Friday, January 31, 2014

Stand Up Man (in the Baby Grand until 8 February and then on tour)

Thaddeus McGuinn (played by Nick Hardin) knows about death – or at least dying on his feet – due to his line of business as a comic with a regular stand up spot at a New York club.

If his life had followed a difference course, he’d have been talking to a more appreciative audience at the front of a church. As an altar boy he “wanted to go to mass and watch the magic”. But between fencing communion wafers and marrying his pregnant girlfriend, his ever present conscience (Tim McGarry) is the only remnant of his Catholic past.

Stand Up Man’s simple two-level set doubles up as Thaddeus’ stage at the club as well as the kitchen and living room in his flat. The comic and his alcoholic, compulsive cleaning wife Maggie (Cathy Brennan-Bradley) argue and bicker. She longs for his touch even though he makes her skin crawl. They’re both stuck in a relationship that has neither love nor companionship.
“How am I supposed to be funny with all this suffering I go through?”

All the while alter ego Tim McGarry quietly sits in the corner reading the paper, his eyebrows acting overtime, throwing in quips before getting to his feet to challenge Thaddeus to a more robust course of action.
“You’re just a sad little man in a polyester suit that’s trying to be funny”

Spending ninety minutes inside the head of Thaddeus McGuinn isn’t a barrel of laughs. Derek Murphy’s tragic play is very dark. The central character is a shallow, self-centred, mean-spirited, odious man with neither a sense of self reflection nor any self respect. The kind of critter who doesn’t know the difference between a stand-up routine and a funeral eulogy.

A family funeral and the arrival of 26 year old son Buster (Kevin Patrick Keenan) lightens the mood at the beginning of the second half with some comedy moments amid the pain and disappointment before the play retreats to its dark place. Moments of sympathy between characters are overshadowed by their angst and conflict.

The cast are incredibly strong and convincing. There’s very strong language and a blokish obsession with big-breasted women throughout the play. If you’re going to the theatre for some light relief and expecting Tim McGarry to leave you with aching ribs and caustic one-liners, bear in mind that this is more tragedy than comedy. During the performance men in the audience laughed more than women. Yet if they learn anything from Thaddeus’ abhorrent example, men may need to rethink their actions and behaviours.

Thaddeus always finishes his routine with the line: “May your burden be light ….. ish”.

In the end it’s hard to warm to the ignoble Thaddeus; the anti-hero is portrayed as beyond pity and beyond redemption. That doesn’t make it a bad play, but it does leave you walking out of the Baby Grand into the drizzle with a knot in your stomach and a depressed feeling. Other theatregoers on Wednesday thought differently.

If you like your theatre – and your humour – dark, C21 Theatre’s Stand Up Man is in the Baby Grand until 8 February before it goes on tour.
  • Mon 10th Feb: Island Arts Centre, Lisburn
  • Tues 11th Feb: Old Courthouse, Antrim
  • Wed 12th Feb: Boys Model School, Belfast
  • Fri 14th Feb: Riverside Theatre, Coleraine
  • Sat 15th Feb: Ballyearl Arts Centre, Newtownabbey
  • Sun 16th Feb: Craic Theatre, Coalisland
  • Mon 17th Feb: Cushendall Golf Club, Cushendall
  • Wed 19th Feb: McNeill Arts Centre, Larne
  • Fri 21st Feb: Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick
  • Sat 22nd Feb: Market Place Theatre, Armagh

Monday, January 27, 2014

Is Christ divided in this city? Four church leaders telling their stories at 4 Corners Festival

Over a hundred people gathered in South Belfast Methodist church as part of the 4 Corners Festival to hear four leaders from different denominations share part of their story.

There was a surprisingly strong Methodist foundation to many of the stories which I paraphrase below.

Living in East Belfast, Bishop Harold Miller – baptised in Jennymount Methodist Church (also home to Archbishop Robin Eames) – spoke about his family tree, his annoyance at having to be told in whispered tones that his grandfather was Catholic. University was an important time for him as he realised that his Catholic neighbours must also be his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Rev Dr Norman Hamilton (ministering in North Belfast) started by observing that he was the only panellist not wearing a dog-collar and describing himself “as not very religious” but as “a committed Christian”. His first church experiences were in a Methodist church in Moira. He talked about being “a conservative Presbyterian minister” who has to deal with the “massive public evil” of the Holy Cross dispute, and his good if complex relationship with Father Aidan Troy. What did it mean to love his neighbour when local protestants were protesting at a local school? What did it mean to be a peacemaker? The event’s title asked “Is Christ divided in this city?” Norman answered saying that “the key lies not in the structures of our institutions … but in promoting a coherent and compelling Christian message in the public square”. He also noted that church can be “obsessed with commenting on matters of sex”. Rather than articulating “what we are arguing for in this society” we instead get “worked up about other matters that are not central to the great Biblical themes of revelation and salvation”.

Methodist President Dr Heather Morris (representing South Belfast) described herself as "my parents' daughter", outlined her Methodist roots (evangelical and ecumenical with an inclusive understanding of “all”), a practical theologian, a cheerleader, and a Christian. She referenced Rev Eric Gallagher’s trip with other church leaders to meet the IRA in Feakle in 1974 as an example of reaching out and understanding, and namechecked many different friends from different faiths who have supported her ministry.

Fr Ciarán Dallat (West Belfast) couldn't find any Methodist roots but talked about his father's struggle to respect Catholic tradition while still feeling bad about not going inside Protestant churches to attend the funerals of friends and neighbours. At Queen's Ciarán went along to Christian Union to find out more but wasn't welcome. Later as a chaplain at the University of Ulster worked along side other denominations on the Jordanstown campus, learning to speak “born again” language. He joked that he was tempted to join the Presbyterian ministry when he found out how much they earned, but didn't like how long they preached! As university chaplains, the events they organised were not about Christ divided, but instead about what united them in Jesus' word. He expressed his personal frustration at not being able to share Holy Communion with his Protestant friends and colleagues. He concluded: “Is Christ divided? For me not at all. We're the ones who make it hard. We’re the ones who allow people to mislead us.”

Prof John Bewer chaired the question and answer session that followed each speaker’s talk. The Q&A wasn’t recorded, but covered subjects including the education system and whether the media were responsible for continued division in society.

Is Christ divided in this city? No. And yes. Depending on who you ask.

The 4 Corners Festival continues until 1 February.

Gladys Ganiel has blogged her summary of the event.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Test drive an electric car at ecar DRIVESHOWs touring Northern Ireland in February & March

Last March I test drove an electric car around Titanic Quarter as part of the eDRIVE roadshow. The Nissan Leaf was a stealthy drive.
Foot on the brake, press in the button on top of the stumpy gear stick and pull back into ‘drive’. Press down on the accelerator and the car silently glides forward. Step on it a bit more and the speed cranks up. Steadily. No jerking through the gears like an ordinary automatic. In fact, stamp on the accelerator and the car takes off – instant torque – down the road with an alarming sense of urgency. Yet inside the car, all is calm and quiet.

Donnelly Group had fitted a couple of cameras to the car, so some of my wittering - and gesticulating with both hands instead of holding the wheel - was preserved for posterity.

The Department for Regional Development together with the Department of the Environment have teamed up to take the ecar DRIVESHOW to another six venues across Northern Ireland. Each roadshow starts at 10am and finishes at noon with lunch provided.
  • 5 February in Enniskillen Castle
  • 12 February in Coleraine Council Civic Headquarters
  • 19 February in the Burnavon Arts and Cultural Centre, Cookstown
  • 26 February in the Omniplex at the Quays Shopping Centre, Armagh
  • 12 March in Larne Townhall
  • 26 March in the Guildhall, Derry/Londonderry
You can register your attendance … and don’t forget to bring both parts of your driving licence if you want a test drive.

There are an increasing number of charging points dotted across the island, and there are charge points in many DRD and some private car parks. In Lisburn there's a charge point in the DRD car park in Benson Street, and another at Dobbies Garden Centre.

Last week DRD, DETI and DOE ministers launched a competition to design an Electric Days Out app to “assist existing and future Electric Vehicle drivers to plan their journeys across Northern Ireland, particularly visitor attractions promoted by NI Environment Agency and NI Tourist Board.

Last March, I concluded the blog post about the test drive saying:
In my opinion, getting an electric car would have to be a lifestyle choice as well as a economic one.

I was impressed with the short test drive: the Nissan Leaf was a lovely car. I like the concept of an emission-free vehicle. I love the idea of never having to fill up at a petrol station. And since I’ve no sense of smell, I won’t even miss the pleasant whiff of petrol fumes. I commute nine miles in and back out of work each day, so range would fine. I could get to Ballymena and back on a single charge. However, a round trip to Coleraine or Cookstown would require recharging along the way. So it would be impractical to have an electric car as the only vehicle in the household. Which makes it an expensive dodgem.

As a small car fan, I can’t ever see myself forking out £20,000+ for a car that size. At current specs and prices, it will be a long time before there is a sub-£10,000 two or four seater electric car on the market. That would be the tipping point for me.

For some people the economics, the eco-credentials and the driving range will make sense.

For me, I think I’ll stick with my three-cylinder, low spec Aygo. Even if it is incredibly noisy inside the car compared with the tranquil Leaf.

The future’s electric. But not for a while.

Update - The Belfast Telegraph has uncovered an anomaly between some parking conditions and the time to charge particular cars.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Week at the Airport (Alain de Botton): "we would like to meet eternity surrounded by an array of duty-free bags"

I don’t mind flying, but I love airports.

Getting up at half four in the morning to catch the red-eye to a London airport isn’t the best start to a day. But I love thinking about the complexity of airports, with so many different organisations working alongside – sometimes in spite of each other – to create a transport hub with its enormous car parks and baggage handling and the associated shopping malls with beefed-up security.

Given the number of times I’d travelled through Belfast City Airport, touring around behind the scenes a couple of years ago was great fun. Several times I’ve ended up staying in Gatwick’s Sofitel hotel for two or three nights at a time. It’s directly connected to the North Terminal, so I’d get back from work on the train in the late evening, catch the monorail over from the South Terminal before mooching through the terminal towards bed.

So I read Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary with both fascination and jealousy. BAA asked him to spend a week living and working around Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 in 2009. He sums up airports well at the close of his first chapter (“Approach”):
Had one been asked to take a Martian to visit a single place that nearly captures the gamut of theme running through out civilisation – from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticising of travel – then it would have to be to the departures and arrivals halls that one would hear.

The airport’s owners gave him a bedroom in an terminal-connected hotel, meal vouchers for airport restaurants, a pass to move around from departures through to airside and back to arrivals, and a desk in the departure hall between zones D and E. In return, along with photographer Richard Baker, Alain de Botton talked to staff and passengers, visited the on-site catering ‘factory’, sat on the closed runway in the middle of the night, and discovered that the terminal’s largest bookshop didn’t stock any of his titles.

Having evaluating the unusual no-strings job offer, Alain de Botton decided to accept:
I felt it would be churlish of me to decline to investigate my caller’s offer simply because his company administered airside food courts and hosted technologies likely to be involved I raising the planet’s median air temperature.

His sharp-eyed observations were translated into well-crafted phrases:
A passenger walkway rolled forward and closed its rubber mouth in a hesitant kiss over the front left-hand door.

As an all-seeing voyeur his eye and pen lingered over lovers saying goodbye, commentating like a judge from Strictly Come Dancing on the sense of passion and the moment of separation, before splitting up with photographer Richard so they could follow one party airside and the other back to the train to gauge their emotional reaction, all from a distance.

The security staff “look at every human being as through he or she might want to blow up an aircraft – a thoroughgoing reversal of our more customary impulse to find common ground with new acquaintances”. The need to stay alert earns these workers “more frequent tea breaks than other employees”.

Going airside he got to grips with why people often complain about airport consumerism:
… an incongruity between shopping and flying, connected in some sense to the desire to maintain dignity in the face of death.

Despite the many achievements of aeronautical engineers over the last few decades, the period before boarding an aircraft is still statistically more likely to be a prelude to a catastrophe than a quiet day in front of the television at home. It therefore tends to raise questions about how we might best spend the last moments before our disintegration, in what frame of mine we might wish to fall back down to earth – and the extent to which we would like to meet eternity surrounded by an array of duty-free bags.

Alain de Botton avoided becoming overly romantic about his stay in the airport … although he did see a future for himself as a writer-in-residence on board BA jets! Instead the 107 page book gently shone a light on the terminal, slowing time down to give readers a chance to look around instead of rushing through with their bags to get to the gate. Yet passengers ended up with fewer pages than the staff and characters who kept the airport running (including the shoe-shiner who I recognise from my days going through Terminal 1).

I doubt you’ll experience a travel epiphany while reading A Week at the Airport, but it might brighten up a delayed flight, and Richard Baker’s photographs add greatly to the prose. Available at all good airport bookshops, on Kindle as well as lots of second-hand copies on Amazon.

Thanks to Mr Ulster for mentioning [and I've now noticed, reviewing] the book. Good tip.

Friday, January 17, 2014

John Clancy, The Bookseller of Belfast, RIP

John Clancy died this morning. Belfast has lost one of the characters who make it such a special city.

A man who breathed books, who gently restored and repaired them. Alcoholism took its toll on his life too, but didn’t seem to define it. 'John the Book' as he was known promoted and fostered literacy. Although a bookseller, he sometimes gave away books for free in the belief that “what goes round comes around". When his second hand book shop shut, his house was stuffed full with books and he continued to match books up with his contacts. A man who made books exciting.

My condolences to John’s family and friends. I hope the QFT or BBC NI show the award-winning film again as a tribute. Along with John, the beautifully shot film portrayed Jolene, John and Robert as warm and wonderful Belfast characters, with dreams, ambition and a sense of community.

Having watched and reviewed Allesandra Celesia McIlduff’s film The Bookseller of Belfast at Belfast Film Festival in 2012, I got an email out of the blue from John Clancy in early June 2013 to let me know that the film was being screened on BBC One NI the next week.

I’ll treasure the letter that arrived a few days later along with a DVD copy of the film. Beautiful handwriting, and a lovely gesture from Belfast's man of letters.

John Clancy's funeral mass will be in St Therese's of Lisieux, 71 Somerton Road, Belfast, BT15 4DE at 10am on Tuesday 21st.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Kitchen, the Bedroom & the Grave (Accidental Theatre)

Watch out for Accidental Theatre’s new production The Kitchen, the Bedroom & the Grave in February and March.

Written by Donal O'Hagan and directed by Richard Lavery, the play follows up-and-coming journalist Dempsey as he is suddenly shipped home from London to Belfast to make a documentary on the changing face of good ol' Norn Iron.

A Christmas visitor at best, Dempsey has his fingers crossed for a quick job and a leap up the career ladder. But his parents (Tom and Martha) and his oldest school buddy (Mark) have their own agendas for him, and soon Dempsey is forced out from behind his camera.

O’Hagan’s stage debut is a multimedia exploration of homecoming that rips into ideas about family and identity, and asks how far can a person be the author of their own life.

The play explores the issue of homecoming: what it means for those who stay, and those who return? Coming home we often return to the parts of ourselves we were never comfortable with?

The cast includes Maggie Cronin (Academy award winning short film The Shore & BBC Doctors), Cillian O'Sullivan (BBC 6Degrees), Noel Magee (BBC Betrayal of Trust) and Jason McLaughlin (Lyric Theatre). Click on the links below to see ticket prices.

4 Corners Festival (15 January-1 February): "bringing Belfast together"

Coinciding with the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity, the 4 Corners Festival is back for a second year with a range of faith-based events (PDF programme) to introduce and network people and churches from right across the city.

The 100 World Day of Migrants and Refugees is being marked in Clonard Monastery on Thursday 16 January, The Psychology of Peace in the Sermon on the Mount will be explored in Fitzroy Presbyterian on Sunday 19, Scotland-Ireland links will be celebrated on Burns Night in Sacred Heart Parish Centre on Friday 24 and there will be poetry from Pádraig Ó Tuama in An Cultúrlann on Wednesday 29 and songs from Anthony Toner and Dave Thompson in 174 Trust on Saturday 1 February.

If you register with abernethysmile AT Hotmail DOT com you can head up to the Long Gallery in Parliament Buildings at 7pm on Friday 17 January to hear four politicians from across Belfast explain what got them into politics and what sustains them. Tara Mills will chair 4 Corners, 4 Stories with Alasdair McDonnell (South Belfast), Chris Little and Michael Copeland (East), Jennifer McCann (West) and Lee Reynolds (North).

In 174 Trust (156 Antrim Road) there will be a prayer breakfast starting at 7.30am on Friday 24 January. Four civic leaders will talk about areas in which they would value prayer support: Patricia Lewsley (Children and Young people), Katherine Stone (Victims) and Michael Wardlow, (Equality) will be joined by Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

More stories on Monday 27 January at 7.30pm, this time with four church leaders in South Belfast Methodist Church (238 Lisburn Road). QUB’s Prof John Brewer will chair the panel of clerics as they each answer the question “Is Christ divided in this city?” Bishop Harold Miller (Anglican Bishop of Down and Dromore … and an East Belfast resident); Rev Dr Norman Hamilton (former moderator and minister of Ballysillan Presbyterian in North Belfast); Father Ciaran Dallat (Assistant Priest in St Peter’s Catholic Cathedral in West Belfast); Rev Dr Heather Morris (President of the Methodist Church in Ireland and Director of Ministry in Edgehill Theological College in South Belfast).

Skainos (239 Newtownards Road) will host a conversation between Patrick Magee (the Brighton bomber) and Jo Berry (whose father was killed in the blast). Listening to your Enemies starts at 7.30pm on Thursday 30 January and will be chaired by Lesley Carroll.

The 4 Corners Festival will finish on Saturday 1 February with prayer in front of Belfast City Hall at 8.30am with time to catch a coffee on the way to gather in one of four venues across the city: Peace wall in Duncairn Gardens beside The Lighthouse Project (North Belfast); International Meeting Point, 133 Lisburn Road (South); Peace wall in Workman Avenue close to Springfield Road Methodist Church (West); Skainos, 239 Newtownards Road (East).

Up to date information about the 4 Corners Festival can be found on their website, Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Mark Grist: Rogue Teacher ... and a bearded bard with diamond doggerel #OTL14

I’m not a fan of poetry. I don’t get the imagery. I value puns more than verse. Yet in the last week I’ve twice ended up enjoying poetry-based events at the Out To Lunch festival. Performers who can inject personality and humour into their work seem to get around my phobia!

Mark Grist was an English teacher with a passion for teenagers. He took a year off to pursue poetry and complete an MA. Along the way he entered and won a rap battle against seventeen year old grime artist MC Blizzard.

His one man show began by teaching the audience how to applaud the spoken word – a cunning move! – before Mark talked about his experience finding work as a freelance bard, that rap battle bringing on-the-hoof poetry and the repercussions. His tale was interspersed with seven or so poems, performed with gusto and without notes.

We learned about the delights of Peterborough (with its Ikea distribution centre but no actual store!), his advice to the chief examiner, red heads and importantly, why he prefers girls who read.

Mark’s hour long narrative covers a year in his life, displays his passion for words and teenagers came in equal measure, and has enough honesty and self criticism to keep audience empathy levels high while still being in awe of his superhuman doggerel.

Together with Hadski’s tasty beans and rice, another great Out to Lunch lunchtime event. And there’s more than two weeks of shows left.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Terry Christian’s Naked Confessions of a Recovering Catholic - rough around the edges but no act of penance #OTL14

Terry Christian’s one man show was built around his sense that his character and experience has been negatively shaped by a Catholic upbringing. His experience of Catholicism – or at least the version he recounts for the benefit of his show – was heavy on burning for eternity, the futility of praying to St Jude (the patron saint of lost causes), perverted priests, stern nuns, guilt (sometimes guilt at having nothing decent to confess to) and sexual repression.

The lunchtime gig at the Out to Lunch festival – Terry described it as PG … not sure I’d like to have been at the 18 version tonight – walked the audience through his poverty-stricken childhood in Manchester, the outside loo, being sent to the library by his Mum, passing the 11 plus and going to the posh all-male catholic school despite qualifying for free school meals. Towards the end we heard a little about his career in Manchester radio.

It’s a sign of a changed Belfast when a performer can ask members of an audience to put their hand up if they’re Catholic … and they do, only pausing to check whether being a lapsed Catholic counts as hands up or hands down!

The show started strongly with the audience laughing along with the banter and the insights into Terry’s angry, messed up world. But as the hour long performance progressed, the material loosened and the laughter was less regular. It might have been a result of Terry compressing his longer routine into the lunchtime slot. Maybe the woman who heckled him from the front row knocked him off his stride! Certainly we didn’t hear much about his time in the Big Brother house … for this small mercy we should be thankful.

As the clock struck two and the lunchtime audience started to glance shiftily at their watches and wonder if they could fit in a quick confession on the way back to work, Terry suddenly wrapped up his routine with a crescendo and it was all over.

Rough around the edges, Terry Christian’s stand-up debut shows promise and was no act of penance for the audience, but he really needs to go back to the library to prune his material if he wants to keep us laughing.

The Out to Lunch Festival continues with lunchtime (and evening) gigs until 26 January.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

John Hegley: a funny spectacle(-wearer) at the Out to Lunch festival #OTL14

I hope John Hegley enjoyed his afternoon as much as the Out to Lunch Festival audience in The Black Box as he negotiated his way through his running order, our imaginative actions and a few hecklers.

An hour and a half of poems, songs, banter and a celebration of spectacles with plenty of willing – though ever-so-slightly random – audience participation. Apparently we looked like an interval-kind-of-audience so there was an intermission for kids to buy books and the bar to sell some more liquid refreshment.

We learnt about amoebae, armadillos, John’s very very very … very naughty brother-in-law, hamsters and we messed up the Bungalow song so badly that it was abandoned. Is it just me or is John’s ukulele particularly smiley?

Great fun and unusually clean/virtuous family-friendly for modern comedy. And now we have a nine year old at home who will be able to jump into John Hegley’s shoes and perform poems from his book!

Friday, January 03, 2014

Niamh Dunne #OTL14

There wasn’t a sand bag in sight in the Black Box today as Niamh Dunne fiddled and sang her way through an hour of material.

Backed by Seán Óg Graham on guitar and button accordion and Trevor Hutchinson on double bass. Niamh’s gentle Limerick (via Portglenone) lilt suited the Irish ballads, Nanci Griffith covers and her own storytelling material at lunchtime’s concert.

The Belfast audience giggled as Niamh explained the history behind her song Ballyneety's Walls which catalogues a skirmish in 1690 outside Limerick in which William of Orange lost his siege guns and ammunition … all explained and sung without mentioning the Williamites by name!

A quick snippet of one of Niamh's instrumental songs at lunchtime:

I’m liking this year’s caterers already: the three-bean stew was tasty but not spicy. Perfect.

Another three weeks of OTL festival left ... get your tickets now!