Wednesday, November 29, 2017

*now closed* Chipmongers - opens on Lisburn’s Antrim Street with flavoursome menu

Update - February 2019 - the Lisburn Chipmongers has closed.

Chipmongers have opened their first branch in Northern Ireland in Lisburn. Since my youth, the Antrim Street shop unit has been battering fish and frying chips, but having now sampled a generous sample of the menu, it’s clear that the quality of cuisine (not normally a word associated with a chip ship) and attention to detail have definitely been given a lift in this new venture by Michael Ferris.

The titular Chipmonger Burger had a satisfying crunch as I bit into it. The crispy onion bits contrasted well with the melted Applewood smoked cheese, mixed leaves and sauce on top of the beef patty.

Chicken Goujon Boat is flavoursome, with two fillet strips resting on mixed leaves in a tortilla ‘boat’, drizzled with ranch sauce. In terms of taste, it’s much closer to restaurant fare than normal takeaway.

There’s sometimes a danger that crispy, bubbly batter can be more of a meal than the fish hidden inside. Not so with Chipmonger’s Fillet of Cod which is fried in a light batter that adds taste but leaves the fish intact to do the talking.

The new kids on the block are open from noon until 10pm seven days a week and offer delivery within a 2 mile radius for £2 Thursday to Sunday. Add if you order from the Chipmongers app (iOS/Android) before the end of January 2018, you can use the offer code ‘cm20’ to get 20% off your first order.

Thanks to Chipmongers for the lunchtime treat.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

This Beach (Brokentalkers) - a dark satire about migration & one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year

As I went to bed on Saturday evening, the radio news bulletin announced the tragic news that over 30 migrants including children had died off the coast of Libya when their boat capsized. The Libyan coastguard had rescued around 60 people from the water and another 140 people in a second boat.

According to IOM figures, nearly 3,000 people are believed to have drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, and the UN report that at least 33,761 people are reported to have died or gone missing between 2000 and 2017.

I had just returned home from a staggering sold-out performance of This Beach in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre.

The dark satire takes place on a sandy section of beach that has passed through the one family from generation to generation. Sabine Dargen’s simple set is littered with deck chairs, booze and a parasol for shade. When bodies float ashore, the residents incinerate them as a matter of routine. When a young man (Neimhin Robinson) revives as they prepare to drag him away, something stops them, and he is allowed to live.

The beach is a metaphor for a country; the family, its citizens (underscored by the characters taking the first names of the actors). The play by acclaimed Irish theatre company Brokentalkers examines the thought processes that lead to excessive nationalism and defensive actions which dehumanise the ‘other’.

The eighty minute long drama examines abuse, entitlement, ignorance, racism, misinformation and above all else, fear. The effect of smallminded thinking is physically demonstrated as the protagonists deny that their actions are causing the beach area to shrink. History’s continuing effect on the present is beautifully observed as the father figure Daniel (Daniel Reardon) excavates the beach for objects of significance, yet applies none of his learning to his own attitudes.

His son Bryan (Bryan Quinn) has a profound sense of entitlement, brusquely shrugging off other people’s defiance until his own weak spot is unearthed. His friend Anthony (Anthony Morris), an old comrade in arms, has no sense that the family’s ways are unorthodox, playing along with whatever’s needed to keep the beach tidy.

One character, a young woman Venetia (played by Venetia Bowe), is marrying into the beach-owning family. She’s a filmmaker and video artist. Having captured the nameless young lad’s story she retells it, twisting it into her own dramatic form, stealing its authenticity and exploiting the giver of the story. A challenge for those of us who report about migration, and an aspect of the play that has its roots in the response of refugees in a camp outside Berlin to a visit by the playwrights Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan. In an interview with the Irish News, Keegan explained:
“The refugees were quite upfront with us in the fact they weren’t really interested in the likes of us white European, somewhat privileged artists, coming in and cherry-picking their horrendous experiences.”

Venetia’s mother (Pom Boyd) is the outsider. At first she protests against the deeply engrained behaviour she witnesses. However her compassion towards the nameless ‘boy’ who is found alive on the beach quickly takes a sinister twist. Over half an hour the exchanges go something like this:
I need water. I’ll get you a beer. / What do you need? Water. Another beer. / Do you need anything? Water. I’ll get you a blanket. [She wraps herself in the blanket.]
There is a danger that even those of us who value the lives of refugees and asylum seekers can end up ignoring their true needs, or helping them in a manner than feeds us more than supports them.

As the characters strip down to their beachwear, they also discard the masks and filters that sanitised their conversations at the start of the play. We see the real people. It’s just one more aspect of the incredibly well crafted production that packs so much into its one act performance.

While the language is salty, the production is stinging as it holds up its mirror to European attitudes and behaviours. The script is punchy, full of the phrases and sentiment that is bandied around in everyday conversation as well as the language of newspaper headlines. Everyone in the audience will find parts of themselves represented in one or more of the six characters on stage.

Co-written and co-directed by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, and shaped by dramaturg Bjarni Johnsson, This Beach is a superb piece of contemporary theatre, packed full of challenges and biting commentary. Combining the script, set, acting and effects, This Beach is one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year. If you’re in Cork or Bray next week, don’t miss the last few performances of its Irish tour.

This Beach is in The Everyman in Cork (Monday 27-Wednesday 29 November) and the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray (Friday 1 December).

Friday, November 24, 2017

What The Reindeer Saw: festive frivolity in the Lyric Theatre until 6 January

Santa 45 (played by Alan McKee) is being inaugurated into the role, taking over the role of chief gift giver from his father. “Let’s make the North Pole great again” he intones in his speech to the assembled elves that heralds a time of unpopular change. His personal assistant Cornelia (Rosie McClelland) tries to prep him for the tasks ahead, but Santa seems more interested in playing darts in the reindeer shed than taking advice from the learned elves around him. What The Reindeer Saw starts out so well, but the fun with Trump abruptly stops and is never quite properly revived.

The long first half drags as Mr Claus comes to face to face with a workers’ revolt and a North Pole trade union official, a republican of the local variety. Add to this his performance issues with the elfegant Mrs Claus (Conor Grimes), the Secret Service elves (played by scene-stealers Jo Donnelly and Gerard McCabe) and four singing reindeer. After the interval, the threads of the story are efficiently tied up and director Tony Devlin steers the cast towards a big heart-warming finale with a suitably snowy resolution.

The normal rules of theatre seem to be torn up every December late November as entertainment and mirth are put way above other theatrical crafts. It sometimes feels like ambitions are lowered, voices are raised, and gags are handed out like sweets from a tub of Haribo to audiences that are assumed to have drowned their discernment in the bar.

Last year’s Grimes and McKee-authored The Nativity … What the Donkey Saw was Troubles-free and a much classier, sweeter tale. For 2017 the comedy double act have revived What The Reindeer Saw as a more shouty and crude production, with the music and singing blasting out at the audience at an uncomfortable volume.

The lyrics to the songs, set to carol tunes, are clever. Elf puns litter the script, and the final payoff with its language-based joke is well (should that be wellf?) worth the wait.

Rosie Moore’s costumes – including a very alternative Claus outfit – are fun and colourful. For once, Ciaran Bagnall’s set is unusually bland, and I fear that the revolving stage may be the death (or at least the cause of bank strain) of the pointy-eared stage hands who have to manually rotate the central section.

The live music from Sir Elfton John (Rod McVey sitting to one side of the stage) adds to the sense of occasion, and the rich vocals in Mr & Mrs Claus’s duet (to the tune of Once in Royal David’s City) create one of the standout moments of show.

The reindeer lock horns at least once too often, the flight simulator scene picks up speed very slowly, and it’s unfortunate that more is not made of the great tomfoolery between Donnelly and McCabe (complete with strong Country Antrim accents and a quare lot o Ulster Scots). The talented pair end up spread too thin across their roles as security agents, builders, mechanics, and furry animals.

If you’re looking for an evening of light-hearted banter at which to let your hair down with colleagues or friends, set your GPS for the Lyric and pull the hand brake on tight as you park your sleigh on Ridgeway Street. What The Reindeer Saw continues at the Lyric Theatre most evenings (except Monday) at 7.45pm until 6 January.

There’s A Bishop in My Bedroom - an unembellished real life story which moves and challenges (Outburst Festival)

There’s a familiar format to many of the one (wo)man shows that migrate from the Edinburgh Fringe across to Belfast stages. Someone in their mid-twenties scandalises some episodes from their teenage years, making jokes at their own expense, highlighting family dysfunction (a theme nearly guaranteed to resonate with most of the audience), all the while working some period hits into the soundtrack.

Richard O’Leary’s one man show – There’s A Bishop In My Bedroom – differs because he has gone out of his way not to accentuate the raw situations that he has woven into his narrative. Instead he tells the simple unembellished truth about his experience growing up as a gay man in Cork, falling in love with a Church of Ireland minister, and being inundated with bishops and an archbishop in his physical and metaphorical bedroom. As the Irish Times’ political correspondent James Downey once wrote: “We have got the pig out of the parlour, but not yet the bishop out of the bedroom.”

The premise of the show was that, as a child, his father wanted him to be a Catholic priest. Set designer James Watson (also responsible for Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet) has draped white cloths over household furniture and a lectern as they would the bread and wine at a mass or communion service. A purple stole (the colour associated with bishops) flowed down from heaven high up above the set.

O’Leary is a natural archivist: a ‘hoarder’ in common parlance. Send him a letter and he will not throw it out. If he goes for dinner, he keeps the menu. So his monologue was peppered with props, photographs, posters, letters and books. It touched on many of our local sore points. Imagine a mixed-religion gay couple living up the Shankill ten or more years ago, one with an obvious Cork accent.

Anyone who has attended more than a few of the monthly Tenx9 storytelling events in The Black Box will be familiar with O’Leary’s skill as a story teller. The fabulously funny tales he has previously related were not reused. This show, premièred as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festive, used new material but retained the familiar utilisation of props and an ability to switch quickly from comedy to tragedy that has left many a cheek tear-stained at Tenx9. The Richard O’Leary who stood in front of the MAC audience was altogether more serious and less relaxed: his nervousness quite understandable given that this was the academic’s first ever opening night.

Director Patrick J O’Reilly (responsible for perhaps the most memorable Outburst Festival performance ever with his play Damage back in 2014) and dramaturg Hannah Slӓttne have crafted O’Leary’s material into a sequence of scenes, each with a liturgy around the props. While the storytelling felt very gentle at the start, there was some very deliberate and confident use of elongated silence and the final ten minutes of the hour-long performance were heralded by a change of mood and the knocking over of the bishop’s mitre (which up to that point had been a comedy prop). That single action with its unsuppressed emotion in the face of discrimination felt hugely significance and gave the show depth, creating the atmosphere for a very fitting and moving end.

There’s A Bishop In My Bedroom deserves to return as there is much about Richard O’Leary’s life story that merits being shared across this island a beyond.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Justice League: light-hearted, save-the-world nonsense that is surprisingly entertaining

I was distinctly underwhelmed by my last foray into the DC Extended Universe with Wonder Woman’s plot-jumping historically disrespectful origin story. So it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch Justice League.

It turns out that a normally indestructible superhero has died. The world apparently mourns the loss of Superman and is suffering from a wave of conflict in the absence of his quick flighted interventions and stern laser stares. To make matters worse, three hidden ‘Mother Boxes’ have sensed the world’s low biorhythm and been activated. Should villainous Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) collect all three the planet will be destroyed.

Batman (Ben Affleck, whose superpower is having a bank account even larger than his garage) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) don’t seem to be cutting the mustard and filling the vacuum. (What happened to Robin?) Needing help, they decide to build an alliance, roping in the skills of Aquaman (Jason Momoa, complete with trident and tattooed gills), Cyborg (Ray Fisher, with considerable firepower in his transformer-like limbs) and The Flash (Ezra Miller, no relation it seems to Flash Gordon).

It’s a motley crew and the two hour long film feels as if director Zack Snyder dropped every third page of the script to the floor in homage to Scandi-baffling The Snowman. The duration may be justified by the need to introduce the five superheroes, Lois Lane (Amy Adams, with the super power of sniffing out a news story and getting to the truth) and an old friend (played by Henry Cavill). There’s a lot of love and loss running alongside the race to find the boxes and figure out how to beat the enemy.

Two actors (and their characters) stand out from the assembled motley crew who are ill at ease around each other (and not just because their costumes clash). Gal Gadot delivers some of the best performances with her poised Wonder Woman who steps forward to become a leader as well as finding time for comedy uses of her lasso of truth despite the pressure of time faced by the team. Ezra Miller’s warm, non-violent, hesitant and most likely autistic Flash is at the heart of most of the movie’s humorous moments.

Deep down there’s a message about living up to your potential and not giving into deadly fear. But it’s buried so deep that not even Aquaman may not be able to swim down to those depths to pick it up.

A super hero is jump-started, a Batmobile reverses at speed, and Aquaman flies through the air as well as water. Justice League is two hours of light-hearted, save-the-world nonsense that’s more enjoyable to watch than Wonder Woman, and proves that when playing Superhero Top Trumps, the red-caped wonder is the winning card despite being a terrible show-off. Complete drivel, but surprisingly entertaining: yet a franchise badly in need of a story.

Justice League is playing in Movie House Cinemas and many other screens.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Battle of the Sexes – stubborn tennis talent clashes with egotistic chauvinism while relationship drama relegated to tram lines (from 24 November)

Speaking out against the gender inequality in 1970s tennis prize money, leading player Billy Jean King pulls the other top women players out of the US Lawn Tennis Association to form their own tournament (funded by sponsorship from a cigarette firm). But some of the men won’t take the claim for equal play lying down. Former champion and hustler Bobby Riggs comes out of retirement to challenge the leading women’s players to a winner-takes-all prize, the Battle of the Sexes.

Emma Stone captures the feisty yet vulnerable Billy Jean King, married to Larry (Austin Stowell) but devoted to the game. Her concentration and on-court performance takes a battering when she falls for the charms of hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). The significance of the film’s title is twofold: equal pay for tennis players, and societal acceptance of same-sex relationships. Both threaten King’s career.

Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs as a clown, more interested in publicity stunts and raking in the cash than practising his game, which by all accounts is entirely true to life. His strategy makes short work of the first challenge match with Australian player Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee). She introduces the dimension of moral disapproval to the film.

A second challenge with a greater prize pot lures King onto the court to take on the celebrated “self-styled male chauvinist pig” Riggs, the match being dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes”.

I’m not sure if I can remember a sport-based film that I’ve enjoyed or wanted to enjoy. Not even Rocky. So my bar was set pretty high when I walked into the preview of Battle of the Sexes.

For a while the film becomes bogged down in re-emphasising the specious reasons the men at the top of the US LTA put up to defend their bias. But the story recovers as the scale of Riggs’ gambling addiction is revealed and as the flirty hairdresser joins the tournament entourage. In places you could cut the sexual tension with a forearm smash.

Elton John’s Rocket Man is an unnecessary (albeit accurate, 1972) over-the-top signpost. Some of the best moments in the film are watching King’s husband reacting quite unexpectedly to the realisation that he’s no longer just up against sport for her affections.

Battle of the Sexes is sufficiently engaging that it overcomes its 121 minute duration. The tennis is never allowed to be focus, and is probably on-screen for less than a quarter of scenes.

The gentle off-court relationship drama becomes a sideshow to the brash on-court clash of personality. The man who wants to put show back into chauvinism is up against a strong-willed and athletic woman. Ultimately, while both Riggs and King are kept under the microscope of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, stubborn King is the more engaging character to study and audiences are never encouraged to build up empathy with ill-prepared and egotistic Riggs.

This morality tale is played for entertainment rather than for shock value. The two central issues are still alive today. Wimbledon was the last of the four major tennis tournaments to introduce equal prize money for men and women back in 2007, but equal pay remains an issue in other minor tournaments and gender is not the only discriminator. Sexuality remains something that is often kept under covers to avoid sponsorship deals falling through, as happened when King was outed in the years after the film concludes.

Battle of the Sexes is in Movie House Cinemas, the Strand Arts Centre, Queen’s Film Theatre and other venues from Friday 24 November.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Così fan tutte (NI Opera): funny, delicate and surprisingly contemporary for a 1790 opera set in the 1920s

NI Opera’s production of Così fan tutte has just finished a three night run in the Grand Opera House in Belfast and will play in the Millennium Forum in Derry on Thursday 23 November.

Two young soldiers brag about the fidelity of their fiancées, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Their friend Don Alfonso bets that they are open to being seduced. The wager involves Ferrando and Guglielmo pretending to have been called up to battle. Their deceit involves them dressing up in outrageous uniforms and pretending to be Albanian soldiers who have fallen madly in love at first sight with the sisters. This upper class jape, masterminded by Don Alfonso, requires downstairs help and the sister’s maid Despina is bribed to help steer the bereft pair towards new love. The two lads use ever more desperate methods to inveigle their way into the women’s hearts.

At first sight, Mozart’s 1790 opera seems like a misogynist nightmare with men believing that women are fickle and can be manipulated at will. While the women do faint and swoon, stirred on by their maid they rail against the ‘all women are like that’ culture (that’s the translation of the opera’s title ‘Così fan tutte’) embraced by the men. Despina has the measure of the men, announcing that they are “replaceable” and “all the same … fake flattery, fake tears”. Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto must have been quite a challenge for original audiences with its theme of gender politics and its astonishing suggestion of female liberation. Today the male assumptions are more shocking than the female resistance to conform to stereotype.

This production feels like a bit of a turning point for NI Opera. Their previous mantra under artistic director Oliver Mears demanded performances in English to maximise accessibility for new audiences (which opera does badly need to replenish). While I was a fan of eliminating barriers to attend and appreciate what is badged as a highbrow art form, I found that the volume of sound coming out of the orchestra pit tended to drown out the singing in the last few performances, negating the benefit of the English lyrics.

Così fan tutte was performed in the original Italian underpinned by a gentle score, with Nicolas Chalmers keeping the Ulster Orchestra suitably muted throughout. Sometimes a piano – sounded like an upright which had been allowed to go quite honkytonk [I stand corrected] a period fortepiano – took over from the orchestra, minimising the musical distraction before the strings would sweep in at a key moment of drama. A surtitle screen hung perhaps a little too high up above the action with unmistakably modern English translations of key lyrics.

Even though the period is rather overused in theatre and opera productions, Così’s themes suited its setting in the 1920s with the explosion of sexual liberation and eye-catching flapper fashion. The constantly dancing and tipsy partying chorus of twelve showed their acting skills and comic timing as well as vocal abilities with their melange of glamour and frivolity. (Though sometimes while they needed to be on stage to sing their lines, it wasn’t at all obvious why they needed to be doing whatever action they’d been directed to perform.) And an NI Opera trademark moment of near nudity was humorously woven into the final scene of the first act.

The voices of the six principal cast members blended together very sweetly with no single performer dominating. I was never convinced that Heather Lowe and Kiandra Howarth could truly be sisters. Lowe played a wonderfully giddy Dorabella with attitude to match her charm, while Howarth played a less bubbly and more reserved Fiordilig.

Aoife Miskelly stole most of the scenes she appeared in as the maid Despina, playing her like a not-so-angry version of Annie’s Miss Hannigan, with constant smoking, drinking and an affection for greenbacks. Miskelly waltzed around the set in a shapeless dress, never visibly off duty from adding comedy and movement to the carefully created tableaux.

The two soldiers Sam Furness and Samuel Dale Johnson were hard to distinguish (other than by the pattern of their ridiculous ‘Albanian’ dress and varying amounts of chest hair) but contributed to the situation comedy that opera-newbie director Adele Thomas curates on stage.

The cast threw some gloriously dishevelled poses, draping themselves across a dining room table that matches the pantomime proportions of opera. The balloons that decorated the upper deck of the stage were worked into the choreography, being fondled, released, kicked and burst.

Underneath the soap opera plot of sexual politics, Così fan tutte examines what people are like with and without the disguises that they choose to wear. One soldier’s bravado is quickly replaced with fear and doubt; the sisters wax and wane between loyalty and forcing themselves to embrace the romantic opportunity at their front door; and Despina switches from a maid to a mad Doctor (armed with a healing egg-whisk). When the masks slip, who really are they?

The production succeeded in filling a garish set with performances that had a big enough dash of farce to lift what could otherwise have been performed as a tedious test of fidelity. The whole cast were clearly having a ball on stage and their enjoyment was infectious, reaching out over the orchestra pit into the audience which laughed out loud at the well-placed gestures and raised eyebrows.

Beautifully sung with a delicate accompaniment, it lacked a large iconic solo moment to anchor the production. Having constructed a fine ensemble cast on top of a glamorous set, Così fan tutte felt like the most entertaining show by NI Opera for some years, and hopefully a sign of good times under new artistic director Walter Sutcliffe.

Tickets are still available for Così fan tutte in the Millennium Forum in Derry at 8pm on Thursday 23 November.

Photos by Patrick Redmond.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Ten Plagues: poignant, emotive and beautiful (Belfast Ensemble in Outburst Festival)

First performed in 2011, Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell’s song cycle Ten Plagues was performed in the Lyric Theatre on Sunday evening as part of Outburst Festival.

This beautiful collection of songs collectively tell the story of a man living in a plague-ridden city of London, watching the pits of dead bodies grow and wondering how soon he will join them as the death rate increases exponentially.

Soloist Matthew Cavan confidently strode onto the stage and sat down. Blue suit, drainpipe trousers, white shirt, a thin red tie that matched his lipstick. With a ghostly white pallor he began to sing over the pattern of descending scales running out of the fingers of composer and pianist Conor Mitchell.

The dark set looked like a once glamorous but now abandoned cabaret venue with a shiny painted floor and protruding circular stage covered with dust and glitter. Cavan’s sparkling high heels suggested that parallels could be drawn between the real life seventeenth century plague in London with the hysteria that surrounded the increasing incidence of HIV/AIDS during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Mark Ravenhill’s third song in the cycle saw the nameless narrator realise that “suddenly I need a God” and visit a church to “save us all”. Yet the pulpit was empty and he left, as the song’s title suggests, “Without a Word”. While simple and repetitive, the layered lyrics are heavy with intelligence.

As has become their tradition, Belfast Ensemble’s production of Ten Plagues was a masterclass in restraint and quality. Over recent years, video has threatened to become the curse of theatre. Projections animated a simple screen hung from a the dark arch behind the two performers on the main Lyric Theatre stage. Gavin Peden’s video art enhanced the sense of each scene while never distracting from the art of the song. Lit by three projectors and just three lights, the imagery provided the main illumination and colour, with the carefully choreographed Cavan casting bold shadows onto the screen as if he was in the pictures.

As the cycle continued, Mitchell’s movements at the keyboard added to the drama with his flying hands, arched back and gasps for breath. It all subtly amplified the intensity of the cycle as it headed towards its rather spectacular conclusion.

The mood swings of depression, fear, hope and death were exquisitely captured in the music and singing. The rasp in Cavan’s voice gave way to a powerful cabaret style that belted out the big numbers with aplomb. Hard to believe that this was his first public performance in the role originally written for Marc Almond.

While there was death on stage, I thought I might croak it with a tickly cough, exiting during darkness a few songs from the end to avoid the sharp pin of Mitchell’s voodoo doll he reserves for critics. You can hear more about that in the last part of Radio 4’s Opening Night episode recorded in Belfast last month. Thank goodness for the Lyric’s closed circuit TV and the ability to continue enjoying the performance from the foyer!

Ten Plagues delivered a poignant, emotive and overall beautiful performance with a style that seemed simple but belied Belfast Ensemble’s usual complex design and planning. A marvellous one-off production for the Lyric to host, and hopefully an opportunity to rejuvenate interest in Mitchell and Ravenhill’s collaboration.

When the theatre cleared, much of the audience retired to the Lyric’s bar for the second act, this time in a more music hall style, picking up Mitchell and Ravenhill’s 2013 extensions to an original quartet of songs by Benjamin Britten and Conor Mitchell. A much more jovial yet not always upbeat sequence of queer cabaret with soloist Nigel Richards dressing for the occasion (and showing off his glorious falsetto) and a guest spot for Ciara Mackey (seen recently as Lady of the Lake in Spamalot). A little more disjointed, it extended the evening, but lacked the intensity of the fear and furnaces of Ten Plagues.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet - confessions and queer premonitions from the bogs (The Barracks until 19 Nov)

Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet turns the tiny upstairs performance space in The Barracks (up the entry to the side of The Black Box) into a toilet, complete with the sound of water dripping into a cistern and four cubicles. Perspex doors allow us to see the four performers who are mulling over their present situations and pondering their futures in the safety of this enclosed and personal space.

TheatreofplucK’s new production brings back memories of experimental work in the Old Museum Arts Centre, the kind of rough and edgy performances that push boundaries and challenge in a way that can feel out of place in shiny new theatre spaces.

“This is the end of my life as I know it” exclaims one young woman after seeing the friend she snogged making out with a fella. She pulls off her prom dress and stands in her slip as the audience, packed onto benches around the walls of the dark toilet, listen to Alice Malseed tell her character’s story of hiding and blending in, feeling alone and shamed, about her method of making up boyfriends and then “killing them off” to disguise from her family her weekend visits to the gay nightclubs on Union Street.

Each performer comes out of their cubicle with their own tale. There’s a boy (played by Warren McCook) who hopes that rumours will spread and save him from taking the initiative to come out. In a lovely scene he looked through a mirror at the sparkling torso of Cathan McRoberts on the other side. A trans boy (Holly Hannaway) whose friends think he should be more girly and embrace dresses over binders.

Each of the four also projects their vision of how their life and the society around them might change, stretching their fears and experiences into sometimes quite dystopian futures. We imagine an uber-binary world where you have to “pick a side” (nothing new for Ulster they quip) with mandatory gender-specific clothing to be worn. Or an alternative world ruled by consent, squeezing any remaining spontaneity out of relationships for forms and signatures, and another that takes ‘equality’ to an extreme with the requirement for 50:50 queer:non-queer spaces and workplaces with catastrophic consequences for public services.

TheatreofplucK artistic director Niall Rea and playwright/actor Alice Malseed have created a rich set of characters with sadly all too believable back stories and traits. The vignettes are based on interviews and workshops. One lad corrects the appalling spelling of the graffiti that covers the toilet and transforms the crude drawings into fluffy animals, introducing a rare moment of softness into the more gritty than funny hour long drama.

James Watson brings his set design magic to play in the confined 10m x 4m space, and the use of cameras and projection subtly allows the audience to see around corners.  Rather realistic protruding prosthetics introduce another type of magic to proceedings. Music pumps out over the constant dripping. The clip-on LED lighting rings (£3 on Amazon if you fancy one!) added atmosphere and created the most memorable spacewalk in my history of Belfast theatre.

Any lack of courage could ruin the intimate lavatorial exposition. But the ensemble cast were on top of their characters and supported each other well, logistically and physically. Malseed – who becomes a pseudo-narrator – has the strongest voice and pluckiest delivery that carries across the noisy bogs. Hopefully we’ll see more of her writing and acting on Belfast stages before too long. Hannaway is playful and mesmerising while McCool encapsulates teenage reticence and McRoberts oozes confidence.

I fear that the some of the more explicit-looking sequences (things look worse than they are) will in practice exclude some younger audiences who would also benefit from imbibing this production’s powerful exploration of sex, gender, discrimination and possible solutions. That said, it was as strong a piece of experimental theatre as I’ve seen this year and certainly grabbed its bullish issues by the horn and delivered a finely acted and memorable performance.

Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet continues its short run in The Barracks as part of Outburst Festival with performances on Sunday 12 (7.30pm), Saturday 18 (5pm and 7.30pm) and Sunday 19 (7.30pm).

Photo credit: William Woods

Friday, November 10, 2017

Quartered: Belfast, A Love Story - walk a mile or two in someone else’s shoes (Outburst Festival)

Sometimes you get very caught up in the problems and concerns that surround you and your family. Introspection soaks up much of your energy and leaves less available to consider others outside your immediate circle. And then you hear something that shakes you out of your revery.

Quartered: Belfast, A Love Story begins inside The Dark Horse on Hill Street. Head in at the allotted time and the four people on the tour will don their headphones and push the start button on their individual MP3 players at the same time to commence the hour long story written by Dominic Montague.

A guide will silently show the small group up and down familiar and less familiar streets. The commentary, an audio essay about love, will refer to buildings and paintings and events along the way. You’ll giggle and realise that the other people around you are enjoying the same wry comment they’ve heard at the same time through their own headphones.

It’s so refreshing to purposely listen to well-crafted words, cut off from other distractions. Neil Keery’s voice is warm and expressive and held my attention.

Quartered feels like being a ghost wandering around the streets of Belfast, inside someone else’s head, listening to and reacting to their thoughts, yet doing it in the company of others. A corporate yet individual empathetic experience.

It’s so challenging to take the time out to walk a mile or two in someone else’s shoes. To realise how the hardly-any-degrees-of-separation in Belfast affects the gay dating scene. How you might worry about your jaw being broken nearly as much as your heart being broken. The pressures around public displays of affection and the perceptible boundaries of where’s safe to hold hands and where’s not. The anxiety of living and socialising on the edge of a city, with venues and streets that feel segregated. Religion looming over attitudes.
“Look straight ahead and you’ll see that Belfast is as straight as that clock over there!”

Space is physical and mental. The gentle walk finishes in The Sunflower Pub with the question of ‘is it so much to want everything now?’ and an appropriate anthem, Arcade Fire’s Everything Now.

While Montague has authored and edited the piece with its references to sights and buildings right up to the last minute, Belfast is constantly on the move. Hoardings that were there yesterday are being sawn apart today.

The change is constant and perceptible, yet in some ways any sense of change is imperceptible.

I found Quartered to be a moving piece of promenade theatre, forcing me to look up from my own horizons to see Belfast as the canvass, the set, and listen to someone else’s story. A beautiful oasis on a cold Friday afternoon. And a triumph for director Paula McFetridge and KABOSH, confirming their reputation of excellence in site-specific works and conflicted spaces.

Quartered: Belfast, A Love Story continues on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until 19 November as part of the Outburst Festival. Tickets £8/£5. Booking essential. Bring a warm coat.

As I searched for a link to add to this post, I spotted a relevant tweet that must be from the How to Unexplode exhibition of Patrick Sanders work. It runs in the Artcetera Gallery each day (except Sunday) 11am–5pm until Saturday 25 November.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Romeo & Juliet – like a tragic episode of Married at First Sight (C21 Theatre at the Lyric)

C21 Theatre have created a very European version of Romeo & Juliet, set in the balmy city of Verona. It plays out like a rather catastrophic episode of Married at First Sight.

The Montagues and the Capulets are feuding enemies. So it should be no surprise that love blossoms across the barricades and the dark and handsomely Oirish Romeo from the house of Monague falls in love with the flaxen beauty Juliet from the house of Capulet.

A friar is on hand to marry them in secret, though before the day is out Romeo has killed his new wife’s cousin, sending her household into a spiral of grief that can only be broken by her “careful” and frankly abusive father arranging her marriage to Count Paris.

The friar’s remedy for these unwanted repeat nuptials is doomed by an unreliable postal service – and also by the friar’s simple failure to simply send Romeo a text message – and a “brace of kinsmen” are lost in the last few minutes of this Shakespearean tragedy, though the total body count falls a little short of the original text’s full complement.

As with every annual Shakespearean production by C21 Theatre, this touring production uses the simplest of sets and a minimum of props. Director Arthur Webb has once again cut the script down to a school-friendly 80 minutes, keeping all the key scenes and characters (shared out across just six actors), improving the flow by moving parts of the prologue to the end, and allowing devices like mobile phone calls to let the audience follow just one side of a conversation.

With everything pared down, there is little to distract from the words and the movement. Hand gestures, a nod of the head, a football and an apple are all used to add a touch of mirth to proceedings. The modern props lift the spirits of William Shakespeare’s text. Background music is used sparingly though at times competes with the dialogue (certainly up in the back seats nearer the roof-mounted speakers).

Cailum Carragher, who plays Mercutio (Romeo’s best friend) as well as other minor characters, frequently steals the show with his infectious energy and physicality. The fight scenes and knife sequences are pretty fast and furious, adding drama.

Juliet is played by Julie Lamberton and is modelled on Joss Stone: all barefoot and boho-chic. Turtlenecked Romeo (Patrick Quinn) is suave, if a little under-dressed, at his wedding. Handy with a knife he’s also gently affectionate with his sweetheart. I can’t imagine two more star-crossed doe-eyed lovers being cast as the protagonists. Their famous balcony speech takes place on the raised walkway at the back of the stage, and is fresh in its delivery after their accelerated courtship.

Brendan Quinn’s Friar Laurence has a touch of Bob Geldof in his drawl, while Mary Frances Doherty (last seen on stage as Michelle O’Neill) plays Juliet’s long time attendant and confidante with a definite Italian twang. While ‘Nurse’ could win a medal for her wailing and panicking, she has the measure of Romeo and can boss him around when necessary. Thomas Martin plays Benvolio among other roles.

C21 Theatre have produced a sweet version of a classic play. “Wedded to calamity”, the union of a Montague and a Capulet has plenty of passion but it can only halt a feud after precious blood is spilt.

Romeo & Juliet continues its run in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 11 November.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Florida Project – a melancholy tale of haves and have nots (QFT 17-23 Nov)

Sean Baker’s new film The Florida Project feels like an American version of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake with the setting switched from the bedsits of Newcastle upon Tyne to the budget motels that encircle the Disney World resort in Orlando. Out of work families live in the $35/night rooms, forced to clear out their possessions one night a month and sleep elsewhere to avoid gaining any rights of residency.

This is a tale of the haves and have nots.

Little Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) play in walkways of the Magic Castle motel complex whose lurid external decoration looks like it was sponsored by Ribena. Helicopters land in a field nearby, ferrying rich people to Disney.

Six year old Moonee enjoys life, hustling for money to share an icecream with her friends, leading them on adventurous safaris, setting fire to stuff, and leaning over the balcony spitting on the cars below. School-free but not unschooled given these young people’s experience of life and the phrases they pick up and parrot.

Moonee is a have. Her Mum Halley, played by unknown actress Bria Vinaite, is a have not: with little joy in her life, who lost her job and has no regular income, now forced to generate cash to pay her weekly rent by whatever means possible. The tight pair both have stacks of attitude, lip and sass. Living in the shadow of Mickey Mouse’s magical kingdom, watching the firework display from the outside of the fence is as close as their disposable income will take them to the theme park of dreams.

The manager of “the purple place” acts as a father figure to the families, holding them to the rules but going out of his way to protect them from those who would seek to exploit their vulnerabilities. Yet Bobby, played with a deftness that never raises the audience’s hackles by Willem Dafoe, turns out to be no more free to act than his debt-ridden customers: he also has a boss to whom he is accountable.

The younger generation lead this film, unlike Moonlight from earlier this year which watched a lad called Chiron grow up with ambiguous parenting. The camera often remains level with their six year old perspective. The low-level handheld camerawork following the cast is contrasted with an occasional sequence of locked off static shots that allow the protagonists to walk fully across the vista, creating a very distinctive style.

The Florida Project could easily be shortened. I found much of the 111 minute film quite underwhelming. About the first 105 minutes of it. Many of the scenes with children and adults seem to have been ad-libbed. Rather than work through a linear plot, the scenes gently show how the children and their parents spend their days, show friendships forming and falling apart, and build up a picture of the desperation and destitution that many of them face.

At first it’s the kids’ behaviour that throws Halley into conflict with another parent. But soon it is her own pursuit of an old but reliable way of earning money that leads to a violent attack and marks the film’s catastrophic dénouement. Little upbeat Moonee reaches her limit and finally exposes less happy emotions.

For me, the final scene before the credits rescued The Florida Project.

The tears in my eyes were unbidden and a total shock. I sat watching the preview screening in the middle of the afternoon in a state of nonchalance, wondering whether this was really as poignant a study of American homelessness as it should be. There was surely a more dramatic way that writer/director/editor/producer Sean Baker could have hammered home the issues around hidden homelessness?

But the subdued music and the sight of two children escaping into a promised land – a ‘paradise’ whose lustre quickly fades for most visitors – was worth the wait. What they have in terms of attitude and resilience is far more important than the thrill-seeking have nots they are now rubbing shoulders with.

Brooklynn Prince (Mooney) delivers an engaging performance for one so young, and this surely won’t be the last time we see Bria Vinaite (her Mum) on screen given the unpretentious way she shifted through emotions and inhabited the depressed but creative character.

Sean Baker’s hands-on control of nearly every aspect of this film has crafted an unusual and distinctive movie that feels very authentic; fictional yet reflecting the grim reality of a section of society trapped and invisible.

The Florida Project is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from 17 November until 23 November.

Outburst Arts ... 1 mole, 1 bishop, 4 toilet cubicles and 10 plagues (9-18 Nov)

Specialist festivals bring a focus to specific issues, stirring up the local arts community to create new work as well as the presenting the opportunity to subsidise bringing international work to the local audience.

Outburst Arts festival is now in its eleventh year, running from 9 to 18 November 2017.

Simón El Topo (Simon the Mole) is a theatrical treat for children and adults that encourages understanding of difference. Simón is a mole and lives in a hole tunnel. Events take an unexpected turn, and Simón must gather together his inner strength and find security in being himself despite other people’s doubt and questioning. Performed in the international language of Mole, Outburst festival will be the first time this mole has tunnelled to this side of the Equator. Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 November at 5pm in the Black Box.

Quartered, A Love Story is a piece of promenade theatre written by Dominic Montague and produced by KABOSH Theatre who are expert at site specific works. Informed by interviews with LGBTQ+ people in Belfast, each performance is very personal, combining audio with theatre as the audiences explore the physical and psychological boundaries of the cityscape. 1 hour performances begin at The Dark Horse in Hill Street and finish at The Sunflower Bar on Union Street. With capacity for only four people in each performance, be sure to book. Friday 10, Saturday 11, Sunday 12, Friday 17, Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 November. [Reviewed]

Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet explores the options facing four teenagers who each step into a toilet cubicle to find a place of solace to contemplate what to do next. What future should they choose? And will their lives really get better? TheatreofplucK combine technology, music and design in their tenth anniversary show to present a radical vision of the future. Saturday 11, Sunday 12, Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 at 7.30pm in The Barracks. (Extra show on Saturday 18 at 5pm.) [Reviewed]

Ten Plagues. For one night only, Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell’s award-winning AIDS polemic is coming to the stage of the Lyric Theatre. Originally performed in London and written for singer Marc Almond, the piece of music-theatre draws parallels between the devastating outbreak of black plague in London in 1665 and the emergence of AIDS in the 20th century, the “gay” plague, and the fight for survival. Sunday 12 November at 8pm in the Lyric Theatre.

There’s a Bishop in my Bedroom. Master story-teller Richard O’Leary presents his new one-man show that promises to riff on the familiar local theme of religiously mixed marriage to address the contemporary topics of same-sex love and equal marriage. Based on Richard’s own life, he’ll take the audience from his early years as a would-be priest in Cork to falling in love with a Protestant minister who would become his life-long partner. Monday 13 and Tuesday 14 November at 8pm in The MAC.

As well as a season of films in Queen’s Film Theatre, the MAC will be screening Alternative Miss World on Friday 17 November at 7.30pm followed by Q&A with Andrew Logan and John Walter. Logan created the pageant that celebrates freedom of expression and the art of dressing up. There’s a prize for the best ‘alternatively’ dressed and an after party with DJ Venus Dupree.

How to Unexplode. Running throughout the festival will be an exhibition of the rich and varied work by illustrator, performer, artist, clown doctor and founding member of Outburst, Patrick Sanders, who died by suicide earlier this year. His illustrations and cartoons documented events, lampooned politics, and above all entertained. A loving tribute to a local talent who is much missed. Launching in Artcetera Gallery on Thursday 9 November at 6pm and running 11am–5pm each day (except Sunday) until Saturday 25 November.

More details on the Outburst Arts Festival programme on their website.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure - a deadly quartet of short plays (The MAC until 12 November)

Four of Beckett’s more obscure short plays have been brought together on stage by Boston director Bob Scanlan are being performed in The MAC until 12 November under the title Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure.

The first in the quartet of plays is Not I. It’s a rapid-fire monologue expertly delivered by Amanda Gann who sits in front of a camera operated by ‘the Auditor’, a figure wearing a black gown cloak and disguised by a hood. Beckett wanted the sole focus of this stream of words to be on the actor’s crimson lips, so while visible behind a gauze curtain, the audience watch a projection of her mouth and jaw.

Although the magnified lips are magnificently lip-sticked and the teeth are pearly-white, their movement is slightly out of sync with the sound, and removing this digital delay (or delaying the sound without distracting the actor) would remove a distraction for the audience.

Fast and furious the words pour out incessantly, giving a jumbled sense of a woman who has led a distressed life. Amanda Gann displays an expert level of concentration to deliver the repetitive and somewhat rambling lines which have little structure to help the actor. Even more impressive is her seamless switch at the end of the monologue to repeat the whole thing in French, at the same pace and with the same hypnotising fluidity.

A video recording of Not I would not look out of place in one of the MAC’s galleries.

The second of Beckett’s “dramaticules” also features an unusual staging. In Footfalls, May (played by Sarah Newhouse) paces back and forth along a bench that is lit from beneath. She takes nine steps, stops and turns. She hears the voice of her dying mother in her head, spoken from the side of the stage by Carmel O’Reilly. There’s an element of conversation in the short four act piece, but the sentiment of death is stronger than any actual plot.

Next up is Rockaby with Carmel O’Reilly sitting still in a chair which is gently rocked from behind by the hooded figure. Her voice is heard. Like the previous plays, the sense of what she is saying is stronger than the story being told. A camera trained on her face shows that she only intermittently speaks along with the pre-recorded voice, saying “More” ever more feebly each times she kick starts another cycle of words.

The final piece of the evening, Come and Go, sees all three actors (and their hooded friend) return to sit on a bench at the front of the stage. Flo, Vi and Ru engage in a minimalist ritualistic conversation in which they reconnect like old friends, take it in turns to discuss each other, holds hands and exit.

Just 121 words long, it’s like an eyebrow that has had every extraneous hair plucked from it to leave the just the outline of what might have been.

There’s no doubt that the staging and choreography of Beckett Women is superb. The attention to detail, the ringing of bells (following Beckett’s instruction) and space to breath across the four performances creates an almost spiritual experience. The sideways lighting creates some beautiful shadows on the nearly colourless stage.

The controlled and measured performances are deliberately and skilfully emotionally constrained, unwavering in pace, pitch or tone. However that along with the absence of much movement makes Footfalls and Rockaby rather monotonous.

One student of Beckett who attended last night’s performance described the four short plays as “niche”. For me, they were so niche that they were closer to incomprehensible and deadly. Of course, that’s probably the effect that Beckett desired – though he didn’t write them as a quartet, that’s the magic of Bob Scanlan who knew the playwright – but it’s a ‘rare’ theatrical experience to witness their performance on stage, and did little to showcase Beckett’s talent in an accessible manner that would encourage me to explore his wider body of work.

My overall impression is that Beckett Women is a triumph of form, style, skill, staging and performance over content and comprehension. The end-of-life theme and eerie hooded man (played by Chris Robinson) suited the season of Halloween, but the rather impenetrable script and subject matter left me cold and confused (in a bad way).

Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure delivers an evening of high art by The Poet’s Theatre that succeeds in connecting Belfast and Boston together, but fails to entertain its audience. The upside of the depressed production is that everyone has something to say about it as they leave the theatre space and mill around in the MAC’s public areas before heading home. It is definitely a conversation starter.

The production continues in The MAC until 12 November. A post-show talk follows the performance on 9 November.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express - a railway murder solved in style ... & a comedy moustache (in cinemas from 3 November)

While the first ten minutes of Murder on the Orient Express have the feel of a Biblical classic and made me wonder would Hercule Poirot be travelling in Ben-Hur’s chariot, all is not lost. The film quickly settles down and improves once Kenneth Branagh gets his comedy moustache safely on board the eponymous train.

Over one hundred minutes audiences enjoy a lavish studio production of Agatha Christie’s classic detective novel. Fans of Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi and the many other twinkling stars will flock to this new superhero movie that is sure to spawn its own franchise.

Just in case you don’t realise that Poirot is a genius by the way he talks to himself and is totally aware of his superpowers, early on another minor character notes:
“It’s as if you see into their hearts and see their true motives.”

There’s a murder on board the first class carriage of the Orient Express. No one suspects Poirot. No one questions the director of the train. Instead the spotlight of truth and justice falls on the twelve or so other guests who were sleeping up and down the corridor of private compartments.

At first every scene and every snippet of conversation seems to be a potential clue. It’s quite exhausting to take them all in. Having already sat through a screening of a much more tragic real-life investigation – No Stone Unturned which pulls together lots of evidence to uncover new truths about the 1994 murder of six men in a Loughinisland bar – my brain was quite frazzled.

But there is release from the torment of trying to build up an evidential spider’s web when it becomes apparent that the railway murder is linked to another case of which we have no knowledge. Indeed as the bushy-lipped Poirot reaches up and plucks clues and motivations out of the maelstrom of facts that swirl around his head, it becomes obvious that the pattern of stab wounds is the only clue the cinema audience have to help them piece together the solution to this tricky crime.

“If it were easy, I wouldn’t be famous!”
Once you remove the need to play along from your seat, you can sit back and enjoy the ride. The long takes, gentle snow and golden sun give the film its distinctive look and feel. Some of the scenes flying across the countryside while the train is still moving (it conveniently stops for most of the investigation) feel fully animated rather than merely CGIed.

Kenneth Branagh directs (as well as taking the lead role) and brings a very theatrical approach to each scene. The sedentary positioning of each character creates shapes that the single camera can interrogate. The final ‘Last Supper’ tableau in the tunnel is beautifully observed.

This will be no one’s film of the year, but the starry ensemble cast, snowy landscape, gentle humour, comedy moustache and clever moral twist at the end bring Agatha Christie’s train safely into the next station.

Murder on the Orient Express goes on general release from Friday 3 November in Movie House, Omniplex, the Odeon and many other local cinemas.

No Stone Unturned - a film that finally lifts the stones the RUC weren’t comfortable touching

Alex Gibney has made a very compelling documentary film No Stone Unturned that explores the circumstances around the Loughinisland massacre. Loyalist gunmen burst into a pub not far from the main Newcastle to Belfast road during the Republic of Ireland vs Italy World Cup match on 18 June 1994 and indiscriminately shot six men dead and wounded another five. The UVF claimed responsibility for the attack. No one has ever been charged with the six murders.

Through reconstruction, family testimony, interviews with detectives, the current Police Ombudsman, and the input of journalist Barry McCaffrey who has investigated the case over many years, the jigsaw pieces are examined and laid out on the table.

Yet the surprise is that when the pieces are fitted together, they create a much larger, more complex and more detailed picture than the front of the box expected, going well beyond even the Police Ombudsman’s second report into the original police investigation.

Family members recall the immediate aftermath, one quoting a police officer who attended her husband’s wake and said that “we will leave no stone unturned until we get the perpetrators”. They remember the manner in which the police investigation seemed to run out of steam and their own reluctance to make a fuss in the midst of a burgeoning peace process: the IRA ceasefire was called six weeks after the shooting, shortly followed by the loyalist ceasefire.

While the original (and subsequently quashed) ‘Al Hutchinson’ Police Ombudsman’s report recognised failings in the police investigation, it found no evidence of collusion between the RUC and the UVF. In reaching that conclusion it helpfully ignored investigating the lead up to the attack and the role of informers.

The current Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire cooperated with the documentary, giving an interview and allowing his pre-publication briefing to the families to be filmed. An investigator from the Ombudsman also speaks to camera, along with an RUC detective who helps shine a light on some of the unusual quirks he encountered in the original investigation.

Do not mistake No Stone Unturned for a simple police procedural documentary. Instead it is a para-police or extra-police procedural that gathers together a wide range of sources, linking and corroborating the evidence to present a more fulsome picture than the state authorities and the independent ombudsman has been able to publish.

Made for an international audience, this is a cinematic version of one of those popular podcast series that gets under the skin of a murder. A comprehensive soundtrack by Ivor Guest and Robert Logan accompanies the imagery and sets the tone of each scene. It’s an unrushed production that gently examines each piece of the jigsaw before fitting it to the growing picture.

Lengthy sections of the film give audiences abroad – as well as younger ones locally and anyone in Great Britain or Ireland who ignored the conflict in Northern Ireland – a potted history of The Troubles, a quick lesson in the complexity of police/army informers (using IRA double agent Freddie Scappaticci as an example) and the background to loyalist gunrunning that brought the VZ58 assault rifles that were used in the Loughinisland attack into Northern Ireland. It’s during some of these scenes that the handbrake is pulled on a little and the film begins to slow down and drag. However, it passes. This isn’t a flash bang wallop slight of hand Lieutenant Columbo story. There are a lot of dots. But by jove, Alex Gibney knows how to connect them.

Normally in a film review I’d stop short of giving spoilers … but this one is about a real life situation.

The police’s haphazard (or deliberately negligent?) handling and destruction of evidence is appalling. So too is withholding of intelligence about the suspects, and the two month delay in interviewing one of them (who lived close to where the getaway car broke down and was abandoned without being destroyed).

Then there’s the Senior Investigating Officer who took charge of the Loughinisland crime scene and swiftly went off on a month’s holiday after the attach, and upon retirement did not cooperate with the Police Ombudsman’s investigation. While the team’s confrontation with him is not caught on camera, the explanation of how seriously put out by the amassed evidence deserves the one laugh of the film.

Piecing together a note anonymously sent to a local councillor with the Ombudsman’s report and checking against a leaked copy of an unredacted internal report from some years before allowed Barry McCaffrey (The Detail) and the filmmakers to identify the gunman, his accomplice who held the pub door open, and the getaway driver.

The suspects are named. [Given how this would prejudice any trial – not that you’d be holding your breath waiting for one after realising the level of obfuscation – it does leave me with a lot of unanswered questions about how it has been legally possible to do this and what other factors had already ruled out a successful trial. Update - The film’s producer chastises reassures me that there are many examples of suspects being named and going on to be charged and convicted.]

But those aren’t the only breath-taking moments in the film. This documentary has more false endings than a Bond film.

The suspected gunman and his wife (she penned an unsigned letter to a local politician naming the killers and also phoned the anonymous hotline, her voice recognised because she worked in the local police station canteen) still live and work close to Loughinisland. The film shows contemporary video footage of the reported gunman working in his cleaning and pest control business. He was arrested but not charged, and his house has never been searched. The relatives’ solicitor Niall Murphy asks why his wife has not been charged with conspiracy to murder given her admission of involvement in the letter.

The final reveal is shocking but not surprising: one of the gang of three who attacked the rural pub was an informer.

It’s also no surprise that the most senior London politician or official who would talk to Alex Gibney was Lord (Tom) King, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. (The longest serving SoS, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who was in post and attended some of the Loughinisland funerals died in June last year.)

Troubles documentaries and films tend to be as worthy as they are interesting. This one is an exception, an exemplar on how to tell an investigative story in a manner which gives dignity to the victims and their families, avoids politicisation and politicians*, and exposes the messy ‘dirty war’ that was thoroughly intertwined with the paramilitary action.

From a purely cinematic point of view, it’s a beautifully filmed and well edited film. Money has been spent and attention paid to details such as how flat typed information and reports are displayed on screen and enhanced with subtle sound effects.

If you go and see one documentary this year, I’d suggest No Stone Unturned is a very fine one to choose. The sense that this is merely 110 minutes of homicide-porn that only benefits the producers is vastly reduced by the revelations that go further than the Ombudsman’s report.

A screening later this week in Loughinisland will precede the film’s general release from Friday 10 November in the Queen’s Film Theatre as well as selected cinemas in the Movie House and Omniplex chains.

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* Emma Rogan, daughter of Adrian Rogan who was murdered in the attack, is one of those interviewed in the film and was recently co-opted into the NI Assembly to replace Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard in the South Down constituency upon his election as an MP in the June 2017 general election.

Cross-posted from Slugger O’Toole.