Friday, December 14, 2018

Christmas Myths – factchecking the Advent story

I can live without a lot of the trappings of Christmas. Every year I come down with a bad case of tinsellitis. The commercial fuss is overbearing. The enforced fun quickly becomes unappealing.

The reason for the season seems distant until a moment every December when something about the Christmas story catches me unawares. One year it was the genuinely candlelit nine lessons and carols at Westbourne Presbyterian where a power cut had taken out the lighting circuit leaving the congregation to light up the service with their voices and readings. Another time it was a Friday lunchtime in the foyer of a local broadcaster and hearing the gathered staff gustily sing the words of carols first drummed into me at primary school.

There’s something about the words of carols, the act of communal singing, listening to the Bible readings or watching them being acted out that draws me back from my Grinch-like attitude to the wonder of the Christmas story.

But how well do the lyrics of the much-loved seasonal songs represent the biblical narratives of the birth of Christ? How accurate are the sentimentalised versions of the first Christmas we dress up as nativity stories every year?

Fact checking organisations are busy all year round validating claims made by politicians, press and public. I’m involved behind-the-scenes at the FactCheckNI organisation, but I don’t think that we, or our Irish equivalent, has ever been asked to fact check Christmas. Perhaps that’s just as well, as some of the portrayals wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

How much of what we say and sing at Christmas is rooted in the documentary testimony, the handful of chapters in Matthew and Luke’s gospels that depict events around Jesus’ birth?

The Christian church celebrates Christ’s birth on 25 December and marks the visit of the Magi 12 days later on Epiphany. At that time of year, the overnight low temperature around Bethlehem dips below 7°C. Shepherding is a hardy profession, but it’s unlikely that shepherds would sleep outside guarding their sheep. This behaviour belongs to a warmer season. That, along with calculations about Zechariah’s temple service, his son John the Baptist’s birth month and Jesus’s gestation, point towards Jesus’ birthday being in September rather than coinciding with the Roman Winter Solstice.

Oddly, the dubious month was the only aspect of Christmas that I remember being debunked by primary school teachers. Everything else was wholly unquestioned.

The lyrics of a well-sung carol say “We three kings of Orient are / bearing gifts we traverse afar”. Despite being neither named nor numbered, Matthew 2’s “wise men from the east” or Magi are traditionally named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. While the Gospel writer refers to three symbolic gifts of gold (kingship), frankincense (priesthood) and myrrh (death), there’s no record of how many people brought the gifts, nor that they were kings.

In John Calvin’s commentary on Matthew, he was particularly vehement about the “childish error” of “Papists” in “supposing that they were three in number”. He went on to describe the notion “that those men were kings” as “the most ridiculous contrivance” based on a geographically-ignorant understanding of the prophecy about the kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba found in Psalm 72. Calvin adds: “they have changed the south and west into the east!”

Matthew’s use of the word Magi suggests that the Gentile visitors were Persian priest-astrologers who could interpret the stars rather than monarchs.

The First Nowell, a beautiful Cornish carol, is just one seasonal example of how the visits of shepherds and wise men are conflated. While Richard Curtis worked a lobster into a memorable nativity scene in the film Love Actually, it’s less shocking to us to see both shepherds and wise men standing over the new born Jesus in school and church nativity plays. Yet that fuses together the distinct infancy narratives from two of the four Gospels, stories with relatively little crossover.

Matthew 2 says that the Magi came to Jerusalem “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem” triggered by seeing “his star when it rose”. When they didn’t return from Bethlehem to report the Messiah’s location to Herod, “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi”.

So Matthew’s wise men are portrayed as visiting a toddler at least a year old, rather than a baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem. Luke’s shepherds would have been long gone.

And where did they visit? Did Joseph lead a last minute donkey dash around the hostelries of Bethlehem to find a room for Mary in the throes of labour? Luke 2 describes Mary travelling to Bethlehem while “expecting a child”. The phrasing of verse 6 is gentle rather than frantic: “while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born”. This doesn’t sound like labour was imminent at the time of travel.

And what about the stable? Anyone who has swept away straw that’s fallen out of a bale of hay brought into church for a nativity play knows that the Messiah was born surrounded by cows, sheep and a donkey. The second verse of Once in Royal David’s City reinforces the idea that “his shelter was a stable”.

Luke tells us that Mary “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn”.

That’s the King James Version. Other English translations use ‘guest room’ instead of ‘inn’, using the same Greek work as the ‘upper room’ in Luke 22 rather than the ‘hotel’ from the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. So the humorous and popular role of innkeeper may be sadly superfluous to strictly accurate nativity plays!

One of the first Christmas Carols many of us learn is Away in a Manger. (The words are often attributed to Martin Luther; however, one or more 19th century American lyricists are probably responsible.)

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Do we really believe that baby Jesus wouldn’t have cried when woken up by a bellowing cow?

We might also question the imagery in the words “the stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay”. The idea of an open stable seems to follow from the mention of “a manger”.

Archaeological excavations in the region have found first century homes with an upper room or floor used for guests, while the main family lived downstairs. Since Joseph and Mary had to go to his birthplace because of the census, it’s inconceivable in this middle eastern culture that Joseph would not stay with family. Yet it’s quite believable that they weren’t the first relatives to arrive, and that the census put great pressure on the family’s hospitality, so instead of being upstairs with the more honoured guests they were taken into the heart of the family and household animals downstairs.

Animals were often brought indoors. They were significant items of property for a poor family, and were safer kept close to family, as well as being a useful source of central heating – so homes had feeding troughs inside. Plenty of Irish babies have been put to bed in a drawer when no cot was available. A feeding trough would have been similarly convenient.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy! Matthew and Luke tell the nativity stories differently, relating to different audiences, and Mark and John don’t dwell on the birth narratives at all. There can be truth and meaning in our mythology and even in our misunderstandings and fresh understandings, which makes it all the harder for us to discard the shiny wrapping paper that we have allowed to envelop the narratives of Matthew and Luke.

Demythologising the story of Jesus’ birth doesn’t have to demystify or destroy it. If anything it makes the gift of God becoming flesh more than 2,000 years ago all the more wondrous in the retelling, reliving, rediscovering and uncovering as Word becomes flesh still today.

From his fresh perspective, Anglican theologian Ian Paul comments on the more likely place of Jesus’ birth: “In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention.”

Jesus is welcomed as ‘one of us’ rather than kept as a mere guest or foreigner. A fresh challenge to us this Christmas to make sure we’ll make space for him at the heart of our lives and homes.

This article appeared in the December/January edition of the Presbyterian Herald magazine.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

If You Can Find Me – experimental showcase of fine NI Opera Studio voices (touring Belfast, Newry and Derry in January)

Over 60 minutes, 12 songs from six of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals are threaded together in If You Can Find Me to tell a story of innocence, servitude and love in the costume store of a theatre.

Tenor Ross Scanlon enters the cloistered backstage world as a singing poet who has destroyed his back catalogue and is quickly besotted with a young maid Ella Harkins (Rebecca Murphy). She has grown up behind the curtain, but before her suitor can whisk her out into the real world, he must first unpick her relationship with older servant Wilson (Elaine McDaid), working under the beady eye of the basque and stockinged Mrs Montag (Margaret Bridge).

Red mist descends to give the show a suitably operatic finale, and the costume dummies finally come into their own. (The horse’s head prop remains unexplained!)

The Sondheim mashup – Evening Primrose, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along – features less well-known tunes, many from theatre or backstage-themed shows. The fun localisation of I’m Still Here found favour with the audience, while the curated playlist and interstitial dialogue by dramaturg Judith Wiemers drew together an intriguing storyline.

Murphy excels as the enchanting maid. Her duet with wide-eyed Scanlon, Take Me to the World, finally shows off the considerable dynamic range of her beautiful soprano voice, and out-powers the tenor at key moments, perhaps a hint at the show’s conclusion. The pair’s chemistry is well portrayed. Mezzo-soprano Bridge delivers a sultry performance as the boss, while McDaid owns her ladder-top One More Kiss. Keith McAlister’s fingers rarely cease playing throughout the hour, sustaining the pace and mood.

The concept of If You Can Find Me scores highly, but the staging in the venue fails. The titular opening number starts out in the Lyric Theatre bar, though some of the power and gusto is lost when singers move further back under the high atrium. Everyone shifts into the Naughton Studio for the remainder of the performance, but the unraked seating leaves the audience bobbing back and forward like parents at a school performance trying to catch a glimpse of the performers. The majority of the show is played at ground level over the full length of the space, some parts with the cast seated, so unless you sit in the front row, several songs become radio edits and a lot of the direction that Kate Guelke had rehearsed goes unseen. The more constrained stages in the rest of the tour may fix a lot of these problems.

While not as strong as Hidden Extras, NI Opera Studio’s continued experimentation with storytelling succeeds in showcasing the young singing talent on the island, and giving a chance for singers to develop their acting skills under a range of directors. It’s good to see Jessica Hackett from October’s Studio performance among the cast announced for NI Opera’s next Sondheim project, Sweeney Todd, in February.

There are further opportunities in January to see If You Can Find Me in The Black Box, Belfast (as part of Out To Lunch Festival at 1pm on Wednesday 16), Newry Chamber Music at Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry (Thursday 17 at 8pm) and Nerve Centre, Derry (Friday 18 at 8pm).

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Michelle & Arlene: Ulster Says Snow – they‘re broke and in Brazil not Northern Ireland! (Accidental Theatre until 13 December)

Early episodes of the enduring Michelle & Arlene satire focussed on the pair of political leaders finding ways of resolving the political stalemate that has removed Northern Ireland’s government rug from beneath the public’s feet. But even playwright Rosemary Jenkinson has had to abandon that possibility and move on to other political imperatives with her latest set of adventures.

Michelle & Arlene: Ulster Says Snow opens with the Secretary of State imposing a second, more drastic cut in MLA salaries, which sees the DUP leader and her Sinn Féin northern counterpart scratching around to make a living. Could her charity CD Arlene Sings Christmas be a festive hit to boost the Fermanagh & South Tyrone MLA’s financial coffers? A more likely possibility opens up when a Brazilian trade visit sparks a fund-raising gala.

Maria Connolly steps back into the shoes of Arlene Foster, with a reddy/orange dress, a crown broach, a scowl and something suitable in her Union Flag suitcase ready for Copacabana Beach. Mary-Frances Doherty has straightened out Michelle O’Neill’s long blond wig, carries a ready supply of miniatures in her travel bag – to get the pair half cut, like their pay – and, despite the bonhomie, never wastes an opportunity to tease or get one up on her unionist rival.

Director Richard Lavery breaks up the scenes with fun interstitial videos. The stylised performances of Connolly and Doherty are by now as familiar as they are ridiculous. The actors have probably spent more time together than the politicians they are lampooning!

Cyril the intern is introduced as a new foil for Foster, while O’Neill has developed quite a womance with Mary Lou. The ABBA/Waterloo cover (“My, my, at Mary Lou Arlene did surrender”) is a musical highpoint in the one act show that squeezes in a few Christmas numbers and some of Arlene’s ‘greatest’ hits.

With the effort of finding a political agreement for every citizen replaced with a focus on improving the bank balances of the two leaders who put us in this situation (and could click their fingers and get us out of it), even with Brexit hanging over proceedings the jeopardy is reduced and along with it some of the easy mirth of the earlier episodes.

Since Jenkinson has claimed she’ll keep making these plays as long as the deadlock remains – and the plot tends to get all the more ludicrous as time goes on – perhaps the next step is to take them up into the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings?

Michelle & Arlene: Ulster Says Snow continues at Accidental Theatre in Belfast’s Shaftesbury Square with performances on Friday 7 and Thursday 13 October.

The Crack in Everything - 6 young lives cut short, the human cost continues as do the questions (Brian Friel Theatre until 8 December)

I feel slightly ashamed that I’m not already familiar with these stories. Maybe the thickness of the Lost Lives book is testament to the impossibility of holding any significant proportion of Troubles-related deaths in your head at the one time. Yet close family and friends of each person listed will continue to grieve and mourn their loss and will often still be asking questions about the circumstances of their death.

The Crack in Everything explains that not all the deaths were even recorded or categorised as being part of the conflict. Take Damien Harkin. A British Army lorry took a wrong turning, lost control driving down an unfamiliar and unsuitable hill, mounted the pavement, striking and killing an innocent eight-year-old boy who walked around the corner. His death was treated as a traffic accident.

Jo Egan’s play holds up the stories of six children who were killed, five in the early 1970s and one in 1981. Another eight-year-old was up a ladder cleaning the window of the family shop in Claudy when the blast from the first of three IRA bombs caught Kathryn Eakin and knocked her down to the ground.

Three 14-year-old girls: Annette McGavigan fatally wounded when the army fired into a crowd of bystanders at a riot in the Bogside; Kathleen Feeney killed by an IRA sniper who was firing at an army checkpoint; Julie Livingstone died from her injuries sustained from a plastic bullet.

Or 16-year-old Henry Cunningham killed when UVF gunmen shot at the van from a footbridge. Security forces arrived on the scene before any alert was raised in an attack that reeks of foreknowledge and collusion.

Six actors stand on a stepped stage jutting out of a set that looks like that remnants of a bombed building. The amber glow of street lights floods the theatre as the audience take their seats. Projections from Conan McIvor paint graffiti onto a concrete wall. The audience spontaneously – and somewhat unusually for theatre – applaud the end of each family’s story as a photograph of the youngster appears at three windows behind the cast.

The cast mix and match roles between stories, playing siblings, parents and friends. Their intercut dialogue flows quickly and is delivered straight to the audience, full of rich local vernacular which captures the sense of place. We’re told about the smell of gas, the sound of blast bombs, the visual effect of a petrol station up in flames. The format is dense, but the content compelling.

Afterwards I realise that professional actors Colette Lennon Dougal, Damien Hasson and Micheál McDaid have been joined by Sarah Feeney-Morrison, Maria McGavigan and Marjorie Leslie who have close links to the families of three of the children. It only adds to the already thick poignancy of the testimony, based on conversations with the victims’ families.

Garth McConaghie’s soundtrack accents key moments in each drama while John Comiskey’s shady lighting is a constant reminder of the sorrow that surrounds the stories being told, and the trauma that continues to haunt those left behind. There’s a lot of sadness and resilience, much guilt and bitterness, some forgiveness, and very little closure.

On top of the tragedy of young lives cut short, Jo Egan’s script highlights the shared theme of unanswered questions. Inquiries held before police investigations were complete, sometimes without families being informed, and without legal representation. An initial IRA denial that was later replaced with an offer to pay for the funeral and eventually a public apology. British Army investigations that lacked substance. Lacklustre detective work resulting in nothing being passed to the DPP and so no prosecutions to even consider. Long waits for Historical Enquiries Team reports.

For some families, faith sustains; for others, faith has been lost; and for one in particular, faith leaders have let them down by withholding the truth.

Most of those children would today be in their mid-fifties or early-sixties if they had lived. It was a privilege to hear their stories, yet distressing to realise that without the Derry Playhouse Theatre and Peace Building Academy (at which Jo Egan was the first International Theatre Artist in Residence) I mightn’t have been introduced to these heart-breaking reminders of the continued human cost of the conflict.

The Crack in Everything runs in the Brian Friel Theatre (walk through to the back of Queen’s Film Theatre to find it) until Saturday 8 December. Tickets are free, but booking is essential.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas – a festive comedy with a serious message about mental health (Theatre at the Mill until 31 December)

Transplanting It’s a Wonderful Life from New York to New Mossley, writers and actors Caroline Curran and Julie Maxwell step into the shoes of a hard-working Credit Union manager whose life has got on top of him.

In It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas, the man who has been so loyal to his community, and always goes the extra mile to help those around him, has forgotten to take care of himself. Angel-in-training Clara Crackingbody intervenes to remind Geordie Bailey about how he managed to get through past difficulties and points him towards those who have always walked with him and could do so once again.

Jimmy Doran quickly establishes Geordie as warm and empathetic as he tirelessly works through the long queue of Christmas Eve customers withdrawing cash for the holidays. Abi McGibbon plays Mary, his wife and teammate for life, and adds much hilarity in a number of other comic roles.

Julie Maxwell and Paddy Buchanan play the younger Geordie and Mary, and despite the differences between the couples in stature and appearance, the acting and direction sells the pretence. Caroline Curran takes the part of the angel, with a penchant for karaoke and some unorthodox techniques to bring Geordie to his senses.

The audience fissle with noisy sweet wrappers and gregariously giggle through the opening scenes, before the mood changes and they sit in silence as the frivolity melts away and the seriousness of the situation is exposed. Curran’s natural physicality and face-pulling were well exercised as she wordlessly acted during quieter scenes, while Maxwell has fun with a minor role with her mild-mannered conversation with strangers and attack dog menacing of her boyfriend.

While the cast of five are all strong and work well as an ensemble, if theatre performances had a player of the match, the award would have to go to Jimmy Doran for his relatable portrayal of someone in crisis experiencing an emotional breakdown.

A lot of details from the original film has been kept and embedded in this version. The Credit Union set is simple yet provides a number of built-in stages while the row of front doors are rather wonderful to watch as they descend from the fly tower. Conleth White’s precise lighting is very sympathetic to the play’s changing mood and gives the show the kind of classy look that normally comes with a much higher ticket price.

It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas runs at the Theatre at the Mill until 31 December. It’s probably the only festive show on a local stage that could save lives by shining a spotlight on mental health and encouraging people to talk to those they love. But theatre is a great way of bringing a subject to life and planting ideas in people’s minds. For that, and the funny bits in-between, this show deserves applause.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

The Old Man & the Gun – vintage Robert Redford in piece of beautifully slow cinema (from 7 December)

Sit back and relax. You’re in safe hands. Robert Redford won’t let you down.

The Old Man & the Gun is the 82 year old actor’s last film, a fond farewell that is as charming and cheerful as its title character, an ageing gentleman who carries a gun but never fires it when robbing banks.

While based on the true-life activity of serial bank robber Forrest Tucker, the also film manages to verbally and visually reference Redford’s back catalogue of movies. Redford gives the geriatric heist artist Tucker a distinctive swagger as he enters each new bank branch with nail polish disguising his finger prints.

While withdrawing money from banks is his way of life, there’s a loneliness about Tucker, even as the leader of his serial geriatric heist gang (Danny Glover and Tom Waits). Something sparks with a widow he meets while making a getaway, and the audience are left for a while to guess whether this is real or just another con.

The Old Man & the Gun is slow cinema. Beautifully slow cinema that strikes the delicate balance between relaxed storytelling and suspense. David Lowery’s screenplay (based on David Grann’s article in the New Yorker) consistently conceals enough detail about the plot to keep your mind busy evaluating the options during the on-screen downtime, and somehow the serial geriatric heist artist ingratiates rather than imitates. (The audience are never troubled into worrying about the victims of his crimes.)

Nothing is over-acted. While Redford is the centre of attention, Sissy Spacek’s performance as his new squeeze brings a lovely warmth to the screen. There’s a lovely cameo from Elisabeth Moss and Casey Affleck plays the restless, tousle-haired Detective John Hunt who cracks open the multi-state spate of robberies before the Feds frustratingly trample all over his investigation.

The slow pace of the film is greatly enhanced by a great blues and jazz soundtrack which make some of the most lethargic scenes feel like you’ve been stood up in a hotel bar in the happiest way possible.

With a couple of mentions of Christmas, The Old Man & the Gun is the perfect antidote to anyone who feels rushed and hassled by the festive seasons. Sit back, relax and enjoy an hour and a half of sepia-tinged vintage Robert Redford. And stay for the credits to marvel at Jade Healy’s role as Wallpaper Whisperer!

In cinemas including Movie House and Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 7 December.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Alice: The Musical – dropping down a rabbit hole to explore a surreal Wonderland (Lyric Theatre until 5 January)

It’s been a strong year of performance at the Lyric in their 50th anniversary year, and they’re finishing it off with a revival of Paul Boyd’s rocky and crowd-pleasing Alice: The Musical, twenty years after its Lyric première.

Back in May, Ruby Campbell was clinging on to the death-defying heights of the verdant set of Lovers: Winners and Losers. Tonight as Alice, she dropped through a rabbit hole into Wonderland to hand back a lost glove to The White Rabbit and bring some logical order to the madness of the Queen of Hearts’ kingdom.

Battling to escape this puzzling new world, she encounters familiar characters from Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Charlotte McCurry (Bella in last year’s Beauty and the Beast) musically narrates key moments and transitions as the wiry The Cheshire Cat, perched up high to one side of the set.

Ruby Campbell’s voice adeptly switches from Alice’s gentler numbers to belting out power ballads. Allison Harding brings much-feared and temperamental Queen of Hearts to life, showing off her alto voice and tapdancing skills, while Christina Nelson provides comic relief among the stalls and up on stage.

Rea Campbell-Hill and Adam Dougal warm the audience up as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but it’s the knockout charisma of Mark Dugdale as the flamboyant flamenco Caterpillar who inspires the Lyric audience to spontaneously clap along and stamp their feet as the energy of the performance combines with the music, lyrics and Deborah Maguire’s brisk choreography to create a special moment for young and old.

The Lyric’s main auditorium is most effective when it’s hosting spoken theatre and its hard surfaces and PA system tend not to lend themselves to layering amplified voices over thumping music tracks. At times Paul Boyd’s clever lyrics and the cast’s harmonies were drowned out; though so too were any distracting noises from young children. Hopefully the balance can be improved during the run.

Stuart Marshall’s set slowly reveals its layers and the chunky props serve the story well. Pedants will notice that the red book that Alice carries shrinks and grows during the performance even though the dimensional aspects of the story are quickly dropped from the narrative. Maths buffs may also spot a likely typo in one projected equation.

Cat suits and red leather dresses are clearly de jour in Belfast theatre shows for children this year. Thankfully also in vogue are intelligent lyrics, stylish scores, and entire casts who can sing in tune.
“I wanted an adventure / a story of my own / the grass is always greener / when it’s growing far from home”

While I’m not yet certain which characters were playing Michel Barnier, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, I’m pretty sure there’s a reading of Alice: The Musical that sees the UK having jumped down a Brexit hole and struggling to find a way through the nonsensical and illogical negotiations and repercussions. If only NI politicians were as easy to reassure as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party: tea is indeed the answer to everything!

Alice: The Musical is a stylish production with a big sound, a surreal story and a lot of laughs. It runs in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 6 January.

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Elves and the Shoemaker – a festive allegory for Cathedral Quarter (Cahoots NI/The MAC until 6 January)

It’s as if Stephen Beggs and Simon Magill had adapted the Brothers Grimm tale of The Elves and the Shoemaker to write a festive allegory for the rampant property development planned a stone’s throw away from The MAC.

While the timing is a total coincidence, the opening night of a show about a greedy tycoon who wants to flatten a multi-generational family shoemaker’s shop to build a tall tower comes exactly 24 hours after Castlebrooke Investments’ Royal Exchange development underwent its Windscale moment and was relaunched as Tribeca Belfast.

Lady in red, Miss Perkins, pulls no pecuniary punches in undermining the shop’s liquidity, forcing Stan and Bet Wellington to default on its rent and pack their bags. But the nocturnal elves have other plans, and try to reverse the hard working pair’s fortune through magical, and sometimes mystical, spells.

On top of his smart lyrics and melodies, Garth McConaghie’s multifarious soundscape lurks beneath every scene setting the mood along with James McFetridge’s precise lighting design. Diana Ennis has created a shop set with enough cupboards and trapdoors to allow an army of elves to slip in and out unnoticed. Director Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney trademark magic tricks work best when they casually drop without fanfare into the action.

What a lovely pair Sean Kearns and Clare Barrett make as Stan and Bet, the warm and homely couple who live above their shoemaking shop floor. Emer McDaid is magnificent as the snide and superior Miss Perkins, and brings Jennifer Rooney’s magic shoe choreography to life in a brilliant body-twisting, perspective-giving way that delights the audience in the show’s final scenes.

The elves – Jolene O’Hara (last year’s Waterfront Sleeping Beauty), Aisling Groves McKeown (last seen snaffling biscuits in Date Show: After Dark) and Fiona Carty (last on The MAC’s stage as Olive in Bruiser’s Spelling Bee) – work well together and slip into other characters and accents with as much ease as they handle the magical tricks and their dancing fairy lights.

The script isn’t crammed full of jokes, but the story rattles along with a consistent pace and like a comfortable pair of shoes gets the cast and the audience to the show’s conclusion without any trips or blisters. An ensemble of six Bangor SERC students bulk up the main cast in some of the musical numbers which are confidently executed.

The storyline holds tight to the ideal of selflessly overlooking your own misery and generously empowering other people to be free, as well deflating the menace of those whose power is driven by greed and meanness, a trick that may be harder in real life than on stage.

The MAC together with Cahoots NI have created a piece of family-friendly festive theatre, rooted in the issues that surround the venue. An hour and 50 minutes of sparkle, song and story. The Elves and the Shoemaker runs in The MAC until Sunday 6 January.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (or The Girl Who Gets Knocked Down, But Gets Up Again, You’re Never Gonna Keep Her Down)

The English-language cinematic return to the Millennium series of books picks up with an adaptation of the fourth novel The Girl in the Spider’s Web (the first to be written after Stieg Larsson’s death).

Claire Foy steps into Lisbeth Salander’s shoes, though mostly just her black vest top and knickers. The film opens with a flashback to the abusive household she escaped from as a young child. Now she travels round as a vigilante bringing unasked retribution and an opportunity to get away for abused women.

Having set up this lone ranger, action hero persona, Lisbeth unexpectedly (at least for anyone who hasn’t read the books or watched other film adaptations) takes a hacking job to retrieve the only copy of NSA-written nuclear satellite network control software for the author who now regrets its creation.

Before too long an American is chasing Lisbeth who is chasing a masked man who is chasing a top boffin. There’s a lot of speed, many vehicles, much death, and despite being thrown around, Lisbeth is never parted from her trusty mobile phone, her equivalent of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver.

While Claire Foy never portrays her character’s introversion in a way that looks aloof or properly asocial, she does bring a lot of grit and determination to the role. Lisbeth fights back valiantly against attackers and is handy with a Taser, but unlike the heroes of Atomic Blonde or Red Sparrow, she is usually physically over-powered, leaving her to find ever-more unlikely ways to overcome her defeat.

A lady in red appears (played by a beautifully sinister Sylvia Hoeks) and Lisbeth is confronted with her past. The ending, while looking final, leaves the possibility of the character’s return in the next tub-thumping episode of The Girl Who Gets Knocked Down, But Gets Up Again, You’re Never Gonna Keep Her Down.

The fantasy cyborg opening titles are unnecessary. There’s a lot of Sony product placement. A safe house has floor to ceiling uncurtained windows. IT nerds need to suspend a lot of disbelief for the duration of the film. That a single person could write and secure such software while in the employ of a giant organisation like the NSA is as far-fetched as it would be unprofessional. That such a skilled hacker can do so much, so quickly, yet would still leave breadcrumbs to be tracked so easily is also unconvincing. However, the IT elements of the plot aren’t the most faux that you’ll ever have seen in a cinema and the style of editing that jerks between camera angles and rarely stands still long enough to read the text on a screen somewhat dilutes any irritation.

But all of this is forgivable in what becomes a very watchable film, just shy of two hours long, that celebrates Scandi industrial design, open plan living, the need to keep several chess moves ahead when up against ominous foes, and doesn’t shy away from over-exposed cinematography that brings the notion of dark nights and bright snow into every shot (and works in a few actual spiders). Fede Alvarez’s characterisation of Lisbeth Salander is distinct enough from other big screen fare to mean I’d certainly return to see any further sequel.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is showing in cinemas across NI.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Romeo & Juliet – ambitious and memorable (Bright Umbrella Drama Company at Accidental Theatre)

Reviewing last night’s performance of Romeo & Juliet after a day spent reporting from the DUP Conference makes me wonder whether the strife between the Tories and the Democratic Unionists is anything like the tragicomedic Montague/Capulet faceoff in Shakespeare’s play?

The Bright Umbrella Drama Company are less than two years old and this is already their fifth show. Unusually for a fledgling company, there is a wide age range across the enthusiastic cast. Performed in the compact Accidental Theatre space in Shaftesbury Square, the action happened nearly within touching distance of the entire audience.

The exam set text favourite tells the story of forbidden love blossoming between a Montague (Romeo) and a Capulet (Juliet). They marry in secret – with help from her nurse and a Friar – but a cross-community threat results in a couple of murders. When Romeo is banished, Juliet finds a medicinal way of avoiding an arranged marriage to Count Paris, but wakes up to a tragic scene. No one lives very happily ever after.

Director Trevor Gill has festooned the production with modern twists. The gangs wear different-coloured woolly hats and the Montagues have a musical theme when they swagger onto the stage. The young lovers carry mobile phones but don’t ever swap numbers and stupidly never text each other about their daily woes. D’oh! So much needless pain could have been avoided.

Catriona Lilley plays the fair teenage Juliet, clothed in a comfy personalised t-shirt. She delivers her iconic speech to a teddy bear, which robs her deep thoughts of some of their power. Lilley also doubles up in the role of the hip and ever so trippy Mercutio. Juliet’s lover is played by Chris Girvin who is a truly “gentle Romeo”, oozing boyish charm but somehow isn’t as visibly shocked by the news of his new wife’s ‘death’ as I would expect.

Juliet’s Nurse provides most of the comedic moments, with Marina Hampton’s Buckfast-swilling nanny never short of gossip, disguising herself in an outrageous zebra-inspired jacket and flamboyant hat, yet slipping in and out of locations around the city quite undetected. Hampton is confident throwing asides out into the audience and creates something very watchable from her main role.

Chris Darcy demonstrates emotional range as Lord Capulet swings from doting father to dragging his daughter around by her hair and lashing out at everyone in the household, including the poshly-spoken but softer Lady Capulet (Genevieve Swift).

Cathaoir O’Hagan gives Friar Lawrence a bit of the Hamely Tongue. The melange of accents adopted by across the cast does make it hard to pin down where this Verona is based. Tony McGurk plays the ‘young’ Count Paris while Trevor McGill pops up as the Prince of Verona.

Shakespeare’s arcane patterns of speech aren’t always the easiest to follow, so the miming out of some of the most florid metaphors helps everyone follow the plot. Visible demons torment Juliet and Romeo.

The fight scene between Tybalt (O’Hagan) and Romeo is acted out with the ferocity of a stunt scene in a TV drama and becomes the clear fulcrum of the play, tipping it from comic drama to dark tragedy.

The production suffers from some weaker voices that do not always carry across the small theatre space and background music which at times, together with the hubbub of Shaftesbury Square, competes with the dialogue. Some of the original directorial twists work – like the hats and the dipsy nurse – while others, particularly the final dance (a bizarrely choreographed version of Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping) and the deliberately misspelt poster board confuse rather enhance.

The single piece of set is a triumph, spinning around to transform it from an outdoor view of the balcony or the forest to bring the audience right inside Juliet’s bedroom. It’s the gift that keeps on giving with characters appearing out of nowhere after many of its spins.

The Bright Umbrella Drama Company have thrown a lot at these two performances of Romeo & Juliet. While some of it is quite raw in its execution, the ambitious production holds together and creates a memorable version of the Bard’s second most performed play.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

3 Stories (Three’s Theatre Company in The MAC until Thursday 22 November)

Stories. Dance. Choices. Headphones. As usual Three’s Theatre Company ticked all those boxes with their latest work, accurately titled 3 Stories.

Three’s Theatre Company has a history of telling stories in parallel, allowing the audience to select which one to listen to – sometimes permitting them to flick between voices – and leaving the theatre with the feeling that they haven’t heard the entire show, that some other people heard other voices or words that they missed out on.

Having devised a piece of physical theatre – that’s dance to you and me – in, you guessed it, three days, three writers were asked to write stories to accompany the work.

Before entering the theatre, audience members randomly selected one of three origami designs. I picked out a fish which meant I sat on the blue side of the triangular dance floor, wearing blue headphones and staring across the theatre at a sea of red ears to my left and green to my right.

Music was replaced with Mary Jordan’s story, As Good as a Fish, in my ears. Other audience members listened to Colm G Doran’s Connection or Ciaran Haggarty’s Seagull. We shared the same dance visuals, but I’ve no idea what they heard.

Anna Leckey, Aimee Montgomery and Michael Bingham demonstrated the subtlety of their movements and the immense control they could exercise in collaboration with each other. Leaning backwards, arching a back until extended finger tips reached the floor. A one-handed cartwheel. Bodies folded around each other, clinging onto each other, pulling against each other, watching and waiting for each other.

Jordan’s piece was beautifully written, and read out with a reassuring and measured tone. It felt like a love letter from a mother to her eldest daughter, describing a childhood trip to the beach, the arrival of siblings, school days, the stress of exams and more serious mental health difficulties among family and friends, before the story swam to shore and basked on the beach under warm sunshine of a stable family at peace with themselves and each other.

But I could be wrong.

While there were moments when the narrative was clearly supported by the dance – learning to walk again was beautifully portrayed – often the conceptual disconnect between word and movement became a distraction. Oh look, the three dancers have just formed a human centipede ... and they’ve now transformed into a centaur ... that’s clever ... And my brain had switched away from the aural story to the dance and I was now lost, waiting for my ear to give me a leg back up onto the story. For me, 3 Stories is the least coherent of Three’s Theatre Company’s works to date. A novel way of devising a work or three, but one that didn’t sufficiently bind the different mediums together.

My young companion put on headphones that had the volume turned all the way down. In a teenage move that was either feckless or fearless, when they couldn’t easily find the volume wheel, they simply chose not to ask for help and sat for 50 minutes in perfect silence and watched the dance, generating a fourth story, unique to their imagination, undistracted by other people’s words.

The final two performances of 3 Stories are at 6.45pm and 8.45pm on Thursday 22 November.

Photo credit: The Hype Factory

Bah, Humbug! – a fresh, musical updated allegory (Lyric Theatre until 5 January)

A spreadsheet-powered property developer plans to release apartments in the new Waterfront Plaza complex on Boxing Day. He has no qualms about desperate prospective buyers ruining their Christmas break by queueing up outside over the festive period to reserve their place. The same miserly figure treats his staff with contempt, and long ago turned his back on his niece, whose mother died in childhood.

If every generation needed an updated Ebenezer Scrooge, this cynical and ungenerous property magnet driving around Belfast in his shiny Range Rover is surely perfect for 2018.

The Lyric Theatre’s production of Bah, Humbug! enjoys comedy master Michael Condron in the central role, setting up a character with whom the audience can share some sympathy and empathy before pushing him that little bit further beyond their natural tolerance. There’s a little bit of the Pastor O’Hare (Sinners) about Condron’s Ebenezer, even throwing in a Hallelujah! at one point.

The opening number of Don’t They Know Christmas Time is a Con, adapted from the Band Aid hit, sets up the musical prowess of the performers, with sure-footed harmonies. A quality cover of Flying Pickets’ Only You (not quite a cappella but very in tune and with great da dums) is followed by more soulful echoes of the motifs from musical director Rod McVey, perched to one side of the stage providing live keyboards and effects.

Sophie Harkness is the epitome of a new age, vegan hipster rolled up in a yoga mat. Despite being cast as a figure of ridicule, she conveys warmth and affectionate charity in her interactions with Uncle Scrooge. Then she turns into a mean, no-nonsense, booted Ghost of Christmas Past.

Conor Grimes avoids some of his well-worn (verging on worn out) characters from Martin Lynch’s plays, and creates new mannerisms and verbal tics for Bob Cratchit and his other roles. Writing partner Alan McKee takes on the darker role of former business-partner Jacob Marley and channels his inner Miami Vice while flaunting a dashing pink suit and a mullet.

Roisin Gallagher’s brief rendition of Once in Royal David’s City is as beautiful as her Cockney accent, but it’s her Mrs Cratchit that shows off her comedy side as she expands into the role of being mother to Tiny Tim and his kleptomaniac sister.

An element of audience participation adds a frisson of excitement to the production, and will keep the ad-libbing cast on their toes during the run as the blood alcohol level in the auditorium rises with the surge of pre-Christmas work nights out.

Jokes about the arts and Cathedral Quarter went down well with the press night audience – Primark still seems to be too raw to laugh about – yet it was the later gags about leafy south Belfast that felt more grounded for a performance in the Lyric. References to 1980s technology appeal to one generation, while an Alexa with attitude is neatly incorporated for modern times.

Grimes and McKee are on form and Bah, Humbug! is a huge improvement on last year’s frivolous and shouty What the Reindeer Saw. Hats off to the writers and director Frankie McCafferty for creating something fresh for the festive season that doesn’t rely on innuendo and sectarian clichés for its entertainment.

The lengthy first half is rewarded with a string of musical numbers and interesting characters. Energy dips after the interval and the shorter second half never quite regains the momentum and Scrooge’s turnaround happens very quickly and decisively.

While the salutary lesson about the ruthlessness of property developers may fall on deaf ears, this warning about greed, the pursuit of self, and the need to share time as well as resources with family and community is both timely and well told.

The bean counters at the Lyric Theatre hope that Bah, Humbug! and its updated allegory of Ebenezer Scrooge will pack out their auditorium and drink their bar dry between now and 5 January. They’re unlikely to be disappointed ... unless he builds a one bedroom apartment in the box office!

Photo credit: Steffan Hill

Monday, November 19, 2018

Wasted – a stark, powerful and timely play about consent (Pintsized Productions)

In the week that members of the public and a TD in the Dáil protested against a thong being shown to the jury in a Cork rape trial, Pintsized Productions performance of Wasted is very timely.

The defence lawyer told the jury in the Cork case: “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”

In Wasted, a young woman who passed out after a heavy night of drinking realises that she may have been raped, yet comments on the “slutty” length of her own dress as if to excuse the man’s possible actions, and later admits that while a police officer conducting an interview is “not judging me, but I am”.

UU Drama graduate Kat Woods is the writer behind Wasted which was performed at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival before a run in London and New York. She’s also the playwright of Belfast Boy, Mule and Skintown.

Wasted examines consensual sex within the context of a one-night stand. Emma (Shannon Wilkinson) becomes separated from her friend who had her bag and phone, and ends up going home in a taxi with Oli (Thomas Martin), a fella she fancies who seems to be a knight in shining armour rescuing her in her drunk and vomiting state. But the night before is a blur the next morning; though she feels tender and confides to her friend that Oli may have had drunken sex with her.

The some of the language of the 2015 play resonates with the evidence at the high-profile rugby rape trial in Belfast earlier this year is perhaps emblematic of lad culture and its vocabulary.

Wasted is hugely physical with director Nuala Donnelly adding stylistic and frantic choreographed sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a dance show. The actors throw each other around, bouncing off each other and use every square metre of the small upstairs stage in The American Bar.

The action freezes while voicemail messages are left. Scenes jump back and forth in time. The two cast members switch roles and genders, playing around ten different characters, sometimes stepping sideways from one to the other, or spinning around to reset the chairs to signal the next location.

Despite the pace, characterisation never becomes blurred or confused. While Thomas Martin makes a fine girlfriend, Shannon Wilkinson is mesmerising as she transforms into a bouncer, a lewd mate, a policeman, each with a new gait, swagger and neck movements.

Pintsized Productions’ Gerard McCabe sums up the show as “three lights, two actors and one speaker”. Yet the script, the direction, the cast and the sound effects allow this focussed play to speak into Northern Ireland’s still dubious understanding of consent.
“I didn’t hear her say no … consent to me is like a feeling and I know what we felt, but now I’m doubting myself is that what she felt.”

Wasted is full of flirting, dancing, swearing, tension, confusion, self-doubt, denial and consequences. It’s is a well-constructed yet stark reminder that particularly deserves to be widely seen by young men and women across Northern Ireland. Though that’s not to deny its relevance for all age-groups in a society that struggles to put respect and the law above stimulant-induced lust.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Abomination: the DUP in Concert (Belfast Ensemble) #outburst18

Outburst festival closed with an operatic performance of Abomination: the DUP in Concert in the Lyric Theatre’s Naughton Studio, words from DUP politicians over 25 years set to music.

Running throughout the short but powerful new work from Belfast Ensemble were sections of Iris Robinson’s infamous radio interview on the Nolan Show back in 2008. The audience, mostly sitting on the wooden floor, were reminded by Tony Flynn about the presenter’s careful probing around attitudes towards homosexuality, with the former Strangford MP’s surprisingly stark replies sung by Canadian soprano Rebecca Caine.

Dressed in glittering red, Caine recharged the blunt and expressive statements while Abigail McGibbon and Cherrie On Top (Matthew Cavan) also brought back to life statements from Jim Wells (2018), Maurice Mills (2005), Gregory Campbell (1985) and Sammy Wilson’s 1992 press statement “They are poofs” after gay rights activists requested use of Belfast City Hall.

As always with the Belfast Ensemble, it’s the combination of talent that delivers the consuming richness of each performance. Video effects added rather than distracted: projections of key words and definitions filled the width of the brick wall behind the stage. The poise of the cast was dripping with righteousness, particularly Caine with her whole-body gestures, and Cavan with his extraordinary wig and attitude.

Conducted by composer Conor Mitchell, a small group of musicians accompanied the singers: strings, woodwind, brass and piano. The music added levels of complexity to the emotionally-charged moral rhetoric and damnation, at one point introducing a faint countermelody of Jesus Loves Me, at first played on the flute against the main theme before spreading across the instruments to take over the driving force of the piece.

There was nothing deliberately gleeful about Abomination. It was all very matter of fact.
The power of words was aptly displayed, alongside the power of music to appropriate hate speech and serve it up with bright airs. An occasional factual aside was inserted to contrast with the political messaging, but nothing was entirely mocking, and judgement was certainly left to the minds of the audience.

With a vocabulary of ‘nauseous’, ‘disgust’ and the titular ‘abomination’, were these statements kind, or respectful, or responsible, or justifiable, or objectionable?

Whether through imagery, satire, music or poetry, art can take concepts with which we’ve become complacent, and shake them up to challenge us afresh with the beauty or the horror of what counts for political discourse and leadership. 

“… with [the tongue] we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” (James 3:9)

Friday, November 16, 2018

CUT by Richard O’Leary – peeling back the taboo on adult penile circumcision #outburst18

Three things you need to know about Richard O’Leary. Firstly, he’s a storyteller of some renown and a regular at the monthly Tenx9 event in the Black Box. Secondly, nothing is off-limits. And lastly, he always brings a prop or two out of his life archive that seems so complete that it must surely either be stored in a TARDIS or else a shipping container sitting in his driveway.

This time last year he lifted the covers of his marriage and revealed There’s a Bishop in by Bedroom. His contribution to this year’s Outburst Arts Festival was a half hour talk called Cut: Adult Circumcision for the Uptight.

From behind his lectern at the front of a theatre in the Royal Victoria Hospital – a lecture theatre rather than an operating theatre – the sociologist tells the true story of how his ‘Cavalier’ recently became a ‘Roundhead’ to use the playground parlance he grew up with in Cork.

Despite O’Leary’s ongoing openness to sharing his life’s most personal milestones with paying and non-paying strangers, it’s his realisation that the health service in Northern Ireland seemed so ill-prepared to communicate clearly about adult penile circumcision that persuaded him to prepare this talk.

Aficionados of the O’Leary method of storytelling would not have been disappointed at the range of props on display. With trademark bluntness, he explained how he had suffered from phimosis, a condition whereby the (abundantly skinned) foreskin of his penis could not be pulled back past the glans, leading to discomfort, a sore penis as well as poor flow when urinating.

Upon discharge from hospital with a swollen and bloody, uncovered glans and a gait worthy of John Wayne, he realised that the flimsy sheet of aftercare instructions neither mentioned the words penis nor foreskin. He had to ask a doctor on the ward for advice on how long to delay post-operative sex. Very little useful information was volunteered, unlike the English NHS with its beefy guidance notes that O’Leary suggests should be cut’n’pasted locally.

While O’Leary’s urologist didn’t seem to be in the RVH lecture theatre at lunchtime, perhaps word will reach the urology clinic that they need to play their part along with the rest of us in busting this societal taboo that still provokes nervous tittering and defensive leg-crossing rather than open acknowledgement that it’s a perfectly normal treatment that deserves being more widely understood.

Outburst festival continues until Saturday 17 November.

Deadlock A Black Comedy - a political accommodation to unsettle the dead (Accidental Theatre until Friday 16 November)

Accidental Theatre’s venue in Shaftesbury Square offers a performance space that the right size and cost to encourage experimentation. That’s what Paul Mone has done with the staging of his new hour-long play Deadlock: A Black Comedy.

Two civil servants involved in the RHI process perish in a records room up on the hill, their bodies lie undiscovered, their souls trapped in the building in a form of bureaucratic purgatory.

Played by Glenn McGivern, Jim’s inner civil servant is finally enjoying peace and quiet, while his colleague Mick (Luke Bannon) is bored as he struggles to learn how to manipulate physical objects. It’s a nightmare for him not to be able to switch off the radio when the Nolan Show jingle begins without help. Bannon’s consistent ungainly physicality demonstrates his other worldly imbalance.

Deadlock is a show of two halves. The first has a (perhaps suitably) deadly lethargy as these pair get to grips with the bulldozers threatening their tranquil repose. With the political institutions out of action for more than a year, a property developer is pitching alternative accommodation plans for the prime East Belfast real estate.

The pace quickens as the property developer’s left-leaning sister Ulidia encounters the deceased duo who make a surreal call for help to a political heavyweight (voiced by Robert Kane). Holly Hannaway engenders Ulidia with a ballsy free spirit feel that fights on behalf of the ill-represented public. Paul Faulkner plays the property developer while Christine Clark takes on the role of a unionist minister’s special advisor and Paul Mone has a brief cameo.

The script builds on a set of good concepts and contains some well-observed moments (People Before Profit leaving propaganda around the building was a fun idea) though the comedy doesn’t break through nearly as often as it should given the fantastical situation dreamt up of locking the dead into a dying institution.

Deadlock: A Black Comedy finishes its run at Accidental Theatre on Friday 16 November at 8pm.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A run down of Belfast’s 2018 Christmas shows and festive theatre

With Halloween over, it’s not just the retail industry that is filling its shelves with festival goods. Local theatres generate significant proportions of their annual income over December and the New Year, and are now heavily marketing their Christmas shows.

While Alan in Belfast will no doubt review a panto or two over the coming months, here’s an advance run down of some of the larger festive shows you’ll find on stages in and around Belfast.

The list is ordered by the start of the run and doesn’t include single-performance shows. If you think your show should have been included, drop me an email!

Bah, Humbug!, Lyric Theatre, Saturday 17 November–Saturday 5 January [reviewed]

Elf, The Musical (Belfast Operatic Company), Waterfront Hall, Friday 23–Saturday 24 November

The Elves and the Shoemaker, The MAC, Tuesday 27 November–Sunday 6 January [reviewed]

Alice: The Musical, Lyric Theatre, Thursday 29 November–Saturday 5 January [reviewed]

Beauty and the Beast, Waterfront Studio, Friday 30 November–Sunday 6 January

Jack and the Beanstalk, Grand Opera House, Saturday 1 December–Sunday 13 January

Winter Circus (Tumble Circus), Writers Square, Tuesday 4 December–Tuesday 1 January

It’s a Wonderful Wee Christmas, Theatre at the Mill, Tuesday 4–Monday 31 December [reviewed]

Michelle & Arlene: Ulster Says Snow, Accidental Theatre, Thursday 6–Friday 7 and Thursday 13 December [reviewed]

Handel’s Messiah (Ulster Orchestra with Belfast Philharmonic Choir), Waterfront Hall, Friday 7–Saturday 8 December

On the Shelf, Grand Opera House Baby Grand, Monday 10–Saturday 22 December

Murder She Got Wrote Off – Christmas Special (Cabot Cove Players), Crescent Arts Centre, Monday 10–Saturday 15 December

Fairytale of New Lodge (Balloon Factory Productions), Tuesday 11–Saturday 22 December, The MAC

The Music Box – 10th Anniversary Production (Peter Corry), Waterfront Hall, Thursday 13–Saturday 15 December

Pigeon & Plums Vaudeville Circus, Black Box, Friday 14–Saturday 15 December

A Christmas Station Once Again (Brassneck Theatre), Balmoral Hotel, Tuesday 18– Sunday 23 December

SSE Arena are hosting a Winter Skate rather than a pantomime this year.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Band – a grounded story of everyday fans growing up to the soundtrack of Take That (Grand Opera House until 24 November)

The genius of The Band is that it makes no attempt to tell the story of the members of Take That. Instead it relates the story of the fans, following Rachel and her four young school friends from their first concert experience, a pivotal tragic accident on the way home, and into middle age when they meet up again and rediscover the bond that was formed around the music and the shared love of their pop idols.

Male and now in my mid-forties, I was never part of the target audience for Take That. And I was definitely in a distinct minority in the Grand Opera House audience at the opening last night.

The lack of any need to try to spot which of the male singers is musical Gary or cheeky Robbie or wee Mark together with the eighteen mostly recognisable and hummable songs, makes it very accessible. But it’s the emotion of the story that really hits half way through the first act and continues through to the final curtain that, for me, sets The Band aside from other pop music tribute shows.

Live musicians remain mostly hidden behind the set throughout the two and a bit hour performance. A larger-than-usual PA system is hung from the sides of the proscenium arch. While the volume and bass are turned up to belt out some of the hits, it’s the mellow numbers when the five lads’ close harmony is just backed by a guitar or piano that best showcase their vocal talent.

The five male singers were selected through the 2017 Let It Shine reality TV show, cunningly adding a second young audience for the show. Based on last night’s live performance, they’d put some of the original band members to shame.
“It always was your show all along”

The five teenagers have been moulded into easy-to-read stereotypes – bookish, sporty, mouthy, friendly and bubbly – and take on some of the boy band’s back catalogue as well as acting out the plot. The transition between young and older actors is well executed and while the whole show is drizzled with sweet nostalgia, there’s an honesty about how the intervening 25 years have not quite followed the dreams of the youngsters that resonates with audience members who won’t often see themselves as well represented amongst the actors up on stage.

As well as recreating some of the classic boy band poses and silhouettes, there’s lots of humour, a singing caretaker, Spandau Ballet jokes and a fantasy chariot sequence accompanied by Relight My Fire. Jayne McKenna impresses with her energy and loopiness as young Zoe, while Alison Fitzjohn fully owns her character’s startling transformation and is a good comedy sidekick for the older central character Rachel played by Rachel Lumberg.

The set takes full advantage of video mapping, projecting all kinds of scenes onto hung panels, and most memorably converting a plane’s nosecone into a glitter ball. Technically it’s a well constructed show, with the two-level set and props reconfiguring and revealing their secrets without fuss.

It’s not the first show in Belfast this month to tell the story of fans growing up to the soundtrack of Take That, with C21 Theatre’s It Only Takes a Minute in The MAC last week and finishing its tour in Strabane on Friday 16. In fact with Juliet, Naked still being screened in cinemas, and Bohemian Rhapsody at the top and A Star is Born lingering further down the film charts, there’s quite a focus on the interaction between musicians and fandom.

Music provides an escape. Communal listening provides shared experiences and friendships through common interests. Melodies become associated with places and key moments in life. By combining all this into a jukebox musical, Tim Firth has created a show that is more grounded and relevant to its audiences than the even more nonsensical Mamma Mia, and directors Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder have brought it to life on stage with confident, in tune performances that capture that group dynamic – recreating it with the audience in the final ten minutes – expressing something more powerful that merely taking a wistful look back at the nineties.

The Band plays in the Grand Opera House until 24 November, before the tour takes a break and the cast play the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End for six weeks over Christmas.