Wednesday, February 22, 2017

“Save our Neighbours” – high energy musical Glasgow Girls highlights Scottish asylum campaign (The MAC until 25 Feb)

No sooner has one piece of political theatre left The MAC – Entitled is touring through Bangor, Newry and Derry this week – than another bounces onto the main stage of the Belfast venue.
“Your asylum request has been refused … Your removal must be enforced”

When a fellow pupil failed to turn up at a Glasgow school one morning in 2005 – detained with her family in a dawn raid by the UK Border Agency and sent back to England to await deportation – her school mates set about raising public awareness and challenging the asylum system.

Their Glasgow Girls campaign reached the Scottish Parliament with the Green Party triggering a debate that voiced concern about how children in Scotland were being treated when families are removed for deportation.

This high-energy musical theatre production centres around the seven girls and their bilingual language support teacher Mr Girvan. Songs are accompanied by a pumping backing track and live fiddle and guitar. The fighting spirit of the city of Glasgow is celebrated – despite the early lyric “There’s bits of the city that are really shitty” – along with the broad welcome that asylum seekers received upon dispersal up to Scotland.
“It’s no their war; It’s no their sin”
Musical styles are varied with electronic grime, reggae-dub, folk-rock and the Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell conjured up as a glittering Elvis. The recreation of the debate in the Scottish Parliament which led to the promise that dawn raids and detention would not be used in cases involving families with children in Scotland is one of the most powerful scenes of the production.

The set consists of a playground climbing frame that provides performers with a couple of different levels and steps. The performers are individually micced and the sound design makes good use of echo and reverb to enhance the dialogue and singing. The choreography is very precise and director Cora Bissett has kept a good pace to the show while still allowing some intimate and emotional moments to flourish.

In-between the singing and dancing there’s quite a lot of audience education about the asylum system. The script doesn’t shy away from discussing anti-asylum sentiment, allowing some “I fear that they’re over hear to live for free” voices to be heard and largely rebutted. An older woman Noreen acts as the common (wo)man, not afraid to break the fourth wall to let the audience into her world of neighbourhood watch and offers a commentary on the less than successful campaign.

It’s a testament to the show that the unfinished nature of the campaign and the lack of fulsome political follow-through is core to the second half and a happy ending was not concocted. Instead Glasgow Girls finishes with a powerful call to action to “save our neighbours” no matter where we are.

I overheard one teenage lad leaving the theatre last night exclaiming “that was amazing!” to others in a youthful group who had attended the opening night.

Glasgow Girls is a wake-up call to the harsh outworking of UK asylum policy and the show’s revival and tour by Pachamama Productions is timely given the continued political and media focus on migration and asylum. It plays in The MAC until 25 February.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

NI Science Festival - space, stories, food safety, cognitive computing, astrophysics and quantum biology #nisf17

NI Science Festival is in its third year and still has a week to run. The programme is packed full of surprises and treats.

Reassembled, Slightly Askew runs at The MAC until 26 February as part of the festival and takes the audience inside the head of a patient with a life-threatening brain injury. You can read my preview of the show and interview with the playwright (who wrote about her acquired brain injury) over on the Culture Northern Ireland website.

Tuesday 21 February

Professor Dame Ann Dowling will deliver the the 16th Sir Bernard Crossland Annual Lecture in which she will discuss the role of universities in stimulating growth through the people they educate and through their research and enterprise activities. REGISTRATION CLOSED

Poetry meets science in the Black Box at 6.30pm tonight as MATRIX (the NI Science Industry Panel) teams up with the John Hewitt Society to curate an evening of talks and science themed poetry, culminating in a world record attempt for the most haiku tweeted at a single event.

Wednesday 22 February

Mew to TQ: Lighthouse Technology takes place at 2pm in W5. The Titanic Foundation and Commissioner for Irish Lights preview the 10 tonne, 7 metre tall, 130 year old Mew Island optic that will be coming to Titanic Quarter this summer. The talk will explore the science and the innovation related to lighthouse technology: illustrating that the Fresnel lens was a major scientific breakthrough, the pinnacle of lighthouse lens size, and the energy sources used to provide the light. See the event listing for details on how to book your free place.

The monthly Tenx9 storytelling event partners with the NI Science Festival for a second year to present an evening of true stories about “The final frontier”. Black Box at 7pm. Free entry; first come first served. Tenx9 is always a treat.

The Horizon strand of programming on BBC Two has been recently been repeating landmark editions of the long-running series which brings cutting-edge of science and technology to life and applies it to our everyday lives. Horizon's editor Steve Crabtree will curate a journey through the archives in Scanning The Horizon: The Health of a Nation, pulling out key moments of health discoveries and disease outbreaks. Through unique access to clips from the Horizon vaults, the Queen's Film Theatre audience can watch how medicine has evolved over the last five decades. Free but booking essential.

Thursday 23 February

Belfast City Hall will once again host the annual Turing Lecture, this year delivered by IBM Research's VP & Chief Science Officer of Cognitive Computing, Dr Guruduth S. Banavar. Beneficial AI for the Advancement of Humankind will explore cognitive computing, the technology breakthroughs that are enabling this trend, practical applications for the real-world, and ethical considerations guiding the development and deployment of the technology for the benefit of humankind. Get ahead of the curve and understand how cognitive systems will create new partnerships between people and machines to augment and scale human expertise in every industry, from healthcare to financial services to education. Free but registration required. From 5.30pm.

Friday 24 February

Dr Andrew Cannavan led the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Food Safety Assessment Team in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster and works closely with the Queen’s University Institute for Global Food Security. He'll deliver the Jack Pearce Memorial Lecture at 6.30pm in the QUB David Keir building, and will discuss his own experiences, emergency preparedness and responses to nuclear incidents. Free but registration required.

Saturday 25 February

Dr Niamh Shaw is a performer, scientist and engineer who is passionate about awakening people's curiosity. She attended the International Space University’s annual Space Studies Programme in 2015 in association with NASA and she was selected for the Crew 173 Mars analog mission (earlier this year in the Utah desert!) Niamh will explain about her plan to get into space within the next eight years and what it will take to become the first Irish Astronaut. Armagh Planetarium at 1pm or 3pm. £2. Booking essential - details in the event listing.

Sunday 26 February

St George's Market will be animated between 11am and 3.30pm with Busking Physicists use everyday objects to open up a new world of curiosity and understanding with their tricks and sights. The team from the Institute of Physics invite market shoppers to step into a realm of invisible forces and remarkable matter and to join in their unstoppably infectious physics fun!

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell will be in conversation with fellow physicist Jim Al-Khalili at 2pm in the Whitla Hall. The inspirational Belfast born giant of astrophysics is best known for her discovery of pulsars (rotating neutron stars that appear to ‘pulse’ since the beam of light they emit can only be seen when it faces the Earth). Her observation, made together with her supervisor Antony Hewish (he got the Nobel Prize, she didn't) is considered to be one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century. Tickets £6.

And Jim Al-Khalili returns to the Whitla Hall stage at 4pm to deliver a lecture introducing the field of Quantum Biology and examining the impact of recent research and what this means for our understanding of what life really is. John Stewart Bell (a QUB graduate) discovered Bell’s Theorem and his work on non-locality resolved a long standing dispute involving Albert Einstein and showed that Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics were incorrect. This first annual John Bell lecture honouring and recognises Bell’s contribution to the field of quantum physics. Tickets £6.

Logan (Wolverine III) - three men and a little lady meets Green Room

I haven’t seen any of the previous X-Men films on a cinema screen, and have mostly been working away at something else while catching some of them on TV. So going into the Movie House on Dublin Road last night to preview Logan, I had a passing familiarity with the Marvel Comics backstory, but certainly couldn’t have picked Wolverine out of a crowd and didn’t realise this was the last of a trilogy of films tracking his origin and adventures.

Hugh Jackman plays the mutant Wolverine whose sharp talons are quickly seen in action in an opening sequence with dialogue that mostly consists of roars and arghs as blood squirts out of severed arteries and body parts fly through the air in a garage forecourt. And carelessly, Logan – Wolverine’s name on his Social Security documents now that he’s living and working in Civvy Street– doesn’t even check to see if the wheel nuts had been loosened by the eviscerated gang before driving away in his Chrysler limousine!

Apparently there have been no new mutants for 25 years. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is living in an enormous overturned water tank with sunlight streaming in through holes in its rusty shell. It’s a beautiful set, and the jaundiced colouration echoes the sandy ground outside. Stephen Merchant plays the always sarcastic albino Caliban who tends to Charles and has an enhanced sense of smell but is vulnerable to extreme photosensitivity.

The motley crew of three become four when they pick up a taciturn young girl who combines her inner sharpness with powerful gymnastics to fillet anyone standing in her way. Laura (played by Dafne Keen) is the star of the film. Her steely and otherworldly on-screen presence is mesmerising. And when she breaks her silence, her voice and delivery is worth the wait.

The dialogue is perfunctory: “Wolverine – you’re the only one who can help me!” is an accurate yet clichéd call to arms. The soundtrack occasionally celebrates the onscreen carnage before reverting back to minor chord dirges. But this isn’t a film about words or music.

Over two hours and fifteen minutes the audience watch Wolverine go on a journey of self discovery, chased from New Mexico to North Dakota with nowhere to lay his head, with kidnappings, fights, more fights and a very creepy Richard E Grant playing Dr Zander Rice. There’s some playful humour but even during the occasional mellow lull in the skirmishes your stomach is churning, ready for the next sequence of choreographed conflict.

Logan is marginally less violent than Green Room, another sinister film featuring actor Patrick Stewart. A lot of deaths, and some new beginnings and the possibility that history will repeat itself. You can catch Logan at Movie House Cinemas and the Odeon from Tuesday 28 February, with the first screenings at 22.23!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ardnaglass on the Air - rural living brings hilarity to the airwaves (C21 Theatre, Lyric + NI tour)

Take one ramshackle shed with a Yagi antenna in the corner of a busy farmyard. Add a muck-covered pig farmer who lives with his mum and a local barmaid who dreams of escaping her drunken husband for the bright lights of London. Throw in a one hour long community radio show which celebrates the quaint and quirky ways of rural living. And sit down and relax to enjoy an hour and a quarter of solid entertainment from C21 Theatre’s latest production, Ardnaglass on the Air.

Margaret Mary-Rose O’Boyle isn’t afraid of uttering a string of jaw-dropping double entendres that are nearly as dirty as her co-presenter’s overalls. Jo Donnelly gently steers her character between an impetuous tottering flirt to empathetic friend, and manages to give definition to the peaks and troughs of emotion that might otherwise have become a blur of excitement.

Sitting behind the mixing desk – do pirate stations really use DJ mixers to control their mics? – Marty Maguire drives the desk and guides the listeners through the local news, adverts, live breaking stories and a weather forecast that emphasises the latter rather than the former. Yet as the one act play heads towards its conclusion, Hugh Francis O’Donnell’s vulnerability emerges.

Convention is thrown out the window barn door. While some curious extra excuses for movement around the studio have been invented, presenting a radio show is a very sedentary pursuit. (Hugo Duncan is the one exception to this rule.) The big gestures of theatre aren’t available. But Stephen Kelly’s direction has created a rich palette of gestures and facial expressions that construct an intimate performance in the diminutive set. Casting a real-life couple adds a frisson of sexual tension to the on-air chemistry and certainly helps add a touch of realism to the scowls and disappointing glares when things go wrong on air.

As a townie, I feared that I was sitting laughing at a whimsical piss-take that was unfairly caricaturing culchie living. But rural dwellers up in the big smoke for the show confirmed afterwards that they recognised much about their friends and neighbours in the Jimmy Kerr’s script.

Ardnaglass on the Air is a hoot. It’s outrageously funny, full of vernacular and very entertaining. The only pothole in its farmyard is the ending which Jimmy Kerr has had to adapt from previous three-handed versions of the play. Instead of going out with a set-crushing bang or a surprise entrance it instead slows right down and fades out rather than keeping the energy up right the way to the pips.

You can catch Ardnaglass on the Air in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 18 February before it tours through Armagh, Coalisland, Newtownabbey, Cushendall, Newry, Limavady, Lisburn, Downpatrick and finishes in Jimmy’s home village of Moneyglass.

Review: Moonlight - seeking the stability of identity and security (QFT until 2 March)

Moonlight is a film in three acts. Each with a different actor portraying Chiron as a boy, a teenager and finally an adult.
“You don’t talk much but you darned well can eat!”

Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) befriend an uncommunicative youngster (played by a young talent Alex Hibbert) who stands aloof from his peers. The pair offer a positive parental influence and their home is a safe shelter while Chiron’s birth mother (Naomie Harris) neglects him and works as a health worker by day while selling sex by night. But the moral balance of Moonlight is always more complicated: the sensitive and caring Juan is the local drug dealer and supplier to the boys’ mother.

As Chiron grows up (now played by Ashton Sanders) the homophobic bullying he experiences becomes more pronounced and physical. A tender moment of self-discovery is followed by a violent confrontation that turns his life upside down and takes the remainder of the film in an unexpected direction.

Writer and director Barry Jenkins allows Chiron to remain a man of few words throughout. The transitions between actors are well signposted even though the visual similarity between the first two actors is more difficult to swallow when the incredibly muscular third Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) appears on screen, perhaps emphasising the complete change of lifestyle.

Jump cuts are out and instead the camera slowly pans around locations – perhaps as much a financial decision as a stylistic one given the low budget of the film.

Moonlight won’t provoke many laughs; nor will it generate tears. Instead it’s a fascinating, well-paced character study of a young black man coming to terms with his identity and his need for security. The lifestyle of the third instantiation of Chiron has more than a few echoes of Juan. Ambiguities and contradictions are everywhere.

While tackling homophobia, neglect and abuse, Moonlight also celebrates kindness, patience, acceptance and refuge. Broken relationships are healed – in a way that La La Land sadly couldn’t manage – and although a few too many quality characters are discarded as the years pass, there’s a character development arc and layers of meaning and questions that engaged and drew me in to this 111 minute film, leaving me wishing there was a fourth act.

Moonlight is screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until polling day, Thursday 2 March.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Looking Deadly: shape shifting actors inject life into a town’s rival funeral firms

The body of well known republican Tom McCarthy reposes in Lynch’s funeral home. Jane (played by Niamh McGrath) inherited the business from her father but local competition from Cost Less Coffins up the street means her finances are not healthy and the bank manager will soon be knocking on the door if the stress doesn’t invite the Grim Reaper to visit first. Rob (Keith Singleton) is her loyal yet under-appreciated mortician.

Looking Deadly is a black comedy directed by Amy Conroy that sets two funeral home businesses at each other throats while an array of quirky townspeople look on at the shabby dealings between the undertakers. There are no deathly silences but instead the theatre is filled with laugh out loud moments as the two actors shape shift between characters across the minimal black stage and set.

With a switch of the lights and spin of the coffin, the talented pair physically transform into Mick (the Michael O’Leary of the funeral home sector) and his hunched over son Seaneen. The death of local Doctor Mulhuddart provides the crisis point in the plot that finally stretches relationships to breaking point.

It’s a real treat. McGrath and Singleton deliver fifty five minutes of madcap physical and tongue-twisting verbal comedy together with synchronised gestures and beautiful accents that can’t fail to make you laugh.

Looking Deadly was performed in The MAC on Thursday 9 and Friday 10. Well worth catching the floral tributes along with the show as it tours Monaghan, Newry, Belmullet, Newbridge, Nenagh, Sligo and Carrick-on-Shannon.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

T2 Trainspotting: worth the 20 year wait for Danny Boyle to choose to breath life back into the characters

It’s unashamedly nostalgic, yet T2 moves the story of the rag bag of heroin addicts from Trainspotting’s 1996 forward twenty years. Right from the first location the expectation is set that music will often speak louder than any character dialogue, and that humour will be present no matter how dark or deadly the situation. This is a film with bags more structure than the original: more of a night out in a pub than a rave in a club.

One by one the old cast are reintroduced, each with their own 2-3 minute scene, before Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns from a galaxy far, far away Amsterdam and the onetime gang are brought face to face with each other and their past actions. How have they adjusted to a world where their old tricks and habits no longer have the same currency?

Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) has a score – well, four thousand pounds worth of scores – to settle with Mark as he ropes his ‘mate’ into a hair-raising EU funding bid to develop his underwhelming pub. But while Sick Boy plots, Mark may already be stealing from under his nose once again.

Franco Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and his libido have been locked up in prison and he seeks his revenge served cold in a pool of blood rather than as a fistful of dollars. There’s a wonderful symmetry to the blackmail storyline as Kelly Macdonald reprises her role playing Diane Coulston.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Spud Murphy (Ewen Bremner) and the audience watch his redemption story unfold as he chooses to have a future, and chooses life.

But can Simon’s young Bulgarian beau Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) stay ahead of the old timers and prove that the young generation have more cunning and guile than Mark, Simon, Spud and Franco?
“Tell your story because we’re dying to hear it”

The film is not perfect. There’s an undeniable emptiness to the immoral living, a self-destruction that accompanies the drug abuse. Script-wise, there are far too many repetitions of the words ‘opportunity’ and ‘betrayal’. The movie’s pace suffers from arrhythmia in the second half. And Veronika is the only female character with any real depth. Yet ...

... T2 Trainspotting might well be my film of the year.

It shouldn’t work. Mixing in so much footage from the original film should undermine the sequel. But Danny Boyle’s genius seems to have created a movie that is both respectful of the original and sufficiently self-aware to introduce a lot of reflection on the sins of the past. It works as a standalone film too: at least for me who can’t remember that much about the 1996 version.

There’s magic at work in the edit. Mood and music switch in a beat without grating. Spine-tinglingly evocative old tunes are mixed with new. What sometimes look like rough camera work panning around a room delivers perfectly-framed images all the way through a jerky turn. Drone shots show off beautiful Edinburgh vistas while some special effects are thrown in when you least expect them.

King Billy even makes an appearance in a song that for anti-sectarian reasons will not be on the film’s soundtrack album but I fear will be heard during band parades in the summer.

While a particularly dire bog featured in the 1996 original, there’s plenty of toilet action in T2. The adjacent cubicle scene is physically brilliant, and porcelain makes quite an impact when it returns in a later fight sequence.

T2 has an uncanny ability to generate humour from nowhere. It induced several roars of laughter from this normally mirth-free reviewer. There are funny lines, funny snatches of music, funny shot composition, not to mention funny costumes. And then there are the creative portmanteau swearwords, no doubt imported from Irvine Welsh’s novels Trainspotting and Porno.

It’s complex. It races through your head as you leave the cinema. It has characters that shock and surprise, yet beg to be adopted and forgiven

Be a dreamer. Be like Spud. Choose life.