Friday, December 11, 2015

Horseplay, dance, music & comedy as Pony Panto gallops on stage at The MAC (until 19 Dec)

Pony Panto is legendary. A high energy music and dance sketch show, with comedic Christmas trimmings, lashings of kitsch and a loyal audience who squeeze in to catch its annual outing.

For some in the MAC last night it was a massive ‘in joke’, recognising on stage characters from other performances and venues in Belfast. For others it was a chance to see their friends on stage freed from the constraint of a script. And this year with an extended run and huge demand for tickets, it was also full of brave newbies who scurried into the back seats in case what they’d heard about the front row was true.

Leonie Pony compères commères the evening, well able to handle the banter of the cast and those in the stalls. With more costume changes than a Eurovision Song Contest presenter, the Sara Lund-inspired Christmas jumper dress with a dreadful polo neck deserves special mention.

The stage is awash with characters including a juggling barman, a queen and Ireland’s pop-sensation Sinnead who has everyone singing along. House band Donal and the Drainpipes croon merrily accompany everything from their platform on the side of the upstairs MAC stage. The evening’s unwitting VIP is plucked from obscurity and positioned in a seat much closer to the action.

After the interval, Katie Richardson’s Hail Mary rap – “you wouldn’t have Christmas if it wasn’t for me” – ramps up the energy with a provocative yet reverent retelling of the Christmas story from the perspective of the young girl at its centre.

Pony Panto doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet it’s never slapdash. The Ponies throw themselves at routines with gusto and talent. The glum and apathetic mixed cheerleading squad are all the more funny with their sullen faces and lacklustre delivery of the routine. Finn’s ability to effortlessly shimmy high up a pole to scatter glitter over the acts below is only bettered by his breath-taking descents.

There’s attention to detail: the regal powder blue dress could well feature at 3pm on Christmas Day. The merchandise on sale afterwards was popular and captures the spirit of the prance dance company. The snowflake Nutcracker ballet scene is beautiful and inventive (even after the Ponies mess with it).

With a nine o’clock start in Cathedral Quarter, some of the Pony Panto audience had lost their inhibitions and there was affable heckling even before Leonie had pulled back the curtain to reveal this year’s stripped back extravaganza.

The show finishes with a number that lifts the audience up onto their feet even if it’ll take a Stewards Enquiry to decide whether the man in the second row managed to string together the right moves in the right order.

Going by its reputation, I expected I might raise an eyebrow at the content. Instead I found Pony Panto to be light and full of laughs, music, dance and a smattering of not too anxious audience participation. It’s obvious that the performers are enjoying the raucous show.

Pony Panto is new Belfast letting its hair down and having a good time. The challenge for the tracksuited Ponies will be to keep it niche and not go too mainstream.

If you gee up and race to the (online) box office before the remaining tickets sell out, you can catch Pony Panto at the MAC until 19 December.

Grandma - intergenerational comedy as family squares up to loss (QFT, 11-17 Dec)

Like the feminist tomes that Elle (played by Lily Tomlin) tries to hawk to raise cash for her granddaughter’s abortion, the film Grandma is neatly split into chapters. Over six equal sections, we follow the strong-willed pair over a day as they hare about town attempting to call in loans and borrow funds from bridges that Elle burnt out (or blew up) long ago.

Elle’s partner of thirty eight years Violet died eighteen months ago. The newer younger girlfriend is dismissed from Elle’s house and her life as “a footnote”. Up the hill comes a maudlin curly haired granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who has made a decision.
“I need some help Grandma … I need $630 … I’m pregnant”

With Elle’s credit card now swirling in the breeze as part of a wind chime, the petulant pair have barely a bean to their names.

In simple terms this is an abortion road trip, though certainly not a film that glorifies or celebrates the heartbreak at its centre. Grandma nothing like Juno, but it doesn’t shirk from the “Am I going to hell?” doubts.

She’s a grandmother who sure knows how to ask good questions, and holds no punches. But with young Sage reaching out – past her mother – for help, Elle jump starts Vi’s 1955 Dodge Royal with its heavy doors in a bid to find the cash before the medical appointment that’s already been booked for that evening.

Underneath Elle’s misanthropic bluster and temper is a woman who cares deeply about the people around her, even those she seems to reject. Quite late on we meet Sage’s mother/Elle’s daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) in scenes that had the preview screening guffawing in laughter.

By the film’s end we see three generations of women in the one family squaring up to each other. Each generation has lost a child. Out of tragedy perhaps there be some reconciliation and understanding.

Grandma isn’t a neatly polished production. The only sequence where the camera is locked off and steady is when it’s attached to the side of the car. Otherwise, every shot jiggles and wobbles, sometimes even swinging around rather than smoothly panning or cutting to a different point of view.

Just 79 minutes long, Paul Weitz’s low-budget Grandma is a good length. Nothing is rushed; nothing is padded. The story is told and then the film ends. Unsentimental yet light. Though gags about periods and condoms seem raw when faced with the serious backdrop of Sage’s decision.

You can catch Grandma in the Queen’s Film Theatre between 11 and 17 December as well as some Moviehouse cinemas.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Sleeping on the ceiling, staring at the Earth and what goes through your mind before launch? ESA's Jean-François Clervoy speaking ahead of Tim Peake's launch to ISS

Reposted from Slugger O'Toole ...

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The little Osborne book of Space was well thumbed. Details of Russian and American space missions, orbiting the Earth, trips to the moon, and promises of a reusable Space Shuttle. Trips to the Armagh Planetarium and seeing the low res images being transmitted from weather satellites. I remember the first Shuttle launch being delayed ...

Ahead of Tim Peake’s launch at 11.03am on Tuesday 15 December from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and rendezvous with the International Space Station, I spoke to veteran European astronaut Jean-François Clervoy. He’ll be the special guest on Tuesday at W5 in Belfast as part of a day of events at the science centre and Armagh Planetarium with the UK Space Agency to mark the start of the Principia Mission and the first British astronaut in space for over twenty years.

If you want to find out more about space nutrition and how space research affects local food production, find out how planes and rockets fly, as well as Jean-François Clervoy your own question, check out the details from W5 [PDF] and Armagh Planetarium. This year’s NI Science Festival (18-28 February) is themed around space technology and exploration and some events and tickets have already been launched.

Jean-François Clervoy flew on three Space Shuttle Missions in the 1990s. I asked him what goes through an astronauts head in the days running up to a launch?
Astronauts focus on their task they have to do at the time of take off, the checks in the cockpit, the proper donning of the flight suit. The flight itself – although it’s a fantastic event and experience in a lifetime – but psychologically we’re prepared months in advance so what’s happening on the 15th December is normal in Tim Peake’s life because that’s what he’s been preparing for for seven months …

The day of launch, usually you are full of serenity, you feel very at ease intellectually and mentally because you know that you’ve done everything that you had to do and you’re just thinking calmly about the extraordinary experience you’re going to have. So when it comes really close to walking to the rocket you feel excited because you’ve done everything you needed to do and you feel you’re ready – and people are telling you that you’re ready and the launcher is ready – and then when you sit in the capsule and you wait for the launch control centre to do the various checks then for ten to thirty minutes you have periods where you have nothing to do. Then you can let your mind float thinking about what you’re going to leave, thinking about your family. But you feel very serene because you are doing things that at this time of your life are just normal. You’ve been working on it for months. If just before going to the rocket someone tells you “sorry, we have to cancel the flight” or “we have to delay for one month because of a technical detail” then you would feel frustrated.
Tim Peake will be docking with the International Space Station. On one of your three Shuttle trips, you docked with the Russian Mir Space Station and stayed for a week. What will be the first thing he notices when the airlock opens?
He may likely feel a slightly different smell as the environment is not the same as in the Soyuz capsule … That will not be a disturbance that will attract his attention or priority.

The first feeling is meeting humans in space that have been there for some time. You met them several months before during your training and you feel happy – it’s like a [reunion] of your family. You get so close to your crew mates because you know you’re going to share something so unique, so extra-terrestrial, so extraordinary that you build up family links between crew members.

Joining with them in space is quite special because you know they’re happy to see you – “it’s nice to get visits” is what the Russians used to tell us when we went to Mir – and you know that you will be able to count on them to help you when it is your first flight.

You’ll not be totally at ease: where are things? where to put things? how to be efficient for basic logistic tasks? Usually we are very well trained for sophisticated tasks like space walks and robotics, activating complex scientific experiments, but for the daily activities – putting your clothing in the trash, getting the food out, cleaning, getting the vacuum cleaner out … These are things you don’t spend time training because it’s very basic. You just need practice …

When Clervoy was in space, he was relatively isolated from family and friends, there to do a job for 7-10 days and then come home. There will be a lot of pressure on Tim Peake to be communicating about what he’s doing while he’s in space working.
On the short duration missions even now the timeline of our agenda is so packed that we have only a chance once every week to do a real time Skype chat with family, but we have daily email synchronisation. On my missions [1994, 1997, 1999] we could do email. There were two or three synchronisations per day. From the [International] Space Station it’s almost like in the office in terms of connectivity. You can tweet, you can go through your email anytime, you can phone any phone number in the world starting by the country code, anytime, without receiving any bill! Some astronauts call their family every day for three minutes to [talk] about basic things; some prefer to wait once or twice a week for a longer period.

But in terms of feeling connected with family, it’s not as restricted as before. I have friends from the ISS who were calling their family about a problem in the house, seeing if the plumber did the right job. In terms of isolation, I think Tim will not feel that. He will see the Earth and he will be able to communicate anytime he wants with the Earth – of course, anytime within his spare time – you have one minute here and there in-between different activities.

Especially for Europeans who are from different member states of the European Space Agency they have some pressure to accept to do video conference with VIPs, with ministers, to report regularly, to use Twitter. It is relatively easy on a long duration space mission (six months) there is more free time. We know the rhythm that was imposed on the crews of the Space Shuttle is not acceptable for more than two or three weeks because you then get too tired. The number one priority for astronauts on long duration missions is to have enough sleep time!
What about sleeping in zero gravity? Light sleep inducing pills are available if you’re still awake two hours after bedtime but most astronauts don’t take those pills for long.
[Some astronauts] attach a pillow with a band to their forehead, keeping it pressing on the back of their head. It floats, which doesn’t help to rest the head – your head is at the same place whether you have a pillow or not – but they like to feel their head pressuring on the pillow.

Sleeping bags are relatively comfortable now. You can attach it in the four corners with bungees or strings to anywhere. Personally I used to sleep on the ceiling. That was quite fun!
Clervoy says that the ISS astronauts “don’t complain any more about the food”.
Life is nice. On board, their weekends are free. There is some housekeeping to do at the weekends, and some astronauts dedicate their free time for optional outreach activities – they record videos for kids and schools – but they have seven hours of free time on Saturdays and Sundays because we try to mimic the typical work week on Earth.

They exercise a lot, around one and a half hours a day dedicated to exercise, aerobic and anaerobic … Some come back from flight in better physical shape in terms of muscle than on the ground because they were not exercising that much before. But that’s quite rare: most of the time there is some atrophy of muscles.

There is a variety of activity: work on the computer, work on scientific experiments, operational work with rendezvous docking, spacewalks, robotics, some leisure activity, listening to music, watching movies (they have hundreds of DVDs on board) but the most favourite activity of most astronauts is to look out the window, to look at the Earth, at the sky. This is probably what marks the life of an astronaut forever the most from spaceflight. The thing I will remember the most from my spaceflights at the end of my life will be the earth seen from space.
Does that truly change your perspective on Earth when you return? Are astronauts different because you have seen the Earth from the outside … and you judge its problems and its crises differently because you’ve had that perspective?
I don’t think a spaceflight changes who you are. It definitely changes your perspective on Earth, the way you think about the Earth because first you see it on the background of the deep blackness of the cosmos. You don’t see stars unless you do something to see the stars. I know astronauts who forgot to see stars from space! To see stars you need to be in an orientation where the Sun and the Earth are not in the field of view and switch off all the lights in the environment where you are in the space ship and let your eyes adapt and then it’s marvellous. The stars don’t twinkle and you perceive very well their colour. They’re very crisp. You see the colour of nebulae with your naked eye. It’s fantastic.

When you look at the Earth it looks really unique, isolated, finite. When you see it with your own eyes it’s beautiful, you’ve tears in your eyes. Even if you are the most experienced commander like Matt Kowalski in the movie Gravity, three times in the movie you hear or you see the guy who has done it all – the commander who is over everything and this is his last mission – three times during the movie he says “Wow!” and the other one asks “What happened?” “You should see the moon reflecting on the Ganges over Nepal”. I’ve seen that.

You see the Earth and you become like a child totally impressed by the beauty of the planet because it is beautiful, it’s contrasted, it is alive. And uniquely from space for the first time in your life from space the field of view carries your vision beyond 2,500km around. You see far around. And what you see in that field of view evolves very fast. After ten minutes it’s all different. You cross the whole field of view that you see in less than ten minutes.

And what you see is beautiful. You see colours of phytoplankton blooming in the French Polynesia, you see glaciers, you see desserts, you see tropical forests, all this one minute after another. You go around in one and a half hours, so sixteen world tours a day. Every 45 minutes the sun sets or the sun rises. You see winter colours, all white, for 45 minutes when you fly over the north hemisphere, and the next 45 minutes you are above the south hemisphere where it’s the opposite season.
Do you dream about looking out the window looking down at Earth?
Oh yes. And I have plenty of movies and pictures from my flights. Sometimes I open my photo book and I look at that and I say “is this me who saw that in my life?” It is so extra-terrestrial in terms of sensorial experience that you feel it was in another life. You need to think concretely intellectually about it and the you remember, yes, it was me that did that. You have changes in your body, you see things that you’ve never seen before, you exchange with colleagues that you’ve never exchanged with before: it’s a totally different experience in terms of sensory, intellectual, and even spiritual experience.
Clervoy admitted that he’d love to be the one returning to the ISS. He was party of the ‘jury’ that selected Tim (who scored the best marks in his training and beat the Americans in Nasa’s underwater expedition training exercise).
He’s really a top guy and I would really enjoy flying with him. I would go with him eyes closed. This what I told the jury. There were looking at me: “what do you think?”

“That guy, I would fly with him anytime in space, I would take him with me anytime in space”.
High praise for the man who Clervoy describes as “the ideal astronaut”.

You can follow Tim Peake's progress on his blog, on Twitter @astro_timpeake and watch the launch and rendezvous/docking online.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

NI Human Rights Festival (6-12 December) - challenging stereotypes about rights and equality

The fourth annual Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival runs this week between Sunday 6 and Saturday 12 December. The festival attempts to “challenge stereotypes about what rights and equality mean in Northern Ireland” and they hope the programme will “bring those conversations beyond traditional audiences into the wider consciousness of the people who live here”.

Events looking at refugees form a thread running through the 2015 programme. There’s a daily lunchtime panel discussion looking at an aspect of human rights in the Black Box, and lots of films being screened. The full set of events is available on the NIHRF website.

Below, I’ve selected a few highlights ... but don’t forget the Refugee Welcome Party on Saturday 12th.

Sunday 6 December

7pm in Dublin Road Movie House – Free screening of Mary Meets Mohammad which looks at Tasmania’s first detention centre through the eyes of local Christian knitter Mary and Muslim Afghan Hazara asylum seeker Mohammad. You can reserve a free ticket.

8pm in Black Box – Screening of Open Bethlehem made by director Leila Sansour who returned to Bethlehem to make a film about her home town, soon to be encircled by a wall. She left the city as a teenager thinking that Bethlehem was too small and provincial. he film spans seven momentous years in the life of Bethlehem, revealing a city of astonishing beauty and political strife under occupation. £3.

Monday 7 December

1pm in UU Belfast Campus – Presentation drawing on artistic practices in Argentina, Rwanda and Bosnia to explore how communities and individuals use art to express experiences of human right violations and the place of art in seeking justice and engaging with contested pasts.

1pm in Black Box – Panel and discussion on the topic of Reproductive Healthcare is a Human Right. Free.

8pm in Aether & Echo – Songs of the People: Traditional and Contemporary Culture in Northern Ireland. Exploring cultural identity and today’s ethnic diversity through songs and stories from less traditional cultures. Presented by singer Dónal Kearney. £3.

Tuesday 8 December

6pm in the Black Box – Free discussion led by Disabled Police Officers Association and Disability Action about the treatment of police officers disabled while on duty during the Troubles (9000 were injured).

7pm at St Mary’s University College – Free lecture Dr Niamh Reilly (NUI Galway) on Women’s Human Rights: International and Local Experiences.

8pm in Black Box – Hollie McNish is a poet of whom fellow wordsmith Benjamin Zephaniah said “I can’t take my ears off her”. Tickets £10/£7.

8pm in Black Box – Screening of Coach Zoran and his African Tigers follows veteran Serbian coach Zoran Djordjevic as he seeks to forge first national football team for South Sudan (the world’s youngest country). £5 (including a beer)

Wednesday 9 December

12.30pm in Beanbag Cinema – Free screening of Departing: Arrivals – The Syrian Story, a film by Hafsah Naib about war, parenthood and survival. You can reserve a free ticket.

1pm in Black Box – A Round of Applause for my Glamorous Assistant promises a panel discussion to explore why girls tend to favour ‘the arts’ at school yet many creative careers are dominated by men. The panel includes women who’ve stepped into the spotlight. Free.

5pm in Black Box – Ulster Covenant, Easter Proclamation & Human Rights – An event to explore the human rights elements and meaning within these important historical and constitutional texts in our shared history. Free.

6pm in UU Belfast campus – Is Religion Fundamentally Anti-Choice? UU researchers Dr Fiona Bloomer and Dr Claire Pierson challenge the common assumption that religion is fundamentally opposed to abortion. By taking examples from comparative historical and contemporary religious perspectives, they’ll discuss whether political dialogue on abortion in Northern Ireland manipulates human rights and attempts to use religion as a barrier to women’s full citizenship. Free.

Thursday 10 December

1pm at the Black Box – What Does Freedom of Assembly mean in NI? A panel discussion looking at Article 11 of the Human Rights Act, European Convention of Human Rights, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and its current and potential impact on dealing with parading in Northern Ireland. Speakers Rev. Mervyn Gibson (Grand Orange Lodge), Neil Jarman (QUB), Brian Gormally (CAJ) and a representative of agencies dealing with parading. Free and lunch provided.

8pm in White’s Tavern –Inspired by Seamus Heaney’s poem From a Republic of Conscience, poets will share their work along with a poem on human rights that particularly inspires them. Free and with wine courtesy of Irish Pages.

Friday 11 December

1pm in the Black Box – A panel will the impact of the NI Human Rights Act and its long term future given current government plans to scrap the legislation. What has the Human Rights Act Ever Done for Us will have contributions from Brice Dickson (QUB), Claire Hanna (SDLP), Alastair Ross (DUP) and Kevin Hanratty (Human Rights Consortium). Free and lunch provided.

6.30pm in Waterstones (Fountain Street) – Marginal Theatre and Poetry NI present Phenomenal Woman: A Celebration of Maya Angelou with readings of Dr Angelou’s poetry and performance of music associated with this famous American civil rights activist and author. Free.

8pm in Sunflower Bar – Aidan Killian: Whistleblowers A passionate one-man show with intelligent comedy about standing up and speaking the truth. The truth will set you free… unless you’re Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. £8/£5.

Saturday 12 December

2pm in Black Box, Hill Street and Dark Horse – Refugee Welcome Party / Family Day. To close the festival there’s an opportunity to reach out to people who have had to leave most of their belongings, but more importantly their whole community, their friends, culture and history, behind. Show solidarity with the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Community and reach out the hand of friendship. Don’t bring supplies but bring yourselves and your family and join in the music, workshops, food, information and most importantly friendship.

8pm in Sunflower Bar – Refugee Welcome Party / Festival Closing Party. Free in to enjoy the live music in partnership with the West Against Racism Network as long as you’ve brought a present for the child of a refugee.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Little Red Riding Hood & The Big Bad Wolf: magical, musical, must see (Lyric Theatre until 3 January)

Children’s fairy tales can be very dark, and the Lyric’s version of Little Red Riding Hood & The Big Bad Wolf makes no attempt to water down the sinister elements of the story. On top of the classical tale of a granny and girl eating wolf defeated by the woodsman’s axe are layers of edgy intrigue by writer Derek O’Connor, magical direction from Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney and beautiful music from the fingers of Ursula Burns.

The first scene creates a visually strong start and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. But expect stars, the moon and a song from a piano that Elton John would covet during the opening number “I’m lonely as a wolf”.

Very quickly audience involvement is sought as we become acquainted with the travelling troupe of Maestro family actors who tour around telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Christina Nelson and Frankie McCafferty play the “family first” Mum and Dad, helped out by twin sisters - “not identical!” - Rosie and Rachel. Practically-minded Rosie (Charlotte McCurry) looks after all the backstage production and feels under-appreciated while Rachel (Roisin Gallagher) takes the glory treading the boards.
“You may think you know this one, but trust me you don’t. A prequel, a sequel and all at the same time.”

The tale takes a sinister twist when the real wolf appears and Rosie is lured into peril becoming the new Red. “I hate to tell you I’m going to eat you for my dinner” sings “Big Bad” (Kyron Bourke) with a suitably wild hairstyle that looks like a can of hair spray exploded over his bonce.

The on stage music carries the story along and sets the mood for each scene. Along with saxophonist, drummer and lots of incidental percussion, Ursula Burns switches back and forth from keyboard to harp as well as singing. There’s nothing incidental: every ding and every clack is synchronised with the choreography of some on-screen action. The lyrics have lots of repetition and it’s not difficult for kids to follow.

The cast’s voices are all strong and blend well. They’re also micced up well enough to carry over the constant accompaniment of sweet packet opening and children’s chatter. Early on as narrator, Charlotte McCurry talks, sings, plays percussion and flute.

“One thing is constant, you need a bad wolf in the story” ... even if only to make children brush their teeth. But maybe the bad wolf can be stopped and turned into a bad-good wolf before wrecking anymore havoc and misery in the forest?

The ninety minute show (including interval) is a good length for young children and is jammed full of memorable imagery, strong tunes (“December Moon” a favourite) and magic. Jokes about scones go down well with the adults, and the large scale illusions works for all ages

Little Red Riding Hood & The Big Bad Wolf is a really ambitious production and the talented cast and team at the Lyric Theatre carry it off with aplomb. It’s a spectacular Christmas show and runs until 3 January. Your inner child really wants to see it!

All Through The House: a farcical Christmas dinner you shouldn’t miss (Crescent Arts until 19 Dec)

The Moore’s were celebrating Christmas early this year in Belfast. For the sake of their daughter, the estranged parents felt it would be good idea to show a united front. But with so much muddied water under the bridge and a wardrobe full of secrets, the turkey might want to hide under the table until the day is over.

From the very beginning, All Through The House is full of laughs and very unexpected situations. It’s hard to believe that this fast-paced farce is writer Judith King’s first full-length play. (She talked about the process of writing in an interview recorded last month.) And it's unlikely to be the last time we see new work from this playwright on stage.

Straight-laced Carol (played by Mary Jordan) acts a world-renowned TV series Reign of Blood. When she’s not away filming in Poland she’s at home in the house she shares with her daughter. Ruth (Victoria Armstrong) is neurotic, with more than a shade of OCD.
“You come first, not petty squabbles or old rows”

Coming to dinner are estranged husband Arthur (Stephen Beggs) along with his mistress turned steady partner Wendy (Maria Connolly). Arthur’s been topping up his tan ahead of a festive trip to the Canary Island and his face is pinker than his shirt. Wendy breezes into the house like a breath of … Storm Clodagh, followed by her mini-me daughter Pat (Bernadette Brown) who is an ex-best friend of Ruth.

“If the three of us can bury the hatchet, there’s no reason why you two can’t”

Later on another actor from the show Wolfe (Shaun Blaney) arrives out of the blue, more brawn that brains, and every woman in the house – eligible or not – throws herself at him.

Everyone is on edge. Actors fear for their characters’ longevity. Business success eludes Arthur. Ruth has made a big mistake in work. Carol’s traditional dinner menu must not be ruined by Wendy’s “hat nibbles”. And there’s a whiff of unresolved love in the air.

Director Patrick J O’Reilly has taken Judith King’s great script and created a firework show that does not disappoint. After the interval the action is briefly becalmed with lingering serious moments before Wendy storms back into action and pandemonium ensues. Emotions and relationships threaten to spin like a Catherine wheel, but even when Wendy finally explodes all over the dinner table, the display isn’t over. With no remaining elephants hidden in the room, the final Karaoke scene brings the show to a fitting conclusion.

Stuart Marshall’s set uses scaffolding to give shape to the walls between the kitchen and the living room and frame the doorways. A garden bench creates an outdoor space into which characters can escape and earwig at the mumbled sounds of raised voices in the kitchen. (It’s an ambitious effect.) With all six characters on set for around two thirds of the production, the lighting keeps the audience focussed on the main action. There’s attention to detail with smoke pouring out of the oven and the turkey changing colour.

Strong performances across the ensemble cast create a fabulous scene of Christmas anguish. In particular, Victoria Armstrong’s portrayal of Ruth sets her out as the most likely heroine right from her earliest sleepwalking escapade in #Elfie pyjamas as the audience come to appreciate that she’s by no means the most mixed up adult in the house.

Tinderbox’s All Through the House is surely the Christmas show not to be missed this season. You’ll laugh out loud for a couple of hours, while your chest tightens with the stress of the on-stage shenanigans. It’ll certainly put most Christmas catastrophes in your house into perspective! With strong language throughout, it’s suitable for 14 years and above. All Through The House runs in the Crescent Arts Centre until 19 December. Tickets £14 (£10 concession).

Production photos by Neil Harrison.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Christmas Eve Can Kill You - yuletide drama in the back of a Belfast taxi (Lyric Theatre until 17 Jan)

It’s like “real life acting out a soap”. That’s how taxi driver Mackers (played by Tim Loane) sums up his annual Christmas Eve fares. An ensemble cast of Julia Dearden, Dan Gordon, Jazzmin McClure, Matthew McElhinney, Tara Lynne O’Neill, Louise Parker and Katie Tumelty play more than twenty characters across the two hour play, with a few tight costume changes to manage.

Set in 1992, it’s twenty years since Marie Jones’ play Christmas Eve Can Kill You was first performed, with Tim Loane and Dan Gordon reprising their original roles. This may be the last time the play can be performed before it truly becomes a museum piece. Mobile phones were still rare, with the first text message only sent on this day (3 December) in 1992.

Young squaddies may no longer set up roadblocks on the streets of Belfast, Ford Sierras have become extinct, and it’s obvious from the play that inflation has hit the fares taxis charge, yet the tragedy and stresses of yuletide remain the same.

Old people whose pride won’t allow them to admit they’re alone at Christmas, jealous mistresses, lotharios whose imagination is stronger than their pulling power, children estranged from their parents, and young fools in love. And who can fail to laugh at an English actor on a BBC taxi account who can’t pronounce Ormeau!

Earlier characters reappear in increasingly unexpected and unconventional combinations as Marie Jones plaits the threads together. Her trick is to long withhold a key facet about each character and then suddenly drop it into the script to change how the audience view their motives.

Tara Lynne O’Neill and Katie Tumelty are like the twins of the Lyric stage and slip comfortably into accents and characters that Marie Jones has gone on to develop in later plays. Louise Parker could tear strips off a book of ballot tickets with her tongue as she jumps between moods and emotions. Dan Gordon juggles being ridiculous, pathetic and vulnerable. While he’s far too young to remember it, Matthew McElhinney has the military red torch waving down to a tee.

There are raised eyebrows and quick asides as well as lengthy monologues as Mackers leans forward and confides his thoughts with the audience, even when he’s driving. Laughter ripples across the auditorium. By the time we’d reached the interval, Wednesday night’s audience had begun to applaud those getting their comeuppance and hiss those who needed to wind their necks in.

Theatre venues are challenged by the need for multiple shows to cohabit the same stage over Christmas. Lighting, set and sound designers double up across production to ensure a graceful fit. Other than a white door frame that most passengers step through onto the stage, the only fixed set on the all black stage is the white mesh outline of a car and a steering column. Five traffic lights flicker in the background as the car moves along the imaginary city streets picking up and dropping off fares. While the cue list must be endless, Garth McConaghie’s gentle sound effects when the taxi is moving make up for the lack of slammed car doors.

If you see a taxi registration ABZ1347, go easy on him. He’ll already have had some actual back seat drivers tonight and while there’s a choice of music on the radio that suits every situation, you jump into the back of Mackers’ taxi if you dare. He’s all ears, but don’t be expecting him to laugh at your turkey jokes.

Christmas Eve Can Kill You runs at the Lyric Theatre until 10 January until 17 January (run extended).

PS Did I mention the snow and the dog? If the Lyric sold stuffed dogs on the way out of the theatre, they’d make a fortune!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Rumpelstiltskin - spinning a golden tale with songs on stage this Christmas at The MAC (until 3 Jan)

Rumpelstiltskin delights the main stage of The MAC this Christmas. First performed in the egg Theatre in Bath last year, Matt Harvey’s reimagined Grimm fairy tale is full of corny rhymes and set to music by Thomas Hewitt Jones.

The show’s themes of fair treatment, weak leadership, hunger for power and austere times resonate with the economic situation Europe finds itself in. But it’s also a musical treat that anyone aged five or above can enjoy.

“Life is hard running your kingdom” said the man who lacks imagination and relies on a chancellor of the exchequer an executioner to motivate his subjects to up their productivity and pay higher taxes. The Miller (Tom Giles) accidently oversells his hard working daughter’s spinning skills by telling the insolvent King (Michael Lavery) that she can spin straw into gold.
“Is that the odour of despair?”

Locked in a dungeon and faced with the impossible task of proving her father’s misplaced boast, Emily (Doireann McKenna) trades jewellery with a dark creature who saves her neck from the King’s threats. But as the bales of straw increase, she runs out of jewellery and has to sacrifice something much more precious to save herself one final time.
“From here on we will share everything.”

The wedding vows are sign that Emily has both the one with a social conscience and the control in the regal relationship. Standing up to the King, she proves that there are better ways of making his their kingdom work. What other children’s Christmas show in Belfast will espouse social justice, human rights and gender equality directly in the lyrics of their songs?!
“A pledge has been made and must be repaid”

After the interval, the plot bounces along in the shorter second half. The audience join in the quest to discover the creature’s name and free Emily from the terrible deal she made to save her own life. Doireann McKenna proves that she has a great head for names and allows her voice to soar beautifully above the men’s harmonies. Tom Giles also impresses with his mellow tone and some spirited Dad dancing.

The relatively simple set is comprised of a raised walkway supported by wooden poles which allow the fiercesome creature (brought to life brilliantly by Jo Donnelly) to slide down to the action below. Michael Lavery makes a good cowardly King although his vocals are the weakest of the cast of four. A three piece band accompany live, perched high above the stage.

In a couple of scenes the dialogue runs long and the youngest audience members’ attention started to wane though the cast are easily heard above any minor’s murmuring in the stalls and the audience participation is well judged and free of the rituals of pantomime.

The final song neatly reprises the action and ends the performance with an energetic number that the youthful audience could continue to hum as they left the theatre and headed back home. My trio of young theatre patrons (aged 10-14, including two MAC first-timers) loved the show.

Rumpelstiltskin runs in The MAC until 3 January. Don’t forget its name!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Carol - longing and not belonging in 1950s New York (QFT Fri 27/10-Thu 10/12)

Therese (played by Rooney Mara) spends her days as a clerk behind a counter in a Manhattan department store selling expensive toys to people who can afford them. She’d much prefer to be working as a photographer. When one glamorous customer leaves her gloves behind, Therese’s kindness coupled with a big dollop of serendipity rewards her with a meet-up and a dangerous life-changing journey.

The eponymous Carol (Cate Blanchett) mixes together elegance, confidence, frostiness, sensuality and anxiety. Her marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) has unravelled and even though her relationship with good friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) is over, Carol’s continued air of “promiscuity” sets off a bitter custody battle to decide which parent is most morally upright and suited to look after their daughter Rindy.
“I always spend New Year’s alone – in crowds.”

Despite the Christmas backdrop for the first two thirds of the film, the mood is morose throughout. Rare moments of wild abandon and happiness are quickly crushed by events. Neither Carol nor Therese feel comfortable fitting into society’s expectations of womanhood.

Ambiguity rules throughout the film. Is Therese the first younger woman to be pursued by Carol? How naïve is Therese and how manipulative is Carol? The final scene is a Mona Lisa masterpiece in holding a shot long after every other director would have shouted “cut”, leaving audiences searching for the hint of a facial expression that would provide a definite conclusion.

Nothing is rushed in Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Twenty minutes into the film I’d no idea where the plot would go. There’s a lot of looking yearningly out of car windows. Yet with long moody stretches without dialogue and shots that linger on opulent interiors, the story lures you into its world of 1950’s America and a crisis of changing moralities.
“You like certain people and you don’t like certain other people. You don’t know what attracts you to them.”

The film occasionally loses its subtly: a gun is signposted a little too obviously and now and again a line of dialogue feels clumsily planted whenever circumstance had already spoken louder than words. Shot on Super 16mm film, close-ups are rare and the colour palette is muted.

As the plot unfolds, the societal tensions and perceptions around same sex attraction become more and more obvious. Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) offers boring respectability while Carol offers excitement and desire. Even when unsure about the consequences, Therese has a propensity to say ‘Yes’. Can either Richard or Carol win her heart?

Carol opens in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Friday 27 November and runs until Thursday 10 December. It’s also being screened in some of the other local cinema chains.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

All Through The House - dark comedy with a dysfunctional family at Christmas (Crescent Arts 4-19 Dec)

Update - read the opening night review.

All Through The House is an alternative offering this Christmas in the Crescent Arts Centre on University Road. Playwright Judith King describes it as a “dark comedy about a dysfunctional family coming together for Christmas dinner” with “slightly disastrous consequences”.

If you want an alternative to panto yet want to avoid deadly serious theatre then All Through The House might be for you. Yet look underneath the surface and you’ll find a more complex structure and meaning, a trademark of Tinderbox’s work (Lally the Scut being a great recent example). Contemporary Northern Ireland and clashes of culture aplenty.
“I hope that people recognise that a truthfulness about their own awkward family scenarios in it. This family are a blended family. The heart of the family are a divorced couple called Arthur and Carol Moore. They’ve decided to come together for Christmas dinner – the first time they’ve seen each other in five years – for the sake of their slightly neurotic adult daughter Ruth.

“Arthur is going to bring his new partner, the woman he left his wife for, and she’s going to bring her daughter who used to be their daughter’s best friend. So already you’ve got quite a tangled web. And then into that scenarios comes Carol’s drop dead gorgeous work colleague and all hell slightly breaks loose.”

Judith has “always wanted to write” and has previous started to compose film scripts. But she admits finding theatre “way more fun”. Neither Tinderbox nor Judith set out to write a Christmas show. “No one was more surprised than me ending up writing a Christmas play. It wasn’t really my intention” she says.

Her flair for comedy had been obvious at Swing State Cabaret, an evening of new satirical material by Tinderbox young writers, about and on the eve of the US Presidential election. What started our as an awkward dinner developed into the idea of a Christmas with “two very different families with two very different ways of celebrating Christmas coming together in a car crash situation … too juicy material to let go of”.

Hanna Slattne is the dramaturg at Tinderbox and first worked with Judith in their Young Writers programme back in 2009.
“Then she came through our Graduate Scheme in 2012 where we looked at satire – which is where this comedy’s satire flame was lit. And then out of that she got an opportunity to commission and started to develop this play with us and then after the successful Pick’n’Mix reading of the first half as a work in progress we commissioned her to finish this. So it’s been a long but a very brilliant journey to see someone grow … she’s worked really hard and this is a very, very good script. I’m so proud of it.”

A dramaturg acts as a coach in their ongoing relationship with the writer. Hanna explains:
“I know about theatre. I’m not the writer and I’m not a writer. But I do know how theatre works and functions and I also know what support writers coming to this challenge for the first time might need. It’s about having an ongoing artistic discussion all the way through.”

Judith acknowledges that “over the course of writing this I’ve gone wildly off piste in certain drafts”. But Hanna asks the right questions and brings it back into shape.

In a recent blog post, director Patrick J O’Reilly says:
“All Through The House beautifully captures the complex grey area between love and hate in couples and family life and that has been my prime source of inspiration throughout the rehearsal process. By removing clichés and stripping bare the emotional core so brilliantly crafted in Judith’s play we are making a visceral piece of work that is proving to be both humorous as it is touching, which in my opinion is the very best kind of theatre we can make.”

Judith has at the first week of rehearsals with the talented cast (Victoria Armstrong, Bernadette Brown, Maria Connolly, Mary Jordan, Stephen Beggs and Shaun Blaney).
“I think the way Patrick and the cast are working has been so enjoyable to watch. They’ve been up there, scripts down, and bringing so much humour to it. So it’s been really interesting to see how they’re lifting the script from what’s on the page.”

Does watching the rehearsal process change how she sees her play?
“Not as much as you would think. This is the first time I’ve done this but it was slightly like watching someone else’s play, in a good way. I was able to sit back … I don’t feel married to it being one particular way. And [the casts’] instincts are all really good. So even if it’s different from how I imagined it, it’s usually better, so I’m grateful to them!”

All Through The House opens in the Crescent Arts Centre on Friday 4 December and runs through until Saturday 19 December. Suitable for ages 14+. Tickets priced at £14 (£10 concession).

Update - read the opening night review.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Is Christianity holding Northern Ireland back? Listen back to #thebigdebateni

Around 400 people filled the Stormont Hotel’s ballroom tonight to hear Michael Nugent and David Robertson debate the question “Is Christianity holding Northern Ireland back?

The event was organised by local churches. 150 tickets were distributed by atheist and humanist groups, 150 by the local churches and the remaining 150 were available online on a first come first served basis. You can now listen back to the full evening.

The format gave the two speakers ten minutes each to make their case before they spent twenty minutes interrogating each other. Then the audience got to have their say and pose questions and respond to what they had heard.

Michael Nugent (@MickNugent) chairs the advocacy group Atheist Ireland and was first to speak.

Does religion hold NI back? Yes. Because religion holds everything back. And particularly when it’s entangled with politics. He suggested that sectarian was institutionalised in the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement and later quoted Caleb Foundation’s Wallace Thompson who said “All legislation should reflect Biblical reality”.

Nugent argued that “religion corrupts our sense of reality”. The more implausible the claim, the higher the barrier to believe it. Yet with religion it is the reverse. In fact, religion wants us to believe implausible and untestable claims.

Faith can be a problem in the secular world too, in communism and the free market. Eventually with secular faith it bumps into reality – the free market proves not to work – but religious faith and claims about the afterlife remain untestable.

Religion also corrupts our sense of morality.

David Robertson (@TheWeeFlea) is director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity and is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. started by admitting that he didn’t recognise his religion in Michael’s introductory speech.

The state tells us how to educate our children what we should believe. Christianity can prevent the state becoming a form of fascism, of corporate control.

He argued that Christianity plays a large role in social action. Where were the atheist food banks? If you remove religion from society, would atheists move in to fill the gap? He suggested that atheists take over Christian schools ‘cuckoo like’ and impose their atheist views. He didn’t want Christianity removed from society … it changes society.

Robert admitted that not all religion is good. And not all Christians are good. Some were stupid. But how can you be for tolerance but also want to remove or eradicate religion from society.

The interrogation was good natured, though full of unpicking questions as well as much arguing with alleged false assumptions behind questions.

While the section taking questions from the audience attempted to wrestle the debate back towards the topic of Northern Ireland, most of the interaction was David Robertson (who defended himself against allegations of being smug and lacking grace).

During the questions, the chair of Atheist NI mentioned that they have a food drop (in conjunction with FareShare) at their meeting this Sunday morning at 11am in The MAC.

David Robertson saw merit in some of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI (though he’d got Mary “wrong”) and described him as a “Christian brother”. At one point there was agreement on stage with a shared view that people who don’t want to bake cakes should not be prosecuted.

By the end of the evening there had been more heat (and hot air) than light. Views from outside Northern Ireland bring welcome fresh insight and less predictable responses to familiar questions. Yet trying to play Top Trumps with atheism and Christianity overall reinforces beliefs and prejudices rather than builds bridges. The kind of sentiment monitoring that accompanies national political leader debates might have usefully shown how the sections of the audience reacted to the arguments being proffered on stage.

Michael Nugent and David Robertson will be reunited with William Crawley and taking calls on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback this afternoon.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Scorch - Exploring gender, uncertainty and where the law meets teenage naivety (The MAC until 21 Nov)

During the hour long performance of Scorch, Kes recounts her experience growing up as a boyish yet “debonair” eight year old with a collection of natty waistcoats, embedded as a teenager in the masculine world of gaming, yet with “boobs … that just pop up overnight” and don’t fit her body image.
“Everyone thinks I fancy Ryan Gosling. But no. I want to be Ryan Gosling.”

Ciaran Bagnall’s translucent stalactites hang over the circular stage surrounded by amphitheatre seating (last used for Villa and Discurso in the Chilean trilogy season of plays). Like any young person, Kes is interrupted by alerts and beeps as new messages arrive on new computer … and the overhead lights glow blue. Carl Kennedy’s sound design includes a playful riff on the Skype ring tone that the Ulster Orchestra should add to their concert repertoire.

A single-handed show performed in the round could be an lonely experience for an actor, but as Amy McAllister moves around the room, she slowly befriends the audience who form the rest of the support group she attends.

It’s a place where Kes can feel “free – like online – except in a real room with [bad] coffee”.

Over a period of years we listen to her explore her gender and make the leap from online friendships to real world relationships. Yet when Kes falls in love with Jules, her hood and hat are not the only source of disguise and confusion. Going with the flow, naïve Kes neither feels the need nor is comfortable raising the subject of her internal conflict.
“A girl can’t be charged with raping another girl.”

A court summons for sexual assault and fraud shocks the audience that has relaxed into the story of discovery and growing confidence. Was Jules deceived? Is there any chance Kes was grooming Jules for sex? What started out as romantic has broken laws and hurt people. “Do we have to fill out a questionnaire before going into a bar?” asks a friend.

Amy McAllister delivers the lines with a rhythm and a fragility that brings Scorch to life. (She was recently on stage in the Lyric Theatre’s The Shadow of a Gunman playing the 23-year old patriot Minnie Powell with fidgety feet and expressive eyebrows that got her into trouble.) It’s an outwardly simple yet engaging piece of theatre that marries a strong performance with an effective set and interrogates our understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Made into a tragic character … played in a game at maximum difficulty.”

The brilliance of Stacey Gregg’s script and Prime Cut’s production is that there are no attempts to produce neat endings, no moralising, and no campaigning. (The play is inspired by three or more real world transgender examples.) Tuesday night’s audience left the theatre and stood leaning on the first floor railings in the MAC talking about the issues and wondering where right and wrong lay.

Well worth getting along to The MAC to see Scorch before the run – and Outburst Arts Festival – ends on Saturday 21 November.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Güeros - hop into the back of a car and explore 1999 Mexico City (QFT 20-25 Nov)

Güeros a bold project for new director Alonso Ruiz Palacios and hopefully the first in a line of imaginative feature length productions that throw off the shackles of tradition and expected form.

It’s 1999. Teenage Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is too much of a handful for his mother who sends her pale-faced “undercooked” son off to live in Mexico City with an older and darker-skinned brother who is meant to be at college.

There are student protests, but Fede (nicknamed Sombra and played by Tenoch Huerta) is not participating. Instead he’s “on strike from the strike” and hanging out with Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) in his high-rise concrete apartment with no electricity other than what he steals via a child living in the flat below.

Once they escape their sofa, the trio drive around in a beat up car, but never quite have the speed or energy to escape orbit around their tiny world. Even their quest to find enigmatic folk musician Epigmenio Cruz (said to have influenced Bob Dylan) fails to engender excitement.

Everyone on-screen is disaffected. Purposelessness is everywhere. Even the student protest movement that has taken over the local college spends days arguing with itself over direction.

Student activist and Latin American Studies student Ana (Ilse Salas) adds a female voice to the film when she rekindles her friendship with Sombra and joins the trio. But Ana does little to shake off the all pervasive lethargy. We’re treated to drug-addled hallucinations, panic attacks, fixations with different types of breakfast, stolen carrots, poverty, a trip to the zoo and the recklessness of dropping objects from tall structures on top of unsuspecting passers-by.

The three act, 4:3 ratio black and white film makes up for its low budget by throwing innovation at the sound scape and the creative visual feel of the 106 minute long road trip.

The traffic jams and blocked roads mean that no one in Güeros is going anywhere fast. The film frustratingly drags towards the end, but that’s partly its intention. If the cycle of despair didn’t rub off on the audience, we wouldn’t have properly experienced life in this unfashionable and untouristy region of Mexico City!

You can catch Güeros in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 20 and Wednesday 25 November.

[The film’s title Güeros refers to a slang term for fair-skinned/blond-haired Mexicans.]

Friday, November 06, 2015

He Named Me Malala: the story of parental influence and a teenage activist with a voice for the voiceless (QFT until 12 Nov)

The extent to which parents shape the lives and values of their children is one of the themes that the documentary film He Named Me Malala explores over ninety minutes.
“It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for 100 years”

Narrated animation tells the ancient Pashtun story of Malalai of Maiwand. Ziauddin Yousafzai named his baby daughter after the Pashtun heroine who was killed for speaking out. Her very name embodies a sense of destiny, but it was just one part of the jigsaw of values laid out for Malala by her parents.

Ziauddin taught Malala to raise her voice and rebel against customs and traditions. He demonstrated overcoming adversity (he’s a powerful and influential public speaker despite having a stammer) and showed how to stand up for what is right to the girl who at the age of 15 would be shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to suggests that girls needed to go to school.

There are remarkable scenes (which invade Malala’s privacy) captured in the ambulance and in hospital immediately after the shooting. Through interviews at the family’s new home in the UK, following Malala on trips abroad and using archive footage the film’s audience piece together the timeline leading up to the attack, and the Yousafzai family’s life since the attack on 9 October 2012.

Ziauddin set up and ran a school for girls. He felt it would be “sinful” not to speak out about the Taliban’s suppression of female education. When schools came under attack, Malala and her family became refugees in their own country, displaced from home in the Swat Valley.

Under a pseudonym, Malala wrote a blog about education in Pakistan for the BBC Urdu service. But it wasn’t enough. When Ziauddin gave his daughter the opportunity to speak out in her own name and she grasped the chance. He knew the risks but never expected the Taliban to try to kill a child.
“There is a moment when you have to choose to be silent or to step up”

Did her father make this choice for her? “No”, she says.
“My father only gave me the name Malalai. He didn’t make me Malalai. I chose this life.”
She dismisses any need for anger even though nerve damage has affected one side of her face: “Islam teaches us humanity, equality, forgiveness”.

Malala carries physical scars from the attack. She introduces cinema goers to her friends on the bus who were also injured in the shooting. The girl who has honorary degrees and has been on the front of TIME magazine has an incredibly private side and teasing (and being teased by) her two younger brothers, worries about only getting 61% in Physics and is incredibly bashful about even talking about cultural taboos like asking a boy out. She finds it “quite difficult to tell [her fellow school] girls who I really am”.

Yet in an instant she switches from watching Minions on a tablet to answering questions on the phone about the threats to her life if she returned to Pakistan. In conversation with world leaders the spirited girl takes the opportunity to pointedly question US President Obama about drone strikes encouraging extremism, and while visiting Nigeria to highlight the school girls abducted by Boko Haram she fearlessly told Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to take responsibility and “listen to his people”.

It’s an extraordinary juxtaposition. A profound world leader who we watch studying for her GCSEs, mixing rockstars and homework. Conservative, shy and reserved … yet given a microphone and put in front of a crowd, through clear delivery, pace and a waving finger she is a professional orator with a message she wants to impart.

The (joint) winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is aware that her own story is not unique. And the millions of girls deprived of education drives her to share her story for their benefit.

Speaking about Living Well with Gender and Power at last Friday night’s gala celebration of Corrymeela’s 50th anniversary, the US Peace Institute’s Kathleen Kuehnast referred to this film:
In this regard, most of us have heard of the remarkable courage of Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist for girls’ education.

This month a movie on her life comes out: He Named Me Malala. The “He” in the title refers to her father, and this is important as we often do not tell the story of Malala’s father and his persistence as well as courage to defy all of the social norms pertaining to fathers and men in a highly conservative area of Pakistan.

Men need to be a part of the change on gender equality, and not be kept apart in a separate silo.
As a father with a young daughter I found the film challenging as I learnt how Ziauddin’s actions had threatened Malala’s life. Was the education of girls in Pakistan more important than his own daughter’s safety? What kind of a father was he? By the end of the film I realised I was more and more convinced that he’s a good role model worth examining further.

He Named Me Malala opens tonight at the Queen’s Film Theatre and runs until Thursday 12 November.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Flood - are their relationships more destructive than Hurricane Sandy? (Lyric Theatre until 8 Nov)

Daniel McCabe’s play The Flood brings us into the living room of a New York apartment during Hurricane Sandy. A few blocks away residents have been evacuated. But Aidan and Eve are sticking it out, hosting a dinner party for Mary and Charlie.

Recently having spent a day shifting books and building bookcases, I appreciate the shelves of books in Ciaran Bagnall’s apartment set (that sits on the stage at a jaunty angle). The book spines all face inwards which creates an interesting visual effect.

Two large wooden-framed windows look down onto a busy street. The couples eat their chilli around a table. A couch offers comfort at the other side of the room. Phil Moffa’s sound design allows the wind to howl throughout the eighty minute performance.

Each relationship is strained, but it’s difficult to believe that these couples were ever really in love. Stereotypical Derry man, hard-drinking and sweary Aidan (played by John Duddy) got lost in the pub while out buying last minute supplies. He takes the piss out of Eve’s need for duct tape – a prudent requirement borne out of her experience of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

A week ago Charlie (James Russell) found his brother Martin after a suicide attempt. Martin’s now in hospital and Charlie is preoccupied and morose, increasingly tetchy with his Australian girlfriend Mary (Sarah Stephens) who is about to take a role in a “market research-driven network television” sitcom. Mary has questionable common sense: who wears a crop top and jeans half way up your calves when going out for dinner in the middle of a storm?

There’s no interval and no let up as the waves of depression batter the apartment. Aidan knows stuff about Charlie that Mary doesn’t know, and Charlie doesn’t know Aidan knows. And given the opportunity, Eve will psychoanalyse everyone except herself. They’ll tear each other apart long before the storm.

Eve’s the strongest character with her dancing eyes and pointy elbows. When Kimberlee Walker is not on stage, her warmth is greatly missed. The script burdens Aidan with long monologues, delivered in an accent that’s neither west coast nor Derry. Sarah’s delivery of Mary’s ballad about the 2011 Queensland Floods could have been a highlight of the last ten minutes of the play but the singing lacks passion and becomes a mere plot device to turn the page into the final act.
“Sometimes there’s more honour in carrying something than dragging it out into the light.”
Secrets and deception are a theme running through The Flood. One moment of risk with a secret shared late in the play informs the audience but fails to develop the plot.

Northern Ireland knows about flooding and dysfunctional relationships, but hurricanes are outside our local experience. Maybe that’s why this play left me feeling cold, and detached from the cast and the plot. Tragedy lacks the entertainment factor of comedy, but it can leave you enthralled ... if it works hard enough. Overall I was disappointed with The Flood. Amongst the bedlam in Lower East Side there was little sense of self discovery and certainly no redemption. The human storm was not diverted from its path. A shorter punchier script with a more dramatic ending (probably involving defenestration) would have been an improvement.

The Flood runs in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 8 November.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

NI Opera's Turandot: spectacular music and theatre (and less brutal than I'd imagined)

Cardboard boxes were stacked the full height of the Grand Opera House stage. Lines of fluorescent tube lighting hung low above the sweat shop floor, itself covered with a grid of 35 cardboard boxes, each with a baby doll lying neatly on top. Blue uniformed workers wore facemasks, presumably to protect them from harmful chemicals in the factory.

From the outset Turandot had scale, made possible by the co-production between Northern Ireland Opera, Théâtre Du Capitole and Staatstheater Nuremberg.

It was a few minutes before anyone sang, but the oppression was palpable. And then a besuited figure appeared high up amongst the boxes, watching over the scene below. Power, control, fear, compliance, systemic intimidation, the cheapness of life, the fruitlessness of work: it was all there in front of our eyes.

Being opera, the subtlety dial was turned down to zero and everything was being to extreme. When a knife was pulled out of a suit pocket, it was both large and already dripping in blood, suggesting regular use. A bit of onstage vomiting added to the grittiness.

The Ulster Orchestra with a turbo-boosted brass section thundered through Puccini’s score in the pit below the stage. If I closed my eyes the music was heavenly; when I opened them I realised I was watching hell.

The chorus was enormous with thirty or forty workers/singers on stage at anyone time. They filled the width and depth of the stage – standing and lying – and created a wall of sound that could compete with the orchestra.

Despite having a really good seat in the circle, like Salome, I found it very difficult to distinguish the words being sung on stage. The paper programme had a two page synopsis of the three act story, but with no interval there was no time to catch up and read ahead once the performance started. But snatched phrases, the on stage acting and the sense of emotion still gave me a real sense of what was going on, even if I was left light on detail about the riddles that Calaf needed to answer to claim the hand of Turandot, and the counter challenge he set her when he solved the riddles but she was unwilling to commit.

The beauty of the vocal harmonies from Ping, Pang and Pong – three internal security apparatchiks – was at odds with the increase in the level of terror and bullying heralded by the threesome’s presence on stage. Hanging cardboard signs round people’s necks added to the humiliation though also helped signpost the plot to the audience.

At one point, a children’s chorus from St Anne’s Cathedral Choir sang beautifully over the heads of the audience from up in the gods, their sweet voices wafting down over the less virtuous action.

This production of Turandot was packed full with memorable imagery. The overalls were a very uncommon shade of blue but it toned perfectly with the brown boxes. It’ll be the only time in my life I see someone set fire to the frame of bicycle and then stand over it warming their hands!

Around 200 Chinese lanterns gently floated up and down above the chorus of workers: mesmerising albeit fairly pumpkin-eqsue given the Halloween weekend of the performance. Two harnessed aerialists descend on ropes from the ceiling and were freed though their significance was lost on me.

Less beautiful but equally stark was the image of Ping, Pang and Pong wanting to “sing songs of love until the morning” yet gurning about the endless cycle of executions they had to oversee … while they changed into white wedding dresses and high heels, brought on stage by a limp woman with bloodied knickers and red tape over her mouth. Pulling tulips from her costume gave a sense of deflowering without the implied violence needing to be enacted. Did I mention the maidens wrapped in cling film brought on to tempt the Calaf?

“Can you not let me die without another young man’s death weighing on my conscience” sang Turandot’s father, the Emperor. He was at his wit’s end and wearing an oversized nappy. Pulling off her wig, the bald Turandot looked not unlike the dolls being manufactured around her.

Normally sung out of context from the rest of the opera we now expect Nessun Dorma to sound like a passionate anthem. In the midst of all of this on-stage misery it took on a much more melancholic tone.

Stripped of their dignity and their blue overalls and left standing in their utilitarian underwear (there’s nothing racy about Turandot), the bruises and evidence of relentless abuse were exposed.

The final scenes after the wig came off left a bald Turandot looking forlorn and very like the hairless plastic dolls she was pulling the limbs off. There was no happy ending.

I attended the final performance on Sunday 1 November. I’d heard a range of opinion beforehand. As the curtain came down on the one hour forty five minute performance, I honestly left the theatre and reflected that it had been a lot less brutal that I’d been advised. Maybe I’ve a high threshold, but much of the more gruesome and twisted abuse was indirect and disguised through symbolism.

Was it uncomfortable to watch? Yes. But a nightmare that warns society not to let the powerful take advantage of the poor does not need to be sugar-coated. It’ll be a long time before the Grand Opera House stage is graced with so many performers.

As an opera you didn’t even need a programme, never mind a foreign language, to pick up the gist of a story and sense what was going on. Contemporary themes echoed from the stage in abundance: poor working conditions, tyrannical management methods and people enslaved in roles performing tasks they can no longer stomach. Long may NI Opera use storytelling to powerfully stir up issues and plant them in local heads. And long may their (paltry) funding pay for – not staff but – performers and musicians and technicians to tell big stories that stretch our minds.

Rather than being blood curdling, Calixto’s Turandot was almost where horror met pantomime. The set and lighting design was superb; the music, cast, scale and sense of drama was spectacular. A stunning end to Belfast International Arts Festival from NI Opera.

You can catch my interview with NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears on NvTv.