Friday, October 19, 2018

Chapter & Verse - discovering the artist VerseChorusVerse through prose and song #BelFest2018

Tony Wright walks onto the stage wearing his trademark hat, carrying a guitar case and pulling a suitcase behind him. A solo musician needs to become a seasoned traveller in order to survive nomadic touring schedules and grabbing gigs were destiny offers them.
“I wrote a book. I get bored. You spend a lot of time by yourself when you’re a solo musician.”
Chapter and Verse is a bit of a departure for the artist known as VerseChorusVerse. He’s more used to stepping up to the mic to sing, yet his ebullient nature can also carry an audience with excerpts from his recently published memoir Chapter & Verse(ChorusVerse) which is packed full of stories about being out on the road for twenty years.

Dressed in black and with a mop of ginger hair that beautifully tones in with the wood of his guitar, he peppers stories from his networking trip to the US with songs from his back catalogue.

As we move across New York, Nashville and Napa – a networking tour brought to us by the letter ‘N’! – we are entertained by his erudite recollections people and places, with dramatic readings interrupted by his riffing on the written word and extra commentary. If the music ever dries up, Wright’s voice would be a gift for the audiobook industry.

As each anecdote ends he heads back to his guitar and gifts the sold-out Belfast International Arts Festival audience at The MAC (including one man who’s come all the way from Belgium) with another song. The biggest fans mouth along with the words; the newest fans shake their heads – in a good way – as his voice shifts from a whisper to a guttural rasp and then to powerful growls. Who needs a backing band when your larynx can accompany your guitar-picking fingers. That’s what the punters at the New York SideWalk Café open mic night discovered.

The mix of stories and songs is a bit like listening to really well-constructed album, full of good tracks that together add up to something greater; in this case, a better understanding of the artist pacing up and down in front of us. As the reverb for his final Shakedown Sally dies down the audience realise that we have heard a performer who not only grasps every chance he’s given but appreciates them, who has a pair of high capacity lungs hidden behind his guitar, and who can still pull of a Mid Ulster drawl.

Tony Wright is currently artist in residence at The MAC. Hopefully he’ll return to its stage before long. In the meantime, you can catch Chapter & Verse as he heads out on tour with his solo memoir show across Northern Ireland. If you spot a guy with a hat, guitar and suitcase at the bus stop or train station, say hello: you’ll have found a great travelling companion … though you may end up in the next book!
  • 2 November – Waterside Theatre, Derry
  • 4 November – Seamus Heaney HomePlace
  • 8 November – Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey
  • 9 November – Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick
  • 10 November – Riverside Theatre, Coleraine
  • 22 November – Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry
  • 23 November – Island Arts Centre, Lisburn
  • 1 February 2019 – Market Place Theatre, Armagh

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Dear Arabella – the importance of the simple acts of kindness (Lyric Theatre until 10 November) #belfest2018

Last night’s world premiere of Marie Jones new play Dear Arabella opened the 2018 Belfast International Arts Festival. The last few Marie Jones shows on the Lyric Theatre stage have been brash and outrageous – Sinners, Christmas Eve Can Kill You, Mistletoe and Crime – but while there’s still room for funny lines, her latest work is much more stripped back and serious.

Three half-hour monologues are delivered straight to the audience by three experienced actors, reminiscing about different perspectives on one summer afternoon in 1960’s Northern Ireland when life changed for three women.

It’s a tale about the power of simple unplanned gestures to unlock new possibilities in other people’s lives, single encounters that unwittingly empower previously-trapped canaries to escape their prison cages and find ways to soar, free from the baggage of family and long-held frustrations.

Jean lives on the dark side of the street, physically and emotionally. Jones’ flair for sharp, social observation emerges through the affliction bingo that can be played with those living in the odd numbers of working class Rockhammer Street. So often cast in comedic roles, Katie Tumelty proves her versatility as she explains the series of events that led to her escape from caring for her infirm, fly-swatting mother to travel by train to the bright side of a beach and an encounter how the other half live. There’s no room for stumbles and Tumelty gives the script the flowing rhythm it needs and her eye contact with the audience is rewarded with equal measure of mirth and sympathy.

When Elsie rises to speak, an unexpected gift of hospitality on a train is unpacked to reveal how she is living under the shadow of the state of her marriage and the pain of Second World War service locked into her emotionally vacant husband. Laura Hughes tells a beautiful tale about working in a Belfast picture house and brings to life her character’s greater sense of self-reflection and adaptability.

Later it’s the turn of becardiganed Arabella, Jean’s eventual one-sided pen pal. Living in the big white house looking down on the beach, Lucia McAnespie has been given a pronounced English accept that jars with the fact this is her family home and she never left this island’s shores. Her mimicking of Dorcas the cleaner’s accent is done to perfection. And though they’ve never met, the danger of the sea provides a loose but sufficient link between widowed Arabella and Elsie, completing the circle.

Peter McKintosh’s set with its tiled wooden circle hovering above an azure floor – like an island floating in the sea – is as elegant as the structure of the play. The wide seascape stretched across the full width of the stage provides a canvass onto which lighting designer Tim Mitchell can project a mesmerising, ever-changing array of clouds and sunsets.

Jones’ pen writes turns of phrase that reek of Belfast: “playing the piano like she was beating the dust out of her carpet”. However, it’ll be empathy rather than laughter that will cause you to shed a tear during the 95 minute performance.

Unless you need a kick up the backside to stop burdening other people with your own choices, this probably isn’t a life-changing piece of theatre for the audience. Though I could be wrong.

As a piece of art, Dear Arabella is a beautiful thing. Though that means it risks being an ornament left to sit on a shelf.

Dear Arabella is the type of well-crafted play that English Literature classes will dissect in years to come. It’s like a satisfying short story or novella, and director Lindsay Posner delicately tip toes through the production avoiding unnecessary performance embellishments that would distract from the script that has been pared back to remove complexity and leave its central theme exposed: we have such little insight into how important our day-to-day interactions with other people can turn out to be.

One afternoon, three women, barriers broken as water provides rebirth and new life.

Dear Arabella plays as part of Belfast International Arts Festival in the Lyric Theatre until 10 November.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Johnny English Strikes Again – analogue battling digital for supremacy in this flimsy but funny spy spoof

An information security breach has resulted in the identities of all of the UK’s spies being compromised. Retired assets are recalled to service, but soon only the bumbling but well-meaning Johnny English is still available to investigate the leak and protect his country.

To be honest, 88 minutes of full-on Mr Bean would have been tiresome. But Rowan Atkinson’s hapless hero is gentle and endearing in Johnny English Strikes Again.

The storyline allows the unconventional agent to escape from his new job in teaching to travel undercover across Europe with his smarter sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) and a suitably analogue set of spyware to keep one step ahead of the digital terrorism at loose. Essentially the film is a series of enjoyable set pieces threaded together with William Davies’ plot. Perhaps the most memorable episode reveals the perils of VR.

Atkinson has lost none of his charm. The facial expressions, hand gestures, speech patterns and comic timing are still immaculate. Miller’s presence gently amplifies the great master’s work while adding his own raised eyebrows to scenes.

With Johnny English Strikes Again, director David Kerr has essentially created the comedy film that Kingsman: The Golden Circle should have aspired to be. While it retains some misogyny – a female Prime Minister, not unlike Theresa May played by Emma Thompson, uses her wiles to ensnare a possible tech saviour – and a tendency to linger on plunging necklines, there’s none of the needless vulgarity of the Savile Row spy franchise.

To complete the flimsy yet funny spoof, throw in in some Anglo-Russian cooperation, Bond-veteran Olga Kurylenko, a female submarine commander, and an inconspicuous Aston Martin. Like it’s hero, Johnny English Strikes Again is mostly harmless, predictable family fun.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Double Cross - a timely revival of a play about truth and power (Lyric Theatre until 27 October) #belfest2018

We live in a world in which facts, claims, campaigning, opinion, propaganda and falsehoods all blur together into a constant onslaught of billboard, radio, TV, newspaper, social media and verbal messaging.

A meme travels faster than a rumour used to, its objectivity and truthfulness often less valued than its humour and viral spreadability. Emotion and empathy are used to trigger our response, seemingly far more powerful than reasoned and rational argument.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Thomas Kilroy’s recently 1986 updated play Double Cross brings together two troubled Irishmen who dominated the British radio waves during the Second World War.

Onto the stage of the Lyric’s Naughton Studio walks Brendan Bracken, “a trickster” who has risen to the top. The man who merged economic titles to create the modern Financial Times and would become Churchill’s Minister of Information distances himself from his unhelpful family history and his County Tipperary heritage as seeks to keep up civil support for the war effort through snappy slogans and up-beat briefings.

As well as being hounded by his brother, playwright Kilroy gifts the moody Bracken with an unhealthy obsession with his nemesis, William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw-Haw, the voice of an English-language Nazi propaganda radio service that broadcast into the UK from Germany. Black and white video projections onto semi-transparent panels allow both characters to confront each other while an old wireless plays out their words in the background.

Ian Toner plays the two main roles while Charlotte McCurry takes on their partners, strongly challenging Bracken and Joyce’s behaviour and attitude. Sean Kearns plays numerous characters, demonstrating a talent for quickly switching accents and personas. In a later scene, dressed as newspaper publisher Lord Beaverbrook, he visits Joyce in his prison cell and brings the condemned man face-to-face with a commercial rather than political purveyor of disinformation.

The performances are intense throughout, with Toner ably depicting massive swings of emotion while McCurry brings to life two strong women who are not afraid to stand up and stare into the eyes of their needy, sometimes abusive, and often distant partners.

The script is incredibly dense, perhaps not a surprise given the wordy nature of Bracken and Joyce’s jobs, though it is full of rewarding phrases and retorts. Gillian Lennox’s costumes ground the piece in the 1940s yet director Jimmy Fay has ambitiously and successfully combined sound and video content with emotionally-charged live performances to broadcast Double Cross with hi-fi clarity into 21st century western society.

Whether watching Trump’s US Presidential campaign and election to the White House, the EU referendum campaign and the Brexit negotiating that has followed, or even the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and inquiry, we’re becoming all too familiar with blatant lies, hidden information, conflicting versions of events, inaccurate spin and distracting bluster.

Double Cross certainly deserved to be revived and restaged. Its audience are seated on either side of Ciaran Bagnall’s long and narrow set, as if sitting in judgement, weighing up which of these two versions of England is less evil and more justified.

“Why does the victim always imitate the oppressor?”

Perhaps the most pertinent question they should be asking is one from the script. The danger is that society, the state and journalism react to the spread of falsehoods with equally the outrageous twisting of the truth.

Double Cross continues its run throughout Belfast International Arts Festival at the Lyric Theatre until 27 October, before transferring to its coproduction partner in the Abbey Theatre from 31 October–10 November.

Production photos: Melissa Gordon

Friday, October 12, 2018

Date Show: After Dark – coupling happiness and heartbreak with novel settings and technology (Bullitt Hotel until Friday 19 October)

For some people the prospect of sitting still in a row of theatre seats for a couple of hours is not pleasant after spending a day sitting behind a desk in work. And sometimes a script is so complete and stuffed full of the playwright’s ideas that there’s no room to become engrossed in your own analysis of what’s playing out on stage in front of you.

Three’s Theatre Company’s Date Show format addresses both those problems by following a series of individuals and couples around Belfast’s Bullitt Hotel, allowing the audience to eavesdrop on their conversations, thoughts and encounters.

One moment we might be standing against the bar in the hotel lobby listening to a young man and woman discussing the same upcoming doom-laden anniversary with their friends. One’s on the phone, the other chatting to a work colleague. Both share their aspirations; but only the audience sense the clash of expectation. Then we hear other voices and our heads swivel to a table where an older couple are falling out while an overly tactile waitress fangirls over the man. Next to them sit a couple of hotel guests, slowly realising that the unfolding drama is connected with the clumps of headphone-wearing people standing five metres away staring in their direction.

Depending on the colour of your headset, you’ll be guided through one of three different routes through the drama, sometimes spilt off from the majority to watch another perspective of a couple’s development.

Building on the success of February’s Date Show in The MAC (which used every space in the building – including the downstairs toilets – except the two stages), new stories and characters have been developed by new as well as experienced writers in this bespoke set of interwoven performances in The Bullitt Hotel.

At times while you slowly follow a pair of hotel cleaners up the back stairs, polishing the bannister as they go, it can feel a lot less intense than traditional theatre. And then you cram inside a Room 118 before a couple burst in and try to unwrap each other as quickly as you’d rip open a cond…. hotel biscuit on the bedside table.

While the storytelling can be sparse, the technique employed is ambitious and sophisticated, at one point relying on the most subtle of glances to redirect the audience’s gaze four storeys up into the air to catch a glimpse of someone on the rooftop.

The ‘normal’ guests in the working hotel create a perfect backdrop. Thursday night’s The Greatest Showman party complete with bearded ladies and top-hatted circus ringmasters could have been part of the Date Show script. But it was a lone figure (Lynne Webber) leaning against the wall who we heard worrying through our headsets, as she psyched herself up for a first date. Mary Jordan was on top form as the Minnie Mouse-heeled psychic, Belfast’s gift to yoga and taking yourself too seriously!

Aisling Groves-McKeown and Michael Bingham make a great unhappy couple. Groves-McKeown fully connects with the audience with her demanding yet reasonable expectations, hope-filled yet realistic about her partner’s emotional distance. Bingham neatly moves his character from complacency to enthusiasm though never quite makes himself as vulnerable (at least in the version I saw) as his long-suffering other half. There’s also a sense that the venue, in this case a hotel, becomes a character too, opening itself up to the audience who examine aspects and facilities that they never knew existed.

As I leave, someone shouts over from one of the tables occupied by actors just an hour earlier. She’s having a drink with her partner. I nearly reach up for my headphones before remembering that this is real life. Stories just like the dramatised ones we’ve dipped into are still happening even after the cast and crew have hung up their costumes.

Jealousy, paranoia, dissatisfaction, live music and a beautiful dance to finish (Lizi Watt and Gerard Kelly) under the skillful control of artistic director Anna Leckey and her enthusiastic team. Seventeen creatives, one hotel, many stories, even more imaginations.

Staged with the support of Arts & Business NI as well as team at The Bullett Hotel, who knows were the next version will pop up. But in the meantime, catch Date Show: After Dark twice or more daily until Friday 19 October.

Lobby and staircase photos credit: Belfast Times

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Mile 22 – as expendable as the crackpot special ops team it features

The tension mounts as a serious of countdown clocks approach zero, with a deniable black ops team still no closer to evacuating their source of a vital code in order to recover some missing Caesium that threatens to prematurely put cinemas audiences out of their misery if it explodes. Sorry, that last bit isn’t part of the film. But it is what you’ll be hoping after an hour of this latest Mark Wahlberg/Peter Berg vehicle.

The missing nuclear material and the race to recover it may not be the only game being played. Ostensibly about failure – a fairly novel concept for a US-made special ops thriller – Mile 22 watches as a team of misfits battle through the fog of modern combat and infowars to achieve their objective. The flawed hero of the film at first seems familiar, a new version perhaps of the emotionally-damaged Jason Bourne. But the lead actor has none of the grit and vulnerability of Matt Damon.

Mark Wahlberg plays James Silva who snaps an elastic band around his wrist when his patience weakens at the super-slow pace of everyone else’s thinking, instantly blowing any cover he ever had while wandering around in public. And that’s before he opens his mouth and delivers arrogant monologues to beleaguered staff when they’re already stressed. The character quickly wears thin, unfortunately, unlike his elastic band.

Blackberry phones explode when flung across the room. But they’re only a precursor to much larger detonations. Scenes of hand-to-hand combat are combined with brutal firefights that feel more like a 2018 version of the ZX Spectrum’s Way of the Exploding Fist mashed up with Rambo than a credible version of anything remotely believable.

Throw in an acrimonious divorce, a military unit of last resort (branded Overwatch) who carry round a series of nodding US President toys in a protective flight case, and a foreign power’s plane circling overhead stuffed full of communications equipment (actually doing overwatch).

Lauren Cohan shows some grit as fellow agent Alice Kerr, though screenwriter Lea Carpenter lumbers her with a stereotypical distracted-by-family-difficulties backstory that totally undermines any badass tendency the character could have displayed. Meanwhile, John Malkovich paces around a temporary operation HQ in his lucky sneakers calling himself Mother (in an unexpected tribute to The Avengers TV series).

On the plus side, it’s only 94 minutes long. The Blackberry phone could resuscitate the manufacturer’s fortunes if they rushed it to market. And Iko Uwais – who plays Li Noor, the double agent who is holding the keys to so many people’s lives – creates a whole new sub-genre of martial arts action in a sequence which sees him fend off attackers while still handcuffed to a hospital bed. It’s the best scene in the film (and quite near the start if you need an excuse to be able to leave early).

Mile 22 … perhaps still playing at a few local cinemas.

Shrek The Musical - a sparkling adaptation of well-loved film (Grand Opera House until 21 October)

My social media feeds yesterday were full of messages about World Mental Health Day as well as the Supreme Court verdict about the ‘gay cake’, a funding crisis in local schools, an increasingly fractious Brexit debate and further revelations at the RHI Inquiry.

So heading out to the Grand Opera House to see Shrek The Musical should have been a bit of a tonic … until I remembered that the main character was an ogre who wanted to drain his swamp of internally displaced persons and build a wall around it to protect himself.

Shrek (Steffan Harri) agrees to rescue a puppeteering princess for the diminutive Lord Farquaad in return for regaining control of his swamp and returning to a life of solitude. Donkey latches onto the intrepid green adventurer and together they set out to evade a dragon, capture the princess and deal with raging hormones, insecure friendships and body image issues along the way.

The stage version of the well-loved animated film retains much of the original humour and uses video (special) effects to add a little sparkle to the set which is much more intricate than you’ll see at a pantomime yet delivers incredibly slick scene changes throughout the two and a half hour show. The puppetry is fun – the Gingerbread Man stole every scene he appeared in (kudos to his handler Jemma Revell) – and the flying dragon is a great reminder that animatronics aren’t needed to bring larger than life characters to life on a theatre stage.

Samuel Holmes brings the little tyrant Lord Farquaad to life, with fabulous choreography that is never satisfied and continues to explore what an actor can do while hobbling around the stage on his knees. Marcus Ayton injects suitable amounts of attitude and booty shaking to Donkey, while Amelia Lily gracefully transitions between sassy locked-up Princess Fiona and insecure bride-to-be with a fear of the night.

The slightly bashful nature of Shrek diminished Steffan Harri’s on stage presence for the first half of the show. It was only after the interval that his quiet voice began to convincingly inhabit the larger-than-life central character who tended to sing with his feet glued to the ground, perhaps losing some of the energy the young audience required.

The supply of fart jokes never smelt stale and delighted both young and old in the audience. While the 7pm curtain up is family-friendly and early, some of the youngest audience members were clearly way past their bedtimes and running out of steam by the end of the performance.

The devil of success in a kids’ show is in the detail. Watch out for the cow that flies over the moon, Pinocchio’s nose, a mention of Brexit, as well as beautiful tableaux created by the fairytale cast, particularly during Freak Flag. Understudy Sophie Wallis deserves a special mention for her vocal prowess as the dragon in last night’s performance.

“God bless us, everyone” commands the Gingerbread man as the show concludes and he picks up a bugle and some drumsticks to play out the closing title sequence song I’m a Believer which sends everyone out onto Great Victoria Street with a smile on their faces and warm glow in their hearts.

Shrek The Musical is loitering in the Grand Opera House’s swamp until Sunday 21 October.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Bad Times at the El Royale – accommodating, leisurely and unpredictable neo-noir (cinemas from Friday 12 October)

Welcome to the El Royale, a dilapidated hotel that straddles the state border of California and Nevada. You can pay extra to be in sunny California, yet still wander over the red line that dissects the lobby to enjoy the gaming machines in Nevada.

Four strangers check in for a night, each dragging a lifetime of baggage with them as well as some very individual luggage. The film’s title – Bad Times at the El Royale – refers to the past as well as the present as the flashbacks slowly reveal what has brought each guest to this remote location and key action scenes rewind to allow the audience view what happened from two or three different perspectives.

Writer/director Drew Goddard sets up the characters and the props on his neo-noir Cluedo board and over a generous two hours and twenty minutes allows the characters to wander about the property getting stuck into each other while the audience scratch their heads wondering who, if anyone, will make it to the end of their stay alive.

Set in 1969, Jon Hamm plays a vacuum cleaner salesman who is trying to unearth dark secrets that may be hidden at the hotel. Jeff Bridges is a passing priest whose lack of pastoral presence may be excused by his dementia. Darlene Sweet is a singer who hasn’t made the big time and picks up a living travelling between poorly paid gigs. Cynthia Erivo’s soulful voice brings both her character and the whole film to life when she bursts into song.

Dakota Johnson plays the fourth guest, a young woman with stacks of attitude, a distrustful nature, and a secret hidden in her car boot. While Johnson has moved on from the Fifty Shades BDSM franchise, she hasn’t forgotten how to tie people up.

Miles Miller is the hotel receptionist. In fact he’s the only member of staff at the run down establishment. While everyone and everything about this film is uncertain, Lewis Pullman’s character is perhaps the most mysterious as the audience piece together the reason for his lethargy and his role in the sinister acts he claims to have witnessed at the distressed and distressing hotel.

A couple of very satisfying jump scares spice up an otherwise leisurely narrative. There is too much on-screen sitting around for my taste, eeking out the dark tale that is never in a rush to reach its slightly disappointing resolution. This is nothing like Hotel Artemis! But good performances and a completely unpredictable plot will reward cinemagoers with an evening to spare.

Bad Times at the El Royale will be screened at Movie House Cinemas and other venues from Friday 12 October.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

A Star Is Born - fourth time lucky with great performances from Gaga (cinemas from 3 October)

Washed-out rocker Jackson Maine is feeding one of his addictions in a drag bar after a stadium gig when a former waitress steps on stage and blows him away with her vocal performance.

He chases, she relents, he relapses, she forgives, he’s hitting the buffers of his career, she’s younger and more talented than he’ll ever be. It’s an age old story – and this is the third remake of the original 1937 film and a line in the script admits “it’s the same story, told over and over” – but the 2018 version of A Star Is Born may turn out to be the definitive one.

Although it runs for 135 minutes, the plot is pared-down and the size of the cast is kept small. The central relationship between Ally (Lady Gaga) and Maine (Bradley Cooper) explores the imbalance of power, insecurity, loneliness, jealousy and vulnerability well enough to make this a good film. However, the quality of Gaga’s performances – acting and musical – throughout make it a remarkable film.

While the camera is quick to shift its focus away from close-ups of Cooper playing electric guitar, it lingers on Gaga as she delivers live vocal and piano performances to match the mood of each scene. In particular, her final song is a one-take wonder that is packed with emotion.

Ally is a defensive and ballsy character, yet one who is disarmingly accepting of Maine’s present weirdness. She’s played by Gaga, stripped of her outrageous stage costumes and wigs, but bursting with sass and energy. Cooper – making his directorial début – slowly reveals some of the family tensions that have informed Maine’s poor choices (Sam Elliott plays his older brother), yet the script never allows him to be redeemed.

The one weakness in the film is its male dominance. Perhaps that is the point Cooper still wanted to make eighty years after the original. Even the final voice in the film emphasises that this has been a story about Maine rather than Ally, that the male hero is more important to showcase than the young star who has been trapped in his once-gilded cage. It felt like a missed opportunity to send audiences out of cinema screens with hope in their step rather than the realisation that inequality still rules.

A Star Is Born sets a standard for musical story telling in the cinema. It suffers from none of the lip-syncing of The Greatest Showman. It’s more earthy than La La Land and it should age better than The Bodyguard*.

In most cinemas from 3 October.

* Having caught a screening of the documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me last year in Edinburgh, I rewatched The Bodyguard when it was recently broadcast again on TV. While the film has aged and no longer has the same impact as it enjoyed back in 1992, the parallels between the life of fictional Rachel Marron and Whitney Houston were incredibly uncomfortable to view. So I hope that in 25 years’ time we don’t discover dark secrets about A Star Is Born’s principal cast.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Rigoletto - a feast for the eyes and ears (NI Opera in Grand Opera House until 6 October)

For the non-expert operagoer, Rigoletto is blessed with a straightforward plot when compared with some other works. A good choice for NI Opera’s director Walter Sutcliffe in his second year in charge.

The titular character of this soap opera is a court jester, a recent widower who is unimpressed with his Duke’s handsy way with women and serial adultery. Along the way the jester is cursed. His daughter Gilda falls for a student who woos her but (spoiler alert!) turns out to the Duke, and despite witnessing his womanising ways she tragically intervenes in a vengeful plot to kill her true love, completing the curse on her father.

Men dominate both the opera, in terms of the robust male chorus, and the women who are written as objects of affection with little agency of their own. The inappropriate imbalance is not disguised and the audience will notice a string of scenes that build on this theme.

The Ulster Orchestra play Giuseppe Verdi’s dark and muted score with wind and brass over low register strings. Space is made for Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto, which is sung in its original Italian with English surtitles on too-small screens hung to each side of the stage.

Nadine Koutcher plays Gilda as an ingénue dressed at first in fluffy pyjamas, and later in a jumper stolen from Sara Lund’s The Killing wardrobe. Her fine soprano voice rises to hit the top notes in Act III’s quartet Bella figlia dell’amore. Baritone Sebastian Cantana plays her hunchback father, the jester who neither smiles nor tells jokes, but carries the plot as he acts out his hopes and fears. Fleur Barron put in an excellent performance as Maddalena, an assassin’s sister and bait for his targets.

Davide Giusti found his feet in the role of the vain and brash Duke by the end of the first Act and delivers the catchy misogynist canzone La donna è mobile (“Woman is flighty / Like a feather in the wind / she changes her words / and her thoughts! / Always miserable / is he who trusts her / he who confides in her / his unwary heart!”) in an understated fashion that underscores that this is belief and not just his boast. Northern Ireland singers dominate the chorus and some of the smaller named parts, demonstrating that NI Opera’s talent development programme is delivering results.

The scale and consistency of the creative design is beyond most local theatre productions. Kaspar Glamer’s clever set fills the height of the Grand Opera House, with each side revolving to spit out and then swallow up bedrooms, kitchens, forests and bars. Along with Wolfgang Goebbel’s low-slung lighting design, the staging of NI Opera’s Rigoletto is as moody as the storyline, though at times the heads of the cast remain in shadow, denying the audience of facial expression.

Rigoletto is a feast for the eyes and ears. While it lacks the grotesque spectacle of 2015’s Turandot and the humour of February’s The Threepenny Opera, Rigoletto is one of the most accessible works that NI Opera have produced in recent years. It plays on alternate nights this week in the Grand Opera House. There’s a free but bookable talk in the Baby Grand before some performances.

Production photos: Patrick Redmond

Friday, September 28, 2018

Under the Hawthorne Tree (Cahoots NI at The MAC until 7 October)

In retrospect it’s pretty shocking to realise that I emerged from primary and secondary education in Northern Ireland without being taught any Irish history. A mention of the Belfast Blitz and a factoid that Cromwell had travelled through Lisburn were the only real local insights imparted by the time I opted out of history lessons at the end of third year. A visit to the Doagh Famine Village in the summer of 2011 was the first time I’d encountered the Great Famine in any detail.

Cahoots NI has adapted Marita Conlon-McKenna’s 1990 children’s novel Under the Hawthorne Tree and brought it to life on stage in an eight-handed musical tale that follows the journey of three siblings who try to escape the disease and death that engulfs their town when the potato blight in the late 1840s.

It’s an aptly dark tale of bravery in the face of danger, stamina overcoming weakness, and an expedition of hope as Eily, Michael and Peggy trudge towards distant relatives who live far away on the coast.

Repeated elements of Carlos Pons Guerra’s choreography establish the children’s young ages despite the use of adult actors. Maeve Smyth thrives in her role as the protective eldest daughter, the one who keeps hold of common sense. Together with Philippa O’Hara and Terence Keeley, the main cast’s harmony singing is superb, accompanied by a live band who sit around the circular raised stage.

Cahoots’ trademark magic is more subtle than usual, but nevertheless can be seen in the prop-tastic trapdoors and in James McFetridge’s sculpted lighting that allows characters to appear on stage out of nowhere. Words and music penetrate the auditorium with clarity and Garth McConaghie’s hummable score shifts from Irish trad to gospel to lament as each scene requires.

Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney has created a show whose message will be understood and should be heard right across Ireland … and beyond as the 170 year old story has much resonance with contemporary migration journeys.

Under the Hawthorn Tree is a fitting piece of theatre that illuminates an important part of Irish history. While the subject matter is serious, the 65 minute performance has pace and moments of levity that will keep youthful audiences engaged without being overwhelmed by facts and education. There are daytime performances for schools and weekend shows for families in The MAC until 7 October.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Belfast International Arts Festival – previewing some of the theatre and talks on offer from 16 October – 3 November #BelFest2018

One month from today, Belfast International Arts Festival will be back for 2018 with 125 events from 12 countries, including 12 premières and running over 19 days from 16 October until 3 November.

I’ve picked out some of my speech and theatre highlights from the programme which is filled to the brim with quality music, theatre, dance, talks, tours and more from home and abroad.

Marie Jones’ new play Dear Arabella will open the festival with its world premiere in the Lyric Theatre on Tuesday 16 October, running until 10 November. It intertwines three women and their tales of love, regret and loss to create a poignant play with a simple act of kindness at its heart. [review]

Originally performed by Field Day Theatre Company in 1986, Double Cross takes on a new relevance in this era of heightened nationalism and so-called fake news as two real-life Irishmen are pitched against each other in a WW2 propaganda battle (British Minister for Information Brendan Bracken and Nazi broadcaster Willian ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ Joyce). Lyric Theatre from Wednesday 10 until Saturday 27 October. [review]

The artist behind VerseChorusVerse, Tony Wright, will perform excerpts from his new book Chapter & Verse(ChorusVerse) at The MAC on Wednesday 7 November. [review] 

Dominic Grieve QC MP refuses to accept a hard Brexit and will deliver Amnesty International’s annual lecture to discuss the future of human rights post-Brexit. In Human Rights: Brexit, the Border and Beyond, he’ll explain why the UK should stay fully committed to its international human rights obligations and why this important for people in Northern Ireland. Journalist Steven McCafferty will host a Q&A after the lecture. Thursday 18 October Postponed until Thursday 8 November at the Ulster University Belfast campus.

Stroke Odysseys is a colourful, original, and perhaps cathartic, music and dance show that integrates the lives, experiences and performances of stroke survivors with a professional cast. The MAC on Thursday 18 October at 8pm.

For two nights only, Josette Bushell-Mingo will mix story and songs by Nina Simone as she draws out parallels from the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement in the US with persisting inequality in today’s society and questions how far we’ve really come. Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone features a live band and what promises to be a strong, searing and soulful piece of theatre. The MAC on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 October.

Former Irish President Mary Robinson will discuss her book Climate Justice with journalist Frank McDonald. Her foundation works to secure global justice for often-forgotten people who are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Monday 22 October at Ulster University Belfast campus.

Twenty years after the SAS shot dead three members of the IRA in Gibraltar, Hugh Stoddart’s new play Gibraltar Strait will be performed by Brassneck Theatre in the MAC from Tuesday 23 until Saturday 27 October. The powerful and balance verbatim account was written a year after the events using eyewitness testimonies and oral recordings, described by the Independent on Sunday as an example of theatre being able to “revitalise an event suspended between news and history”.

CANCELLED - Complex identities are not unfamiliar to this part of the world. Facing the Sea, for Tears to Turn into Laughter uses movement, music and chanting to explore the pain of exile and the impossibility of return. Live piano and singing accompany choreographer Radhouane el Meddeb’s story of a man, both Tunisian and French, created in the aftermath of the revolution in Tunisia that kicked off the Arab Spring. The MAC on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 October.

Big Telly Theatre Company are producing “a gloriously absurd expedition into the world of strange” with an darkly humoured evening of circus Freak Show written by Zoe Seaton and Nicky Harley. Marvel at the Portrush Giantess and the Brainless Brothers as the fairground attractions grind their axes in a rare roadshow of revenge. The MAC from Wednesday 31 October until Saturday 3 November.

The New Playwright’s Showcase returns to the Lyric again, this year with the performances split across three evenings of double-bills of rehearsed readings of new work showcasing the talents of new and upcoming writers. Thursday 1, Friday 2 and Saturday 3 November.

The award-winning Open Arts Community Choir will fill the Great Hall in Parliament Buildings, Stormont with vibrant song and testimony from choir members as they celebrate 18 years of music. The choir is made up of people with and without disabilities and were gold medallists at the European Choir Games. Expect to hear fresh interpretation s of classical standards as well as choral arrangements folk, pop and folk classics. Something Inside So Strong on Friday 2 November.

The festival closes with all-male comedy ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo who will mix tutus with testosterone, in an evening of fun and flawless dance feathered with false eyelashes and prima ballerina attitude as they perform a series of sassy spoofs and homages to classical ballet. Friday 2 and Saturday 3 November at Grand Opera House.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Unfriended: Dark Web – slow-burn, non-horror turkey is a timely reminder about electronic surveillance and computer security (from 10 August)

Unfriended: Dark Web joins a group of friends for game night. Unable to meet face-to-face, they instead play Cards Against Humanity over Skype. In real time we watch the screen of Matias’ new computer which he ‘came across’ that day. He flicks between a Facetime Messenger video call with his deaf girlfriend and the rest of the gang.

As the evening unfolds, Matias gets help to unlock hidden files on the laptop and after 40 or so minutes of meaningless malarkey, a dark and sinister plot comes to light that threatens the circle of friends as an unseen man tries desperately to recover his property.

Colin Woodell plays the permanently flustered protagonist, Matias, who is juggling a lack of computing power with his attempts to avoid learning Americal Sign Language to properly communicate with his increasingly disenfranchised lip-reading girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras).

The character development of the games night participants – cute couple Nari (Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani), IT geek Damon (Andrew Lees) and AJ (Connor Del Rio) – plays second fiddle to the murky plot, and their backstory and reasons for friendship are never fully explored.

While it’s laudable for writer and first-time director Stephen Susco to experiment to see if the found footage genre could be expanded to include computer-based material, he has not made a horror film. While momentary licence is taken at key plot points by adding deep and subtle sound effects that are external to the otherwise sterile soundscape, the filmmakers struggle to build any tension and do not intimidate their audience with scares. The on-screen events are clearly frightening for the fictional characters, but my stomach certainly didn’t lurch in sympathy as the glitchy villain invaded the gamers’ privacy.

The 16:9 aspect ratio works well and supports the dramaturgical niftiness that keeps the focus on particular characters during the main five-way Skype call between the friends. The use of commands in the Skype chat window is relatively realistic, though the IP address beginning ‘617.___’ is a forced technical error that should have been spotted.

Overall, Unfriended: Dark Web is a poor demonstration of the horrors that may lie in corners of the actual dark web. While there have already been a few cinematic turkeys this year, this definitely makes the list with its slow burn brand of non-horror, only rescued by a mercifully short 92 minute runtime and a nice mention of ‘covfefe’.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The Meg – the de-fin-itive summer disaster movie (from 10 August)

The makers of The Meg must have asked themselves what more could sensibly be added to the canon of shark films. It’s a well-established genre that regularly spills red blood into the blue sea and puts fear into the heart of nervous cinemagoers.

The Meg begins on the offshore marine research platform Mana One which has been independently financed by a bearded billionaire (played by Rainn Wilson). He’s flown in to visit the team as they plunge one of their fleet of Thunderbird-like craft into the depths off the shore of China.

“There’s something out there” is an apt if unoriginal line in the script which foretells the need to rescue the submersible’s crew. And who better to ride to their rescue than Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) once they find him “washed up on a Thailand beach”. He nicknames the underwater enemy ‘The Meg’, not short for Margaret, but instead referring to Megalodon, a presumed-extinct species of giant prehistoric shark.

Masi Oka (familiar from the role of Hiro Nakamura in Heroes) plays adolescent joke-cracking Toshi who is the early indication that any underwater doom will not be needlessly gloomly.

Jason Statham plays the hero whose name’s similarity to Jonah cannot be accidental and is given his own theme song Mickey. Jonas shifts from being diffident to cocky and finally altruistic, sparring and then sparking with Suyin (Bingbing Li), the plucky and head-strong daughter of the Mana One platform chief.

Her daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) steals most of her scenes, along with an accesorised Roomba that quietly slides down the underwater corridors, and a cute dog called Pippin (in a nod to Jaws).

The Meg doesn’t take itself at all seriously. Yet it stops short of knowingly becoming an Airplane! or Galaxy Quest spoof. If you walked out if the cinema after the first 40 minutes you’d be satisfied with a perfectly serviceable, complete, TV-length episode that could reboot Seaquest DSV (minus the talking dolphin). Stay for the next hour and a quarter, and you’ll begin to question why it’s taking so long to crack the jokes, kill off the bad guys, and hint at the prospect of romance.

While you may be unfortunate and have a ‘jumper’ in the seat in front of you, The Meg isn’t a scary film. The inability for the scriptwriters and the director (Jon Turteltaub) to find a conclusion creates a Bond-like series of false endings whose moments of peril are well diluted with wise cracks and a game of Pokemon where you’ve gotta to catch em all.

The Meg opens at UK and Ireland cinemas on Friday 10 August. A tub of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food would be the perfect snack to bring!

Monday, August 06, 2018

The Darkest Minds … bringing idiopathic screen-based adolescent acute neurodegeneration to a cinema near you from 10 August

The premise of The Darkest Minds is that a majority of children across North America – the filmmakers’ boundaries stretch no further than the US – have been killed by an outbreak of Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration (IAAN). While the near-annihilation of children causes the economy to tank, the remaining children are viewed with suspicion and the new superpowers that helped them fend off the disease cause them to be interned in camps by military wearing yellow suits.

Ruby has mind-altering abilities. Played briefly as a small child by Lidya Jewett, it’s Amandla Stenberg (Rue from Hunger Games) who takes over the role six years later and plays it with empathy and resilience while remaining as always-on-edge as might be expected from someone with special enough powers to carry a target on her back. As an actor, she deserves a better vehicle to show off her talent.

Breaking free and heading across state boundaries towards safety, audiences learn that her travelling companions have lesser powers: Liam (Harris Dickinson) can move objects – think Quake from Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD but with less sass and less gorm; Zu who brings a spark to any party appliance is cute but her character is only ever used as an emergency exit; and Charles/Chubs (Skylan Brooks) who has been written as one dimensional super smart nerd who can’t see far without his glasses.

The Darkest Minds wants to be the next Hunger Games. It could be a female-led apocalyptic survival franchise with young people rage against other young people as well as fearful adults. But instead it edits together moments of Mad Max, Watership Down, Animal Farm, Vulcan mind-melding and throws in the Scooby Doo van and the Child-Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for good measure to make a ‘young adult’ science fiction adventure that surely underestimates and under-stimulates the minds of the teenagers it so wants to entertain.

Good and evil are mixed up. No one can be trusted. Important lines are repeated. No one can be trusted. The narration is over-the-top, and lines like “we’re going to need another doctor” that may once have looked funny on paper fall flat when projected onto the big silver screen.

Logic goes out the window when the gang – who have been chased while driving along the road – choose to abandon their trusty vehicle and walk. I didn’t catch any explanation about why the US has remained childless, and why the older teens remain unencumbered by romance and pregnancy in their new post-IAAN free world. So many questions that a TV mini-series – and presumably Alexandra Bracken’s original novels (five in this series at the time of writing) – would have time to explore. But not in this 104-minute cinematic catastrophe.

The clichés come thick and fast: power(s) come with responsibilities; diversity is good; never be ashamed of who you are. Could it be that director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s switch from animation to live-action has brought the sensibilities and pace of one genre into another without sufficient adaptation? Or am I missing something new and vibrant by being a stick-in-the-mud?

The film’s concluding scenes – which could have been sponsored by The United Colours of Benetton – are the some of the weakest parts of an already diluted and tame story. They cry out* for a sequel; a sequel that is not deserved. (*The only tears will be on-screen, you’ll not need a tissue for this film!)

The makers of scandi-noir The Snowman admit that they ran out of money and edited the film together without all the scenes being shot. The makers of The Darkest Minds don’t seem to have that excuse. But they took a flimsy script and padded it out to make a film that will kill brain cells of those who watch it in a tribute to their fictional IAAN!

I thought that January’s release of Maze Runner: The Death Cure was a plague on teen thriller adaptations. Boy oh boy was I wrong … Or maybe I’m clueless! Maybe The Darkest Minds will be a wild success at the box office this summer, entertaining courting teens and others who want something light and fluffy with a bit of action to entertain but no gore or horror to upset.

The Darkest Minds goes on general release in UK and Irish cinemas including the Movie House chain from Friday 10 August. Let me know what you think of it …

Sunday, August 05, 2018

So I Can Breathe This Air – a study of belonging, identity and home while walking across Belfast (TheatreofplucK until 7 August as part of EastSide Arts Festival)

Walking across Belfast in a group, we’re listening to the stories of members of The Rainbow Project’s Gay Ethnic Group (or GEG as they somewhat tongue-in-cheek refer to themselves). Each has made a different journey for different reasons to end up in Northern Ireland. Some are claiming asylum, some have been refused, some acknowledge that they fall outside the definition of refugees. Through So I Can Breathe This Air, all are telling us about the mixture of bureaucratic, social, racial, religious and financial challenges they face as they seek to integrate.

We’re wearing headphones, having synchronised pressing the play buttons on our MP3 players. Our guide – Noel Harron – wearing a fluorescent yellow vest pauses and we stare across a street. The building facing us might be referenced in our ears at that moment, or perhaps a character brushing past (Martin McDowell) represents the person whose story we’re listening to. The acting is subtle and the actors – particularly the many women played by shape-shifting Holly Hannaway – often attract the attention of passers-by (some of whom come close to intervening) as she bangs on doors or stumbles along the pavement. Ultimately we become hypervigilant, bringing all kinds of random people on the Belfast pavements into the story we’re building up in our minds.

Reviewing another audio walking theatre piece Quartered: Belfast, A Love Story last November, I wrote about the challenge of walking a mile or two in somebody else’s shoes. There’s something very intimate about walking along with other people’s stories in your ear. Shannon Yee (Reassembled, Slightly Askew) is a master of new forms of storytelling, yet never lets the technology trump the narrative.

The audio is beautifully crafted by sound designer Isaac Gibson and director Niall Rea. This isn’t just a set of recorded interviews that have been cut and paste together and exported out to an MP3 file. The voices are crisp and clear, and the subtle binaural (I assume) affect places the words at a slight distance to your ears, making it more like walking down the street listening to someone than merely listening to a podcast. Music and street noise adds to the realism.

Starting out at Europa Bus Station and meandering eastwards, plenty of time passes – not to mention miles passing underfoot – to relax and be drawn into the oppressive asylum system and its methods of crass intrusion and overly-suspicious investigation. A change of mode of transport at one point provides a reminder of what it’s like to feel lost and having to navigate somewhere unfamiliar, yet perpetually on the march with no end in sight.

Any notion of complacency is also challenged early on with questions about quite how progressive society is in Northern Ireland compared with the experience of some of the GEG participants back home. Some of the external reflections on our local peace process are illuminating too. As too are the often, though not universally, negative experiences with churches and people citing religious faith as their reason for exclusion.

It’s a sterling exploration of belonging, love and identity – to all of which food is often associated! – and the struggles that build resilience among those who can survive. Where do I belong? Where is home? Questions that we often take for granted. The performance is long. On a dry Sunday afternoon, it was a joy to be outside. On another day with inclement weather, it would have been quite a trudge since the pace of the audio cannot be altered. Yet the subject matter and the real and very personal stories from GEG deserve our attention given how rarely they are told and how rarely we bother to listen out to hear them. 

So I Can Breathe This Air is running as part of EastSide Arts Festival and continues twice a day on Monday 6 and Tuesday 7 August. The journey from Great Victoria Street across to the Newtownards Road takes approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. It takes another 40 minutes if you need to walk back to the beginning. There is an opportunity for a comfort break and light refreshments along the way.