with Lionel and listen to a song from beginning to end. More films should have the confidence to do this!

“You come off weird, but you’re smart!”

Lionel’s physical and mental tics quickly become part of his charm and part of his investigative toolbox. His ability to disarm suspects and then utilise his photographic memory set him apart from the other guys left in the headless firm.

Alec Baldwin plays the wheeling and dealing Moses Randolph, an unelected self-styled tsar who controls much of the city’s development with a stern look backed up by bully boys to enforce his plans. Not a million miles away from the real-life figure of Robert Moses. Motherless Brooklyn really fits into the slew of films this year that get under the skin of mob and mafia organisations.

Undoubtedly male-heavy, for the first hour women are mostly bystanders in the story. Then Lionel finds Laura Rose, a campaigner fighting the gentrification and its racist undertones. Gugu Mbatha-Raw embraces the ambiguity that surrounds her character as the audience watch Lionel try to figure out how she fits into the incomplete jigsaw puzzle that he has been assembling.

The plot’s not without the occasional hole and the version of New York on show is rather sepia, but overall Motherless Brooklyn is a really enjoyable tale, centred around a likeable and eccentric characters who reveals as much about his city as the crime he’s investigating.

Motherless Brooklyn opens in UK and Irish cinemas from Friday 6 December.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Beauty and the Beast – banterific with fabulous special effects (Grand Opera House until 12 January)

Beauty and the Beast starts with a flash bang wallop and the pyrotechnics continue throughout the Grand Opera House’s 2019 pantomime. Qdos Entertainment are running 35 pantomimes across the UK this Christmas, and they have the organisational muscle and the advance box office takings to throw everything at this production.

There are adult dancers in psychedelic costumes, young ones from the McMaster Stage School, magical tricks, a rose shedding its petals, a huge cake that’s on stage for less than a minute, fireworks shooting across the stage, cast members flying up into the air, and a sports car flying out over the audience.

Yet it’s the brass neck of May McFettridge (playing Mrs Potty but generally referred to as ‘May’ throughout) that draws the best audience reaction (and the standing ovation at the end). Scriptwriter Alan McHugh must weep buckets at the realisation that much of what he supplies in the script will be ripped out and replaced with local banter, insulting everyone brave enough to sit in the front two rows. It’s tiresome stuff, and based around a slightly uncomfortably dated sensibility, but it’s undoubtedly crowd pleasing. A heckler got their just comeuppance last night with a sharp putdown underlining the fact that John Linehan– celebrating 30 years in panto this season – won’t be letting go of May’s star billing anytime soon.

Yet the witty repartee and big production values comes at a cost. The actual story of Beauty and the Beast is in tatters. We jump from the Beast being scary to his plea to Belle that “I want you to be welcome here, not afraid” in a heartbeat. Blink and you’ll miss the reason why two cast members jump into the fabulous special effect sports car to race back to the village – I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a Dale Farm milk float – and still fail to get there first. The punchline to one of Mandy Muden’s magic tricks – somewhat overshadowed by the brilliantly dour response of the audience volunteer up on stage – was mumbled and four minutes of build-up disappeared into a puff of confusion. The Enchantress (Joanna O’Hara) run on stage and helpfully flags up where we’ve got to in the story. The whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

“Empty castle, empty corridors, empty rooms – imaging having a castle like that in Belfast” jokes the Beast in one of the topical references. The Beast is played by Ben Richards who portrays a real sense of anguish in his scenes opposite Belle. Georgia Lennon is one of the most junior (and least well paid) principal actors in the show, yet is one of the few who gets to show off her acting talent. Her Belle is tender and determined and there’s a real sense of emotion and theatre when she’s on stage with Richards. Danny Bayne plays the baddie with conviction and a correct amount of overacting necessary for pantomime, though his character’s name, Flash Harry, may make punters wonder whether the local Freddie Mercury impersonator now has a shaved-chested impersonator. (Oh no he doesn’t.)

Throw in a spot of Ed Sheeran Thinking Out Loud, a puntastic medley of songs that get the adults singing along, a familiar but effective 12 Days of Christmas sketch complete with rehearsed mistakes that joyously mix in with genuine slipups to create one of the funniest moments of the show, and you have the two hour phenomenon that is the hugely popular Grand Opera House festive show. It’s unlike any other pantomime you’ll see on these islands. If the special effects were removed, would the spectacle still shine so bright?

“We can’t change how we look; but we can choose how we behave” says Belle as she challenges the Beast’s negative thinking. Maybe that’s also a challenge to the central Belfast venue which is going dark at the end of this pantomime run to refit its interior and modernise its customer service areas. Maybe the worn out jokes about religion and asides about sexuality need to put in the builder’s skip and some plush and more up-to-date humour fitted into next year’s show (Goldilocks and the Three Bears, already 30% of seats sold).

Beauty and the Beast continues at the Grand Opera House until Sunday 12 January. Oh yes it is …

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Frozen Princess – community panto which entertains from start to finish (Waterfront Studio until 31 December)

Based loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and with more than a nod to the Frozen movie, the Waterfront Studio pantomime this year is The Frozen Princess.

When Emily is cursed by a broken mirror and disappears off to the Snow Castle up on Cave Hill, her sister Anna is desperate to thaw relations in time for her wedding. Her nanny, Amanda Marry-Weather, has an endless list of tasks to complete ahead of Princess Anna’s wedding, but top of the list is finding her own perfect man. Meanwhile the Frozen Princess’ sidekicks are hunting high and low to capture Prince Freddie Foundered, there’s a reindeer on the loose, a snowman ready to melt someone’s heart and rhyming Fairy Sunshine who is trying to make everything good again.

The energetic cast of six tackle the multi-roled script and director Chris Robinson incorporates lots of audience participation, quick changes and jumping off stage to race around the auditorium. The two-level set is glittery, the props are supersized, there are references galore to streets and landmarks across Belfast, and there must be 12–15 songs (kudos to Katie Richardson) packed into the two-hour show which trilled audiences at the early afternoon performance I attended today. The cover of George Ezra’s Shotgun is superb and the final uplifting We’ve Got Each Other Back for Good really shows off Annika Graham’s choreography.

Marty Maguire’s pantomime dame spits out strings of jokes, littered with puns and ad libs. It’s a real skill to be able to hold a stage on your own for five minutes at a time in front of such a young family audience.

Gavin Peden is a Waterfront panto regular and revels in his role as the somewhat dumbfounded Prince. Eimear Barr’s Princess Anna is tall, confident, and will do anything to rescue her finance. The I’m a Sucker for You duet with Barr and Peden is a highlight before the interval.

Every Christmas panto needs a couple of clowns, and The Frozen Princess has two capable comic actors in the cast, Nicky Harley and Jo Donnelly, who pull off crazy disco dance moves and try to help their evil overlord put a freeze on the imminent nuptials. Finally, playing the titular role, Catriona McFeely spends most of the performance casting withering looks down from her lofty stage before her getting her warmth back in the finale.

This is a community panto which entertains primary school-aged children and their accompanying grownups from start to finish. There are no big gimmicks or fancy projections, though the lighting design is pretty spectacular and there’s a quick flurry of snow. Instead Tom Rowntree-Finlay and Thomas McCorry’s well-structured plot is performed with vigour and verve.

The Frozen Princess by GBL Productions runs in the Waterfront Studio until 31 December.

Ordinary Love – a triumph of restraint as script, direction, music and cast combine with the audience’s own insecurities (UK and Irish cinemas from 6 December)


Has a film ever been made before about Whiteabbey? Ordinary Love is a celebration of late sixties and early seventies Northern Ireland architecture with heavy wood panelling, ghastly pink and beige bathroom suites, exposed internal brickwork and chunky stone fireplaces. Was it every truly modern?

Joan and Tom take a purposeful stroll every evening down the Shore Road. Their lives are full of ritual, gently needling each other before retreating back into comfortable mundanity and talking about everything and nothing in the abstract. They eat chops that Joan takes out of the freezer. It’s like watching your parents up on the screen. Welcome to County Antrim!

The couple have been married for a long time, but the seeds of doubt are soon sown about their emotional and physical health. Discovering a lump in her left breast, Joan embarks on an unmapped journey through the health service that will put more than her body under the microscope.
“All I know is it felt serious.”

Lesley Manville plays Joan as a woman who is down but not out. We watch her despondency, her confusion, her narkiness, her coming to terms with treatment and its side effects. The character is written with an inner strength that never quite breaks.
“I just can’t tell her how frightened I am.”

Meanwhile we see a very different side to the normal bullish Liam Neeson. Tom isn’t an alpha male, or an aggressor. He’s a broken man who grieves the death of his daughter and with the sceptre of further loss hanging over his family, he bottles up his anxiety about the woman he’s come to rely on and takes for granted. Add to that a smidgeon of casual sexism, and you have a classic Northern Ireland emotionally reserved man.

Growing up among a couple of generations of medics must have stood co-director Lisa Barros D’Sa in good staid to bring the well-meaning but confusing and dignity-stripping nature of the health service to the fore in the story. Along with Glenn Leyburn, she creates moments of great isolation and loneliness (often in waiting rooms) along with scenes of warmth and intimacy (as Joan allows Tom to sort out her hair loss) as we spend a year in the life of a breast cancer patient.
“On top of everything I’m going through, I’ve got to cope with you.”

Owen McCafferty is well versed in writing about tragedy and Belfast. While Ordinary Love is his first screenplay, it doesn’t feel overly theatrical, and uses silence to tell the story as much as clever words and neat situations. Sure, there’s symbolism in the death of a goldfish, but it’s not laboured. Piers McGrail’s cinematography is full of long tracking shots down corridors, along roads and through scanners. The sense of unstoppable wordless movement is amplified by the rich soundtrack from David Holmes and Brian Irvine. Creatively, it’s an ensemble success.

Half-way through the 90-minute film, another couple (David Wilmot and Amit Shah) are introduced, reflecting some of Joan and Tom’s worries and behaviours back at them. In a theatre script, McCafferty might have been compelled to bounce between the two families much earlier in the show; but here on film they are dropped in gently and we find out whether there room in Joan and Tom’s seemingly empty house and somewhat empty lives for other people.

The restraint of Ordinary Love is its triumph. Neeson and Manville don’t have to chew the scenery in order to act their socks off. It’s about tone. It’s about building on the audience’s own insecurities and family – or even personal – experience of cancer. It’s about quietly offering up the big unspoken philosophical questions in the midst of coping with what life throws at us.

Ordinary Love is released in UK and Irish cinemas on 6 December. The 6.20pm screening on Monday 9 December in the Queen’s Film Theatre will be followed by a Q&A with directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Peter Pan – Paul Boyd’s fresh adaptation of the classic tale (Lyric Theatre until 4 January)

The children in the Darling household are frustrated that their nightly episode of the adventures of Peter Pan has reached a real cliff-hanger and there’s no sign of the next part … when a fairy appears in the room followed by a young figure at the window. Soon, from the safety of the nursery – though I don’t like the look of Nanny Cookson – Wendy, John and Michael are flying off to Neverland to go native, battle pirates on the Jolly Roger, and rescue some very grubby lost boys.

With a family member in one of the alternating young ensemble casts, it’s not my place to offer a critical opinion of a show I’ve such a close connection with, not to mention spent so long dropping off and picking someone up from rehearsals.

Writer, lyricist, composer and director Paul Boyd has gone back and incorporated some of J.M. Barrie’s original ideas into this fresh adaptation of the classic tale which uses all kinds of nooks and crannies in the Lyric Theatre’s main auditorium to tell the story.

Expect a few casting twists, steam punk costumes, a Mad Max soundtrack, psychedelic Neverland plants that could be straight out of In The Night Garden, some clever misdirection to divert your attention, and scenes that are stolen by the appearance of Nana the dog (who really needs to come on and take a bow) and a rather familiar friend from recent production of Crocodile Fever.

If you want to help reunite Peter with his shadow, experience the musical mermaids, witness some high flying jinks, laugh along with a toothy Miss Smee, marvel at the exuberant Peter Pan, join with Wendy as she learns to take risks, or sit back to enjoy Tiger Lily’s darling voice, then you have until 4 January to run away to Neverland and join Peter Pan’s gang in the Lyric Theatre.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

A Christmas Carol – a fun, family-friendly and fast-paced show (The MAC until 5 January)


When it comes to Christmas theatre shows, the key is to know your audience. While the advice should apply at all times of the year, it’s particularly crucial for festive events. After all, it should be a crime against the arts (not to mention funders) not to grasp the opportunity to superserve those who only attend out of annual habit in order to lure them into coming back to something else before the end of next year.

This year’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol in The MAC knows what it’s doing. At what other time of the year would it would be proper to include a song that includes a list of corny (cracker) jokes? But that was the moment in last’s night performance that sealed the deal and won over the hearts of the youngest audience members, and with them, their grown-up family and friends, who giggled easily through the rest of the show.

Tara Lynne O’Neill and Simon Magill’s script places Ebenezer Scrooge (Richard Croxford) in a run-down theatre that would be more profitable if he closed the doors and sold the land for apartments. Ignoring everyone around him, he takes little notice of his assistant Bobbie Cratchit (Molly Logan), optimistic nephew Fred (Darren Franklin), and is immune to the arguing ghosts of dead staff who haven’t quite gone away. But when his former co-owner Jacob Marley rattles his chains (the projected image of director Sean Kearns), Scrooge is given an opportunity to mend his ways.

Croxford’s Scrooge is selfish and mean, but never nasty. His interactions with the ghosts of Christmas part, present and yet to come gradually soften his approach, showing increasing understanding as his evening of education progresses. He cuts a much more redeemable figure than the normal miserly portrayal of Scrooge. And the lightness of touch is very appropriate for the family audience in the stalls who want to be entertained rather than frightened or depressed.

Dianna Ennis’ intricate set is full of doors, trap doors and interesting props. There’s always a lot going on and on top of the built-in lighting, Conan McIvor’s projections animate the set and props. Cartoon sound effects and visual kapows are wildly anachronistic for a turn of the last century theatre environs, but they definitely keep the show alive for the weeuns.

An other-worldly feel is quickly established with flickering paintings and the ghosts wandering around in their white attire. With the action largely taking place at the front of the stage, there’s an intimacy about the performance that helps connect this non-pantomime with its audience.

The script is peppered with theatrical in-jokes, and the inclusion of a deceased stage manager alongside the dead actors adds to the richness of observation as well as the comedic opportunity. I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member thinking about Jonathan Bell during the discussion about needing a larger turkey!

On top of a somewhat magical soundscape, Garth McConaghie delivers a set of songs built around the musical talents of the cast. Jolene O’Hara’s voice is allowed to soar up to the rafters of The MAC as she brings the French ghost Scarlett to life with a heavy accent worthy of 'Allo 'Allo and a constant struggle to find the right English word to finish her sentences. Maeve Byrne milks every last quart out of the gagtastic Ghost of Christmas Present standing atop a moving staircase (a near-mandatory feature in all musicals). Jenny Coates hobbles (and is sometimes carried with a choreographed precision) around the stage as peppy Tiny Tim, while Maeve Smyth delivers the final punch as Scrooge comes face to face with his future. While featuring some familiar faces, the cast also includes a number of actors — some returning home — making their debut on a Belfast stage.

The fretful mention of reviewers (“fingers crossed for a good one”) in a song – not quite so cynical as Curtains! – turns out to be unnecessary worrying by the creatives. By the time Welcome to our World of Make Believe is reprised at the end, and the snow has fallen (always a beautiful moment in any theatre production and who could begrudge awarding an extra star for its inclusion), a rather satisfying tale has been well told. As director, Sean Kearns weaves together a tight script, a technically complex set and a well-balanced cast to create a fun, family-friendly and fast-paced show.

A Christmas Carol continues at The MAC until 5 January.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Shooting the Mafia – celebrating Letizia Battaglia’s Sicilian photography which documented the aftermath of mafia violence (QFT from Friday 29 November)

Born in 1935, celebrated photographer Letizia Battaglia’s young life was dominated by men who cramped her freedom. A man’s sexual act in front of her in a shadowy street, her father grounding her and sending her to a convent school, an older husband who fathered her two children but was violent towards her and didn’t think a young mother barely out of her teens should go back to study.

As her children grew up, she took on casual work in the L’Ora daily newspaper in Palermo, Sicily, preferring pictures over words and becoming a photographer documenting the violence and killings, and it was the turn of the mafia to try and exert pressure on Battaglia, only to discover that while she experienced fear, she wouldn’t cower or desist.

Shooting the Mafia tells the intertwined stories of the breakdown in the rule of law on Sicily with the Corleonesi clan dominating local industry, commerce and society while Battaglia’s own personal breakdown in the rule of love, taking on young lovers, one of whom her jealous husband shot. They divorced in 1971.

Ciné footage of Sicilian events is mixed in with her own stark black and white still photography – sometimes featuring still warm corpses lying where they fell – as well as clips from Italian films of the time which are used to symbolically illustrate the voiceover narration about her life. Amazingly, two of her former partners sit down on camera to recollect with Battaglia: Santi who used to sneak into her house while she was still married, and Franco who lived with her for 18 years. There’s still a lot of affection and the men continue to be entranced by the octogenarian.

Battaglia briefly acknowledges her difficult relationship with her daughters and it’s clear that her happiness and wellbeing floats above any joy or satisfaction she gets out of love or companionship. Included in the film are the stories of anti-mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino who became friends as she moved from merely shooting the mobsters to enter politics as an elected representative for the Green Party.

War correspondents and war photographers tend to work away from home. Their biographies typically outline how they attempt to compartmentalise what they see and who they are, though the trauma of work inevitably seems to impinge on their home life. Battaglia’s conflict was right on her doorstop in the capital city of the island of Sicily: five or more murders a day in Palermo and 1000 people killed one year at its peak. Along with colleagues, she was under threat for documenting the faces of mafia friends and family at funerals.

Battaglia was suffering from depression when she started working for L’Ora. While showing remarkable resilience, the photojournalist speaks about the moments in her later career – and she certainly shows no sign of retiring – when she could not face jumping in a taxi to witness the aftermath of the latest major atrocity, reminding me of the trauma Deric Henderson spoke of earlier this year about organising a team of 20 reporters and photographers to report from Omagh after the 1998 bombing, but his decision not to be there himself.

As a refresher on mafia history and an exhibition of imagery by Letizia Battaglia, this is a superb documentary. If you endured Martin Scorsese’s mob confessional feature The Irishman, then Shooting the Mafia is a less glitzy companion piece to show how the Sicilian mafia bosses actually lived and worked.

Unusually, this film benefits from director Kim Longinotto’s wandering focus which belatedly shifts away from Battaglia to assess how Sicilian society began to change in light of the car bombs that murdered anti-mafia figures. It’s as if the population found their voice and the huge public vigils could begin relieving the pressure on Battaglia’s shoulders to bring the madness to the fore.

Shooting the Mafia (15) is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 29 November. The screening on Monday 2 December will be followed by a discussion with the film’s producer, Niamh Fagan, as part of BFI Audience Fund’s Reclaim the Frame project.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Two Fingers Up … to staid and inadequate sex education that prepares no one for love nor life

Welcome to an hour of self-discovery as three young women look back over the education system’s lacklustre attempt to prepare them for growing up. Two Fingers Up remembers the silence and discomfort in the classroom, from priests and parents and their own friends who talk a good game but are fumbling in the dark when it comes to understanding what’s happening to their bodies and minds.

There’s a frankness and honesty about their wild misconceptions, vaginas (“my Mum says theiy’re hidden for a reason”), gratuitously texted dick pics (that look “nothing like the dicks [they] draw in school”) received from boys (who are excluded from ‘the talk’ girls receive in P7 about puberty) whose ignorance hides in the shadow of their boasting, and unanswered questions about human anatomy, and the mechanics of periods never mind satisfaction. Even in the age of chat rooms and websites, misunderstandings persisted as this generation grew up.

The pace moves swiftly as they shift from childhood to adulthood before the threesome hit overdrive with bursts of song like When your lips hang low (probably funnier and cleverer than anything you’ll see on stage this Christmas), an incomplete and shaming lesson from Love For Life, and a rip-roaring visit to Ann Summers (another source of deceitful notions).

Co-produced by Prime Cut Productions and Tinderbox Theatre Company in Dublin Fringe Festival, Two Fingers Up was back in Belfast for one night at the Brian Friel Theatre.

Orla Graham strikes great poses while playing the delightfully matter-of-fact Sharon, and twists her mouth around the raft of other characters that populate the girls’ universe. Hayley is queen of the understatement and the long pause, played to a tee by Shannon Wilkinson who impressed this time last year in PintSized Production’s Wasted.

Leader of the pack is Leah, a young woman who steps forward into the unknown as much as she is pushed by peer pressure. Sarah Reid demonstrates a flair for physical comedy as she exaggerates movements and rolls her eyes with confusion, disgust and sometimes even joy.

Overlapping dialogue emphasises the closeness of teenage friends. Written and directed by Seón Simpson and Gina Donnelly, the cast and creatives make fannies funnier than is normally permitted. The writing is intelligent, the awkward yet never ribald situations certainly resonating with tonight’s student-aged audience who roared with recognition. By putting two fingers up to stiff, staid and incomplete education, the writers deliver a frank yet accessible lesson in sex education that no teacher would dare to host in a school.

Which begs the question: in a world constantly labelled as hyper-sexualised, and with a sex-obsessed internet which offers no context or explanation for the graphic insights it contains, should the education system really continue to value ignorance over understanding and rely on inadequate contracted-in lessons? And are parents really so uptight that we’d prefer old fashioned attitudes to prevail rather than learn from our own flops?

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Private Peaceful – powerful writing performed with talent and conviction, a statement about what it means to be alive (PintSized Productions)

Simon Reade’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel Private Peaceful is a powerful piece of writing. And Odhran Mc Nulty’s portrayal of Private Tommo Peaceful is a joy to watch.

As Tommo counts down the hours to a grave event, he remembers a more carefree life before the Great War, growing up in rural Devon with brother Charlie and local girl Molly. Conflict changes everything and when he joins up at 16, pretending to be his older brother’s twin, the pair undergo the same gruelling training and are posted together to the front at Ypres.

The descriptive monologue fires up your imagination. Nuala Donnelly’s direction paints Mc Nulty across the full width of the stage and to its sides and front. He’s bristling with agitation and energy, his khaki uniform set against the black back wall of Accidental Theatre. His eyes are wide, sweat rolls off his brow as he delivers an intense performance, full of emotion and pace. That somehow there will be a reunion by one of the Peaceful lads with Molly sustains the audience’s hope that some good can come from amongst the terror.
“In the next room slept the two people I loved the most in the world … who had deserted me.”

Tommo’s remembrances are full of regret and disappointment. Spoiler alert: Morpurgo isn’t known for happy endings! Sensory overload is nearly tangible as the battlefield effects bolster the sense of panic in Tommo’s voice. (The use of Howard Goodall’s familiar The Lord is My Shepherd – the Vicar of Dibley theme tune – is anachronistic given that it was written in 1994.)

Simply staged but performed with talent and conviction, Private Peaceful is a statement about what it means to be alive. At a time when English nationalism is on the rise, the spirit of forced patriotism and brotherly love is very poignant.

Private Peaceful’s short tour continues with performances in The American Bar on Sunday 24 November at 3pm and Tuesday 26 at 7.30pm in The American Bar, Belfast and Wednesday 27 at 7.30pm in Sean Holywood Arts Centre in Newry.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Driving Home For Christmas – strange happenings in a snowed-in mid-Ulster pub (Lyric Theatre until 4 January)

Grimes and McKee are back on the Lyric Theatre stage with a new festive show, Driving Home For Christmas.

When a disparate bunch of people are frustrated by snow in their attempts to get home on Christmas Eve, they take shelter in The Dander Inn, off the beaten track in isolated mid-Ulster, and experience a less than warm welcome from twin sibling proprietors Pat and Paddy.

Take one ABBA tribute band, a posh BT9er going to spend Christmas Day with his fiancée’s culchie family, and a travelling saleswoman. Throw in some classic film and TV references, a scene from the Godfather, and the hound from hell, and you’ve got a peculiar mix of comedy sketches, musical numbers and linking dialogue.

Ruby Campbell plays Ciara, a calm and gracious nurse. Her soulful voice lifts the performance of the title song which is a highlight of the second half. We never quite understand why she has agreed to marry Rudy (Gary Crossan), an impractical fellow with marbles in his mouth and an accent that drifts between English public school, Helens Bay and the Malone Road.

Ali White adds yet more familial strife as Alison, who sells supplies to Catholic churches. Her husband is not expected to be coping well with preparations for the big day at home. But the male characters are better written and developed than the women. Alan McKee plays rough and ready Frank from the tribute group while his fellow artist Rod McVey is a man of few words who settles down at a piano he ‘finds’ in the corner of the pub. Conor Grimes revels in his dual roles, accents and costumes of dithery Pat and frugal Paddy, though sadly steers clear of pantomime-style too quick changes.

A madcap Bullseye sketch is crowd-pleasing and shows off the team’s talent. The set design (Stuart Marshall) gives some subtle clues to the late plot twist, and inclusion of Bacon Fries behind the bar is a nice nod to another recent show on the same stage.

While there are plenty of jokes, good harmony singing and some clever lyrical changes (These are a Few of My Favourite Best Selling Things) throughout the two-hour performance, the timing and pacing of the show is still a little rough. That may settle down as the run continues, but overall it doesn’t have the ambition or winning formula of Grimes and McKee’s magnum opus Nativity … What the Donkey Saw (which was also directed by Frankie McCafferty).

Driving Home For Christmas continues in the Lyric Theatre until 4 January.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Curtains – a witty, feel good show-within-a-show for the ‘paying suckers’ in the stalls (Grand Opera House until Saturday 23 November)

The year is 1959, the city is Boston. A musical production of Robin Hood set in the Wild West with cowboys is on the verge of collapsing under the weight of poor first night reviews. When the leading lady is indisposed – at first temporarily, then permanently – the company hope that the show can be resurrected. But then a homicide detective arrives and seals everyone inside the theatre until he can find the murderer.

From the pen of the creative team responsible for Chicago and the cinematic version of Cabaret comes Curtains, a theatrical whodunit. It’s another show-within-a-show, with a reversible set that allows the audience to go backstage and see what’s happening behind-the-scenes.

Jason Manford steps into the shoes of Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, a wannabe thespian who can’t help but break off his investigations mid-sentence in order to give notes, slowly becoming a de facto assistant director with a passion to improve the flailing Robin Hood production.

Manford may be better known for his on-screen comedy, but his strong singing voice and Boston accent blend well with the other performers and there’s never a doubt that the star turn merits being centre stage. Refusing to ham up the role, he leaves space for the other characters to gather the full laughs their witty lines deserve. Playing opposite Manford, understudy Pamela Blair stepped into the shoes of Niki Harris last night, confidently manoeuvring the ingénue into Cioffi’s warm embrace.

Rebecca Lock’s performance as Robin Hood producer Carmen Bernstein almost steals the show as she belts out Show People and It’s a Business. Samuel Holmes dials back the campness of the director Christopher Belling, while Emma Caffrey fills out young Bambi’s character and performs a great Cleopatra-inspired ballet dance against the understandably bizarre backdrop of Wild West square dancing. And a special mention for Adam Rhys-Charles who bursts into the theatre as the much-hated Boston Globe critic Daryl Grady and suffers What Kind of Man?, a whole song devoted to ripping his profession to threads!

Curtains might begin with the letter C, but it’s no Cabaret or Chicago. The show tunes are much less memorable and the sexual tension is tied back like polite living room drapes. The murder mystery is overshadowed by overly-long scenes from the truly horrific Robin Hood production which show off Carley Stenson’s voice (playing Georgia Hendricks) but needlessly pad out the show and distract from what should be a more involving hunt for motive and evidence.

However, Curtains’ director Paul Foster succeeds in creating a feel-good atmosphere that the “paying suckers” in the stalls can enjoy. David Woodhead’s set serves the double show and double perspective well. The light swearing is effective, jump scares shift the audience in their seats, and dead bodies and injured performers satisfyingly mount up as the show reaches Lieutenant Cioffi’s great reveal.

Curtains runs in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 23 November.

Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Harriet – a significant character in the road to abolition (UK and Irish cinemas from Friday 22 November)

Bringing historical characters – well known, or overlooked – to life has always been an important facet of cinema. A big personality can light up the screen. Their role in an already well understood moment of history can reveal new insights. Resonance with contemporary issues can be established. And filmmakers can sometimes even resist the temptation to make the film into a love-story.

Harriet explores the life of a Maryland slave, Mindy, who leaves behind her free husband and escapes north in 1949, travelling 100 miles to cross the state boundary into the more liberal Pennsylvania. Taking Harriet Tubman as her ‘free name’, the titular character insists on returning to rescue relatives, eventually joining the resistance movement and becoming one of the most prolific slave liberators of her time. Later federal legislative changes that allow slave-hunters to cross state boundaries, extend the dangerous journey of those fleeing Maryland, requiring travel to safety in Canada.

Cynthia Erivo plays Mindy/Harriet, capturing the tenacity and resilience of a woman who stands up to men who – even after she finds freedom – continue to tell her what she can’t do. She’s a passionate and no-nonsense leader, never wavering from her goal. Faith and premonitions are well integrated into Harriet’s story. The spiritual songs of the underground railroad (the network of safe houses and antislavery activists) are used to good effect, and inject some much-needed emotion into Kasi Lemmons’ film that quickly establishes itself as something of a docudrama rather than a gripping exposé of slavery and abolition.

The brutal treatment of slaves is mostly implicit. The legend of ‘Moses’ leading slaves to the promised land is established, with rampant sexism leading men to believe it was a white abolitionist in ‘blackface’ rather than a black woman. The roadblocks placed in the way of those who supported the abolition of slavery are laid out. However, the explanation of Harriet’s role in the American Civil War is disappointingly muddy, and the film relies on captions to establish the longer-lasting import of this figure’s work.

Harriet marks a significant character in the road to abolition. The film is an important history lesson. But its emotional grip on the audience is minimal. While Lemmons may have wanted to avoid making an action film that relied on sensational brutality for impact, his tale of slavery is somewhat underwhelming and oddly humdrum given the seriousness of the topic.

Harriet is released in UK and Irish cinemas including Movie House from 22 November.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

GAA Maad – purposefully haphazard experimental storytelling #Outburst19

The title sums it up: GAA Maad. Áine and Vickey are mad about the GAA. Mad about the sport. Mad keen on their county team. Mad at the way the hierarchy has tended to relegate women to near invisibility. Mad with other diversity challenges too.

Vickey Curtis is loud and ebullient, a spoken word artist who fell in love with the GAA and her beloved Dublin before she fell in love with a woman. While visual artist and set designer Áine O’Hara – self describing as “arty, queer and into the GAA” – sits and calmly explains the history of the GAA (who knew that hurlers’ families used to get compensation if they died on the pitch?), Vickey overlays her own ornamental commentary.

They point out that the Ladies Gaelic Football Association was only founded in 1974, though ‘laydees’ have been playing for the guts of a century. The men’s game is still firmly in the closet, while women’s sides seem free to express their natural diversity. There are running jokes about the Brits … and Áine’s ever-the-bridesmaid Mayo.

Dramaturgically, GAA Maad is all over the place. The slither of a thread holding together the different scenes is at best tenuous, at worst snapped. The ending appears from nowhere without much warning. The stage entrances and exits are haphazard, with Vickey wandering around the Black Box Green Room carrying a tower of labelled IKEA archive boxes which contain the show’s props, yelling comments at Áine up on stage.

Yet this breaking of the rules and flinging out of convention brings a real warmth to the storytelling. Perhaps a good sign that the DUETS initiative by Irish Theatre Institute, Fishamble: The New Play Company and Dublin Fringe Festival is willing to take risks and experiment with form.

It feels very real, naturalistic rather than polished. Purposefully haphazard. The chattiness is deliberate and early on, Áine discusses her fibromyalgia while Vickie later describes being beaten up, both issues somewhat tangential to the sporting theme, but very relevant to the audience understanding that these two women are not fake. Urban and rural, butch and femme, opposites attract. The pair genuinely support Dublin and Mayo. They love the game, though differ on whether the GAA should be marching in Dublin Pride.

The flimsy feel is underpinned with some thought-out production values. Director Niamh Mc Cann insists that the projected imagery is deliberately brief, flashed up on screen for a few seconds at a time, just long enough to sustain a roar of audience laughter before being blacked out.

Everyone in the audience is given a handout. We sing along to support the doomed notion that “there’s always next year for Mayo”. I leave the show wearing my miniature Mayo flag, chosen on the way into the venue over the dark and sky blue Dublin flag because I instinctively wanted to support the underdog. But I also leave it embellished – as with the recent performance of Spliced – with a new understanding of the nuances of the GAA behemoth, and the origins of the Mayo curse. Now to find out whether Lisburn is in Down or Antrim …

GAA Maad was performed on the closing day of the 2019 Outburst Arts Festival.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Irishman – “it’s what it is” – Scorsese rewards loyal fans with a mob-handed epic

Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran sits alone in a nursing home and reminisces how petty crime led him into the vice like grip of the mob, jumping from swindling customers as he drove around making deliveries of raw beef from his meat wagon, to become the violent enforcer responsible for the dead bodies that needed a hearse.

It’s a strange tale, slowly told, that takes in familiar world events – the Cuban missile crisis, the election and assassination of President Kennedy – and the growth in size of television sets through the eyes of the Frank (Robert De Niro), his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the president of the powerful Teamster union for whom Frank becomes the mob’s liaison.

While Martin Scorsese was able to get the old gang back together for his epic yet gratuitously bladder-extending three-hour 20-minute mob confessional feature, he forgot to include some lines for women. His daughter Peggy (young Lucy Gallina, older Peggy Sheeran) looks on as she grows up, judging her father and ultimately putting distance between their lives after one particular murder hits close to her heart. It’s finely acted, but accompanied by just a handful of words.

Digital de-aging and commanding acting allow the surprisingly spritely principal cast to play their younger selves without distraction. 209 long minutes that could have been a dour TV mini-series allow the story to be told as an episodic slow burn. Shot on 35mm film, it adopts a televisual widescreen aspect ratio, filling the height of the cinema theatre’s screen, and working well for Netflix who picked up the distribution rights (available online from 27 November, just four weeks after cinematic release).

Adapting Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, Scorsese does nothing to glamorise the violence, or redeem the gangsters. Captions indicate the truncated lives of minor characters. Life, or rather death, and loss catch up with everyone. There’s a slight sadness as some people’s final days are spent in penitentiary, though never showing any penance. But it’s never touching.

The Irishman is faultless in many respects. Robbie Robertson’s soundtrack supports the action. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the greys and browns of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. I can only assume that screenwriter Steven Zaillian and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker were under strict orders not to trim harshly.

Yet The Irishman fails to become a great movie. The story is just compelling enough to keep you seated for the mammoth duration and not forfeit the considerable investment of time. “It’s what it is” is how one piece of action is foretold. And that describes the film. Having lasted right through, no one at my public screening bothered to stay to watch the credits. Their loyalty to Scorsese was simply paid by their presence, but the film hadn’t earned any additional affection.

You can catch The Irishman in local cinemas for the next couple of weeks before Scorsese’s shark jumps to Netflix.