Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Hole in the Ground – Irish horror with a sinister sinkhole, spiders and spaghetti (in cinemas from 1 March)

Lee Cronin’s new film The Hole in the Ground begins with the film’s title overlaid on top of an upside-down drone shot, a hint of the disconcerting menace that will follow over the next 90 minutes.

I’m not a big fan of the horror genre of films, so I tend to sit in the cinema and analyse what’s happening to take my mind off the pain and surprise that is inevitably ahead. Cronin certainly makes good use of colour (specifically, the lack of it), flickering fluorescent lights, walls of mirrors, spindly spiders, creaking trees, heavy breathing and a great shot of a character being thrown across a room. Together with Stephen McKeon’s music, this all creates an anxious vibe that quickly builds up and sustains throughout the movie.
“Do you ever look at your kids and wonder if they’re yours?”
Single mum Sarah (Seána Kerslake) is leaving her old life behind and has moved to a remote rural location with her son Chris (James Quinn Markey). Her jeep collides with a hooded woman (Kati Outinen) standing in the middle of the road, annihilating her wing mirror, but leaving the frightening presence undamaged and unmoved. The same freaky figure reappears one last time with a piercing question that unlocks the second half of the film.

Seána’s confident characterisation of a young woman struggling to balance her own needs with the needs of a small child feels very authentic, and her depiction of psychosis and delusions is very unsettling. Young Markey delivers an other-worldly performance that accentuates a sense of strangeness. He also provides an unforgettable moment of spaghetti-eating, with horrific sights and sounds that will haunt audiences for months to come.

Out the back of their ramshackle house is a forest which contains an enormous sink hole, perhaps 30 metres wide. While we spend longer anticipating the horror that might lie in the hole than actually crawling underneath it, the underground beasts are fleeting but well executed.

There are some spine-shivering moments, and plenty of false leads that distract from the eventually-revealed horror central to the film. Not everything makes complete sense. The use of a digital camera is dubious – I want to get hold of batteries that last that long – and Sarah gets out of bed with freakishly-perfect combed hair. But the sense of unnoticed change and building apprehension works.

The Hole in the Ground is atmospheric and sinister rather than scary. It’s being screened from Friday 1 March in the Queen’s Film Theatre as well as Movie House and Omniplex cinemas.

I Shall Wear Purple – painting a comedic scene of care home art therapy and the politics of art (C21 Theatre at Grand Opera House + NI Tour)

After a heart scare, Olivia has sold up her house on the verge of her 80th birthday and moved into residential care. Realistically, her lack of filter is the only thing wrong with her. According to Olivia’s fertile daughter, it’s an experiment to see if this safe accommodation suits her. But the incarcerated retired teacher has full control of her marbles and does not want to become like the other residents who seem to have handed their free will and dignity over to the home’s staff.

After an unfortunate incident with custard and a clown, Olivia is mercifully withdrawn from group activities and begins eight weeks of art classes with Thomas, an aspiring and soon to be destitute artist half a century younger.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s new comedy I Shall Wear Purple delivers an inter-generational clash as the fastidious and alert Olivia (played by Stella McCusker) gets to grips with brash and expressive art therapist (Patrick McBrearty).

The characters are well-matched with Thomas’ enthusiasm, catchphrases and artistic license appealing to Olivia’s curiosity and her need to express her rage against the system. As her guard drops, his inhibitions fade and soon the incarcerated near-octogenarian discovers the lengths her sweary teacher is willing to go to pursue his art. His sometimes frank sexual references are matched by her startling awareness of eyewatering paraphernalia that adds to the humour rather than any sense of naturalism.

McCusker brings colour and spark to the role, clashing against the jibes McBrearty delivers in his soft yet somewhat shouty Donegal accent. It’s delightful to watch the seasoned actress win nearly every round of verbal jousting with her cheeky tutor. Jenkinson’s trademark acerbic wit and observation is well employed throughout the 75 minute play, ridiculing a scenario that most of us want to avoid but know we’d be lucky to be trapped in. The situation at the heart of I Shall Wear Purple is not a million miles away from fears and conversations in many households as aging parents – particularly widows or widowers – consider where and how to enjoy the remaining years of their health and life.

Since all art is political, it should be no surprise that Jenkinson squeezes in a plot point about arts cuts and the effect it has on practitioners. The gears crunch a bit as the plot shifts into its final crisis but the denouement that fades out rather than contriving a dramatic shock is apt and benefits from some lovely directorial touches by Stephen Kelly, including Thomas’ final glance and smile across towards his student.

Paint is mixed and at times the scale of the work takes over the stage. But unlike Red, their art is never allowed to distract from our observation of the odd couple making it. Music is incorporated into the structure and plot of the play, with the final Con Te Partirò (Time to Say Goodbye) delivering emotion with the rising orchestra and the dimming lights.

I Shall Wear Purple portrays growing old in an intelligent albeit droll way and brings together two actors in a way that reminds us that talent – theatrical or artistic – is not constrained by age. While there are allusions to Jenny Joseph’s poem, thankfully there’s no spitting and no recitation.

You can catch I Shall Wear Purple on the Grand Opera House’s Baby Grand stage until Saturday 2 March before C21 Theatre Company help the cast out onto a bus for an evening outing away from the care home and take the show on tour through Newry (Tuesday 5), Strabane (Friday 8), Downpatrick (Saturday 9), Cushendall (Sunday 10), Armagh (Wednesday 13) and Antrim (Friday 15).

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Aftermath – tender performances amongst loss in a devastated post-war Hamburg (in cinemas from 1 March)

In a film about loss, one of the most startling moments in The Aftermath occurs right at the beginning when we are told that more bombs fell in Allied raids on the German city of Hamburg in one night than over London during the whole Second World War.

The scenes of the post-firestorm devastated landscape are accompanied by the compassionate and conciliatory attitude of Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) towards the local people whose city he is rebuilding. This empathy is at odds with his emotional unavailability towards his own wife. Their son was killed in England during the war, and although Rachael (Kiera Knightly) has travelled out to join him, she comes second to the demands of his job and his need to work rather than grieve.

Settling into a grand house commandeered from its previous owner, an architect who is now working in a factory, she struggles to befriend any German, lest of all Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) who are allowed to live up in the attic. Loss is all around.

Knightly works her furrowed brow and scrunched-up nose as her visceral discomfort slowly melts. There’s an incredibly tender scene at the piano between Knightly (mother) and young Thiemann (the homeowner’s daughter) around which the film’s plot pivots. A moment of coitus interruptus sparks a passionate flame that is fanned through to the film’s conclusion. All the while, the depth of sadness her lines say she feels are rarely apparent in her performance.

Clarke captures essence of the distant military man while Skarsgård walks a nicely cryptic line keeping the audience guessing whether his motives are as pure and straightforward as we first imagine. Line of Duty’s Martin Compston plays a thoroughly dislikeable so-called intelligence officer whose characterisation is so abrupt that it jars the flow of scenes.

The ending was not as I imagined. I picked up the breadcrumbs (the cigarette case with the defaced photograph and the depressed soldier) and concocted a completely different – and altogether more tragic – denouement. I like my ending better than the one director James Kent filmed!

The Aftermath’s power is in its unusually honest reminder of the shameful cost of victory and the call to avoid demonising groups of people. Its failing is that the characters deserved a better plot, particularly the conclusion. In cinemas from Friday 1 March.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Cold Pursuit – a stylish remake of a testosterone-charged tale of snowy carnage as revenge is served up cold

Taking his previous Norwegian film Kraftidioten (In Order of Disappearance) out of cold storage and resetting it in Colorado, director Hans Petter Moland has created a pastiche that mixes Liam Neeson’s role in Taken with deathly goings-on familiar from black comedy Fargo. Yet the snow sculpture he builds in Cold Pursuit is neither tense nor scary and fails to be consistently laugh-out-loud funny, creating an icy mush that shows off the locations and some individual performances more than the script or the plot.

When his son is found dead from a heroin overdose, Kehoe’s newly honoured citizen-of-the-year Nels Coxman (Neeson) turns into a vigilante, hacking his way through the criminal network until he reaches the top. Along the way he triggers a feud between rival drugs gangs and the body count rises high enough to dam a river.
“Your mother’s womb must be twitching in regret at bringing you into the world”

The glassy modern architecture of the lead villain Viking’s home office could win House of the Year, and along with the snowy landscapes that Neeson drives through in his snowplough, they alone are nearly worth the price of the cinema ticket.

Cold Pursuit oozes style. Listen out for the sound of teeth bouncing off the ground in the first fistful of deaths, and the personalised jaunty jingle that accompanies each interstitial death notice. However, murderous Viking’s fastidiousness about diet and grammar is contradictory rather than comical, and together with the misogyny, racist attitudes, juvenile jokes about Nels’ surname, mistaken identity and the needless hiring of an unethical assassin fail to warm this reviewer’s heart.

Viking’s bald enforcer played by Domenick Lombardozzi develops into an interesting character, though his repression is so complete he never emotes. Other than a single scene of emasculation – hats off to than Julia Jones playing Viking’s ex-wife Aya – the testosterone -charged cast are allowed to play at being gangsters without female supervision in their ice-cold playground.

While the Coxman parents question how well they knew their son, the audience quickly realise that no one should underestimate how revenge could drive a grieving father to less-than-public-spirited behaviour. (Nor should anyone underestimate the destructive effect on a community of the police failing to question why a dead man’s face had gaffer tape adhesive on it and his car wasn’t anywhere near his place of death.)

Cold Pursuit is still playing in many local cinemas.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

An Engineer Imagines – celebrating the life and work of cross-disciplinary structural engineer Peter Rice, educated at QUB and underpinning buildings around the world (Queen’s Film Theatre)

The Paris landscape is distinctive among European cities given the lack of skyscrapers overshadowing its central district. One of my favourite trips in Paris is to take the RER A out to La Défense and wander past the fountains and along the airy walkways surrounded by chunky tower blocks to reach La Grande Arche at the far end. Looking four kilometres east back towards the city centre you should just be able to make out the Louvre courtyard in the distance through the far side of the Arc de Triomphe.

Over in the north-east of the city, Parc de la Villette offers an alternative to artsy Paris with a decommissioned submarine, a mirrored geodesic dome with a cinema inside and the Cité des Sciences museum with five levels of exhibitions and hands-on demonstrations. You could get lost in it for days.

Until watching An Engineer Imagines, I had no idea that these sites were all linked together by Belfast-trained structural engineer Peter Rice. The engineer spent much of his career at Ove Arup, working with architect Richard Rogers, finding ways to make exotic designs buildable. The Pompidou Centre in Paris is held up by the system his team developed. He spent years working on the geometrically-challenging Sydney Opera House.

The 32m-tall glass walls at Cité des Science were the first structural walls to be constructed without framing or supporting fins. The system developed is widely used today, but Rice found a way of making it happen first. His hand was on the glass pyramids in the Louvre. Later the film comes to London and his work on Lloyd’s building is revealed.

Italian architect Renzo Piano says that Rice could “design structures like a pianist who can play with his eyes shut”, going on to add that “he understands the basic nature of structures so well that he can afford to think in the darkness about what might be possible beyond the obvious.”

The film uses timelapse photography and old ciné film footage of buildings Rice worked on to show off his creations, celebrating the different aspect ratios and frame rates and weaving them together with voiced reflections from his own autobiography and interviews with architects and other colleagues to shine a spotlight on the engineer who worked from the shadows. Despite not becoming a household name – he’s described as “a thinker rather than a talker” – he was recognised within by his peers, only the second engineer to be awarded a gold medal for architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Yet this beautiful tribute to the engineer reveals his skill at bring different skillsets together to collaborate across disciplines and design solutions – exercising “soft power” and applying design expertise as well as engineering knowhow to find new ways to challenge conventional thinking. His colleagues speak as warmly as his family who disclose how he coped with his terminal brain tumour – he died aged 57 – and rediscovered his faith while working on Cathedrale Notre Dame de la Treille in Lille.

Filmmaker Marcus Robinson ties the narrative together with Rice’s most quirky project, an outdoor theatre in southern France lit only by moonlight. The modern building porn imagery is replaced with a hand-fashioned paraboloid and all manner of mirrored structures used to collect, focus and throw the light of the full moon onto an amphitheatre stage. La Théâtre de la Pleine Lune is a mad-cap eccentric passion project of French opera director Humbert Camerlo, but one in which Rice was intellectually invested, opening it up as the venue for a family celebration before his death.

An Engineer Imagines is a beautiful tribute to an ingenious dreamer whose inspirational talent and unorthodox approach is superbly portrayed to a non-specialist audience in this locally-produced documentary. Rice’s qualities are gently expressed through the film’s own editing decisions and format.

Documentaries can be bland and worthy. An Engineer Imagines instead delivers a stimulating and satisfying 80 minutes. Find out for yourself by heading along to Queen’s Film Theatre for a screening followed by a Q&A with the director on Tuesday 26 February at 6pm or wait until it returns between Friday 8 and Friday 15 March and a final screening on Saturday 23 March.

Friday, February 22, 2019

My Sweetheart & Me – a summer of love in a nostalgic musical (touring Lisburn, Newtownabbey & Coleraine)

My Sweetheart & Me is a nostalgic musical telling the parallel stories of three couples who back in 1967 frequent the Suntree Bar in the town of Cheerysville. Ruby is fed up with ‘happy’ Sammy, who soon turns back to his old vices and spirals towards oblivion. Yvonne and Cyril’s matrimony turns out to be built on sandy foundations that cannot prevent a collapse. Meanwhile their son, ‘Bookworm Bob’ has caught the eye of Sheena, but an unexpected source of romantic competition threatens to wreck the chance of a summer of love.

Introduced with the song What a geek, the earnest wannabe teacher Bob is played by Daniel May who has a lot of stage presence and a warm voice that wraps around the lyrics. Caitlin Martin confidently portrays a frustrated Sheena, longing for friendship but bereft of talent in the sleepy backwater. While we see no sign of the ferocity of their attraction, Sheena’s ballad I thought that love would never find me indicates an unseen velocity. Their titular duet has a mellow heat to it, and We said our last goodbyes definitely hits the love-sick puppy mark.

Frank (Andy Bradford) is kept busy behind the bar, gluing a lot of scenes together as well as constantly topping up his paying punters’ glasses. The direction keeps a very consistent sense of movement in the characters scattered across the bar. Jenny Long switches between playing the snobbish wife of Cyril (Den Falls) and the fierce partying wife of Sammy (Gary Greenfield) with a swinging handbag.

Cheerysville is remarkably cosmopolitan with an English barman, a bookworm with a mid-Atlantic twang, and Coleraine-sounding Sheena hanging around with her broad Belfast pal Barbara (Elaine Abroi) who enjoys some of the funniest lines and banter, though tonight’s Lisburn audience shamefully forgot to engage their laughter. Sammy’s dream sequence Gonna be a winner tonight also deserved more audience reward and was neatly stage-managed.

Into this mix are thrown two curveball characters. Kenneth (Ken Knocker) is straight out of panto, like a wise-cracking comic who wanders through the audience and breaks up the show while other cast members are getting changed back-stage. In My Sweetheart & Me, he threatens to stall the plot, though his comically misspelt sandwich board lets the audience join in with a pleasant singsong at the end,

But the real wildcard is Dandy Dan, a vein and verbose, Eton-educated lad dressed in ruffs, frilly cuffs and a cape who thinks he is God’s gift to women but neglects to realise that he’s single for a reason. Theo McGeough plays this deliberately over-the-top cad, and his ironic rendition of I’m all man providing a hint of the consent-less melodrama that would come later in the second half.

While the cast of nine have to chew their way through some the dialogue (“right I’d better get going, there’s a bus due” followed by a swift exit stage left), they rejoice in Gary Greenfield’s catchy songs, accompanied by a live psychedelic four-piece band in the corner of the stage led by Karl Bennett. The cast can all hold a tune and their voices blend well together. While the exposition sometimes hesitates, when the musical numbers come along they are packed with oomph and you’ll be humming the final drinking song in the car on the way home.

It takes a lot of nerve as well as talent to write, produce and direct a musical and stage it in a handful of regional theatres. It also requires a cast that will give it their all and bring the script to life. Aspects of the plot are outlandish and too contrived, but they’re well-constructed and the music carries any looseness in the script that lacks a consistent comic punch but has a lot of promise.

With year-on-year reductions in arts subsidies and the need to experiment with fresh talent, shows like My Sweetheart & Me that jump over the hurdles and miraculously find ways of staging themselves, are important to experience and encourage.

My Sweetheart & Me is playing in the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn on Friday 22 February before Suntree Productions takes it on the road to the Theatre At The Mill, Newtownabbey on Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 March, and the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine on Friday 3 and Saturday 4 May.

Monday, February 18, 2019

A Private War – unravelling the private and public contradictions at the heart of war correspondent Marie Colvin

Later this week sees the seventh anniversary of the death of the legendary Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin, killed when her impromptu media base in Homs, Syria was shelled on 22 February 2012.

Lindsey Hilsum’s terrifyingly honest biography In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin kept me awake into the wee small hours over Christmas reading about the seemingly fearless yet troubled journalist. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Photographer Paul Conroy was with Colvin on her final assignment, and had worked with her for many years. He delivered the annual Amnesty Lecture at Belfast Festival in 2014. His appearance, promoting his book Under the Wire, was so popular that it sold out and he somewhat traumatically repeated his talk immediately afterwards to meet demand.

The Marie Colvin from those books is brought to life in the film A Private War, detailing her style of journalism and peeking between the sheets of her private life.

The film picks up in Sri Lanka where Colvin lost the sight in her left eye. It wasn’t an excuse to stop travelling and reporting. With a near reckless bravery, she ran into situations while others withdrew or stayed away: she was compelled – probably addicted – to war reporting. Caring for vulnerable people caught up in conflict more than the reasons for the conflict, she often highlighting the plight of women and children as a way of connecting western audiences with the horrific situations she encountered, giving voice to the voiceless.

Colvin was a charismatic figure that instilled loyalty (“we have to go” she tells colleagues), was dogged, temperamental, ignored advice, unreliable, was hard to manage, was bad about ‘phoning home’ to the Sunday Times foreign desk and continually challenged by technology (she jinxed laptops and once ran up a five figure satphone bill). She wore the finest underwear in the field, about her only luxury other than cheap cigarettes. She interviewed PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi on multiple occasions, asking tough questions but staying in relationship.

Rosamund Pike brings the central character to life, unravelling the private and public contradictions of a woman who was both wracked with anxiety yet fearless under pressure, an alcoholic yet could be sober when reporting, sensual yet able to work and sleep in primitive conditions. With tousled hair tied back and wearing the trademark eyepatch, Pike’s Colvin is lean and upright.

Jamie Dornan plays photographer Paul Conroy, the main witness to Colvin’s final moments. He captures the somewhat blasé attitude I saw in Conroy when he was in Belfast, and the Scouse accent mostly stays intact.

The Sunday Times foreign editor Sean Ryan is played by Tom Hollander, capturing the tension between wanting his ‘prize pig’ to deploy overseas to bring in the stories and wanting her to stay alive. Though at times, Hollander seems smug and derivative of some of his other high profile roles.

Colvin told stories about the human cost of conflict, “finding truth” while “writing the rough draft of history” and injecting her own feelings and emotions into pieces that could otherwise have been merely factually shocking reports about terrible atrocities. But her writing didn’t acknowledge the panic attacks, sadness at being childless, multiple partners and fear of aging and dying.

As well as being a tribute to Colvin’s unique attitude and style, A Private War reminds audiences about the appalling situations that she reported from, bringing forgotten and continuing horrors back to public attention. She might have liked that, even if the rest of the film might have embarrassed her.

The strength and clarity of her words in live audio interviews with TV broadcasters around the world was likely to have intensified the targeting of her shelter and ultimately cost her her life. While Paul Conroy escaped with injuries, another photographer Rémi Ochlik was also killed in the raid.

Director Matthew Heineman crams a lot in to the 110 minutes to give a good flavour of the character and the conflicts. The quotes from Colvin’s articles and snippets from an interview about her style of reporting give a sense of the character driven to be reckless in order to make a difference.

Each new reporting trip is captioned with the time ‘before Homs’, building up the sense of forbearing. Yet the journey through the tunnel to Homs is rushed and underwhelming – much better described in the books – with effort instead put into the later hair-raising journey by road ‘dodging’ bullets and rockets to reach the media centre. But the ending is strong, rising up from a singular incident to survey the devastation that the city of Homs suffered.

The lights came on far too soon in the Lisburn Omniplex, diminishing the intensity of Annie Lennox’s song that plays over the closing credits and images of some of Colvin’s reportage in the Sunday Times.

A Private War is only showing in a handful of Omniplex Cinemas (including Lisburn and Dundonald).

Friday, February 15, 2019

Ruby – warts and all tragedy of Belfast talent troubled by anxiety and alcoholism (Lyric Theatre + NI tour)

Driving down the Donegall Road yesterday, I counted three poster displays linking Ruby Murray with the area. After today, there’ll be a fourth mention with the erection of a blue plaque to recognise the singing sensation born in south Belfast.

A few years ago, playwright Michael Cameron was sitting near me in an opening night audience at The MAC. During the interval we chatted and he mentioned that he was working on a play about Ruby Murray. I knew the name, but couldn’t have listed anything she sang, though it turns out I could have hummed along with most if you’d played them.

Then last May, I was present at a read-through of some scenes in East Side Arts Centre and could begin to piece together the troubled life story behind this musical star as I listened to a story that was darker and more complex than I had realised. Cameron’s mentor Sam McCready was directing proceedings, adding his silvery touch to the emerging work. Sadly he died early this week before the show opened.

The full production of Ruby directed by Richard Orr is now in the middle of a sold out run in the Lyric Theatre before embarking on a regional tour. Seated in a comfy armchair in a Torquay nursing home, the retired and ailing singer addresses the Lyric audience as if we’re sitting on a sofa opposite her. While sedentary for the majority of the performance, Actor Libby Smyth creates an intimate atmosphere and you begin to believe that this plainly dress woman once had her hair lacquered back and belted out hits in her distinctively husky voice. The play builds to an emotional crescendo and Smyth channels frustration and disappointment in those final moments.

Fortified by a wee drink or two, she reminisces about wartime evacuation as a child – a very bad experience that haunted her for the rest of her life – and the unexpected road to musical success that began singing in pubs and peaked by topping the bill at the London Palladium. The oft-quoted fact of having five singles simultaneously in the top twenty is remarkable. She worked with Norman Wisdom, her bête noire Alma Cogan, Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Laine and a rash of other household names.

Belfast audiences seem to revel in donning their rose-tinted spectacles to look back the good old days in Belfast, and the last year has featured a feast of shows in the Lyric served up to meet this nostalgic appetite: Paperboy and Good Vibrations. Ruby adds to that list with its dark tale of what goes up must come down.

Ruby’s story is blighted with poor business advice, serial exploitation, and the effects of alcoholism on her family and her own health, an all too common trait of Belfast stars. The script is honest about the physical violence she meted out on her husbands. I can see why this isn’t the first time a playwright has tackled her bittersweet story with Marie Jones creating a show with the same name back in April 2000.

If you sat down in the black Mastermind chair after the end of the 80-minute performance, you probably wouldn’t embarrass yourself answering questions on Ruby Murray’s given the information in the play. Yet Cameron’s mature and pared-back script conveys it all in a very natural way, and I never felt like I was being given another fact, just another facet of the story. The monologue is chronological and recounts enough drama that it doesn’t warrant other theatrical bells and whistles.

Performed as a tragedy rather than a musical celebration, only snippets of Murray’s hit songs are injected into the performance. But they’re well-chosen and apt with the prescience of the opening “I shall always hope and pray / That you love me in the end” making sense in the final scenes of the play as the state of her relationship with first husband Bernie Burgess is revealed.

Ruby is a promising work by a relatively new playwright. In the retelling of her life story, Cameron succeeds in celebrating the talent without papering over the trials and tribulations that blighted success.

The sold out run in the Lyric Theatre continues until 17 February, before touring through Marketplace Theatre, Armagh (Thursday 21 February – sold out), Web Theatre, Newtownards (Friday 22 February – sold out), Craic Theatre, Coalisland (Saturday 23 February), Alley Theatre, Strabane (Thursday 28 February), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (1 March – sold out) and Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey (Saturday 2 March).

Photo credit: Dave Pettard

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Ubu The King – let battle commence in this absurd disrupted food court (Tinderbox at The MAC)

The normal rules of theatre suggest keeping the audience in rows, keeping the action on the stage, and avoiding mess. But the first rule of Tinderbox Theatre Company is to tear up normality and challenge comfortably-held beliefs.
“Kill the King and take the crown for yourself”

Ubu The King adapts of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi which was first performed in Paris in 1896 and was followed by a riot. A vulgar kitchen porter stages a management coup and takes over a patisserie kitchen. Soon the other staff who supported his popular uprising realise that he is making empty promises and behaving like the show horse head chef he emasculated and replaced.

The absurdist nature of Jarry’s work is quickly apparent as kitchen utensils are repurposed as puppets, masks and an army of forks. Ciaran Bagnall’s set has the air of a cooking school installed in an abattoir with stainless steel worktops sitting on top of a distressed metal floor, enclosed inside a heavy translucent plastic curtain.

Rhodri Lewis plays Ubu, a disruptive upstart with a grizzly sense of comedy who begins by acting the lig and playing up to the audience of thirty sitting on raised platforms around the food court. Soon less savoury bullying behaviour is on display. Meanwhile Julie Lewi, Jo Donnelly and Claire Connor are kneading dough, whisking ingredients and sifting cocoa powder over buns while Tony Flynn minces around with a clipboard playing head chef.

The dialogue is sparse and sometimes the detail of what is said – along with the lyrics of Katie Richardson’s bespoke music – gets lost in the general melee of the hellish kitchen. Yet director Patrick J O'Reilly makes sure that the choreographed dance sequences and physicality of the clowning wordlessly imparts the changing power relationships that drive this demonstration of brutalist anarchy and extreme behaviour.

It reminded me of a third form history lesson in which ‘Red Ken’ meandered away from the First World War curriculum to instead explain the spectrum of political activity and opinion, from far left to far right. The workers feel that “when we are together we are unstoppable” but they fail to appreciate how they are being manipulated (including celebrating previous conflicts when the new leader is under threat). Under the horseshow theory, sometimes those on the far left become bedfellows of the far right.

Wearing similar protective clothing to the cast to shield us from spillage or flying ingredients, the audience are invited to vocally collaborate and become complicit in condoning the bullying and intimidation happening feet away from our ringside seats.

We realise that what is being acted out is merely a representation of the real life power games that continue to dominate modern office life, churches, politics and communities across Northern Ireland and beyond. Ubu could be Donald Trump. Equally he could be Arlene Foster, Mary-Lou McDonald or Jeremy Corbyn. Or maybe he’s you … or me.

Ubu the King is experimental. During the 70-minute performance, there are moments of entertainment among the more absurd and confusing scenes. It’s not a terribly satisfying piece of theatre – I doubt it even intends to be – but it certainly succeeds in being thought-provoking.

Continues in The MAC until Saturday 23 February.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk – immerse yourself in a beautifully-told story about love and racial injustice (from 14 February)

Fonny and Tish grew up in Harlem, playing together as friends. But in adulthood they’re falling in love and from our plush cinema seats we watch their lips finally lock. Their hesitant and adoring touch is breath-taking to watch in If Beale Street Could Talk. Yet just as their lives begin to inseparably interlock, a crooked justice system intervenes with a false charge of rape that sees Fonny held behind bars while he awaits a trial stacked against him.

Adapting James Baldwin’s novel, director Barry Jenkins has created a beautiful piece of unhurried cinematic storytelling. From the first time Tish asks “Are you ready for this?” the dramatic tension begins to tighten and the audience are left with questions … and trusted to figure out the answers without too much help. Flashbacks make sense without having to be labelled.

The near constant sound of jazz is restrained and mostly allowed to remain in the background. The costume colour palette matches the autumn leaves underfoot as the lover birds coo over each other. The camera lingers on full facial closeups as Fonny and Tish gaze across the dinner table or through the glass in the prison visitors’ room. Their conversation is shown to be as intimate as their lovemaking.

KiKi Layne and Stephan James’ faces switch between joy and trepidation. Layne is brimming with heart-felt empathy, wearing Tish’s vulnerability on her sleeve while James internalises Fonny’s fears until he allows them to explode out into the open. His physical failure in some later scenes adds to the darkness of the mood.

The two mesmerising central characterisations are backed up by great performances from Tish’s family sisterhood (Teyonah Parris and Regina King) and Fonny’s super-spiritual and over-judgemental clan (Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).

If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of racism, prejudice and injustice through the eyes of one young woman whose fortitude and hope in the midst of change, uncertainty and new life is thoroughly uplifting. Funnier than Moonlight, it has a similar intensity and the same love of dreamy silence over wordiness.

You can immerse yourself in If Beale Street Could Talk from Thursday 14 February in the Queen’s Film Theatre, Omniplex and Odeon cinemas.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King … either a Brexit parody or a pre-teen film steeped in Arthurian legend (cinemas from Friday 15 February)

After a brief bit of animated context setting to get everyone up to speed with the Arthurian legend and the evil sister Morgana who practices dark sorcery from her underground lair, action returns to modern day Britain and we meet The Kid Who Would Be King.

Alex (played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis) finds the sword Excalibur while running away from some bullies (Rhianna Dorris and Tom Taylor), encounters a youthful-looking wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie) who is sustained by fried chicken, specialises in enchanted clapping and sometimes reverts back into a physically-older form that looks like Patrick Stewart. Backed to the hilt by his tropefully-stout mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) with his trusty triangular shield, they set off to defeat Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) and save Britain from an eternity of slavery.

If Merlin’s explanatory dialogue and the pages from a book aren’t enough to follow what’s going on, people asleep at the back can take advantage of Bedder’s brief recaps which pepper the journey to Cornwall, Glastonbury and back home for the final battle.

While the plot is steeped in Arthurian lore, the film could have borrowed a ‘There and Back Again’ subtitle from The Hobbit along with a fire-breathing dragon, a quest through Mirkwood, and Stewart’s impression of a wispy-haired Gandalf, and throws in some quirky self-awareness of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

The Kid Who Would Be King could be a genius parody about the current Brexit debacle with May (let down by a parental Cameron) and Javid teaming up with bully boys Gove and Johnson to have a giant tug of war match with the evil Tusk (or Barnier) and save Britain from eternal servitude under the tentacles of the evil European Union. But May and Javid don’t have as many good ideas as Alex and Bedders, and Gove and Johnson could never be trusted to stand by them on their quest. So that’s only wishful thinking that the film has another layer.

The animation is good and the young acting is better than the script from writer/director Joe Cornish (of Adam & Joe fame). While the two long hours are full of creative ideas and situations, the pre-teen cinema audience and their parents deserve a better script that is not full of clichés, platitudes and truisms – “it’s a tough world out there and it’s getting tougher”, “how could telling the truth make everything worse?” – and unforgivable shouts of “I’ve got an idea!” and “I know!” to drive the plot forward.

The Kid Who Would Be King’s journey of self-discovery is keen – overly so – to teach lessons about fallen heroes, the power of the underdog, and the need for leadership. But my inner pre-teen sensibility is now nearly as long ago as the Knights of the Round Table, so who am I to cast doubt on the entertainment value of a film that I don’t want to remember at the end of year review in December.

Released in UK and Irish cinemas on Friday 15 February.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Sweeney Todd – close shaves and revenge served hot in a production that emphasises societal complicity by ignoring injustice (NI Opera at Lyric until 23 February)

A London man is wrongly imprisoned and banished to Botany Bay. When he returns he finds that he has lost his wife and daughter, and seeks revenge on the errant Judge. Returning to work as a barber above a pie shop, he conspires with his landlord and while he gets down to the somewhat grizzly business of cutting heads, she boosts the turnover of her business with a popular range of unsavoury savouries.

I’m not a particular aficionado of Stephen Sondheim’s work, so I appreciated that NI Opera’s coproduction of Sweeney Todd with the Lyric Theatre makes the story easy to pick up and follow. The cast – a mix of traditional opera singers and musical theatre artists – have good vibrato-free diction and get their tongues around the more rapid-fire lyrics.

Steven Page’s rich baritone voice expresses the emotion the frustration of the troubled man. Julie Mullins gives Mrs Lovett a bawdy music hall feel and is rewarded with audience laughs from early on in the show. Together they make a great couple until the bending of the truth behind her moral pragmatism pushes an already distraught Todd over the edge.

It’s good to see NI Opera Studio’s Jessica Hackett back on stage playing Todd’s daughter Johanna. She is now the ward of the seedy Judge Turpin (Mark O’Regan) whose sits in judgement of other people’s crimes while yoked to his own misplaced and sleazy lust for the young girl supposedly in his care. The pantomime villain of the piece, I’m surprised the stalls don’t boo or hiss.

Opera performances are typically larger than life, with extreme characters taking extreme actions in extreme circumstances. Dorota Karolczak’s elaborate distressed costumes and macabre make-up stand out when compared with ‘normal’ musical theatre productions and really add to the signposting of each character’s state of mind. Wolfgang Göbbel sporadic use of UV lighting adds an extra layer to the set, though the sideways beams across the cramped stage often leave actors in the dark and don’t fully light Joanna’s otherwise immaculately white satin boudoir.

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a story about how one act of injustice can lead to brooding resentment and revenging actions with far reaching consequences. As if to emphasise our societal complicity in seeing injustice but not getting off our backsides to do anything to challenge or stop it, Karolczak set design uses wooden panelling that merges in with the Lyric’s main auditorium, and at points the patterned lighting extends beyond the stage to include the audience in the action.

While the first act gets off to a good start, it’s as if the handle on the mincer gets stuck and there’s a sense of drag in the performance by the time the interval arrives after ninety minutes. While it may be sacrilege to suggest it, some judicious trimming of the top heavy first half might preserve the energy and balance out the less-musical scenes.

Act two abandons the set’s rather neat revolving door and instead turns the wooden wall into a giant sliderobe with characters and rooms appearing somewhat randomly as panels are smoothly slid aside. In particular, the bejewelled barber chair switches from left to right which confuses, and the use of amplification sometimes makes it hard to discern where the actors are on the multi-level stage, particularly when Todd and Lovett pop out at the very top.

Highlights in this production include the shave-off between Todd and the flamboyant leather cat-suited Italian extortionist Alolfo Pirelli (Matthew Cavan), the duets between Todd’s daughter and her nautical lover (John Porter), and the talented, emotionally-flawless ‘common man’ Tobias Ragg (Jack Wolfe) who gets caught up in the sordid tale.

While the organ prelude was underwhelming and needs turned up to eleven to quell audience chatter as the show opens, the nine-piece band under the baton of Sinead Hayes are effective in delivering the musically complex score.

The cutthroat effects are stylish and comically gruesome to avoid being too naturalistic until the final wounding of the haunted protagonist. Director Walter Sutcliffe has created a consistently stylish show that relates its story with heaps of operatic pizzazz but none of the genre’s supposed stuffiness.

Sweeney Todd runs in the Lyric Theatre until 23 February.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

All Is True – Eastenders meets the House of Shakespeare in this delightful fictional tragicomedy about the Bard of Avon’s final years (from 8 February)

Ben Elton has history with Shakespeare but he has written the rather delightful tragicomedy screenplay for All Is True which, contrary to its title, imagines what might have been going on inside the head and house of Shakespeare in the last three years of the playwright’s life.

The story picks up after the fire burnt down the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII (whose alternative title was ‘All Is True’) and the Bard bows out of the cultural scene and retreats to Stratford-upon-Avon to spend time with his long-ignored family.

In what could have been a prequel for modern Eastenders, over 100 minutes Elton’s quill pens a story of accusations and cover-up, family secrets, reputation and legacy, grief, unfaithfulness, puritanism, illiteracy and self-confidence, and even has space for a ghost.

The dialogue is suitably theatrical and Shakespearean in style – though some modern aphorisms are allowed to sneak into the 1600s – as if the Bard had written one final autobiographical work to draw together the themes of his life.

Having been infected with a permanent case of writer’s block, a barely recognisable Kenneth Branagh confidently embarks on a spot of gardening and amateur horticulture to take his mind off the good old days in London and to try to dig his way into coming to terms with the death of his son Hamnet some 16 years prior.

Equipped with a chiselled beard and a false conk, Branagh delivers a deliberately-neutral performance that gives the audience space to size up his faults and failings without too many nudges from the director, and to empathise with the women in Shakespeare’s life – stolid and no nonsense Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), unhappily married Susanna (Lydia Wilson), and Hamnet’s gloriously unfiltered twin sister Judith (Kathryn Wilder) – and size up their motivations.

Ian McKellen pops in as the Earl of Southampton wearing a wig stolen from a pantomime Goldilocks and adds a smidgeon of cruelly-spurned bromance and some of the funniest lines in a scene that sprinkles yet more stardust over the film but could have been left out of the final cut (along with some of the longer recitals of Bill’s best bits by a less indulgent director and editor.

All Is True would be a beautiful film to watch even if you turned the sound down. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson deserves awards for near perpetual autumn tones and the distinctive framing (lots of over the visible shoulder shot and fixed views that allow headless people to wander in and out of shot).
“For family is everything …”
While there are moments in which Shakespeare nearly turns into a nineties man embracing his inner feminist and accepting the messiness of his wonderful family, the script always wrenches him back to his longing for a male grandson (even while his unnamed granddaughter sits at his table) and chuckles at the greatness of men who have sex with boys and girls. Shakespeare’s putdown to local snob Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen) is classic Elton; however, the valedictory speech at the close lays it on too thick and too long.

Lifting the imaginary lid on the unexpectedly complicated house of Shakespeare, together with the beautiful landscapes and Elton’s snappy one-liners creates a charming film that works even if you only the most cursory memory of Shakespeare from school.

All Is True is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre and Movie House cinemas from Friday 8 February. Note that the QFT’s Saturday 9 morning show followed by a Q&A with Kenneth Branagh has already sold out.

Alita: Battle Angel – cyberpunk slasher roller derby dystopian triumph of motion capture and CGI over plot (from 6 February)

“Who am I?” asks the woman whose head and ‘core’ were found on a trash heap under a city in the sky and stitched together with the cyborg body created for someone special by Dr Dyson Ido. He breathes life into an amnesic woman who goes on to uncover the secrets of a cyberpunk world in which there could as easily be a bounty on your enhanced arm as your whole body.

The motion capture and mix of live-action and CGI in Alita: Battle Angel is the most impressive thing about this movie. The titular kickass hero with distinctive eyes is played by Rosa Salazar, ably transforming her movement and mannerisms to switch from a 14-year-old to an 18-year-old half way through the film (although flashbacks hint that the character is much older than that).

That may be good enough to warrant a trip to the cinema. Your stomach will lurch when Alita and her BFF Hugo (Keean Johnson) perch on the edge of the roof an old crumbling building. And the 3D version showing in some cinemas may be even crazier and more fairground fabulous. However, be warned …

Expositional dialogue abounds to educate the audience about the constraints of this geographically-compact multi-cultural dystopian society. The ‘no gun’ rule certainly makes the weapons so much more interesting. The goodie/baddie flag for every single character – other than Ido’s surgical nurse, played by Idara Victor who regularly appears on screen but is strikingly given no dialogue – toggles throughout the two hours of action.

Clichés are embraced with abandon, with Alita even donning a long trenchcoat before entering a bar to deliver an impassioned speech that made the cinema audience audibly smirk as well as the hardened bounty hunters in the drinking den. There’s even a spot of kissing in the rain.

While the manga roots of Alita are preserved – it’s based on Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm – it’s a bit of a derivative mashup with Transformers-esque fighting machines, Samurai sword fighting that could make it a slasher movie (the action is pretty gruelling for a 12A when you forget that they’re not real people), the addition of Thor’s hammer (with added blow torch), lots of roller derby with a hint of golden snitch, not to mention Dr Ido’s imitation of Bagpuss, from which he must have learned as a child:
“We will find it, we will bind it / We will stick it with glue, glue, glue / We will stickle it / Every little bit of it / We will fix it like new, new, new”

Alita: Battle Angel ticks James Cameron’s boxes for having a strong central female lead character and exploring how humanity adapts to technology. Making the next two parts of the threatened trilogy would be able to reuse much of the technical setup cost invested in this first episode. However, the epic ambition in Cameron’s mind was not delivered in the script he wrote and the film costing close to $200 million that Robert Rodriguez directed.

Released two days before The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, I fear that everything is not awesome and this fantasy dystopia is going to be buried under a pile of brightly-coloured bricks until it is resurrected for Alita: The Two Towers when the protagonist will ascend to Zalem in the sky, to battle the evil scientist in charge and avenge the death of someone else’s pet.

Alita: Battle Angel is released in local cinemas on 6 February.