Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody – fine performances, acting and music tied to a ga ga story

Bohemian Rhapsody is a mess. One single film is simultaneously trying to be biopic of Freddie Mercury, tell the story of a song, and replay a concert.

Given the production nightmares throughout the long pre-production period and the filming (with director Bryan Singer replaced by Dexter Fletcher before principal photography had finished), it’s amazing that the film is such a good mess.

This is not a Mamma Mia-style film version of We Will Rock You, a fictional story told around the songs. Over 134 minutes, we’re introduced to Freddie Mercury’s family, the origin story of the band, his long-lasting bond with Mary Austin, experimental recording sessions, chart success, strained creative relationships, a brief solo career, the band’s relaunch at Live Aid and his diagnosis with HIV/AIDS. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten manages to squeeze a lot of facts and emotions into the script, along with much of the band’s back catalogue of hits.

Rami Malek is superb as the exotic Mercury, oozing style and passion. Fitted with prosthetic teeth, his lips, jawline and facial features make him the centre of attention before he even opens his mouth. His performance captures the intensity of the lonely Queen front man who struggled to like himself and to find people worthy of his trust.

Bewigged Gwilym Lee is visually like Brian May, the second strongest figure in the band of four. Joseph Mazzello is costumed with suitably kiddish outfits to play bassist John Deacon, while Ben Hardy takes his seat behind Roger Taylor’s drum kit. They get a lot of screen time, fair because there were four personalities in the band, but depriving cinema goers of more time with the man they came to see. A Star is Born is a better film with less caricatured performances.

Tom Hollander adds a touch of humour as lawyer turned manager Jim Beach, while Dermot Murphy pulls off a good Bob Geldof and Dickie Beau’s Kenny Everett is in the best possible taste.

There is an absurd obsession with Mercury’s cats in an edit which often uses entirely unnecessary effects (like the shot which zooms into and out of the tour coach) and adds artistry which detracts from the musicians. Newspaper films show paper flowing through printing presses; musical films show recording studios. The endless cycle of dubbing and overdubbing borders on becoming tedious as the film tries to explain the complexity of the “six minute quasi-operatic dirge with made-up words”.

The final recreation of Queen’s 20 minute set at the Live AID concert in Wembley is self-indulgent and marries the cast’s acting with the 1985 live recording. While Mercury has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, the film’s producers should be less certain of winning over critical audience members. The cinema lights don’t come up until the last moments of the credits, a chance to play another couple of classic tracks.

Ultimately, a far better film might have centred on Mary Austin and told the remarkable story of her life-long relationship with the singer that survived a broken engagement and continued to this day with her inheritance of 50% of his estate. Lucy Boynton plays the faithful friend, giving the knowing glances and soft touches that portray the deep friendship that lingered beyond what he could ever have thought he deserved.

Now playing in most cinemas.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Dyptik’s Dans L’Engrenage (In the Gear) – dancing to the hip hop beat in a high-performance rat race #BelFest2018

French dance company Dyptik delivered a timely ode to the Civil Service in The MAC on Friday evening as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival.

While Dans L’Engrenage (In the Gear) was a last minute substitution into the festival programme, the performance couldn’t have been more opportune, coming on the last day of public hearings at the RHI Inquiry with former and current senior civil servants taking the stand.

My perennial problem when reviewing dance performances is trying to figure out what the artists are trying to say. Is there a story or a message? Or is it so conceptual that any narrative has been deconstructed so far that the series of physical actions impress but no longer carry meaning?

Despite having glibly described the show as “energetic hip hop from a French dance company” on BBC Radio Ulster’s Wow The Fest Friday lunchtime Facebook Live show for the last couple of weeks, I’d no larger picture in my head of what would happen when the lights went down in the MAC’s large theatre space last night.

In the end, the performance wordlessly (if you discount a couple of snatched phrases of French in sound effects) told the story through the characters on stage. It was obvious and I was somewhat relieved when my notes scribbled during the performance turned out to roughly match the cast and director’s explanations during the after-show Q&A.

Dans L’Engrenage is about the stresses of work. Being let down by colleagues and trapped inside processes with many moving parts. Colliding with colleagues all trying to hold others back and claw their way to the top. Being overwhelmed, overwrought and overworked. with your workload.

Which made me think of the civil service energy team struggling to get their heads around the policy issues – and the profitability – of the renewable head incentive scheme, and later the claims processors flooded with a surge of forms from people wanting new boilers at the last minute. And the feeling of isolation that some must feel as colleagues distance themselves as the inquiry team comb through the ash left by the roasted scheme, and even some SPADs’ race to the top of the greasy pole leaving as many others as possible far behind.

One dancer’s slide across the floor on his head, legs in the air, was an early warning that the troop all come out of the hip hop scene. Jerky movements suggest anxiety as well as the robotic nature of tasks. Delicate Mexican waves with fingers on a table convey impatience. The group movements, leaning and rotating as one, were beautiful to watch. The synchronised breakdancing was extraordinary.

Middle eastern influences permeate both the dance and the soundtrack. Sharp lighting enhances the dancers’ shapes and at times become objects or goals that they work towards. Dressed in smart office garb, the dancers from Dyptik prove that they are high-performing artists with their breath-taking hour-long show. A real festival treat, and the kind of high quality, high impact show that an ambitious international festival should be bringing to these shores.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Hidden Extras – dynamic gateway operatic farce demonstrates young artists’ talents (NI Opera/Tinderbox)

As a gateway piece to introduce new audiences to opera – and to entertain existing audiences – NI Opera have hit upon a gem with Rossini’s Hidden Extras (originally performed as La Cambiale di Matrimonio) and their co-production with Tinderbox Theatre Company.

It’s a one act, 70 minute betrothal soap opera with a woman, already in love with a lad, promised by her father to a brash American businessman who later backs out of the contract and incurs the wrath of the man who intends to box him into the original deal.

Hannah Shepherd’s barcoded costumes emphasise the transactional nature of the exchange of merchandise and bring a visual consistency to the performance that uses only a minimal set and is played out on the floor surrounded by the audience sitting at tables in the Crescent Arts Centre. Later a fabulous receipt-endowed wedding dress continues the capitalist refrain of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.

While sung in English using a modern translation of the libretto – modern in the sense that it can comfortably rhyme ‘placid’ with ‘flacid’ – Patrick J O’Reilly’s direction and choreography compensates for any words the audience miss by telling the story through actions. His trademark physicality – and a couple of moves reminiscent of The Man Who Fell to Pieces – turn up the farce factor.
“Send me a bride of the following specifications”

Giving the American businessman, Slook, a more authentic accent might have magnified the crassness of his initial letter requesting a bride. However, Malachy Frame creates a fun character whose intentions recognisably shift as the story unravels towards its suitably operatic gunfight conclusion. Brian McAlea plays Sir Toby as an agitated and easily flustered father and succeeds in getting his tongue and baritone voice around some very rapid phrasing.

Dawn Burns and Nathan Morrison play two of his employees, dusting the furniture and his daughter, as if she was a mannequin on display. Their able voices introduce the story and set the tone and quality of the rest of the performance.

Soprano Jessica Hackett plays Fanny whose secret relationship with less well-off Edoardo (played by tenor Vladimir-Mihai Sima) is threatened when the Yank comes on the scene believing that “the little lady, she’s enchanting”. But Fanny’s quite capable of standing up for herself – “I am not merchandise for you sir!” – while looking increasingly disdainful as men fight over her with little consultation. Her voice fills the reverb-less space, cutting through Keith McAlister’s nimble piano accompaniment and emphasising her frustrated and disempowered role in the story.
“We have made a great transaction: they are happy, and so are we.”

The modern libretto together with fine singing, clear diction, imaginative choreography and a hearty pace shows off the young performers’ talents. Small studio opera productions are typically static and voice-based. Following in the footsteps of the larger Threepenny Opera in partnership with the Lyric Theatre in February, this new collaboration between NI Opera and Tinderbox proves that more dynamic works can be created that engage, entertain, and look a lot more fun to perform.

Having completed its three-night run, Hidden Extras will hopefully return – perhaps at Out To Lunch or another festival – and become a stalwart in NI Opera’s repertoire to show off their NI Opera Studio participants.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Gibraltar Strait – challenging voices from 30 years ago (Brassneck Theatre at The MAC until Sat 27 October) #BelFest2018

Political theatre can be enormously challenging to watch never mind perform, direct, write or market. Each audience member walks in the door with their idea of what is right and wrong, their understanding of what actually happened, their own view on contemporary policies and social issues, and their own ‘truth’ against which they’ll hold what they see and hear.

And that’s on top of the normal preoccupations of how your day has been, the traffic on the way to the theatre, your indigestion from a rapidly scoffed dinner, the length of the queue to pick up your ticket at the box office, and the football-sized sweetie that the person sitting behind you seems to be slowly unwrapping while drowning out the dialogue.

Hugh Stoddart’s Gibraltar Strait lives in this space. Originally performed in London’s Royal Court and in Belfast by Tinderbox back in 1990, it is back on stage with Brassneck in The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

Five actors and five simple wooden chairs are joined by ten or more characters that represent different aspects of the shooting dead of the three IRA members in Gibraltar on 6 March 1988 and the aftermath. Director Tony Devlin lets the words take centre stage with characters that each have consistent and distinctive accents.

An English journalist (played by Terry Keely) provides a ‘mainland’ perspective on proceedings while an SAS soldier called Michael (Rhodri Lewis) provides insight into the rules of engagement that his unit operated under in Gibraltar. Danielle Magennis is so very convincing as Mairéad Farrell, barely blinking never mind hesitating as she calmly articulates her experience in HM Prison Armagh and her reasons for being active in the IRA in measured tones.

Her mother, played by Séainín Brennan, portrays the dichotomy of wanting to protect her daughter from the risk of further active service in the IRA while appreciating the unfairness of the original coroner’s inquest verdict. She also voices the experience of local islander Carmen Proetta who witnessed the shooting and spoke out in the Thames Television documentary Death on the Rock before having her life and times turned inside out by an outraged London press. Jimmy Doran speaks as an MI5 officer as well as solicitor Patrick McGrory who represented the McCann, Savage and Farrell families. Delivering snippets from McGrory’s final submission to the inquiry’s jury, Doran captures the power imbalance in the room.

Sound effects are sparse but used very effectively, particularly the sound of the shooting, bookended later with a gavel coming down at the end of the inquest. The opening bus tour scene is discombobulating with the driver and passengers facing forward while the wall of video running behind seems to be looking out the front of the bus instead of the back.

Some parts of the script are distilled from verbatim inquest testimony and contemporary interviews. Other parts have been fashioned to fill in the gaps. The balance of speakers, and the cuts between them, are well executed, giving the 80 minute piece enough pace and drama to prevent it becoming an educational drag.
“Here we have a crime that hadn’t been committed, by people who are now dead”
While the writing is sympathetic to the opinion that the killings were unlawful and the ultimate determination of the European Court of Human Rights that Article 2 had been breached, Gibraltar Strait is not a piece of propaganda. The British Establishment and SAS are given space to justify their action, perhaps more space that some in last night’s audience were comfortable with. At an after-show Q&A, republican Joe Austin said that the play had “humanised all those who were involved”.

Theatre can be used to provoke, to expose truth, and to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions. Brassneck’s production of Gibraltar Strait is certainly challenging, no matter your perspective, political leaning or awareness of the events thirty years ago. The short run is nearly sold out, with tickets only remaining for the Saturday matinee in The MAC. Some tickets may also remain for an extra performance that’s being squeezed into ‘The PD’ Andersonstown Social Club at 8pm on Sunday evening – ring (028) 9060 0479 for book.

Monday, October 22, 2018

First Man – a window onto a space family’s fallibility and humanity

As a child, one of my treasured books was The Observer’s Book of Manned Spaceflight. I suspect that if I hoked through boxes in the garage, I’d find it sitting with a few other childhood books. It walked through the Sputnik, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and looked forward to the Space Transportation Station (STS) programme, better known as the Space Shuttle).

Other space-related childhood memories include a Lego space brickset with little helmeted astronaut mini-figures, countless visits to Armagh Planetarium, a primary school project on the moon, and attending a lecture by Sir Patrick Moore about his photography of the moon in David Kier building, a lecture briefly interrupted by the sound of a car bomb going off at the side of the City Hall.

However, for me space is an intellectual interest. I’m too much of a coward to ever want to be launched into space in a tin can mounted on top of a furnace. Particularly after watching First Man, Damien Chazelle’s new film that examines Neil Armstrong’s journey into NASA and up to the moon.

It’s less a celebration of the achievement and more an examination of the character of the man who first planted his foot on the orbiting satellite, as well as those close to him.

Throughout the film we watch Ryan Gosling portray the man who continued to carry the grief of his daughter who died before her third birthday. While some incidents are fictionalised, nothing seems too far-fetched.

Claire Foy’s depiction of the Janet Armstrong brings a sense of the cost to the Armstrong of Neil’s workaholic mentality and emotionless character. We see her holding the family together, adapting to his changing career path – “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life” – as well as moods, and forcing him to be honest with his children about the dangers of his chosen profession. She is warm and worrisome, while he is cold and cocky: the difference between earth and space.
“When you get a different vantage point, you get a different perspective.”

We see a man who can focus his obsession and channel his energies into a task at the expense of relating to those around him. His most startling characteristic is his ability to sit in silence for a few seconds while everything around him is noisy and chaotic, figuring out what action would be best. It’s a surreal state of anti-panic. It’s this ability to step back from the frenzy and calculate his options that lingers in my mind a week after I saw the film.

While the fuel-constrained Apollo 11 landing on the moon is well known, the film devotes a lot of time to his earlier handling of a precarious and life-threatening situation during the Gemini 8 mission. Having rendezvoused and completed the first ever docking manoeuvre with another spacecraft in orbit, the co-joined spacecraft began to roll and tumble. Armstrong battles physical and mental pressures, isolation from ground control, and even manages to make a few calculations to stabilise the Gemini capsule and return to earth. Watch out for Ciarán Hinds’ appearance as a NASA boss, holding Armstrong’s future in his hands after the Gemini 8 incident.

In case you’d forgotten how much can go wrong in space, Justin Hurwitz’s score uses a lamentful theremin to mark important junctures! The vibration and stressed metal of rocket launches are contrasted with the quiet of space and the moon. The physical closeness of astronauts lying horizontally in the command module awaiting launch is contrasted with their attendance at the colleagues’ funerals.

I came out of the cinema wanting to rewatch The Farthest (the emotionally-charged tribute to the two Voyager space probes hurtling out of our Solar System) and track down a copy of The Dish!

First Man is a window – often a literal window (house, claustrophobic command module, quarantine facility, helmet visor) – into the family and friends of Armstrong. Gosling captures the isolation that surrounded Armstrong at home, at work and in space. Instead of sugar-coating his fallibility, First Man exposes his humanity.

Still playing in the Queen’s Film Theatre, Movie House and other cinemas.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone #BelFest2018

Anyone picking up a ticket for Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone and expecting a straightforward tribute concert was in for a surprise when Josette Bushell-Mingo took to The MAC stage on Friday evening.

Accompanied on stage by a three-piece band, she launched into her introduction and soon had the sold out Belfast International Arts Festival audience eating out of the palm of her hand as she got them to clap and shout to recreate the atmosphere of a Nina Simone concert. (You can catch the intro a couple of minutes into Friday’s WowTheFest show.)

But Josette quickly stepped out of Nina’s shadow to pursue a line of questioning that asked the audience whether the discrimination that the US civil rights movement fought against in the 1960s still persisted? Questions which also echoed in this place with our own recent civil rights movement anniversary activities, and our own continuing relationship with guns.

Other vulnerable and minority sections of society are named, but the tightly scripted monologue kept its focus on the murder of black teen Laquan McDonald, shot by a white police officer 16 times, as well as a number of other well-known fatal shootings.

The house lights were raised as the audience are jolted out of passive listening and asked to think and respond. It was intense and there was no fissling in the stalls. The only person brave enough to interrupt Josette was her pianist, a device that lifted the tension.

The zenith of the provocation comes in a breath-taking section of the show in which Josette admitted afterwards in the Q&A that she pushes the audience to the point of her own discomfort. That’s well beyond where you’d expect or prefer her to stop! A few people escaped soon after to the toilet, but everyone seemed to return. It was intense, and fearless, though also quite controlled. “Theatre is the only safe place to be so challenging today” Josette explained.

The songs that Josette now sang more freely seemed familiar, but I’m almost sure the lyrics had been sharpened up to reinforce the message. Gospel, jazz, blues, folk. It’s all within Josette’s range of talent.

Black and white video footage projected into a string curtain was particularly innovative with video-based spotlights scanning across the performer. The show’s lighting with its rich golds and shadow effects were as exquisite as the band’s score.

The alchemy of ideas and timelines was powerful. The fusion of Bach and Kool & the Gang was novel. The staging stripped away. The audience applauded as if they sensed the pressure lifting. Though Nina’s ‘understudy’ was never going to roll over and provide relief quite so easily.

Feeling Good with its lyrics “It’s a new dawn / It’s a new day” took on a new poignancy. The final I wish I knew how it would feel to be free was truly heartbreaking and full of longing. Yet there was hope. The revolution wasn’t won in The MAC last night. But there are small changes and small acts that the audience can perform to take up our part in the struggle.

Uncomfortable, unsettling, and amazing. Festival magic.

Friday, October 19, 2018

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

Tony Wright walks onto the stage wearing his trademark hat, carrying a guitar case and pulling a suitcase behind him. A solo musician needs to become a seasoned traveller in order to survive nomadic touring schedules and grabbing gigs were destiny offers them.
“I wrote a book. I get bored. You spend a lot of time by yourself when you’re a solo musician.”
Chapter and Verse is a bit of a departure for the artist known as VerseChorusVerse. He’s more used to stepping up to the mic to sing, yet his ebullient nature can also carry an audience with excerpts from his recently published memoir Chapter & Verse(ChorusVerse) which is packed full of stories about being out on the road for twenty years. [Update - now vailable on Kindle (at £5 for a limited period)]

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why does the victim always imitate the oppressor?”

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

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

Production photos: Melissa Gordon

Friday, October 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lobby and staircase photos credit: Belfast Times

Thursday, October 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In most cinemas from 3 October.

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