Monday, November 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outburst festival continues until Saturday 17 November.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Juliet, Naked - a study of parenthood dressed up as treatise on modern rock fandom

When the original demo recordings for a niche alternative rock album that is only remembered by fanatics pops through the letterbox of an English seaside house, it stirs up dissatisfaction and triggers a woman to set herself free.

While Juliet, Naked could be understood as an analysis of fandom and its often tenuous relationship with truth and the artists at the heart of their fervour, its study of parenthood, and the longing for parenthood, is probably richer.

Annie (played by Rose Byrne) is trapped in a relationship that has been going nowhere for 15 years. Her housemate and supposed partner is a selfish Irish academic who pontificates about modern television in a media studies course run by the local new university. Prolonged email exchanges with Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), the supposedly seminal artist who recorded the Juliet album before disappearing off the pop parade, develop into honest exchanges about their life and times. 

It’s neither a mere vehicle for O’Dowd’s comic delivery nor a pity piece about Annie. While the director does unnecessarily parade Byrne around in her underwear, it never repeats this mistake and generally treats Annie as intelligent and increasingly in control of her destiny.

Don’t be put off by the film’s title: ‘naked’ refers to the nature of the stripped back demo tracks. Some strong language is the only reason for the 15 certificate. It’s otherwise shot like a 12A, with the scene of Tucker Crowe’s unexpected extended family reunion in a London hospital played as a gentle catastrophe rather than being milked for every last emotional twist.

Hawke significantly dials down his character’s star power. When she meets the reclusive musician, Byrne quickly gets the giggly nervousness over with and demonstrates the inner compassionate that has already been set up with her caring relationship for her younger sister and the big child-of-an-ex-boyfriend she used to live with.
“Who’s mum are you again?” / “I’m nobody’s.”

The multiple infatuations, the tender way the emotional heartstrings are barely pulled leaves the audience lots of space to rise above the paraphrased Nick Hornby novel and some of the cinematic clichés (moving out of your home while torrential rain beats down on your belongings?) to realise that this is a story about a child who’s absent from the cast list but shapes at least one of the main character’s sense of being.

It’s harder to imagine a better companion piece to Stacey Gregg’s Choices which looks at reproductive justice and includes commentary on childlessness. The lure of a schmaltzy ending is mercifully avoided. (Tonight at The MAC is your last chance to hear Gregg’s performance for a while.)

Juliet, Naked is still being screened in most big cinema chains.

Choices – unspoken, unsupported, unexpected, taboo, painful and personal stories of reproductive justice #outburst18

There’s a sense that in order to do Stacey Gregg’s Choices justice, a review would need to be as eloquent and beautifully crafted as her 45 minute one-woman speech. Her delivery feels natural and heartfelt, spellbinding her listeners with the same magnetism as poet Gail McConnell summons up when she recites Type Face.

Two empty chairs sit to either side of a central lectern behind which Gregg stands with her legs crossed and addresses the audience directly. She takes us into the lives of two women whom we imagine sitting on the chairs in theatres, departure lounges, waiting rooms, and of course the living rooms in which so little of the complexity of their reproductive journeys are actually discussed.

Through the hopes and dreams of Oonagh and Holly we are confronted with the less hopeful and less dreamy reality of reproductive justice. One woman wants to conceive but can’t, the other is pregnant but didn’t plan to be. Through both of their situations we are challenged by what is unspoken, unsupported, unexpected, taboo, painful and incredibly personal.

Gregg’s Granny – “a woman who got things done” (often with a hatchet) – pops into the narrative. We’re told about vaginal mucus, IUI, IVF, donor sperm, and non-birth stories which are hidden in full sight. We’re reminded of the photo of a refugee mother washing her newborn baby Bayan outside her tent in the (now-closed) Idomeni camp in Greece.
“We’re at the centre of our stories, but not necessarily the ones at the centre of telling them.”

So often other people give voice to what individual women experience, appropriating their stories, usurping representation whether well-meaning or following an agenda. Choices can be curtailed and constrained.

Gregg leans forward and emphasises particular voices and thoughts into a mic, adding accents to phrases with her expressive hands. She goes up and down the gears as her characters meander towards their mundane destinations. At one point the pace ramps up to the extent that words are dropped from sentences in the urgency of expression, followed by long moments of silence as what is unsaid speaks ever so loud and clear.

What happened at the conclusion of the performance was remarkable. After the applause died down, people stayed in their seats. There was no rush for the door or the toilet or the bar. Some people talked quietly to their companions. Others sat in silence in their own thoughts.

Tickets are still available for Tuesday evening’s performance of Choices (8pm in The MAC) as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival which will be followed by a panel discussion. Choices was originally commissioned by the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester as part of the B!RTH debate.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Brewing - an early glimpse of three new works in development #outburst18

Over the years, the Outburst Queer Arts Festival has become for a test bed for new work from creatives. Yesterday afternoon, the Black Box audience settled down for a couple of hours of Brewing, three very different works from well-established writers.

The rehearsed reading of Amanda Verlaque’s The Party imagined a small independent figure with cross-community working class backing emerging from the Northern Ireland political fray to fight a by-election caused by the resignation of a homophobic and ultimately hypocritical politician. Wily Gareth (Tony Flynn) has gone over the head of his calculating wife Heather (Jo Donnelly) to hire flamboyant media spin doctor Jo (Maria Connolly) to advise his campaign. The Party has a very televisual timeline – jumping backwards before returning to the first scene and moving on – and enjoys sharp dialogue, recognisable political traits, and the kind of Sunday newspaper shenanigans that should light up the eyes of theatre producers and maybe even radio or television commissioners.
While they seek to be unusually candid when speaking to the public, as the layers of their youthful actions, past relations and lazy eyes are peeled back, it reveals a more complex and difficult relationship with the truth that the watching media will surely leap on in the remaining yet-to-be-written scenes. In its current form,

Stacey Gregg’s Hatchet Jinny is a mixed-media memoir, exploring her own identity by starting with her no-nonsense grandmother who had a perchance for breaking apart furniture when her patience was tried. It’s illustrated with recordings of interviews with family members, childhood photographs, quotes from philosopher Didier Eribon and projections of hard-learned principles for life. At first it all feels haphazard, but it quickly gels as Gregg’s self-awareness and generous sharing develops into a comfortable style of performance that is warm, open but never too judgemental on her closest family. It’s a strong enough start to surely expect Hatchet Jinny to be entertaining Edinburgh audiences next summer.

Last up was a rehearsed reading from a selection of scenes of Dominic Montague’s Glass Houses. Ben (Neil Keery) is a young gay GP who from time-to-time uses smart phone apps to hook up with local guys. Rex (Paddy Buchanan), a handsome chap with good teeth, grabs his attention more than once. But is he too good to be true? Gavin Pedan adds a shy and socially awkward housemate Greg to the mix. The riffs about self-diagnosing patients, status anxiety, Tinder coaches and LGBT9er work well, and Caroline Curran’s character creates dramatic tension and adds much-needed colour to this early version of a piece which is still in development and hasn’t found its final shape. The sharp interface between online and offline is definitely worth examining and I hope to get a second date with Glass Houses in the future.

Outburst festival continues until 17 November.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Outburst Queer Arts Festival - choices, cuts, cubes and conversation (8-17 November 2018)

Outburst Queer Arts Festival is back running in Belfast from 8 until 17 November. Last year’s thrilling programme served up an emotive revival of the Ten Plagues song cycle by Belfast Ensemble, the première of Richard O’Leary’s There’s a Bishop in My Bedroom, the first of many outings of the Quartered: Belfast, a Love Story walking tour by Kabosh, and strong experimental theatre in TheatreofplucK’s Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet.

So what’s in store this year? The programme is stuffed full of thoughtful films, talks, theatre and performance art.

Brewing. Three local writers will share rehearsed readings of new work in the Black Box at 3.30pm on Sunday 11: Stacey Gregg – Hatchet Jinny; Amanda Verlaque – The Party; Dominic MontagueGlass Houses. A story of a granny, a political and electoral reaction to a homophobic politician’s resignation, and an app that puts endless possible relationships at your fingertips. [reviewed]

Richard O’Leary is back with Cut: Adult Circumcision for the Uptight, his hilarious educational talk that seeks to break the taboo in society as well as the health service around adult penile circumcision. The renowned storyteller will be opening up his own “true-life story of a Cavalier who became a Roundhead” on Sunday 11 at 6pm in The MAC and in the Royal Victoria Hospital’s Samuel Irwin Lecture Theatre on Friday 16 at 1pm. Free. [reviewed]

Choices is a live reading by Stacey Gregg of two intimate stories of women faced with the complex challenges of reproductive choice. Gregg’s award-winning play Scorch was performed as part of the 2015 Outburst festival. Originally commissioned by the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester as part of the B!RTH debate, Choices is part of a collection of international plays that question birth practice and the cultural pressures that surround it. Monday 12 and Tuesday 13 at 8pm in The MAC. (Tuesday’s performance will be followed by a panel discussion.) [reviewed]

Belfast Ensemble are bring The Doppler Effect back to the Lyric Theatre between Wednesday 14 and Saturday 17 after last year’s development performance which was a real treat. A floating cube suspends a string trio and actor in the air, merging nightclub, concert, stage play and visual art. The story of loss, love and loneliness, one person’s night in the city they call home. Reviewing the show last year, I described it as
“genre-busting: musical theatre accompanied by dance, some narrative and some of the best visuals I’ve seen in a theatre. The genius of The Belfast Ensemble is that together the artists produce high quality, imaginative work that is riddled with enough layers of meaning that you are left wanting to hit rewind and go back to the beginning to breathe it all in again.”

The evening performance on Saturday 17 will be followed by the première of Abomination – The DUP in Concert in which the words of former MLA Iris Robinson’s interview on the Nolan Show will be performed by international soprano Rebecca Caine and backed by a chamber orchestra. Performed without explicit comment, composer Conor Mitchell hopes that the audience will appreciate how words matter and spark fresh conversations about the DUP the gay rights debate in Northern Ireland. [reviewed]

Thursday, November 08, 2018

It Only Takes a Minute – an intimate insight into Asperger’s and one girl’s teenage life (C21 Theatre at The MAC until 10 Nov)

Tom Rowntree-Finlay and Anna Kyle’s new play for C21 TheatreIt Only Takes a Minute – shines a light on the life of Michelle, a school girl navigating her pubescent years accompanied by the backing track of Take That’s music.

Beginning in Year 10 (3rd Form in ‘old money’) with her ASD statement, the 50 minute performance is based around Michelle’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the boy band, their music, dance moves, and the security that brings to her.

Anna Kyle voices the conversations inside Michelle’s head and narrates the complex and sometimes rambling logic of thinking through situations and relationships as well as displaying the physical effects of the inner turmoil: pacing, listening to headphones, distress, panic and meltdown.

As a character, Michelle is tone deaf and Kyle does not hold back from belting out Take That hits with tuneless gusto. It’s so awful it’s beautiful. Rowntree-Finlay’s direction doesn’t try to adapt the character to audience expectations, but instead presents Michelle’s different ways of thinking and reacting as starkly as possible, leaving those watching to ask themselves whether any of this should really jar.

A concert scene helps neuro-typicals in the audience understand the sensory overload and oppression that can come with crowds, noise and flashing lights. One young person with Aspergers in the audience commented afterwards that after a few seconds the effect was becoming too much for him until he realised that other people looked uncomfortable and he was delighted that so many had finally experienced what he felt in these settings.

Bliain Fitzpatrick has created a simple tourable set with a poster wall and wooden cubes, painted like a child’s bedroom, one that Michelle is maturing out of. Aaron Cathcart’s lighting design has some lovely moments – including the illumination of the envelope at the start – yet the way it has been tied into the direction at times becomes clumsy with some scene changes deserving a fade to black while other transitions just get an instant change of hue.

It Only Takes a Minute builds up to some moments of emotion, and depicts autism – and particularly Asperger’s – with recognisable realism. As Michelle shifts from school to college, she grows up, the pressures change, but the challenges of navigating an unpredictable world, and the sense of being betrayed, confused and alone remain.

The play begins with Take That’s Patience. Much of modern life happens at speed, with little time spent being intentionally patient with people around us. As a society we are at best insensitive and at worst deliberately ignorant. It Only Takes a Minute and Anna Kyle’s plucky performance is a reminder to value everyone around us, to be alive and appreciative of difference, to ask whether we’re all as ‘normal’ as we think we are!

It Only Takes a Minute continues in The MAC until Saturday 10 November before C21 Theatre Company take it up to Strabane for a final tour performance on Friday 16 November.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Widows – an intelligent heist movie with morally-compromised characters who reap what they sew (from 6 November)

Imagine a heist movie that concentrates on emotion and motivation rather than process. A film that eschews the kind of superiority complex that makes you sure it’s constantly on the verge of tricking you, yet still does manage to surprise you. Instead of robbing a bank or snatching expensive jewellery from someone rich, why not make it personal with the campaign money intended to influence a council election, with dirty politicians and a church that can be bought.

Steve McQueen’s Widows is among the best heist movies I’ve seen. There’s none of the usual smugness in the planning and after the big reveal, none of the moral superiority.

Instead, it’s an intelligent tale of morally-compromised women who need to get their dead partners’ rivals off their backs by following posthumously-discovered instructions for the next job they’d planned. In the process they learn about their former lovers, the criminal side they had conveniently ignored, as well as the more sinister elements operating in the south side of their home city of Chicago.

The film’s editing visually explains the stark changes of affluence, class and race across the small neighbourhood without having to resort to dialogue. The cinematography is superb throughout, right from the opening scenes of osculation intercut with the botched job that sets up the rest of the film to a single take rap performance. Kudos to Sean Bobbitt and Joe Walker.

Veronica (played brilliantly by Viola Davis) gathers together the other widows but never become a mother hen and the film resists any instant camaraderie. Davis contrasts the driven and demanding gang leader that she becomes with her character’s private devastation (which grows over the fortnight covered by the film) as a ghostly Liam Neeson interrupts Veronica’s moments of relaxation in the penthouse apartment she can no longer afford to live in.

Mother-of-two Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) faces fiscal ruin. Elizabeth Debicki plays Alice, a woman now free from her abusive yet financially-supportive husband (just a shade of The Night Manager about it!) who is discovering the art of making choices for herself. Her self-exploitation is confidently portrayed yet at times is uncomfortable to watch. Cynthia Erivo’s Belle starts out as a hard-working young woman who never misses an opportunity to earn a crust and later becomes a crucial part of the plot.

Colin Farrell is steady in his depiction of a political son trying to step out from the shadow of his father (Robert Duvall) all the while failing to unlearn familial bad habits. But it’s Brian Tyree Henry (playing the political challenger Jamal Manning) and Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother and violent enforcer) who show real steel and vicious determination.

Veronica’s white fluffy dog is perhaps the only innocent on-screen, though you’ll spend much of the film wondering if you’ll discover just how effective blood splats would be on its thick white coat. A novel safe code mix-up is a rare moment of humour that slips into the narrative.

The long 129 minute runtime is justified given the intelligence of the script and the quality of the acting. “You reap what you sew” applies across the board, rather than to any identified baddies. You want the widows to succeed, yet you are fully aware that the cost may be too great. That’s a great dilemma to plant in the heads of the audience.

Widows is in cinemas, including the Movie House chain, from Tuesday 6 November.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo – skilful and hilarious dancing to close this year’s #BelFest2018

I fear that my first ever evening at the ballet may not have been typical of performances featuring the 15th century artform. Even before the rich red curtain rises to reveal the Grand Opera House stage, the programme notes and pre-show announcement at Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo make clear that this is no ordinary ballet with costumes by Coco Channelski and a reference to the Northern Ireland’s arabesque centre of Ballet-mena

The all-male company with its ridiculous name have been touring for four decades, sending up the aspects of their beloved artform that make it feel high brown and elitist. The dancers perform familiar and often hummable sections of works from the ballet repertoire, demonstrating all the style and grace of the female dancers who normally dominate performances, dancing en pointe (up on their tippy toes), leaping in the air and exercising tremendous control over their arms and hand movements.

The body types, sizes, heights and ages vary enormously from slight-framed dancers to guys who’d look at home in the front row of a rugby scrum. The absurdity of the tutu-wearing company adds levity to the occasion before they start to move.

The classical stories take on new meaning as petty rivalries among the dancers emerge and before long, howls of laughter ripple around the stalls and circle as the audience notice the injections of comedy, wobbles and unusual ballet moves.

The tone and level of proficiency is set with Chopin’s Les Sylphides before the Trocks take the piss out of deconstructed modern ballet and experimental percussive accompaniment with Patterns in Space and a heavy dollop of clowning around. It’s the second night in a row I’ve reviewed a show featuring live recording playing!

After Verdi’s five handed La Trovatiara Pas de Cinq with its mischievous swordplay, the audience melt into their seats with a beautifully staged central dance from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with a spectacular costume. Finally the full company are back in stage for five variations of Minkus’ Paquita ending with the dizzying pirouetting of Nina Enimenimynimova (played by Long Zou) and a locally-relevant encore certain to warm the hearts of any audience on this island.

Last night the Grand Opera House was packed with all ages, all genders, celebrating the skill of dancing and entertainment of The Trocks. They close Belfast International Arts Festival tonight (Saturday 3 November) with the last performance of their UK and Irish tour. It’s beautiful ballet, but like nothing you’ve seen before!

Friday, November 02, 2018

Freak Show – dark circus with local people (Big Telly at The MAC until 3 Nov) #BelFest2018

“Dark circus with local people” is how I previewed Freak Show on BBC Radio Ulster’s Wow The Fest last Friday. (You can catch the last live show in the series today at 1pm.)

While the circuses that travel across Ireland have long since left behind freakish entertainment, the success of The Greatest Showman since its release last December (on top of Shrek before that) has brought biological rarities back into the public imagination.

Big Telly Theatre Company are known for their imaginative productions, often based on or weaving in local folklore to root the material in familiar language and voices.

As part of Belfast International Arts Festival, Freak Show is playing at The MAC until Saturday 3 March. Over an hour, the audience are introduced to the people running and working in the tented side show.
“Are you ready to stare at rare? Full of curiosity about monstrosity? It’s time to peak at freak …”

Nicky Harley and Keith Singleton effortlessly slip in and out of costumes and masks to portray Mary Murphy Portrush Giantess and her French lover (amazingly based on fact) as well as a myriad of other differently-sized and differently-abled performers. Both performers are masters of physical theatre, switching between accents, tics and facial expressions (sometimes helped by Commedia dell’Arte wooden half masks).

Some characters are surreal (like my favourite hula-hooping recorder-playing bearded lady), some funny, but all are sad. There’s lots of humour in the show but Freak Show walks along a careful tightrope of empathy and emotion. The audience laugh, sometimes because the situation is funny, but often out of discomfort.

Zoe Seaton’s direction keeps the melancholic tone running throughout the show, never allowing a feeling of fear and trauma to be fully swept off the stage. The compact show benefits from Garth McConaghie’s evocative soundscape that changes the temperature of scenes and is effectively synchronised with the stark lighting, allowing characters to keep appearing on stage out of nowhere.

Ultimately the side show’s lonely curator is more sinister and freakish than the vulnerable people he manages. In what is hopefully not a nod to the desperate financial situation in the arts world, there’s a spot of homicide to make ends meet!

As well as telling the story of a north coast side show, the show creates a space and holds a mirror up to reflect on the desperation and freakishness within us all.

Freak Show’s run at The MAC finishes on Saturday 3 November, but the show will return for an Irish tour in March.

Photo credit: Peter Nash

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Link Link - the one with Isabella Rossellini and the cute dog dressed up as a bee #BelFest2018

Dressed up as the Link Link circus ringmaster, Isabella Rossellini steps out onto the Grand Opera House stage which has been adorned with children’s toys. Sometimes standing behind a lectern underneath a big screen, sometimes out front closer to the audience, the actress explains how she went back to college to study animal behaviour.

Ostensibly a 70 minute science lecture, Rossellini answers the question of whether animals can think or feel. It’s full of neuroscience mumbo jumbo, synapses and cognition, but it strings together different experiments and factoids in a chain that becomes as convoluted and hard to follow as one of the complex vaginas projected onto the screen.

Rossellini illustrates her talk with short-films, uses her cute costumed dog (the bee outfit is the best) as an audience heart-melting device, and is assisted by a mostly wordless Schuyler Beeman who carries on ladders and coat stands that have been repurposed as giant props.

Brought to these shores by the Belfast International Arts Festival, the performance would have been equally at home as part of the NI Science Festival programme. She teaches her class about animals planning for the future, retaining reproductive control in the face of sexual predators, showcases a whaley large brain and discusses whether deception and culture show off advanced cognitive function.

Performing on a proscenium stage, at times Rossellini feels quite remote and distant from the audience. It has more of a crèche vibe than a circus given the lack of large-scale spectacle. The Green Porno-style films (pretty safe for work despite the title!) were at first funny, but later felt like filler to pad out the show. (And the audio began to lag behind the video by two or three seconds as the evening progressed.)

Link Link is quirky, funny, sometimes quite surreal, and probably what watching an early Saturday morning BBC Two Open University lecture thirty years ago would have been like for someone nursing a hangover.