Friday, September 29, 2017

Preview - Lives in Translation - new play explores frustrations and disempowerment of asylum system #BelFest

Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Lives in Translation celebrates the human survival instinct through the story of one woman, a Somali who flees the conflict of her home, yet becomes trapped in a different form of struggle. She becomes suffocated in the bureaucracy of the asylum system and her reliance on translation which is both frustrating and disempowering.

[Play now reviewed]

Kabosh have a reputation for tackling contemporary social issues and commissioned Jenkinson to write the play exploring asylum seekers.

Despite the doom and gloom, she says that it is “not preachy” and “more about the triumph of the human spirit rather than the complete crushing of it”. The hardest part of writing the play was the research asylum seekers are tired of journalists and not everyone wants to go back into the past to retell their story and relive the often traumatic memories.

However, with the help of a third party and the guarantee of anonymity, Jenkinson met up with a group of Somali asylum seekers and refugees in south Belfast at an Eid celebration and subsequent conversations have informed her new play.
“The past explains why they are here and why they are so desperate. If you look at the title – Lives in Translation – it’s about their words, their testimony of how they left their country and came to be here. The play is a lot about the gaps in translation and the mistranslation.”

As an asylum seeker you are often reliant on your translator to navigate the legal, health and educational processes. Jenkinson discovered from her interviews with Somali women that the translator can often be someone else from your country. Not everyone leaves their own tribe or cultural prejudices at the door leading to instances of unsupportive translators on top of seemingly heartless officials.

Jenkinson describes the asylum system as deliberately complex: some of the Somalis she met were “stuck in the system, and meant to be stuck in it”, some for 15 years or more. “Those obstacles are meant to cut down asylum seekers entering this country.”

The play takes the audience on a journey from Mogadishu to London, across to Dublin and up to Belfast. Three actors play the central asylum seeker and multiple other roles.

Jenkinson herself has experience of one aspect familiar to many refugees and asylum seekers. She explained to me:
“I’ve spent a night in a cell in an immigration detention centre. I’d already been to Palestine six months before, and then I tried to go again, but I was refused entry to Israel at the airport because of ‘national security’, put in a detention centre overnight and deported the next morning. There were so many of us from all different nations stuck in a cell during the night, all leaving at different times. Although I was going home I had a flavour of how you feel, a tiny little cog in a vast machine.”

Topical concerns such as the actions and motivations of private companies who run immigration centres and “make millions out of the misery of asylum seekers” are explored.

A private reading for the Somali community who informed the play was “incredibly moving [and] emotional”.
“They said it was their story. That – as a playwright and a writer who comes in – is one of the best things you can do if they recognise themselves in what you’ve written.”

She hopes that other refugees and people in the asylum process will get the opportunity to see the play during its run in Belfast International Arts Festival, her first time to be showcased alongside other international work in the festival which is celebrating its 55th outing this year.

Lives in Translation will be performed in S13 – the former Boucher Road B&Q store – from Wednesday 25 until Saturday 28 October.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ – nostalgic and energetic blast from the past (Bruiser at The MAC + tour)

I read the first Adrian Mole paperback in little over a day one Christmas. Although a few years younger than the acne-ridden protagonist, I suspect that I wasn’t alone in identifying with some of the insecurities portrayed in Sue Townsend’s fictional school boy who worried about things over which he had no control, was socially uncomfortable and lusted after people and goods that were out of his reach.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ is back on stage with Bruiser Theatre Company’s revival, marking the death of Sue Townsend in 2014 and her fictional character’s 50th birthday earlier this year.

Bruiser productions under Lisa May’s direction are often typified by their concentration on character over set, lots of music, physical tomfoolery, and an abundance of props. Now celebrating twenty years in business, their adaptation of Adrian Mole follows this familiar pattern, with a talented cast of five who burst into song and often change character and costume on stage while standing in front of a row of coat hooks.

While the paper diaries got under the skin of their author Adrian, the stage show shies away from being wholly driven by narration. Instead it is propelled by the marital difficulties between Pauline and George Mole (and in particular Pauline’s ‘friendliness’ with the slimy insurance salesman Alan ‘Bimbo’ Lucas next door) and pays much less attention to their son’s pubescent yearning for the treacle-haired Pandora who turned his heart upside-down when she sat beside him in his Geography class at a Leicester comprehensive.

Much of the subtlety of Mole’s insecurity that is expressed on the book page is lost in the theatre script and his parents attract little empathy and barely any pathos with their warped actions and flawed characters. In fact Mole and Bert Baxter, the older gentleman who is blessed with the schoolboy’s visits, are the only two likeable characters on the stage.

Adam Dougal has mastered the look and feel of young Moley with his several inches too short school trousers hinting at parental neglect. Colette Lennon adapts accent between her roles and plays Pandora with a posh lisp and a presence that nicely clashes with the heavy Leicester vibe. However, Pandora is largely incidental to the first half and the young pair’s relationship suffers from being rushed as the second half nears its conclusion. Her characterisation of Doreen Slater (George Mole’s mistress) is a welcome new character after the interval.

Orla Mullan’s singing soars above the rest of the cast and delivers a Pauline Mole who is beginning to discover her inner female eunuch and its accompanying harm. Two thirds of the cast of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) are back with the vocally sweet Gerard McCabe turning on a regional accent for George Mole and bully Barry Kent while Keith Lynch struts around in his dingy string vest as old man Bert Baxter as well as a set of deeply unlikeable characters.

Bruiser’s Adrian Mole has a high-energy and shouty beginning but settles down after twenty minutes to a less stressful pace. Setting the adolescent’s pathetic poetry (with its obtuse rhymes) to music injects lighter moments into the unexpectedly depressing story and the cast sing confidently with music director Matthew Reeve’s backing tracks, adding some vocal percussion on top of the harmonies.

The pre-show playlist and early scenes emphasise the iconic events of the 1980s – including Diana, Thatcher and the CND protest at Greenham Common – yet this is ancient history to the post-millennials in the audience. DOES ANYONE REMEMBER TELEGRAMS STOP

There’s something very dated about the 1980’s attitude on show towards women and feminism. It’s true to the period in which the book and script is based but it sets the story at a distance that the show struggles to overcome given the lack of prophetic prophecy about today. Yet there is something in Sue Townsend’s left-wing thinking and writing that punches through and resonates with the Corbyn era that has swept to power and overtaken the New Labour movement.

Adrian Mole himself would be delighted at the length of the show (and might add it to his graph of Norwegian Leather Exports) but the run time could do with some trimming. The harmonies are splendid and the cast and backstage crew’s mastery of props and costumes is staggering.

Full of nostalgia though short on empathy, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ takes you back – if you are old enough to remember – to teenage life in the 1980s. It’s energetic, tuneful, and well staged; but I left the theatre wondering why it hadn’t quite gelled when these elements were combined together.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Aged 13¾) runs at The MAC until 7 October before a short tour through Ballina, Mullingar, Lisburn, Dublin, Armagh and Derry.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Preview of some of the talks and attractions at Mount Stewart Conversations 2017

Maybe a dose of distance and diplomacy is what the NI political talks need?

Back in the days when men wore hats and women weren’t encouraged to stay in the room after dinner while the men smoked cigars and made serious conversation, country estates like Mount Stewart offered hospitality and privacy to decision makers.

There were no reporters standing at the gates waiting to go live on Facebook or update listeners on the top of the hour news bulletin. Telegram was the fastest mode of communication, and it didn’t allow people in power to broadcast their 140 character nuggets of wisdom to millions of people in an instant. The rumour mill ground slowly.

It was an age of slow diplomacy. Something that the National Trust are celebrating in their second year of hosting the Mount Stewart Conversations at their lough shore property. Sixty to ninety minute-long sessions to listen to and participate in interesting conversations. No glitzy cut-away camera angles or rushed 24 minute interviews that need to leave room for a news update, reading out three tweets and a programme trailer before the half hour is up.

On Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 October, the world class gardens and forest trails promise to burst into life with talks and performances that explore topics of global, political and social interest, including the 2018 anniversary of women and suffrage, Brexit and the Irish economy, women in politics as well as myths and legends. Some of the talks are chargeable, others free, but all require pre-booking (and the normal entrance fee to get access to the National Trust site). Dotted across the Mount Stewart property you’ll also find music and crafts and food.


Women’s Suffrage 100 Years On opens the talks on Saturday at 11am with Rachel Johnson, Mary Kenny and Rosie Boycott discussing how far women have come in the nearly hundred years since women’s suffrage was won as well as how far there is still to go to achieve real equality. The session will launch the National Trust’s UK-wide programme that will run throughout the centenary year.

Later on, actor and playwright Tara Lynne O’Neill will take to the stage and take audiences back a hundred years to the moment when Belfast women stepped onto a football pitch in society-shocking shorts and boots, with a ball at their feet and a point to prove.

Alex Kazam is a magician who is fascinated by the art of persuasion. He’s offering his (free) insight into How to use Mind Control like Donald Trump! Attend if you dare to discover how the “orange-faced narcissist” (his words, not mine) used linguistic skills to defeat opponents and capture the imaginations of millions. You too could use confirmation bias to win arguments, make your points visually and embrace insults thrown at you.

Writer and broadcaster Mary Kenny will chair a panel who will discuss The Political Women of Ireland, casting their gaze from Maude Gonne and the Countess Markievicz, to Edith, Lady Londonderry and present day figures. She’ll be joined on stage by author Diane Urquhart and historian Senia Paseta.

Sarah Havlin will chair a free but ticketed debate about the rise of women’s leadership in NI with guest speakers that include Bronagh Hinds (founder of the Women’s Coalition) and Lesley Hogg (Clerk and Chief Executive of the NI Assembly).

While Ian Hislop’s conversation at 4pm about the richest period for satire in living memory (ie, now) has already sold out, at the same time in another venue singer/songwriter and moonlighting scientist Emer McGuire will be entertaining, educating and riffing about Sexy Science Sexy Science and what separates the Romeos from the Tinder turn offs.

Having closed the festival last year with a hilarious conversation with David Aaronovitch, Rachel Johnson is teaming up on a sofa for the last formal event of Saturday night programme with her husband Ivo Dawnay and Mary and Giles Wood from Googlebox. The two pairs of married columnists will discuss on why home is where the trench warfare happens in the battle of the sexes and the hellish aspects of working from home.


Sunday morning kicks off with commentator Fintan O’Toole and academic Richard English discussing the potential impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland in a free session before Ellvena Graham (president of NI Chamber of Commerce and former head of the Ulster Bank) and Angela McGowan (regional director of CBI and former Danske Bank economist) debate Brexit plot a route out of the chaos that is the Irish economy.

Two professors Roy Foster and Richard English will discuss whether we are heading to a New World Order or returning to just another version of the 1930s?

The sight of Kate Adie in a flak jacket on the ten o’clock news was once the confirmation to BBC audiences that a region of the world was in conflict. Her appearance on the streets of Belfast made people nervous and her words were quickly judged by competing viewpoints. She’ll be closing this year’s Mount Stewart Conversations.

And sitting alongside all of this are free sessions on urban bee-keeping, abandoned buildings and a conversation about using music and arts to overcome conflict between Ahmad Sarmast (founder of the Afghanistan Women’s Orchestra) and Shalini Wickramasuriya (The Music Project in Sri Lanka).

While all the day passes for Saturday have been snapped up, there are still some all day tickets on sale for Sunday. Day passes are the only ticket have access to the National Trust site bundled in with the talks.

Complementing the National Trust’s own programme of talks and events are a series of ticketed but free conversations organised by the BBC, a festival within a festival. You’ll find Alister McGrath speaking about CS Lewis, Edith Hall and Geraldine McCaughrean talking about the ancient world; author Robert McCrum on life, literature and mortality; John Lloyd on journalism, politics and fake news; Cathy Rentzenbrink on grief and healing; Dan Cruickshank on buildings and architecture; and Natalie Haynes on the enduring relevance of the Classics and the ancient world.

You can still listen to and watch some of last year’s conversations from the inaugural event.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Goodbye Christopher Robin: an upsetting insight into the human tragedy behind the beloved books (from 29 Sep)

Prepare yourself for an upsetting film. Profoundly upsetting. The kind of upset that causes you to weep without control. The kind of upset that makes you wonder about children you know – maybe even your own – and whether they are loved and know that they are loved, whether they are being exploited as a pawn in their adults’ lives or treasured for the wondrous new creation they are.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and directed by Simon Curtis. Their film captures the origin story of the much beloved (and now Disney-fied) characters. But that’s not the film’s real story or message. Instead its powerful narrative tells of a family where love and affection is outsourced to a nanny, where a child is fed into the UK and USA media mangle and the handle cranked to squeeze out every last dollar from his depiction in the four tales of life in Hundred Acre Wood.

Alan and Daphne Milne were both traumatised by the First World War: one by the first hand encounter with the violence including service at the Battle of the Somme, the other by the nervous waiting to see if her author and playwright husband (who was an assistant editor of the satirical magazine Punch before the war) would ever return.

Alan: “I’ve had enough of making people laugh; I want to make people see.”

Daphne: “It’s a perfectly horrid idea.”

After the war, one wanted to write about why war was dishonourable, the other believed that further wars were inevitable and would swallow up the next generation as it had hers.

Into this crisis of negativity and distress was born Christopher Robin. Unexpected he was not a girl. The family referred to him as ‘Billy’ and due to his difficulty pronouncing his surname, Christopher’s pet name at home was ‘Billy Moon’. In the film we watch Billy Moon grow up in the arms of his nanny Olive who he called ‘Nou’ (since everyone in the story, even some of the stuffed toys, have more than one name). The distance between parents and child is perhaps most evident when Billy refers to ‘Blue’ (his father’s nickname) and ‘Daphne’.

The family move to the rural idyll of East Sussex and we are introduced to some of the triggers which stop Alan in his tracks and mentally take him back to the heat of battle. We see beautifully lit scenery and a small boy who trails his teddybear through the paths, finally bonding with his father when both Daphne and nanny Nou abandon them to their own devices for a period. This is perhaps the only silver-lined cloud in the whole tale.

AA Milne’s feelings about war and his wife’s premonition of what may happen to the next generation are introduced in the opening scenes and picked up once more towards the end of the film. While Billy Moon’s childhood and schooling are tear-jerking catastrophes, his decision to join up to serve in the Second World War will also leave you spluttering in your cinema seat.

Margot Robbie plays the perfectly horrid society girl Daphne Milne who could not detach from her fears. Domhnall Gleeson blends aloofness with madcap thinking and an obsession with rhyming as the author and occasional father who got a friend Earnest (Stephen Campbell Moore) to illustrate the stories that were being created out in the woods surrounding his house. Robbie and Gleeson succeed in making their characters unlikeable.

Young Will Tilson with his piercing brown eyes and golden locks plays the younger eponymous role for the majority of the film, handing over to Alex Lawther in a bump-bump transition that Winnie-the-Pooh would appreciate for the last quarter of the 107 minute long film. Tilson and Kelly Macdonald (who plays the nanny) make a great team, though sadly that relationship also comes to an abrupt end.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a character study of a traumatised family into which a child is thrust. Stories that have brought success to an author and great joy to readers in a post-war era when the chips were down are shown to have been born out of heartache and depression, and shown to have caused an invasion of privacy and a disowning of loving parenting.

Unexpectedly there is redemption at the end of the film. But it’s not enough to forgive the years of trauma that precede it. And it doesn’t quite reflect the real life story that ends with estrangement.

This study of parenting – Goodbye Christopher Robin – is released on the UK on Friday 29 September and is being screened in Movie House cinemas as well as the QFT.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Maze - a balanced retelling of UK's largest prison breakout (from 22 Sep)

Watching Stephen Burke’s new film Maze in order to write a review is exhausting. The film is only ninety minutes long, but because it’s based on real events, and because those real events happened locally and continue to have socio-political ramifications, there’s a tick list as long as my arm of aspects to remember: glorification to be on the look out for, details to check for inclusion, accuracy of portrayals to judge … and that’s even before assessing whether the shots are in focus and it has been edited into a watchable film.

The story picks up after the end of the hunger strike. Republican prisoners want to do something spectacular to “repay a debt to the ten who died” says Larry Marley (played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor). A group of inmates are address their ignorance about the layout and organisation of the site in which many have been incarcerated for years on end. They surprise guards by volunteering for prison work and begin the laborious process of intentionally gathering intelligence.
“What’s the worst that can happen? Place might get a bit cleaner?”

Prison Officer Gordon Close (a fictional construction played by Barry Ward) admits to being trapped in the prison system too, a theme that is also explored in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. We see the draconian, though necessary, security measures inside the homes of targeted prison staff. An incident on the outside disrupts Close’s home life: a situation and weakness that Marley can exploit.

The first two thirds of the film concentrates on the planning. The remainder follows the breakout, fairly faithfully documenting the armed attempt to gain control of one of the H-Blocks without the alarm being raised and the subsequent tense ride towards the gatehouse.

My mental tick list of potential snags and snafus is largely covered off by this production. Nothing is glorified other than 1980s knitted jumpers. I couldn’t say that the film was entertaining: there is little humour (other than a Twelfth of July parade down the corridor with loyalist prisoners wearing cardboard orange collarettes) and it’s not set up as some kind of Rebel Alliance freedom fighters that should be encouraged to escape from the Empire captors’ Death Star. There’s no euphoria or satisfaction with their escape because that’s not where this film that follows Marley and Close ends.

So if not entertaining, Maze is definitely educational, providing a level of detail about the heist and its methodology that I’d not picked up as a child or since. My memory from 1983 was of a fellow school child coming into the Lisburn classroom the next morning with stories of soldiers and possibly prisoners ploughing through their back garden close to the prison boundary.

To the writer/director Stephen Burke’s credit, everything is included. We see one officer being shot. We see another stabbed. We hear about the officer who died. And before the end credits roll we know that of the 38 who escaped, half were recaptured within two days. Gerry Kelly, Bobby Storey and Bik MacFarlane are all there, but they’re not given starring roles or stylised accents.

The game is set up as prisoners against the system, rather than Larry Marley pitted against Gordon Close. In their determination not to sensationalise, the film makers nearly under-sensationalise the biggest prison escape in UK history.

The size of the breakout, and the supposed security of the building, justify the re-enactment movie. It may not be comfortable viewing for former prison officers and families – though some may be relived to see the strains and pressure of the job finally articulated on screen – and prisoners, loyalist and republican, may be uncomfortable about the portrayal of the petty jealousies that build up behind bars.

Filmed in a recently closed Cork prison, the feel of the buildings and the landscape is much too urban and does not capture the Maze architecture and its rural environs. Not to mention the modern air conditioning units would not be found on the roof of 1983 buildings, and the ‘028’ phone number on an estate agent sign is 17 years too early! But these are small details in a plot that is about the human instinct to escape and the shrewd manipulation of prison officers that opened a chink in the prison defences.

The rare glimpse of female characters makes their input all the more powerful, particularly one memorable encounter in the visiting room with a hunger striker’s widow who questions Marley about the deadly campaign of starvation.

The accents are passable. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s depiction of a prisoner determined to engineer an escape while also being hell bent on seeing his family is well executed and matched by the quality of Barry Ward’s distracted depiction of an officer under attack. The script avoids the easy route of letting the screw hit the sauce and be unfit for duty, creating a much more interesting dynamic to watch.

Newspapers and radio talk shows may choose to get het up about Maze. But they’ll largely be fabricating annoyance and boosting box office takings.

After its NI première on Thursday 14th in conjunction with Belfast Film Festival, Maze goes on general release in screens across the island (including the Queens Film Theatre and Movie House cinemas) from Friday 22 September.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review - Victoria & Abdul - the gift of intimacy and an honest relationship

The idea that Queen Victoria learnt to speak and write some Urdu, and that her dead body was prayed over by an Indian Muslim with whom she developed a deep relationship in her final years will surely have so-called British nationalists protesting outside cinemas when Victoria & Abdul is released on Friday.

The first half hour is quite farcical as “two Hindus” (as they were incorrectly referred to) are chosen for their height and dropped into the aristocratic nightmare of the royal household. Ali Fazal plays Abdul Karim who catches the eye of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and begins to offer her a window into the furthest reaches of her Empire, introducing new cultures, customs, history and languages. He is loquacious, forward, and the antithesis of the stiff and proper power-crazed social climbers who normally surround the ageing Sovereign.

The tone changes, much to the chagrin of her courtiers and son ‘Bertie’ (played by a pompous and petulant Eddie Izzard), as favour is bestowed upon the chatty, rule-breaking Abdul who coaxes the widowed monarch out of her depression and stirs her spirits. Later scenes document the influence Abdul exerted – deliberately or unwittingly – over Queen Victoria and her inner circle’s fight back against the servant now referred to as ‘the Munshi’ (teacher).

Judi Dench is beautiful to watch as a childlike enthusiasm is injected back into the bones of the short, overweight, cantankerous ruler. Tight close-up shots allow Dench’s head to fill the full height of the cinema screen, leaving the audience to stare into the monarch’s eyes and perhaps her very soul in a way that they will never get the chance to again. The ambiguity of her intentions towards Abdul remain up in the air right until the resolution in a final scene. Yet whatever those intentions, the chance to once again be able to freely laugh and chat and learn is a very precious gift of intimacy the Queen receives late in life.

The supporting cast add a lot of fun and even some laughs to the tale. Abdul’s travelling companion, Mohammed, is unimpressed with his trek across the world to serve the oppressor of India, and I half expected Adeel Akhtar to don an eye patch and revert to Wilson Wilson from Channel 4’s Utopia!

Victoria & Abdul is a disruptive, pot stirrer of a film, bringing to the silver screen the a fictionalised version (“based on real events … mostly” as the film’s opening credit hints) of the actual relationship that built up between the British monarch and an Indian clerk brought to London to be a servant to Queen Victoria during her Jubilee Year in 1887

The supposed historical arrogance of the Munshi is played down in Lee Hall’s screenplay based on Shrabani Basu’s 2010 book. Instead the racism, classism and narrow-mindedness of the royal court becomes the emphasis as director Stephen Frears portrays a progressive Victoria battling to hold onto power against treasonous staff and heir who think nothing of humiliating the woman they claim to serve.

The film speaks into 2017 with its tale from the late 1800s. It’s as if Frears is staging an intervention, asking us to rethink how we relate to others (and how we view the role of the monarch).

The story of Victoria & Abdul is whimsical albeit bedded in truth. It’s worth watching for Judi Dench’s performance: her playfulness, her impatience and her rage. To be frank, everyone else is amusing to watch but they shouldn’t expect to win awards. This is Dench’s film.

Victoria & Abdul is released on Friday 15 September and being screened in Movie House cinemas as well as the Queen’s Film Theatre and other venues.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Review - Not the Norn Iron News (episode 1)

“We’re not going to have a government until gays can get married in Irish” said warm-up act Conor McGinley as he conflated a number of unresolved political issues together. He set the scene for an evening of comedy that was socially liberal, anti-DUP and allegedly progressive with his pop at a DUP party officer and the exposé of the Irish Catholic tendencies of a local radio presenter.

The three main performers sat behind a coffee table on the MAC stage to gently mull over some of the news of the week before returned to the stage for their solo sets.

John-Paul Whearty wore a velvet jacket and has a brushed beard that’s so soft you could stuff pillows with it. He used his cunningly minimalist style of questioning to elicit some great lines from audience members who were brought on stage in the first half to back up his theses that “the news doesn’t change” and “we don’t pay attention”. He returned to that theme after the interval as he sat in the central chair, fending off hecklers with aplomb, and calling on the audience to “come together as one” and engage in politics and draw Northern Ireland away from mediocrity.

Newcomer Barbara Wheaty was the most naturally funny performer of the bunch with a spot on impersonation of the bus tour sales patter you hear in front of the City Hall. She wrapped up some scathing retorts in a blanket of sincerity as she responded to some whacky audience suggestions around how to resolve the problem of the Irish border after Brexit. And who knew that people who keep their toaster in a cupboard could be such a comic concept? A promising performer whose eye for detail and throwaway quips generate giggles aplenty

The self-described “sissy boy from Lurgan” David Doherty-Jebb was resplendent in his pinstripe kilt and launched into a history lesson on sodomy, bargain bomb sales and a morally backward DUP (complete with pictures of Iris and Kirk). His point was well made when he examined the myth of straight white cis male oppression and call for allies (which reminded me of aspects of Taylor Mac’s performances on the same stage last October) but the character assassination of Jolene Bunting was harking back to the worst of LADFLEG. You can’t preach progressive while taking the piss out of someone’s speech and fashion: it damages the message.

This new comedy vehicle from the Whearty-Doherty-Gebb clan with its loose mix of observation and satire promised “two hours of side splitting comedy live at The MAC”. It over-delivered on the duration, with a three hour show that unlike JP’s beard needs to be severely trimmed along with a toning down of the preachiness and the total focus on demonising the DUP and extreme unionism. While Ben Elton got away with hating the Tories in a two and a half party system, Not the Norn Iron News surely needs to widen its scope right across the political spectrum (including the cosy centre ground).

The night finished with the strongest material: a clever Arlene/Adele parody that had intelligent lyrics and a visual performance that entertained and showed off the team’s true talent. Filling The MAC’s downstairs theatre with paying punters to see a new show is quite an achievement. With an injection of songs, snappier routines and less reliance on audience involvement, the format could develop into a returning format that builds a reputation and a following.

Photo of performers above from Facebook.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Inside the new Titanic Hotel Belfast (opens Sun 10 Sep 2017)

It’s been a few years since I was inside the Harland & Wolff Drawing Offices down in Titanic Quarter. Probably an European Heritage Open Day, which incidentally is happening this weekend with lots of venues freely open to the public including some which are not normally accessible.

(The EHOD17 brochure PDF can be downloaded and there are copies in libraries and coffee shop window sills.)

Back in 2009 the decay and damage to the plasterwork was obvious. (You can find more photos from that tour on Flickr.)

The Titanic Hotel Belfast opens its doors this Sunday, offering 119 bedrooms in the beautifully restored building.

The transformation is amazing.

The splendour of the two Drawing Offices has been enhanced with art works. One can be used as a conference/event/wedding reception space and has its own private bar off to one side with glass walled views out past the eye-catching Titanic Belfast.

The board room and offices have been turned into meetings rooms and reading rooms with leather sofas and couches. Period fireplaces have been restored or, if beyond repair, reproduced.

With over 200 unique pieces of art, Harcourt Development’s creative director John Doherty has splashed the building’s heritage onto the walls of the hotel’s rooms and corridors.

I doubt that I’ll ever have cause to stay in the rooms, but the one we toured through last night would be a Titanorak’s dream with bespoke furniture, mouldings and enough attention to detail to keep an enthusiast up all night.

With a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the hotel will, unusually, offer public tours around the parts of the building that were restored. For the first six week’s a free exhibition in Drawing Office One tells the story of the building.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

My top picks from Belfast International Arts Festival's programme (6-28 October 2017) #BelFest

Just three weeks until the start of this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival, when the best of local arts and culture is showcased along with international acts which would not normally grace these shores.

191 events from 14 countries including 12 premières over 23 days.

While the festival programme once again takes in music, dance, poetry and visual arts, I’m most looking forward to the theatre and talks.

The opening event brings the fabulous Schaubühne theatre company back to Belfast with the UK and Irish première of Compassion – the History of the Machine Gun. The semi-documentary double-monologue takes audiences to some of the world’s hotspots and asks why one dead person at the gates of Europe outweighs a thousand dead people in the Congolese civil war zones? What are the limits of our compassion? What are the limits of European Humanism. Friday 6 and Saturday 7 October, Lyric Theatre. [Reviewed]

Karine Polwart’s Wind Resistance uses the annual migration of pink-footed geese from Greenland to a peatbog south west of Edinburgh to explore ideas of sanctuary, maternity, medicine through history, song and lore. Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 October, The MAC.

The world première of Owen McCaffrey’s Fire Below (A War of Worlds) sees two neighbouring couples gather on the decking with a glass of wine to wait for the bonfire to be lit in the estate below. They lived quietly through the Troubles. Yet the unspoken truth haunts their cautious conversations where what they actually think of each other is only an unguarded comment away. Thursday 12 until 29 October, Lyric Theatre. [Reviewed]

Riddel’s Warehouse is hosting Replay Theatre Company’s Dancing at the Disco at the End of the World, a new brand new piece of promenade theatre set in a post-virus world in which “the survivors are young, but the rules are old”. Join in John McCann’s the dystopian melange of Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm and rave. Friday 13 until Friday 27 October. [Reviewed]

Tordre (Wrought) is the story of two dancers. Lora Juodkaite from Lithuania spins dizzyingly on the spot in a way of moving that has comforted and supported her from childhood. British Anne Hanauer moves with an articulated prosthetic arm, integral to her body yet an extension. The performance promises to be a haunting self-portrait duet. Friday 13 and Saturday 14 October, The MAC.

And Soldier Still examines conflict-based trauma through dance and includes a former Irish Defence Force captain on stage. Tuesday 17 and Wednesday 18 October, The MAC. [Previewed for Culture Northern Ireland and reviewed

Lives in Translation celebrates the human survival instinct through the story on one woman who flees one conflict only to become trapped in another struggle. Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play, produced by Kabosh, is based on interviews with Somali refugees and explores how asylum seekers must navigate support systems through translation, disempowering and frustrating. Wednesday 25 until Saturday 28 October, S13 (the old Boucher Road B&Q). [Previewed and reviewed]

Audiences will get a chance to hear new work from four new voices in Irish theatre who were selected to take part in the Lyric’s inaugural New Playrights Programme. Plays by Seamus Collins and Erica Murray, directed by Des Kennedy will be performed in the Lyric on Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 October. The next weekend on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29, Emma Jordan will direct plays showcasing Vittoria Cafolla & Andy Doherty. [Seamus Collins’ play reviewed]

Don McCamphill’s adaptation of Dario Fo’s comedy Can’t Pay Won’t Pay about consumer backlash against high prices sets the new piece present day west Belfast where austerity has driven two women to shoplifting. Black humour, farce and the unfairness of corporate tax evasion and families living below the poverty line. Ní thig linn íoc, ní íocfaidh muid is an Irish production from Aisling Ghéar in their 20th anniversary year with English translation. Wednesday 11 to Sunday 15 October, Lyric Theatre. [Reviewed]

The Poppies: Weeping Window sculpture will be installed at the Ulster Museum from Saturday 14 October until early December. The cascade of thousands of handmade ceramic poppies are accompanied by a series of talks and performances, exploring remembrance, symbols and the First World War. After the main festival closes, a morning of talks and discussions around Signs of The Times will take place in the Ulster Museum, including a keynote by Glenn Patterson to unpack how the symbols which represent belief, identity and ideology evoke emotional reactions that can both reassure and threaten, and can also change meaning over time. Friday 10 November, free.

Gardens Speak is an interactive sound installation containing the oral histories of ten ordinary people buried in Syrian gardens. While the domestic burial of activists and protesters from the early periods of uprising protected their families from further threat from the regime, telling their stories prevents their deaths from becoming instruments to the regime. Hourly slots can be booked from Wednesday 11 October until Sunday 22 October, Accidental Theatre’s new premises at 12-13 Shaftsbury Square under the ‘Scannervision’ screen. [Reviewed]

Amnesty International’s annual festival lecture will be delivered by human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, accompanied by Guillaume de Chassy on piano. Based on his book East West Street: On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ Sands will speak about three men at the heart of the Nuremberg trial who had a shared passion for music: Cambridge academic Hersch Lauterpacht, Polish prosecutor Raphael Lemkin, and Hitler’s lawyer Hans Frank. Thursday 19 October, First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street.

Three of the contributors to the crowdfunded book of essays Nasty Women – Sim Bajwa, Laura Waddell and Alice Tarbuck – will share their accounts of what it is to be a woman in the 21st century. Chaired by playwright theatre producer and activist Finn Kennedy. Saturday 7 October, Sunflower Bar.

Authors Jane Harris and Sally Rooney are in conversation with leading book critic and blogger John Self. Harris’ latest novel Sugar Money is “a bawdy and thrilling account of Martinique in 1765”, while Rooney’s “sharply intelligent” début novel Conversations with Friends was published this summer and is about “the unexpected complications of adulthood in the 21st century”. Tuesday 25 October, No Alibis Bookshop, Botanic Avenue.

Contrarian thinker and independent writer David Rieff challenges the conventional wisdom that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” using his accounts of reporting from bloody conflicts across Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia. He’ll draw on his book In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies as he argues that things are no so simple. Thursday 26 October, Canada Room at Queen’s University.

Daniel Gordon’s BAFTA-winning film Hillsborough will be screened at Queen’s Film Theatre, followed by a Q&A with Prof Phil Scraton who was the primary author of Hillsborough Independent Panel report in 2012. Thursday 19 October.

Political comedian Matt Forde’s presents his show Eat. Sleep. Political Party. Repeat … now with added Trump. Sunday 15 October, The MAC.

Celui Qui Tombe (He Who Falls) is a circus influenced piece of physical theatre with six performers on a dramatic tilting stage. The podium spins, pivots, swings and elevates requiring the bodies to lean, climb, hang and fall in a perilous dance of survival. Thursday 19 and Friday 20 October, Grand Opera House. And after the Thursday evening performance at 9pm there’s a free Brexit Stage Right discussion to discuss the political, economic and cultural rollercoaster. [Reviewed]

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Weir - tales of the unexpected build empathy across shared solitude (Lyric until 30 Sep)

It’s hard to believe that Decadent Theatre first brought their production of The Pillowman to Belfast two and a half years ago, back in March 2015. The experience stays with me. I can still close my eyes and return to the atmosphere and emotion of the titular story at the centre of the play, and as my mind retells the tragic tale, tears come to my eyes. Without fail.

So my expectations were high about the company’s return to the Lyric stage with The Weir, Conor McPherson’s ten year old play about four men telling tales in a Leitrim pub, showing off to an outsider Valerie who is spending time in town.

Jack (played by Marty Maguire) lets himself into the empty pub and shows his familiarity with the premises by nipping round the back of the counter and fixing himself a drink, leaving money on the counter. Single and wearing a dark suit whose jacket doesn’t quite match the trousers Jack is heading out the far side of middle age. He starts sentences and then hands them onto the much younger barman Brendan to finish. The pair are incredibly comfortable in each other’s presence, yet the relationship has little depth. Another local Jim (Frankie McCafferty) also props up the bar, less loquacious, and keen to dampen dissent and resolve conflict.

The regulars gossip about affluent Finbar who allegedly owns half the town, including a rival hostelry The Arms. There’s an edge of scandal around the idea that this married man is driving a young woman around the area showing her the sights. But they can’t wait to meet her when they stop off at The Weir. The sharp-tongued and apparently savvy Finbar (Garrett Keogh) swans in with his sharp suit and fancy slip on shoes and rounds are bought and a city drink is found while they begin to regale Valeria (Kerri Quinn) with local tales.

It becomes obvious that the play has a long fuse that’s going to burn throughout the 105 minute no interval production. The bang is going to come at the end. We’re building up to something. We must be, because the naturalistic dialogue with its stops and starts doesn’t build much tension.

The stories start and Jack’s tale of fairies is far from the grisly Grimm tales of The Pillowman. (Though Maguire does make the audience jump in their seats, something that the horror film IT fails to do.) Finbar goes next. Jim’s graveyard account has the potential to disturb, but the telling of the story skips over the twisted details and hurries to its conclusion.

McPherson’s script keeps Brendan the barman too busy filling his customers’ bladders to have time to tell a story. So the fourth in the series comes from Valerie who finally reveals the reason she has left Dublin and travelled more than 100 km inland to spend time in the middle of nowhere. There’s a feeling of raw honesty in Quinn’s recounting of her character’s personal tragedy.

At last there’s a connection. One hand rests on top of another’s hand, and a bridge of empathy is built across the weir of stories and shared solitude, and I connect. A woman a few rows behind me wails. But the moment and the tenderness are fleeting. The mood shifts. And as the audience leave the theatre, there is neither a sense of eeriness hanging over them nor a deep sadness at the human suffering on show.

There are some great moments as the characters switch from congenial banter to needle each other before twisting well practised knives as if following Finbar’s mantra of having “an eye for the gap: exploit the weakness”. Director Andrew Flynn uses the constrained space well and it feels very natural when the men stand at the fire to face their audience at the bar.

Owen McCarthaligh’s set with its corner bar, turf fire and painted over wallpaper contains few surprises, though the wobbly coat hooks won’t last the expected busy summer seasons when “the Germans” arrive in to take in the view from the top field. Ciaran Bagnel’s lighting is very subdued: the low sun that blazes in the saloon doors doesn’t set in the way a modern production might expect.

All these little disappointments and missed potential mounted up, leaving me wishing that The Weir had more consistently grabbed hold of the power that lies in the script. With a few more rounds under their belts, the production may yet gel and become the stuff of legend around the Lyric bar in years to come.

The Weir runs in the Lyric Theatre until 30 September.

Review - IT - Secret Seven intimidated by a clown in Derry (from 8 September)

The premise of Stephen King’s novel IT is that a shape-shifting monster with a penchant for red balloons and a clown face awakens every 27 years and feeds off children in the fictional town of Derry (Maine) for a few months before hibernating once more.

In this latest cinematic adaptation of IT, little Georgie, dressed in distinctive yellow rain coat, sails a paper boat down the torrent of water streaming down the gutter of a street near his home in a heavy storm. When the boat slips into a drain he comes face to face with a clown – standing up in the storm drain with a white greasepaint face and wearing a ruff but seemingly not getting wet despite the water flowing in – and soon he’s the first of this year’s goners.

IT is set in the late 1980s, when boys wore poloneck jumpers (turtlenecks or skivvies if you live further afield) and clipped bum bags (fanny packs) around their waists. An era of crazy plumbing, flickering lights, flooded basements and stripping off to swim in the river.

The school holidays begin and four uncool boys – for it is the nerds, the vulnerable, abused and bullied that Pennywise the Dancing Clown (aka ‘It’) most likes to chew the life out of – decide to get to the bottom of what happened to little Georgie. Over the film’s (over)generous runtime of 135 minutes the original Derry wans (Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff) are joined by another three less-than-intrepid adventurers to form a ‘Secret Seven’ club who discard their bicycles in the middle of the road before running inside abandoned properties.

The three late additions to the group have the most interesting backstories and characters. Sophia Lillis plays Beverly, the sole female member of the crew. Her steely performance as a tom boy living with her abusive father brings to life the most engaging and least stereotypical character. Her ‘fountain of blood’ scene is gross and beautifully executed. Chosen Jacobs plays Mike, another outsider in the majority white New England community, who learns to assert himself over the summer of clowning about while the poetic Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is permanently scarred by a knife and someone else steeling the apple of his eye.

Billed as horror, IT really falls into the ‘tiresome’ category of film. The soundtrack is much more menacing than any of the visuals and gives observant cinemagoers at least 30 seconds warning of any surprises that lurk around the corner. If you want actual jump scares, go and see Annabelle: Creation [review] which is still being screened and is genuinely seat-lifting despite its poor plot.

Part of the reason that the fear factor is dialled down may be that It – played by Bill Skarsgård – appears in so many different guises, customised for each unwitting victim and suffers from a real melange of direction (that in one scene freezes the action of everyone else in the room) which distracts from the raw terror supposed to be on show.

All this leaves a 15+ audience sitting watching a live action version of ghost-hunting Scooby Doo, complete with haunted house and added menace supplied by an implied molester (unsettlingly Beverley’s father played by Stephen Bogaert seems to be modelled on the janitor from Scrubs), an older teenage gang who are racist and sizeist, and enough blood to make the Blood Transfusion Service weep.

How would you kill a clown? Obviously with some really bad jokes, though despite young Richie’s best attempts (played by Finn Wolfhard) that only has the effect of making Belfast cinema audiences titter at his poor school boy attempts at innuendo.

Telling one half of the story – the early years – of Stephen King’s novel, this new film version of IT sanitises elements of the original plot that might otherwise have pushed the certificate up to 18.

Director Andy Muschietti has inherited a screenplay and made an overly long, sweary teen adventure which doesn’t contain the twists and turns to deserve any more than 100 minutes of screen time. I’m no fan of scary films, but IT fails to play on audience paranoia and doesn’t gradually up the level of fear throughout the film.

Which leaves IT clowning around with the horror genre in a rather unsatisfactory way.

IT is released on Friday 8 September with midnight screamings screenings at Movie House cinemas as well as other venues.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

God’s Own Country (15) - the loneliness of a young fell farmer (QFT 8-21 Sep)

Three generations live in a farmhouse, looking after the cows and sheep spread out over the moorland. In God’s Own Country, the matriarch (played by Gemma Jones) looks after her son Martin (Ian Hart) who has had a stroke and while he’s still vocal about what needs done on the Yorkshire farm, he’s no longer able to be as physically involved leaving young Johnny (John O’Connor) to do the heavy lifting.

For much of the film, the animals have as many lines as the humans, emphasising the isolation of rural life in the West Ridings. Johnny’s only relief from the hard work and drudgery is his routine of heading into the village to get drunk. That and his habit of catching the eye of another lad across a bar or the cattle mart café in order to engage in a spot of rutting in the nearest toilet or animal trailer: emotionless and speechless, like his farming.

Even Bradford seems exotic when your hands smell of animal midwifery and your boots reek of dunging out the barn. Into Johnny’s depressed world comes a Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) who at first is demeaned and bullied until a physical tussle arouses another set of feelings. The friendship is kindled after a spot of dry stone walling and Pot Noodles up on the higher ground.

Slowly the tenderness with which Gheorghe tends to the lambs rubs off on Johnny. His father’s second stroke gives the two friends space to live as a couple in the otherwise empty farmhouse, only to be disturbed by Grandma’s return to get fresh pyjamas. Gemma Jones is barely old enough to be Martin’s mother. She portrays a woman who is clinical and incredibly direct.

The well crafted story reveals her own disappointment at living on a farm, and any hint of disapproval of the budding relationship in the bedroom upstairs is suppressed with a poignant understanding that the farm will fail unless there are big changes. Of course, this story of passion on the Pennines has to be spoilt by Johnny’s well-oiled zip to give the film the final sequence in its triptych.

Music is nearly as sparse as the dialogue, only appearing to signify moments of a heart’s retreat from isolation to reach a happier place. There are lots of nice touches – like the fleece-grafting/jumper wearing symbolism – that another filmmaker might have missed or fumbled into a laboured cliché.

The nuanced performances given by the actors as they noticeably adapt to ill health and the downward trajectory of the farm’s balance sheet say a lot for both the talent of the cast and the writer/director Francis Lee for whom this is his full length feature debut. Ian Hart’s slide from being argumentative to become meek and grateful is heart-warming.

At first this is a great advert for the Yorkshire Dales and the work ethic of Romanian farmhands – not to mention their capacity for caring, conflict resolution and cooking – while Johnny makes an awful poster child for the rural England’s youth. Can broken fences be mended? With sufficient patience, can a pot of Yorkshire Tea brew into something satisfying? It seems t’up North dreams may yet come true.

God’s Own Country opens in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Friday 8 and runs until Thursday 21 September.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Mount Stewart Conversations are back on shores of Strangford Lough on 14 &15 October

Mount Stewart Conversations are back for a second year on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 October. As well as talks and debate, the renowned gardens and woodland trails will be alive with performers and international music.

Last year’s inaugural event brought speakers, music and food into the historic National Trust property on the eastern shore of Strangford Lough. You can still watch or listen back to many of the talks by David Aaronovitch, Anne Applebaum, John Bew, Ruth Dudley-Edwards, Rachel Johnson and Jonathan Powell.

So far this year’s programme includes satirist and editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop in conversation with Craig Brown on Saturday afternoon.

Earlier that day a panel with Rosie Boycott, Mary Kenny and Senia Paseta will launch the National Trust’s UK-wide national programme that will focus on women and suffrage throughout the 2018 centenary year.

Diane Urquhart will join them in another conversation (free thought ticketed) to trace “The Political Women of Ireland” from Maude Gonne, the Countess Markievicz, through to Edith, Lady Londonderry to the present day.

With their private gardens and walks, country houses were used to transact a lot of political business away from big cities and parliaments. Mount Stewart has a history of holding conversations of significance. If you tour the house you can see chairs from the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic wars – at which Lord Castlereagh participated – which can be seen as laying down the blueprint of what would eventually become the European Union.

On Sunday morning the National Trust are bringing together Fintan O'Toole, Roy Foster and Ben Lowry to chew over “Brexit, Ireland and the Hard Border” before Ellvena Graham and David Gavaghan discuss the impact of Brexit on the economy on both sides of the border.

At lunchtime on Sunday, Ahmad Sarmast (founder of the Afghanistan Women’s Orchestra) will speak alongside Shalini Wickramasuriya (The Music Project in Sri Lanka) about using music and arts to overcome conflict in a free (though ticketed) session.

Not everything is serious. Attendees are promised a tongue and cheek look at “Boys Jobs, Girls jobs” with Mary and Giles Wood from Gogglebox.

The organisers promise fun and philosophy to expand younger minds with “The Garden of Thought Experiments”, as well as street art, circus skills, and a series of popular lectures on the “Suffragettes of Soccer” and “Use Mind Control like Donald Trump” for the adult-aged children. Add to that a Ukulele workshop and lots more music and creativity from Beyond Skin (the intercultural arts organisation).

Tickets for individual talks organised by the National Trust are now on sale. Except for NT members, normal admission price to the site still applies throughout the weekend. Day passes granting entry to any of the talks on a day (first come first served) are also on sale.

The BBC will shortly be making tickets available for its ‘festival within a festival’ with free talks and conversations exploring the theme of Journeys, Journalism and Books. The line-up is expected to include Jonathan Lynn (who co-wrote Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister), Dan Cruickshank, Natalie Haynes, Edith Hall and Fiona Stafford.

Details about the emerging line-up, tickets and volunteering opportunities can be found on the Mount Stewart website.