Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Legally Blonde - singing, skipping and dancing in the pink (Grand Opera House until Saturday 3 March + UK tour)

The first few minutes of Legally Blonde were a sea of pink, shrieking and giggling, both on and off the stage, with the audience sipping pink cocktails through pink straws while the cast introduced UCLA student and sorority president Elle Woods.

When the cerise-tinted star's boyfriend unexpectedly ends their relationship (citing her lack of seriousness) rather than producing the expected ring, Elle reacts by following him to make an unconventional and pom-pom waving application to study law alongside him at Harvard and adapts with difficulty to the new competitive environment.

I'm told by the aficionados sitting around me in the Grand Opera House that the musical's plot closely follows the storyline of the film, based on a novel by Amanda Brown.

At one level it's a show about building confidence, overcoming prejudice, the power of friendship, setting and achieving goals, as well as a nod to the cuteness of dogs and a reminder that everyone needs a good hairdresser! At another it's a strange hodgepodge celebration of women's self-objectification queasily balanced by a well-packaged open-shirted delivery man, with a pivotal moment of male sexual powerplay that should in 2018 have provoked Elle to shout "Me Too!"

While the premise is flimsy and the entertainment is untaxing, there's a sophistication to this touring production which cleverly uses whitened versions of already familiar costumes to form a six person Greek chorus who pop out to challenge Elle when she needs to alter course. The folk up in the fly tower are kept busy dropping the set into place, and the transformation from courtroom to accused's bathroom is visually funny and speedy. And who realised that you could simultaneously sing, dance and synchronised skip in the dark with neon ropes?

Legally Blonde can now take over the mantle from Lally the Scut for bringing the largest tricolour to an Northern Ireland stage. The rendition of Ireland and the subsequent parody of Riverdance works particularly well with the local audience and disguises some weaker songs which change key every stanza and are nearly impossible to hum. There! Right There! was another audience favourite with its un-PC refrain "gay or European" as a witness's credibility was questioned by the crack team of Harvard students.

Lucie Jones skilfully takes Elle's character on a journey of assimilation and gravitas-building before emerging from her boring navy legal chrysalis to embrace her inner sparkling pink self once more to demonstrate her legal prowess. The former UK representative at Eurovision is an able singer and dancer, enhanced by the strong ensemble voices and impressive vocal gymnastics by Laura Harrison (who plays Vivienne).

If you love the film, you'll not need rose-tinted spectacles to enjoy this live musical recreation of Legally Blonde which plays in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 3 March before continuing it's UK tour.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Game Night - a mirth-inducing madcap escape night gatecrashed by the mob (cinemas from Friday 2 March)

Stop the press. Making me cry in the cinema is an easy task for filmmakers. But making me cries tears of laughter accompanied by sustained out-loud chuckles is a complete rarity.

So hats off to John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein who managed it with the incredibly well-judged Game Night based on Mark Perez's script.

Three couples gather for a weekly game of board games and mind games. Annie (Rachel McAdams) and Max (Jason Bateman) met while competing at a pub quiz. Now there are competing against Max's stressed sperm to make a baby. Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and Kevin (Lamorne Morris) have been together for nearly forever, but don't quite know everything about each other. Ryan (Billy Magnussen) brings a different identikit date to the meetup each week. There used to be a fourth couple, but Debbie and Gary (Jesse Plemons) split up. He's a creepy cop who lives next door to Annie and Max with his white terrier, unhappy that he is now being excluded from the fun.

Into this competitive harmony comes Max's older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) whose winning streak in life seems unassailable. He organises an over-the-top game night, a kidnap mystery using a local gaming company. However, his own business dealings come back to haunt him and after a while, the clueless couples - joined for the ride by Ryan's latest date Sarah (Sharon Horgan) - figure out that the frenzied scene that plays out in Brooks' living room is more realistic and sinister than it should have been.

There are gun shots, car chases, slipping, sliding, pauses in the middle of the action for couples to argue, and some beautifully directed and edited scenes that surprise in ridiculously mirth-inducing ways. There are twists aplenty, but when the premise is so implausible, there's no harm stretching disbelief just that little bit further.

The bleeding sleeve that disappears is forgivable. The fact that Lamorne Morris and Sharon Horgan are just playing themselves (or at best are cast as Winston from New Girl and Sharon from Catastrophe) is fine since their characters work so well in the Cluedo-esque ensemble.

Horgan's delivery of sarcasm together with McAdams' attempts at bravado are the icing on a very sweet cake. Barry Peterson's suburban cinematography is exquisite and the tilt-shift model-like shots finally make sense in the closing credits. And while I wish Bunbury and Morris (Michelle and Kevin) had been given more to do in the screenplay, it's worth waiting until the very end of the credits to discover more about the man at the centre of their disagreement.

Cancel your own game night and head to a local cinema from Friday 2 March to see Game Night. It's the funniest film I've seen so far this year ... and it's far better than the trailer.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

May The Road Rise Up (C21 Theatre at the Lyric Theatre until 24 Feb + NI tour)

There's an adage that says when circumstances suddenly change and the dominoes start to fall, many of us are only two pay cheques away from homelessness. Rosemary Jenkinson's new play May The Road Rise Up puts flesh on the saying and follows the ups and downs of Mia, a Tesco delivery driver who loses her health, her partner, her home, and along the way her respect for government schemes that put points above need.

C21 Theatre Company's production is one of four one-handed shows being performed in Belfast theatres this week, a tangible sign of the budget pressures that theatre producers are operating under. While a reduction in on-stage talent can be constraining, it can also be liberating. One man shows offer the opportunity for seamless shifting between characters with an actor challenged to convince the audience of each transformation through gestures, stance and accent.

Christine Clare plays happy-go-lucky Mia. Dashcam footage is projected on the simple backdrop as she narrates her route delivering food and (mostly) drink to Belfast addresses. It's a stream of consciousness, at times like a list being recited, with commentary and reflections on what is happening around her. The flexible backdrop was probably at its most effective when it delivered visual gags in some early scenes: a shame that later scenes weren't enhanced with this technique.
"I fed the 5,000 …"
Humour never deserts Mia even when her beloved Ryan (an out of work law graduate whose occupation is filling in application forms) leaves and her back pain means she can no longer drive. No matter her circumstance, Mia is never short of a friend and she continues to party with her mate Paddy (cue a parody outbreak of Queen with house anthem "I want to take E").

The carefully-judged plot balances the spiralling circumstances that pull Mia down with her attempt to keep a positive attitude and find solutions. If anything her expressions of hope prevent the play from descending into abject misery. A wall of brown cardboard boxes is slowly pulled apart, a visual metaphor for Mia's predicament. Jenkinson described her own experience of pain not being recognised in work capacity assessments for benefits in an interview with me to preview this production.
"One sneeze and his eye would be out his earhole."
Mia shifts from delivering food to relying on a food bank. Then her bed is swapped for a sofa and ultimately a cardboard box. Her fellow street friends are vibrant characters full of human kindness and witty repartee. While a positive influence is acknowledged, Jenkinson doesn't hold back in her criticism of some hostel staff and church groups who work with the homeless. When held up to the light, imperfections are found in every system that is supposed to support rather than obstruct.

Clare is confident in her delivery of the myriad of lines that are full of Belfastisms and street-speak. Director Stephen Kelly and movement director Gary Rowntree have created a strong library of mannerisms to accompany the different stages of Mia's quandary, and some imaginative use of the limited props.

The hour long performance finishes with a call to "rise up". While individual stories sometimes break through into news programmes or the inside pages of a newspaper, the arts are another effective way of highlighting how the systems and people charged with protecting and supporting the most vulnerable can end up doing the very opposite.

May The Road Rise Up follows on from last year's production of Entitled by MACHA in tackling the deficiencies within the benefits system. Mia is a likeable, though clearly flawed, character that is rarely larger than life. That realism has the consequence of dampening some of the potential dramatic effect.

While it may not move you to tears, the play will educate and inform, and you'll leave the theatre wondering why these systemic policy failures continue to be supported by society. The question of what to do next after being on this journey of empathy is left as homework for the audience.

May The Rose Rise Up finishes its run in the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 24 February before jump into Mia's delivery van and touring through Marketplace Theatre, Armagh (Thursday 1 March), Sean Holywood Arts Centre, Newry (Friday 2), The Strand Arts Centre, Belfast (Thursday 8), The Courtyard Theatre, Newtownabbey (Friday 9), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (Saturday 10), The Alley Theatre, Strabane (Thursday 19 April) and Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (Friday 20).

I'd like to think that at the funeral of 'Ginger John' who passed away one cold night, Frosty might have finished his fond eulogy with the words of the Irish blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

- - -

Kabosh Theatre have another Rosemary Jenkinson play out on the road, with a revival of Lives in Translation (which premièred at the Belfast International Arts Festival) and are touring it through Tallaght (Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February), Drogheda (Thursday 1 March), Ballymum (Friday 2) ,Galway (Sunday 4), Lyric Theatre Belfast (Wednesday 7), Dundalk (Thursday 8), Armagh (Friday 9), Derry (Saturday 10) and Limavady (Tuesday 13).

Sunday, February 18, 2018

EdgeFest - Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful and East Belfast Boy - getting inside the heads of two men (Prime Cut at The MAC until 3 March)

Prime Cut are currently presenting two very different pieces of one-handed theatre in Belfast as part of The MAC's EdgeFest season of plays that address Northern Ireland's mental health crisis. You can book to see them as solo shows, or else see them back-to-back on a few dates when performances deliberately overlap.

After a relationship was cruelly cut short and his parents passed away, middle-aged Malachy is locked into a cycle of depression. Depression tinged with hope. Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful is staged on a sloping platform with a shallow pool cut into it. A trickle of drops fall down from above, like the tears that run down Malachy's cheeks and into his soul. The ripples are reflected off the shiny back panels of the stage, seeping into every area of his life. Later it rains and it's apparent just how much control and precision has been built into Ciaran Bagnall's set.

Charlie Bonner lip-syncs to Torn and soon tells the listening audience that "I'd like to pop off quietly having cleaned up after myself". The tall bearded man describes his journey towards this place of nightly contemplation of ending his life. And he explains what stops him. At times, Bonner portrays a man who is as shallow as the water into which he steps. Yet he also draws out the depth in John Patrick Higgins' script which gives voice to a man whose mental health is in turmoil.

The dialogue is peppered with humour - prepare to laugh at suicide and very masculine descriptions of vaginas - but it is delivered from a position of morose misery. For extended periods, background music plays from Malachy's battered and slightly soggy portable radio, sometimes competing with his crucial utterances.

I was disappointed that the sum of the parts - the good script, set, acting and direction (Rhiann Jeffrey) and great lighting - didn't add up to create a mightier theatrical experience. The building blocks were there, but the mix of pathos and humour never quite gelled for me, though Malachy's final speech was a powerful reminder about what keeps people going when they hit their darkest moments.

After the interval, the pace changes with a remarkably youthful Ryan McParland springing onto the stage as Davy, the East Belfast Boy of the play's title. He frenetically dances to the techno track booming out. Davy is young man who is never stands at peace. It's a perfect piece of casting given McParland's previous history of playing jittery characters. One hand is constantly hovering over his crotch while the other tends to his sniffing nose.
"I never want to leave these streets; you know everyone, even the ones you don't like."

The piece is packed with emotion and deliberately cluttered with words. We learn about Davy's life and loves in spurts, gleaning facts and assimilating information from the stream of consciousness written by Fintan Brady, based on workshops in 2015 with young men from Beersbridge and Newtownards Roads.

Sarah Jane Shiels' lighting design allows the stage to darken and the audience to become the focus as Davy bounces his ideas, personality and lip off the front few rows. It's incredible - though slightly frightening - to watch McParland ad lib in character, actively building up rapport with the crowd, and creating laughs at their expense when they answer questions he poses (sometimes semi-rhetorically). He becomes a young twenty-something guy who lives in a world whose only certainty seems to be that using leads to dealing.

Anyone familiar with Oona Doherty's recent dance shows will recognise her choreography that gives Davy his energy. The heartbeat of the pumping techno soundtrack drives the show forward and director Emma Jordan pulls the chaos and energy together to create an hour long show which startles and surprises, confuses and alarms. The ending is unsignposted and an unsettling finish to an otherwise enthralling piece of theatre.

You can read my preview of the EdgeFest season of theatre over on Culture Northern Ireland. The first play The Man Who Fell To Pieces is now on tour. Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful and East Belfast Boy continue in The MAC until 3 March.

Recognising that the arts can be a vehicle for expression and healing, a series of free workshops, panels and drop-ins looking at mental health and emotional well-being are being held in The MAC on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 February. Check their What's On page for details.

Production photos: Matt Curry

Monday, February 12, 2018

Engage with the Power of Reason - #imaginebelfast festival (12-18 March)

Next month sees the return of the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics with over 80 free events in over 30 venues across the city between 12 and 18 March. It's aim is to encourage people to engage with the big issues of our times, whether that be Brexit, poverty, (in)equality, gender or fake news. There'll be talks, workshops, theatre, comedy, music, film, tours, exhibitions, dance, poetry and a video competition.

The full programme is now available to download as a PDF.

US activist Carmen Perez - national co-chair of the Women's March on Washington - will deliver a keynote speech on 14 March as part of a series of talks and workshops on Democracy Day that will look at participatory budgeting, deliberative conversations, the end of facts, and the fitness of purpose of the Good Friday Agreement.

Peter Hitchens will argue for closer and more trusting ties with Russia. Veteran political and satirical cartoonist Martin Rowson will explore the techniques, practice and purpose of his craft. [Ed - Alan's still dubious about Rowson's caricature of him back in November 2009!] Oxford's Prof Danny Dorling will dive deep into an assessment of the extent to which inequality created the momentum behind the leave vote in 2016's EU Referendum.

What currency does the concept of Universal Basic Income have compared to the existing system of social security? Can Belfast become a City of Sanctuary? Does Belfast needs a Night Mayor? Banterflix film podcast have arranged a screening of All The President's Men.

Artist Kate Guelke will spend the duration of the festival barricaded in a small room at The Barracks and placing herself at the mercy of visitors from whom she'll accept 'The Bare Necessities' required to maintain human life: food, water, company. What does a person really need to survive?

The festival organisers encourage people to submit short videos (less than two minutes long, and can be filmed on mobile phones) that describe a change they'd like to see in the world.
"We would encourage you to be as imaginative as possible and offer new perspectives that challenge established thinking and orthodoxy. The best entries - not the most technically accomplished films, but the ones that we feel are the most thought-provoking - will be posted on our website and considered for screening at a future festival event."
Check the Imagine festival website and the full programme for dates, times and venues.

Photo credit: John Baucher.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Questions of A Man - candid, sincere and very timely (Dylan Quinn & Jenny Ecke at Lyric Theatre)

Questions of A Man brings together a series of reflections on masculinity. It's the start of dancer Dylan Quinn's conscious process of questioning himself about his actions: starting with his childhood memory of crawling under his desk to look up his teacher's skirt, to the fear he now realises that he can instil in others by walking into a room burdened by misplaced and overwrought expectations.

The opening sequence between Quinn and his dance partner Jenny Ecke - he casually gets her name wrong and it doesn't bother him as the first of many male-isms - cycles through a series of physical male manoeuvres that take advantage of women. And as Ecke becomes more assertive and aggressive in subsequent replays, Quinn becomes angry and bitter towards her. His clown-like makeup doesn't make it funny and doesn't excuse his behaviour.

Other routines mime along to a Radio 4 Women's Hour discussion about domestic abuse, with hand gestures accentuating the worrying undertones in the male contributor's argument, a confession about familial power imbalances that cause the past behaviour of other men to echo into the present, and a mirrored piece in which the inner male monster loses its disguise and is exposed in devilish detail by Tom Feehily's lighting.

Quinn's Questions of A Man is accessible and, for me, much less obscure than his previous pieces that I've reviewed over the last few years. The 5th Province in January 2015 was my introduction to dance - and the first and, to date, last time political blog Slugger O'Toole hosted a dance review! - while March 2016's Tost raised more questions about communications than I could find answers.

Future pop songs may all be judged by the Quinn method of dancing in a giant penis outfit to test whether the words are respectful or sexually outrageous. Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines ("I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two … Not many women can refuse this pimping … Do it like it hurt, like it hurt") débuted at number one in the UK Singles Chart on 2 June 2013, was banned from being played in Queen's University Belfast amongst a number of other colleges, and became the most downloaded song of all time in the UK in April 2014.

Dylan struggles to get out of his phallic suit … while Ecke quietly sips her cup of tea. When she finds her voice in a later sequence, it's dripping with sarcasm. Later Quinn sweeps himself under a carpet as Ridley Scott explains the reasons - commercial overriding moral - behind the replacement of Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in his latest film All The Money In The World.

This is not a piece in which a woman's voice and perspective on Quinn's profession of guilt or complicity will be directly heard. It's a confessional piece publicly marking the start of one man's wrestling with what it should and shouldn't mean to be male and masculine. But the questions are there for everyone, no matter their gender.

Jenny's slightly disdainful façade throughout the show is perhaps a deliberate mocking of Dylan's belated recognition - "about bloody time" she might even be thinking - that masculinity has been used as a cover for the abuse of women over the years. It perhaps excuses the show's near mansplaining about the issue which has finally become embedded as a societal talking point over the past few months.

If the Lyric's other show The Threepenny Opera is opera-lite, then Questions of A Man could be labelled as dance-lite. That's not to downplay the physical control and the choreographed movements and dialogue. But while dance is the medium, the conversation on-stage and in the foyer and bar afterwards is the message. Immediately after the show, the Lyric was buzzing with members discussing their own actions and contributions towards poor images of masculinity … and femininity.

Questions of A Man is candid, sincere and very timely.

- - -

Update: It's always good when a review starts a conversation. Dylan Quinn has responded to the review above and I've captured his thoughts at the end of this blog post to make sure they don't get lost.
I don’t often respond to reviews, I respect and appreciate the time taken to review the work we create. Alan Meban has been great at taking up the challenge of viewing contemporary dance and our work and for that I am very grateful. I have chosen to respond to this review as I feel the issue is important considering the content of the piece.

We hear the point that the piece was questioned for near mansplaining about the issue, we had questioned this during the process …. however we intended to be man explaining, man exploring and hopefully then men reflecting. It is true that it does not represent a woman's voice however it is the product of having listened to these voices very carefully because without men entering into the debate and owning their own behaviour and mistakes, not in a default self-defensive mode but with an openness that demonstrates a commitment to re-evaluating their behaviour, things are unlikely to change.

Some of the work is indeed very personal and some is observational, it may at times appear confessional however this was not our primary concern/focus. We hope and believe that in exploring the personal on stage we can enable the person off stage to be reflective.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Man Who Fell To Pieces - a moving celebration of brokenness and a call to action about wellbeing and mental health (The MAC until 11 February + tour)

Over a number of weeks and months, John's life has been falling apart. His stressful work environment and wedding planning are only two of the pressures that have been twisting his insides and pulling at him.

The Man Who Fell To Pieces explores John's physical and mental breakdown, as well as the mental ill health of those closest to him: his fiancé Caroline, mother Alice and the ever present household handyman Henry.

Caroline and Alice stare into a bag sitting on the kitchen table. When John finally opened up and Caroline realised what John had been hiding from her, she picked up all his pieces off her living room floor and brought them to his mum's house where they are now sitting in a bag on the kitchen table. The women debate whether it would be better to send for an ambulance or a handyman to 'fix' John back together.

I spoke to writer/director Patrick J O'Reilly last month for a preview piece written for Culture Northern Ireland.
"He's telling the story of his depression, his breaking points and his way of dealing with depression by using his imagination. When he tried to vocalise his feelings, it was incoherent. How do you talk about depression without using clichés - like being 'sad' - and without it being less empathetic?"

While John is a fictional character, the issue is a very personal one to O'Reilly. Over six months in 2012, he experienced a pervasive sense of low self-worth and hopelessness. For him, anti-depressant tablets were not a good fit for the context and circumstances behind his feelings, all of which feeds into the character of John in the play. One of the reasons O'Reilly attended the Jacques Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris was to understand how to physically portray someone falling apart on stage.

An opening title sequence humorously introduces the picture frame concept of physical detachment that will continue throughout the play. It also lays a bed of happiness in the souls of the audience which will take the edge of some of the sharper observations later on as John's road to breakdown is revisited.

Alice is played by Maria Connolly and is a fast-talking, in-your-face mother who over the years has dealt with her own mood changes and frequent episodes of anxiety by calling for help. The yucky dark blue dressing gown that is normally wrapped around her sometimes opens up to reveal a little of a beautiful patchwork dress; but her moments of happiness never last very long.

Roisin Gallagher at first plays fiancé Caroline as strong and stable, dealing calmly with the issue of her broken best friend. But through a series of flashbacks to key episodes in John's life over recent weeks, we see how her emotions and wellbeing have been affected by his growing depression. Being self-absorbed can blind us to other people's situations.

In one of the final scenes, Gallagher silently displays a tenderness towards the brokenness of John that remains a moving memory the morning after the show, and makes this sentence hard to type given the mistiness of my eyes.

Patrick Buchanan's tool belt-wearing Henry is a reminder that help is available. The character is not allowed to develop much empathy and Buchanan is often left spouting DIY facts and home improvement tips, one step removed from the real problem at hand.

Henry is a warning that those we rely on may not fully understand what is going on our lives: misinterpretation can only be avoided by wiping away the stigma and being open and truthful about our feelings.

Surrounded by a talented cast, Shaun Blaney tells John's story and reveals his pain and feelings through a very unique performance. His physicality - from his face through his limbs to his torso and his legs - brings to life the character of John as he is pulled apart and falls to pieces. It's remarkable to watch, and his deliberately hesitant monologues from the side of the stage guarantee the audience's empathy.

The action all takes place inside the shell of a white-timber-framed house designed by Ciaran Bagnall. Nearly everything is cracked or about to falling apart, and the lack of solidity in the fixtures and fittings adds to the frailty of the piece.

Katie Richardson's soundtrack supplies deep and unsettling noises before breaking out into song at key moments. The music isn't allowed to compete with the cast, but instead is like a fifth actor walking on stage: for example, "when love remains we carry all that we can save" from Nothing Is Going To Tear Us Apart. The simple yet sympathetic lyrics allow the four cast to act without words while the music tells parts of the story.

As an audience member, you cannot ignore or step over The Man Who Fell To Pieces. It's a terrific and terrifying visceral insight into aspects of mental illness. Across the four characters you will see yourself and others you know and love. As a wake-up call and a conversation starter, it's an original piece of theatre from Tinderbox that uses emotions, props and music to tell a story that deserves to be seen and heard by a wide and varied audience.

O'Reilly developed The Man Who Fell To Pieces as part of Prime Cut's REVEAL programme in 2015. The two other shows in The MAC's EdgeFest season are being produced by Prime Cut:
Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful (February 15 - March 1) and East Belfast Boy (February 16 - March 2).

The Man Who Fell To Pieces plays at The MAC until Sunday 11 February and will then embark on a regional tour through The Alley, Strabane (Friday 16); Riverside, Coleraine (Tuesday 20); Cushendall Golf Club (Wednesday 21); The Craic Arts Centre, Dungannon (Thursday 22); and Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (Friday 23).

On top of the tour, Tinderbox's IN8 outreach programme will also take The Man Who Fell To Pieces into residential care homes, a prison and community centres, in order to reach groups of people who would not otherwise be able to attend theatre performances and explore these problems through creativity.

Production shots: Ciaran Bagnall

Thursday, February 08, 2018

The 15:17 To Paris - a funny way to celebrate heroism (Movie House from 9 February)

Two and a half years ago, three Americans intervened during a violent attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris. Clint Eastwood cast the men - Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos - as themselves in The 15:17 to Paris, recreating the incident and celebrating their heroic actions.

The school friends, two of whom joined up to serve in the US military, had met up in Europe to go backpacking. Having been through Venice, Berlin and Amsterdam, they dithered about going to Paris. The film dips in and out of their school days and military training, using rather effective child actors before switching to the actual people.

The film nearly spends longer watching the guys choose a flavour of ice cream to eat and debate whether to travel to Paris than recreating the attack on the train. In fact, the incident is rather secondary to Eastwood's determination to gently show off their bonhomie and companionship.

Unexpectedly, The 15:17 To Paris passes the 'six laugh test' with dialogue that is so bad that I wondered whether it was written to distract from the acting. At one point in his less than auspicious training, a dejected Spencer Stone says: "I just wanted to go to war and save lives".

At various points during the 94 minute cinematic experience I wondered whether the whole film had been improvised, and whether all the first takes had been edited together to make the movie. The 15:17 To Paris could be a contender to take over from The Room!

"Ever feel that life is catapulting you towards something?" asks Spencer. Anthony Sadler quotes the line back at him later in the film, in case we didn't get the hint first time round.

A Berlin tour guide castigates the confused trio (around a mix up over Hitler's place of death) saying "You Americans can't take credit every time evil is defeated". No irony is acknowledged even though the film's tight focus on the three Americans somewhat reduces the light shone on citizens from other countries who also intervened on the train.

For a while I thought Eastwood was going to 'do a Dunkirk' and not allow us to see the face of the gunman. In the end we do, briefly. But there's no attempt to fill in any of Ayoub El Khazzani's background. This is about the three Americans.

The best performance in the film is given by French President François Hollande in a speech he delivers while awarding la Légion d'honneur to four men standing on a podium in the Élysée Palace. Real footage from the ceremony is cut in with scenes filmed with the rest of the cast. The President is clearly a public speaker, a performer, and has a good scriptwriter. Eastwood should have sought out the speechwriter to soup up the screenplay. La pièce de résistance is bien sur of course the fourth man on the stage. A fourth brave soul who wasn't American and leaves the audience wondering why he's up there.

Don't forget to sit on through the credits for the extra scene that is squeezed in. If you miss it, don't worry. It doesn't garner any more laughs: you've had your lot by that point.

Why this cringe-fest was released as a movie is beyond me. The experiment to allow three likeable-enough lads represent themselves on the silver screen is laudable. But the result is that Clint Eastwood creates a whole new genre of film: accidental pastiche hero comedy.

The 15:17 To Paris will be screened in Movie House Cinemas from Friday 9 February. It's so bad, I'd nearly recommend you see it.

West Side Story - gritty gang warfare on the stage of the Grand Opera House (Belfast Music & Drama Society until Saturday 10 February)

Rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, agree to a rumble to settle control of their contested neighbourhood. Tony pulls away from the Jets claiming that he values friendship with its leader Riff more than the comradery of being a member. The recently arrived sister of the rival Puerto Rican gang leader Bernardo attracts his attention despite her betrothal to a Shark. Cue conflict, violence, deaths, racism and the potential for a stage full of broken hearts. Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents.

The youthful Belfast Music & Drama Society cast maintain consistent and believable accents throughout the two act production of West Side Story. Alex McFarlane is responsible for the choreography and costumes, both are detailed and exquisite. Gee, Officer Krupke is the standout routine for the Jets, demonstrating the young lads' impeccable coordination with a touch of humour.

Wilson Shields has the guts of an orchestra under the Grand Opera House stage with eighteen musicians recreating the classic soundtrack. The cast don't let him down with their singing, with a string of iconic songs that keep the roughness of the gang culture without losing the rhythm and harmony of the score.

The use of dynamics make Boyd Rodgers' voice stand out as Tony, while Amber Dixon pours emotion into her performance as Maria. While the romance boils up faster than my kettle, the temperature and intensity of their on-stage chemistry is believable. Lauren McCann's tender solo Somewhere during the slightly surreal all-in-white dream sequence deserves a mention along with Naomi Smyth's passionate portrayal of Shark siren Anita.

Light and shade is an issue at times between scenes, with joyous performances following on from darker moments that seemingly provoke no sense of despair. Where the musical lapses out of song into dialogue, the pace tends to be lost: during the run this may be addressed as the production matures. Director/producer Jordan Walsh creates a dark ending, that warrants the 15 advisory that accompanies this production. Yet there's a lack of finality to the last scene which, while dripping with emotion (and blood), feels a little too curtailed when compared with the more stylised curtain call which follows.

Belfast Music & Drama Society have assembled a young and talented amateur cast to produce a no holds barred version of West Side Story that has colour and flare and does not shy away from the more extreme elements of this sixty year old musical. It's a strong first outing for BMDS on the Grand Opera House stage. West Side Story continues until 10 February with shows nightly at 7.30pm and a 2.30pm matinee on Saturday. 

Fabulous production shots by Melissa Gordon.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Loveless: distinctive, disappointing, yet an intriguing essay on decay in Russia (QFT from 9 February)

Loveless tells the story of an estranged Moscow couple fighting not to take custody of their son. Every encounter is an excuse to blame the other for something. Both have moved on to other partners, with Boris (Aleksey Rozin) repeating his pattern of getting younger women pregnant, while phone-obsessed Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) is gripped by the tender affection of her new older lover.

The film is simultaneously distinctive and disappointing, yet it manages to become an intriguing essay on decay.

We don't see much about 12 year old Alexey (Matvey Novikov) because unbeknownst to his warring parents, when the anxious child hears them fighting he responds to the feeling of being undervalued by running away. The remainder of the film follows the process of searching for the missing lad, with some scenes very poignant after the recent high-profile search for Michael Cullen in Belfast.

Loveless is visually distinctive with an unhurried style and long duration shots that follow the action in a room for five minutes or more, long enough for a couple to have a cup of tea, make love, and get up and stare out the window. The soundtrack is atypical, sitting much further forward in the mix than most film's background music. The opening shots - silent scenes of a snowy riverside - are accompanied by a discordant piano which includes the sound of its mechanism and frame. Later a cello takes over as the stressed instrument of choice. The aural dissonance is balanced with a lot of dull grey urbex depressed imagery and locations.

Loveless is disappointing because the slowly told story has no real twists and turns. It's like a scripted ob doc showing off life in a grey Moscow suburb, highlighting the stretched police resource and underwhelming enthusiasm, the disjoints between generations, as well as explaining some of the complexities of a hierarchical society in which religion still has sway over the irreligious. But the near total lack of excitement and energy becomes a huge distraction, particular with a run time of 127 minutes, at least two of which are taken up at the beginning watching the animated logos of the many, many international funders who backed this project after director Andrey Zvyagintsev lost Russian government funding after the production of his 2014 film Leviathan.

However, Loveless eventually offered some intrigue when a pattern emerged from the news reports heard (via subtitle) through Boris' car radio and the TV sets scattered across a few scenes.

Perhaps Loveless is an extended allegory about the decaying state of Russia's relationships with its former siblings that made up the old USSR, perhaps reflecting on the conflict with Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea? (Zhenya's tracksuit top in the final running machine scene and her hard stare into the camera seemed very carefully placed.)

Perhaps it points to the spiritual vacuum that only finds fulfilment in shiny new purchases, new partners and new sex? Perhaps Loveless is an ode to a country over-burdened with cumbersome bureaucracy, decaying fervour and a total lack of verve?

Making a film in Russia that is critical of Russian society is no doubt awkward. But no matter it's inner meaning, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless would have benefited from an injection of plot to make it more thrilling rather than relying on a few false leads and a steady stream of titillation to keep the audience's attention.

Loveless will be screened in the Queen's Film Theatre from Friday 9 - Thursday 15 February.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

After The End - fearing the fallout while being trapped in a bunker with a sociopath survivalist (Lyric Theatre, Belfast + New Theatre, Dublin)

A childhood visit to the old Lyric Theatre to watch the stage version of When The Wind Blows is a memory to which I frequently return. The earnest preparations of Jim and Hilda Bloggs for a nuclear attack were followed by their subsequent confusion as the mature couple tried to navigate their way through the perplexing instructions to live through this extraordinary event.

Dennis Kelly's After The End goes to the other end of the age spectrum and is the latest play by the Vile Bodies theatre company. Fallout from a nuclear attack is not the only thing to be feared when Louise wakes up and finds herself trapped in an underground shelter with Mark, a less-than-valued work colleague. They'll need to stay inside for two weeks until the radiation levels and danger subsides.

While survivalist Mark prepared for this eventuality and chose to rescue the woman he fancied from the work do they were attending in a pub when the suitcase device exploded, it's all a bit of a shock for Louise. The personality clashes they experienced before being thrust together are made worse rather than being resolved by their new-found proximity.

At first Mark's quirks and off-colour ramblings can be dismissed, but the one-sided affection drains yet more blood from his brain, and the seeds of the darkness ahead are sown early on in the dialogue. When the violence comes, it is sustained and brutal - emotional, physical and sexual - and for many in the audience this was an harrowing piece of theatre to witness.

Maria Guiver and Paul Livingstone show off their verbal dexterity as they get their tongues around the staccato repetition of lines, talking over each other, and the verbal ticks of each character as they work through the shock and adapt to their enclosed living. (Livingstone is an alumnus of the Lyric's Drama Studio programme before attending The Lir Academy along with Guiver where they first performed this play.)

The internal elastic bands that perhaps hold each characters' emotions and sense of wellbeing snap at different rates, and both Guiver and Livingstone show immense control as they evolve Louise and Mark over the one hundred minute no interval production. Director Emily Foran holds her nerve and does not shy away from realism in the most extreme scenes.

The diminutive size of Jack Scullion's set creates an intensity in this two hander that is theatrically interesting but emotionally draining. (It's brings back memories of watching Disco Pigs in the same theatre space.) An hour into the play, when Louise was trying to ground down rice by bashing it with a can, I really wanted her to do the same to Mark to end the show and give both her and me release. As one character said: "this is what you're making me do".

Yet the playwright and the cast have one further twist with a final scene which sees the couple reunite and demonstrates the brokenness of Louise and the complex post-traumatic stress disorder she now lives with.

After The End is a superbly executed piece of theatre with some remarkable acting. As the show ended, it was heart-warming - and my heart demanded no end of warming - to see the two actors step out of their bunker and step out of their characters, clutching each other's hands to take their bow together.

The question I was left with after the end of the performance was not about the quality of the production but the reason it was written, and the reason it is staged with some regularity. Dark psychological thrillers like After The End and Unhome are certainly disturbing and unsettling.

The agony of watching these plays nearly drowns out the issues they raise about how our opinions about world affairs and terrorism are shaped, and how they affect what we do as well as what we believe.

The bulk of After The End could be construed as examining the way we shape our own behaviours, and shape other people's reactions and retaliation to our less savoury actions. Is it at all realistic to consider that Louise have resisted Mark's influence over her soul?

But when you walk out of the theatre, the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach lingers well into the next day (at the time of writing) and it's what's seen through the window into the on-stage trauma rather than the mirror that the production is holding up to the audience that dominates.

After the End continues in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until Saturday 3 February and then transfers to The New Theatre in Dublin where it will run between Tuesday 6 and Saturday 24 February.

Friday, February 02, 2018

The Threepenny Opera - fresh, audible and entertaining - signs of a great reboot of NI Opera (Lyric until 10 Feb)

Underneath Polly Peachum's clean cut image lies a young woman with a risk-taking streak. She plants her affections on the cheek of bad lad Mack the Knife (or Macheath) who seems to have his wicked way - criminally, sexually, or both - with half of London. Polly's parents decide to intervene and conjure up a plan to take the reprobate off the streets and put him into the hands of the police chief, over whom Mack has more than a little influence. What follows takes in betrayals, liaisons, bribes, escapes, angst, and eventually an unexpected regal intervention to bring about a happy ending.

While the plot sounds like the fare of classic opera, The Threepenny Opera - so named because that's all you needed to be able to afford to see the original show - is nowhere near as exclusive and privileged as the bulk of classic operatic repertoire.

These are working class heroes and villains in London on the eve of Queen Victoria's coronation, telling an earthy story with which the original audience should have had some empathy (particularly any womanising, murderous, gangmaster types). However, there's a modern sensibility to the lyrics, dialogue and Walter Sutcliffe's direction which feels remarkably contemporary in light of shenanigans around The Presidents Club and attitudes towards immigration and poverty. And there's a suitably Brechtian audience challenge to consider whether we can change our ways.

The Threepenny Opera is much closer to musical theatre than pure opera, as evidenced by the cast being mostly filled with talented singing actors who have no previous opera experience. But boy can they sing.

Marc Blitzstein's English adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's original opera is aware that it is being staged in a theatre, and NI Opera's production (coproduced with the Lyric Theatre) adds a few extra nods to the audience to acknowledge the gender-switched roles and the humorous effect that has on some of the lines of dialogue.

Seventeen wide shiny black steps dominate the stage, with the band - definitely a band rather than an orchestra - sitting in the wings resplendent in stripy blazers with boaters perched above their rouged cheeks. A platform provides a break in the stairs near the top, a few steps down from a letterbox shaped opening into an elevated room.

Dorota Karolczak's novel set provides a much greater intimacy for people sitting higher up in the Lyric's banked seats who look straight across at much of the action rather than peering down at the stage. However, particularly for the high-heel wearing members of the cast, the steep staircase must be a lethal nightly workplace that could turn anyone in the cast into a 'bump bump bump' Pooh-bear impersonator with the slightest lapse of concentration.

Jayne Wisener captures the complexity of Polly who at a superficial level believes that Mack can move one from his womanising past and stay faithful to her, while quickly adapting to the quickly obvious reality that even braces will struggle to keep his trousers up around his waist.

Macheath (Mark Dugdale) struts about the stage looking like a James Bond who failed his MI5 entrance exam, ordering about his expendable underlings and never attempting to change the habits of his lifetime. His childish tattoo of himself, along with the fact that his menace and cruelty is verbal rather than physical, never quite made me believe he could be the most notorious criminal in London.

The other women in his life are epitomised by sultry Jenny played by Kerri Quinn who turns on her husky-voice to match her salacious character and Lucy (Brigid Shine), the voluptuous daughter of the commissioner of police and another pretender to the spousal throne of Macheath.

Polly Peachum's parents are an odd couple, perennially dressed in tracksuits. Jonathan is played by Steven Page and runs a network of beggars across the capital. Page's rich baritone voice blends beautifully with that of his wife Celia played by Matthew Cavan (aka Miss Cherrie Ontop) who recently wowed a Sunday night Lyric audience with his rendition of the Ten Plagues song cycle. (Ironically, given that Celia is the brains behind the capture of Macheath, this female power has been put back into the hands of a male performer!)

A nearly unrecognisable Orla Mullan shows versatility switching between characters, while Richard Croxford is uber-creepy as the all-seeing police chief, while Maeve Smyth is his smarter, less corruptible and more efficient sergeant. 

Actors have been allowed to keep their normal accents which turns the UK capital into something closer to London Irish. While the most noticeable, Jayne Wisener's Coleraine twang wasn't the only brogue to sound more upmarket and Anglicised when singing than speaking, but the inconsistencies don't affect the story.

Brash patterns and lots of stripes dominate the costumes designed by Karolczak. Polly's yellow rose-covered wedding dress that gradually broke down into smaller parts is a particular wardrobe triumph. Props add mirth - particular a table and the stable - along with Gerard McCabe's charity animal costume and the appearance of some sheepish nursery rhyme characters.

What made The Threepenny Opera stand out from previous NI Opera works was the clarity of the vocals. Every single word that was sung could be heard above the orchestra. Hallelujah for great live sound mixing. Suddenly there was no guessing what was happening, or relying on a previously read synopsis of the plot.

If you've never been to the opera, this piece is a great place to start. It's opera light. There's no warbling vibrato to obscure the words. But there are flamboyant costumes and characters, fabulous singing and sets, a story that entertains, and a wealth of local talent throwing themselves into the performance. Hopefully a sign of things to come with future NI Opera productions.

The Threepenny Opera continues in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 10 February.

Date Show - a tender (not Tinder) eavesdropping into dates in this site-specific work for The MAC (until 4 February)

Date Show takes over The MAC until 4 February and each performance brings a group of audience members on a walkabout through the building's public spaces as well as its less well known places to eavesdrop on a set of dates. The order of the encounters varies between groups, and even within groups, so it's a very personal journey into the broken and not so broken hearts that inhabit the building, tender but definitely not Tinder!

To tell you much about the detail of the individual mini-plays that pepper the 'menu' would be give away too much of the surprise. But you might find yourself crowded into the women's toilets in The MAC's basement (along with 20 others!) watching Josie (Mary Jordan) touch up her impeccable make-up and wonder why she has a gun in her handbag. That's John Patrick Higgin's' I Will Not Be Swiped. He's back in The MAC during EdgeFest in a few weeks time.

Eddie Velour is the self-help master of seduction "with the graphs to prove it". The in your face bravado and puntastic wordsmithing of L.O.V.E. will be familiar to anyone who witnessed Joe Nawaz's Brad Peelawn in Hey You!

The methods of storytelling are as varied as the situations that unfold. Sometimes the audience listen in on wireless headphones to the thoughts of a couple. Sophie Flight's Travel Through Time gives a tender glimpse into an older couple (Lynne Webber and Richard Palmer) adapting to Alzheimer's. For Jordan Hanna's Ben & Kathy, the inner thoughts of the blind daters appearing as surtitles above their heads, this truth shockingly yet humorously contrasting with the words they speak to one other. (The intensity of Aisling Groves-McKeown's 'eye acting' is a marvel to watch up close.)

The final La La Land-esque floaty dance number performed by Lizi Watt and Gerard Kelly hugs the MAC's first floor and staircase, weaving in some of the other characters and ending Date Show with happy hormones clearly buzzing through the enthusiastic audience.

Anna Leckey is this quarter's Artist in Residence at The MAC. Her vision for Three's Theatre Company and its mix of physical performance and theatre technology was demonstrated in August 2016 with her headphone-based Thinking About Thoughts.

Curating stories from nine writers, staging each innovatively and fitting them to the spaces, lifts and cupboards of the MAC, together with Colm G Doran's direction, Anna Leckey has created a rich yet light and flirty set of site-specific performances that showcase love in the run up to Valentine's Day.

Date Show's run in the MAC is mostly has totally sold out and finishes on Sunday 4 February. Hopefully the format and some of the stories will return.