Saturday, December 30, 2017

Hamilton: it's great to be in the room where it happens (Victoria Palace Theatre, London West End)

It’s very unusual to sit through a theatre production in an auditorium packed full of people who already know that they love the show before a single actor walks onto the stage. But that’s the case with Hamilton in London’s West End. Every seat sold for the first few weeks (maybe even months) of the run is occupied by people (and their friends/families) who booked back in January 2017 when the tickets went on sale.

I’ve been walking past the Victoria Palace Theatre – or what was left of it behind the scaffolding – monthly for the last two years. In November and even early December, there was no hint that there was a finished theatre in behind the ongoing construction works. So I was somewhat surprised when the delayed previews were able to go ahead and Hamilton opened a few days before Christmas.

Stepping inside the restored theatre on Thursday afternoon, past the friendly-looking sniffer dog, it was a relief to see no sign of builders wearing hard hats indoors, though a fire warden did continuously tour the aisles and corridors (when the show wasn’t on) so there must be a fair amount of unfinished work.

The hip-hop musical takes liberties with the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries as it creates a dramatic narrative around his rise to power and premature exit from the political stage. The deliberate multi-racial casting presents a vision of modern-day America rather than the whiteness of political and military movers and shakers in the late eighteenth century.

It’s a story of a driven man – “I am not throwing away my shot” – who climbs the ladder of power, chooses the post of Treasury Secretary over control over the State Department (thereby creating a much longer and harder-to-unpick legacy of structural change rather than tickle and reversible foreign policy) yet in the end is a kingmaker but never the king.

The character of Hamilton in the musical – and in real life according to historical biographies – was no saint. It’s somewhat ironic that his legacy was only secured (and promoted) through the actions of his cuckqueaned wife Eliza after he pays the price for being competitive and losing everything at the hands of his convictionless competitor Aaran Burr who introduces himself as “the damn fool that shot him” in the first song.

Technically, the West End production of Hamilton was impressive and incredibly precise. Given the steep ticket prices and the waterfall of lyrics to follow to keep up with the plot, the quality of sound was both reassuring and essential. While the micced-up performers were fed through speakers dotted around the auditorium close to the audience, the live band boomed out from the base of the stage, keeping the lyrics crisp and every word intelligible. The lighting rig often bathed the seemingly simple wood and brick set* with warm and natural hues, throwing unexpected shapes (one of which hit me quite emotionally – a bit of a first!) and even created subtle movement during scene changes. [* the back wall of the set may not be quite as static as it looks!]

After witnessing the brute force necessary to manually rotate the Lyric Theatre’s stage in two shows this Christmas, Hamilton’s smooth and effortless rotating stage with independent inner and outer rings was a revelation. The automation that brought little wagons of candles on and off stage, guided by a groove in the floor, showed the attention to detail (and the money available to pull off such a design). Yet I’ve no idea why two ropes were anchored to one side of the front of the stage at the beginning, only to be removed and never used.

Success, failure, forgiveness, leadership, ambition, death, politics, economics, military strategy, migration, rights, human relationships … at times, Hamilton was closer to an opera than musical theatre. There was an intensity to the performance that never let up.

Jamael Westman physically towered above the rest of the cast playing Alexander Hamilton. He was rarely off-stage, and commanded attention as he dashingly strutted about in his boots, clashing with Giles Terera’s Aaron Burr (the clear baddie dressed in black).
“Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?”

Even if you’ve been experiencing Hamilton vicariously through the Broadway cast album and Youtube clips (as we have been subjected to in our house), the level of hilarity was totally unexpected as the live cast injected personality into the music.

The West End’s King George III was ridiculously effected and played to marvellous extremes by Michael Jibson who wandered around the stage, inserting looooong pauses into his songs and jabbing his finger in the direction of the audience while promising to send a fully armed battalion to remind us of his love. He also voiced the tongue-in-cheek pre-recorded mobile silencing announcement at the start: for once, the instruction was obeyed.

With much of the cast double roling, Jason Pennycooke stood out as a gloriously laughable and impish Lafyette in Act I, before morphing into a more serious Thomas Jefferson after the interval. The controlled slow motion choreography in the eye of the hurricane was just one example of its artistic quality.

The three Shyuyler sisters – Eliza, Angelica … and Peggy (Rachelle Ann Go, Rachel John and Marsha Songcome at the performance I attended) – provided the non-political thread to bind together the rest of the show. Songcome was impressive as Maria Reynolds in Act II. While the female characters were in a sense underwritten (though still critical to the plot), then gender mix in the ensemble dancing was refreshing and beautifully arbitrary.
“Don't modulate the key then not debate with me!”

There were little moments of endearing self-awareness that winked at the audience and acknowledged that this was theatre and not a straight history lesson.

Why a musical about an American founding father should work as a show in London is down to the quality of the Lin-Manuel Miranda’s writing and the wholehearted performances delivered by the entire cast rather than the actual events upon which they are based. Hamilton is similar to Evita in taking a relatively obscure story and giving it a dramatic and musical flourish (the running piano phrases that step out of so many of the songs are magical) that delights rather than confuses.

Hamilton is a musical that has been carefully designed to maximise its chance of success. Investment is on show everywhere, from the sumptuous costumes that set the tone of each scene (even if the knee breeches look like jodhpurs and make you wonder whether one of the ensemble dancers will soon enter stage right on a horse) to the automation, lighting and sound design. Musical Director Richard Beadle’s head and occasionally his hands popped up from the orchestra pit to keep the chorus starting and stopping together, even conducting the bows at the end of the show and giving the instruction for the cast to leave the stage.

Yet despite the level of programming and control, Hamilton was a show that emotionally connected. No one on stage was just going through the ritual of phoning in their performance (like I found at Fame one afternoon in the West End while on honeymoon some fifteen or so years ago). It was performed as much as it was produced, with and had heart and soul, energy, rhythm as well as an engaging way of telling a story that resonates on many different levels: racially, economically, politically and culturally.

Hamilton is not perfect. If your concentration wavers for a more than a few seconds you can miss a lyric and be left wondering who a character is, or what the significance is of an action on the stage. There are moments when you wonder whether the symmetry and plot twists are just a little too contrived. A mic was left muted for 20 seconds when King George III walked onto the stage, and one singer struggled with high notes. But those niggles barely add up to anything.

The enormous ambition of Hamilton is very definitely achieved, and achieved through the skill and talent of a wide range of people behind-the-scenes as well as up-front on stage. If you can afford tickets and can make it to London you’ll experience an example of musical theatre that sets the bar high even for the West End. It certainly left me wanting more.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Human Flow: Ai Weiwei’s perspective-giving primer on global migration (QFT 5-11 January)

Rather than pick a few interesting personal stories out of the millions of displaced people across the globe, Ai Weiwei keeps his focus on the scale of the worldwide Human Flow in his new documentary.

By stretching the narrative across 23 different countries, Ai Weiwei also zooms out from the handful of countries normally associated with refugees and fills in gaps in western public consciousness. Twenty three countries are visited over a year including Bangladesh, Gaza and Mexico as well as Germany, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Macedonia and Pakistan.

A mixture of cinematography showcases serene drone shots which demonstrate the scale of movement with handheld footage getting up close and personal with refugees. Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei often somewhat self-indulgently wanders into shot, filming what he sees on his camera phone and talking to people on the move. A UNHCR spokesperson adds the scale marker to the picture that the filmmaker is creating: 65 million people have been forcibly displaced across the world.

The opening scene of a bird flying across a blue sky is quickly contrasted with an overhead shot of a small boat packed with people making its way across the blue sea. Freedom vs organised smuggling or trafficking. There’s poetry and unspoken narrative in these moments of high quality cinematography, later repeated with shots that soar over refugee camps, showing off the block layout and fire breaks between rows of tents and semi-permanent huts and caravans. But these arty shots are not allowed to dominate the imagery.

The shaky bodycam and phone footage shows refugees being given blankets and warm tea as they step onto the European shore. Women describe living under the ‘rain’ of missiles, fired and landing without warning, and drone footage once again takes viewers to the flattened suburban landscapes from which they fled.

Over 140 minutes Ai Weiwei tours areas of displacement across the world, walking and talking alongside families and individuals making their way towards safety. The white infectious disease protection jumpsuits worn by rescued refugees are suggestive of dehumanisation. While the ethnically cleansed Rohingya community now living in Bangladesh are labelled as ‘stateless people’ and ‘boat people’, the film notes that they are primarily humans.

One contributor sums up her aim:
“… on a daily basis make people feel like human beings and know that we really care about them.”
The contrast between beautifully-crafted footage and guerrilla filming (complete with the howl of the wind in the uncovered mics) prevents the audience from sitting back in their seats to take a clinical at the problem. It is rough and ready, and in our faces. The film’s editing is deliberately ragged: some cuts are very sharp, other shots are allowed to linger and give space to think.

Fifty minutes into the film there’s a sobering reminder that this is not a travel documentary, and that while sea crossings are inherently dangerous, crossing land brings with it risks of rape, torture, slavery and death.

Wherever Ai Weiwei takes his camera, there are long trails of people walking along roads and tented camps of different shapes and sizes. There are flows of people seemingly perpetually on the move, never staying still, searching for alternative security and overcoming natural obstacles like rivers.

The only thing that halts the movement are man-made barriers: border fences have multiplied six-fold since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film visits politically-sealed borders with barbed wire and guards between Greece and Macedonia, as well as the patrolled border between the US and Mexico. Grown men cry with the helplessness of neither being able to step forward, nor step back to return home.

Palestinians living in Gaza speak about the difficulty of younger people growing up with stereotypes, not knowing the area before the walls and not having the opportunity to get to know and understand Israelis. Symbolically Ai Weiwei includes footage of Laziz the tiger being rescued from a cramped Gaza ‘zoo’. In a cruel irony, the tiger is helped to escape through Israel to enjoy a new life in South Africa, unlike the humans left behind in the caged-in region.

With 26% of global refugees hosted in sub-Saharan Africa, the cameras call at Dadaab in Kenya, a cluster of five refugee camps. They also visit the refugee camp inside Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport, an Ideal Home Exhibition-like vista of roofless cubicles built indoors. Normal patterns of life – births, marriages, deaths and even haircuts -

Cash grants are used as an incentive for Afghans now living in Pakistan to return home. With the best will in the world, after 30 or 40 years they cannot always return to their family’s plot of land, and their villages may still be insecure. So they remain displaced and dislocated, just no longer in Pakistan.

The reality of arriving in Europe is somewhat at odds with the continent’s reputation of human dignity and respect. In my screening, applause broke out when former Syrian astronaut Muhammed Faris gave his perspective of looking down on Earth and realising how humankind shares the planet.

Watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder at the effort and ingenuity that governments invest in securing and surveilling borders as opposed to changing the many different reasons that continue to cause forced migration around the world.

Human Flow’s distribution in UK cinemas was brief and patchy: however you will still find it playing in London screens and some larger independent cinemas. And the producers welcome opportunities for churches, museums, schools and other organisations to register their interest in showing the film.

Avoiding the temptation to over-moralise or point too many fingers – though European Union policies do come under its microscope – Human Flow provides a global perspective on a global problem and its duration is sufficient to give each audience member time to react to the scale of the story on screen.

Human Flow is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 5-Thursday 11 January.

Cross-posted from

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Game of Gnomes and Trump's Big Bad Belfast Christmas (C21 Theatre)

Two very different one act plays graced the stage of The Black Box in Belfast last night.

Brendan Quinn stumbled up first with his fifty minute solo show Game of Gnomes. His alter ego, an aspiring out of work actor Brendan Sythe (a proud product of Larne community drama classes), explained to anyone willing to listen in the make-up truck how he’d got this big break on a well-known film set.

Deftly switching between characters, mannerisms and accents, Quinn whipped up laughs as he outlined the confusing audition process, a bizarre bootcamp, and his subsequent experience working as a Castlecourt Elf. Around a dozen roles populated the piece, including a grumpy yet worldy-wise Santa, a coy female Elf and an outrageous mother who mistook him for a gnome.

Tom Finley’s direction brought to life well-written overlapping conversations that comically fused together and utilised the limited set (three black cubes) to create height and movement on the diminutive stage. By the end, the audience were hooked on the story and whooping along with the finale. While Sythe may not have initially seen the potential in his festive “great character piece”, the Black Box audience certainly lapped up the story acted out by Quinn.

After the interval bar break, it was the turn of Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas, with two local actors reprising roles they had played elsewhere in recent weeks in a new satirical play by Rosemary Jenkinson.
“If there’s one thing Northern Ireland has a talent for, it’s building walls; though we’re good at building bridges too … with peace money.”
Escaping the White House staff eggnog-fuelled party, US President Trump (Miche Doherty) flies to Belfast in ‘North Ireland’ to find out about our beautiful walls which have kept people apart all these years. DUP leader Arlene Foster (Maria Connolly) is his willing tour guide, her party name temporarily confusing the Republican president. Darlene and Donald slip, incognito, into a loyalist bar for an eventful pint!

Doherty’s impossibly long red tie, well-coiffed wig and glare brought this not-so-fantastical world leader alive despite his trim waist and unclassifiable accent. His bravado-filled performance captured the essence of the mulch-maligned president. Connolly never stepped out of character, eyes constantly darting around, and switching between gloom and glee as she tried to manage the erratic big wig.

Despite only being scheduled for two performances, and the rehearsals accelerated, cast were confident with their lines and hammed it up to the delight of the audience who joined in with the reworded Fairytale of New York (more Nightmare on Newtownards Road) and the boisterous finale Summer Christmas Lovin’ (“She ate sausage / I had some champ”).

As well as the brutally cruel lampooning of there two well-known political leaders, the refracted image on stage gave a quasi-international perspective on some of the ways and customs we take for granted and so often forget to critique in Northern Ireland, as well a chance to question how different or similar we are to our 50 state cousins.

A triumphal evening of festive comedy from C21 Theatre Company which finished their year of productions with a definite bang.

You can catch more of Arlene in Michelle and Arlene Holiday Special: Planes, Trains and Tractors in Accidental Theatre’s 12-13 Shaftesbury Square venue on Thursday 21 and Friday 22 December, and C21 Theatre are back with another Rosemary Jenkinson play May The Road Rise Up in the Lyric Theatre from 20-24 February.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Sanctuary - consenting to a season of good will to all people in this sweet yet challenging coming of age film (QFT from 29 Dec to 4 Jan)

Sanctuary is a coming of age film that sees a group of young and not-so-young adults leaving their day centre to go on a festive trip to a local Galway cinema. Their normal work of stuffing folders with leaflets is coming to an end, and in the new year there will be skills-based workshops, but no more paid work.
“The way things are going around here I might not get another chance.”

For the tight-knit group who describe themselves as being “intellectually disabled” (in the UK we might be more used to the phrase ‘learning disability’). With the help of his key worker Tom (Robert Doherty), Larry (Kieran Coppinger), who has Down’s Syndrome and works in a fast food outlet, has engineered the opportunity slip across the road during the screening with his epileptic girlfriend Sophie (Charlene Kelly) to spend quality time in a hotel.

When Larry asks for a condom, Tom realises that he is stepping well over the legal line that criminalises sex outside of marriage* in the case of into hot and deep water. “Would it be different if we were normal?” asks Larry, using the ‘n’ word that Tom is professionally uncomfortable with.

Meanwhile, away from the dancing and romancing, interest in the film is waning – no surprise since it wasn’t chosen with anyone’s cinematic preference in mind – and the curious and shepherdless sheep start to scatter across Galway city centre. William (Frank Butcher) and Andrew (Patrick Becker) go out on the tear, Sandy (Emer Macken) flirts endlessly with Peter (Michael Hayes), Rita (Jennifer Cox) falls asleep before having a spliffing time, while Alice (Valerie Egan) and Matthew (Paul Connolly) go on a shopping spree and melt the heart of a burly security guard. Director Len Collin manages the mayhem beautifully, always stopping short of farce, but never afraid to let levity lift a scene’s mood.

Aside from the central challenge about consent and capacity to consent – which is dealt with both sympathetically and realistically – there is a second challenge to cinema audiences about whether they are well enough informed to hold prejudices about people who they may feel are different from them. The point at which shoppers, guards and cinema staff finally engage with the mutineers who are temporarily freed from Tom’s care, the barriers break down and they all relate to each other with a common humanity.

Larry displays a tenderness and compassion towards Sophie that is endearing, compensating for her tremor by pouring her tea and acting as the very role model of a complete gentleman. His confidence and aspirations meet Sophie’s past, and it’s a privilege to watch the pair’s intimate conversations.

Across the rest of the characters, there’s a mirroring of this compensation and complementation as the street smart and the logical, the impetuous and the thoughtful, combine into brilliant couplings that supply sanctuary to each other.

The twist at the end of this comedic movie is cruel yet credible as the superheroes finally bump into society’s buffers. While each of the day trippers clearly has more sense than their key worker Tom, should his transgressions be allowed to severely impact their lives and freedoms?

The 87 minute long film isn’t too tinselly - Christmas is the excuse for an outdoor market, bright lights and some super drone footage – but if this is truly the season of goodwill to all people, then Sanctuary is a timely reminder.

It’s one of art’s purposes to challenge stereotypes and give power to the marginalised. (You’ll find that in Rosemary Jenkinson’s play Lives in Translation which will tour again in 2018.)

Based on Christian O'Reilly’s play for the Blue Teapot Theatre Company and using its gifted cast, Sanctuary is a must-see film this Christmas. The performances are a tribute, in particular, to Coppinger and Kelly’s acting talent as they, along with the rest of the cast, lift the characters off the stage and onto the silver screen.

Sanctuary will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 29 December to Thursday 4 January.

- - -

The Republic of Ireland’s Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 made sex with someone who was ‘mentally impaired’ (the Act’s term, not mine) an offence, along with anyone soliciting or importuning. The legislation was there to protect vulnerable people from abuse. However it also overruled autonomy and the opportunity to consent. The 2017 Act amended this to outlaw sex with a ‘protected person’ defined by a ‘lack of capacity to consent … by reason of a mental or intellectual disability or a mental illness’.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi - a dreary and dissatisfying tale of Star Wars: Hope Snuffed Out

Two years ago I started my review of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens with the statement that ‘I’m not a big fan of Star Wars’. But the retro, derivative and cliché-ridden reboot of the franchise has grown on me – think of it as Indiana Jones and the Lost Droid – and last year’s Rogue One was a decent science fiction movie.
“My disappointment at your performance cannot be underestimated”

There’s a performance management comment that will be wheeled out in many a year-end review this year! And it applies to my impression of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. It was a big disappointment.

Things started well with an soundtrack rich with stabs of strings and brass. However, the effect of the John Williams motifs faded over time as the problematic storyline took centre stage. The early instances of humour lifted the feeling of worthiness from the convoluted plot and the overly wordy Empire stooges who annunciate each new thought.

There were space dogfights, parries with light sabres, a visit to a seedy watering hole, creeping on and off enemy ships, flying big ships through tight tunnels, and a holiday trip for Rey to an Irish island – Atishoo Ahch-To where it rained and there were disturbing puffin-like critters which after a while demonstrated great facial expressions and toppled into the comedy list – all of which led to an awakening.

But the lack of hope was endless. The ‘force’ had not topped up its card at the filling station and was running perilously low.
“The greatest teacher failure is”

You’ll have to guess which character spoke that line, but he was an welcome addition to a scene that (perhaps symbolically) burnt stuff while the Resistance complained about needing a spark. And he was just one instance of many force-fuelled apparitions of characters in remote locations.

The best battle was saved until the end. The red salt lying under the covering of snow was a fabulous invention and provided the strongest visuals of the film. However Snoke’s red domed (and perhaps doomed) lair with its shiny floor looked like unfinished CGI.

I enjoyed the slower pace, even if it contributed to the 152 minute run time. The characters had time to breath and the space to develop had that been written into the script. Yet at times this rather robbed the plot of much needed jeopardy and my heart never raced.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) had a much more sedate role, separated from the main cast. He see her grow emotionally and spiritually, but her combat abilities are saved for one late tussle. Princess General Leia (Carrie Fisher) overcame the physics of a vacuum (the force is a great gift). So there’s a definite gender rebalancing of the force-ful characters.

Resistance maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is a breath of fresh air, putting principles ahead of reverence and hero worship of Finn. Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) has a short but interesting character arc, playing an uncomfortably safe battle strategy in charge of the Resistance’s last ship before making a fatal yet effective manoeuvre.

Yet despite these strong and interesting women, I noticed that it was men (like Luke Skywalker) who heroically arrived in situations to rescue the many. Men who never showed emotion while the women were allowed to shed tears at will.

But the dissatisfaction comes from convoluted plot devices which send characters on a mission to find someone to break in somewhere to turn something off which of course never happens and makes things a hundred times worse than they would have been. That’s on top of battle decisions that stupidly further diminish the Resistance fleet. Self-inflicted misery.

Overall, it felt like Rian Johnson had set out to write Star Wars: Hope Snuffed Out. Episode VIII may be a credible part of the overall Star Wars canon, but it’s a dreary two and a half hours that fails to live up to the magic of best of the rest of the trilogy of trilogies.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Spectacular Aladdin: pantomime, but not like you’ve ever seen it before! (SSE Arena until 27 December)

With only 18 months between inception and the opening night, planning a brand new show using a team of largely local creatives to stage an arena pantomime for the first time in Belfast is a remarkable achievement. Joe Rea and Martin Lynch have shown incredible ambition to pull this off.

Last night’s performance of The Spectacular Aladdin was loud, brash, full of movement, and it seemed to delight many of the youngest members of the audience who could sing along to S Club 7 anthems and dance Gangnam style in the aisles.

It was definitely pantomime, but not as we know it!

The storyline followed the familiar tale of young Aladdin (played by Jake Carter) defying ‘pain of death’ to gaze upon Princess Jasmine (Nadia Forde). His Mum, Widow Twankie (Chris Robinson) runs the local laundry. The evil Abanazer (Rhydian) is on the hunt for Aladdin, believing that he can provide him with a magic lamp to make him rich. Add to this Wishie Washie (Christina Nelson, who inducts the audience into her gang), a Police Chief with a bushy moustache (Marty Maguire), the Empress mother of the princess (Nuala McKeever) along with the Slave of the Ring (Naomi Rocke) and The Genie (Ross Anderson-Doherty).

Packed into the front third of the SSE Arena, the venue presents its own challenges and opportunities. The stage is incredibly wide and director Dan Gordon has done well to fill it with a relatively small cadre of actors, dancers and child performers that bring the action as close as possible to the tiered seating.

At regular intervals cast members paraded through the wide aisles in the ground floor seated area in front of the stage, and at one point the Genie of the Lamp appeared over my left shoulder in row Q to sing a long distance duet with the Slave of the Ring about 40m away on stage!

It’s a strong cast, with Rhydian stepping comfortably into the shoes of Abanazer though it was only in the second half that he got the boos his malicious character deserved. It shouldn’t have been any surprise that Irish pop artist Jake Carter had a great voice (and played guitar on stage for a quick cover of Galway Girl), but he also played Aladdin with a confidence that belied his lack of theatre experience. Nadia Forde couldn’t quite compete with her heart throb’s dulcet tones.

The job of audience participation fell to Widow Twankie and Wishie Washie. Pantomime dame Chris Robinson persevered with his scripted jokes, innuendo and ad libbing and was much more confident and rewarded with audience reaction after the interval. Human dynamo Christina Nelson never stopped moving and delivered a relentlessly energetic and quick-witted performance the whole time she was on stage.

Naomi Rocke as Slave of the Ring carried a lot of the show’s narration, with lots of flourish-ridden poetic lines, and her duets with Ross Anderson-Doherty were amongst my favourite moments from the show. Nuala McKeever’s wit was underused in her small role as Empress.

Other than a few large rotating pieces of set, projections against the back wall of the stage replaced traditional flown backdrops to place each scene in context. Animation was employed successfully, often synchronised with lighting effects, to increase the sense of drama. While the width and height of the SSE Arena could allow performers to be flown in and out on wires, Aladdin’s ‘flying carpet’ relied this year on more basic trickery. There were lots of sound effects to cartoonify the on-stage action and a live band of five accompanied throughout.

The first act of the pantomime ended with a big song – Reach for the Stars – but there was a lack of jeopardy to carry the plot into the interval: for a minute I thought that the show was over and reached into my pocket to fish out the car park ticket. There were gentle nods to the sponsors throughout (though BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan gets more mentions than Q Radio’s Stephen Clements) and eternal favourites like The Time Warp and a Twelve Days of Christmas skit (complete with Super Soaker squirting) are woven into the show.

The size of the auditorium dents the precision of some performances. While the dialogue was quite clear, much of the sung lyrics were lost in the echoey and muffled sound. (It’s a problem I don’t remember from musical On Eagle’s Wing when it played in the Odyssey back in 2004.) Seated much further away from the action than any other stage in Belfast, I leant forward to squint at the characters on stage. Despite Susan Scott’s bold and glittery costumes helping to make the cast stand out, follow-spots were only used sporadically and at times it felt like some of the action was taking place in relative gloom, particularly when characters moved away from the centre of the stage.

While it’s popular to complain about noisy sweet wrappers in theatres, the concession stands remaining open during the performance (just as they would do during an ice hockey match) created the most disturbance with a constant stream of people in our row squeezing past our legs to go out for more fizzy drink, followed up by a run to the toilet.

Taking a pantomime out of the theatre and into a larger, more open arena was a high risk move. The energy of the performance on Saturday night compensated for a lot of the issues caused by the novel venue. I left the SSE Arena a little bewildered about what I had just witnessed, but satisfied that it was both spectacular and a pantomime.

M & J Pantos seemed to be learning to walk before they ran in their first year of operation with relatively straightforward staging and no pyrotechnics. The team plan to return next Christmas with Cinderella and if they build upon this year’s success and learn lessons from their inaugural run, their annual pantomime may present more established competitors (admittedly with more seats during longer runs) with a challenge to improve their offering.

The Spectacular Aladdin continues in The SSE Arena until Wednesday 27 December.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Happy End - a fabulous piece of dark and brooding storytelling

Michael Haneke is a bit of an evil genius when it comes to screenwriting and directing. And his new film Happy End adds to his fabulous body of thought-provoking and unsettling work.

The film begins with some shaky vertical smartphone footage of a woman’s nightly bedtime routine, with every action anticipated with a typed comment as she brushes her teeth and hair etc. It’s the first sign of a youngster with a penetrating eye and a disturbed attitude towards life, suffering and death. Later we’ll realise that darkness runs in the family genes. (It’s also a nod to Haneke’s pervious film Caché (Hidden) which had surveillance footage at its disquieting heart.)

With her Mum hospitalised, Eve (Fantine Harduin) moves to Calais to live with her father (Mathieu Kassovitz, who walked out of her life years before and has now remarried). Three generations are housed together, each living with their anxieties and insecurities about health and wealth. Eve’s aunt (Isabelle Huppert) is running a struggling construction company that is collapsing before her eyes, not helped by her unstable son (Franz Rogowski), her boyfriend (a rather dapper Toby Jones who is battling with North Sea offshore workers) while her morose father (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is recovering from a car accident.

Happy End is a misleading title, or perhaps just an aspirational one. In truth, this dark family soap opera is more about the ‘end’ than the ‘happy’, at least for those who have a choice in the matter. To say more would be to spoil the story that is very slowly revealed over 107 minutes.

The camerawork is very distinctive, with very long takes keeping a tight focus on people’s heads and keeping as much of the background out of focus (so you can never quite make out the posters on walls as characters walk around). Much of the film is either spent looking into a scene as if through someone’s eyes (or standing just behind them) or standing at a distance, unable to discern what is being said, but able to watch interactions (which at times can be violent).

Much of the dialogue is subtitled in French. Facebook Messenger exchanges intelligently incorporate the subtitles into the on-screen user interface, while a smaller font size is used when eavesdropping on other people’s dialogue.

As the screen went dark and the credits rolled in silence, there was a ripple of nervous laughter across my screening as if the final unresolved unhappy non-ending was a relief.

The inclusion of refugees in and around Calais helps ground the film in contemporary France. The casual racism and maltreatment of the Laurent family’s servants push them over the edge to be thoroughly hard to like yet fascinating to watch.

There’s a lot of death, a lot of longing for death, and a fair amount of engineering it too. Not for the fainthearted, Happy End is a fabulous piece of dark and brooding storytelling.

Ferdinand - good for children, harmless for adults (from 15 December)

I think that the best way, as an adult, to tackle a viewing of Ferdinand is to imagine you’re watching a comedy Bourne film, particularly when it comes to the chase sequences. Otherwise, you’ll wallow in the realisation that this doesn’t measure up to the quality of a Pixar or Disney animation, and is nowhere near as appealing as the original Ice Age.

The first part of the film deals with the origin story: a bull calf (voiced initially by Colin H Murphy, who later hands over to John Cena) with a traumatic upbringing who rebels against the system and escapes when his father doesn’t return victorious from the bullfighting arena in the lorry the young bulls grow up calling the ‘winner’s truck’.
“You can hurt me if you want, but leave the flower alone.”

Along the way he meets a little girl Nina (Lily Day), who so nearly becomes his sidekick before being cruelly replaced by a streetwise goat called Lupe (Kate McKinnon). The little calf grows up, realises that he is more at home in a meadow full of his favourite flowers, becomes confident in his otherness, eschewing violence and simple stereotyping.

On the farm, Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) is a bully, like his father. Bones (Anthony Anderson) is labelled as an underdeveloped “weirdo”. Guapo (Peyton Manning) is nervous and provides the sustained and wretched throwing up jokes.

Ferdinand’s 107 minute journey loops him back round to familiar places, building up momentum, and allowing some of the characters to shake off their wicked ways.

The animation is good and never distracting, and the gentle acoustic guitar-heavy soundtrack is a particular joy to listen to. The beginning of the film is surprisingly morose as Ferdinand’s insecurity is explored and many of the jokes in the script fall flat until the arrival of the comedy hedgehogs.

The bull in a china shop scene is brilliant for its sense of reserve, and the chase sequences with trains and traffic are the points at which the film really comes alive (leading me into my Bourne fantasy).
“You’re either a fighter or you’re meat.”

Set in Spain, it’s a while before you hear any foreign accents, never mind Spanish ones. But over time you’ll hear the German dancing ponies who separate the bulls from the meat factory that conveniently sits a few fields away. “I’m a bull not a doctor” knowingly shouts Angus, the long-fringed bull voiced by David Tennant who gets some of the best lines of the film.

Being an animated kids film doesn’t forgive the many plot holes. The need to escape through the house (a fun albeit prematurely curtailed sequence) is later contradicted by the possibility of galloping through over the fields to the strangely unpopulated slaughterhouse.
“I can’t wait to show you to the rest of the guys! They’re gonna fertilize the yard.”

That’s not a quote I wanted to reuse on the way out of the screening. The young children at the preview seemed to enjoy Ferdinand. This bigger child found it somewhere between Moo and Meh.

Ferdinand is good for children and harmless for adults. It’s a satisfactory animation that suffers from a poor script, and by next Christmas will be gracing supermarket DVD shelves and appear in a less than prime time slot in the festive Radio Times.

In Movie House Cinemas and elsewhere from Friday 15 December.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Preview - Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas (The Black Box on 20 December)

Having paired up satirical versions of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill in her series of Michelle & Arlene plays produced by Accidental Theatre, Rosemary Jenkinson’s latest work teams the DUP leader up with US President Donald Trump in a visit to Belfast. The short play – Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas – forms one half of C21 Theatre’s two-part Christmas production in The Black Box on 20 December.
“I’ve been longing to do Trump for ages. From the beginning of the year I’ve been thinking that he’s manna from heaven for a satirist. He makes so many great proclamations and even his style of delivery makes him a great, larger than life character that any writer would love to tackle.”

The premise for Trump’s visit to Northern Ireland is his desire to investigate our famous peace walls, and the former First Minister is on duty to show the Republican president around the city.

Jenkinson agrees that there’s a “bizarre paradox about our walls … our shame is also our pride” and Trump would definitely be impressed with their height, longevity and maybe even the murals. Maybe he’d fancy himself drawn like King Billy?!

Because the President is already quite outrageous in many people’s minds, Jenkinson says that as a writer she can “go much more crazy and push the boundaries further, and people will go with whatever scenario you produce”.
“Arlene Foster is more serious and watches what she says, and although Trump takes himself seriously, he has no filter and is inadvertently hilarious … As long as you have [Trump] with grounded characters [like Arlene Foster] he can soar and you can let him be as wild and out of control as you like.”

It’s Jenkinson’s first chance to write a Christmas show, although she has no plans or inclination to write a children’s pantomime (“which would be too conservative for me”). The playwright has no problem with satire being entertaining. In the case of Trump’s Big Bad Belfast, “it’s a Christmas show so it has to have a lot of jokes and I want the audience to have a great time”.
“But it’s not just a case of ‘let’s have a light laugh here’. Everything has an edge and everything has a political reason for being in the play.”

The show will touch on the right to bear arms in the US and its history of mass murders – “lampooning the American way” – showing up cultural differences through a fictional incident involving the handling of a weapon when Arlene and Trump are out and about in Belfast.

With a total of three rapid response plays produced this year, Jenkinson says that she enjoys the “immediate response rather than waiting to see whether your work will be produced”. But she still values more traditional writing which allows her “to work on an idea and do research so you know you’ve got something more real than this kind of [short turnaround] fantasy”. Her recent play about asylum Lives in Translation (produced by Kabosh as part of Belfast International Arts Festival) will return to NI stages in 2018.

The cast of two are already familiar with the characters they’ll be playing. Miche Doherty (who recently played Trump in Shannon Yee’s rapid response play All The Best Words at Accidental Theatre in November) will be joined by Maria Connolly (who plays Arlene Foster in the Michelle & Arlene series of short plays).

Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas is paired up with another short play, Brendan Quinn’s Game Of Gnomes (a one man festive show about the actor Bernard Sythe who is working as a CastleCourt Elf).

You can catch The Chronicles of Christmas in The Black Box at 1pm and 7.45pm on Wednesday 20 December. Doors open half an hour beforehand.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Making the Grade: a documentary of distinction about learning to play the piano

Not every film has to be flashy. Not every film has to be unusual and in-your-face challenging. Sometimes it’s good to appreciate something that is well made, keeps its focus, uses structure, and is heart-warming. Particularly at Christmas when quality seems to have a habit of going to the wall.

Making the Grade is just such a film.

It presents a series of vignettes captured over seven months with learners and teachers across Ireland, loosely arranged using the framework of the eight music grade exams.
“The best thing about playing the piano is when you get it right: then you thing you’ve done your job.”

At the FilmHubNI Christmas screening, director Ken Wardrop told the assembled cinephiles that he was drawn to make the documentary by his mother who strangely wanted to take her piano with her when she moved house, despite not having played the ‘very fine piece of furniture’ for forty years!

What could have been a very boring sequence of similarly framed interviews is transformed by the quality of the cinematography, the quality of the sound, the quality of the people on show, and the quirky yet relatable stories that are conveyed.

One of the Microsoft ‘Tips of the Day’ used to suggests that “It's never too late to learn to play the piano”. Young and old compete for viewer attention and Making the Grade includes people who have been badgered into learning as well as those who have returned to the ebony and ivory keys after many, many years away. Some find it therapeutic, many find it frustrating, but all seem to enjoy getting their fingers wrapped around the music and working towards their next examination.

There are smouldering volcanoes of teachers as well as ones who are more eccentric, joking, flirting or free flowing. At times the portraits are quite confessional: we learn a lot about the hopes and dreams, hurts and disappointments of life. While there’s a prevalence of beautiful kitchens and well off families, we are also introduced to learners who practice on plastic keyboard while standing in their narrow hallways.

You don’t need to be a great music lover to appreciate the richness of the documentary, with the variety of teaching methods, musical styles, instruments and piano stools (the upturned hands are my favourite).

Ken Wardrop’s documentary Making the Grade demonstrates the importance of relationship, trust, stickability, confidence and enjoyment. And it showcases a talent for telling a simple story well. With a distributor now in place, expect to see this film back on the silver around April 2018.

Sleeping Beauty - confident, pacey and upbeat pantomime that did not disappoint (Waterfront Studio until 7 January)

Even before the curtain opened, the audience were screaming and booing as the evil Maleficent burst through to introduce himself. Then the curtains swished to the side, revealing the set and introduced the rest of the six-member cast of Sleeping Beauty. It’s a powerful – and probably text book – beginning to a very upbeat pantomime that went out of its way to keep the audience involved all the through the two hour show.

Baby Beauty is cursed by the dark and sinister Maleficent (played by Gary Crossan). Belfast drag queen Truly Scrumptious (Gordon Crawford) plays the dame, Nana Banana Magee, who along with two fairies, Muddles (Nuala Davies) and Stardust (Emer McDaid) whisked the infant off to grow up in a cottage in the magical fairy kingdom woods.

This cued up a great opportunity to work The Time Warp into a Christmas show as the characters jumped into the future and picked up on the story on the eve of Princess Beauty’s sixteenth birthday. Jolene O’Hara plays the Princess who inevitably fell for the long lustrous locks of Prince Harry Stiles ‘with all the styles’ (Gavin Peden). He delivered some of the cheesiest chatup lines in Belfast: my favourite was “Is your name ‘Wifi’? Because I’m feeling the connection!”

The curse was ‘activated’ (though maybe the youngest audience members would have preferred a less technical term?), the princess fell down to the floor, and a rousing song drove the performance into its long interval.

The second half briefly became a bit too frantic, losing a sense of where the plot was going with so much action, before recovering and guiding the show towards a bake-off, audience singing, Maleficent’s powerful rendition of Man! I Feel Like a Woman, and an all too short grand finale.

The colourful costumes worn by Nana Banana and the two ‘Little Magic Mix’ fairies matched the brash set. Leather cowboy chaps with bizarre codpieces were the uniform for Prince Stiles and Maleficent (who had a fine set of metallic robes to add to his horny helmet and bushy beard). While the ogre’s outfit and prodding fork didn’t quite fit the look of the rest of the show, the dummy ‘sleeping’ Princess Beauty was a comedy masterstroke.

The humour in Patrick J O’Reilly’s script was relentless, crammed full of jokes and puns and relatively little innuendo. There was a regular reprise for anyone in the audience who missed any important dialogue or lyrics. Crawford’s rich solo singing voice stood out while the ensemble harmonies were very effective.

Fighting and violence was very hands off and cartoonish, with great sound effects. Sarah Johnston’s fresh choreography gave the cast a move and a pose for nearly every line.

Together this created a very coherent and professional pantomime that director Lisa May kept going at a blistering speed and more than gives the old dame down on Great Victoria Street a run for its money despite the smaller set, smaller cast and smaller ticket price.

If you’re looking for a family friendly Christmas show with audience participation, pace, laughter and lots of pantomime charm, head down to the Waterfront Studio to see Sleeping Beauty. It was my first ever festive visit to the venue, but one that did not disappoint. GBL Production’s Sleeping Beauty continues until 7 January with up to 13 shows a week.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Michelle & Arlene Holiday Special: negotiators on the run in a madcap dash to do a St Stephen’s Day Deal (Accidental Theatre, 7-9 & 21-22 Dec)

Rosemary Jenkinson’s satirical and entirely fictional political comedy is back with the further adventures of Michelle & Arlene. After their summer visit to Ibiza where the two game politicians grew closer than one might ever expect, coming to a new understanding around some policy issues, the leaders have concocted a new cunning plan to break the political deadlock around the failed talks.

At a press conference, Arlene and Michelle announce that as of 9am on 22 December they will lock themselves into a room in Stormont and not leave until a deal is finalised. “It’s not a stunt” insists the DUP leader, played again by Maria Connolly who is dressed in a smart skirt and a jacket adorned with a familiar crown brooch that is only a hint at the depths of her loyal sense of fashion that will later be revealed.

Soon the pair concoct a plan to slip out of their negotiating cage and spend a few days away in more pleasant environs. Mary-Frances Doherty plays Sinn Féin’s leader in the north of Ireland, sporting a blonde mane and a suitcase full of snacks.

An envelope stuffed with who knows what is handed to a Bulgarian gangster in the audience, handbags are stolen, consular support is not an option for two negotiators on the run, and Arlene is firmly in the driving seat as the pair dash across Europe to get home for Christmas. Throw in some wood pellets, Prince William’s wedding, and a Biblical moment sitting on a hay bale in a stable the back of a horse box, and the farce is unstoppable.

The portrayals are consistent with the first episode – Arlene’s beady eyes constantly dart back and forth and Michelle can’t help herself from needling her unionist colleague – though the addition of the Lord Carson power pose adds to the ludicrous nature of the slapstick. Projected animations add yet more humour between scenes with the politicians’ heads bobbing across a map of Europe as they travel around.

There’s less singing than in first production, though The Power of Love duet (‘Love is the light / Scaring darkness away / I'm so in love with you / Make love your goal’) leaves a scary imprint in my memory. While the novelty of the original play is also somewhat diminished and the excuse for the roadtrip is whimsical, the production touches on a lot of familiar issues, makes caustic observations and continues to throw much-needed light on the lack of political progress and the policy cul-de-sacs that seem so hard to reverse out of.

Artistic director Richard Lavery threatens that rapid response plays will continue to be produced at Accidental Theatre: “we’ll keep making them as long as the folks on the hill don’t do anything”

This contemporary one-act, one-hour performance will raise a giggle from audiences, shock them with the fictional actions of the recognisable characters, and leave them wondering whether this far-fetched, rude and irreverent production isn’t actually highly relevant.

Michelle & Arlene Holiday Special: Planes, Trains & Tractors! continues in Accidental Theatre’s space at 12-13 Shaftesbury Square on Friday 8, Saturday 9, Thursday 21 and Friday 22 December at 8pm.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Peter Pan - an enormous cast with an even larger set hits the festive Belfast stage (Grand Opera House until 14 January)

Last time I was at the Grand Opera House, Frank Carson was on stage and I was still at primary school. Thirty five or so years later I returned this week to see Peter Pan in the Great Victoria Street theatre whose restored exterior has recently been revealed with the removal of its scaffolding. Look out for the newly gold-leafed statue of Mercury tooting out from the front corner.

On stage, you’ll be met by an equally glittering set and lighting design for this year’s Christmas crowd pleaser. Peter Pan (Mikey Jay-Heath) flies in through the window into the children’s bedroom. Tinker Bell (‘Tink’ to her few friends, and played by Hollie O’Donoghue) eschews aerial manoeuvres and instead roller-skates her way through the show, displaying the mean, grudge-carrying, raspberry-blowing side of her fairy personality. Her love rival is Wendy (Kweeva Garvey) who endures snide remarks, looks after the children from the McMaster Stage School, and comes to terms with Peter Pan’s lack of suitability as a life partner.

Qdos Entertainment pantomimes come with big sets. The big nursery set – which alone would be extravagant for the duration of many a two act play on a Belfast stage – cleverly folds away almost to nothing and soon we’re in Neverland, before bouncing to the Jolly Roger pirate ship, underwater and back home. It’s in Neverland that we meet the big-voiced Tiger Lily (Natalie Winsor) whose wardrobe displays a Native American/Amazonian tribe crossover sense of swimsuit fashion.

Every pantomime needs a baddie, yet David Bedella’s Captain Hook strangely charms his way into the audience’s hearts with his strong acting, sense of timing and deep bass voice. Also on board the Jolly Roger we meet the cook May Smee (May McFettridge/John Linehan), her husband Smee (Paddy Jenkins) and ship’s entertainer Starkey (Paul Burling). And to complete the set of nine principals, there’s Mimi the magical Mermaid, played by former ‘Bad Girl’ and soap star Claire King.

With live music, pyrotechnics, an animatronic crocodile which sadly only appeared once, enough costume changes to make the wardrobe team weep, a good dose of innuendo for the parents (and teens) to giggle at, and a projected 3D sequence that had the kids screaming well into the next scene with excitement and terror, this is a big production. And on top of that there’s an ensemble of eight to add to the all singing, all dancing feel of this pantomime (with what feels like a tribute to The Wiggles’ Captain Feathersword at one point).

Yet the balance of Peter Pan – the production rather than the wire-tastic actor – feels wrong. Alan McHugh and Jonathan Kiley could trim at least two principals from their script and prevent a queue of stars building up on stage waiting for their moment to step out and do a ‘turn’ rather than a tighter team driving forward the somewhat-ignored plot.

Paul Burling’s imitation routines are merry and entertaining. Despite being the long-running (28 years) and top-billed dame and delivering an impressive chunk of lines in Irish at one point, May McFettridge was less fluent in her ad libbed sections than I remember from previous gigs where she has appeared, and seemed fixated on the first three or four rows of the audience (perhaps an effect of the bright lights and it being press night). That said, her appearance as Wonder Woman was unforgettable and her bosom buddies got the laughs they deserved in the second half. Claire King was buoyant in her interactions with the theatre goers, but didn’t quite generate the warm response that her effort merited.

David Bedella’s early rendition of Blondie’s One Way Or Another sets him apart from much of the rest of the cast early on in the show. Mike Jay-Heath and Kweeva Garvey have mastered their aerial manoeuvres and sing as if flying was the most natural thing in the world an deserve more time on stage.
“Oh yes we can! Oh no we can’t! … It’s like the Brexit debate all over again!”

While slapstick and puns remain, a lot of panto tropes are sparsely used in this darker than expected production. There’s only one “he’s behind you” and it seems as if actual jokes and skilled sword play have replaced some of the worn thin elements of traditional pantomime. Though teenagers (amongst the most tuned-in and politically correct citizens at large) may also suggest that a gorilla sodomising an actor in drag could also be dropped in the future.

With its jaw-dropping crocodile, death, resurrection, and some key change-tastic music, the Dale Farm sponsored Peter Pan is in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until 14 January, playing up to 12 shows a week.

Photo credit: McCracken Photography

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Song of Granite - cold, hard and impenetrable (QFT 8-14 December)

There’s a firm directorial vision behind Pat Collins’ film Song of Granite about Irish traditional singer Joe Heaney. The uncompromising black and white reconstruction of Heaney’s early life in the village of Carna in Connemara carries through from his cot and class to his time working on the farm, before he fled to work as a doorman at a swanky London hotel as a prelude to his prolonged spell living and singing in America.
“From now on when you’re singing, open your mouth … open it up”

Those are the words of Heaney’s primary school teacher, advice that this biopic suggests he only partially followed in later life. A series of actors play the songster across the different stages of his life. As the singer grows older, grainy archive footage is interwoven with reconstruction to tell the tale – in the most gentle sense of ‘tell’ – of his career and his deliberate self-estrangement from his suffering family back home.

Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, as he was also known, sang sean-nós (unaccompanied). In his traditional heartland, he would lean against a pub’s bar while everyone else stands stood, frozen like statues as they listened. Outside the Gaeltacht, some of his folks songs would switch to English.

His stripped back performances are echoed by the 104 minute film that is so bare of cinematic furniture it feels like the film has not been finished. The empty landscape around which Heaney grew up is cold and hard, much like Collins’ film. Unfortunately, while the scenery also has a deep beauty, Song of Granite is impenetrable and it’s a struggle to stay engaged throughout.

The black and white sits well with the discordant, dirge-like string soundtrack that suggests an emotional dissonance and depression with his lot, a sentiment never far from the subject of the hundreds of traditional songs in Heaney’s repertoire.

Song of Granite is bleak, even though it only hints at the Heaney’s unusual personality and complicated relationship with his family. The songs are the only highlight in this underwhelming film that is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 8 until Thursday 14 December.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Europe at Sea - a documentary portrait of the EU’s security policy vision

One of the EU referendum narrative threads voiced concern at the rapid emergence of a European super-state that sought to wipe out the supposed principle of subsidiarity* in an increasing number of sectors: financial, economic, trade, foreign policy, and defence.

Europe at Sea is a new hour long documentary that explores some of the major pressures on the European Union and the European landmass.

The film introduces Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of ‘liquid modernity’ with global citizens increasingly choosing their own flow through the work, home and values, freed from the traditional cultural/national patterns of old. This is seen as one of the drivers for the increasing level of migration around the world that is also provoked by conflict, climate and economic pressures.
“Small could be beautiful but it is not effective. Are British people no better off? It’s playing with fire.”

Those are the words of the EU’s chief diplomat in light of the UK EU referendum result. Filmmaker Annalisa Piras’ documentary follows the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy over a year. Aged 43 at the time of filming, she’s the youngest of the commissioners and works in an office bedecked with an Obama ‘Hope’ poster and colourful drawings by her children.

How can the EU face up to the challenges it faces? Mogherini argues that Europe needs to take control of their defence, working with allies in NATO, but aware that the US may no longer play as positive a role in world affairs follow its “mistakes” in the Middle East. She has a vision of a security force that combines military and civilian personnel, able to tackle areas like cyber-security where NATO is weak.

The camera follows Mogherini on a visit to Lampedusa. It brings home one of the many readings of the film’s title. The 3 October 2014 tragedy in which a fishing boat sank off the coast of the Mediterranean island with the loss of 339 lives and the rescue of only 155 of the migrants who were being trafficked across to Europe. The incident sparked a compassionate response across Italy, and occurred in the last month of Mogherini spell as Italian foreign minister before she moved to Brussels.

Operation Sophia was set up in 2015 to disrupt the people smuggling in the southern central Mediterranean. Naval vessels and crews from 25 countries participated in a joint mission, training the Libyan Coastguard, ‘neutralising’ smugglers’ boats, arresting traffickers and saving lives (over 33,000). However, tackling the cause of the migration would require action in Africa.

The House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee report from July 2017 found that the initiative had failed to achieve its objective. Baroness Verma said:
“People smuggling begins onshore, so a naval mission is the wrong tool for tackling this dangerous, inhumane and unscrupulous business. Once the boats have set sail, it is too late. Operation Sophia has failed to meet the objective of its mandate—to disrupt the business model of people smuggling. It should not be renewed.

“However it has been a humanitarian success, and it is critical that the EU’s lifesaving search and rescue work continues, but using more suitable, non-military, vessels. Future UK and EU action should focus on tackling people smuggling in source and transit countries, and supporting sustainable economic development and good governance in these countries. Italy has found itself on the front line of a mass movement of people into Europe, and deserves credit for its efforts to respond.”

The documentary ends with a chart showing how Chinese, Russian and Saudi military spending is massively increasing as the same time as the EU is collectively reducing individual defence budgets. Mogherini sees the opportunity to create the world’s second largest security force to efficiently tackle the challenges faced by Europe and be a significant peace-keeping force.

While at times Europe at Sea feels like an uncritical puff piece to promote the benefits of European integration, it’s a great educational primer to the thinking and attitudes behind the wider European project. Voices of challenge would have lengthened the film’s duration and perhaps weakened its impact. The camerawork is compelling and the access granted around the documentary’s primary subject makes it very watchable.

Produced by Springshot Productions and Journeyman Pictures, Europe at Sea is now available to view ($) on Amazon.

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*Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union in effect seeks to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen while putting in place checks to verify that any action at the level of the EU is justified and that constant checks are made to verify that action at EU level is competent and justifiable in light of national and regional aspects.