Saturday, June 30, 2018

We Like It Here – rural isolation and psychosis in a new a dark play (Lyric Theatre until 30 June)

Even waiting until the next morning to begin to write this review, Jonathan M. Daley’s new play We Like It Here is proving to be a head melt of a production.

The living room of a small house has come to represent the whole rural village of Ballyarby. Three unnamed sisters occupy the space where their father has ruled in an authoritarian and abusive manner. The household is somewhere on the spectrum between a disturbing cult and a witches’ coven.

Tracey Lindsay’s crafty set uses a horizontal stockade with missing slats as the back wall, while earthy trenches make up the other boundary walls in the triangular room. The three sisters reach into the soil and pick out articles of clothing. Putting their father’s belt around their waist, any of the sisters can be transformed into their father, all too soon demonstrating how that same belt was used to beat and bruise his children.

Playing the eldest sister, Mary O’Loan is aloof, staying above the fractious goings-on all the while orchestrating most of them. Maeve Smyth plays the besotted and spurned middle sister, with the fieriest temper on stage. As the youngest sibling, Adele Gribbon has most energy and bounce, and is also the most disturbed of the threesome. She is most at peace with the strange living arrangement and questions little about their odd situation and practices.

Into this isolated rural nightmare walks Cailum Carragher, playing Thomas, the village Garda officer who is investigating the disappearance of the sisters’ father. The small town feel is amplified by his estranged relationship with the middle sister (played by Maeve Smyth) who is aggrieved that Thomas deserted her for the sexual charms of another girl in the village. He too is soon accessorised and morphs into acting out other characters’ lives, giving him the chance to demonstrate a range of emotions and expressions.

Ultimately the storyline leaves too many questions unanswered about whether we are witnessing one sister’s psychosis, or whether fiction and reality have somehow fused and something in the Ballyarby tapwater has disturbed a whole community. Director Emily Foran injects a dark and sinister life into this difficult script, while choreographer Emily McDonagh creates a memorable nightclub scene that the cast play to perfection.

Snippets from an episode of Friends feel far more real life than the unfolding psychological drama in the front room. Ripples of audience laughter accompany some of the most uncomfortable scenes, yet the disturbing pretext is always far from funny.

Just over an hour long, We Like It Here by the Headrush creative collective (who produced Sink or Swim back in March) plays in the Lyric Theatre until 30 June.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Fall of the House of Usher - a study in mood (Belfast Ensemble at Lyric Theatre until 24 June)

The first rule of Belfast Ensemble is to expect the unexpected. In fact, they’d never be so derivative to steal someone else’s strapline. But it’s never what you’d expect.

I described one of their previous productions as “genre-busting” and it’s true for their new work, The Fall of the House of Usher.

Taking Edgar Allan Poe’s short story as their inspiration, the collective have created a visual and aural treat that suggests and confuses and amazes and challenges.

But what continues to set Belfast Ensemble apart from other theatre-makers is the way that the lighting, sound, set and acting all have equal billing and equal effort going into them.

Empty wooden frames hang down over the raised stage (that itself contains a belated surprise). The frames suggest that we’re looking through different windows into Usher’s life, an analogy used very effectively by the priest who conducted by late-Aunt’s funeral last year.

Seven musicians set the mood of Usher (Tony Flynn) who paces up and down the stage with the poise and purpose of a ballet dancer. Voiceless, but not without message, he examines his late sister’s belongings that have been packed into a suitcase. Distorted video projections are caught on the actors’ white painted faces while a recorded narration tells the story.

Abigail McGibbon – the only cast member who speaks live on stage – play’s Usher’s sister. Like an intense banshee wrapped in a red cardigan she powerfully spits out her words, adding to the sense of mental distress, throwing up the possibility of foul play.

Matthew Cavan tends to Usher’s corporal needs, with the placid actions and reactions at odds with the brooding tension that wordlessly is created between the characters.

Three or four different lighting scenes use height to change (and sometimes eliminate) the shadows cast by the frames on the stage while projectors map solid blocks of light onto the floor. And watch out for some clever trickery that turn Tony Flynn’s trousers and shoes purple.

Conor Mitchell’s score expertly weaves over someone’s cover of Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? It’s a beautiful moment, complete and fulfilling, one among many in this hour long performance.

The story of grief, upset, fear and instability is a study in mood. A demonstration of what’s possible when a group of people let their imaginations run wild and find new ways to express old stories.

It’s not an uplifting piece of theatre. The plot is creepy, the characters are sinister, and there isn’t really a moral backbone upon which the story can rest. However, The Fall of the House of Usher is stimulating and disturbing and a quality example of a contemporary musical horror book adaptation that you couldn’t have predicted would be so satisfying to watch.

Belfast Ensemble’s The Fall of the House of Usher continues at The Lyric Theatre until Sunday 24 June.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Zoo - elephant antics loosely based on the real life Blitz story of a Belfast Zoo heist (cinemas from 29 June)

In recent years, the story of the Belfast Zoo elephant which walked down from Cavehill each evening along the streets to the nearby home of a keeper for protection during the Belfast Blitz has become reasonably well known. During its 75th anniversary year, the zoo was able to trace the woman from an old black and white photograph which showed an elephant in a Belfast back yard. And so the story of 'elephant angel' Denise Weston Austin was uncovered and brought to newspaper and TV audiences.

Colin McIvor has taken this true story and thoroughly adapted it in the screenplay for his new film Zoo. The opening credits explain that it was "inspired by true events" and audiences are soon introduced to the fictitious Tom Hall, the son of a zookeeper who is distraught that the dangerous animals are being shot in case they escape during German bombing raids over Belfast. His father has been called up to serve overseas, and together with a small group of other children, he concocts a plan to sneak Buster the baby elephant out of the zoological gardens.

In a story that is as much about rescuing a girl from her drunk father, a bully from his controlling friends and a woman from her grief as it is about rescuing an elephant, there are a lot of characters to introduce and set up in the first third of the film. It's a slow burn that finally gels in the last 30 or 40 minutes when the characters and story settle into their final stride. But from there on until the end, it's a rewarding watch and tears will be shed.

Toby Jones provides comedy in his role as Charlie, an officious security guard who lives in the gate house and controls access to the zoo. Ian McElhinney's zoo manager is a heartless character who acts with his head rather than his heart. Mrs Austin is played by Penelope Wilton as an eccentric woman whose house is a veritable menagerie stuffed full of birds, reptiles and furry mammals. Early on, she is a figure of ridicule, but her backstory and warm heart come to the fore as the film progresses.

Young Tom Hall (Art Parkinson) has the passion to save Buster from being shot, but needs help to pull off his scheme. The characterisation oddly seems to shift back and forth from over-confidence to nervousness around people. It takes the cunning of ingénue Jane (a début performance by Lisburn-born Emily Flain) and the strength of reforming bully Pete (Ian O'Reilly) and his kid brother 'wee' Mickey (James Stockdale) to make the half-assed plan to sneak an elephant out of the zoo during the nightly curfew into an achievable heist.

There's a lot of atmosphere and sepia scenes as children practice wearing their gas masks and air raid sirens wail in the middle of the night and people rush to the community shelters. The terror of the Blitz is often balanced by moments of humour, though McIvor doesn't shy away from the deadly reality of the bombing raids and creates some moving scenes that take the story beyond one simply about an elephant.

Filmed in Canada as well as Belfast, local viewers will both recognise vistas and scratch their heads at some of the film's geography. Zoo will be screened in cinemas across Northern Ireland from Friday 29 June, just in time for the school holidays. (Also available on US iTunes.)

Friday, June 08, 2018

Ignition - infested by insects? or watching humanity? (Tinderbox at The MAC until 9 June)

The culmination of Tinderbox’s nine Play Machine course which focuses on the creation of new theatrical performances is a new work under the banner of Ignition that is staged by the performers, writers and theatre makers who have completed the course.

13 artists.

5 days.

1 provocation.

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong in the world.”

This year the performers produced a piece of physical theatre that used insects and their stylised movement. Each insect has a different set of movements. Walking about on all fours has become natural for many in the cast. Splayed fingers like spiders, the muscular movement of a worm, buzzy bees, nasty wasps, a floating butterfly.

Yet we were also watching the way that people fit in with the crowd, march to a leader’s beat, find themselves ostracised or demonised or attacked by their own, allow the weakest to be consumed by the fitter. Swarms of refugees. Lowly and impoverished workers. There was a richness to the scenes.

I’m shivering and desperately wanting to scratch my back as I type. Now my neck. I need a shower to stop imagining that small beasts are creeping up by short sleeved shirt. Mistake. A polo neck jumper may not be trendy or suit the good weather, but it may be the perfect fashion choice to see this work of theatre.

With little dialogue and little in the way of a narrative arc between scenes, a certain amount of head scratching can be expected. Like dance, this style of physical theatre often tells a story in your mind, building layers, editing ideas, before finally one scene – for me, the woman cleaning – clinches the deal and I finally think I know what I’m watching.

It makes be think of The Killers’ song Human:
Are we human or are we dancer? / My sign is vital, my hands are cold / And I’m on my knees looking for the answer / Are we human or are we dancer?

The ensemble cast each get a chance to shine/buzz/pretend to be at a spin class. Ignition is an imaginative show . Catch the final performance at The MAC on Saturday afternoon at 4pm.

Expressions of interest are welcomed for Tinderbox’s next Play Machine course which will begin in September and run for nine months.

I’m away to get some talcum powder.

Production photos: Ciaran Bagnall Design

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Belfast Book Festival – alt-right, autonomy, autism, football and politics (6-16 June) #belfastbook

Belfast Book Festival has begun, bringing 11 days of literific talks, readings and entertainment in the annual celebration of all things bookish.

The opening day gives a flavour of the breadth of the festival: Q Radio’s Stephen Clements looking back on childhood memories, war time campaign history from John Kiszely, local author Bernie McGill whose new book is set on Rathlin Island, an evening of Refugee Tales and an interview with Alastair Campbell.

Some highlights from the rest of the festival …

Thursday 7 June

Diarist, author and former-politician Chris Mullin is speaking about his new autobiography Hinterland in The Crescent at 6.30pm.

Friday 8 June

Kathy D’Arcy will read a selection of stories, poems, memoirs and essays from the book Autonomy she compiled and edited to explore people’s experience of being forced to stay pregnant against their will. The Crescent at 6pm.

I’ve a very short list of poets whose work I can bear to engage with. Performance poet David Brazil has a secure place on that list and will be taking part in an evening of spoken word – Hymn to the Reckless – in The Crescent at 9pm.

Saturday 9 June

It was only in her twenties that Emily Reynolds was diagnosed as bipolar. Reading from her “blackly funny, deeply compassionate and extremely practical” book A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind she discusses living with mental illness, dealing with it and understanding it. The Crescent at 6pm.

Sunday 10 June

Michael Walker’s Green Shoots examines why we (still) have two football associations on the island. It promises to be an engrossing account of the inside stories, dramas and dreams of the game in Ireland and a definitive history of a footballing nation and its many paradoxes. Strand Arts Centre at 11am.

Huw Kingston spent 12 months circumnavigating the Mediterranean, travelling 13,000km in a sea kayak, an ocean rowboat, on bike and by foot. Mediterranean – A year around a charmed and troubled sea tells the story of the physicality, the landscapes and the humanity he encountered in his journey to fundraise for Save the Children’s programmes with children affected by the crisis in Syria. The Crescent at 3pm.

Monday 11 June

Two authors address autism. Laura Jones wrote Odd Girl Out about her reaction to diagnosis in her mid-forties. Jessie Hewitson wrote the book she wished she would have been able to read when her son was given an ASD diagnosis. Personal, practical, inspiring and enriching. The Crescent at 6pm.

Tuesday 12 June

Join Lucy Collins, Maria McManus, Nessa O’Mahony and the HIVE Choir as they look back on women’s representation in literature and sound, from suffrage to the present. Who is silent? Who speaks? Who is listening? What is said? What is unsaid? What is heard? What happens in the space between? The Crescent at 6pm.

Wednesday 13 June

Mike Wendling is an editor at BBC Trending and has spent years covering extremism and internet culture for radio, online and television, and is author of Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House. He’ll be joined by Elizabeth Nelson Gorman to analyse the movement that was prominent during Trump’s presidential campaign. The Crescent at 8pm.

Friday 15 June

John Lennox will be in conversation with Stephen Shaw about Cosmic Chemistry: Do God and Science Mix? Fisherwick Presbyterian Church at 8pm.

The full Belfast Book Festival programme is available online.