Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Rocky Horror Show – much-anticipated science-fiction sensation (Grand Opera House until 23 March)

Brad and Janet are on their way back from a wedding. His car suffers a puncture and they walk a couple of miles to a nearby castle to use a phone, not expecting that the owner is a “sweet” Transylvanian transvestite scientist from outer space who has created a tanned and muscular man to be his plaything up in his lab. From there the plot goes full on B-movie science fiction … quite mad, but tuneful enough to have you on your feet dancing swaying along with the Time Warp by the end.

The show’s first chord hits you between the ribs and grabs your attention for a frantic 45-minute first half of The Rocky Horror Show. The music is infectious, played live by a five-piece band perched high above Hugh Durrant’s film roll-shaped set.

As the narrator steps on to the stage to bring some context to Richard O’Brien’s somewhat random plot, a couple of stalwarts in the audience start to join in with the traditional heckles (‘callbacks’) and some Belfast improvisations. Philip Franks copes well with all that is thrown at him – most of it expected – and his retorts include a great line about Brexit and backstops. But based on last night’s experience, there should be a rule that only women are allowed to heckle, since the men who tried last night just guldered stuff that wasn’t funny.

Ben Adams and Joanne Clifton make a good Brad and Janet, with Clifton’s voice soaring in some of the later numbers. Stephen Webb’s vamping Frank N Furter certainly has stage presence, an air of self-importance (pretty vital when you’re standing in front of a thousand people wearing leather pants, holey stockings and suspenders and a corset) and a fabulous voice for Don’t’ Dream It, Be It in the second half.

Callum Evans’ gymnastic background is obvious as the freakishly acrobatic Rocky bounces around the stage. (His understudies must pray each morning that Evans is fit and well to perform!) Ross Chisari’s big song as Eddie was quite indistinct, but his Dr Scott was stronger in the second half. While at times there’s a lot of vocal screeching, I'm Going Home ends with very strong vocal harmonies from across the cast, a lovely moment of calm before the hype builds up for the finale.

Nick Riching’s lighting design is very distinct, albeit overused in the second act, taking full advantage of the fog in the auditorium to splay narrow beams across the audience as well as the stage.

It’s incredible to realise that The Rocky Horror Show was conceived and performed in the 1970s. The original stage version of The Rocky Horror Show premiered in London a few days after I was born. Within two years it had been made into a film – The Rocky Horror Picture Show – and the cult following began.

Is it just me or do 1973 sensibilities jar a little in 2019? As a safe space for dressing up, gender ambiguity and letting your hair down, no one seems to notice that alien Frank N Furter is a sexual predator and quite possibly a double rapist. And the affectionate shouting of ‘slut’ at virginal Janet sounds pretty off in a show whose very narrator acknowledges #MeToo. Shades of “don't you panic / by the light of the night, it'll all seem alright”. On stage, Columbia (Miracle Chance) seems to be the only one to eventually see through Frank N Furter’s abusive smog.

Overall it’s quite an experience. While Belfast is a relatively conservative place and the level of fancy dress among the audience is quite muted,  a lot of older men attend wearing their ‘Dammit Janet’ t-shirts from previous tours! The audience was less raucous that I was expecting – maybe that’ll peak on Friday and Saturday’s shows – but obviously enjoyed the in-your-faceness of the provocative performance.

As a cult classic, it’s a well-executed and technically impressive piece of glam rock musical theatre. Whether the original message still has powerful currency in 2019 is less clear.

The Rocky Horror Show continues in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 23 March.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Ray & Liz – a surprisingly unchallenging story of neglect, squalor, depression and addiction (QFT until 20 March)

At its simplest, Ray & Liz is a film about growing up in a depressed and deprived area of the West Midlands in the 1980s. Set in two main timeframes, we watch two little boys grow up in a squalid terrace house that has more pets than humans yet struggles to afford to put food on the table and money in the electricity meter.

The adults – Ray and Liz – are consumed by alcohol, waking and sleeping in a pattern that aligns neither with the sun’s rising and setting nor with their children who are supposed to be going to school. The children are self-organising, and remarkably unferal given the lack of supervision. The eldest child Richard uses a tape recorder to record and replay adult conversations, adding layers of understanding to the aftermath of some scenes.

We also watch the two parents later in life: one continuously stocious from home brew that is delivered to his fly-infested room, the other still obsessed with gathering in enough money to survive.

Shot on 16mm in film 4:3 aspect ratio gives the footage a feel of a 1980’s television show. There’s a beige dog who lives in a beige cardboard box kennel, a beige mouse in a cage, beige wallpaper. Everything is stained.

We’re asked to witness on-screen situations where a vulnerable adult (played sympathetically by Tony Way) is taken advantage of, fed with booze and then suffers brutal and ultimately unjust retribution at the hand shoe of Liz (portrayed rather brilliantly by Ella Smith). We’re asked to witness a child sleeping rough without his parents noticing, and being ambivalent about the idea of foster care.

While I, Daniel Blake held up a campaigning mirror to the UK welfare system, Ray & Liz looks through a mirror and offers no solutions. It documents history rather than asking if these situations still happen today. It’s not only unentertaining, but it’s uninspiring. Poverty porn with no ask.

What makes Ray & Liz interesting is the context that writer/director Richard Billingham is documenting his own family. He’s the older child making the tape recordings, watching his Dad be scammed out of his factory redundancy money and living under the iron fist of his Mum. Which moments from your childhood would you pick to project onto the big screen to share your family and upbringing with a wide audience? Is it revenge? Is it a warning? Is it art?

Ray & Liz is a tortuous 108 minute watch with its story of neglect, squalor, depression and addiction. Screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until Wednesday 20 March

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Kindergarten Teacher – grooming a prodigy for poetic success (QFT)

When a primary school teacher recognised a gift for poetry in a young child, she goes far beyond the call of professional duty to nurture and develop his talent and document his output.

What makes The Kindergarten Teacher a great film is the uneasy sense that director Sara Colangelo allows to develop that you as an audience member are judging Mrs Spinelli too harshly. Throughout much of the 97-minute film, I sat questioning whether her behaviour was actually as creepy as I imagined it was.

That sense of wondering is the result of a deft touch in the script, the acting and editing to keep us guessing up until the end. And the answer is obvious: we’re only kidding ourselves that it’s not.

A remake of a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, The Kindergarten Teacher is a pitch-perfect and unsettling character study. Asher Goldschmidt’s pizzicato musical score wonderfully underlines scenes of neuroticism and moral tumult.

Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays this imaginative and engaging teacher whose classroom is more vibrant than her stagnant life at home, and whose own creative and educational talents seem to be dwarfed by her own lazy kids as well as her young charges at school. The sense of mid-life crisis is present but not too exaggerated.

Gyllenhaal owns the lead role, reeling in her audience with a warm performance that gently crosses the moral line step by step. There’s an intimacy to her coaching sessions in the school toilets that is totally absent from the bedroom at home. She combines being wanton and proper into a complex, ambiguous and very watchable character.

Gyllenhaal’s on-screen sidekick is Parker Sevak who plays young Jimmy. His character’s trademark absent-minded pacing while verbalising short abstract poems is beautifully repeated throughout the film. He’s quite a performer and hopefully this is only the start of Sevak’s acting career.

The Kindergarten Teacher is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Natural Disaster – a personal and powerful tribute to love, death, grief and remembering (Tinderbox at The MAC until 16 March)

When the different elements of a theatre production come together and integrate, supporting and enhancing each other, the synergy can create something very special. And so it is with Natural Disaster, written and performed by Róisín Gallagher.

Wearing a sombre but floaty dress and high heels, a woman walks outside and into a shed. It contains familiar items, but is even more full of memories of her father who has terminal cancer. The rain pelts down and the wind howls. Or is that just the sound of her crushing emotions which cause her heart to ache and her body to wretch? If only she could snuggle in once more to the strong chest of her dad whose stage four cancer was indeed terminal.

So much of this story is told so clearly without words. There’s the urgent sense of not wanting to forget, clinging onto the comfort of precious memories in case they fade. Gallagher’s whole body encapsulates the grief and pain that she bears. Her skill as an actor is obvious, so watchable, so incredibly expressive. In fact, a static video of the show would work well as an art installation in one of The MAC’s enclosed gallery spaces.

Isaac Gibson has created an incredible overwhelming sensory sound design that amplifies the emotions we see on stage. Ciarán Bagnall’s wonky shed set with its bench, pots and soil is small yet chunky. The soundscape gives it heft and makes it into a cathedral of anguish and the past. If you didn’t know the premise of the piece, after fifteen minutes you might think you were in some kind of horror show.

Patrick J O’Reilly’s direction adds physicality and the confidence to let moments linger until they hurt. Bagnall’s lighting tracks the mood and weather and finishes with a beautifully-spotlight moment of tribute. The banal conversations at a wake trigger laughter in some parts of the audience. A recording of words spoken by the dying man bring tears as well as warmth to the whole theatre. The journey of loss is unique. But the sense of loss is palpable and universal.

Gallagher’s presence and movement has the intensity of her titular role in Lally the Scut. Yet this story is her own. This man is her father. Natural Disaster is a remarkably personal and powerful tribute to love, death, grief and remembering. Fifty minutes of powerful storytelling that is beautifully performed and resists all unnecessary words.

Natural Disaster continues at The MAC with matinee and evening performances on Saturday 16 March at 3pm and 8pm.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Loo – visually spectacular scenes of the wind for pre-school/infant audiences (Ponten Pie at The MAC) #bcf19

The Loo is a hot, dry summer wind that moves sand dunes, buries ships in sandy oceans and threatens habitats. This meteorological phenomenon from North India and Pakistan is the inspiration for a Spanish theatre piece of the same name aimed at infants aged 2-5.

It felt like we were back in London’s Globe Theatre as I sat down on a wooden bench that followed the shape of a sunken boat, with fifty or so pre-school/early-primary school children at my feet. Crammed in, cheek-by-jowl with the single performer who was never more than a few feet away from every child.

Starting with small hand movements, a change of lighting extended the rippling to a fabric ocean, with a huge spinnaker-like sail billowing in the wind. As the sun set, the wind and the music calmed.

Performer Natàlia Méndez Castell explores the sandy beach – made from fragments of cork – unearthing maritime objects. She’s unafraid to make a mess, scooping up handfuls of ‘sand’ and scattering them about her as she moves around the whole shoreline, much to the delight of each child she passes. The show’s scale shrinks – and the children’s attention is once more grabbed – as the bow of a small boat is discovered and sailed around the stage before encountering a totally unexpected shower of sand as the wind shifts.

The precise spotlighting directs the young audience’s attention. Together with blasts of air, the lights, the performer and the cork sand create visually spectacular scenes that captivate us all as we ‘watch’ the wind.

While the show’s ending is purposely ill-defined, there’s a real calm on the theatre floor as the youngsters begin to process their stimulating vision of the power of the wind. It’s distraction free, with the mechanics of the effects concealed, leaving imaginations free to flow.

You can experience Loo on Tuesday 12 March at 6pm in The MAC as part of Belfast Children’s Festival. It’s a production by Ponten Pie and El Més Petit De Tots festival.

Expedition Peter Pan – a surreal treatise on the importance of play and the idiocy of too-serious adults (Het Laagland at The MAC until 13 March) #bcf19

Do adults have to eschew playfulness in their pursuit for monetary reward and career progression? Should children fear the day that will come when they must set down their toys, tidy their imaginations into a cupboard, and put childish ways behind them?

Dutch theatre company Het Laagland’s Expedition Peter Pan reveals five grey-suited office-workers haunted by their childhood pleasures. Lego bricks spontaneously appear in one woman’s hand and pockets; another literally has marbles in her mouth (don’t try this at home!); one man sneezes toy knives out of his nose; the others can’t stop finding toy cars or paper airplanes in their office environment.

“I don’t think you understand the seriousness of this situation” says one of the supposedly inflicted suits. But the more they try to suppress these fun memories and behaviour, the more they are teased and tormented by this infant paraphernalia.

The dialogue is fast and furious; the staccato speech broken up with an occasional burst of singing (truly the best performance of out-of-tune harmony singing in the EU!) and a fabulously uplifting song and dance routine to finish.

The school children attending my performance reacted without prompting to challenge one performers’ suggestion that they didn’t contribute to society, retaliating with strong shouts to the contrary. A lovely moment of provocation and reaction. “Grow up, mature and come back when you’ve something to contribute” he chides them with almost Trump-like arrogance.

Thirty or so bedside tables are scattered across the stage, and the audience aged seven and above soon discover the magic contained within and the playful nature of the nightlights sitting atop.

The final third of the show makes obvious the Peter Pan reference in the title after a quick and rather good lesson in the aerodynamics necessary for flight. For each of the well-defined characters, the preoccupation with toys is revealed to have more deep-seated insecurities

Remote controlled furniture, exploding rockets, Miami Vice references (which sail over the heads of the children to the adults in the audience), zombies, and a beautiful journey up into space.

Five skilled physical comics actors deliver a zany and sometimes surreal treatise on the importance of play and the idiocy of adults who take themselves too seriously.

Playing to school groups throughout the day, you can still book tickets to catch Expedition Peter Pan in The MAC on 13 Wednesday at 7pm as part of Belfast Children’s Festival.

Photo credit: Willy Sybesma

Captain Marvel – a tale about identity, overcoming isolation … and cats in space

A fighter struggles to control her emotions. Throw in a dangerous mission she may be unprepared for, a dodgy comms channel and a few verbal clichés and soon they’re spinning off into a CGItastic opening of Captain Marvel that sees Kree soldier Veers return to a somewhat familiar planet to search for someone with links to her past.

A huge Blockbusters video rental store and the Alta Vista search engine are among the cultural references used to anchor the movie in 1995. Agent Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) are remarkably fresh-faced and rather unflappable.
“I don’t even know who I am”

Brie Larson takes up the central role with gusto. There’s no shortage of action scenes, with barely a blond hair out of place after knocking nine bells out of the baddies. The film’s ‘girl power’ feminism is worn very lightly. It’s a movie, about stopping wars rather than simply warmongering. Veers is a fighter (and a) pilot, and a good one, and her negative experiences of growing up a woman are not overplayed. Instead, it’s a film about identity, overcoming isolation and dealing with the loyalty carpet being pulled from under your feet. And the main character happens to be a relatively sensibly-dressed woman.

Very little of the plot makes sense or follows a logical progression from one scene to the next. No one hits the emergency button on a Los Angeles Metro train that has at least one hole in its roof? A Cold War spy was sent to Belfast … whaaaat? A plane is modified A-Team style to go into space? A woman without ‘Super’ in her name can fly about the sky and into space. Really? One alien race is ruled by a bloke who looks like Pharaoh carrying a clunky hammer while the other green aliens need to find a home …

But the narrative gaps don’t spoil the sense of journey or the fun of the yarn. The humour of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show is present and never allows the cloud of seriousness to descend on the film. A cat named Goose – surely one of many Top Gun references – is played by four different feline actors and nearly becomes the star of the show.

If the big film studios are going to insist on churning out superhero films, then let’s have more frivolous stuff like Captain Marvel please. Solid entertainment without so much worldbuilding that the universe collapses on top of its audience.

Captain Marvel is playing in most cinemas. [My Omniplex Lisburn screening was invaded by three lads twenty minutes from the end, who were hauled out by an usher with only a little distraction for the rest of the audience. I wonder what happened to the younger kids who had earlier run through the entrance and into The Hole in the Ground? Swallowed up by the horror, or fished out too?]

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Musician – ambitious, high quality, unapologetically opera, and accessible to audiences young and old (The Belfast Ensemble) #bcf19

Small red chairs for children make up the first two rows of the Harty Room at Queen’s University Belfast on Sunday night. The young audience have gathered along with older friends and family to hear the concert version of The Belfast Ensemble’s children’s horror opera The Musician as part of Belfast Children’s Festival.

A funny worked example of the difference between how people talk in a TV show and in an opera breaks the ice and introduces the audience to the very distinctive orchestral staccato stab from the 15 musicians that will pepper the hour-long work.

After a galloping musical start, Matthew Cavan begins to narrate the story. A young boy (Jack Wolfe) with a rumbling tummy lives with a mouse in his pocket. A vile and well-fed girl (soprano Rebecca Murphy) wearing a golden coat is quickly set up as his nemesis. They stand to sing on a raised platform to one side of the orchestra. When a musically-gifted stranger (baritone Christopher Cull) appears with an unkempt beard, the boy gets a lesson and quickly shows off his talent. But those who listen must always pay a price, and soon the boy is demanding all kinds of goods in return for not setting the mice or (shivers) the rats on the local townsfolk.
“If you don’t pay the price I will play a different tune, not for mice, or rats, or men, but for children …”

It’s definitely opera, with the baddies becoming victims, and the power of music corrupting the vulnerable who switch to prey on those who once kept them out in the cold. Murphy’s shrieking bad girl performance was matched by the increasingly bold and out-of-control Wolfe who calmly grew up into a monster. The revelation about the narrator’s true identity is nicely handled, though some continuation of the golden colour – a scarf or a pocket hanky – would have made it even more obvious.

Conor Mitchell’s opera tells the four-person story very clearly, allowing the poetry of the narration to gently lapse into song and giving the children plenty of airtime to build rapport with the audience. The two percussionists (Brian Rice and Anthony Stuart) at the back of the orchestra with their spooky waterphone, a double bassist (Gareth Hopkins) expected to bang his bow for sharp effect, and the final rodent noises from the string section (led by Clare Hadwen), the sound is both expansive and expressive. Davey Mayes flute and

Parts of the performance were quite noisy for some the youngest members of the audience (who snuck in under the age 6+ recommendation!) but for the most part the children were quite transfixed by the music and particularly the great eye contact and facial expressions from narrator Cavan. Gavin Peden projected pastoral scenes and scurrying rodents onto the back wall to add to the discomfort of any musophobes in the venue.

Beware the power of music to distract, to destruct and to destroy. In their quest to create new musical theatre, The Belfast Ensemble certainly succeed in shining new light and new tunes on the Pied Piper story. The Musician is ambitious, high quality, unapologetically opera, and accessible to audiences young and old. Now the question is where and when we will next hear the piper’s tune again.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Othello – jealous newlywed fearing hanky-panky is goaded into revenge (Bright Umbrella Drama Company)

Staging Othello in a church hall on the interface between the Castlereagh Road and Short Strand certainly adds a feeling of East(Belfast)enders to Shakespeare’s play. The Bright Umbrella Drama Company’s latest work spreads a cast of six over nine characters, trimming the Bard down but still delivering a two-hour performance.

General Othello leaves Venice to defend the island of Cyprus against a Turkish invasion. He brings with him his until-recently secret wife, Desdemona, command the Venetian armies against invading Turks on the island of Cyprus (rather than Cyprus Avenue!) his ensign Iago whose wife, Emilia, is Desdemona’s attendant. And trusted lieutenant Cassio.

Iago is mustard. Hot, stinky mustard that burns your mouth. He manipulates everyone with a web of lies that buckles their relationships and a fog of mistrust envelopes the cast until the tea is well and truly spit as the bodies pile up at the end of this tragedy.

Director Trevor Gill exploits the shape and intimacy of the new venue, taking advantage of the small balcony and stairs at one end of the hall – handy if they ever revive November’s Romeo and Juliet – and playing across a long stage against a simple black backdrop with three monochromatic boxes.

The soldiers and their wives are dressed in modern camouflage uniform. The aggressive male military backdrop perhaps forgives the shouty discourse, though Sam Mahadeo’s Othello uses much more light and shade across his performance. Bright Umbrella are unafraid of violent action, with an incident of unexpectedly vigorous waterboarding splashing the front row and spousal abuse upping the emotional ante at relevant points in the five-act play.

Glenn McGivern plays scheming Iago as a brutal bully hidden in plain sight, never showing signs of weakness and making great entrances and bringing a suitably dominant presence every time he was on stage. His wife Emilia (Christine Clark) portrays a woman scorned and trapped in a bad relationship.

Bryony Randall gave Desdemona a sense of pluck, looking up adoringly at her new husband Othello and delivering tender moments – and some sweet singing – but also capable of turning up the emotion when its required in later stages to spit out her character’s rage.

Taking on two sizeable roles as Cassio and Brabantio, Chris Darcy’s switch of mannerism helps distinguish between them. His drunk’n’disorderly Cassio impresses, but the obvious difference in age between Cassio and Desdemona does stretch the script’s notion of a potential attraction that would threaten Othello. Adrian Cooke plays the remaining two characters, Roderigo and Lodovico.

The mixture of rifle, handgun and dagger feels a little anachronistic. And as the company settle into the venue the addition of coloured lighting may help accentuate the mood of some scenes.

As the first production staged in their new home venue, Othello was a triumph for Bright Umbrella Drama Company. Hopefully their reputation will grow and future performances will attract in local audiences to engage with the plays the tackle. As story of racism, love, deception and jealousy, misplaced trust and loyalty, and hyped up with planted evidence, suffocation and revenge killing … the universal themes of Othello certainly resonate in their new location as well as further afield in Belfast and beyond.

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Removed – hearing the moving voice of young people in care (Prime Cut in Brian Friel Theatre until 16 March) #bcf19

One of the things theatre can do is give people a voice. Sometimes it’s a historical situation that can be re-examined after the event with fresh eyes. Sometimes it’s something right under our noses that is either silenced, or we lack the curiosity to find out about.

‘Polyvocal’ is the technical term for what Fionnuala Kennedy has achieved with her new play Removed: creating together one fictional story by weaving together elements of testimony from lots of real people so we hear the voices of lots of different children who have experience of Northern Ireland’s care system.
“You have to grow up quickly in care – you’ve no choice.”
Adam was nine when he and his little brother left their Mum’s house with a few possessions in a black bin bag. He rhymes off a list of social workers that sounds like the team sheet for a football match with a bench full of subs.

Actor Conor J Maguire sits on a bench and describes Adam’s childhood journey through a succession of foster families, schools and vices. Dressed in a sports top and jeans, he’s got a winsome smile which conveys hope to the audience, much needed given that most of us have begun to sniffle by about 20 minutes into the hour-long performance.

Director Emma Jordan keeps him calm and controlled for the most part, letting the script transfer the emotion across into the hearts of those seated in front of him. I’m shocked and upset and angry. And then Adam stands up and in a moment his frustration escapes and I hear his pain expressed. Delivering the monologue with such consistent audience engagement and steel is a remarkably capable performance from Maguire, a young actor making his professional stage debut.

While Adam isn’t real, and realistically, his story is a little sanitised when compared with some of those that would have been captured, it communicates the resilience of young people who suffer a system that is meant to support them but so often doesn’t.

The observations, the small details – the beans dripping down a girl’s arm – are splendid and paint a rich picture. There are incredibly funny moments amongst the pathos. Fionnuala Kennedy’s heart for social justice shines through, even more strongly than her 2017 play Entitled.

Despite the absence of props, it’s like we’re in the room watching the crazy antics unfold in the care home. While Conor Mitchell’s soundscape adds low frequency atmosphere and snippets of conversation and room noise, behind Adam, Conan McIvor’s sympathetic imagery is gently painted onto the polyhedrons of Ciaran Bagnall’s set which frames the simple bench around which the conversation is delivered.

The interviews on which the script was based were facilitated by VOYPIC (Voice Of Young People In Care) which was set up 25 years ago by young people to promote the rights and improve the lives and outcomes for children and young people in care. The latest official statistics report that this time last year, 3,109 children were in care in Northern Ireland, the highest number recorded since the introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. Four fifths were in foster care placements.

Belfast Children’s Festival believes that every child should have the right to access exciting and original creative experiences, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Placing Removed in their programme, the festival has also shown that everyone’s story deserves to be told. I can only hope that this play will help the voice of young people in care to be heard more widely, within the social care sector and beyond, and that black bin bags, irascible police, and any unfeeling social workers will be consigned to the past in a system that chooses to put living, breathing children at the heart of its mission.

Prime Cut’s Removed is a moving piece of theatre that plays in the Brian Friel Theatre at the back of Queen’s Film Theatre until Saturday 16 March. It’s the best thing I’ve seen in the theatre in the first ten weeks of 2019.

Check out other Belfast Children’s Festival shows in my preview.

Photo credit: Matt Curry

The Alien’s Guide to Dance Gone Wrong – some novel elements but falls short of the premise (Maiden Voyage Dance at The MAC) #bcf19

The blurb explains that the premise of the piece is set in the future when aliens are in charge. They have taught themselves to dance from what they can pick up from the internet. “Expect to throw left and right, right and wrong out the window as their misinterpretations mean they make the dance floor their very own.”

Maiden Voyage Dance’s The Alien’s Guide to Dance Gone Wrong (their apostrophe not mine) begins with a pre-Siri voice synthesiser reading out what seem to be instructions from a corrupted webpage. So far, so good. A couple of white-shirted, blindfolded ‘aliens’ dance together inside a large taped-off square. The style seems like ballroom while the music (by Steve Blake) is techno: the first, I suppose, of many contradictions that will fall out of their self-taught method.

The alien motif is fairly minimal, though the yellow finger-like objects that seem to hold the tunes are used to good effect. A black fluffy skateboard introduces a novel move that is unlikely to be picked up by the Strictly Come Dancing professionals in their choreography next year. The show is aimed at those aged four and over.

The synthesised voice that could have added structure and some sense of narrative evolution unfortunately never returns, and the three dancers (David Ogle, Hannah Roberson and Vasiliki Stasinaki) create fairly well-executed and recognisable moves that are at odds with the premise and its promise of misinterpretation. Left and right seem pretty regular, and Lea Anderson’s choreography doesn’t veer from modern dance patterns in other adult and children’s shows I’ve watched over the last few years.

“It’s magic” exclaims one youngster from near the back of the seating. A satisfied customer. “What’s going on?” asks another, echoing something closer to my internal sentiment as I wonder whether we’re watching the finished work, or whether I’ve stepped into a parallel universe where the clever aliens have perfected the art and are playing The Alien’s Guide to Dance Done Well.

I expected a spot of Les Dawson “all the right moves but not necessarily in the right order” but instead got Captain Kirk’s “it’s dance, Jim, but not as we know it.”

The Alien’s Guide to Dance Gone Wrong continues at The MAC as part of Belfast Children’s Festival at 2.30pm and 4pm on Sunday 10 March.

Oorlog (War) – explaining the fog of war and the glossary of conflict to little people #bcf19

How should we introduce our children to the concept of war? How do we get across the idea that conflict is messy and unpredictable, causes random acts of violence, and often drags all those around into suffering and retaliation?

Oorlog is the Dutch word for war and Theater Artemis are across at Belfast Children’s Festival with this bonkers piece of theatre. As we file into the downstairs space at The MAC, the stage looks like a workshop, with the floor cluttered with all manner of objects and devices.

There’s a semi-regular rumble from somewhere deep into the paraphernalia. The mostly peaceful state is disturbed as items begin to crash down, chaotically knocking over neighbouring objects, and revealing the mirrored letters W A R facing the audience.

Three figures dressed in military uniform tentatively tiptoe into this booby-trapped environment. The shortest soldier dutifully translates the halting explanation of senior-looking officer. The handle falls off the door – the emergency sign above it says TIXE – suggesting that they have reached the point of no return. We are at war.

Oorlog is a worked example, walking through the glossary of conflict, introducing the different phases of battle as well as the fog of confusion and exhaustion that at times can be seen to eliminate clear-thinking and logic. Skirmishes, hand-to-hand combat, and even battlefield medicine are all laid out before the audience aged 7 and over. It’s very playful, and even the non-physical elements like sounds and language are used to gently teach the entertaining lessons.

Oorlog’s scenes are not all militaristic. Some of the mini-dramas are based around a nose-bleed or a clash of understanding and motivation. But soon the audience get the chance redouble our efforts and add physical assault to an earlier spot of verbal aggression. It’s touch and go whether the gung-ho stalls can observe a truce. Even reconstruction turns out not to be terribly easy or complete. We are complicit by both our acts of commission and omission.

While Northern Ireland is enjoying a measure of peace and is often now said to be a post-conflict society, we are still conflicted. We’re not at peace, and skirmishes bubble up on a weekly basis. The youngest generation are not beyond being touched by conflict within local communities, not beyond witnessing warmongering political battles in TV studios and confrontational parliaments, and even the best supervised playground can erupt in violence over something petty.

One of the most important lessons for the young and old heads at the Belfast Children’s Festival comes half way through when the plot appears to have gone off the rails and we hear an off-stage conversation: “You’re always telling me what to do, but don’t do anything yourself.”

Be careful who leads you to into battle. Think before you get dragged into conflict. Who teaches this lesson to our children? They surely shouldn’t have to learn the hard way?

The pleading and unanswered “How long do we have to go on?” is perhaps the most poignant moment. The show is only 50 minutes long, but the conflict will last many lifetimes.

You can catch the final performance of Oorlog (War) at 3pm on Sunday 10 March in The MAC.

Milo’s Hat Trick – another magical marvel for ages 3+ (Cahoots NI in Lyric Theatre until 10 March + Irish tour) #bcf19

It’s been fascinating over the last few years to watch Cahoots develop a suite of magical shows for young audiences. Their latest Milo’s Hat Trick has adapted Jon Agee’s children’s book for stage by Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney and is pitched anyone aged three and over.

A simple piano melody announces the beginning of the show and as the lights dim, a hush descends over the family audience. While Milo the Magnificent’s promoter and manager builds up his reputation, the magician is shown to be a bumbling performer whose tricks no longer work. Scolded backstage, Milo is under pressure to pull a proverbial rabbit out of a hat and deliver a new impressive routine. Various creatures come to his aid, inspiring and supporting him, though the road to success does not look smooth.

Through a mix of dance, puppetry and physical theatre, three performers and countless top hats create a spellbinding performance. Peter J McCauley’s rhythmic synth sound track runs throughout the 50-minute show. Sabine Dargent’s set constructs three curtained alcoves which reveal performers and, along with the precision lighting, direct the audience’s attention to each new scene and character entrance.

Emer McDaid plays the nervy promoter, the only character to speak. Every line and lyric is delivered through an exotic accent – a nondescript European twang – with humorous accenting of syllables. She’s a great mix of crazy and threatening. Crystal Zillwood handles the puppets – a bird (familiar from Shh! We have a Plan), a rather fun rabbit, and the centrepiece bear with its big brown eyes – injecting their movements and motives with an anthropomorphism that draws in the audience (young and old). Tender nudges almost make those watching move in sympathy. Once again Jude Quinn brings his L'École Jacques Lecoq training to the stage with a masterclass in controlled gesture, facial expression and timing.

Carrots appear and disappear, the audience become involved in mind-reading tricks, impossible chase sequences confound and amaze, and characters disappear into thin air. There’s certainly enough going on to amuse and entertain the grown-ups in attendance as well as the children.

Curtains open and close quickly and reliably without human intervention. Familiar props – particularly top hats – exhibit surprising behaviours. Aside from the illusions, there’s a precision that must take months of effort and years of experience over the development of multiple shows to be able to combine technical wizardry with subtle human performances so seamlessly. Cahoots achieve a level of minimalism that remove every unnecessary distraction from the audience’s view, leaving only bursting bladders and sugary treats to cause young theatre-goers’ attention span to waver.

Milo the Magnificent will continue to work on his routine in Milo’s Hat Trick at the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast Children’s Festival until Sunday 10 March before touring through Limavady (Tuesday 19), Navan (Thursday 21), Enniskillen (Saturday 23), Dún Laoghaire (Sunday 24), Castleblayney (Friday 29) and Lisburn (Saturday 30).

Friday, March 08, 2019

The 39 Steps – cleverness and controlled choreography left me cold but everyone else laughing (Bruiser in Lyric Theatre until 31 March)

As a child I was capable of laughing uncontrollably in social situations, unable to stop despite dirty looks from my parents. As I’ve grown older, hysteria no longer makes me laugh. In fact, relatively little makes me laugh. John Bishop’s 2017 show in the SSE Arena failed to generate a chuckle. So too did the 2016 performance of The 39 Steps that I reviewed. So I returned to the Lyric this week, interested to see whether the classic parody had caught me on a bad night, or whether the visual humour at the heart of this show and I were incompatible. As I explained back three years ago:
The conceit of The 39 Steps is that a cast of four perform 139 parts during this highly choreographed and stylised witty play based on the 1935 Hitchcock film of John Buchan’s novel.

When the mysterious Annabella (played again by Hannah Brackstone-Brown) dies overnight in a well-to-do moustached Londoner’s flat (Michael Johnston plays Richard Hannay) he is accused of murder and goes on the run, travelling north to Scotland to find the only man who can help unravel the mystery of the whispered ‘39 Steps’.

The rather simple-looking set certainly fulfils Bruiser’s artistic policy of “minimal set for maximum impact” and is animated with unexpected props. Two ‘clowns’ (Michael Condron and Benjamin Stratton) provide the energy and tomfoolery, recreating classic cinematic moments including a superbly executed sequence set on a train. Stratton – the only cast member not in the 2016 production – was unflappable throughout. Condron is king of the pause and throws knowing glances at the audience with great timing.

Director Lisa May and choreographer Sarah Johnston have created such a controlled choreography and physicality amongst the cast of four, acted out at breakneck speed with no room for hesitation or error. It’s dance-like and can be amazing to watch. The misogynist script is less appealing. The to-me-to-you pastiche and deliberate over-acting become tiresome and while the deliberate errors allow the action to pause, they too wear thin.

On-stage gestures are synchronised with Matthew Reeve’s sound effects. Whoever is controlling the cues really should join the cast on stage for a bow at the end. The nod to “hard borders” in the McCorquodale political rally was a nice addition. There were laughing hyenas all around me in the stalls, tickled by the simplest jiggle or shuffle. In the end I did burst out laughing in the second half when a chair was thrown across the stage and a leg fell off.

One wag sitting in the row behind had an interval theory about which character was really Jacob Rees-Mogg and which was Michel Barnier; nearly every film and play can be fitted to a Brexit narrative if you try hard enough. Bruiser have restaged a show that demonstrates a high level of skill and control amongst the cast – some of the routines felt even more solid than back in 2016 – and is clearly a crowd-pleaser and a commercial success.

Other Bruiser shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee took risks by including the audience in each performance and portrayed characters with identifiable motives and traits. Even the love story at the heart of The 39 Steps gets lost in the fog. The play’s weakness is not that it fails to make me laugh – that’s “a me problem” as my child would say – but that the cleverness of the performance supplants any ambition of speaking to contemporary society or reaching out to the audience.

The 39 Steps is a co-production between Bruiser Theatre Company and the Lyric Theatre and runs until 31 March.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer