Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Saturday Night Fever – dancing the night away with the musical stage version of the 1977 film (Grand Opera House until Saturday 24 September)

It’s nearly three years since Bill Kenwright’s Saturday Night Fever last toured through Belfast. It’s back on the stage of the Grand Opera House this week. Has much changed?

The production is definitely still at its finest when the cast are all on stage dancing. The choreography is sharp and everyone is confident with the routines. The angled mirror at the back of the set allows audiences in the stalls to see the pulsating dancefloor and shows off the fancy footwork and the movement of the amazing costumes. (The Christmas tree dress is by far the best outfit of the night!) Glitterballs are deployed across the auditorium to bring the sparkle closer to the audience.

The story is that paint shop worker Tony fancies his chances of winning $1,000 in the local discotheque competition if he can find the right partner. He blows off Annette who is crazy about him and sets his eyes on Stephanie, a classy dancer who is his equal on the dance floor, but isn’t interesting in a relationship.

The lead performers Jack Wilcox (Tony) and Rebekah Bryant (Stephanie) are impressive together on the dancefloor with great poise, eyelines, rolling hips and presence. Faizal Jay is still holding up the balcony groove with his fabulously over-the-top disco introductions, wild moves and bass tones. The script’s off-colour Elton John joke has finally been neutralised into something much more mundane.

Wilcox may yet win a UK Theatre award for how slowly and knowingly he can pull up a zip. Bryant has a very sweet voice that imbues What Kind of Fool with emotion after the interval.

Most of the singing is relegated to the three Gibb brothers who appear on a raised platform bedecked in gold lame suites, and superbly hit the familiar harmonies in the big numbers.

Billie Hardy never drops out of Annette’s persona when on stage, her every interaction riven with her character’s jealousy and obsessions. Her rendition of I Can’t Have You as Annette is a special moment in the first act. A lot of the central characters have a solo number. Harry Goodson-Bevan (Bobby C) seemed to have a great voice for the pent-up emotion of Tragedy, though his vocals were rarely allowed to cut through the mix, drowned out by the Gibbs brothers above.

The performance I attended was the first night of the second week of the new UK tour and there were still times when the stripped-back dialogue lost its pace becoming stilted, and moments when the sound and light cues hadn’t caught up with the action. Those issues will improve with every performance the cast and touring creative team get under their belt.

What can’t change is the underlying story, with the musical staying true – albeit somewhat sanitised – to the plot of the popular film. Saturday Night Fever revolves around the character of Tony, his worldview and his flaws. He’s a natural leader amongst his peers but self-centred and with a very warped opinion of women. To borrow a line from the script, Tony is “a jerk-off guy who doesn’t have his shit together”. The show is set in a terribly male world: women barely speak to other women. Bobby C’s pregnant girlfriend is dealt with as a problem for him with no mention of how to support his partner.

Tony’s evolution towards being a softer, less foul figure leaves a trail of destruction in his wake. The most awkward junction in the stage version comes when the show needs a song and dance number shortly after Tony has had to deal with revelations around suicide, rape, unplanned pregnancy, and hearing about someone being taken advantage of in a workplace situation. Fairly normal for musical theatre, but jarring all the same.

I’m not sure that a nightmare scene followed by a beautiful solo dance number really do justice to the length of the redemptive journey Tony needs to make. Later, the agreement between Stephanie and Tony to tone down his sex drive and trial a platonic friendship is oddly accompanied by How Deep Is Your Love! But then the good old megamix kicks in and the show ends on a high.

Saturday Night Fever is a reminder how far society has moved on in the 45 years since the film was released. The plot thread involving a priest losing his faith retains its relevance and nearly deserves a post-show discussion on Sunday Sequence.

If you want to experience a high-kicking, high-energy production that will keep your foot tapping until the final curtain drops, you can catch Saturday Night Fever at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 24 September.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

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Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Shared? Exploring the complexities of the NI social housing sector through theatre (Partisan Productions until Friday 23 September)

A murmur of recognition spreads across the Ormeau Park audience seated in a big top when one of the cast mentions “the list” (aka the Common Waiting List which is drawn up and sorted using the points allocated when you apply for the Housing Selection Scheme).

Shared? is based on interviews with local residents at The Port Building on Annadale as wella s people working in the housing sector. Fintan Brady’s script explores the issues facing people living in, living near, and working to support social housing. It’s been staged by Partisan Productions in partnership with Clanmil Housing as part of Good Relations Week 2022.

The cast of five quickly jump into issues of noisy neighbours, poor maintenance, placement priorities, and feelings that communities are changing. 90% of social housing is currently situated in single identity areas, at odds with the 2019 Good Relations Indicator report [indicator 2.2b] finding that 77% of respondents would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood. But it’s soon obvious that ‘shared’ can have a wide and multi-factorial definition, with residents coming from a variety of circumstances and backgrounds.

There’s a working mum paying rent for a leaking flat, with a daughter who finds nothing to do in the area, and a neighbour who holds noisy parties. There’s the homeless young girl who has been in care and is now fending for herself with a housing officer who’s rushed off her feet and has no time to stop and provide support with the basics of running a home or operating household appliances. A father who grew up in the area looks out and sees a revolving door of people moving in and moving on and wonders where the community he once knew has gone.

A team of architects are planning to build a utopian palace of hope: it feels like they’re about to burst into song to underline the wonderous nature of their proposals. The live score from the band to one side of the stage turns discordant when their vision of a better society hits the fan of reality. A young couple with moderate dual incomes don’t realise that their liberal-minded desire to live harmoniously and bring up their future children in the local community won’t win them any points in the list that governs their chances of finding a home.

And that’s before uncovering a debate about culture, community gatekeepers, the role of politicians, agenda-ridden agitators and a well-oiled rumour mill, and many of the staff who feel trapped in a rigidly defined system whose processes and policies are not designed to work in the interest of the residents.

Once the formal performance finishes, the cast stay on stage and ask the audience for ways in which what they’ve seen enacted on stage could be improved when it happens in real life. It’s a technique known as Theatre of the Oppressed, part of Augusto Boal’s style forum theatre that gives the audience and actors the power to stop and change a performance, giving influence and voice to the disempowered, even after a script has been written and rehearsed. Scenes are rerun to see how there could have been less negative experiences and better outcomes. The discussion and the improvised scenes only serve to underline how the relationships and processes are orders of magnitude more complex than we’ve realised up to now.

Cathy Brennan-Bradley, Sorcha McElroy, Orlaith Larkham, Shannen Lofthouse, John Travers and ringmaster Rachael McCabe switch with ease between roles, aided by on-stage costume changes and the mood music of the band (which unusually features a melodica). The noise of the traffic outside the park’s perimeter and the sound of planes overhead are reminders that what’s on stage isn’t divorced from reality.

Creating more cohesive communities may be a priority for government departments, arm’s length bodies and housing associations, but Shared? makes it clear that a lot of effort and trust will be required to make it happen.

Free tickets can be booked for the 7.30pm shows every evening until Friday 23 September.

Photo credit: Twitter @PartisanNI

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Saturday, September 17, 2022

Previewing Belfast International Arts Festival 2022 (5 October to 6 November) #BIAF22

Belfast International Arts Festival is back from 5 October until 6 November. 60 years on from its inception in 1962, the programme combines the best of home grown international talent with international acts that often would normally be seen on these shores.

There’s a bounty of theatre shows in this year’s festival, a strand much disrupted by COVID. Frank McGuinness’ Dinner With Groucho (The MAC) opens the festival on Wednesday 5 October (running until Sunday 9). Groucho Marx and TS Elliott meet for dinner in an evening of wit and buffoonery, presided over by a controlling proprietor.

How To Fail As A Popstar (The MAC, Thursday 6 and Saturday 8 October) is a cabaret-style one-woman autobiographical show about Vivek Shraya’s journey to the margins of fame.

Three and a half years on from its thrilling concert reading, Conor Mitchell Propaganda: A New Musical will be stage in the Lyric Theatre (with Belfast Ensemble) from Saturday 8 October to Saturday 5 November. The impact of the fences going up in 1953 Berlin is seen through the eyes of Stanislav and Hanna, a photographer and his muse. Expect a live 14-piece orchestra, stellar cast and a great evening of musical theatre.

Cahoots are masters of walk-through theatre experiences packed with special effects, digital technology, magic and old-fashioned performance. They’re back in their Cityside Retail maze of corridors and rooms with a Halloween special from Friday 14 to Monday 31 October. The Ghost House reappears every century. Join the ghost hunter to discover the legend of Black Hearted Benjamin.

Big Telly Theatre Company take a fresh look at the myth of Frankenstein with a provocative black comedy that promises to be topical and warm your heart. Frankenstein’s Monster Is Drunk And The Sheep Have All Jumped The Fences is playing at the Brian Friel Theatre (that’s at the back of Queen’s Film Theatre) from Friday 14 to Saturday 22 October.

The Scorched Earth Trilogy (outside the Ulster Museum on Friday 14 October at 7pm/8pm/9pm) is a 30-minute blend of opera, contemporary orchestral music, street art and animation, presented via mapped video, a sound installation, silent-disco headphones, and including an unexpected new example of ‘trickle down economics’!

Ron Mueck’s amazingly sculptures are fascinating visitors in The MAC’s gallery. Stephen Beggs will perform a specially commissioned piece Ron’s World to imagine the stories that could lie behind the sculptures, some tiny, some monumental in scale. Suitable for festival goers aged six and above. Saturday 15, Sunday 16, Saturday 22, Sunday 23 October at The MAC.

The Queen in Me (The MAC, Tuesday 18 and Wednesday 19 October) finds out what happens when The Magic Flute’s iconic Queen of the Night refuses to keep singing, theatre and opera combine for a thrilling performance that sheds light on the restrictive notions of race and gender within the opera industry.

How do we understand romantic relationships? Another Lover’s Discourse (The MAC, Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 October) encourages audiences to shake off stereotypes and free themselves from traditions. A new inventive multimedia performance from Riham Isaac, one of Palestine’s most exciting contemporary artists. Part of the festival’s focus on artists from the Middle East and North Africa.

Festival regular Oona Doherty is back with the Irish premiere of Navy Blue (The MAC, Tuesday 25 and Wednesday 26 October) which uses dance, music and colour to reflect the pain, loneliness, struggles and exploitation of working-class people in a search for healing, redemption and societal change.

Conversations on Impermanence (Irish Secretariat, Thursday 27 October at 7pm) sees Maria McManus, Gail McConnell and Neil Hegarty in conversation about the new collection of essays by writers connected with Northern Ireland. Impermanence is published by No Alibis Press.

Paul McVeigh’s new one-handed play Big Man (Lyric Theatre, Thursday 27 October to Sunday 13 November) explores love at first sight and asks whether it ever truly works out. What if the very things that attract end up pulling us apart? Performed by Tony Flynn and directed by Patrick J O'Reilly.

Having closed the festival in 2018, the all-male New York-based ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo (generally known as “The Trocks”) are back in the Grand Opera House (Friday 28 and Saturday 29 October) with their immaculate technique, comic timing and sassy spoofs of classical ballet routines.

Playing his body like Polish-born musician Elisabeth Chojnacka played the harpsichord, Jan Martens returns to the festival with Elisabeth Gets Her Way (The MAC, Friday 28 and Saturday 29 October).

During the early days of the pandemic lockdown, Big Telly Theatre Company forged ahead of with digital productions, recognised internationally as pioneers. Their productions became ever more elaborate, weaving the technology into the audience experience and the ways stories could be told. Big Telly’s director Zoë Seaton is in conversation with Young at Art’s Eiblín de Barra in All the Screen’s a Stage on Tuesday 1 November at 4pm (available to watch online afterwards).

BIND is a sumptuous poetry and dance film set in the exquisite Robinson Library in Armagh. It’s a collaboration between dance choreographer Eileen McClory and poet Maria McManus that explores the binds between past and present, the tension between elevation, elites and access to knowledge, progress and change, the visibility and constraints on women, and how a visionary institution contributes to progress in the modern world. The film is available to watch online for free between Sunday 23 October and Sunday 6 November. A special screening (tickets £4) in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Saturday 22 October will be followed by a Q&A with Eileen McClory, Maria McManus, filmmaker Conan McIvor and composer Katie Richardson.

Critic and playwright Jane Coyle’s new work After Melissa (Brian Friel Theatre, Thursday 3 to Saturday 5 November) is inspired by and reimagines the storylines of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and the themes of homecoming, love and family through the eyes of a poet. Returning home to Donegal, bringing with him the orphaned daughter of a nightclub dancer, he’s writing a memoir of his years in the Egyptian port of Alexandria and his relationships with its exotic, cosmopolitan residents.

The 141st Royal Ulster Academy exhibition runs from Friday 14 October until Tuesday 3 January 2023. Work from acclaimed artists and emerging talent – painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and video – will be showcased in the galleries of the Ulster Museum.

Check out the full online programme for details of even more dance, theatre, music, visual arts, film, talks and walking tours.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Róise & Frank – superstition and grief combine in this Irish language homage to Lassie (QFT until 22 September)

Ireland’s answer to Lassie hits the silver screen this weekend. A cute and persistent dog somewhat knowingly grooms Róise (Bríd Ní Neachtain), a widowed grandmother. Soon the empathetic canine is sitting in her husband’s chair, eating his favourite meal at the table, patiently listening to Róise’s reminisces, and is left on the sofa watching sport on TV while she’s out of the house.

Throw in besotted choirmaster Donncha (Lorcan Cranitch) who struggles to find a way past the dog to make his move on the widow, and her son Alan (Cillian O'Gairbhi) who isn’t crazy about dogs. Oh, and the dog (played by incredibly well-trained Barley) is given the name Frank, given his familiarity with the spirit of Róise’s former partner.

If you’re expecting a profound observation of grief or reincarnation, think again. Róise & Frank is like one of those cable TV films for children that aired on BBC One after school on Friday afternoons in the late 1980s. Except this is an Irish language feature, written and directed by Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy, and has been given a cinema release. On the plus side, there are some great slow motion overhead shots of junior hurling. But for most of the time it relies on lots of running around, people exclaiming “Oh Mother of God”, and an epidemic of superstition that quickly spreads throughout the rural Irish community. 

Róise & Frank is a great wholesome alternative to Minions: The Rise of Gru if you have a ten-year-old in your family. It might have worked as a short film trading on rural Irish sensibilities and eccentricities. But as a 90-minute feature, it’s a shaggy dog story which – like Róise – perhaps should have moved on a lot sooner. Róise & Frank is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 22 September.

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Thursday, September 15, 2022

See How They Run – you’ll not need a degree in Agathology to enjoy this comedic whodunit

See How They Run is inspired by Agatha Christie murder mysteries, in particular The Mousetrap, a whodunit play that’s been running in London’s West End since 1952, only halting for Covid.

When a visiting American director who wants to adapt The Mousetrap is found murdered, Police Inspector Stoppard is teamed up with fledgling Constable Stalker to solve the case. Sam Rockwell’s Stoppard is gin-fuelled and irascible, uncomfortable with his novice partner’s presence, and uncomfortable with his solo homelife.

Stalker (played by Saoirse Ronan) doesn’t let the facts stand in the way of voicing a precarious hypothesis, talks nineteen to the dozen, and is full of unintentional quips, celebrity trivia, impromptu impressions and unknowing nods to Christie (“perhaps they were all in it together sir” she wonders early on in the investigation).

Jamie Ramsay’s distinctive cinematography and the editing by Gary Dollner/Peter Lambert visually emphasises the multiple perspectives that must be considered when solving a murder, at least when solving it in the style of a post-war Christie story. Director Tom George takes Mark Chappell’s already witty script and adds even more comedy through daft physicality, knowing nods to film conventions, and zany characterisation. The execution of the Mousetrap-esque finale is pleasing in its mirroring of scenes from the stage play at the heart of the story.

Fans of Christie in general, and The Mousetrap in particular, will enjoy spotting the familiar plot devices. Audience members who want to sit back and be entertained will be enthralled by the Soppard/Stalker partnership, though, like me, they may wonder just how much material around the characters’ backstories was filmed but then removed in the edit to achieve a pacy 98-minute runtime.

With no obvious pretensions, See How They Run is a frivolous spoof comedy that doesn’t require a degree in Agathology to enjoy. You’ll find it at Queen’s Film Theatre, Strand Arts Centre, as well as the Odeon, Movie House and Omniplex cinemas.

 

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Both Sides of the Blade – Binoche plays an ageing lovesick teenager trapped in a troubled melodrama (QFT until 15 September)

Both Sides of the Blade is a film about living well with the choices that you and other people make, thinking carefully before revisiting them if unexpected opportunities arise. A pretty mundane, everyday premise you might think. But director and co-writer Clare Denis has crafted a wobbly love triangle to torment audiences over nearly two hours.

When you stand up in shallow water, the calm surface can disguise dangerous undercurrents that could sweep you off your feet, losing your balance and being sucked away from safety. Both Sides of the Blade begins with Sara (Juliette Binoche) floating in an idyllic bay, smooching in the strong arms of her rugged husband. But what danger lurks beneath them?

She’s a serious afternoon radio presenter who unpacks international affairs and the issues of the day with expert talking heads, while Jean (Vincent Lindon) is a divorced ex-rugby player and ex-con (probably for some kind of financial misdemeanour given his lack of easy credit) who finds it tough getting work.

Gradually the clear water is muddied by the return of Francois (Grégoire Colin), a man familiar to them both, and to whom Jean is second best in Sara’s past. Distressed strings play over Francois and Sara’s first meeting in a decade or more. Soon she’s talking to herself in the mirror in case cinemagoers can’t already imagine the “love, fear, sleepless nights and the phone at my bedside” that are to come.

Poor Jean can foretell how other people’s lives could unravel and leave them unfulfilled, but he can’t seem to put this talent and energy into stopping his own world flushing itself around the U-bend and into the stinking Paris sewers.

The film descends into scenes or Binoche in bed, in the bath, and frequently in the buff … and not in the sense that the prized French actor is showing naked emotion. Her whole character’s USP is that she will argue that black is white, that what you saw is not what happened, introducing specious distractions, assigning motivations to other people’s actions, shifting blame to cover up her desires, moaning “mon amour” to her current husband while scheming how to pour lighter fluid on the glowing embers of unrequited love.

A string of ultimatums suggest that all three protagonists have much to lose. A side plot with Jean’s son Marcus (Issa Perica) seems merely an excuse for the dad to spend time away from Paris. Jean’s dialogue frustrates: overly halting when speaking to both his wife and mother. The Paris apartment’s balcony simmers like Chekhov's gun, completing the betrayal of Claire Denis’ film.

The finale – technically unlikely in real life – is a fitting finish. Watery scenes neatly booked the movie. The performances from Binoche and Lindon are very strong throughout. But that can do little to redeem this unsatisfactory screenplay and its wobbly exposition.

 

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Lockdown DLA – an odd couple bubbled up in a miasma of despair and squalor: a tonic for serious times (The MAC until Sunday 18 September)

The Dundonald Liberation Army harbour a grudge against the good people of Lisburn and the self-proclaimed freedom fighters are seeking independence from the city-siders in their council area. Wedding and birthing plans are thrown into disarray in March 2020 when paramilitary bigwig Davy (Matthew McElhinney) finds himself holed up in his flat with school friend and useful accomplice John ‘Horse’ McCracken (Matthew Forsythe) during lockdown.

Stephen G Large’s script knowingly looks back at the fears and uncertainties of those early days of the pandemic, with rumours and conspiracies circulating, and regular political announcements dashing hopes of an early easing of the restrictions. Lockdown DLA avoids harvesting cheap and easy laughs from paramilitary gags or dirty jokes. Given the Covid death-toll, it could have been tasteless.

Instead, Lockdown DLA uses the two years of collective perspective to poke fun at our early attitudes to the deadly ‘Rona, social distancing and the wearing of masks, something Davy knows quite a bit about. The audience laugh knowingly at the idea that UK government politicians were living with the very same restrictions and abiding by the rules they were setting.

It’s cathartic to be reminded of the panic buying, the competitive clapping, online exercise classes, banana bread baking, and the difficult to comprehend sequence of easements. We laugh now, aware that hindsight is a luxury unavailable at the time.

McElhinney and Forsythe have great fun on stage, a fine pair of comic actors whose sense of timing is rewarded with roars of laughter throughout. Despite being a wannabe authority figure in his local community, Davy is hugely sceptical of what he’s hearing from those in actual power through the media. The stress of it all makes him very hungry and thirsty, with McElhinney constantly eating and drinking his way through the first act.

Horse’s IQ hasn’t yet reached retirement age, and Forsythe plays up this ingénue’s naïve misunderstandings of facts and phrases. They wrestle with each other and the absurd situations they find they find themselves in as the pair try to find a way to break out of their bubble to attend a birth in the Ulster Hospital and make it to a beach wedding in Thailand.

With circumstances keeping Davy and Horse apart from their loved ones, the unlikely couple sink into a miasma of despair. Gerard McCabe’s direction plays up both the squalor of the cramped flat and the unstable moods of its occupants. Get rich quick schemes add to the debris, while bottles, cans and nibbles straight out from Abigail’s Party fill every surface. Quick on-stage changes and enormous props add to the comedy. A clock helps the audience follow the jumps forward in time.

It was good to be in a theatre with an audience who had no hesitation in showing their unabashed enjoyment for a local show with familiar themes. Lockdown DLA is a tonic for serious times. Soda Bread Theatre’s production continues at The MAC until Sunday 18 September including a signed performance on Thursday 15.

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Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Gap Year: a travelling troika pack up their troubles in an old campervan and drive, drive, drive (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 25 September)

Part of Kate is lost when her husband Joe drops dead. Her friends gather round. A notion of a weekend of pampering in a Fermanagh resort turns into a year-long tour around Ireland’s counties with fellow sixty-somethings Oonagh and Roisin. They might all be trying to escape troubles at home, but their absences leave gaps in other people’s lives that catch up with the trio while out on the road.

Clare McMahon’s previous writing for stage has often focussed the experiences of younger women. But The Gap Year shows her adeptness at conjuring up characters not often seen on stage.

The minor personae are exceptionally-well observed. When have you ever seen a mono-syllabic grandad (Frankie McCafferty) given a key plot point in a play? Keith Singleton oozes empathy and charisma as he flits between a camp activity manager, a footloose flirt, and a drag artist with some home truths for Kate who thinks she knows best. A video vignette from Matthew Cavan and a blast of No More Tears/Enough is Enough cements the women’s sense of growing self-awareness.

But in a play that examines the experience of women, it’s the characters that Meghan Tyler breathes life and verve into that make such an impact. A young nun with a lifetime of loss already under her belt. A jilted woman in a night club at Christmas with a perspective on what makes a good partner that Kate needs to hear. And finally Tyler’s arrival on stage after the interval as Kate’s daughter Catherine, allowing the emotional tide to come in and wet the toes of the rapt audience.

What could have been another funny ode to the menopause, or a mere observation of grief, turns into something more poignant and significant. The Gap Year gives voice to ambition and longing and a need for relevance that does not have to diminish with age or dwindling health. The travelling troika discover that they don’t have to abandon helping other people they meet along the way in order to take precious time for themselves.

Carol Moore’s Kate veers from rage to rapport in a masterclass of emotions. Marion O’Dwyer enjoys her moments of wild abandon and the front of van banter, while Libby Smyth feels very authentic in her portrayal of someone living with and adapting to a dementia diagnosis. That may make The Gap Year sound terribly serious, but the audience yell and cheer, their roars of laughter interrupting the action at many points.

It’s the small things that can make such a difference in a production. Stuart Marshall’s oversized castor-fitted scenery and props allow choreographed scene changes with a mere twist by in character cast members. Some of the revolutionary revelations are given extra impetus by Garth McConaghie’s interstitial jingles. The campervan is a particular triumph.

Benjamin Gould’s direction values small gestures. At one point, O’Dwyer simply walks on with ruffled hair and wordlessly conveys at least half a page of dialogue. The quality of this cast would allow the sometimes meandering first half of Clare McMahon’s script to be pruned back. While the various stop off points on the road trip definitely built up the central characters’ backstory, the dialogue could either be thinned or perhaps somewhere like Knock could be struck off their itinerary. That said, the payoff in the much shorter second half is pacy and satisfyingly constructed.

To get around diary clashes, I attended one of the weekend socially-distanced performances. Because people were sitting in their bubbles with space around them, it seemed to free them to discuss the show with their friends or family as it progressed. A whisper unfortunately carries a long way in a theatre. And the lure of seemingly empty rows tempted some to switch seats during the interval, which may have upset those who’d chosen to pay for the privilege of being too close to other members of the audience.

The Gap Year is an entertaining and punchy main stage debut for an up-and-coming playwright. It’s also an example of the fruit of the Lyric’s new playwrights programme: starting out with a simple reading in 2019, appearing in audio format during lockdown in 2020, and then further developed for this season’s three-week run.

You can hop onboard the campervan and enjoy The Gap Year in association with Commedia of Errors at the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 25 September.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

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La Traviata – the opera’s not over until the frail lady sings (NI Opera in Grand Opera House until Saturday 17 September)

The door to the circular ball room opens and every head turns as a woman wearing a striking scarlet dress walks in. Violetta is a Parisian escort – a ‘courtesan’ in polite opera parlance – and she is hosting a social soiree to celebrate her return to good health. Her current client, a possessive baron, is among a throng of darkly dressed, glamorous women and men in attendance. But when Alfredo arrives, Violetta is immediately besotted with the handsome poet who, unbeknownst to her, has been visiting her sickbed daily. His only flaw is an interfering father who is none too amused at the prospect of Violetta’s career besmirching the supposed good name of his family and throws a scurrilous spanner into the romantic works. Can Violetta’s willingness to put others first overcome the twin hurdles of patriarchal misogyny and a relapse of her life-threatening illness?

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata is a study on class and hypocrisy. It’s countercultural for 2022, never mind 1853 when it premiered to a tough audience in Vienna. The heroine of the piece, with the greatest moral backbone, is Violetta, played with vigour by soprano Siobhan Stagg. Rarely off-stage during the four scenes, Stagg at first oozes self-assurance. Then she is coerced into breaking off her for-once loving relationship and sacrificing her own desires to placate another man’s feelings, before staging a passionate fightback against her ticking body clock to.

Whether the centre of attention at a party, or a sweating mess in bed with tuberculosis, Stagg’s Violetta demonstrates real strength of character alongside her soaring arias and balanced duets with Alfredo. If Violetta turns heads, then Alfredo is a good match; his patent shoes are just about the only shiny thing on the stage. Noah Stewart brings poise, his fabulous tenor voice, and a commanding presence and great body language in Alfredo’s scenes with Violetta. Ukrainian-born Yuriy Yurchuk gives Alfredo’s father Giorgio a sense of derision. Local baritone Seamus Brady stepped into the role of Baron Douphol with confidence and aplomb, though extra menace could be added during the run.

The walls of Niall McKeever’s crucible set are distressed, the windows smudged, and what once may have been classy statues and fixtures are instead twisted and melted, hanging ominously from the wall, one with a chair impaled in its mess. Violetta’s poverty of finance and wellbeing is all around, and the muted costume choices and severe wigs amplify the sense of loss that hangs over this opera that’s truly not over until the frail lady sings.

Fifty players from the Ulster Orchestra fill the pit under the athletic baton of Rebecca Lang. Sitting in the middle of the front row provided me with an unexpected upstairs/downstairs view of the performance, watching the animated playing below stage (including some of the chorus arriving with tambourines to augment one song) at the same time as the cast hold director Cameron Menzies’ freeze-frame poses above their heads. Good to spot Clara Kerr amongst the stamping flamenco dancers that bring colour and movement after the interval before Doni Fierro struts on as the matador.

La Traviata is one of the most commonly performed operas. Its plot is relatively straightforward to follow. Sung in Italian, English surtitles are visible at each side of the stage. And the gaps between acts are long enough to read ahead in the synopsis to piece together the next stage of the story. Given NI Opera’s history of risk-taking, the La Traviata feels at times to be quite subdued, lacking the brashness and shock of productions like Salome or Turandot. Playing it safe artistically will be popular with local audiences who’ll flock to the Grand Opera House to enjoy the excellence of the talent that comes together to play, act, sing and create a production of this quality. However, this approach does perhaps play down the wonderfully villainous sense of high drama and pantomime that opera can conjure up when the art form is pushed to extremes.

NI Opera’s La Traviata will be back on stage in the Grand Opera House on Tuesday 13, Thursday 15 and Saturday 17 September

Photo credits: Philip Magowan and Neil Harrison

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Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Crimes of the Future – kickstarting evolution in a toned down Cronenberg world absent of pain (QFT from 9 September)

Human physiology has evolved, and the absence of pain and infection in most of the population has led to a rise in bodily experimentation. Abdominal zips, extra ears for show, as well as more unorthodox alterations that worry governments in case they become innate, passed on genetically, permanent mutations transforming what it used to mean to be human.

Crimes of the Future revolves around the lives of two performance artists. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) has a disorder that means his body rapidly grows vestigial organs. His partner in life and business, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), cuts his chest open and removes them in live surgical demonstrations in front of small but appreciative audiences. Tenser’s ever altering anatomy has a downside. He’s in constant pain, hunched over in his Jedi cloak and speaking in a rasped voice. Seydoux’s Caprice is theatrical when emceeing the dissections and oozes a sensual charisma in nearly every scene.

While some technology has evolved – we see novel ring cameras and semi-organic contraptions to help people in pain get off to sleep and conduct robotic surgery – director and screenwriter David Cronenberg quickly establishes that cruise ships now lie capsized and rusting in shallow waters. People walk everywhere, live in drab blue/grey buildings that are decaying, use old laundry machines, and keep paper records. There’s none of the glitz, and only a fraction of the budget, of Blade Runner.

Several figures are introduced into the narrative to act like societal pathologists, poking and prodding at the ethics and morality of this new world. Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) run the nascent National Organ Registry that documents new organs to build an audit trail in case they should lead to harmful, uncontrolled evolution. Yet the kind of people drawn to police the new world order are also attracted to understand the wider world of inner surgical enhancement, with anti-establishment evolution activists adding another layer of understanding. Meanwhile, the authorities ignore the confession to an actual serious crime.

Cronenberg doesn’t disappoint in his construction of a miniature future world that puts today’s society under the microscope: consent; being comfortable in your skin and your self; health concerns about ingesting industrial waste and plastics; self-harm and cosmetic surgery together with concepts of conventional beauty and the need for validation; different ways of finding pleasure; assisted dying; and the age-old chestnut of how progress can always be exploited for evil … though definitions of what is evil will vary. There’s a lot packed in. Anthropology students will be churning out dissertations about Crimes of the Future for many semesters to come.

Aside from throwing out large questions to be pondered on the way home from the cinema, Cronenberg also creates moments that are beautiful in themselves without the need for extraordinary brainpower to process what’s going on. Watch out for the delightful duo of mechanics (Nadia Litz and Tanaya Beatty) who have a tool for every occasion.

Timlin/Stewart’s ability to invade someone’s personal space is a joy to behold. And there’s an argument about the aesthetics of a tattoo that feels like a universal nod to human obsession with style. While bodies are evolving – naturally and forced – the human instinct to find pleasure and find freedom from pain are still alive and well, though while “old sex” is apparently less commonly practiced, gazing lustfully at naked bodies hasn’t been strained out of the genetic soup.

The dialogue is stuffed full of pithy maxims, as if some of the issues are being talked about for the first time by the participants rather. It’s not terribly natural, but it does quickly establish the concepts Cronenberg wants to explore. The film’s ending is somewhat abrupt, finishing off the story rather than making an attempt to draw the subject to any conclusion other than ‘deep down, humans never really change’.

To compare Crimes of the Future with an extended episode of Black Mirror would be to diminish the world-building, painstaking set design, and the plethora of ideas and concepts chewed over in the 107 minute film. Yet Cronenberg’s 2022 offering is less shocking, gory and upsetting than it might have been 15 or 20 years ago. And while the surgery may not be to the taste of anyone who is very squeamish, to be honest the amount of blood is minimal, and people’s organs look very like sausages.

Crimes of the Future is screening at the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 9 September.

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Friday, September 02, 2022

Blackbird – an ageing dancer escapes the stage and buys his way onto a actionless filmset

It’s not really a surprise that I was the only person attending the 19:40 Lisburn Omniplex screening of Blackbird on the night the film went on general release. No one ate noisy food or talked during the film. Staff didn’t slip in to check that everyone was behaving. No one arrived at the end to tidy up the popcorn and litter while the credits rolled. It was a great cinema-going experience. But I’d be surprised if cinemas waste the life of their projector bulbs and show the film for a full week.

The 90-minute film begins with a British secret agent Victor (Michael Flatley) burying his former partner – colleague and lover – in the garden of his Cork stately home. He then retires to the Caribbean where he manages a hotel with a night club. He struts around like some kind of dandy, his hands caressing every woman within reach, including an old flame Vivian (Nicole Evans) who arrives on the arm of a particularly dangerous war criminal mastermind Blake (Eric Roberts) who may be selling the formula for a deadly toxin to another evil man. Cue a jealous nightclub singer (Mary Louise Kelly) and a card game that has all the suspense of standing under Big Ben when it chimes at 1pm and wondering what time it is. And watch out for Ian Beattie reprising his Gerry Adams accent from The Journey, this time playing Victor’s old agency sidekick Nick.

A lot of money (financed by Flatley) has been spent on the production of Blackbird, though not quite enough to move the action beyond a handful of locations. And the screenplay (written by Flatley) clearly didn’t attract much serious acting talent. If the script had been handed in by a P7 child set the homework of writing a spy thriller, the teacher would have returned it with a polite note in red pen to try again and put more effort in.

For a spy thriller (directed by Flatley) there are only three action sequences. Very little is spoilt by elaborating a little. Despite having “no strength left to fight” and proclaiming “I’m not the man I used to be”, Flatley proves that he still has an Olympic-powered right hook and dispatches a goon to the pearly gates with a single punch. At another point, Victor disappears off screen and armed with only his gleaming white teeth – wham, bam, bang – overpowers three armed goons. And in a two-versus-four fire-fight, Victor shouts “Shall we dance?” – I kid you not – and lives to tell the tale.

The exchange “I’m worried about him / He’s irreplaceable / No one can do what he does” falsely suggests that Flatley’s character Victor is some sort of superhero. Other than his killer punch, we see little evidence to challenge the notion that he’s not an ageing dancer who has escaped the stage and bought his way onto a filmset.

The suggestion that someone is beheaded and a lingering shot of naked side boob ensures that the film gets a 15 certificate that will save young eyes from the sight of Flatley’s greying chest hair and the shock reveal that Barbados turns out to be full of Irish expats, most of whom have voices and intonation that could cut through a block of cheese.

Some of the cinematography is gorgeous. The film starts with serious strings accompanying drone shots flying over water. Early on we see a candlestick and a bird in a cage, foreshadowing acts of violence and a woman trapped in a bad relationship. There’s an odd aesthetic in several of the locations, with anachronistic rotary dial phones in the same shots as modern equipment, for instance a smartphone or a ruggedised laptop. 

The editing tries hard to work around the dubbing. One particular scene on a beach sticks with a long shot of a couple walking towards the camera, though it’s still clear that their lip movements don’t quite match the words being spoken. Switching to an over-the-shoulder shot of the woman talking buys some more time, before a couple of close-ups actually match mouths with words.

The dialogue is mostly facile: “tragic, you did what you had to do”, “I know trouble when I see it”, “I know him, he’s extremely dangerous, we must get Victor involved”. Occasionally the screenplay resorts to allowing a minor character to speak uninterrupted for a minute to introduce the next major plot point that Flatley mustn’t have been able to afford to – or imagine how to –film or direct in a way that would have told the story visually.

Perhaps the most unexpected lines of dialogue that will surely be repeated in parodies of Blackbird are: “Don’t suppose you’ve been to a wee town in Armagh called Lurgan have you? / Can’t say I have / Must be one of those faces”.

There’s a club pianist who is a cross between Boris Johnson and his father, though we never see his face to confirm who owns the shocking blond hair. The credits labels five cast members as “bikini boat girls” and “bikini beach girls”. The costume department must have been asked to ban bras from the set: plunging cleavage and precious few lines of dialogue are the order of the day for the entire female cast. That might normally be a pass remarkable male gaze comment to make in a review. But from a Bechdel Test point of view, no woman talks to another woman during this film. But lots of men objectify the silent women around them.

Flatley’s character accuses someone of being narcissistic. Look in the mirror?

On the upside ...

Flatley dances (twice).

Blackbird is mercifully short.

Saturday is National Cinema Day and ticket prices are at rock bottom prices. The weather forecast is awful. Blackbird is currently playing in most local cinemas. But if you want to spend an hour and half in the warm and dry, maybe choose something more worthwhile to enjoy! 

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Monday, August 29, 2022

Her Way – trope-defying tale that trips up in its exploration of class and toil (QFT until Thursday 1 September)

A parent worrying about the education and prospects of their child. It’s a universal story. Her Way tells it from the perspective of an independent-minded, self-sufficient woman Marie in her late thirties whose son Adrein has a flair for cheffing but has been expelled from his college and is being drawn into weed and a career in the military rather than a life creating masterpieces in the kitchen. Her solution is to enrol him on a course in an expensive private school. But deflationary pressures affecting her own ‘street work’ career in Strasbourg means raising funds will be a struggle.

The good-hearted prostitute is also a much-visited movie trope. Marie (Laure Calamy) is neither presented as an object of pity, nor a woman to be lusted after. Instead, she’s confident, campaigning and unapologetic. She’s organised, keeping notes on her clients: mini-report cards on what they’re good at and how she can help them improve. She has tax returns to hand when her bank manager interviews her for a loan. Her golden coat is worn as a work uniform rather than a disguise or armour. She makes bold choices and lives with the consequences, all the while trying to transform the other people in her vicinity.

Young Adrein (Nissim Renard) veers from sullen through stoned to anger. But the moment he finally admits “I’m scared” unlocks something in the audience understanding of his character’s motivation.

Her Way suffers from unnecessary explaining: the director’s ability to let the audience see and sense the story is defied by the editor’s unwillingness to cut dialogue and scenes that only reinforce what we already know. An added ethical quandary somewhat derails what could have been a smooth approach to an already satisfactory destination.

Let down by all the men in her life, can Marie’s instinct to help people win out over the cost she pays by switching from the freelance life to a waged position? Her Way is a study on class. On opportunity. On the specific economic ethics of an industry in which some women are portrayed as being more trapped (pimped out in slavery) than those who choose to work the streets. But the lessons and questions can be applied much more widely than the story being told on screen.

Her Way is the second French film this summer to trip up in its exploration of class and toil. It’s a shame, because the vision and set up promises so much more than the finished product can deliver. Her Way is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 1 September.

  

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The Border Game – playful yet deadly serious (Prime Cut Productions, now on tour around Ireland until 1 October)

After Puckoon, The Border Game is probably my favourite play to tackle the absurdities and complexity of the 310 mile line that splits north from south on this island. (Yes, I’d put it ahead of Friel’s Translations.)

Staged as part of last year’s Belfast International Arts Festival, Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney’s play is back on tour with Prime Cut Productions. The tautness of the script is much improved now that the interval cliff hanger has been ditched.

An old customs hut now lies derelict on farmland that straddles the border. Once the scene of cross-community rutting by a farmer’s daughter and the son of the local grocery store, it’s now where local youths come to party, and where hungover Henry (Patrick McBrearty) spent the night to clear his head. When he wakes up he finds old flame Sinead (Cat Barter in this new tour) clearing up the mess from the partying trespassers.

McBrearty continues to revel in the comedy voices and playful skits as the pair reminisce about the good old days and belatedly deconstruct the ill-understood fault line that fractured their relationship. Barter really exploits the undercurrent of familiarity and the pair’s knowledge about how to press each other’s buttons. Their sparring, verbal and physical, is joyful to watch. Their commitment to full immersion in the mad disco scene seals the impact of a crucial beat in the plot.

Ciaran Bagnall’s set is still full of surprises, and the fact that a barbed wire fence is being fixed with cable ties is perhaps yet another metaphor for the political and policy sticking plasters that are applied to this island’s wounds as a form of damage limitation.

The cleverness of The Border Game’s construction is the way that it litters the production with clues about the pair’s history and the wider socio-political situation in the area while Sinead and Henry clear up the detritus that is spoiling the landscape in which they grew up together. It’s very playful, yet deadly serious as the character’s observe: “this place used to be the centre, now it’s the edge”.

After three nights in the Lyric Theatre, The Border Game is now touring through Galway (Wednesday 31 August), Dublin (Saturday 3 September), Market Place Theatre, Armagh (Wednesday 7), Roscommon (Tuesday 13), Monaghan (Thursday 15), Dundalk (Saturday 17), Sligo (Wednesday 21), Letterkenny (Friday 23 and Saturday 24), Limerick (Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28), Drogheda (Saturday 1 October). 

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Official Competition – deadpan Cruz toys with bickering Banderas and Martínez (Queen’s Film Theatre until 8 September)

Take three people with very definite but different creative methods. Throw them together to make a vanity project film for an aging tycoon. Sit back and enjoy the battle of wits and the mental and physical fireworks as they spark off each other in Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s film Official Competition.

Celebrating a significant birthday has turned Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) towards thinking about his legacy. A building project might have been a more reliable choice, but he buys up the rights to a book that has impressed him, hires the best director, and insists on a preeminent cast.

Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz wearing a crazy wig) takes on the project, adapting a book about two brothers. She rehearses Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) in Humberto’s eerily empty brutalist headquarters. Her methods include provoking real emotion in the cast with her hilariously cruel stunts that instil fear and teach the pair about losing autonomy.

Cruz’s deadpan serious delivery wonderfully ratchets up the absurdity. The characters are beautifully observed. Humberto has a childish habit of eating ice cream and is reluctant to interfere with a movie process that he clearly isn’t comfortable with (we can only assume he’s never seen his niece ‘do that’ with a stranger before). Lola illustrates her script with mood boards of fabric, buttons and even breasts, Félix is an older star with young tastes. Image is everything. And Iván’s theatrical mentality and willingness to shun the trappings of celebrity culture totally winds up Félix. Can Lola’s unorthodox methods succeed in uniting the brotherly actors against their common enemy?

There’s a lot of humour – visual and witty dialogue – as the tension mounts towards the inevitable snap when professional jealousy cannot be swallowed any more. Official Competition becomes a beautiful study of what we think of as ‘great’, how tension can be positive, how a director can transform her cast, and leaves you wondering how much of the on-screen rehearsal process was inspired by real events and how much is imagined.

Official Competition is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 8 September.

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