Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Goldilocks and the Three Bears – not too daft, not too straight, but just the right mix of glam and fun (Grand Opera House until 9 January)

After a few pre-pandemic festive morsels that were on the stale side, the Grand Opera House’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears is an all singing, all dancing spectacular that feels familiar, yet modern and fresh.

Paddy and Dame May McFetty’s circus is in facing financial ruin if they can’t find a new star for the show. Joey the bumbling clown thinks he is the answer to their problems, and their daughter Goldilocks future happiness. Meanwhile, the evil Countess Von Vinklebottom runs a rival circus and has designs on the family of talking bears. Throw in a juggler, a tightrope walk, eight dancers, a very glitzy set, and the rampant Belfastisation of Alan McHugh’s script and you have quite a show.

There’s absolutely no let-up in the pace from the opening medley of childhood tunes, the introduction of the baddie (the audience don’t even have to be told to boo), and the boundless energy and chutzpah of Adam C Booth’s Joey ... you’d think Red Bull were sponsoring the theatre’s wings!

There’s nothing novel about the format – it’s a classic Qdos Crossroads Pantomime structure – but it’s incredibly well polished delivered. Ian Westbrook’s set with ever decreasing arches is emblazoned with hundreds of lights that set the mood of every scene. The circus theme is a good excuse to allow Alfio Macaggi to throw his balls and hats into the ring before returning to demonstrate his incredible upper body strength with a routine that will thrill any polercise aficionados in the audience.

May McFettridge (aka John Linehan) is in better form with a much less caustic audience repartee than I recall in 2019. Sidekick Paddy Jenkins fills a somewhat expanded role this year while newcomer Kia-Paris Walcott ably belts out her numbers as Goldilocks.

Norn Iron accents are to the fore when Mummy and Daddy Bear step on stage. While local legends Jo Donnelly and Marty Maguire are somewhat underused, one hopes that their connection with the panto and role within it will be long term and grow over time. Kira McPherson completes the furry family.

There’s a lot of glitter, just enough tame vulgarity to make the adults smirk over the heads of their youngsters, and pyrotechnics galore (a lovely shooting star effect at one point). There’s a noticeable reduction in the number of cast members on stage this year, but the simpler line-up improves the overall flow of the show. Aside from the human performers, a lot of effort goes into effects that are somewhat casually rendered as part of the show: a huge animatronic gorilla dominates the back of the stage in one scene and really deserves more credit. And Joey’s tightrope walk probably deserves a bit more drama.

If you’re looking for a traditional panto – not too daft, not too straight, but just the right mix of glam and fun – then Goldilocks and the Three Bears might be for you. Performances continue in the Grand Opera House until 9 January.

Photo credit: Brian Thompson.

 

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Pinocchio: the Greatest Wonder of the Age (Lyric Theatre until 31 December)

Paul Boyd doesn’t recap a Disney film when he’s writing a Christmas show. He aims higher and returns to the original story to find inspiration for his retelling of this classic tale.

So his version of Pinocchio is far from being all about a wooden boy with an elongating nose. Instead, he has created a much more nuanced musical tale that portrays coercive control, belittlement, fixed mindsets, taking back control, finding what makes you special, wrestling with the truth … and the nose that betrays untruths.

Roll up, roll up, it’s Pinocchio: the Greatest Wonder of the Age, on stage in the Lyric Theatre until 31 December.

A cast of animal-inspired acts fill Collodi’s Circus. There’s a lobster, a cricket, a cat and a fox. With Collodi no longer at the helm, the circus is being run by Swallowfire, an ambitious and somewhat domineering ringmistress. “My circus, my rules” she demands. Laid up under the Tree of Truth, plans are made to reopen the big top. The parallels between the dormant circus and the local theatre scene that spent many months dark during the pandemic are obvious.

A local carpenter creates a sure-fire attraction from a fallen branch: a wooden boy. While the Blue Fairy promises him the chance to secede from the tree and become human, he must first deal with Swallowfire’s disappointment and her need for a show that packs in the punters.

The costumes created by Gillian Lennox and Erin Charteris are gorgeous, with masses of vaudeville detailing and rich textures. Stuart Marshall’s set places each performer’s caravan in an arc around the circus ring, and flies in a big top to complete the scene for Swallowfire’s shows.

Michael Mahony brings the circus caretaker Mr Keys to life as a minstrel, strumming a guitar and narrating key moments of the plot. He’s joined by Christopher Finn on the accordion. Finn also expertly manipulates the four-foot-high puppet of Pinocchio, and injects warmth and emotion into the little boy’s songs.

Alison Harding is stern and controlling as Swallowfire, stopping well short of becoming a cartoon villain: there’s no temptation to boo. Christina Nelson is the tightrope walking cat, full of jest and often in cahoots with Mr Fox (played by Paul Boyd who was temporarily understudying the role for Richard Clements at the performance I attended).

Boyd’s musical overture slowly settles the chittering audience before the opening number Days Gone By sets the tone for the rest of the show. While each cast member’s musicality is established quickly, the two strongest voices come from Richard Russell Edwards who dons his fishnet tights and reaches impressive operatic high notes as the Italian Red Lobster (complete with a great gag about altos) while Lyric Theatre Drama Studio alumna Eimear Fearon creates some of the show’s most magical moments with her beautiful voice behind two rather fun characters, the Talking Cricket and the Blue Fairy.

It feels like there’s less singing and more talking than Boyd’s previous festive productions, and some the dialogue-heavy sections of Pinocchio seemed to slow the pace and dampened the sense of spectacle and magic. Pandemic precautions may have robbed the production of tactility – there’s none of the physical tussle you’d expect in a story that sets up conflict between its characters – but the audience becomes more involved after the interval which helps boost the show’s energy levels, and Hear Me Shout is a tremendous finale.

It's a high-quality production, there’s plenty to entertain, and while the story is a tad unfamiliar and quite serious in places, we should never underestimate the comprehension of children and their ability to tune in to the on stage emotion and enjoy the spectacle.

Pinocchio: the Greatest Wonder of the Age continues at the Lyric Theatre until 31 December

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport


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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Petite Maman – charming, beautiful, and perhaps even profound (QFT until 2 December)

Is there a more perfect film than Petite Maman? 72 minutes of loveliness wrapped up in a time-travelling tale of inter-generational love and loss.

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, Petite Maman tells its story of what happened when eight-year-old child Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) helped her parents clear out her dead grandmother’s home. Exploring the nearby woods, Nelly finds a half-built fort in the trees, and a little girl her age (Marion played by Gabrielle Sanz). As they spend time together, their lives turn out to be connected through time. To be told more would spoil the plot …

Filming everything from waist height quickly asserts that Nelly is at the heart of the story. We watch how a delightfully precocious child understands her mother’s mental health and childhood medical condition (Nina Meuriss), how she pieces together her family’s history and navigates around the gaps, how she deals with grief and her wish that she had said goodbye properly, and how she asks the most brilliant questions to the adults around her and speaks truth into the grief-struck atmosphere of sorting through ephemera and memories. “You don’t forget … you just don’t listen” she rebukes her father (Stéphane Varupenne).

Much is said without words. The children play in the woods with an instinctive understanding of what happens next. It could be a dream, it could be magic realism, but we settle into the understanding that for little Nelly it is the most regular thing in the world to walk across to the other side of the woods and find a very familiar house with a rather familiar family.

The understated ordinariness creates a beautiful world in which the cinema audience can inhabit. One which doesn’t require an emotional musical score to signpost how we should feel. Our imaginations fire off, wondering whether there will be tragedy, some dark twist that changes the passage of time. But Sciamma has a much more virtuous path for us to tread. Softly leading us through the leafy path from one house to the next, reminding us how little we know – or are told – about how and why are parents act as they do.

Petite Maman is charming, beautifully filmed and directed, and in its own way quite profound. It’s a big hug of a film and much recommended. You can catch it at Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 2 December


 

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Thursday, November 18, 2021

MASS – an immersive and emotional celebration of belief and creativity (Belfast Ensemble and Ulster Orchestra at Outburst Queer Arts Festival)

I felt such a privilege to see live musicians playing last night. And not just a small group. The whole Ulster Orchestra. Sitting on an island in the middle of the cavernous old Belfast Telegraph print hall, with a wide walkway around the circumference of the building that allowed the audience to stand and watch, move around to catch a different view.

Orchestras are usually kept high up on a stage, or far away in the distance at the front of a concert hall. But parked in the middle of the print hall, they were just beyond touching distance, visible from all angles, with a great PA pointing out towards the surrounding audience, yet with the individual parts and players closest to you audible over the top of the mixed sound. Immersive music.

As a Presbyterian, mass is somewhat of an unknown quantity. The preserve of the occasional funeral. Its structure is unknown but not unfamiliar. Its symbolism is reckoned to be foreign but can be guessed. Its meaning is assumed. Its Catholic purpose mirrored in Protestant liturgies and rituals that must be as unknown and foreign and assumed to anyone looking through the other side of the window.

And movements and excerpts from symphonic masses don’t seem to be that common when Classic FM or Radio 3 play the classical music greatest hits.

Conor Mitchell and the talented team at Belfast Ensemble know how to tell stories using sound, sight … and no doubt smell will be introduced at some point soon. They don’t do subtlety. It’s usually extravagant, larger than life, in your face. Yet always thoughtful, and always in the best possible taste.

MASS: We believe ... is no different.

You step into the cathedral of newsprint, with its boxlike walls on four sides stretching to heaven, with office doors and windows into another world of journalism and advertisement selling trapped like fossils in the concrete blocks facings. Already lights and video that stretches the full height and width of the space is hinting at what is to come.

The conductor steps out and rises onto his central podium. The baton is raised. And the service begins.

Those familiar with the daily or weekly (or Christmas and Easter) ritual will pick up the form from the lyrics. The Kyrie eleison, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei. Those who feel more heathen will pick up the change of mood, the praise, the reflection, the adoration and celebration.

Giselle Allen (soprano), Sarah Richmond (mezzo), Christopher Cull (Baritone) and John Porter (tenor) add human voices to the MASS, along with Spark Opera’s Hearth Chorus. There’s a rich power in their delivery of the lyrics, rising above the orchestra and into the souls of the audience.

Conan McIvor’s projection design fills the space available, enormous as it is, allowing the creation of a cyclorama that layers religious art, human heads, shadows and more around the print hall. Worldwide filmmakers Simone Harris, Paulo Mendel, Vi Grunvald, Mohammad Shawky Hassan, Mariah Garnett, Debalina Majumder and Madonna Adib provided the visuals. About two minutes from the end, the print hall transforms into what felt like a medieval cathedral space, with great curved arches, and the visuals perfectly match the mood of the music, creating an emotional response within me as the whole experience melded together and touched my soul.

While it was a privilege to be in a space occupied by cultural collaborators, it was also a privilege to be able to move around, spot friends and colleagues who have only been names in an email or squares of video on a screen for the last 18 months. There was a real sense of community and shared belief.

A privilege to watch couples holding hands as they breathed in the performance and watched the ritual at which more often than not they’d not be quite so welcome expressing their belief in a church building. There was even a spot of impromptu dancing in one corner.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the Ulster Orchestra playing new work by a Northern Irish composer of some renown. Playing in a novel configuration. Playing at the heart of the audience – and far from their average weekly concert audience at that – with everything on show as we walked around and spectated on the music being fashioned. And the national orchestra partnering with Outburst Queer Arts Festival, valuing creativity and talent where they find it. More of that relevance please.

MASS deserves to travel, to take its message and thrilling experience to far off places, to show off the best of Northern Ireland culture, and reflect the quality of queer culture, belief and expression.  

If you read this soon after it’s written, you’ve one last chance to get down to the old Belfast Telegraph building to experience MASS at 9pm tonight. Remaining tickets are available at the door.

Photo credit: Neil Harrison

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Wednesday, November 17, 2021

A Christmas Carol – large scale musical production reaches for the sky (Belfast Operatic Company at Grand Opera House until Saturday 20 November)

Local operatic societies have come a long way. While the cast, crew and creatives are (mostly) not being paid, there’s nothing amateur about the performances. The move from local hall stages with a few mics suspended over the performers to using dedicated theatre spaces has allowed their ambitions to grow, or perhaps allowed their existing ambitions to be more fully realised.

Last night, Belfast Operatic Company’s A Christmas Carol opened on the vast expanse of the Grand Opera House Stage. The core strength of the production is how well it deals with scale. A projected backdrop eliminates the need for heavy sets, and the vast company filled the depth of the stage. The dance routine choreographies are visually appealing with energetic circles and shapes across the stage. Coordinating such a large cast – there are close to 80 people in the cast – must be a military operation behind-the-scenes, yet the on-stage placement creates natural street scenes and distinct groups of characters and movement. Director Wilfie Pyper keeps it busy without ever reducing the spectacle to straight chorus lines or an unruly mob.

Colin Boyd’s Ebenezer Scrooge looks like an unkempt William Hartnell playing the original Doctor Who. There’s a levity to the script that injects a lot more light than many non-musical productions allow. Scrooge has a cutting tongue, but Boyd keeps him more mean than nasty, always hinting that the bachelor curmudgeon might be redeemable: “If you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it”. Scrooge is joined on stage by larger-than-life figures like the gloriously jolly Mr & Mrs Fezziwig (Fergal White and Laura Kerr) whose wit and repartee really match the colourful costumes at their Christmas Ball.

Adaptations of Dickens’ novella can sometimes become very bogged down in the minutiae of the elongated scenes within each of the ghostly visitations. Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens’ book for this musical version devote a lot of time to the Ghost of Christmas Past (very capably piloted by Alice Johnston), before changing gear and speeding through Christmas Present and Christmas Future after the interval. Belfast Operatic (literally) fly through some of the scenes, and the lack of long scene changes really helps keep the story moving with pace. While aerial manoeuvring must be hard to rehearse, the flying actors looked very comfortable and remained very animated while dangling above the ground level activity.

Favourite moments include a touch of the Ingmar Bergman about the graveyard scene, particularly during Dancing On Your Grave. Duarte Silva Moreira is a superb Tiny Tim, with a strong voice and a great connection with the audience. Hats off to the costumers and wardrobe team, and the 18-piece orchestra in the pit who romp through Alan Menken’s score. The addition of a few boundary mics dotted along the front of the stage for emergency use would have helped with radio mic dropouts and allowed some of the missing lines to have been heard.

Belfast Operatic Company achieves a very high standard in this production. There’s colour and energy, strong singing and good storytelling throughout. There are two or three generations of some families working on the show: it’s a celebration of artistry and community. And while this festival favourite is tucked in ahead of the venue’s own panto run, it’s a fine entrée to Advent and the Christmas season. A Christmas Carol continues at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 20 November.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

School of Rock – a lesson in musical theatre, and a treat to boot (Grand Opera House until Saturday 13 November)

The renovated Grand Opera House has been chock-a-block with touring musical stage adaptations of films since it reopened. Some benefit from – or even require – knowledge and appreciation of the original film. But this week’s treat works as a standalone piece: the touring production of School of Rock is probably the best such work this season.

Dewey Finn has been turfed out of his band. He kips in an old mate Ned Schneebly’s house, and intercepts a phone call offering Ned some substitute teaching work in a rarefied prep school. And so to pay the rent, Dewey becomes Ned, the largest child in the classroom, a total misfit until he discovers the musical talent surrounding him. And so begins a rocky journey to prove their juvenile brilliance in a local band competition.

There are so many reasons to love School of Rock.

The comedy script from Jullian Fellowes is strong, and the delivery on the back of Laurence Connor’s direction does not disappoint. The plot has moments of jeopardy, but there’s no attempt – and no need – to make them painful or overly serious. This is proper light entertainment.

Dewey/Ned is out of his depth and infantile. But he has passion to share, and a loveable distain for authority. Right from his first moments on stage, Jake Sharp fills the larger-than-life character’s boots. You can see how the young cast feed of his energy.

Rebecca Lock’s amazing vocals inject power and presence into school principal Rosalie Mullans, along with the delightful gradual unravelling of her uptight boss persona into a more playful figure as the show heads towards its raucous end.

The choreography is remarkably precise, with 12 children setting the standard early on slamming their desks shut and marching in perfect time. Their first musical scene shows off their classical talent, but it’s when they pick up the rock instruments that the 11–13 year olds really astound. When they’re playing on stage, the audience are hearing the kids, not the musicians in the pit. And they’re good.

Earlier moments of note include timid Tomika’s rendition of Amazing Grace and Rosalie’s journey of self-rediscovery in the bar with Dewey. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music gives the melodies and arrangements an extra element of hummability.

But for me, what makes School of Rock a great show is the wave of emotion that accompanies the reprise of If Only You Would Listen at the turning point of the second act. As the kids plead with the distraught Dewey, seeing past the deception that so annoys the adults, the feeling of redemption and acceptance is powerful. So many musical adaptations don’t succeed in creating on-stage bonds that transcend the fictional story and catch audience members in the moment. Having a dozen youngsters on stage certainly helps pull those heart strings, but it’s the quality of the connections they create that seals the deal.

The set has its own choreography, sliding in on rails, twisting panels, a turntable stage, and sofas and beds that zoom in from the depths of the back of the stage. Extra lighting trusses dramatically emerge for the finale. It’s a visual treat. And an enormous sound array and extra subs on the floor and flown from the ceiling to boost the circles makes sure the audience hear every beat.

Whether you’ve seen the film or not, the stage version of School of Rock makes sense. From beginning to end, it’s a lesson in how to produce great musical theatre. School of Rock’s run in the Grand Opera House, Belfast continues until Saturday 13 November.

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Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Hairspray – a great piece of toe tapping musical theatre (Grand Opera House until Saturday 7 November)

Hairspray’s premise is that a non-blonde, non-skinny girl steps forward to audition for the local TV dance show and the chance to compete to be Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962. Unsurprisingly, she is rebuffed as she doesn’t look the part. Yet, being a non-conformist at school means that Tracy’s spell in the ‘special ed’ class introduces her to new dance moves from the black students who are only allowed to participate on the TV show one day a month. Tracy gets on the show, only to announce that every day should be integrated, and her later protest leads to trouble and more than one song and dance.

Good Morning Baltimore and You Can’t Stop the Beat might be the best known numbers from hit musical Hairspray, but the current UK tour which passes through Belfast this week hides some other gems in its set list.

Tracy’s Mum and Dad – Alex Bourne (traditionally in drag) and Norman Pace (one half of Hale and Pace) – brought the house down with their wonderfully saucy rendition of Timeless to Me (though maybe the ad libs are now thoroughly scripted and just well delivered?!), while cover Bernadette Bangurai’s I Know Where I've Been was packed with soul and the actor had great presence as Motormouth Maybelle. Another cover on Belfast’s opening night was Zoë Heighton playing Penny opposite the powerful vocals of Katie Brace’s Tracy. Little Inez (Charlotte St Croix) stole more than one scene with her youthful exuberance.

There’s a sense that while the show explores racism in the 1960s, the fight for equality (as well as the enduring issue of sizeism) there’s a touch of the white saviour narrative about the plot which requires white Tracy to take the fight – admittedly aided and abetted by an older black record store owner Motormouth – to the TV show’s door. Tracy’s best friend Penny comes from a straightlaced home. Her hackneyed utterance “now I've tasted chocolate and I'm never going back” drops in 2021 like an unwelcome depth charge while her mother’s conversion to appreciate the black fella she found on her daughter’s bed is unbelievable even in the rarefied suspended belief of musical theatre.

The costumes, choreography and energy keep the story moving over these potholes as the cast and eight-piece band belt out the numbers. The psychedelic jackets and dresses in the finale are amazing. The ensemble of singers and dancers keep the stage alight. An intermittent projected backdrop simplifies the heft of the set. While the visuals are lightly animated, it’s never too distracting. What’s more noticeable is that nearly every strong song in show has a deliberate break for applause and then a brief reprise to ramp up the energy before the next scene. It’s a neat production technique, though somewhat overused.

The emotion of the musical film version and the storytelling of NBC’s Hairspray Live! aren’t quite as well developed in the current UK tour. The news that The Corny Collins Show is now ‘integrated’ does not trigger much of a reaction from the Belfast audience: somehow, we don’t ‘hear the bells’, or maybe being integrated isn’t as popular as surveys suggest! Hairspray is packed with good performances, but the story stops short of being profound: lacking that extra punch to ground its story of racial prejudice in 2021 and to speak into situations that still need to be addressed. Still, it’s a great piece of musical theatre and will remain in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 7 November.

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Sylvan – Tinderbox have left the building with their new site-specific outdoor show (Belfast and Coleraine until 5 November) #offthegrid

When the team at Tinderbox Theatre Company put their minds to a concept, they deliver with gusto. And so it is with Sylvan, a deliberately sustainable, aptly outdoor and haunting piece of theatre being performed as part of their Off The Grid season.

In a world where natural photosynthesis has been replaced with oxygen generating machines, timber has been removed. So when Rosie from the adoption agency discovers that Paul and Deirdre have an illicit forest hiding in their house, she bends the rules and negotiates regular access to the verdure. But the young family’s nightmare is only beginning.

Staged at night in a forested area of Victoria Park, the audience at first sit on wooden seats in a natural clearing before shifting into the forest alongside the actors. The reclaimed set is simple, list mostly by torches and wireless lights (more usually seen in conference venues) scattered throughout the undergrowth. Sound effects amplify the sense that not all is well in this home.

Maria Connolly is a master of the scowl, at first officious, later crazed. She plays one hopeful parent off against the other as Rosie barters and inveigles her way into the lush recesses of their home in order to be at one with nature and close to someone from her past. Meanwhile Ruby Campbell and Seamus O’Hara portray Deirdre and Paul as a couple who make disagreeing look like a well-executed dance, finishing each other’s sentences, contradicting each other, and ultimately getting both their ways. None of the hardy cast is phased by the weather, and they all throw themselves about the set as if playing on a beach.

Deception builds, trust is tested, and longing overrides common sense and love. (And behind the scenes, the props are strewn around the forest floor in a way that must cause the stage manager to perpetually have kittens thinking about the dirt on the Enda Kenny’s multi-faceted costumes.)

Over 30-40 minutes, the initial unpacking of the world in which the characters live is fabulous theatre. The snappy dialogue, stereo effects, symbolism and props are all enthralling. Director Patrick J O’Reilly’s choreography creates some beautiful chains of movement, whether as an ensemble illuminated by the strobing lights, or as individuals exposing a character’s demons. A lot of fine detail is portrayed in spite of the harsh climatic conditions.

Unfortunately, Jonathan M. Daley’s script loses the plot about halfway through. The play trudges through a forest of ideas and endings that sprout up like poison ivy (a little like his earlier Assembly Required) and this all goes to stretch the piece out to 90 minutes when 60 or 70 would have sufficed. Are we witnessing Deirdre’s post-adoption depression, Paul’s verdant spirit, or Rosie’s insanity, or all three? There’s a definite whiff of horror about the staging and some of the themes: but it doesn’t quite commit to the genre. The eventual enigmatic conclusion – at least in the way it is staged in this production – denies the audience of any chance to applaud or receive a sense of closure to the novel production: there’s shock on some faces as we reach the car park and our escorts explain that the show is over. A simple and swift blackout much earlier in the script could still have left the audience thinking yet overall less confused.

That said, Sylvan makes the complex job of running theatre outdoors, at night, with light and sound but no sense of infrastructure look very easy. Tinderbox have created a theatre space in parkland woods. And they’ll be recreating the magic in a number of venues throughout the run. It’s very innovative and a huge investment in new sustainable techniques.

Sylvan continues its sold out run in Belfast’s Victoria Park until Sunday 1 November, before resetting its imaginative world in the Ulster University campus at Coleraine on Thursday 4 and Friday 5 November. Do wear shoes suitable for tramping around a forest, and bring a hat and waterproof coat in case the weather turns. 

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

Friday, October 22, 2021

Department Story – site specific physical and online theatre from the masters of mayhem (Big Telly until 31 October) #BIAF21

Department stores have been disappearing from Irish high streets in recent years. But could Maguires be next? As the audience step inside the Royal Avenue store (or log on from home) there’s a frenzy of activity, some intense encounters, and plenty of emotion as word filters through the various departments and a veil is lifted about the retail changes afoot.

With a Big Telly production, you know you’re going to get lots of tomfoolery and physical gags. Two years ago, The Worst Café in the World included an actor climbing in the window in the middle of the show. But Department Story takes this unpredictability to a whole new level. There’s a lot of charging around, the mother of all wind machines, a vacuum cleaner with a mind of its own, and heavy items of furniture being shifted around. Other than a couple of clunky gear changes, the harried shop assistants keep the audience of late-night shoppers on their toes throughout the 75-minute performance, never quite able to second guess what will happen next.

Department Story also promises to offer a quality online experience for audience members at home who get a birds eye view of the mayhem supported by a roving camera, ceiling mounted moving heads, and microphones galore dotted around the two floors that stage most, but not all, of the action. Having dared to enter the store, I might have to return some night and do a bit of online shopping to catch the other view through AFEW’s Remote Control system.

Local writing (Cathy Carson, Jan Carson, and Roisin O’Donnell) along with adaptations of some classic tales make up the spine of the show. Niamh McGrath’s kickstarts a long and elaborate version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Red Shoes (moral of story: don’t wear the red shoes to church!) with a handful of quick changes as the shop assistants circle the audience.

Chris Robinson creates a haunted forest in the tent department (much enhanced by a brilliantly apt fit of hysterical giggling by an audience member at our show), while Cillian Lenaghan is rushing around trying to purchase the last remaining overcoat, and Laura Hughes is looking to cash in unwanted goods.

Department Story’s success is as much down to the attention to small details as the giant melodrama. like Nicky Harley casually snacking on a Greggs sausage roll or rearranging items in a shop counter drawer, adding depth to her formidable character on top of the larger than life shenanigans and timeless twerking she revels in.

Inside the store, it’s easy to forget – a sign of success – the technical complexity of producing and stage managing the multi-level, cue-tastic walkabout version of each performance, never mind supporting the online experience. There’s a rich soundscape emanating from all manner of speakers and devices that drives the tempo of many of the scenes (kudos to Garth McConaghie). And everything is drawn together into a coherent offering by what must be the much-bitten nails of director Zoe Seaton and tech manager Jack Hardiker.

It’s been a while – eight long years – since it snowed at a Belfast International Arts Festival show, but when it happens, it’s always good! Since the show I’ve walked a mile back to my car, driven home, and typed up this review. I’ve still a grin on my face remembering some of the antics and the feeling of being trapped inside Maguires unable and unwilling to escape. Catch Department Story in-store or online before the final offers disappear and the lights go out on 31 October. 

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Friday, October 15, 2021

The Grimm Hotel – who knew that Cityside Retail Park had so many spooky rooms! (Cahoots NI until 31 October as part of Belfast International Arts Festival) #BIAF21

The nights are getting long and Halloween is just around the corner. You could check in somewhere for a nice break, or lose yourself in a creepy story. Or perhaps you could do both. Check into The Grimm Hotel in Cityside Retail Park and experience Cahoots NI’s latest production which opened as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

The brightly dressed bellhop will greet you in the foyer and keep you teased and entertained until the receptionist has checked you off his list. And then you’ll enter the mysterious hotel through a door you’ll never have noticed before between Home Bargains and the Chinese buffet restaurant.

Expect to be confronted with reimagined stories from the Brothers Grimm in numbered rooms – 210 rooms, one for each fairy tale, and would you risk doubting the legendary tellers of tales? – dotted along long, winding corridors.

The Grimm Hotel is an exercise in control. A mixture of lighting, background music, sleight of hand, visual effects, and live performances will greet you and maybe even grab you in every new location as your group’s bell hop guides you through the treats on offer.

Maybe you’re not quite ready to sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers in a theatre auditorium? Maybe going to the theatre isn’t your thing and you want something you can park outside for free and get the weekly shopping on the way home? Maybe you were intrigued by some of Cahoots NI’s online Zoom shows and want to see the live action version?

Each cohort of guests that enters the hotel is small, and there’s plenty of space to stay in your bubble and sit away from other families who checked in at the same time. Audience members, I mean, guests will be called upon to decide where the group goes next, and maybe even to rescue a trapped character from one of the stories before being guided through to the next scene in another location.

After months of theatres lying dark and stage shows either happening outside, online or not at all, it was great to enjoy the acting talents and familiar faces of Kyron Bourke, Hugh W. Brown, Holly Hannaway, Allison Harding, Sean Kearns, Caolan McBride, Lennin Nelson-McClure and Philippa O’Hara, along with the words and music from Charles Way, Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney and Garth McConaghie. And the design work by Diana Ennis and David Morgan certainly adds to the immersive experience. As does the hard work of the pixies behind the scenes who make some of the magic happen and keep the technology working.

Fans of previous Cahoots’ shows will have flashbacks to years gone by, particularly with the musical treat from a red cloaked girl who’s not so afraid of a big bad wolf crooning away at an extraordinary piano. For me – and as an adult attending alone, I’m decades older than the intended audience and you should heed much more the wowed reviews of parents who attended with children than listen to me! – while enormous effort have gone into creating the hotel environment and pulling off the spectacular illusions, and while the characterisations are very solid (Hannaway’s red elf and Kearn’s shoemaker were particular favourites), I found the actual stories more distant and less enthralling than Cahoots’ purely online University of Wonder and Imagination.

The producers reckon The Grimm Hotel is suitable from children aged 8 and upwards. There are a few scary moments, but nothing reaching out and holding hands won’t overcome. Do wrap up well as the hotel’s heating system is a bit grimm, but you’ll find the welcome warm throughout your 75-minute stay inside the north Belfast venue.

The doors of The Grimm Hotel are open six days a week until 31 October with staggered entrance times up to 7pm in the evening. While the run had nearly sold out, some additional tickets and performances have been released and are now on sale.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Border Game – picking at the scabs of a breakup and a border that scars the land (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 23 October) #BIAF21

The Border Game is the latest play by the exciting writing team of Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney whose script The Alternative won Fishamble’s A Play for Ireland competition. On stage in the Lyric this time two years ago, their Home Rule counterfactual examined the power of the media to shape the theatre of politics, and the power of politicians to mix facts with belief to stir up irrational emotion.

This time the two playwrights have turned their creativity to tackle a more intimate matter: picking at the scabs of a breakup. The action is placed at the scene of another fault line, the border that scars the island of Ireland. The parallels are both obvious and intense in a play that was commissioned to coincide with the centenary of partition and the creation of Northern Ireland.

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 (Liz FitzGibbon) clearing up the mess from the partying trespassers.

Ciaran Bagnall’s set – like a cut down version of Lally the Scut – has an autumnal grassy mound falling down to the fenced border line and the dilapidated hut.

Emma Jordan keeps the two-handed play moving by allowing the characters to work – tidying up the land and mending a broken fence (and sorting through their own baggage and healing a personal rift) – while they banter and bicker. Though if acting work dries up, neither are ready to switch career to fencing without considerable retraining!

During the first half, Henry and Sinead unearth aspects of their past that had gone unsaid until this unplanned conversation. The interval cliff hanger – the blurting out of a huge hurt – certainly ups the feeling of jeopardy, though the scene that follows once the lights go back down feels very abrupt change of gear, despite being the most powerful moment in the play.

There’s a good sprinkling of magic realism and fantasy in the storytelling that gives director Jordan scope to add colour and changes of pace. Whilst unpacking bagfuls of transgenerational trauma, Kearney and Patrick aren’t afraid to play for audience laughs and light relief with a rabbit hole full of mystery and a series of gameshow skits from their youth that Sinead and Henry readily lapse into.

Great on-stage chemistry between McBrearty and FitzGibbon allows the jagged emotional link that binds the pair’s past and present together to be explored in constant tension. Both actors slip effortlessly in and out of a myriad of characters from their past, usually replete with comedy accents and distinctive mannerisms. They sing, they disco dance, and FitzGibbon’s no-nonsense Sinead has the full measure of her old northern Protestant boyfriend and never lets him overpower her intellectually, emotionally or physically.

Through tales of smuggling, distrust, brutality, loss and enduring pain, Patrick and Kearney get to the heart of why the border is a political act, and why it’s a high stakes game to tamper with the fragile status quo that has allowed rootless moss to cover over the cracks.

The Border Game is a coproduction between Prime Cut and the Lyric Theatre. Performances continue until Saturday 23 October as part of Belfast International Arts Festival

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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Heathers: The Musical … all done in the worst possible taste (Grand Opera House until Saturday 16 October)

Other than wanting to profit from a cult film’s popularity, it’s hard to fathom how the concept of Heathers motivated Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe to write the musical version, for producers to invest to stage it, and for Andy Fickman to continue directing the majority of the professional productions of the show.

Body image, eating disorders, weight, friendship groups, acceptance, sexuality, poor mental health, craving stardom, homophobic parents, wanting to massacre your annoying classmates: these teenage (and sometimes adult) issues and vices are quickly introduced. But if you wanted to start a conversation about tackling these demons, would you start with Heathers?

Maybe I’m overthinking it and underappreciating the attractive notion of a musical carved out of the horror genre?

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Veronica decides to throw her lot in with a girl gang – a trio of Heathers – purely to ease the pain of the next few years at Westerberg High School. The gauche girls demean all who fall into their shadow, conspiring to humiliate those with whom they are disappointed. Of course, the Heathers have issues of their own. But Veronica’s decision has particular consequences for her old friend Martha whose holds a flame for one of the school jocks.

At this stage, everyone in the stalls and circles might be starting to see parts of their own insecurities represented on stage. But it’s the quiet ones you need to watch. And the dressed-in-black bibliophile, JD, who has an uncanny knack of handling himself like a ninja in a fight, turns out to have a particularly dark and deadly side to his character.

Some of the other children haven’t fallen far from their parents’ tree, or have they? With first time sex (which rapidly unseated a few members of the audience), the threat of a double date rape, a mounting body count, and an explosive climax, the musical hurtles towards its impossibly saccharine denouement. It’s a finale full of cheap grace and self-forgiveness without any sign of repentance.

While showing off a powerful vocal range throughout the show, the script plays down Veronica’s obvious ruthlessness, and gives Rebecca Wickes little opportunity to develop the potential complexity of her character. Among the three Heathers, Maddison Firth is the original alpha, later succeeded by wannabe bitch Merryl Ansah, while Lizzy Parker manages to pull off an incongruous comical moment after being caught overdosing on pills. Understudy Ben Karran creates a brooding and sinister JD. The ghosts add a lot of comedy, particularly the ripped figures of Kurt (Liam Doyle) and Ram (Rory Phelan).

The precision and colour of Ben Cracknell’s lighting design accentuates key moments of drama. The sound was pretty screechy in the stalls at the performance I attended, but that might just be first night issues tuning the sound for the venue.

Martha’s solo Kindergarten Boyfriend and her duet with Veronica in the reprise of Seventeen are musical highpoints, along with the toe-tapping triumph that is My Dead Gay Son. However, Martha (Mhairi Angus) totally steals the show with her final appearance, and a protracted reversing manoeuvre that has the best comic timing of the night.

Heathers has a particularly sick storyline. It’s neither treated as snarky and sadistic parody (which might still be troubling given the subject matter) nor as a serious study of youth culture. Instead the show exists as a strange, uber-popular misfit, that defies logic to explain its enduring success. Oddly, given its subject matter, Heathers makes little effort to evoke any sense of empathy, leaving the audience as somewhat emotionally unattached onlookers. Groups of women turned up at the Grand Opera House resplendent in the striking yellow, red, green and blue outfits of their favourite characters. I’d like to think that any lone wolves who attended in dark trench coats would have been thoroughly frisked after having their Covid vaccinations checked.

Update: Having now caught up with the original film – available for free on Amazon Prime via IMDb TV with ads – Veronica is painted much more sweetly and naively on stage than Winona Ryder’s knowing cinematic horror. Heather (red) Chandler is much more vulnerable: subservient to guys and not the total top dog she is in the adaptation. The musical is peppered with crossover script references and props from the movie, some of which jar without the original context but mostly they don’t get in the way. Yet there’s a sense that the musical diminishes what depth, soul and brain that the film had captured.

Heathers will be making what’s sick beautiful at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 16 October before heading down to Dublin. To pervert a catchphrase of Kenny Everett, it’s all done in the worst possible taste. But still, performed by a cast of 15 and a six-strong band rather professionally and with solid entertainment values.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Distortion – a very smart piece of political drama (The MAC, on demand until 24 October)

There’s something captivating about sitting in a theatre audience, mere metres away from the stage and being able to watch – unmediated – the live performances of a well-directed cast telling a story in front of your eyes. When they shout, bits of spit are caught in the bright lights. So close it’s intimate.

Of course, that’s an ideal scenario that hasn’t been open to most of us for the last 18 months.

Even before then, I remember some years ago sitting up in the gods peering down at the Grand Opera House stage to see a touring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. While the vantage point offered a bird’s eye view of the full set and choreography, it was impossible to distinguish subtle facial expressions and any sense of emotion had to be gleaned from larger gestures, how an actor carried themselves, or through their tone of voice.

Pre-pandemic, I was semi-regular at National Theatre Live productions in local cinemas, where a wide-angled view of the full set (conveniently a large cinema screen isn’t far off the height from stage to proscenium arch) could alternate with close-ups of significant interactions. Something was nearly always lost in the action – the ability to turn your head and be distracted by some small detail happening in another corner of the stage was denied – but it was a good second best to travelling across to London to see something in person. And the Apple TV filmed adaptation of Hamilton probably improved the staging of the all-singing all-dancing theatre version.

Amanda Verlaque’s Distortion homes in on an ambitious political couple. A public relations guru Jo (Valene Kane) has been employed to increase their electoral success. Heather (Mary Moulds) is aiming at a seat on Belfast City Council, while Kevin (Michael Condron) has his eyes set on representing Belfast South at Westminster. As their preparation and campaign unfolds over 80 minutes, Verlaque’s writing sets up a regular rhythm of revelation, audience re-evaluation, and then follows through into the triangular reaction among the central cast.

The evolving power dynamic and never-settling question of who is playing with whom is engaging, sprinkled with the hypocrisy and duplicitousness expected in a political thriller. Where these three are concerned, it’s no spoiler to say that ultimately the player turns out to have been played. Enough secrets are spilled to fill more than one closet.

While one character is challenged “Don’t you want to be true to yourself?” it’s not clear that any of the individuals are comfortable owning up to their circumstances, motivations and behaviours. Where politics goes, sex tends to follow. As each layer is peeled off, the intrigue grows and the plot moves beyond a simple stereotyped representation of local Northern Ireland politics and into a morality tale that asks questions of how we view honesty, coercion, sexuality and control. And how what we believe and do and say can be distorted by ourselves and others.

Lata Sharma has a recurring role as political reporter Jane. Her lines are a bit too verbose, but her struggle to get to the truth of the story is real enough. Condron is doesn’t overplay the cheeky chappie card and excels as a canny opportunist, while Moulds successfully pivots her closeted character from being warm and earthy to expressing powerful lust as the plot unfolds. Kane wears Jo’s lesbian heart on her sleeve and really captures the strategist’s distressing loss of control.

Ciaran Bagnall’s set picks up a lot of the textures and hues of The MAC’s galleries. The faux concrete and low unfussy walls provide a great canvass on which director Rhiann Jeffrey can paint her characters.

Filmed on the The MAC’s main stage – and premiered as a film to a small audience sitting in the same theatre space, terribly meta! – you’re never not aware that this is a MAC production, yet Distortion never tries to stop being theatre and become TV.

Jeffrey often takes advantage of the camera angles to keep the three protagonists in shot, lining them up in a chain, or creating a visual triangle that allows the audience to track their reactions. The shots that work least well are the handful of full-face close ups which are too televisual and jar. But on the whole, the curation of vantage points enhances the feeling of drama and benefits the storytelling.

Garth McConaghie’s sound design picks up on the title, makes good use of the stereo imaging, and isn’t afraid to fade into the background at the points when the dialogue has no need to any external augmentation.

With only a few nips and tucks, Distortion – originally written for stage – could return to the MAC as a full theatre piece. I really hope it does, as it’s one of the smartest pieces of political drama to come out of Northern Ireland in the last five years.

Distortion can be viewed on demand (£12.50–25 pay what you can) until Sunday 24 October 

Photo credits: Melissa Gordon

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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).