Friday, September 17, 2021

Body Politics: No Motive, Sweeties (Macha Productions at Brian Friel Theatre until 18 September)

Jo Egan’s writing is extraordinary. Even without the stylish, choreographed delivery of the three actors and without the elegant backdrop, No Motive is one of the most engaging scripts and satisfying performances I’ve encountered in a long, long time.

It’s 1962, and Mary’s sudden death triggers her husband John to launch an investigation into her background and possible motives for her death by suicide. It’s a real whodunnit with Rachel ‘Shrewd’ McDoo following the clues. Each fresh revelation takes her in a new direction, unravelling another layer after layer of obfuscation that eventually stretch the length of the island of Ireland.

Significant trauma in Mary’s past is uncovered. Without giving away too many spoilers, the revelations involve religious and educational institutions, hypocrisy and cover-up, secrets and deception. Given the news coverage, it’s no longer shocking. But it is very unusual to see the issues and situations dealt with so comprehensively from a woman’s point of view rather than through the eyes of the media or the state.

Characters’ voices effortlessly switch between the trinity of Debra Hill, Colette Lennon and Maria Quinn. Consistency turns out to be unnecessary. The three act as one, often physically moving together and creating sharp lines and making mirrored gestures. Choreographer Eileen McClory has created what can only be described as a set of movements that look like synchronised swimming out of the water. It’s mesmerising to watch, so tightly integrated with the script.

While a Cork accent seems oddly absent from one section of the play, it’s a minor quibble given the richness of the rest of the performance. The great dynamics between the cast render the rather neat video backdrop almost superfluous (four tall translucent screens set at an angle, allowing the shadows of actors to be cast over the subtle location visuals).

The novel structure, combined with the good script, a fine cast and Jo Egan’s direction make No Motive a very special piece of theatre that should not be missed.

After the interval, the same cast return to the Brian Friel Theatre stage with a second play by Jo Egan, this time directed by her frequent collaborator Fionnuala Kennedy. Sweeties also begins with a death. It’s not certain whether agoraphobic Tracy (Maria Quinn) will be able to leave the house to attend her friend’s funeral. Older sister Jen (Colette Lennon) is at her wits’ end, caught between the desire to be encouraging and her frustration at becoming trapped in Belfast instead of soaking up a freer life in Australia. All the while, the ghost of young Paula (Debra Hill) lurks on the back of the sofa.

Once again there’s a sense of pulling back the layers, this time guided by Jen’s probing questions which act like lock picks prising open the door to a chamber of secrets. Though Jen’s inquisition is a tad rushed, perhaps a dramatic necessity, but an aspect of the script that leaves Sweeties lacking some of the polish of the evening’s earlier companion piece.

The abuse at the heart of the story is horrific: one girl watches while her friend goes into a sweet shop and is ‘felt up’ by the owner in exchange for bars of chocolate. The sweetie man is not the only paedophile in the vicinity. And the horror is amplified by the local community’s knowledge that this pattern of abusive behaviour is ongoing, and the inability of any adult to listen to the girls or to remove the abusers out of harm’s way.

The narrative is based upon years of interviews with one particular woman, augmented by conversations with a small number of others. To know that the story is more fact than fiction is shocking. To hear how the abuse has affected the two girls – just two of many who bear the brunt of an evil man’s unchallenged actions – is sickening and appalling.

The element of magic realism in Sweeties adds a levity to what quickly becomes a very dark conversation, along with a vitality and a sense of people finally moving as Paula skates around the tense siblings. Hill’s physicality adds enough mirth to lessen the tension of some scenes (and is also well used in No Motive as she twists her body and face into the shape of some of its more outlandish characters).

The betrayal of a friend is just a part of a whole community’s betrayal of their own children. An eleven-year-old cannot be guilty of not intervening, yet must carry the burden of what cannot be unseen. And then there’s the impact on the child being directly abused. Both living with the knowledge and the hurt and harm.

Post show discussions allow some processing of the two stories to occur before audiences step back out into the street.

Macha Productions’ Body Politics double bill of No Motive and Sweeties continues in the Brian Friel Theatre (at the back of the Queen’s Film Theatre complex) until 18 September (including a Saturday matinee).

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Rough Girls – charting women's football first steps onto the pitch amid adversity (Lyric Theatre until 25 September)

There’s more than a smidgeon of Brecht in Tara Lynne O’Neill’s new play Rough Girls. As the story builds up, the lines are drawn on the stage. The wings of Ciaran Bagnall’s girdered set are open. A few lucky audience members sit in a grandstand in the middle of the action. The evening finishes with the stage managers joining the cast on stage for the curtain call: an indication that the eleven players on the Lyric’s floodlit pitch are backed by a team. One that has overcome Covid-related obstacles as well as funding to make it to a two and half week run on the Lyric Theatre’s main stage.

O’Neill has been consumed by the dream of this writing and staging play for such a long time. In theatre bars after shows for at least the last five years, she would bubble over with zeal about the potential for 11 women to perform together on a Belfast stage. In the end, it was the guts of 15 if you count the musicians tucked into one corner and the stage crew.

Stylistically, it’s an unusual piece. There’s very little locally to compare it to in form. Often driven by Katie Richardson’s rhythm and the percussive soundscape of an industrial city that is ill at ease with itself, there are scenes of choreographed performance poetry, football matches portrayed through dance routines, traditional dramatic encounters, and phrases thrown into the air by running actors like an exercise in a rehearsal room. There’s a bit of everything, and while the internal inconsistency leads to a meandering plot development in the first half, there’s something refreshing and rather apt about the refusal to conform to expectations.

Then there’s O’Neill herself. The playwright and performer acts as joyful ringmaster and eye-rolling referee, oozing her trademark comedic timing and delivery as she takes on all the male roles. A human-sized puppet enlivens the head-the-ball club chairman in a way that becomes remarkably natural as the two-act play progresses. The tango is inspired; the big bass drum so playful.

Yet circumstance nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Theatres going dark surely spelled the end of O’Neill’s female fantasy. There was surely more chance of her reviving her fabulous solo Shirley Valentine show on the Lyric stage for a third time (the second run finished on the eve of lockdown) as pandemic restrictions are slowly removed, than assembling a cast of Irish talent to chart the first five years of recognised women’s football in Belfast.

The audience watch as Mrs Stott (Jo Donnelly), wife of the secretary of Distillery football club, plans a 1917 charity match that will take women’s football out of the factory yard and out of the terraces and onto the grass pitch for the first time. There’s tension as a shaky solidarity across the classes is negotiated alongside familial and societal expectations. The script acknowledges the roughness of the time: loved ones at war, disapproval at single motherhood, childlessness, sickness and abusive family situations. And there’s an honesty about the stumbling trajectory of women’s football throughout the next century, and an absence of any attempt to line the cloud with silver or theatrical glitter.

An emotional goal is fired into the back of the net in the second half when Molly’s mum (Claire Cogan) finds her voice and stands up to the faceless men. Her act resonates with any number of contemporary campaigns and causes, as does the script’s recurring questioning of motives and analysis of outcomes.

The casting and Kimberley Sykes’ direction allows many of the actors to change position and demonstrate less predictable sides of their talent on the Rough Girls pitch. Normally actors like Caroline Curran, Nicky Harley and Jo Donnelly are usually asked to play for laughs, often the earthier the better. Here, Curran’s Gertie is allowed to be robust and illiterate while hiding a vulnerable home life, Harley’s Duncher is wonderfully clumsy (with an Oscar-nominated nosebleed), Donnelly’s Mrs Stott is determined and spunky without any need to be saucy.

Eloïse Stevenson plays a stoic Molly who visibly balances her own desires with those who depend on her. Catriona McFeely flits from factory floor to foreman’s filly before taking a painful stand. Carol Moore paints a curmudgeonly and sleekit Mrs Cummings, while Suzie Seweify’s portrays a classless Miss Montgomery who isn’t conscious of her independent spirit. Ruby Campbell creates an energetic Tilly, and the wordless Nuala McGowan remains very present despite her lack of dialogue and extends the band out onto the stage with her bodhran.

The socially distanced reduced capacity means that tickets for Rough Girls are scarce. Getting back to the theatre will be an overdue treat for many. Yet for many, that impulse to return to communal culture will be delayed by the need to wait for the evolving restrictions to be lifted that have so dogged the reopening of theatres and continue to threaten the short to medium term financial viability of venues (which will face the end of furlough without any guarantee of meaningful income in the run up to Christmas).

I’ll leave the last words to a portion of one of O’Neill’s monologues that is reproduced in the Rough Girls programme:

“Football like life, like theatre can’t be played along. It’s not about one player, one performer; it’s about a team … It can’t be done alone … We missed you.”

Monday, September 06, 2021

Wildfire – a vivid story of transgenerational trauma as a reunion of sisters sparks a coming to terms with the past

Big sister Lauren’s heart has been broken so many times. Her dad’s murder in a bomb blast, her mother’s sudden death, the disappearance of the younger sister she’d reared, and now Kelly’s reappearance threatens to destabilise her shaky existence once again.

Wildfire showcases the considerable acting talent its two leads, Nika McGuigan (Kelly) and Nora-Jane Noone (Lauren). Lauren’s poor mental health is well depicted, snapping out at family and friends, at times, physically bent over with the pain and worry. There’s a weariness in Kelly’s eyes that adds depth to the anguish she carries on-screen. McGuigan died while the film was in post-production.

Borders are somewhat shoe-horned into this story of transgenerational trauma. Borders are crossed, spanned and hardened with post-Brexit uncertainty presented as a continuation of the distress of the Troubles, an unnecessary and rather unsatisfactory distraction in the overall storyline.

Metaphors are stacked almost as high as the goods in the online warehouse in which Lauren spends her working hours. Cathy Brady’s 85-minute film has plenty of ambition: if anything, it’s over-framed and reducing the contextual complexity might have delivered a less fussy result.

Hats off for casting Olga Wehrly as the sisters’ mother in the flashback sequences. The resemblance works well and the drip feed of backstory has a perfect pace to give away as little as possible as the narrative is unfurled.

While a somewhat disappointing addition to the Troubles noir collection, the emotional rollercoaster experienced by Kelly and Lauren is still good to watch and Wildfire is a cinematic triumph. The scenes of sea and lough are beautiful, Kelly’s red coat is set against the dusky backdrops, and the warehouse has its own primary colour scheme.

A crucial scene in the pub opens out from an almost primal dance with Kelly and Lauren absorbed in their own world of connection and memory to the sinister reality of border life, living cheek by jowl with people who harmed local families. The former is moving and quite brilliant; the latter introduces overly familiar figures who do nothing to surprise and then disappear from the story.

Wildfire is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre, Odeon, and Omniplex cinemas.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

A Simple Journey (Three’s Theatre Company as part of EastSide Arts Festival)

Do you ever wonder what’s going on inside the heads of other passengers on public transport? What’s the story behind the distressed young woman with the suitcase and the earphones? The other one who intently stares out the window before stabbing text messages to someone? The lad who’s cradling a bag full of empties and looks like he doesn’t want to reach his destination?

While I’m normally team train rather than team bus, the rail timetable back and forth to Dublin rarely suits early morning or late-night jobs, particularly when my journey starts in Lisburn. (That may change when the Knockmore Halt reopens as a park and ride for the Enterprise.) So I’m a big fan of the X1/X2A bus service.

On the rare pre-pandemic occasion that I was down in Dublin to preview a theatre show that was coming to Belfast, booking a seat on the Bus Eireann double decker for the way home was a beautiful luxury, with the chance to sit at one of its tables and hack out a review by the time the red coach had reached Newry or Banbridge. (Spoiler alert: Bus Eireann pulled out of the Belfast-Newry-Dublin route in November 2020 so no more red double decker to work on.)

Three’s Theatre Company’s latest production, A Simple Journey, is set on a bus. And not just any bus. It’s one of the three new hydrogen-fuelled double decker buses. Built by Wrightbus in Ballymena, they’re the first such green vehicles in Ireland.

Other than the USB ports – into which some of the signage suggests you can plug a man with a walking stick – the interior is fairly familiar. So too were some of the passengers when audiences stepped on board and were shown to their seats in Victoria Park on Sunday as part of EastSide Arts Festival.

Hannah (Louise Parker) sits with a suitcase. Her phone battery dies and with it her source of distracting tunes. Suddenly her mind is overrun with thoughts and voices, each attempting to crowd out the others. We can hear all this private chatter through our headphones. It’s gloriously manic, full of pancakes, painting, and the “wile bad time” people give Nadine Coyle! Her opening ten minutes has a good pace of character development as the layers of story are peeled away and we learn why she’s on the bus and what’s driving her agitation.

The Hydro comes to a halt. At least, the sound effects in our ears indicate that it’s stopping: the actual bus is parked with the engine off beside the play area throughout! A woman in a canary yellow jacket hops on and we switch to Deborah’s story (Rachel Murray) of Glider-love, drink, and meaningful encounters with strangers.

The momentum is briefly lost, before a lovely moment when the gawking audience members (“are they all looking at me?”) become part of Deborah’s inner dialogue. Then a stylishly-dressed woman with a red beret hauls Ireland’s largest suitcase onboard to become the foil for a young lad (Conor Cupples) who is nursing a hangover and predicting a tactical chunder. His mind is the most surreal, with musings are filled with vivid humour as his imagination runs wild in his “own wee pocket of time” on the bus.

Themes intersect the three stories which were written by each actor. Anxiety, change, and the consequences of putting other people’s needs above their own. Colm G Doran’s scope for direction is somewhat stymied by the constraints of COVID and staying seated on a (supposedly moving) bus. Stuart Robinson has more room to experiment with his sound design that adds rich detail and allows the audience’s imagination to enter into the spirit of the stories.

A Simple Journey is well executed. Perhaps not as profound as some of Three’s Theatre Company’s previous work, but it does once again demonstrate that they are adept at site-specific theatre and sophisticated soundscapes delivered through personal headphones. Funded by Arts & Business NI, this extension of their trademark concept works well out on the open road and would be repeatable across the city at other times.

Monday, August 09, 2021

Billy Boy – Eleventh Night drama with absurdity, humour, poetry and authenticity (Eastside Arts Festival)

Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson has a knack of embedding puns, rich rhyming slang and the lingo of the street in her passionate dialogue. With her latest play, Billy Boy, which was performed in the Strand Arts Centre this weekend as part of EastSide Arts Festival, director Matthew Faris and actor John Travers elevate some of the word play into performance poetry, adding real rhythm and stacks of energy to the prose.

Eight thousand words. One hour. Countless characters. One actor. The action is set in the environs of an east Belfast bonfire, a day or so ahead of being lit on the Eleventh Night. Aaron Orr’s leather armchair sits on a platform of pallets, designed by Tracey Lindsay. His throne. Travers slips in and out of other characters, with the script rarely allowing the pace to drop. His head tilts, he speaks out of the side of his mouth, his hands and arms gesticulate, he squats, he stretches, all creating a sense of verve.

“Ten meat wagons and six white contractor vans. Squad of ninjas lined up, all batons and riot shields … Contractor fellas in their balaclavas - just who are the paramilitaries round here, like? Tell me that.”

The police, council, bonfire remove contractors, the media, tutting taxi drivers, and middle-class middle-ground haters, they all get it in the neck. Meanwhile, the culture and concerns of loyalist bonfire builders are given space to be expressed. It’s honest and challenging, yet it neither turns into a piece of apologist puff theatre nor an incendiary play to wind audiences up.

While Jenkinson gives space to loyalist concerns and viewpoints – doing her small bit to address the much-shared view that local cultural output is skewed by volume towards telling republican stories – also throws in an external view (Aaron’s Dutch girlfriend who “even has her own eyebrows” as well as her own views) and some of the mad contradictions which probably aren’t entirely made up (like brother Jamesie who’s been “taking Irish lessons down the Skainos” and is always “slabbering Gael talk like we’re in the Gaeltacht, pretending he’s saying something profound”) even if they do jar against a story in the Sunday World newspaper that morning.

Helping the talented Travers convey the frenzied emotion of the bonfire subculture is Marty Byrne’s soundscape with a rumbling bass, techno sets from the bonfire DJ, and precision sound effects that allow the action to continue without ever picking up any physical props. In quieter moments, the absence of a continuous soundscape is sometimes missed with noise from the cinema screens on either side of the Strand venue bleeding in.

Away from the heat of east Belfast, Travers develops Aaron’s character into less of a big lad, more reflective, nearly lonely in his isolation in Amsterdam. When the action returns to Belfast, Aaron’s physicality has mellowed with his clearer perspective on what’s of value, what’s wrong, what’s worth defending.

The word play is funny. So too are many of the absurd observations and situations Aaron and his cohort of acquaintances get into. Billy Boy’s short run is already over, but hopefully it will return and maybe even get an outing at Féile an Phobail on the other side of the city: much of the sentiment is universal to Belfast, even if the politics is less well understood.

Billy Boy was commissioned and produced by EastSide Arts. You can also read a preview of the play along with an interview with playwright Rosemary Jenkinson from last month.

Production shots: Stephen Crossland

Friday, August 06, 2021

Through the Window – a new twist with a step change in sound design to tell stories across the generations (Three's Theatre Company)

Three’s Theatre Company came up with a new twist for their latest production. Regular attendees of their work would have been well used to donning individual headphones and traipsing around buildings, up and down staircases, and in and out of rooms to hear the often unexpected thoughts of actors placed in often unexpected situations.

I’ll never forget encountering a woman with a gun in the female toilets of The MAC. Or the couple trying to rip off each other’s clothes in Room 118 of the Bullitt Hotel. But for Through the Window, the headphoned audience walked around the outside of the The MAC, spotting figures framed in the no-two-the-same windows, and tuning into their thinking for five or ten minutes before moving on around the block to the next tableau.

While the end-of-lockdown production Through the Window was only able to be staged over one day (27 July), the quality of the recorded soundscapes was a step improvement on previous work. Binaural sound made many of the experiences immersive, even standing back at much greater distances than normal and separated by a pane of glass.

I gazed up at Geraldine (played by Helena Bereen) flicking through a photo album, and as her fond reminisces flowed, I built up an intimate picture of her love and loss. If anything, the added distance kept visual prompts to a minimum, leaving my imagination to run riot, and my tear ducts free to express empathy for the sadness in her voice and her relationship. Stirring that kind of feeling at such distance isn’t easy.

Perhaps the most dramatic vignette allowed the audience to listen in to the thoughts of a couple texting. At first we could only gauge Ali’s reaction (Catherine Reece) to the persistent notifications, before a second voice entered our headphones and another figure (Mark, Conor O’Donnell) could be seen at an overlooking window. Suddenly, the last five minutes of messaging took on a more sinister feel.

Another triumph was the more humorous Andrea (Mary Francis Loughran) sorting her baby clothes at a high up window, neatly referencing the kind of people who might be looking in her window and triggering the voyeuristic audience down on the street below!

And, as is tradition, the promenade performance finished with a gorgeous dance from Lizi Watt.

Some of the stories worked better than others. Some of the movement was more impacting than others. Some of the framing against the windows suited the elevations better than others. And it drizzled. But overall, none of that mattered. An hour was spent outside in the fresh air in company, with a series of stories playing out in a layered soundscape that was encouraged – and designed – to take centre stage.

Hats off to Anna Leckey’s vision, Colm Doran’s direction, Conal Clapper’s mastery of sound and radio headphone transmitters, and Elisha Gormley’s stage management to keep theatre alive even when it was impossible to enter inside the venue. And praise too for not just turning the handle and putting on something similar to before, but for having the ambition to make a step change with the quality of the sound design and presenting a set of stories that spanned the generations.

Three’s Theatre Company will be back in East Side Arts Festival with a chance to finally figure out what’s the one sitting in front of you in the bus is thinking. They’ll be on board the hydrogen bus for A Simple Journey on Sunday 15 August.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

The Burial at Thebes – freedoms lost as a tyrant locks down society and reaps the bloody consequences (Bright Umbrella Drama Company)

Having camped out in the splendid Little Theatre church hall in east Belfast (complete with dramatically useful balcony and staircase) for a number of years, Bright Umbrella Drama Company’s first post-lockdown production is also their first in the main church space next door, their new Sanctuary Theatre.

The Burial at Thebes is a family tragedy. As two sisters – children of a former King – mourn the death of their brothers, their newly enthroned uncle insists that his mortal rule shall override the gods’ law that all shall be properly buried whether traitor or not. Headstrong Antigone stands up to her uncle Creon (and future father-in-law because they’re supposedly a close family) and pays the price. But has the domineering King set in motion a bloody chain of events that will doom his reign.

I’ve seen bigger desks in car park attendant huts, but when Glenn McGivern steps out of his corner office, the King’s voice bellows around the stage like the tyrant Creon is shown to be. Eleanor Shannon is steely as an intractable Antigone who stands up for her disrespected sibling.

Nathan Martin (playing Creon’s son/Antigone’s fiancé) pulls off one of the most interesting scenes in a speech that slowly swerves from him being unquestionably loyal to his father, to taking the polar opposite position of doubting the ruler’s morals and pitching his own lot in with his not long for this world future wife. It’s a lovely moment of theatre.

The production hides its sense of place in a bit of a fog. The use of the actors’ natural and varied accents doesn’t offer any clues, but it doesn’t feel like it’s Norn Iron. A JFK poster on the wall suggests 1960s America, while the cramped set – apparently, the City of Thebes Civic Centre! – nods towards some kind of tinpot fictional fiefdom with a small aerodrome and an army that might fit into the back of a bus.

The high stage in the new theatre space offers those in the back pews better eyeline to the action, while Trevor Gill’s direction uses the aisles to boost the number of entrance and exit points to the set. Scaffolding adds height to the action, though the laser light show between the two halves feels anachronistic.

The eighty-minute production has good pace throughout, and while the social distancing creates additional space between characters who might otherwise have been emotionally wrought and beating each other’s chests, the occasional use of masks and blocking choices didn’t detract from the thrust of the play.

Somewhat problematic was the mountain top cave that was (possibly figuratively) accessed via a fiery pit, while an earlier scene which bravely allowed a piece of dialogue to continue while the character walked off stage into the wings before returning into view a few stanzas later.

There are points when the Seamus Heaney’s script feels like it needs another edit. Is it literary heresy to suggest that the great writer could have dropped some of the repeated “beyond the pale” phrasing and introduced even more Irish idiom into the overly classical style of this most ancient of plays?

While George W Bush was certainly in Heaney’s sights in 2004 as he adapted Sophocles’ Antigone for the modern stage, the freedoms (mostly religious) being undermined by the state in The Burial At Thebes have some extra resonance in these locked down times of COVID. I so wanted Creon to become an allegory for Trump, but ultimately the king is written as a more thinking and reflective villain so this can never come to pass.

With a good run in Bright Umbrella’s home venue this week (until Saturday 7 August), with an extra date on Friday 20, and then Dublin (Friday 3 and Saturday 4 September) and Enniskillen (Thursday 9), the cast of eight will get the chance to really settle into their roles and perhaps build on an early scene which cajoles the audience to become complicit in the King’s adoration.

The cast and crew should enjoy positive audience reactions as they bring live theatre back onto the stage and fire up imaginations with a good post-lockdown production which is accessible and has more than a whiff of the issues of our times. Tickets and venue details on the Bright Umbrella website. Get booking now.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Previewing Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play, Billy Boy, as part of the 2021 EastSide Arts Festival

Northern Ireland theatre never stopped. The industry found novel ways of continuing to perform. Online. Outside. On television. In audio. But despite many other sectors and related practices being able to take mitigating action to minimise the airborne spread of the corona virus, theatres didn’t manage to return even in the gaps between previous lockdowns.

Without wanting to spook the horses, the NI Executive may yet confirm that theatres can reopen later today. And that could mean that in a fortnight’s time, Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Billy Boy can have a live run at Strand Arts Centre as part of EastSide Arts Festival.

The premise is that it’s the 11th July. The sun is splitting the trees. The tarmac is melting on the ground and Aaron and his mates are protecting the biggest bonfire in east Belfast. It’s a complicated situation. Everyone has an opinion, but as everyone knows ‘Compromise Equals Sell-Out’.

“… flames flying, near roasts your eyeballs off, the heated last you to Christmas. We can’t stop staring at it, pulls us into it’s glow, it’s mesmerising, it’s primal, black pallets falling into the bright orange. And the rave’s back on …”

That’s a quote from Billy Boy and it summons up my own sensory memories of Eleventh Night visits to photograph and report on bonfires. I asked Rosemary if she’s been a regular visitor to the bonfires in East Belfast?

I used to visit the Annadale bonfire which inspired my first play, The Bonefire. In the East, I go to the huge Ravenhill bonfire, though I also checked out the contentious Avoniel bonfire two years ago which helped formulate the idea for Billy Boy. I’ve always loved bonfires as fire appeals to our primeval instincts. It’s hard to explain to people who have never been, but, to me, Belfast bonfires combine the atmosphere of a Glastonbury rave with something sacred like the ceremonial burning of a Viking longship.

It’s often said that loyalist culture isn’t as frequently portrayed or marked in the arts as republican culture and history. As a writer and playwright, were you surprised to find yourself returning to the subject of bonfires after a fifteen-year gap?

I’m not surprised, as the political landscape has changed – just look at the recent furore over the Tiger’s Bay bonfire. There may be anti-social issues around certain bonfires, but it’s interesting how bonfire builders often view themselves as on the front line of a cultural war. Back in 2006, tyres were burnt to make bonfires last longer, but thankfully environmental concerns are now more to the fore.

It’s true that loyalist culture isn’t as frequently portrayed in literature and that’s because it doesn’t fit conveniently into an Irish or British box. Republican culture fits into an all-Ireland and Irish-American narrative and has been embraced by both writers and the middle-classes. Writers have to paint a more balanced picture when it comes to identity, and I plan to bring bonfires to wider international attention.

Bonfire culture is much talked about, much criticised, much stereotyped. In some of your plays, you’re quite obviously taking a position against big banks and the finance system, or highlighting inadequacies in the asylum system. Having read the script, this time, it feels like you’re less judgemental and perhaps letting the bonfire speak for itself. As a playwright, did you start out with a sense of how you’d tackle the subject?

Plays are often fuelled by a playwright’s own moral outrage, but I decided to let my voice take a backseat, though I came up with the narrative myself with a nudge from Maurice Kinkead of the EastSide Partnership who suggested the Amsterdam angle. [A visitor from the Netherlands brings the gaze of an outsider to the finale.]

It’s all too easy for a writer to rage about the Irish tricolour being burnt on a bonfire, so instead I let the bonfire builders explain why they do it in their own words. In The Bonefire my target was paramilitaries, but in Billy Boy my target is those who completely condemn bonfires without recognizing the history, the sheer architectural talent, and the community spirit behind them. It’s great to look at a cultural phenomenon from different perspectives and with Billy Boy I made the decision not to look at it from the outside but from the inside.

Creatively, has the pandemic been tough for writing plays, knowing that other than filming them, there was no chance of an audience? Are you looking forward to seeing and hearing live audience reaction to Billy Boy at the EastSide Arts Festival? And do you hope some of the bonfire collectors and builders attend?

Tough? It’s been hell. I’ve written very few plays during the pandemic as filmed plays don’t garner the same attention as live performance. It’s also unbelievable that the Executive haven’t reopened theatres yet. Even Shakespeare at the time of the plague didn’t have to wait as long as this!

Our director Matt Faris has made an excellent film of the play, but it can’t compare to the thrill of live performance. I can’t wait to hear laughs and gasps and am especially excited about the standing ovation (thought I’d plant a seed there!) One thing’s for sure - John Travers is going to put in a scorching performance. EastSide Arts are inviting the bonfire builders I interviewed, and I’ll be dying to get their response.

What’s next? More plays? More short stories? A novel?

I’ve been writing historical partition plays for Kabosh and National Museums Northern Ireland which will be performed live at Omagh/Cultra in September – it’s been a pleasure to write politically on that theme. I have a new collection of short stories, Marching Season, coming out with Arlen House in the autumn, so fingers-crossed for a live launch. I’ve other projects on the go, but, unless they’re a cert, I don’t talk about them in public in case I tempt fate! Nothing is real until it happens.

You can catch Billy Boy in the Strand Arts Centre as part of EastSide Arts Festival at 3pm and 8pm on Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 August. Tickets £15. Performed by John Travers, written by Rosemary Jenkinson, and directed by Matt Farris.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Nowhere Special – a film about love and death, kindness and perspectives (QFT and Omniplex)

John is a window cleaner with an occupational perspective into other people’s lives. At the same time, he is searching with social services to find an adoptive family to look after his perceptive young son Michael when he’s no longer there. 

The reason that John is a single parent and the detail about his life-changing circumstances are gently revealed, allowing a sadness to slowly creep across the 96-minute film. Screenwriter/director Uberto Pasolini based Nowhere Special on a newspaper story he read.

The on-screen chemistry between Michael (Daniel Lamont) and John (James Norton) is believable. The father’s love for his child is well-established, along with Michael’s adoration for his dad. Norton sets out with a steely resilience that at first masks the urgency of the deadline to which his search must work, while Lamont’s gaze portrays a sense of trust, and his gentle manner shines in some later moments when he instinctively steps into a caring role. Norton’s Norn Iron accent is very good, though it never quite matches his son’s brogue.

While I was never quite sure which rules student social worker Shona was breaking, the tears in Eileen O’Higgins eyes made me want her to get away with it.

Set in and around greater Belfast, the location is unimportant to the story, although it provides a great set of cameos for local actors like Bernadette Brown, Roisin Gallagher, Louise Matthews, Stella McCusker and Siobhan McSweeney.

At the heart of Nowhere Special, there’s a great film that has become obscured by some clunky characterisation and hackneyed dialogue. The cartoonlike inappropriateness of some of the potential adoptive families is disappointing. In particular, the last couple, Lorraine and Trevor (Niamh McGrady and Caolan Byrne), are painted as being so unfeeling and gormless that the stereotype stretches beyond breaking point into discomfort. In total contrast, one household John visits seems so perfect for Michael that it beggars belief that no positive comment is made and the search moves on beyond that point. Having so carefully allowed John’s condition to be revealed over time, later moments needlessly paint words on top of what the audience already understands.

Yet Nowhere Special recovers and behind me in the mid-afternoon screening I could hear other audience members gurning their lamps out too as John finally made preparations for Michael’s future life without him, the only major moment of sentimentality that Pasolini allows.

Nowhere Special is a film about love and death, inadequacy, kindness, preparedness and perspectives. Currently being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre, Omniplex cinemas and the Belfast Odeon.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Father – a fleeting but powerful glimpse at life with dementia

The Father examines the life of a man living with dementia in London. We dip in and out of different times, never quite sure how far apart they are, or how to explain what has just happened.

Confusion is baked into the audience experience. While at first, it feels like that an Inception-like diagram of what’s happening will be possible by the end of the 97-minute film, what Florian Zeller has created is much more brilliant.

The theatrical origins of The Father are obvious. It’s based on Zeller’s play La Père (which had been translated into English by Christopher Hampton), and retains the structure of scenes, incremental changes to the set, and consistent framing of the action.

The beauty of the film is that Anthony is at the heart of the story, not his carers or his daughter. So we glimpse his sense of paranoia, his frustration at a forced reduction in his independence, and his difficulty in rationalising what he is sensing happening around him.

Anthony Hopkins brings the central character to life, with an emotional range on display that captures forlorn, playful, vulnerable, hurt, resigned and rage. He was superb in The Two Popes, but is Oscar-deserving in The Father. Opposite him, Olivia Colman at times acts without words or movement: her presence and facial expression sum up her inner thoughts. Imogen Poots finally adds moments of on-screen joy and delight when she turns up as the latest in a line of carers. But soon the weary fog of confusion and brokenness descends on a man who is caught between his past and an unknown present.

The final 10-15 minutes bring just enough clarity to release the audience from scratching their heads all the way home. Yet the revelations that seep through, along with the gentle, calming touch of a nurse, add to the distress. The Father portrays a fleeting but powerful glimpse of what living with dementia might feel like, while also counting the human cost of caring.

The Father currently being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre as well as Movie House Cinemas, Omniplex Cinemas, Strand Arts Centre and The Odeon.

Monday, June 07, 2021

After Love – double lives exposed once a husband enters the after life (QFT until Thursday 17 June)

As Mary (played by Joanna Scanlan) comes to terms with the recent sudden death of her seafaring husband and clears out Ahmed’s possessions, she discovers a large secret that was hidden under her marriage. Her desire to find out more takes her 21 miles across the English Channel to Calais and, through an unlikely but dramatically pleasing moment of serendipity, into the house of another family with links to her own.

Much is said, but very little of it has to be spoken in screenwriter/director Aleem Khan’s debut feature After Love. The details of the plot unravel slowly and without gratuitous shock. Mary’s duplicitous avoidance of confrontation allows the tension to build up – accompanied by visual manifestations of the cracks appearing in her backstory – until an eleventh-hour break. While the story could have satisfactorily stopped at this point of fracture, the subsequent ten-minute afterword injects healing, warmth – and a few tears – to the tale.

While Scanlan is renowned for comedic roles (No Offence, The Thick of It), her ponderous ability to provide space for the story to settle around her in a scene is both restful to watch and testament to her talent. Her whole body weeps uncontrollably at one point, exuding her distress.

Khan gives his central character Mary the opportunity to be normal amidst a sea of abnormal circumstances. What was the last film that allowed a character to boil the kettle and make a cup of tea without jump cutting its way through the process to speed up the action. When was the last time you heard a Muslim woman pray on-screen?

The cross-channel counterpoint of mirrored and of family life and experience with some jarring differences is satisfying in its construction. The domestic setup of a French mother and son family allow Nathalie Richard to range from scepticism to rage, while Talid Ariss allows his conflicted character to open up to Mary’s empathetic conspiratorial gestures.

The mix of languages adds to privileged feeling of being a fly on the wall, understanding everything some on-screen characters remain in the dark. The portrayal of faith and a mixed-faith marriage is refreshingly uncomplicated. Ahmed’s faithful fervour in the UK turns out to be at odds with his behaviour in France. Yet Mary continues to find comfort in rituals – spiritual and secular – even as the ceiling of her marriage threatens to collapse on top of her memories.

After Love is a beautiful story of loss and gain, of sharing beyond the grave, and of the dual lives that are only a little more extreme than could be found in your street or even your house. Ninety minutes long, After Love is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 17 June.

- - -

If you enjoyed the review, feel free to buy me a coffee tea!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Apples – peeling back the skin on a tale of absurd amnesia (QFT until 30 May)

A bearded man carrying flowers is woken up when his bus reaches the end of the line. He can’t remember where he was going, or who he is, and is carrying no identification. And so he is labelled as another sufferer of a never explained pandemic of amnesia, and is carted off to an overloaded health facility which quickly farms patient 14842 back out into the community with a rather Heath Robinson set of activities designed to integrate the “unclaimed patients” back into society.

A story of isolation, identity and new starts seems remarkably appropriate for a first trip back to the cinema after a five-and-a-half-month absence. And great to sit down towards the back of the warm and familiar Screen 2 of Queen’s Film Theatre. Nearly thirty years ago, it was the venue for second year CSC206 Parallel Programming lectures from Prof Ron Perrott, studying a new programming language every two weeks. Nowadays it is a home for international cinema, with subtitles overcoming any residual language problems.

Shot in 4:3, Apple’s unusual aspect ratio emphasises the height of some locations while the lack of width suggests the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a world and a life that has removed identity, agency and impetus.

Director Christos Kikou peels back the skin of the tale to uncover health professionals who exude uncaring attitudes, and use fairly facile steps in a “New Identity” programme that often exploit both the patient and those they are asked to engage with in the world around them.

While tiny details come back to the patient (played by Aris Servetalis), no one is listening as regular check-ups have been replaced with a cursory examination of an album of Polaroid photos proving that he has completed his mailed out tasks. The fancy dress party is surreal; the car task darkly funny. Apple’s cityscape is from a time before smartphones and Instagram. Yet the taking of analogue selfies speaks loudly into today’s world.

Servetalis portrays a sombre character that engages with his new normal with a quiet forbearance and occasional frustration while munching on his favourite fruit. His encounters with a fellow amnesiac (played by Sofia Georgovassili) are believably tentative as they cagily figure out the new rules of their existence.

Come on let's twist again / Like we did last summer! … / Do you remember when …

A pivotal disco scene provides a glimpse of what this man might once have been like. Yet dressed at one point as a spaceman, we sense his deep solitude.

At times poignant, at times darkly funny, it’s a film that provokes thoughts and demands an internal monologue inside your head the whole way through its 90-minute runtime. It speaks about our treatment of people with dementia, as well as how health professionals cope in crisis situations, and how we adapt to unusual situations.

Apples is a great gentle reintroduction to the world of post-lockdown trips to the cinema and is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until 30 May 2021.

- - -

If you enjoyed the review, feel free to buy me a coffee tea!

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

I Believe Her (Three’s Theatre Company)

I’d been working late in an office, and around midnight I walked up Botanic Avenue from the bright lights of Shaftesbury Square to where my car was parked along University Square. There weren’t many people around. The fast food delivery cyclists were nowhere to be seen. The train station was closed.

It was just a couple of nights after I had heard the tragic news of Sarah Everard’s death.

No one’s ever messaged me to say “Text me when you get home”. And as ambled up Botanic, I sensed for the first time the privilege of being a white male who really didn’t need to worry about his safety in this area at that time of night. I didn’t need to keep my phone in my hand, ready to fake a call to someone to make me look less vulnerable, or need to hold a sharp key in my fist ready to fight back against an attacker.

For the first I wondered whether I should cross the road to be less of threat for the woman walking down the same side of the street towards me on her own. Could I – should I – reduce her potential anxiety?

These are among the themes picked up in Three’s Theatre Company’s latest audio project, I Believe Her. The producers recommend that you pop some earphones on and listen to it while on a half hour walk.

Curated by Anna Leckey, an all-female team of seven writers have contributed inner monologues and thoughtful reflections that are voiced by female actors. The mix of topics includes period poverty along with sexual harassment and sexual violence. There’s a matter-of-fact-ness about some of the contributions that gives a real kick up the backside as you walk along listening to the tales. Katie Richardson’s sympathetic soundtrack creates gentle mood and differentiates the various pieces of spoken word.

These are not extreme stories. They are everyday, yet mostly suppressed, experiences that need to be heard and responded to. I Believe Her puts you inside womens’ heads and asks you to listen.

The stories cry out for you to be aware, to be an ally, to ask questions, to check your own behaviour and those of the people around you. They also ask for legislators, the criminal justice system and civic leaders to make changes, follow through and show leadership in turning up the volume on conversations and issues that are so often muted.

You can find a link to the audio and to how to make a donation on Three’s Theatre Company’s website.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The University of Wonder and Imagination – a magical journey through time and space – Cahoots NI as part of #BIAL20

Different Northern Ireland theatre companies have different traits that often pop up in their work. Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney infuses his company’s work with magic, surprises, slick stage management, and a great control of light and sound. And in these socially distanced times, he’s managed not to let go of his secret ingredients to create an experience that goes far beyond what would be expected online through the sometimes tired medium of Zoom.

The University of Wonder and Imagination plays to deliberately small audiences – six remote devices/families at a time – involving everyone in the journey through time and space. The show relies on a variety of close magic, predictions and wonder as we zoom around the underground rooms of the underground teaching bunker, with a feeling of control over our destiny, where we go, and what we do.

Sean Kearns inducts every new cohort into the performance, while Lata Sharma floats around Armagh’s Robinson Library (neatly grounding the show for Northern Ireland audiences) and gets us to note down various numbers and shapes for use later on. Then it’s up to magic-fingered mathematically-savvy Caolan McBride to wow us with his numbers, musical astronomer Philippa O’Hara to send us off around the solar system at the speed of light, and Hugh W Brown to finish the show with some pleasant thoughts about a mid-term break somewhere sunny.

The usual approach to online theatre, particularly performances that are aimed at entertaining families and children, is to be incredibly high-energy and include lots of actions. Cahoots NI manage to avoid the need for a sugar rush frenzy, replacing it with intrigue, wonder and amazement. The cast don’t try to be larger than life or shouty. Instead, rich costumes that stand out against the often sometimes physical backdrops (not everything is green screened) help bring the characters to life. And the small numbers in each show mean there’s lots of name-checking and unmuting families to pick numbers and direct the next part of the show.

Looking through a screen undoubtedly takes away from the intimacy of breathing the same air as on-stage performers. The spine-tingling moments of a show like Secrets of Space can’t quite be reproduced over the interwebs. But Cahoots have made a wise decision to go with a bespoke magical variety show rather than one that overly relies on plot. Intelligent choices given the constraints of the medium. Where they stand out from other companies and have created something that can play to homes around the world from their Belfast base is the high production values (acted in a studio environment with good internet and reliable sound, not cast’s bedrooms) and the investment in real-time visual effects (the joins between live and prerecorded segments are pretty seamless unless you know where to look) and Garth McConaghie’s backing track that captures another sense.

Northern Ireland has proved quite pioneering in pushing the innovation cycle in the emerging market for Zoom theatre. With this show, Cahoots take another step up the ladder with something that is very transferable to any English-speaking market, with no flicking between windows or rooms, yet several shows overlapping in behind-the-scenes to get more bums on seats.

The University of Wonder and Imagination is playing this week as part of Belfast International Arts Festival before touring living rooms in Ireland and beyond. Tickets are charged at £20 per screen (which a whole family can sit behind) and there is still some availability. Sit down, relax and be amazed at what is possible which technicians, magicians and actors let their minds run wild with ambition.