Wednesday, January 27, 2016

18th Belfast Children's Festival (4-9 March) - Ali FitzGibbon looks back over her time at Young at Art

Belfast Children’s Festival 2016 runs from 4 to 9 March and its programme (PDF) was launched at lunchtime today.
“Going to a theatre performance, going to an exhibition, taking part in a workshop, sends people on a journey that shows them that the world can be other than as it is.”

Festival director Ali FitzGibbon explained to me that Central Station was an appropriate venue for the launch since it’s the hosting the interactive I Think I Can (via Australia’s Terrapin Puppet Company and the Ulster Model Railway Club), inviting audiences to inhabit a miniature town and become active members of its tiny community. Watch out for the diminutive antics being reported in an online newspaper during the festival. I Think I Can is free and runs for the duration of the festival (8 years +).

The festival programme brings together international artists (Swiss Vorstadt Theater’s Bambi 4-5 March/8 years + and two clown shows from Norwegian Katja Lindeburg on 8 and 9 March) as well as performances from local companies like Replay Theatre’s fantastically named Snoozle & the Lullabugs (4-6 March for under 5s with profound and multiple learning difficulties or severe learning difficulties) and Maiden Voyage Dance’s Pause & Effect (5-8 March/4-8 years).

You can hear from authors and illustrators like Marie Louise Fitzpatrick (5 March/4-7 years) and Sheena Wilkinson (6 March/11 years+), Doodle Live in the Strand (5 March/7-10 years) and check out the portable Library of Stories (5-6 March) written by children and young people.

The Office of Important Art has relocated upstairs to the first floor of Castlecourt this year (opposite Costa coffee shop) and will host local artist David Turner’s autobiographical Ordinary Extraordinary images.

And don’t miss the Baby Rave (6 March/0-4 years) or the live bands at Pre-Teenage Kicks (6 March/8-teens).

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Interviewed about the development of the Belfast Children’s Festival over past years, Ali FitzGibbon acknowledged that “there have always been artists who make good work for children in Northern Ireland”.
“There have always been really passionate and really dedicated people who create projects that work with children. What the Festival does is puts [this] into a very large international scale. It’s certainly put Northern Ireland on the map over the last 18 years.”

Ali explained that they consciously “use the Festival as a showcase and platform for local artists”.
“There are many people who have been working with children in Northern Ireland for many, many years who have received opportunities to travel and to have their work internationally recognised as a result of being in the Festival.

“I think people can trip off the tongue that ‘this is an international festival’ very easily. Children learn diversity. Children learn difference. They don’t start thinking ‘that person is different from me’. We’re very interested in what happens when you introduce children to the idea that other people see the world differently because they’re in – or from – an other part of the world.”

This year sees artists from Switzerland, Norway and Australia coming to the Festival.
“Children don’t have a lot of the inhibitions that adults have. They are very open to quite abstract and complex concepts of narratives and stories and themes of human emotion. They’re instinctive audience members and instinctive artists and participants. As we grow up we tend to start to code everything and say ‘that goes in that pigeonhole’ and we come up with responses.”

While adult-orientated festivals may find it difficult to build audiences for contemporary dance, this genre sells out at the Children’s Festival.
“Families and schools now understand that dance is a really interesting way to communicate with children. Dance is an amazingly powerful art form and children respond to it and talk about it. They see signals in the performance that they can take back into their home and back into their classrooms and discuss with their parents and their teachers afterwards.”

Baby Rave is a festival stalwart, a fun-filled disco for babies and parents with non-stop music, colourful visuals, soft materials and sensory toys. Ali explained:
“Baby Rave is my baby.

“In my second festival in 2005 we could see that we have people coming to us with four and five year olds and we couldn’t find anything we could use to bring in that younger age group. I had a very young child at the time and was trying to see what as a parent would I want? I wanted something very free style, very sensory … The Baby Rave comes from that.

“What we didn’t realise when I first brought a team together to make it was that nobody had done a baby rave. Subsequently we got to travel round the world doing Baby Rave.

“We were the fastest selling act in the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2007. We sold out in thirty seconds. The youngest we’ve ever had was 5 days old … You get young couples, lots of first time parents coming along and they really engage with its dancing, its visuals, its design and its really well selected music. It’s really informal and people can come in and out in the course of an hour … That gets people with us who haven’t come across us before and they stay with us on a journey.

“The festival goes up notionally to fourteen years old. So we now have the first baby ravers beginning to get too old for the festival. My big challenge is who’s responsibility is that to take over and what provision is there for 14+ because there’s a finite limit to what one small charitable organisation can do. And what I do know as a parent … is that fourteen year olds don’t want to hang out with four year olds unless they’re getting paid!”

(Outside of the festival, Young at Art work with young people all the way up to the age of 18.)

The public subsidy of arts organisations and events is sometimes criticised whenever there is fight back against cuts to cultural funding.
“The most expensive we have in the festival this year is something like £13. There are a huge number of free events. We have Big Festival Days Out – a new programme we’re running – which is about trying to get people to see some of the great venues we have: The MAC, the Lyric, the Strand and the Duncairn Arts Centre. Most of what’s going to happen in those spaces is going to be free of charge. For the whole of the week of the festival we have exhibitions on, [for instance] David Turner’s amazing toy exhibition in Castlecourt.

“If we introduce charges every single person who took part in something for the Festival would have to pay about £30. We know that people are struggling and a lot of families are under pressure.

“We also know that there isn’t a habit of going to arts events with your children [other than panto] … These experiences are the stuff of lifetime memories. I still have ten and eleven year olds come up to me at the Festival and they talk to me about things they saw when they were three years old …”

Ali will shortly step down from Young at Art after twelve years. Her most memorable highlights included Land of Giants, a collaborative community project in the Waterworks Park (that may have dyed the duckpond in the process!), as well as the ongoing Fighting Words project.

She perceives “a tendency [in the public sector] towards short term pressures versus long term investment” adding that “nobody in the arts sector is looking for handouts … but what Young at Art is looking for is some realistic investment” that values and delivers cultural experiences.
“In Northern Ireland we are way behind where cultural provision could and should be for children. If anything there’s a spreading-the-butter-very-thin approach which says that every child will have some element of experience and there’s not enough time being spent looking at the quality and duration of the experience, what kind of support they get within the school system and the youth sector.

“As an organisation we’ve had two or three of the most challenging years we’ve had in eighteen years. And it’s a sad thing when you look at an 18 year old organisation that has been on an upward trend, that has been growing and growing [but] last year because of the in year cuts we saw our numbers roll back a bit for the first time, largely because the free events had to be cut or bringing an international show costs a certain amount of money and if we don’t have that money in the kitty and can’t offset it with ticket sales then it doesn’t come.”

As an organisation, Young at Art don’t just look for public sector funding. Ali explained that “all the education programmes are financed through private trusts and donations”. Corporate sponsors are involved too, including Translink Castlecourt, Belfast Harbour and Easons.

Ten years ago, Young at Art’s board of directors came to the decision that “survival was not good enough”.
“Keeping in business is not worthy of merit. Keeping the doors open when so many people are on the brink of closing their doors is not good enough. You have to be good. You have to be good for your audiences. You have to know what’s coming up on the horizon. You have to see how your audiences are evolving. You have to see who’s not coming and try to find ways of making sure that they come. You have to be able to articulate purpose. And if you don’t do that, then you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Revenant - bladder busting, bloody gorefest

The internal rivalries within a fur trapping gang are stretched to breaking point as they come under attack from Native Americans and the much-diminished group of hunters begin to put their individual survival and profit above the well-being of the others. It’s a tale of arrows versus gunpowder, cross-cultural relations, close combat, plummeting temperatures and dragging yourself along the ground to get home no matter what your body is telling you.
“As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe... keep breathing.”
Having survived a CGI bear mauling, leader Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is buried alive as John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) abandons him and heads home to claim his reward for providing a decent burial. The weather is poor, the terrain testing, and as his mother must have warned him, Fitzgerald is reminded “be sure your sins will find you out”.

The cinematography in The Revenant is consistently outstanding. A seat in the front row of the cinema will allow you the perfect vantage point to naturally crane your neck as most shots are captured very close to the ground and allow the lean elongated trees in Louisiana coppices to stretch up to the heavens above the cast. Birds symbolically watch over the landscape. Herds of animals flock around on demand. Trees shudder on demand. The clouds move beautifully as it choreographed with a computer mouse.

In what was publicised as a gritty shoot that stretched the resilience of the cast and crew, there are still a surprising number of special effects. At times The Revenant looks more like a hyper-reality video game than a movie with characters dropping all around during the half hourly visceral battles with their prolonged shots emphasising the blood and gore as much as the bravery and determination. (Though Macbeth would beat The Revenant if there was an Oscar for blood-spurting.) The totally unexpected stunt with the horse close to the two hour mark is breathtakingly brilliant.
“You all have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The animals.”

Amongst the grunting and the remarkably clear yet mumbled dialogue (that’s obviously been ADRed on top of the forest soundtrack) there are a few nods to the history and morality of the conflict between pelt-collectors and the Native Americans. A couple of scenes that allow humanity to triumph over cultural hatred stand out against the rest of the binary clashes.
“I ain't afraid to die anymore. I'd done it already.”
The Revenant is unbearably long. Each scene is allowed to stumble along with fifteen or so minutes as the next chapter of grisly survival conflict unfolds. Glass’ resurrection – a third of the way through the film, so that’s not much of a spoiler – is rather unbelievable, as is his avoidance of hypothermia. In the end DiCaprio plays a combination of Bond, Bourne and Bear Grylls that allows his body to be continually punished while he finds nutrition in lichen and animal carcasses to sustain him. Hardy plays Fitzpatrick more like a pirate than a hunter.

For a while it all gets a bit Lord of the Rings with the action rotating around different groups – Glass, Fitzgerald, and the original gang – navigating the harsh environment as they make their way back to the Fort. (For a film set in 1832, there’s a crazy moment of cinematic awareness when one character deliberately breathes out towards the camera lens to fog it up with condensation.)

There’s no doubting the effort that went into the production: real blood, much sweat (and shivering) and plenty of tears. It might have been possible to overlook the absence of empathy built up with the audience if the film had been cut to ninety minutes. But as a 156 minute long slog, I can’t ignore the fact that director Alejandro González Iñárritu gave me no reason to care whether Glass lives or dies, and no reason to care whether Fitzgerald gets his comeuppance. I should be thankful that the final snowy manhunt wasn’t made into a second film.

A lot of people are going to love The Revenant. But be warned: by the end of this film your bladder will be bursting, your stomach rumbling and your fingernails noticeably longer. (Don’t combine those last two and bite your nails during the film!)

The Revenant is being screened in the QFT until Thursday 28 as well as Odeon, Omniplex, Moviehouse and numerous other cinemas!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Halfway House - Philip Orr’s new play exploring 1916 from the vantage point of 1966

On a snowy night in February 1966, two women take refuge from the blizzard in a pub on the Glenshane Pass up in the Sperrins. The Halfway House is midway between the events of 1916 and today, and through the sharp lens of Philip Orr’s fine writing, it proves to be a very effective vantage point to examine the past.

Wearing heavy coats and sitting around a table sipping hot whiskies to warm up, Valerie (Antoinette Morelli) and Bronagh (Louise Parker) start chatting. They share the same home town and occupation. Family members fought in the war. Their fathers both have medals: one is a veteran the Somme, the other the Easter Rising. Both women are looking forward to events marking fiftieth anniversaries of these very different conflicts.
“Sometimes an old grudge can last longer than a world war.”

At first there’s a fair amount of levity. But the banter lessens as the diverse cultures and family history are exposed. Tensions rise, but tempers stay under control. As the audience eavesdropped on their conversation in Larne’s McNeill Theatre last night, we may not have witnessed a meeting of minds, but the quality of listening on stage was echoed in the venue’s café afterwards as people sat round and discussed the play over a cup of coffee.

On top of the naturalistic script and the deft way that historical facts are lightly woven into its narrative, another aspect of the play’s success is the avoidance of preaching equivalence or seeking reconciliation. The use of women’s voices – and the considerable talents of Louise Parker and Antoinette Morelli – also contributes to a more rounded telling to what is so often a man’s tale.

If like me your history is somewhat lacking – neither the Easter Rising nor the Battle of the Somme made it into my history curriculum before I opted out of the subject – Halfway House is a thoughtful introduction that will provide some context at the beginning of a year on which the hand of history will rarely be absent from our shoulders!

You can catch Halfway House during January as it tours through Newry (Tuesday 19th – sold out), Lurgan (Wednesday 20th), Enniskillen (Friday 22nd), Omagh (Saturday 23rd) and Belfast (Thursday 21st, Tuesday 26th). Details of dates, venues and how to book on the Contemporary Christianity website.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

NI Science Festival is back with 120 events in 27 venues over 11 days (18-28 Feb) #NISF16

Around 50,000 people participated in last year’s inaugural festival. This year the programme is larger with even more opportunities for young and old to be curious and explore how science affects our everyday lives.

Find out about how your body works, take an exclusive 3D tour of the International Space Station (the festival coordinated local events to mark UK astronaut Tim Peake’s launch and rendezvous with the ISS), discover robotics, explore food security and sustainability, as well as looking at the natural world around us and how art intersects science.

Three organisations – Institute of Physics, British Council and British Science Association – are manoeuvring conferences into orbit around Belfast to coincide with the science festival. The festival’s own programme also includes events in Armagh, Derry and beyond.

Festival director Chris McCreery spoke to me about the 2016 programme [view the print version online] and highlighted some of this year’s top events.

There’s even a ship! AFBI Research Vessel Corystes will be sailing to Belfast and berthing at Titanic Belfast. The Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute’s gangway will be lowered and free booked-in-advance hourly tours between 10am and 4pm on Thursday 18 and Friday 19 February will offer visitors access to the crew and scientists to find out about the work they do.

BBC NI’s Make It Digital exhibition will be popping up with home automation, Raspberry Pis, coding, and lots of hands on demonstrations of the Internet of Things. Belfast City Hall on Thursday 18 February (3pm-9pm) and Friday 19 (10am-7pm) as well as Titanic Quarter on Saturday 20 (10am-6pm). Free.

Women in Tech promises an hour long event exploring diversity in traditionally male sectors with a panel and debate. Friday 19 February at 2pm in Black Box, Free.

How To Survive An Apocalypse. A practical session to work in groups to build roads and bridges, design alternative energy systems, build communities in case an asteroid hit the Earth or zombies took over. Costumes are optional (there’s a prize for the best post-apocalyptic survivor.) Saturday 20 February at 3pm, QUB David Keir Building, £3.

Ada, Ada, Ada is an interactive one woman show by Zoe Philpott about the fist computer programmer Ada Lovelace. You'll be roped into the performance as it explores wearable technology, storytelling and a celebration of the inspirational mathematician. Saturday 20 February in Crescent Arts Centre at 8pm, £10. [Reviewed]

Elephant’s Toothpaste (2pm) and Deaf Scientists of the Past (4pm). Science experiments demonstrated in British Sign Language by Audrey Cameron and Gary Quinn, followed by a BSL-interpreted time machine visiting famous scientists of the past. Sunday 21 February afternoon in W5. Free.

Tenx9’s evening of storytelling will be themed around ‘Back to the Future’. Nine true stories, each no more than ten minutes long, from and about scientists. Sunday 21 February at 7pm in Black Box, Free.

The Luck Factor with psychologist and author Prof Richard Wiseman asks why some people seem to face repeated failure and sadness while others seem to lead happy successful lives? Monday 22 February at 5.30pm in Whitla Hall, Free.

The Wonderful World of Lieven Scheire makes concepts like the Theory of Relativity accessible and hilarious with his non-fiction stand-up. Tuesday 23 February at 8pm in Black Box, £8/£5.

You’ve heard of the Internet of Things and lost the chargers for all those connected devices inhabiting our homes? In this year’s Turing Lecture, Robert Schukai looks at the The Internet of Me and explores “our future in this hyperconnected environment, and how our lives will seamlessly drift into a work-life blur based on a ‘dayflow’ of activity”. Belfast City Hall, Thursday 25 February at 5.30pm, 14+, Free.

Sustainable Gastronomy. The highly acclaimed chefs from the Merchant Hotel will cook up a six course meal that has to use up every last part of local-sourced ingredients. QUB’s Chris Elliott will be on hand to explain the global context of food security, safety and sustainability as the meal progresses. Thursday 25 February at 7.30pm in Merchant Hotel, £38 (includes six course meal).

Exploding Custard and other culinary tricks in Ebrington Square in Derry on Saturday 27 February. Free.

Celestial Voyage in 3D to look out in space, travel through the International Space Station, explore the Solar System and even travel to Mars. Saturday 27 February at 2pm and 4pm in Belfast Black Box, £3.

The Science of Star Wars with author Mark Drake and TV science presenter Jon Chase. Sunday 28 February at 1pm in Belfast Black Box, £6/£3.

The World’s Favourite Number and Other Stories from Guardian journalists and author Alex Bellos. Sunday 28 February in The Dark Horse at 1.30pm, £8/£5.

The Science of Doctor Who. Sunday 28 February at 3pm in Belfast Black Box, £6/£3.

Prof Robert Winston lecturing on What Makes Us Happy: Reading the Human Mind. QUB Whitla Hall, Sunday 28 February at 4pm, £16/£10.

The Strand Cinema’s free educational film clubs will be going techie with four films being screened over the festival weekends: The Matrix, Wall-E, Bladerunner and Jurassic Park.

Room - celebrating motherhood in a melancholic, messed up incarceration (QFT & other chains from 15 Jan)

Ma and Jack live in a Spartan room with cork tiles on the walls: bathroom, kitchen and bedroom all in one compact 10’ x 10’ space. A skylight is the only source of natural light. A locked metal door ensures the pair cannot leave.
“The room’s not on any map.”
I found the first hour of Room incredibly tense as I was introduced to the backstory of how as a teenager Ma (played by Brie Larson) was lifted out of the real world and came to live for the last seven years in this ghastly alternative reality. Jack (Jacob Tremblay with incredibly long flowing locks) is five, the result of their captor’s nightly visits to deposit provisions and rape Ma. Misbehaviour results in the electricity cut off, and with it heating, warm food and television.

I remember reading Bye Child in English in school, a poem (by Seamus Heaney I now discover) about a boy living in a hen house. Bernard MacLaverty turned it into a screenplay and directed the fifteen minute short. As a schoolchild the poem was sad, but as an adult and a parent the concept of locking up a child is so much more disturbing.
“I’m your Ma. Sometimes I’ve got to pick for both of us.”
Ma’s priority is to keep her son safe, putting her body in the way to ensure Old Nick (Sean Bridgers, we never find out the devilish character’s real name) does not touch or harm Jack. The boy is unaware of his situation and knows no life outside the single room. What he sees on television, he files under make believe, as it has no parallel in his norm.

The pair’s security and insecurity are locked up in the room. A plan is hatched to escape, but can they really ever be free of the room. Can incarceration be excised from their psyche?
“Are we on another planet?”

New sounds. New smells. New colours. New views of a disturbingly large city and world. New rooms. New rules. New germs. New intensity of light. New loudness of sounds. New stars. New experiences of generosity. New infinities of ways to be overwhelmed. New questions. New disappointments. New ways to stretch inner strength to breaking point.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction captures both the restricted nature of the room and the oppression that awaits the pair outside the shed that has sheltered them for so long. Brie Larson beautifully portrays the young mother doing everything possible – including continuing breastfeeding – to nurture her son while coping with depression. Her onscreen chemistry with young Jacob is very convincing.

Based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room is a melancholic, messed up film, though one which celebrates the responsibilities of motherhood, albeit questioning what the right choices are for a new child born into this hellish situation.

Perspective is a word that has dogged me so far in 2016. One of the moral questions raised by Room is whether it was in Jack’s best interests to be kept locked up with his mother, or whether she should have insisted that Old Nick took her new baby away and left him to be found and cared for by someone ‘on the outside’.

While Room is a fictional account, it mirrors too many real world instances of young adults and children being held captive across the world, as well as those in slavery, labour camps and being trafficked. However, Room also echoes the decisions being made by parents in many conflict zones of whether to send their children abroad, to flee from war and internal displacement and seek a better life elsewhere in the world.

As I left the Room’s preview screening I remembered Gulwali Passarlay’s lecture at Belfast International Arts Festival in October.

His mother took the decision to pay for 12 year old Gulwali and his brother to be smuggled out of [Afghanistan] to safety. Soon separated from his brother, it was a year long tortuous journey with repeated arrests, multiple imprisonments, a crammed boat, and many escapes from authorities and institutions. If I caught his narrative correctly, 7000+ miles through Afghanistan -> Iran -> Turkey -> Bulgaria -> Turkey -> Iran -> Turkey -> boat -> Greece -> Italy (from where he escaped from the third floor of a children’s home) -> Belgium -> France (Calais) -> UK.

Room is showing at Queens Film Theatre from Friday 15 January as well as other local cinema chains. Expect a good ten minutes of tears midway through the film followed by instances of blubbing until the end.

A story of solo dining, loss and lemon chicken ... Tenx9's food night.

Tenx9 has a simple format. Nine people with ten minutes each to tell a true story. Once a month, Tenx9’s co-creators Paul Doran and Pádraig Ó Tuama select a topic and two hundred people fill the Black Box to hear the tales, three at a time before a short break to recharge glasses at the bar.

Last night was like a free nine course pot luck supper. Succulent stories, savouring the flavours of other places and other times, insight into the ingredients of the characters behind the microphone. Above all, everyone enjoying the freedom to earwig on other people’s experiences (and often their unintentionally comical misfortune).

Taking the subject of ‘Food’ to coincide with the Out to Lunch Arts Festival, each of the storytellers took a different approach. Here’s my story which long time blog readers may recall from my posts in 2007. You can taste a few more crumbs from the evening over in my post on Sugarpiece.  Tenx9 is back on Sunday 21 February in the Black Box with a “Back to the Future” theme for NI Science Festival. Paul and Pádraig would love to hear your story.

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“You’re back. You’ll have your usual then? Lemon chicken, fried rice, a can of Diet Coke wasn’t it, and I’ll bring you some mixed hors d'oeuvres to start.”

No menu was offered. There was never any need. No questions about whether I was waiting for someone to join me, or whether I wanted to see the wine list. No fuss. Just a table for two, and a set of cutlery removed.

I travelled a lot to London over the years with work, staying two or three days at a time. I had some really good colleagues and bosses over the years, but I’m an introvert. Myers Briggs would give be a big capital I. So I need ‘me time’, time to myself away from constant conversation about work, fantastical dissection of the office politics and senior manager shenanigans, and all that frivolous stuff.

So I had a routine. Every town or city that I visited in over twenty years with BT, I’d no more than a handful of restaurants that I’d select from. Places of comfort. Places where a solo diner could slip in and out without being hassled.

The first time was always awkward, but if the waiting staff’s shifts matched up with my typical pattern of visits, they get to know you.

Fish and Chips in the Loch Fyne in St Albans, with Adi the waiter who could find me a seat if I caught his eye even when the manager had already said they were fully booked.

Ipswich was a tough city. A van reversed into the best restaurant and it had to close due to the structural damage. Nowhere else was ever as homely.

The third visit is the key one. If they don’t raise their eyebrows that you’ve just ordered the same thing for a third week in a row, I know I’m onto a winner. A new haunt has passed the test and been added to the list of safe places to eat.

So I walked the length of the main Chinatown thoroughfare in London. It had to be somewhere within a few minutes of the Curzon Soho – London’s version of the QFT, or should that be the other way round? – with proper films, independent and world cinema, only a few hundred yards from the big chains in Leicester Square and their weekly red carpet premieres.

The other requirement was the starter. I love sesame toast. It’s probably not very healthy. Definitely not healthy. But as your front incisors take a bite, your tongue feels the sesame seeds on top, and then you catch a taste of the prawns sandwiched between the slices of bread. Divine. They’ll serve sesame toast in heaven and it won’t put an inch on anyone’s waistline.

The sesame toast might even come with the bonus of a bit of crunchy green seaweed that you chase around the plate, unable to pick it all up, and a spring roll. Maybe even a bit of chicken on a skewer, or one of those yucky ribs that messes up your fingers. Urghh.

But on the menus in the windows or displayed on stands outside most of the restaurants, the words “mixed hors d'oeuvres” were immediately followed by “minimum 2 persons”, in brackets. One by one the potential eating places dismissed themselves from my evening dinner.

I was disheartened, and increasingly hungry. I reached the end of the main street and spotted a few more outlets facing me, running along Wardour Street. And there it was. Yungs. It was anything but glitzy with none of the gold mirrored fixtures and fittings that tarted up the other identikit restaurants. But it had ten or so tables downstairs and another 15 upstairs. And crucially it said “mixed hors d'oeuvres” with no brackets and no exclusions.

“You do the plate of starters for one?” I checked before sitting down. “Yes!” the waiter answered as if it was a stupid question.

And that’s how it started. Probably once a fortnight over four or five years I’d wander down the London street. More often than not, the tall young waiter would be standing in the doorway, trying to attract trade into the dowdy restaurant. He’d simply step back, push open the inner door and usher me to a table.

Sometimes I’d sit with a book or a magazine, or a thick bundle of treasury tagged papers for Audience Council that I needed to read for later in the week. Plates would be set down on the table wherever there was room. There was no rearranging: I owned the layout of the table, not them! There was no small talk. A few times I spotted a bit of chittering between staff: I was definitely on the eccentric watch list, but no matter. Asking for a VAT receipt to put into the expenses envelope was a complicated request: like many taxi receipts, sometimes I was left to fill in the slip of paper myself.

I walked past one night and the restaurant was dark. My heart sank. There was a note in the door. Family bereavement? Illness? Power cut? But the darkness was more sinister. The darkness that smoke and fire leaves on the inside of a window. The night before there had been a blaze in the kitchen and they couldn’t open. “Hopefully open in two weeks” said the notice.

Each time I’d walk past, but it was never open. I stopped passing as regularly, never replacing it with another Chinese – that would be disloyal, and besides no sesame toast and seaweed for one anywhere else. The Angus Steakhouse on the next street was soulless. The gourmet burger bar was noisy. I switched to eating in Covent Garden and then hightailing it back to Leicester Square (it’s faster above ground than taking the tube) and into the cinema.

While I’m that introvert who is happy to eat alone, I do enjoy the feeling of being on the outskirts of community in these remote locations. A home away from home to be accepted as you are into someone’s kitchen – okay, restaurant – to dine. There’s a sense of belonging when you get to feed football results to Adi in the Lock Fyne who had a book running with some of the other waiters and the chef.

But the loss of Yungs was a bereavement. Gone too soon. A relationship with a nameless waiter cut off. No more sickly lemon chicken.

Seven months later I walked past – out of habit rather than hope – and there was still no one standing in the doorway. But there was light inside. I went up the step, pushed open the door and the red padded chairs and furnishings were back. Musak was playing. Coming down round the narrow bend of the stairs was the young tall waiter. He smiled!

“You’re back. You’ll have your usual then? Lemon chicken, fried rice, a can of Diet Coke wasn’t it, and I’ll bring you some mixed hors d'oeuvres to start.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Lance - Join Kieran Hodgson for a two wheeled tour of fallen idols, Lycra and just doing it #otl16

From the moment he sprints onto the stage, Kieran Hodgson is bursting with energy. Flitting between characters like gears on a racer, the yellow jerseyed lycra-clad performer relates his bumpy relationship with cycling in general and his childhood hero Lance Armstrong (described as a “disgraced champion cyclist and cancer survivor extraordinaire”) in particular.

Whether outlining his own teenage heroic participation in a 26 mile cycle race with fellow Yorkshire scouts, reading out his fan letter to Lance, or remembering the ups and downs of student life in the zero-wheeled rowing club (defending the unimpeachable Lance), Kieran delivers wry observations, comic caricatures and a pretty good impersonation of a ubiquitous Irish cycling TV commentator.

One particular musical dream sequence had the audience in stitches with multiple connotations to him being lured “down south”! Amidst these musings there’s a lot of pedalling and a smattering of the champion cyclist’s imagined motivational and relationship advice.

Kieran’s revelation that Yorkshire would feature in the 2014 Tour de France offers hope, yet is dramatically tempered by the reality that the joy of cycling has been crushed by his fallen idol, like a bike under a steamroller.

While the energy fades towards the end (like my legs on a Belfast Bike approaching the end of a mile long cycle), the laughs were pretty constant, along with a stark reminder not to set heroes up on pedestals in case their steroid-filled thighs are made of clay and they’re slowing you down.

As Lance would say “just do it” and go along to the repeat performance of Lance at 8pm tonight in the Black Box as part of the 2016 Out To Lunch Arts Festival.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Warm your soul and your stomach at this year's Out To Lunch Festival (until 31 January) #otl16

It’s January and it’s cold, but fear not … The Eleventh Annual Out to Lunch Arts Festival is here to warm your soul (and your stomach if you attend a weekday lunchtime event)!

Some highlights from the programme that’s bursting with comedy, music, poetry, opera and storytelling.

You can save 50p if you book your tickets for weekday lunchtime shows in advance for £6.50. Prices of evening and weekend performances vary - check the programme. Unless stated, events are in the Black Box in Hill Street.

Tuesday 12 January at 1pm and 8pm // Lance – Kieran Hodgson’s hilarious story of belief, betrayal and redemption as he recounts how his boyhood admiration of Lance Armstrong was sullied.

Wednesday 13 January at 1pm // Novel Operas – NI Opera’s young artists perform pieces from operas based on novels. Join Gabrielle Mulcachy, Rebecca Rodgers, Laura McFall and David Lynn for a novel lunchtime performance.

Wednesday 13 January at 7.30pm // Tenx9 gives nine people ten minutes to tell a true story from their lives. Given that it’s the Out to Lunch festival, this month’s subject is food. Admission free. (And for the first time, I’ll be telling a story …)

Thursday 14 January at 1pm // Cup O’Joe – Bluegrass and Gypsy Jazz music from three local siblings who’ll have your toes tappin’ and your hands clappin’. Reuben (18) plays guitar and mandolin; Tabitha (15) is on banjo and fiddle; and Benjamin plays upright bass.

Saturday 16 January at 2pm // Strolling Through Ulysses with Robert Gogan as he takes the audience on a whistle-stop tour to highlight the funny bits in James Joyce’s enigmatic novel.

Sunday 17 January at 2pm // Join Saint Sister, Prima Quartet and Jealous of the Birds for a lazy Sunday afternoon of soulful harmonies, dreamy synth, harp, alt-folk and more.

Tuesday 19 January at 1pm and 8pm / Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck’s classic story of two drifters striving to find their place in an unforgiving world. The play (Michael Roy Andrew and Nigel Miles-Thomas) is scored by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

Wednesday 20 January at 1pm and 8pm // Comedian Sarah Kendall with her one hour narrative about the day in October 1990 when her best friend died for 11 seconds. “It’s a story about life. It’s a story about death. It’s a story about 20 foot tall fibreglass chickens.”

Friday 22 January at 1pm // Join Roisin Ingle as she reads from some of her best Irish Times Public Displays of Emotion columns. SOLD OUT.

Sunday 24 January at 8pm // Attila The Stockbroker – high-energy and hilarious punk poet and songwriter who “grabs listeners by their conscience and accosts apathy at every verse” with his “poems that spit fire at fence-sitters”.

Tuesday 26 January at 1pm // My Name is Saoirse – an ordinary yet extraordinary 15 year old growing up in conservative Catholic Ireland.

Saturday 30 January at 2pm // An all age screening of anime epic Princess Mononoke in which the young warrior Ashitika get caught up in a struggle between forest gods and the humans who consume its resources. £4 (and includes hot chocolate).

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens … or should that be Indiana Jones and the Lost Droid?

I’m not a big fan of Star Wars. I remember reading one or two of the novelisations while at primary school, but the Force wasn’t strong. It’s okay if you find my lack of faith disturbing. In 1999 I watched Episode I: The Phantom Menace (with its podrace mash-up of hot rod racing and Formula 1) in the cinema with work colleagues and was thoroughly unimpressed.

A couple of years ago I gave in to curiosity and borrowed the boxset to watch the first six films (in episode order I-VI). It was clear that Episode IV: A New Hope (the original Star Wars film) was the best, and everything went downhill as you moved left or right through the rest of the franchise.

So I’d no plans to view the new Disneyfied Episode VII: The Force Awakens until so many friends saw it but so few reported hating it. Barely a hint of discontent. How could they not have been disturbed by JJ Abrams’ treatment of George Lucas’ science fiction universe? So this intrepid blogger went along to a matinee screening to see for himself …

The first character on screen is the crowd-pleasing spherical BB-8, a rolling football with a head. Disappointingly while most of the universe has standardised on English, personal droids haven’t evolved past burbling that could have been produced by the sound chip in a BBC Micro Model B back in the 1980s.

It’s very retro and full of cliché (mostly thirty nine year old Star Wars clichés and memes). Intergalactic inter-species bar scenes. Tick. John Williams score is familiar with sinister horns blowing over sweeping strings. Tick. The style of over-the-top fancy wipes when switched between scenes and locations are retained from earlier episodes. Tick. TIE Fighters, X-Wings and even the Millennium Falcon make an appearance. Tick. (Though the Millennium Falcon is a real work of science fiction as the only space ship in fictional history that can bounce off desserts and bump into solid objects like a car driving through Paris without sustaining damage.) Not to mention C-3PO who is as forthright as ever (“it would take a miracle to save us now”) and is still king of the understatement.

It’s not terribly subtle. The contradiction of nameless pristine white-suited Storm Troopers who are accustomed to carrying out genocide is made all the more obvious by one soldier who carelessly gets blood on his otherwise immaculate white helmet and starts to show emotion.

At its heart, Star Wars has a family tree with the dysfunctional tragedy and messed-up loyalties of Dallas combined with Dynasty. Yet despite the light years that separate one side of a star system from another, the main dream team protagonists have the knack of dropping into each other’s back yards to impossibly reunite without as much as a glance at a map.

One leading character whose position in the family tree has been left ambiguous until mid-2017 and Episode VIII is Rey (played by Daisy Ridley). She fights, she flies, she flees, and she just happens to be female.

“Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force.”

[Spoiler alert] The Jedi remain absent for much of the 135 minute film. So lightsaber rattling is kept to a minimum … though Kylo Ren’s red cross-shaped lightsaber is a neat innovation.

It’s very commercial. Some scenes only seem to have survived in the final edit to introduce animals and animatronic creatures that can later be given away in Happy Meals. Though I can’t see any food franchise wanting to licence the dodgy looking green muffins Rey prepares. A lot of the flying and dogfighting sequences have a video/arcade game feel to them that will easily jump to consoles.

Old friends reappear. One being-chased-by-a-monster sequence feels more like Indiana Jones and the Lost Droid than Star Wars (Indiana Jones is another George Lucas vehicle for Harrison Ford), and there’s definitely a little of Hillary Clinton in Princess Leia.

“Why are you doing this?” “Because it's the right thing to do.”

The dialogue is streets ahead of the latest Bond abomination Spectre: Episode VII’s lines are better and there are a lot more of them. Thankfully the temptation to launch into grandstanding speeches and space philosophy was avoided.

It’s quite repetitive. You don’t seem to need names in space: time after time, major characters only drop their names in twenty minutes after the audience (and the rest of the cast) first meet them. There are a few too many meaningful glances thrown across the set.

Peril is the norm, and at times the stress of relentless chasing and fighting was nearly too much for me, particularly since Abrams favours cutting his daring escape sequences boldly short which further compresses the audience recovery time. Though everything slows down to near bradycardia whenever R2-D2 is involved.

I’m baffled by the improbability that every major sequence in the film takes place during daylight. Other natural orders have been suspended too: allowing cast members to shout from one end of the Millennium Falcon to the other (eg gunning turret to the bridge) and be heard!

At its heart, Episode VII: The Force Awakens has truth and lies, loyalty and treachery, modernity and antiquity. And more than a touch of Highlander. But its nostalgic reliance on the very first Star Wars film for look and feel must be the reason that I – along with so many others – don’t dislike the film and (at the very least) grudgingly appreciate its blockbusting success.