Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Farthest - two middle-aged space probes take a road-trip (QFT 1-14 Sep)

Bring tissues because this film is an emotionally charged fly past.

Given that the two Voyager craft have been flying through space for the best part of forty years, it’s entirely appropriate to devote two hours of cinema time to chart the drama of their conception, birth, life … and in a funny way, their after life in the film The Farthest.

The official, cut-back mission plan was to fly past Jupiter and Saturn, but the original big hairy audacious goal to go on a grand tour of the universe and the stated trajectory allowed the Voyager team to extend the flight path to take in bonus destinations of Uranus and Neptune if some key objectives were met.

The technology on board the vessels is as old as I am. At one stage, a scientist involved in the mission reminds the watching audience that there’s more memory on your car’s electronic key fob than the Voyager craft (which has a mere 32K across its six subsystems). More than a billion miles away from Earth, with signals taking hours to reach the yoghurt pot – well, antenna – at the other end of the wet string, the NASA team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory reprogrammed each Voyager probe to give it new tricks as it prepared to fly past each new planet.

Irish director Emer Reynolds allows the construction, launch and flypasts to inject their own drama into the documentary that is dominated by talking heads that reflect rather than gloat. So much went wrong. So much more could have gone wrong. The Voyager programme ran in parallel with the Space Shuttle programme, and the Challenger tragedy casts its shadow over Voyager 1’s interplanetary success.

Mission specialists – who, it’s got to be said, age well – speak both of the scientific endeavour and their investment in the truly interstellar journeys, as well as unpacking the cultural and extraterrestrial communication aspects of the mission which included carrying a ‘golden record’ of songs, pictures and greetings from around the world. (A needle and cartridge as well as pictorial instructions on how to build a record player were included!) This softer side was all down to scientist and communicator Carl Sagan, who also forced NASA to agree to spin Voyager 1 to face ‘homeward’ to take a ‘family portrait’ of the solar system. Earth famously showed up as a ‘pale blue dot’.

Voyager 1 has now entered interstellar space, the first human object to do so. (You can track both probes’ progress on the JPL website.) While the energy source that powers the radios and remaining instruments will deplete over the next century, some of those involved in the mission soberly suggest that since the unpowered craft is very unlikely to collide with anything, it may continue to fly through space long after the dying Sun destroys the Earth!

Composer Ray Harman composed the soundtrack around the words being spoken, adding a flourish here and there to underline the on-screen action. If like the probes the film could have been re-edited while playing – perhaps that’ll be available in an interactive planetarium version with voting buttons? – I’d have removed some of the detail about the production of the record and concentrated on the science and the complexity of talking to an object the size of a school bus that is faster and faster moving further and further away from the Earth.

It’s a film about ambition and invention (kitchen grade tin foil was wrapped around the cabling), about perspective and loneliness.

Embrace your inner space geek, sit in the darkened cinema screen – to be fair, it’ll be no where near as dark as space – and watch the imagery that was sent back from the two middle-aged spacecraft. Open up your childlike imagination and wonder at the majesty of the solar system(s). And ponder our perch in the expanse of the universe.

The Farthest is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 1 and Thursday 14 September. The 6pm screening on Monday 4 (the evening before the 40th anniversary of Voyager 1’s launch) will be followed by a Q&A with director Emer Reynolds.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Kafka’s Monkey: absurd and bewildering, though the acting and direction are very satisfying (Lyric Theatre until 26 August)

Franz Kafka wrote the story Ein Bericht für eine Akademie (A Report to an Academy) in 1917. It tells the story of an ape called Red Peter who learned to mimic humans and is lecturing about his journey.

Adam Turns performed Colin Teevan’s stage version in an ambitious one man show – Kafka’s Monkey – which ran this week in the Lyric Theatre. The role shows off his superb physicality, carrying himself like an ape throughout the sixty minute production with a slight slouch and a constantly swinging left arm.

The bowler-hatted actor dressed in a ventless double-breasted suit that is simultaneously the right size yet does not fit slowly limps into view through a little used side door into the Lyric’s Naughton Studio. The set consists of a chair, a blackboard in the back centre, and the Black Box lectern standing to one side.
“Esteemed members of the academy …”

So begins the ape’s lecture to the assembled audience academy.

Since it’s Kafka, the absurd is to be expected. A man plays an ape playing a man. The fourth wall is broken without any fuss and the monkey’s handskake turns out to be quite Trump-esque.

We learn about the ape’s capture and how he deals with his incarceration in a cage on a boat. As he learns to ‘ape’ the humans around him, he is rewarded with some freedom. This transformation is relayed in halting monologues, delivered with a slight German accent.

We can blame Kafka for the bizarre plot. At one level it makes for terrible theatre because at first it is so inaccessible and offers so few clues as to its purpose or meaning that the lack of an interval is a strategic blessing because there would surely be empty seats at the start of the second act.

Yet if you invest the full hour, you witness an ape that resists assimilation as much as he can. He learns that just because he can culturally appropriate human ways and is valued by men for doing so, he doesn’t mean he has to sacrifice his true self to fully become one, though it is necessary to escape and survive. Though wearing a suit and trousers over his fur – the actor has shaved his head and is hairless for the role despite the implied furriness of his character – does smack of the pigs wearing clothes and walking upright in Animal Farm!

Do we become like those by whom we are surrounded? Do we take on their mannerisms and behaviours and values? Or do we stand out as ourselves, collaborating with their schemes when it suits us, but not fully buying into all their ways?

If the role is a showcase for Adam Turns’ talents, then the structure of the play is a showcase for director Rhiann Jeffrey’s very measured sense of shape and form. Every 5-7 minutes we learn something new about the talents of the ape: performing magic, writing left-handed, new movements and ticks.

It’s a production full of contradictions. The lighting is soft yet very precise. Glowing areas of the stage are used to anticipate as well as accentuate movement of the ape. The barred cage is a simple yet well-planned effect. The final silhouette as Red Peter departs stage right is a beautiful construction.

The acting, direction, lighting and soundscape were significantly better than the script upon which it relies. The monologue is bound to have many layers of meaning … just very well trapped inside the bewildering plot. For me that makes it a strange choice of play to produce.

Kafka’s Monkey finishes in the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 26 August.

Production shots by Maryann Maguire.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Review: Michelle & Arlene - two game politicians flip flop after staying in close contact over the summer

What would it take for a politician to change their mind?

For Iain Duncan Smith, his so-called ‘Easterhouse Epiphany’ around welfare and social mobility came after visiting Glasgow's Easterhouse Estate in 2002. Group Think is an issue, never mind party loyalty, inherited beliefs and the reality that changing policy will affect voting patterns.

What would it take for a Northern Ireland politician to change their mind on one of any number of intractable issues?

Rosemary Jenkinson examines the possibility of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill flip-flopping in her fiercely satirical play Michelle & Arlene. I interviewed her a couple of weeks ago before rehearsals began and she described why she wanted to write a ‘rapid response’ piece to address contemporary politics and explained the premise of the plot:
“The premise is that Michelle and Arlene separately go on holiday to Ibiza but keep bumping into each other. In spite of their initial hostility, it's almost as if they are fated to be closer than they ever thought possible!”

Thursday’s opening night audience roared with laughter from the start as they looked behind the carefully crafted public images and wondered whether Maria Connolly’s fictional version of a drinking and sometimes swearing, uber-British former First Minister – who looks like she has a mouthful of nuts-and-bolts-flavoured chewing gum – had a grain of truth about it.
“I intend to stay in very close contact with Michelle O’Neill over the summer.”

Wearing a long blonde wig, Mary-Frances Doherty has more than a passing resemblance for Michelle O’Neill. This fast talking, slightly hyper Derry woman is flying out to the wedding of two friends on the Spanish island of Ibiza. She is somewhat disturbed to discover her political opponent Arlene sitting in the Departures lounge at the airport having decided to get “a bit of head space” and find solitude somewhere that she won’t be recognised.
“Of course I believe in democracy, it’s public opinion I don’t believe in.”

Their tetchy exchanges gather chuckles, as do their deceitful conversations with the Irish Taoiseach and British Prime Minister. We watch their barbed frostiness melt a little as they continue to bump into each other on the party island. One evening the beer flows and the fictional Arlene comes cheek to cheek with the woman she described back in May as “very attractive” and the pair relax into each other’s company, not to mention, each other’s arms and maybe knickers.

While there’s a heightened sense of the ridiculous, and the plot leads to a very unexpected political union, the play does evoke echoes of a political trip to South Africa twenty years ago in May 1997 when Nelson Mandela “offered peace negotiators in Belfast some respite from the pressures of Castle Buildings”. Do breakthroughs require privacy and time for personal bonding?

The use of karaoke within the performance, in particular The First Cut Is The Deepest, adds to the frisson of naughtiness that envelopes the play. By the end the audience were trying to guess the tunes from the introductions to be able to sing along.

The mood changes as each actor relays unsettling moments from their character’s real-world past, though the question about the hierarchy of victims is not dwelt upon for too long. Director Richard Lavery allows the jokes about boilers and rutting farm animals to subside for a minute, and instead personal history is heard, underscoring the context which helped create this opposing politicians.

Given the quick turnaround from scripting to rehearsing and production, the hour long show is amazingly devoid of major wobbles. Maria Connolly’s eyes are remarkable to watch as they dart around, indicating varying levels of distress being carried by the unionist leader.

An incendiary incident towards the end of the play lacks dramatic action and some flashing lights and swaying around by the cast on the simple set would give the scene a lift. Some of the subsequent speechifying would also benefit from a trim in this deliberately short piece.

Michelle & Arlene goes some way towards exposing the vices that occlude political progress at Stormont. In the week before talks are due not to restart on Monday – surely only in Northern Ireland would that phrase make sense? – it is a reminder that the intransigent mode of negotiation has so far failed to deliver the change that many people quietly seek. The script contains reminders of how Arlene Foster has previously flip-flopped on specific issues and how politicians hide behind rhetoric.

Since it is unlikely that either protagonist will attend a performance, the satire will fail to directly challenge them about their vices. And it could be argued that the typical audience for theatre – even a pop-up venue a hundred yards from Sandy Row – will find their liberal prejudices reinforced rather than being exposed to fresh contentions of cranial corruption amongst the policy making class.

Yet the play does put its finger on the one nub of the problem: it isn’t space apart (like a long empty summer) that creates the catalyst for policy change, it is through experience, rubbing up against alternative views and reflection that change might come. Jenkinson’s characters may ultimately cave in a little too quickly. But at least they do so having had part of their cosy world turned upside down.

Michelle & Arlene runs in the Accidental Theatre space in Shaftesbury Square until Saturday 26 August. Tickets are sold out and there’s a waiting list. Box office success will hopefully inspire other writers to work with Accidental Theatre to write and produce further work for their Rapid Response strand.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Singin' In The Rain - singing, tapping, dancing, acting (BSPA at The MAC until 26 August)

The recent Northern Ireland weather could not have been more appropriate for this week’s staging of Singin’ In The Rain. The seniors from Belfast School of Performing Arts have been rehearsing for two weeks, and last night demonstrated their torrent of talent on the MAC stage.

The musical is set around the late 1920s when silent movies were being upstaged by talking pictures. Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood have developed a cult fan following for their films, helped by a publicity machine that hints at real life romance. But Lina’s shrieking voice is not suitable for the talkies, and Don falls for the charms of a young actress Kathy Selden. When sound needs to be retrofitted to the studio’s about-to-be-released silent film, Kathy dubs Lina’s part and the success of the production goes to Lina’s head.

For this show, the plot is by no means the star of the show. Instead it’s a framework for a series of songs and dance routines that stretch and show off the talents of its cast rather than build towards any emotional crescendo.

Curtis Patrick gives a poised and assured performance as Don Lockwood, showing his confidence and competence as he sang, tapped, danced, acted and kissed his way through the scenes. But it is Don’s sidekick Cosmo Brown, played by the incredible Conor Johnston, who brings the most physicality to the stage, and while he didn’t get to run up a wall or mimic the range of facial and gymnastic tomfoolery from the original film, Johnston did make the audience laugh during Make ‘Em Laugh, aided by Kat Reagen’s choreography and comedic use of stunt doubles.

The roles of Kathy and Lina have been double cast and the two pairs of actors alternate performances across the run. Emma Martin played the role of Kathy Seldon on Wednesday evening, moving her character from cold to coy to coquettish as she pricked the conceit of leading man Don Lockwood. Her constantly changing facial expressions and glances kept the audience’s attention and her beautiful voice was a perfect contrast with her shrieking love rival. Lina Lamont is the baddie of the piece, the one we’re meant to hate, the character whose ego has inflated well beyond their talent. Yet Emma Dallas manages to grow rather than grate on an audience who are quite happy for her to get a plate of “whipped cream in the kisser” so by the time she sings What’s Wrong With Me? we’ve warmed to her predicament.

Jared Green deserves a special mention: his tenor performance of Beautiful Girl was spine-tingling and one of the stand out moments of the production. Patrick Connor’s portrayal of an Oirish policeman hammed up the role to make it light and funny without going over the top. The fourteen piece band with a great brass section was led by Ashley Fulton belted out the tunes while the cast of 35 created some lovely moments of choral harmony.

BSPA’s production directed by Peter Corry follows the West End 2012 revival score, with a long first half that finishes with the iconic title song. While at first it seemed that it might be a case of Singin’ With An Umbrella And No Rain, half way through the song the curtain was lifted to reveal a modest, humorous yet effective splashing finale before the interval. Spoiler: leave the theatre and head down to the bar during the interval if you don’t want to miss a rain-inspired extra performance while the stage is dried up and made safe for act two.

There were a lot of original touches to the production, with a shuffling tram, suspended fairy lights and good use of projection. Funny scene changes involving the MAC’s horizontal curtain are fast becoming a trope of BSPA productions. While aping the constant film studio movement in the background of the 1952 film’s scenes, at times I found the busyness on stage and all the extra bells and whistles a distraction from the principal characters driving the story. Sometimes less is more even in the over the top world of musicals

Singin’ In The Rain is BSPA’s second big show in the MAC this summer, and once again they’ve proven that a Northern Ireland stage can be filled with performers who can take on and deliver classic musicals with the help of a very able backroom team of directors, arrangers, choreographers and coaches. The programme notes explain that a handful of the principal actors are heading to London next week to pursue musical theatre courses. One can only hope that outside of BSPA, there will be opportunities for their talent to return to local stages, even if – outside amateur operatic companies – musical theatre in NI has been relegated for commercial reasons to Christmas Shows and touring West End productions.

Singin’ In The Rain continues its run in the MAC until Saturday 26 August.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Everything, Everything – teen date movie where the truth shall set you free (from 18 August)

A frail and fragile bird – in this case a young woman turning 18 – is trapped in a glass cage – in this case her mother’s hermetically sealed house with an airlock instead of a porch – unable to leave for fear that a cat – in this case the nasty germ-filled world – would kill her. Welcome to the world of Everything, Everything.

Maddy’s life revolves around her Mum (a doctor played by Anika Noni Rose), her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera) and Rosa, her nurse’s daughter (Danube Hermosillo). No one else enters the house due to her severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).

Then a boy moves in next door. Whereas Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) wears nothing but white clothes in her obsessively clean house, Olly (Nick Robinson) always wears black.

She sits on her wide windowsill and gazes over at his bedroom window. It’s like the cinematic version of Dawson’s Creek. Except her window doesn’t open, so there’s no need for a ladder. Which is shame as the ladder was what made Dawson’s Creek into magical television.

If a review of a theatre production obsesses with the set and the lighting then it’s often a sign that the script or the story or the acting wasn’t up to scratch. This film deserves much praise for its cinematography. You’ll spend much of the 96 minutes noticing that there’s not a single bad shot. Each scene feels like it meets Da Vinci’s golden ratio.

The colour palette is gorgeous, extending to the costumes, with Maddy journeying from simple white t-shirts to fancier and fancier tops of various pastille shades, and (tiny spoiler) Olly eventually ending up in a white t-shirt.

There’s much creativity in the different ways that Olly woos (though at the start I’m not certain that he knows he’s wooing) Maddy through the scenes he creates out the window. There’s also creativity in the director’s freedom to use animation – though in a way that marks the film as a teen flick rather than a film aimed at an adult audience.

The way that Maddy’s inner feelings are represented by a spaceman adds some humour. Transforming remote text and phone conversations into the characters pretending to sit facing each other across a diner booth, or shouting across a library, works well as reality has long since been suspended. However, and there’s a big sigh that goes along with that ‘however’, it all becomes a bit much, particularly when the protagonists’ inner feelings start to appear as subtitles while they have a conversation.

Although all of this creative stuff is clever, it serves to remind the audience that Everything, Everything feels like a very short story that has been elongated the thin plot to the hour and half mark through the distraction of musical and imagined ellipses. Yet the book it is based upon by Nicola Yoon is 310 pages long …

At first Everything, Everything looks like a coming of age movie. And there’s just enough of that developing intimacy to keep it a 12A. But it’s really a finding out the truth movie. Except the truth is pretty well signposted if you’re paying attention from the start, and given the various moments of peril and the resolutions to the conundrum of life versus love, it totally fails to elicit an emotional response from its audience, never mind tears. I’m the world’s easiest cinemagoer to reduce to floods of emotion. Even Maudie managed it last week! But the dominoes set up by director Stella Meghie are strangely cold and fail to trigger any sense of melodrama or histrionics, despite at one point the soundtrack switching to “Please don’t take my love away” with thunder rumbling in the background.

While Stenberg makes the most of the character she given – Maddy seems to have lost the younger-than-her-years, depressed feel of the book – and develops her confidence in steps, Rose is less believable as the mother, with a particularly unconvincing confession speech that seems disconnected from her heart.

Teenagers out on a date will be able to chat, snog, crunch popcorn and generally not pay attention to the screen and yet leave the cinema with a complete grasp of every intricacy of the plot. Clearly forty four year old me is not the intended audience. I’m perturbed by the fact that Maddy isn’t ever billed for her bottomless credit card, and demonstrates that she is well-educated but doesn’t seem to appreciate that air passengers spend a few hours breathing in and out each other’s recycled breath. And even more perturbed that the airlock allows you so easily open both doors at once, defeating its whole purpose.

Everything, Everything is released in Movie House Dublin Road and other cinemas on Friday 18 August. Or there’s always the award-nominated book

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wifi Refugees - marketing advice for local businesses & fundraising for refugees

Earlier this summer, Andi Jarvis launched Wifi Refugees, offering free twenty minute marketing sessions to local businesses, in exchange for a donation to a local refugee charity. David from Soarscape was the first person to drop in for a session.

Andi is a marketing consultant. He knows that small businesses often don’t have the budget to get professional marketing help, so he started this philanthropic venture that combines helping businesses, a refugee charity, and the independent coffee shops that he runs his drop-in clinic in for two hours each month.

The inspiration for the project was hearing David from Outside In speak at the recent Power of Video Conference in Belfast. The social movement and clothing supplier operate a Wear One Share One model: when you buy a garment from Outside In, they send you one and they donate another to someone who is homeless.

Hearing David’s story gave Andi the impetus to stop sitting on the idea and to stop sitting on his own idea and get on and implement it. The conference was on a Friday, the website was built by the Sunday and he launched Wifi Refugees on the Tuesday or the Wednesday.

At the moment Andi runs clinics in Belfast (The Bobbin Café in Belfast City Hall) and in Bangor (The Red Berry café). He explained:
“I spend two hours there. You can come along, first come first served, and spend twenty minutes getting help with some marketing issue. It tends to work best with more of a narrow marketing issue as twenty minutes goes quite quickly.”
In return, you’re expected to buy a coffee to support the café who are allowing him to sit at a table running the two hour sessions, and you’re encouraged to donate to a local refugee charity. The money he raises will be given to Embrace NI. Some colleagues in London and Leeds are keen to extend Wifi Refugees to their cities.
“All you need is somebody with a professional background – in my case it’s marketing – who’s prepared to give two hours a month. It’s not the biggest commitment really for any marketing expert or whatever. You need a coffee shop that will let you sit down in their place for free.”
He wants the money to always go to a local charity working with refugees. While Wifi Refugees is Andi’s project, the concept is repeatable and adaptable by individual, groups, charities or churches.

I asked Andi why he’d decided to support refugees rather than another sector or charity? He explained that there had been a couple of reasons.
“I have referred to myself as a ‘wifi refugee’ for many years. It was a tongue-in-cheek name. Part of being a marketing consultant means that you spend a lot of time working in coffee shops and you’re always looking for good wifi and good coffee. So you’re bouncing around from one place to another. It was a term I’d used for years and years and years. So that helped.”
But Andi also knew about being an outsider, and a newcomer to the community he now lives and works in.
“I’m not from Northern Ireland, I’m from England … I speak the same language, I have rights to work here, I’ve moved over here with a good job, I had family here at the time. Everything was in my favour.

“And it still took me four or five years to settle and feel like this was my home.

“And it made me think, how do you settle and make this place your home when you’ve got none of those advantages? You’ve maybe come from a warzone and had to leave everything behind, you don’t speak the language, you can’t claim any benefits, you can’t work. How do you really get to make this your home? How do you settle your family? How do you get ingrained in the local culture?”
While Andi appreciated the fantastic work being done elsewhere in emergency camps and sea crossings, he realised that “the problems that refugees face don’t go away just because they get to somewhere that supposedly a developed nation that’s going to help them”.
“That’s the end of the first part of the journey, the rest of it starts then.”
For Andi, with his background of migration and settling in, supporting refugees in his local area felt like the best fit.

You can find out more about Wifi Refugees on its website,, and find the latest information about upcoming drop-in marketing sessions on Twitter and Facebook.

Andi is running two drop-in clinics this month, both on Wednesday 16 August. The first is in The Bobbin (Belfast) between 1pm and 3pm, before he heads home to The Red Berry, Bangor between 6pm and 8pm.

Cross-posted from focusonrefugees.org

Friday, August 11, 2017

Preview - Michelle & Arlene - a fine foemance on a satirical trip away (Accidental Theatre, 24-26 August)

Comedians continuously tweak their routines and work topical references into their material. Radio 4’s The Now Show is pretty up to the minute with its lampooning of affairs at Westminster. And The Folks on the Hill series used to have its finger on the pulse of Stormont. When events fit into the weekly schedule of writing, some newspaper columnists cash in on a crisis and make incisive comments while the news cycle unfolds.

But what about the stage? Could the theatre dissect the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin, between its (northern) leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill? Could a playwright get past the oft-repeated mantras that justify social conservatism and language act red lines and expose the heart of the political matter?

Rosemary Jenkinson mentioned the idea of a theatrical “rapid reaction unit” in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph’s Lee Henry when she took up her position as the new writer-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre in January.
“I'd love to write plays about Trump and Brexit but often the problem with writing about politics is that the situation changes and it becomes yesterday's news very quickly. If we had more money in arts, we could have some sort of artistic equivalent of a rapid reaction unit and we could really spearhead social protest.”
It’s certain that no more money has been invested in the arts since that interview, but a conversation between Jenkinson and Richard Lavery at Accidental Theatre at the beginning of July has created the opportunity for a new piece of work reflecting on the volatile state of contemporary Northern Ireland politics to be written and produced before the end of this summer.
“There’s so much going on in politics in the world and here, right now. And nobody’s writing about it in theatre.”
The normal gestation period of a modern play could never be described as ‘rapid’. ‘Elephantine’ would be a better description of the long drawn-out process of pitching, commissioning, writing, drafting, revising, scheduling, casting, rehearsing, and finally performing … the period from idea to stage can often be measured in years.

But it wasn’t always that way. When I interviewed her this week, Rosemary Jenkinson recalled that Bertolt Brecht had his own theatre and could thus respond straight away to situations. Dario Fo lampooned Silvio Berlusconi throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). “They had the power to do that” she says. “But most modern playwrights don’t have that power.”

The marketing image for Michelle & Arlene evokes memories of Thelma & Louise, two women who embark on a road trip with disastrous consequences. Jenkinson explains:
“It’s a buddy movie of two opposites, two people who got thrown together by chance. It’ll appeal to the political savvy because the references will chime a chord with them. But even if you don’t know the politics you’ll get something from it in terms of a female road movie.”
Jenkinson wonders about political leaders who have responsible role and “always keep their mask up”.
“People who keep the mask up most need an outlet to have a break and go wild. And that’s what I was thinking with these two heading off without their respective husbands or family, and seeing how would they behave if they had a few days away totally from that stressful reality that they live in.”
Satire tends to exaggerate in order to make its point and maximize impact. “I’m pushing their behaviours to an extreme” says Jenkinson who begins this play with a vaping, drinking Arlene Foster. ‘These are extreme characters … they have quite extreme politics so who knows how extreme they are in their personal lives.”
“The premise is that Michelle and Arlene separately go on holiday to Ibiza but keep bumping into each other. In spite of their initial hostility, it's almost as if they are fated to be closer than they ever thought possible!”
While this fine ‘foemance’ between the Executive Office text buddies may be fictional, it has its roots in reality, including Arlene Foster’s interview in which she described Michelle O’Neill as “blonde” and “attractive”.
“I think there’s some chemistry there! Everything’s based on reality but just pushed.”
It’s not all pantomime and pantyhose. Expect plenty of talk about boilers, languages and equal marriage.
“They do debate politics in this play … which is quite realistic as they’re in negotiations about these issue so they must have those times when they discuss them [face to face]” says Jenkinson, adding “I’m looking at the ludicrousness of their intransigence”.
Accidental Theatre hope that Michelle & Arlene is the first of many Rapid Response plays that Jenkinson and other playwrights will pen and produce. There’s certainly a vacuum of this kind of political satire in theatre.

Michelle & Arlene runs from Thursday 24 – Saturday 26 August in Accidental Theatre’s new space at 12-13 Shaftesbury Square, behind the Fonacab advertising and under the big screen. Tickets are now on sale.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Atomic Blonde – hedonistic espionage thriller set in stylish Cold War Berlin (from 9 August)

I’m a sucker for an espionage film with plenty of stunts and bullets flying. Bourne sets the bar well above Bond, but every now and again something else outside these well-established brands comes along and stands out.

Salt added a certain style and sophistication to the world of a spy on the run, and perhaps stands as cinematic penance for some of Angelina Jolie’s less noteworthy acting. But the new solo directorial debut from David Leitch, part of the team behind John Wick, is my new favourite.

Atomic Blonde tells the tall tale – for it is particularly unbelievable even in the rarefied world of Cold War spy fiction – of an MI6 agent sent to Berlin to question loyalties and root out a list suspected double agents in the weeks leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It’s a double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.” (Machiavelli, though maybe not!)

With bleached hair and sense of fashion that is straight off the catwalk, Lorraine Broughton (played by Charlize Theron) must have been at a dental appointment on the day spyclass discussed camouflage and merging into the background. Red ‘killer’ heels, off the shoulder jumper dresses, knee length boots, shiny white haute couture trench coat. How it all fitted into her suitcase is mystery. Whether taking an iced bath or fighting off yet more waves of green uniformed cops, throughout the 115 minute film, Theron plays it gritty rather than aloof. For all the coiffeur and glamour, this is an agent who takes as many blows as she gives, and whose cuts and bruises don’t disappear from one scene to the next.

James McAvoy plays the MI6’s number one asset in Berlin. With his Sinéad O'Connor crew cut, David Percival floats across Checkpoint Charlie trading humint for jeans and booze, while cutting deals with his counterparts in rival spy organisations. His wardrobe budget only extended to V-neck jumpers and borrowing the uniforms from the still warm bodies of dead policemen. Percival’s world is disrupted by Broughton’s arrival on his patch, with her independent determination and her own ability to reach out and relate – Bond style – with a local French agent (Sofia Boutella).

The plot unfurls in a series of extended flashbacks as Broughton is debriefed on her return to London by her UK boss (Toby Jones) and a CIA colleague.(John Goodman). The usually comedic duo keep it deadpan throughout. The established film grammar is somewhat broken fifteen minutes from the end when Percival turns to camera and addresses the audience with a short forgettable monologue that serves to multiply audience doubt that he’s not the only bad egg in town.

The depressed colour palette is washed out with blocks of red standing out against the sea of white and grey. Slide projectors are made to feel chic. Sophistication is added to fighting scenes played out in silhouette. In the heat of the moment, sometimes the camera is pushed out of the way, or gets splatted with blood. With pumping music and a man escaping in his vest in the first scene, this is the intersection of Spooks and Trainspotting.

Amidst the supposedly long take choreographed fight scenes and the blood-splattered walls – they’ll either pick up a craft Oscar or the Turner Prize for the shapely red patterns adorning the flock wallpaper – there is a subtle humour with the audience in my screening bursting out in laughter at some otherwise sinister moments. The final computer terminal screen message that leads into the credits adds another wink at the audience.

It’s a shame that the striking colour of the kickass protagonist’s barnet is used as the film’s title. It somewhat belittles the rest of her character. But as an escapist nonsense thrill ride, Atomic Blonde is racy, pacey, spy romp that puts weaves a lot of style and incredible action into a far-fetched story.

Atomic Blonde opens in Movie House and other local cinemas from 9 August.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Annabelle: Creation - conjuring up a dolly horror (Movie House from 11 August)

Anyone who’s been reading my film reviews for a while will realise that I’m not a big fan of horror films. There can be a behavioural element to zombie films that is fascinating; the unseen yet sinister monster can be effective; special effects can be gloriously gruesome; little details can suggest menace (like Green Room’s red laces). There can even be a layer of intelligence built around the premise, exposing some human predilection towards a particular behaviour, or a weakness in society that needs to be exposed. Alternatively ...

Annabelle: Creation can be categorised as a jump-scare paranormal horror film. However, unless you’re a fervent follower of The Conjuring series of films and the previous Annabelle spinoff – to which this is a prequel – it may also merit a tick in the slow-action-may-or-may-not-build-suspense and not-that-impressed boxes.

A toymaker and his wife live out in the dusty countryside. Their daughter dies in a road accident on the way home from church. Twelve years later, the couple penitentially invite six Catholic orphan girls along with Sister Charlotte to come and live in their oversized wooden house. Cue creaky floorboards and child-written notes under doors. Locked rooms which mysteriously open themselves. A dolls house with lights that models the actual house. A creepy mannequin doll in a cupboard. A less than creepy scarecrow. Torches under sheets. Religious overtones, wooden crosses, a frenzied string section and every cliché in the book.

The cast shrinks a little after the ‘monster’ is revealed exactly half way through the 109 minute film, though I was a little disappointed that Annabelle: Creation didn’t obey the final girl trope and rather too many cast members survive to the credits in my morbid opinion. Carol (Grace Fulton) was so asking for a grisly end.

At first Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto make a sweet if earnest Mr and Mrs Mullins before he adopts a sinister gruff demeanour and she disappears to bed. Stephanie Sigman animates Sister Charlotte and makes the most of the religious-sounding platitudes her character is forced to speak in front of the girls. A cattiness amongst the six orphans relegates Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman) to a smaller bedroom. The fact that Janice has polio and a leg brace neither dampens her sense of adventure nor her ability to get into trouble, rather effectively switching from heroine to villain. Talitha Bateman is the best element of this film.

Other a brief discursion about parents being willing to do anything to find a connection with their lost child, I’m not sure that Gary Dauberman’s script and David F Sandberg’s direction intend to achieve anything other than scare their audience. There’s no real moral. And as a standalone film – I wasn’t even aware of its earlier incarnations having not done much homework before tonight’s screening – there’s no sense of it fitting into a larger narrative until the final twelve years later scenes right at the end.

While I can appreciate the filmmakers’ craft skills and ability to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and to build tension through the groaning subwoofer, the actual plot felt far too thin to justify the doleful doll-ridden movie being made. Horror aficionados may violently disagree and consign me to a creepy cupboard.
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. At least there is the fun of watching the people in the rows in front involuntarily rise up out of their chairs a couple of inches and then fall down again when the creepiness is interrupted by a bang.

Annabelle: Creation opens in Movie House Cinemas from Friday 11 August.

Warning: contains tickling and wooden dolls.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Maudie: spellbinding Sally Hawkins brings an artist to life (QFT 4-17 August)

Maud and Everett Lewis are “like a pair of odd socks”, living in a remote cottage in Nova Scotia. He sells fish and chopped wood. In the film Maudie, we see her slipping away from living with her uncaring aunt to move in with Everett as his housekeeper. But Maud’s talents are not limited to cooking and sweeping.

At first, the brusque man treats the determined and headstrong woman with contempt, verbally and physically abusing her. Disturbingly, witnesses do nothing to intervene.
“Show me how you see the world”
As Maud’s amateur painting starts to generate interest and much needed income, Everett is soon wheeling Maud on his cart across the field rather than firewood. However, his enthusiasm is tinged with jealously and their matrimony is threatened.

Sally Hawkins is spellbinding as Maud, capturing the effect of rheumatoid arthritis in her gait and in the difficulty making the fine motor movements required to paint. Nearly every line is delivered in a whisper as her condition worsens. Hawkins’ hunch and furrowed brow tighten, and the character seems to grow older and quieter in each scene.

Yet this isn’t a film or a character defined by disability. It’s about Maud’s creativity, her tenacity, the smile that accompanies her wry observations, her pleasure in the small things. Even though she lives and works in the tiniest of dwellings, its windows and door give her a view of the windswept landscape, and her influence stretches right the way to the White House in Washington DC.

Ethan Hawke brings an enigmatic quality to the distant Everett who is entirely unsuited to employ a housemaid. He starts by delivering brutally dismissive lines without flinching, while later on discovers his character’s heart and warms it up to act out some touching scenes with compassion. The unconventional couple’s unconventional chemistry evolves gently, with director Aisling Walsh allowing the unrushed alchemy to proceed at the walking speed that dominates 1930s Marshalltown in Nova Scotia.

Sherry White’s screenplay hints at much but explains very little in the opening scenes. The burden of Maud discovering the truth about her dead baby is all the more powerful when we realise just how callous her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) can be.
“I was loved”
I felt a little cheated that the stubborn and persistent lifeforce of Maud was missing from the last few minutes of the film. But then I could barely see the screen for tears as the heartbreaking story concluded.

This biographical tale would be too slow for the stage. The real life of Maud Lewis is perhaps even more tragic than the film version. But enough of her life force is captured to create a thoughtful and haunting piece of cinema that deserves two hours of your life to view.

Maudie is being shown in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 4 and Thursday 17 August.