Friday, October 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why does the victim always imitate the oppressor?”

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

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

Production photos: Melissa Gordon

Friday, October 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lobby and staircase photos credit: Belfast Times

Thursday, October 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In most cinemas from 3 October.

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