Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Yer Granny ... eating up audiences in the Lyric Theatre until 27 June

The Very Hungry Caterpillar in human form is the easiest way to describe the stockinged centenarian grandmother that Gregor Fisher plays in Yer Granny. “S’at yev goat? [What’s that you’ve got?]” is the constant refrain as she eats continuously while on stage.
  • sweets
  • meat from a pot
  • a cake
  • crisps
  • biscuits
  • chips
  • someone else’s sausage
  • potatoes
  • mayonnaise
  • and more.
It’s rare for actors to receive a hearty cheer and applause when they walk onto a theatre’s stage. Last night’s Lyric audience was full of Rab C Nesbitt and Naked Video fans, and a majority of Yer Granny’s cast were familiar to these connoisseurs of those Scottish comedy shows.
[Charlie:] “The only living thing older than Nana is a Giant Redwood.”

In the National Theatre of Scotland’s touring production, Jonathan Watson plays Cammy Russo. His Minerva chip shop’s profit margin was negatively affected by his mother’s ability to eat her way through the stock and new plans to resurrect the business are wobbling. His wife Marie (Maureen Beattie) is running out of patience with Cammy’s inability to lead the family out of poverty.

Brother Charlie (Paul Riley) is a ‘creative’ and makes up for his lack of musical talent with a finely tuned ability to avoid labour. Their Aunt Angela (Barbara Rafferty) looks after her mother 'Nana' and surprises everyone with her entrepreneurial flair when she starts to dispense “happy tablets” to high rise flat dwellers when Cammy’s naive daughter Marissa (Louise McCarthy) encounters the police on her late night “pharmaceutical” rounds.

And for good measure there’s a chip shop war with miserly Donnie (Brian Pettifer) across the road in the San Francisco Fish Bar. Donnie only enters the action after the interval and quickly drops the tone so far down it can be found lurking in the dirt under the wobbly fridge in the corner of the kitchen.

Happy-go-lucky Nana typically loiters around the kitchen, quietly consuming spuds from a pot she’s lifted off the cooker ... distracting at least half the audience from the dialogue and action on the other side of the stage. With few lines, Nana gurns and chews, and steals the show with her grotesque-yet-innocent behaviour.
[Cammy:] “Oh I’ve pictured the scene many a time. Her Royal Britannic Majesty will saunter in, quite the thing. She and I will exchange a few pleasantries … a natural chemistry between us … And after a bit of chit-chat I’ll turn it all round to business: And what may I get for you Ma’am?”

Graham McLaren’s direction is somewhat unusual, with some monologues – particularly Cammy’s imagined encounters with the Queen who is due to visit the town during her Jubilee tour of Scotland – delivered looking forward at the audience and away from the rest of the cast. Everyone is mic’ed up: necessary for some of the larger venues Yer Granny is playing in this run, but unusual for plays in the Lyric. Together with the recreated late 70s radio broadcasts that blast out and punctuate the scenes, it’s more post-watershed TV sitcom than theatre.

The two hour twenty minute, three act play takes place in an open plan kitchen/living room. The heavily patterned carpets in Colin Richmond’s beige set beautifully clash with the flowery curtains. A window on the right hand wall gives a sense of time of day, allowing warm sunlight to stream in and cast shadows across the stage.

The comic timing is really sharp and most of the audience roared with laughter at wave after wave of masturbation jokes. However when the script requires the youngest character Marissa to repeatedly bend over and suggestively wiggle her bottom, sadly you know that you’ve entered the greasy land of Benny Hill with no remote control to change channel.

La Nona was written by Argentinian playwright Roberto Cossa and first performed in 1977. In the original play, the never replete Granny represented the state, swallowing up the nation’s resources (with foreign debt interest repayments) and driving citizens into poverty. Regrettably much of that subtlety and satire is lost in Douglas Maxwell’s old-fashioned adaptation and any sense of allegory is replaced with a less than farcical sitcom set in Glasgow at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

Yer Granny runs at the Lyric Theatre until the food runs out Saturday 27 June and then transfers to Dundee Rep Theatre. Many shows are nearly sold out, though the Thursday and Saturday matinees have seats available. How Gregor Fisher will manage to eat double on those days is beyond my understanding!

Photography by Eoin Carey.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Open House Belfast Architecture Festival (17-19 July 2015)

Ever wanted to see inside Belfast Central Fire Station? Or to be one of the first inside the new Ulster University building? Or to don a hard hat and walk around the new Exhibition and Conference extension on the side of the Waterfront Hall?

Open House Belfast Architecture Festival is offering guided tours of these facilities and fifty more across the city between 17 and 19 July.

You should find the full list of buildings and sites on the PLACENI website. Booking is required for a few of the free tours. Printed programmes will also be available in arts venues, libraries and tourist sites.

Some highlights from the programme:
  • The MAC: 45 minute tours led by architect Mark Hackett at 2pm on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 July.
  • Belfast Waterfront Exhibition and Conference Centre Tour: 45 minute tours led by project team representatives from Todd Architects, McAdam Design and McLaughlin & Harvey 15 10am, 11am and noon on Saturday 18 July.
  • Belfast Central Fire Station: 45 minute tours led by Station Commander Al Cunningham at 10.30am, 11:45am and 2.15pm on Sunday 19 July.
  • Jump on board the Wee Tram for a 90 minute guided tour around Titanic Quarter by self-confessed Titanorak Chris Bennett at 10am and 2pm on Saturday 18 July.
  • Ulster University, Belfast Campus Development Phase 1: hour-long tour with architect Cormac Maguire of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios at 11.30am on Saturday 18 July.
  • The Soloist in Lanyon Place - 40 minute tours at 10am, 11am and noon on Saturday 18 July.
  • Divis Tower: visit the only remaining structure from the Divis Flats complex, tour the top floors and hear from residents - 40 minute tours at 11am, noon and 1pm on Sunday 19 July.
  • Architectural practice Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios: a lunchtime talk to look at some of their projects and learn how an initial scribble becomes reality - 1pm-3pm on Saturday 18 July.
  • South Belfast Methodist Church opened in 2012 and provides community facilities (like  gym, conference hall and classrooms) along with a space for worshup. Open 10am-6pm on Saturday 18 and 2-6pm on Sunday 19 July.
  • The Tropical Ravine in Botanic Gardens has been undergoing restoration. Ahead of its reopening in late 2016, you will have a chance to see the ravine in an uncharacteristically empty state and hear about the delicate operation that will be required to repopulate it with its greenery. Check on closer to the festival for date and time. 
  • And don't forget to check out HOUSE, a tiny two storey structure inside PLACE on Lower Garfield Street during the Open House Festival: a library, a cinema, a space to reflect ... and the festival hub and information point.
Click on the programme summary below for a legible version!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Scratch Bang Wallop - dramas in development seek audiences and feedback (Accidental Theatre)

Seven short dramatic performances over three nights in the fourth floor of a city centre office building.

This weekend, Accidental Theatre hosts scratch performances in their Wellington Street base (down the side of the Danske Bank headquarters) to help playwrights and dramatists get feedback on their works in development.

Last night, audiences were treated to Adam Turns’ extended examination of the Retrogradatory Power of Nicki Minaj’s (appalling) rap Only, with the chance to perform it, imagine the writing process, listen to a textual analysis, and finally draw our responses to it.
[Tied up lyricist:] I haven’t eaten food for days!

[Composer:] Excellent. Your other song-writing senses will be heightened.
Don’t Call the Shantyman by Megan Armitage took a high-energy look at the friendship between two young women as they peeled back the layers on years of hurtful words and actions. When did the relationship start to fall apart?

Second, Minute, Hour performed by Paula O’Reilly (and developed along with Patrick O’Reilly - no relation) watches Tanya’s lonely addiction to alcohol spiral out of her control. Waking up and tripping over an empty wine bottle on the floor she caresses last night’s source of comfort and quips: “didn’t realise you’d stayed over!” Fast-paced, performance art, and the bottle – along with Paula – deservedly took a bow at the end!

Accidental’s scratch series continues on Saturday and Sunday evening (7pm for 7.30pm).

  • The Premise (Michael Draine): Two men try and make a decision.
  • Juliet’s Balcony (Aisling McGeown): A chapter of Juliet’s life unfolds on her balcony as she takes a chance on love and on her first serious boyfriend and learns that surprises aren’t always as happy as they seem.
  • Jellyfish (Alice Malseed and Sarah Baxter): Growing up, Alice was promised the world. What happened? This one woman show will rollercoaster you through 10 years of her life, from Belfast to London.
  • The Deconstructed Coffee Episodes 2 & 3 (Gary Crossan and Chris Grant): Featuring a disgruntled waiter, a lesson in types of comedy and of course Percival Snoutington the tea-cup pig.
There’s a small bar up on the fourth floor venue. Doors open each evening at 7pm and the first performance begins at 7.30pm. Tickets available online or on the door.

This time twenty two years ago I was starting a twelve week placement as a summer student with BT up on the fourth floor of Wellington Buildings, sitting behind my VT220 terminal creating a training database using Oracle Forms on a VAX mainframe. It was strange to see the same blue window frames, the diffusers/reflectors on the fluorescent lighting that I helped to fit along with another student, and hear the same irritating ping of the lift through the double doors onto the floor!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Gifts of courage, friendship, and becoming comfortable with complexity and paradox

Nearly every week, a church story seems to scream out from the front page of the News Letter or the Belfast Telegraph. Religious views are being discussed in the public square. It's not all wholesome. And it's not all presented with a great deal of context. But it's a trend, and circulation figures will prove to the editors whether the stories are selling papers.

Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren are over in Northern Ireland from the US to lead a week-long spirituality and peace-building retreat in Northern Ireland. On Sunday night, before the retreat started, the pair spoke in All Souls Church on Elmwood Avenue. The recordings of their talks are echoey - due to my poor placement of the recorder! - but are audible if you concentrate.

The evening was organised by the Progressive Christianity NI group who explained the purpose of the event:
For centuries, Christianity has presented itself as a system of beliefs. That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences - from colonialism to environmental destruction, from subordination of women to stigmatization of LGBT people. What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith - not as a system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in action, that makes amends for its mistakes, and is dedicated to beloved community for all?

Belfast-born social scientist, writer, film buff, festival curator and dreamer Gareth Higgins began the evening by telling a story about an experience in Paris near the Eiffel Tower 18 years ago. Later he reflected:
We're a community bound by the idea that there was a teacher two thousand years ago that had something profound to say that transcends everything else. We're a community, many of us who have been wounded by our attempts to follow that teacher within the structures that we got born into, or that we got saved into, or that we got landed into, or that we founded and we tried to lead. We're telling the story ...
One of the lessons he said he had learnt from that night in Paris in the late 1990s was:
You never know when a story's over ... especially when you're in it ... perhaps most especially when you're trying to tell it ...

You don't have to control the story. The story can change and things that you once held dear float away and things you thought you'd never believe can become the most obvious manifestation of love.
He added:
While church institutions and individuals have done much harm over the years, many damaged people still feel a connection to Christianity and their story is not yet at an end.
Some of Brian McLaren's books have been weighing down my bedside table for a long time: some completed, some still in a half-finished state. For some his book A New Kind of Christian was liberating, filled with keen insights that threw off the fatigue of evangelical busyness and dogmatism.

The US author shared three conversions that are already happening in Christian communities around the world, sometimes just beginning, sometimes well under way.
  1. Christianity converting from a system of belief to a way of life.
  2. Conversion in our understanding of God.
  3. Conversation from institutions to movements (that will continually challenge and transform institutions).

Coming back to the lectern, Gareth Higgins outlined four pillars of authentic religious practice that he wants to participate in:
  • to lament our sorrows and celebrate our joys, and to do that in community;
  • to educate for the realities of the world - not overstating how bad things are - in its hopes as well as its challenges;
  • to make communities gather in a way that marks the important moments of our lives: our births, our marriages, our divorces, our deaths;
  • to inspire change in the world.
The great thing is that these traditions already exist.
Gareth explained that he feels called to ...
  1. participate in rituals that create a sense of the sacred and support human struggle and celebrate achievement. He explained how this could apply to dealing with the past;
  2. celebrate community and bind wounds and celebrate joy together;
  3. religion which is not politics and is not the media but has a public role is called to - what scripture names as - prophetic witness.
He finished by commenting on two contemporary issues. Firstly:
The impact of welfare reform is a Gospel issue and the people suffering from it need to be heard, just as much or even more so than the public leaders.
And secondly:
The LGBT community doesn't just need to be supported, affirmed and sometimes defended by the majority community. We who are members of the LGBT community may actually have gifts to share with everyone. Gifts about courage, about friendship, about becoming comfortable with complexity and paradox.
During the Q&A afterwards, Brian and Gareth were asked about how to deal with theological disagreements in churches. Brian responded with a model of stating that you disagree (“Wow, I don’t agree with that!”) but not immediately jumping in with your alternative opinion, deferring any explanation until the other party comes back to discuss with, starting a genuine deliberative conversation rather than an instant heated debate.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly – its decision making body – voted at the close of its June 2015 annual meeting not to send the Moderator over to Edinburgh to the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly next year. While the number of delegates – ministers and elders – present for the debate and vote was small in comparison with sessions earlier in the day, a majority of those left in the hall took umbrage with the Church of Scotland’s recent acceptance of the ordination of ministers in same sex civil partnerships.

It was as if some at PCI had never heard of Relate and had no clue about relationship counselling, perhaps forgetting that communication is at the heart of relationship. Snubbing the Church of Scotland and staying away is akin to dropping eye contact and deciding not to bother putting any effort into a personal relationship that in this case has lasted more than any one person’s lifetime. If only there had been a decision to explore the tension between the Irish and Scottish reformers over coffee in Edinburgh rather than in a vacuum.

While both Gareth and Brian have their detractors - and one was standing outside on the pavement wearing a sandwich board on Sunday evening - in a season in which conservative views and methods seem to dominate the public narrative about Christianity in Ireland, Gareth and Brian offer a much more generous and grace-filled approach to exploring difficult issues and dealing with the tensions that need to be addressed.

The Christian church's influence in the public square will be fundamentally affected by the tone of voice it adopts, its ability to relate to society, and how it is seen to deal with difference.

cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole