Friday, June 02, 2023

Reality – questions between the lines of a recreated FBI interview with a suspected leaker of secrets (Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 8 June)

A translator skilled in Farsi, Dari and Pashto pulls into the driveway of her Augusta bungalow, returning home from a trip to the shops. Two men greet her, FBI agents who say they have a search warrant and would like to ask her some questions. She’d served in the US Air Force and is now working for an outside agency who provide language services for the NSA. She agrees to talk and more agents park up and begin to secure her property as she worries about the perishables in her car and the pets inside her home.

This isn’t a fictional scenario, but a recreation of what really happened to 25-year-old Reality Winner on 3 June 2017. The FBI audio-recorded the initial voluntary interview at her home, and the transcript forms the basis of Tina Satter’s 83-minute film, Reality.

It’s deliberately undramatic, an awkward game of cat and mouse that carries on until near the end. The two agents (played Wallace Taylor and Marchánt Davis), tall middle-aged men, tower over the shorter younger woman. They bury passive aggressive questions in the middle of chit chat about her man-hating dog and the brute of a cat who is hiding under her bed but might escape outside if they leave the door open. The conversation pivot on a dime, from trading insipid anecdotes about CrossFit injuries to asking whether she’s been reading documents on the NSA intranet that are outside her subject area.

If the dialogue seems stilted, the film makers demonstrate using the FBI recording that the intonation of the original interview was wooden. If the actors playing agents seem to be hesitant about spitting out what crime Reality is alleged to have committed, that’s because the original FBI agents were clearly deliberately prevaricating, creating space for their suspect to self-incriminate. While our collective understanding of Reality’s situation unfolds in a room devoid of furniture, a larger team are combing the rest of her house in case there’s unexpectedly evidence of further wrongdoing that the interrogators have no clue about.

Sydney Sweeney plays Reality Winner as cool under pressure. There are no histrionics. She blocks and evade questions without emotion. Has her character’s fitness regime somehow prepared her to be able to control her heartbeat and manage her blood pressure? Or maybe it’s the shock of being confronted? Sweeney’s skill is in leaving the answers to those questions very ambiguous.

We realise even before the dialogue tells us that Reality Winner is an amateur leaker when held up against a world champion of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. A neat visual device is used when fragments of the transcript have been redacted. Despite the linear storytelling, it’s pleasing to nearly always find out what detail was suppressed when the information pops up on screen in another form about ten or fifteen minutes later, from news reports or punditry.

Was Reality reminded about having a lawyer present? Why the total absence of women in the FBI search and interview team? (One female agent appears right at the end.) Did anyone read Reality her Miranda rights? How did the FBI manage to identify their suspect and link her to a whistleblowing website before anything had been published online? A documentary format might have added talking heads to articulate some of these questions and oddities you’ll notice appearing in the gaps between the lines of dialogue as the ‘action’ unfolds. The power dynamics inside and outside the room are intriguing to ponder. So too are thoughts about who the real victims are in this crime.

As you watch the film, you can make your mind up about the ethics of Reality Winner action. By the conclusion, you’ll understand that the previously secret information was quickly utilised in a positive manner by elected representatives. You’ll read on screen what the consequences were for Reality. And you’ll hear talking heads on a Fox News show worry more about the dangerous people lurking within US intelligence communities than the foreign state actors trying to interfere with democratic processes.

The film Reality is adapted from Tina Satter’s stage play. Verbatim scripts can be very hit and miss. In this case, the sterile and mundane presentation adds power to the film and gives the audience space to do their homework.

A very different treatment of the same story should hit cinema screens over the next year. Filming of a black comedy, Winner, directed by Susanna Fogel, wrapped before Christmas. As companion pieces go, the styles could hardly be more different, and it’ll be fascinating to compare and contrast the storytelling techniques when it is released.

In the meantime, Reality is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 8 June.


Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Thursday, June 01, 2023

The Beauty Queen of Leenane – planting seeds of terror and leaving them to fester (Prime Cut with Lyric Theatre until 1 July)

Before a word is uttered, the Lyric stage is set with a vision of a home that is trapped by the branches and roots of a tree that surround it and break through the ruined fabric into the living space.

Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is the most upsetting piece of theatre I’ve been privileged to see. His debut play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, launches that same feeling of doom and terror within my gut when I hear one of the competing explanations for how old Mag Folan came to have a burnt hand.

Playwrights tend to leave a signature on their work. David Ireland usually spills blood on the carpet with a grotesque death to close his plays. McDonagh’s dramatic kink is to plant seeds of terror, leaving them to fester for a while, and when the plot circles back to revisit your worst nightmare, it turns out to be even more chilling than you were dreading. The vibe is present on-screen in The Banshees of Inisherin, but it’s nowhere near as brutal as he pulls off on stage. Watch out for the moment in the stalls when you spot that everyone around you is similarly squirming in their seats; a level of control over audiences the playwright has never met is impressive.

Maureen lifts and lays her mother, the only daughter of the family who doesn’t have a good excuse to leave home. She can but dream. The pair could win medals for bickering, tearing strips of each other, yet capable of switching it off in an instant to discuss the merits and demerits of a type of biscuit. Though you’re left wondering whether those moments of niceness are also part of their twisted game. McDonagh never lets a detail become too tied down if he can leave it slippery.

Ger Ryan and Nicky Harley bludgeon each other like mother and daughter gladiators wielding verbal and physical weapons. Ryan bullies from a sedentary position, while Harley demonstrates more mobile forms of coercive control. She’s brilliant as a manipulator, and shifts so smoothly between the light and shade in Maureen’s complicated personality. The sense of darkness still has space for moments of comedy … which of course makes the next lurch into the evil recesses of the plot even more brilliantly tortured.

The Folan family aren’t the only ones touched by the venom that seems to run through the water in Leenane. Ray Dooley (Marty Breen) plays down his violent tendencies, but still fits right into the pugilistic ambiance of the cottage’s kitchen.

And into this noxious environment steps Ray’s older brother. Pato (Caolán Byrne) works away on building sites in England: perhaps that’s how he has been inoculated against the toxicity that pervades Leenane. His intentions are quite transparent and straightforward in comparison with the potential misdeeds of everyone around him. His frisky hands are welcomed by Maureen. But love’s arrow cannot be allowed to fly straight and true, particularly not if McDonagh’s pen is steering its progress. Byrne’s timing and delivery come to the fore in the monologue that restarts the action after the interval. His great pacing opens up Pato’s meandering letter writing to hoots of laughter.

Director Emma Jordan takes McDonagh’s recipe and boils the ingredients up into a bubbling pot of evil Galway stew. The drama on stage is far more shocking than anything on offer from the Australian soap operas that Mag regularly pretends not to watch. Audiences are jolted into asking whether each of us is only one hot tempered argument away from becoming a Maureen, or a Mag, or a Ray? The mirroring in the final scene isn’t subtle, nor does it need to be. Ciaran Bagnall’s set has been speaking volumes all along about just how tightly the people of Leenane are trapped by themselves, each other, and their insular environment ... and while Jordan has been knocking over the dark dominoes, she’s been quietly setting them back up to fall once more.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a co-production by the Lyric Theatre and Prime Cut. Performances continue until Saturday 1 July.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The SpongeBob Musical – can science trump mayhem when trouble erupts in this submarine paradise? (Grand Opera House until Saturday 3 June)

Hold your nose and dive deep into the somewhat hallucinogenic underwater world of Bikini Bottom which is threatened by an imminent volcanic eruption. Fear is turning people towards making bad decisions and questioning good motives. Can a plucky trio make it to the second half to bring order to the panic, self-interested exploitation, and destructive powerplays?

At its best, The SpongeBob Musical is a madcap assortment of musical styles, colourful costumed underwater creatures, and a satirical take on capitalist business models, populist politics, media scepticism, blame culture, anti-science mentality and spooky prediction of how a society might react to a pandemic.

In its less impressive moments, SpongeBob becomes a gallimaufry of styles, crazy characters and trippy nonsense that don’t gel to deliver a coherent story or a consistent experience.

Cartoon watchers will spot favourite characters and recognise a couple of tunes amongst the wealth of new material by Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, Panic! At The Disco and many more. Adults will raise an eyebrow and be careful to avoid mispronouncing some of the on-stage food joint names in front of young children in the audience.

A panoply of percussion lurks behind the The Krusty Krab fast food joint, augmenting the physical choreography of key cast members. Two of the costumed Electric Skate band members regularly step out from their separate booths to perform and act on stage. A toilet roll gag connects the dots around Covid for adults in the audience.

Divina De Campo is a bit lost playing the Chum Bucket proprietor Sheldon J Plankton, a schemer with a ‘big guy’ complex and a penchant for mass destruction, so a bit of a proxy for Putin if you’re overthinking the plot during one of the two show stops that temporarily halted proceedings on the first night of the Belfast run.

SpongeBob (played by the indefatigable Lewis Cornay) may find Patrick Star to be an unreliable friend, but Irfan Damani’s voice always impresses, particularly with Yolanda Adams’ gospel number Super Sea Star Saviour, accompanied by the full set of fanatical cultist Sardines. Sandy Cheeks the Texan Squirrel (Chrissie Bhima) is a good scientist and a great vocalist. But the really, whaley moments of wow come when Sarah Freer steps through the gears and brings Pearl Krabs to life every time she sings. The beautiful neon sponge choreography makes Just a Simple Sponge into a first act highlight (albeit slightly marred by Mr Krabs muted mic blocking out his interjections at the end of the number).

The second act is strong, opening with a pirate protest song that showcase Sam Beveridge and Eleanor Turiansky’s musical talents, and hitting its peak with Gareth Gates and his sea anemone chorus line deliver a great La La Land-esque moment of musical theatre in the second act with four-legged Squidward’s I’m Not A Loser.

On paper, the whole of this musical could be greater than the sum of its parts. There’s sufficient craziness in every aspect of the set, costumes, music, choreography, direction and Kyle Jarrow’s book to suggest that SpongeBob could be an ingenious and effervescent winner. Yet, even laying aside the technical issues that shouldn’t beset the remaining Belfast performances, for me the musical smouldered and failed to bubble up to the surface to match its theoretical potential.

The SpongeBob Musical continues its riot of nautical madness at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until Saturday 3 June. And don’t miss the merchandise stall where adorable Gary the meowing snail soft toys are on sale! 

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Friday, May 26, 2023

Geppetto – grief observed and interrupted in this imaginative non-verbal tale for children young and old (Amadan Ensemble at Lyric Theatre until Sunday 28 May)

Geppetto brings old electrical appliances back to life in his repair shop. But he’s sad and depressed, missing his wife. Until something disrupts his doleful reverie, and a light appears at the end of his tunnel.

David Morgan’s wordless story is enlivened by a king of physical comedy and a queen on puppeteering. The lack of dialogue leaves Jude Quinn’s expertly controlled movement and facial expressions to drive the storytelling. As an audience member, you have the freedom to write your own internal tale about the unfolding action: but fear not, the clues are plentiful and you’ll not get lost.

After the central character has been established, Sarah Lyle joins him on stage and brings a particular piece of electrical equipment to life: you won’t realise the gap you’ve had in your life until you witness the Ceilidh dancing Anglepoise lamp that’s crucial to the storytelling in this production!

Everyone’s movements are subtle – though watch closely to observe how the repertoire of motions and gestures evolves – and the technical tricks that animate so many of the objects in the repair shop in so many different ways are incredibly intricate. Dave Marks’ score is synchronised with much of Michael McEvoy’s choreography, adding layers of mood and understanding to the non-verbal production that is suitable for children aged six right up to my age and above.

Director Gemma Mae Halligan has crafted performances that are gorgeous to watch. It’s an imaginative children’s show that should travel easily, not just because of the lack of translation, but also the familiar hook back to Pinocchio’s creator, and the way that the study on grief and remembering is universal.

It’s great to see another example of innovative and accessible children’s work being produced by a growing circle of Northern Ireland theatre makers.

Amadan Ensemble’s production of Geppetto continues its short run at the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 28 May.

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Wait For Me – brooding tale of taking back control amidst vice and abuse (Queen’s Film Theatre, Q&A on Saturday 27 May, screenings 2-8 June)

It’s grim up north, particularly if you’re trapped in a world of vice and trafficking. Alison works in a brothel in Yorkshire, having moved over when her father (played by Sean McGinley) fled Ireland. Karen Hassan portrays a steely young woman who blows hot and cold faster than a spring afternoon in County Antrim, but seizes a chance to take back control and try to make amends for the various dependencies that have had a negative impact on her family.

Her unlikely accomplice is Sam (Aaron Cobham), an almost silent, vulnerable young man, who lives with a feeling of guilt that he has let down his closest friend. Always nervous, hesitant and lacking confidence, his eyes light up and his soul shines when he’s holding a stills camera and capturing other people’s spirit on film. If everyone’s on edge and scared to death, it’s because the crime boss played by Neil Bell is just as evil as his henchman Barry (Theo Ogundipe) is menacing.

Director Keith Farrell shapes Wait For Me into a brooding feature which never rushes to reveal the next twist in the lives and connected relationships of the characters. Aside from depicting the harsh environment in which trafficked women and men live and ‘work’, the screenplay riffs off the theme that everyone could do with a decent, loving parent.

Bernard O’Toole’s story is strong, the pared back dialogue is fitting, and Hassan’s gritty performance is mesmerising. If only the film hadn’t been littered with so many visually tedious rack focus shots (using a shallow depth of field and adjusting the sharpness from one character to another and back) which distract from the already well-framed, well-written and well-acted scenes.

Wait For Me will be screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 2 until Thursday 8 June. There’s an early screening on Saturday 27 May followed by a Q&A with actor Karen Hassan, director Keith Farrell, and producer Thea Burrows.


Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Friday, May 19, 2023

Full Time – spinning plates and adulting while the world is throwing the kitchen sink at you (Queen’s Film Theatre until 1 June)

You can feel the stress building as the techno music accentuates the raised heartbeat of Julie who is rushing around her home, following the daily ritual of getting herself and her two children dressed, fed and ready for school and work. Any interruption to the choreography and the whole dance could collapse.

Full Time/À plein temps follows a week in the life of Julie, a single mum who is head chambermaid in a very posh hotel that caters for demanding guests who will complain as quickly as they’ll leave a shocking mess to tidy up. She commutes in and out of Paris from a suburban village. A public transport strike, on top of a late alimony payment and needing to slip out of work for a job interview in her old more lucrative industry, stretches her nerves and her childcare beyond their limits.

An hour after the mid-morning screening, I’m eating my lunch and my stomach is still in knots. My own uncertainties about an event I’m filming tonight – still don’t know the precise venue so can’t be sure what kit to set out to pack into the car – are incomparable to the perpetual pressure Julie ploughs through each day.

Director and screenwriter Éric Gravel never falls back on playing Julie as a victim. Instead, Laure Calamy is free to depict a resilient woman of infinite resource, a finder of solutions (her method of offloading the trampoline out the back of a van is magical), someone who perseveres in the in the face of despair. Calamy’s performance is worth the cinema ticket. Yet she can only dig deep for so long before something breaks and her spinning plates come crashing to the floor?

There’s a whole genre of films that examine working conditions in less glamorous sectors in the labour market. Ken Loach would have made the film a gritty tear-jerker. Gravel settles for a warmer tone, emphasising the busyness and the movement rather than lingering shots of panic and despair.

A different movie would have brought a violent threat into the mix to bring the story to a dramatic climax. Yet Gravel finds more mundane alternatives to exacerbate the crisis, eventually offering a dim light at the end of fictional Julie’s tunnel that could dial down one stressor (finance) but won’t eliminate any of her other aggravations. One final line of dialogue – “Have a good day” – is offered with the best intentions but seems stupendously naïve knowing Julie’s circumstances.

By revolving the whole story around Julie, the backstory of everyone else on screen stays paper thin. A whole universe of spinoff movies could examine the levers and demands on Julie’s hotel boss, on her team of coworkers, on her children’s nanny, on her best friend and her estranged husband.

Sitting in the warm comfort of a cinema, Full Time may be feel like an extreme example of difficult adulting, but it’s probably a heavily sanitised version of many people’s real life experiences of precarious working and living without any safety nets.

Full Time is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Saturday 20 May to Thursday 1 June.


Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power – an illustrated lecture that will change your viewing experience (Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 18 May)

Director Nina Menkes delivers an illustrated lecture on sex and power, the visual language of cinema, in the documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power. The word ‘lecture’ may not immediately appeal to your lust for nipping out to the cinema. But rest assured, Menkes knows what she’s talking about, and after 20 minutes you’ll be sizing up the on-screen clips ahead of her commentary to detect whether the woman in the shot is the subject or (more likely) the object; recognising closeups of fragmented female body parts; spotting the slomo action; noticing that men are sexy when they’re moving but women are depicted still; tell-tale panning shots that scan across a woman’s body, undressing her with the camera; gendered lighting; hearing the orchestra crank into action to soften scenes of men once again ignoring their total lack of consent.

And when I say the lecture is ‘illustrated’, let’s be clear that there are a lot of bums, many boobs and even a few balls projected onto the silver screen. More than this reviewer has ever stumbled across at a 10 o’clock in the morning preview screening before. Yet not a single moment is titillating. In their original context, using the techniques that Menkes is deconstructing, the scenes will have dialled up the eroticism of these big-name movies. Yet the level of control in Brainwashed is such that neither tittering nor nudge nudge wink wink moments can be remotely entertained. You’ll soon be cognisant that the more glamourous a scene is, the more powerless the ‘object’ of that scene.

Much of what Menkes shares is obvious, and you’ll already be aware of some of it. What makes her pitch devastating is how when she strings the different elements together it becomes clear that a vastly male cohort of directors, working with mostly male heads of departments (who hire mostly male staff) on a film, in the hands of mostly male distributors, have created an ABC of filmmaking and patriarchy that is designed to deliver for male audiences by disempowering women on and off screen. This male gaze is very recognisable yet mostly ignored by audiences and not worthy of note by reviewers. Menkes and her contributors point out that it’s a double whammy of who and how films tend to be made. And even when a film is ostensibly feminist, about women, or directed by a woman, that’s no guarantee that the popular tropes won’t still permeate the final product.

Menkes doesn’t set out to become the sex police. The techniques she highlights are perfectly valid and effective cinematic tools of the trade. It’s just they’re used somewhat consistently and monotonously at the expense of women. In later parts of her discourse, Menkes demonstrates some alternatives and it’s plainly obvious that a variety of approaches and a more fulsome visual dictionary would be welcome. It’s all about choice, and changing the choices that are routinely made.

What she’s talking about isn’t constrained to the world of film. Sitting in the QFT’s Screen One watching Brainwashed I recalled the opening night of General Assembly, an annual ceremony that sees the outgoing Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland finish his year (and yes, it’s always been a man) and hand over the mantle of the office to the incoming Moderator. (Seriously, my scribbled notes from Brainwashed have two pages of scrawl about PCI!) Despite the business of the General Assembly being conducted by members who are nearly evenly split between ministers and elders, and there being a variety of sex and age across those members who have equal right to stand up and debate vote during the days of business, the opening night stage is stuffed full of men, the majority of whom are older, and they’re nearly all ministers. It’s a tableau of clericalism despite the denomination normally believing that’s not how they should be defined or organised.

It’s a choice. The liturgy of the evening isn’t so fixed that it hasn’t been adapted quite a bit over the years. Even without a new injection of creative thinking, there are already opportunities for readings and prayers to be given to those who would otherwise remain invisible. It’s a yearly choice to continue to visually and aurally portray that the power and authority rests with older male clerics and isn’t equally spread out across the membership of the General Assembly. That disempowers all kinds of people at the event, participating throughout the week, and belonging to congregations and perhaps watching online or hearing about it afterwards. Maybe not always a conscious choice but definitely a set of decisions that seem to be ratified without a second thought.

(My own sideways experience of this – as a man! – was turning up at two opening night’s in a row some 18 or 19 years ago as the husband of one of the incoming, then outgoing, moderator’s chaplains. Seats had been reserved for the wives of the two male chaplains at the front of the balcony. But it seemed to be so unexpected that there would be a female moderator’s chaplain on the main stage who might have brought a husband with her that both times I was told by the steward showing guests to their seats that there was no seat allocated for me (despite the ride down to the event in the big car with the other wives) and told that I should try and find one myself! The system expects things to be a certain way because other possibilities don’t usually need to be imagined. But enough of a bloke whinging about the second-hand discomfort of patriarchal thinking ...)

The parallels with Nina Menkes’ lecture are strong. A ceremony organised by a subset of people, showcasing the participation of a similar subset of people, is no more likely to change by accident than the world of cinema will stop objectifying women when those who happen to be and remain in power see no need to change. Now away from moderators and back to the world of movies.

Menkes issues a clarion call for fresh imagination, novel imagery, and more critical thinking in her industry of cinema. Her lecture is an eye-opening induction, and without trying, I found myself assessing the shot choices for Eurovision song routines and questioning what each country’s delegation was trying to achieve and who they were trying to attract to vote for them! And Menkes’ timely reminder will no doubt seep through into other avenues of life beyond cinema and church.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 18 May.

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Good Vibrations – a live score from a wonderful ensemble cast in this celebration of alternatives (Grand Opera House until Saturday 20 May + Irish Arts Center in New York from 14 June)

It’s easier to write about real people being portrayed on stage when they aren’t in the room.

The Terri Hooley depicted in Good Vibrations is equal parts hero and villain. He’s a gift to Belfast and beyond, though not necessarily a delight for everyone who loved or worked for him (and there’s a fair overlap between those two groups).

He’s portrayed as someone who wouldn’t – in fact, doesn’t have a bone in his body that knows how to – conform to the binary identities on offer when the Troubles start. He’s someone with a positive and rebellious ambition for the city he lives in, with a sense how the shared purpose of producing music and enjoying listening to it keeps people together. Yet the Terri on stage is also shown to be exasperatingly poor at managing his expanding suite of businesses.

He’s a promoter, an encourager, a dealmaker, a prophet, a husband and a father, but puts neither family nor fortune before fun and a feverish impetuousness that risks all he has to create a legacy of art and creativity. The cost is tearfully visible on the stage of the Grand Opera House. The ‘godfather of punk’ is quite a tragic figure, and the Lyric Theatre’s revival of the stage production of Good Vibrations is all the better for accepting that painful fact and threading it through the heart of the story. The man’s also an inspiration for turning up at opening nights and so graciously allowing his story to be simplified, tailored and tweaked for the fictional yet probably never too far from the truth version in Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson’s stage adaptation of their 2013 film screenplay.

The two sides to Terri conspire to make wonderful drama. The war outside the door of his Great Victoria Street (nicknamed ‘bomb alley’) shop adds violent menace that puts any argy-bargy between punk bands’ egos into perspective. (What the theatre show can’t depict is the noteworthy brevity of the time between punk’s rise and its fall. And it’s on audience faces and in snatches of conversation overheard in the theatre bars that you realise the tightness with which so many involved in the scene back in the day cling to their memories, and how the modern punk scene continues to reinvent and still refuses to conform.)

The ensemble cast for this actor-muso production throw themselves into the shoes of some of the early punk bands – particularly Rudi, the Outcasts, and the Undertones. Other than sound effects and the odd piece of incidental music, everything is performed and sung live. Watch the cast’s mouths moving as they perform in harmony while pushing flight cases across the stage between scenes. It’s a much less raucous sound mix (thank you Ian Vennard) than the original version staged in the Lyric back in 2018, and it really allows the emotion and the lyrics to retain their power rather than letting rock and rhythm overwhelm.

Glen Wallace eases into the role of the central figure, happy go lucky, then haphazard. His fine voice is a revelation during one of the final songs, Laugh With Me, and if you sign up for one of Dolores Vischer’s wonderful Belfast punk music walking tours (there are some scheduled for Saturday 13 and 20 May) you’ll discover just how favourably Wallace compares with the real man’s vocal cords back in 1979/80!

Jayne Wisener plays the willowy Ruth Carr, Terri’s wife who supports his madcap schemes at first with her salary and security before cutting her ties and setting him free. Wisener’s second act ballad To Know Him Is To Love Him is beautiful for its poignancy (and neatly mirrors Darren Franklin/Dave Hyndman’s earlier rendition of Can’t You Understand) while her depiction of Ruth’s fraying patience adds emotional charge and grounds Good Vibrations as a deeply human story rather than one just about music.

Marty Maguire and Christina Nelson play Terri’s parents and add a lot of mirth in the many other roles they take on during the show. Playing an RUC officer more concerned with the possibility of catching petty misdemeanours than stopping intimidation on the streets, Maguire is on the receiving end of perhaps the best Hooley zinger of the show: “Excuse me officer, I’d like to report a civil war outside”.

Hats off to Odhrán McNulty, Chris Mohan, Jolene O’Hara, Gavin Peden and Dylan Reid who sing, strum and play their way through an album’s worth of music from Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light to Rudi’s Big Time, The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks (which punches out into the interval) and Stiff Little Fingers’ Alternative Ulster. And special mention to Connor Burnside whose drumming is energetic and powers up Katie Richardson’s arrangements and original music.

While Jack Knowles’ lighting design is muted, with a preference for back- and side-lighting characters’ faces, it leaves room for Jennifer Rooney’s choreography to light up the performers as she channels them in paths across the stage, creating frenzied moments of crowded ensemble, clean lines for some of the bands, and tiny details like how a guitar can be passed from one performer to another in an almost dancelike motion.

The penultimate scene strips away the musicians and the coattail clutchers. Terri stands alone with his life and legacy. Then a simple change of coat allows the story to time travel, a few seconds of magical theatre before the final encore.

I caught an early preview of the 2018 run of Good Vibrations, a Sunday afternoon matinee, on a quick trip home before, hours later, flying back to Skopje and the mayhem of the Macedonian referendum. While wowed by the ambition and the performances, I’d neither time to read up about the show beforehand now process the show afterwards, and didn’t write up a review. There’s been a bit more space to this year to connect the dots of the network of people and collectives that are referenced in Good Vibrations and continue to work today. I first got to know Marilyn and Dave Hyndman at Northern Visions (the NvTv community television channel) back in 2008/9 when they filmed a pilot episode of a chat show hosted by Donal Lyons and featuring local NI bloggers talking about blog posts. Amazingly, this Gogglebox for the blogosphere ran for eight episodes under the Ronseal title of Blogtalk … shamefully, when I look back, with an entirely male cast. It was only at Marilyn’s funeral last year that I heard more about the couple’s wider contribution to Belfast in the years before the television station, and it was moving tonight to see a version of them played by Cat Barter and Darren Franklin, depicting the couple whose anarchist bookstore Just Books and printing press shared a building with Terri’s first record shop.

There’s plenty more that could be said about punk and its counter-cultural dissonant relationship with the status quo of the day. Good Vibrations doesn’t have to be the last word on the topic, nor can it possibly present an encyclopaedic or comprehensive history. Instead what director Des Kennedy does so well is to celebrate the life and ethos of people who had space in their hearts for alternative ways of being. (A bit like the work and campaigning of Drs Paddy and Mary Randals in Navan who are featured in Sinéad O’Shea’s recent film Pray For Our Sinners.) Not quiet resistance, but right up in people’s faces.

Well worth catching a performance of Good Vibrations on stage at the Grand Opera House before Saturday 20 May, after which this Lyric Theatre production will take flight to New York’s Irish Arts Center from 14 June.

Photo credits: Carrie Davenport

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Expecting – a couple knocked off course by the arrival of a newborn (c21 Theatre at The MAC as part of Deaf Arts Festival NI before touring NI and Edinburgh)

Expecting is the story of a couple who are having a baby. Shauna (Paula Clarke) is very much in control of her life, her identity and her career. Despite leaving school with only a handful of formal qualifications, she has a degree in fine art photography and her work is in demand. When Robbie (Eoghan Lamb) comes stumbling into her life, she’s wary, but the hard-working, self-giving bundle of energy wins her round. Ten years later, the arrival of a baby tests whether the couple will sink or swim.

Shauna is deaf, and the play explores some of the challenges of living and working in a world that is intolerant of difference: the need for interpretation and privacy to access services, discriminatory misunderstandings, wariness of being reliant on others. Underneath the love and his admirable work ethic, Robbie is suppressing the extent of his worries about financial security and his ability to be a good parent.

Charis McRoberts’ script engages sensitively with anxiety and postnatal depression. Stereotypes and well-worn clichés are avoided. Sitting as part of an audience that was at least three quarters made up of people from the d/Deaf community, it was great to hear laughter and reaction coming in waves depending on whether people were following the signs or the spoken English. Great effort had been made to ensure that no one audience was favoured or disadvantaged. In conversation with his on-stage partner, Lamb speaks and signs. His longer solo speeches were BSL interpreted at last night’s performance by Kristina Laverty who would step on stage and stand next to him. An English voiceover accompanied Clarke’s signed monologues. Fergus Wachala-Kelly created animated videos with built in captions to convey the inner thoughts of Shauna’s baby, also voiced by André Thiébot.

Expecting holds a mirror up to d/Deaf audiences that will rarely have seen their lives and experiences depicted on a local stage. The themes of the play are also universal, and Robbie’s hidden torment will connect with audiences as strongly as Shauna calling out her everyday trials living in a world strongly biased towards those who are hearing.

Representation is really important in all forms of art and media. If you don’t ever see yourself or people you know and care about being portrayed, then distance grows between you and the medium. It’s one of the arguments – backed by copious research over the years – for moving significant chunks of public service broadcasters out of London and into the north of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Laying aside the practice of the time of young men and boys playing women’s parts, Shakespeare is reckoned to have created around 800 male characters and 150 female ones. The gender balance of more modern playwrights isn’t always much better. Musical theatre defaults to everyone on stage being all singing and all dancing … except for the grandfather figure who is remarkably spry while carrying a walking stick. People can be divided up and labelled using race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, rural/urban, ability, age, political ideology, faith, and any number of other ways. Most of these opportunities for inclusion can also end up as sustained gaps in representation.

A play like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time can tell its story from the point of view of someone with autism. However, it’s difficult to name a play that happens to have a character with autism in it that doesn’t revolve around them. There’s room for both: almost casual representation as well as a more focussed look at particular issues and how they impact people.

Staged by c21 Theatre Company as part of the inaugural Deaf Arts Festival NI (co-founded with Cre8 Theatre who have been staging an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty this weekend), the production of Expecting is a very positive move and hopefully the start of a pipeline of shows that will service both specific or integrated audiences, and will provide a focus on deafness and hearing loss as well as mainstreaming the participation and casting of d/Deaf actors in other productions.

Stephen Kelly has adapted his direction of Expecting to keep hand movements visible to audience members and deal with the pacing issues that bilingual productions introduce. His behind-the-scenes learning (and passing his BSL level 1) is an important part of the overall process of improving accessibility and more fully serving a wider range of audiences.  This has been a recent theme of Northern Irish theatre with Replay Theatre captioninh every performance of their children’s show PRISM and providing BSL or ISL interpretation at every other performance, and Lyric Theatre productions now routinely running audio described, captioned and BSL/ISL signed performances.

c21 Theatre are touring Expecting through Bangor (Thursday 11 May), Lisburn (Friday 12), Armagh (Saturday 13) and Newtownabbey (Saturday 20). Expecting will also be travelling to the Edinburgh Deaf Festival in August.

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!


Thursday, May 04, 2023

Lakelands – slow-burning exploration of rural isolation, sporting camaraderie and self-neglect (QFT until Thursday 11 May)

I’ve some understanding of the discipline required to be match fit for a sporting team. Readers who know me will be giggling. Obviously I’ve no personal experience – I’d think twice about running for a flight! – but back when I worked in IT, we had a placement student with us in the team for a year. Two or three nights a week, he rushed off at the end of the work day to catch a bus from the QUB Students’ Union to head home – Tyrone – for football training, returning in the wee small hours to grab some sleep before another day’s work. Then there’d be the GAA match at the weekend. Boozing was a no no. Such loyalty and commitment. And such a fear of the team coach that even if ill, the young lad would still travel down and turn up as the team’s full presence mattered whether you could play or not.

There are no passengers in the fictional team Cian (Éanna Hardwicke) plays for in Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney’s new film Lakelands. At least, that what his GAA coach (Gary Lydon) says. The new season is just around the corner but some of the fellas are still refusing to treat their bodies like a temple and are sneaking out on the lash. A blow to the head outside a Cavan nightclub does little to improve Cian’s ‘form’ on top of the injury he’s already carrying. He lives at home in the Midlands, helping his emotionally repressed widower father (Lorcan Cranitch) with the heavy work on the family dairy farm. Can Cian cope with the pressure he’s under from all sides? Perhaps the greatest pressure is self-inflicted?

Hardwicke delivers a suitably moody and depressed performance for the taciturn lad who only gets a spark in his eye when he has a ball in his hand. Disruption to his doleful situation comes in the person of Grace (Danielle Galligan), an old flame who’s now a nurse in England but has returned home to care for her father. Galligan brings much needed warmth and understanding into the story, with Grace bringing perspective to the otherwise insular environs.

The film explores concussion, isolation and drinking culture, as well as what effect removal has on your identity and sense of belonging (whether that’s going to live and work in England, or being dropped from a team). Higgins and McGivney are to be commended for not supplying easy answers and neat solutions to every thread of the plot. That said, Lakelands is a slow burner, and what feels like a short story is stretched out over 100 minutes. Perhaps the frequent silences in the dialogue will give sporting audiences time to reflect on shortcomings in their own clubs. But for this outsider, the match could have been over long before extra time if the cinema had a button for 1.25 speed!

Lakelands is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 11 May.

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

The Addams Family – will young love lead to the macabre family’s breakup? (St Agnes’ Choral Society at Grand Opera House until Saturday 6 May)

The 13-piece band strike up the overture and audience members of a certain age, who remember The Addams Family serial on Channel 4 (mid-1980s) or ITV (mid-1960s), click their fingers in time to the familiar tune. A severed hand meanders across the stage and a solemn family appear at the wrought iron gates of a cemetery.

The gist of the plot of the musical is that the daughter of the family, Wednesday Addams, has fallen in love. It’s pretty serious and Lucas is coming over for dinner and bringing his out-of-state parents. What could possibly go wrong in this high stakes encounter between the eccentric family who live in a gothic mansion in the middle of a New York public park and what seem to be a more tame family from Ohio. Could it be lead to the breakup of the Addams family?

Martin McDowell’s Uncle Fester emcees proceedings, an ebullient presence anytime he’s on stage. Aideen Fox shines in the role of Wednesday, owning the character’s deadpan demeanour, believably twisting her adoring father around her finger, and knocking every song out of the (Central) park. Daddy Gomez (Allen Gordon) fawns over the household matriarch Morticia (Lorraine Jackson) with the pair’s tango in the second a real highlight of Ann Marie Morgan’s choreography. Gordon and Jackson are vocally strong and Laura Kerr’s direction keeps them at the centre of attention, driving the story forward in scenes that could otherwise have become quite busy with the thirty or more ghostly ancestors dancing around in the background.

Andrew Reddy’s costumes deserve a mention: Wednesday’s tunic dress amplifies how her family defy cultural norms, while the Morticia’s elegant ballgown neatly transforms for the second act dancing.

The quality – and cost – of amateur productions is extraordinary. Set, sound and lighting are all to the standard you’d expect in a touring show passing through the Grand Opera House. But the programme also points to the community effort that makes a production like this possible. The months of weekly rehearsals produce quality performances. The choral pedigree of the society is apparent in the confident vocals and rich harmonies of both the principal cast and the ancestral ensemble. There’s also an army of people managing the props, wardrobe, make-up and welcoming the audience front of house. And how appropriate that local undertakers – Healy Brothers – were sponsoring the show!

The story embedded in the musical (by Andrew Lippa, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) is absent of the satire that cartoonist Charles Addams injected into his original macabre creation. Instead, the musical is almost wholly written for the laughs that can be found in the awkward encounter between the morbid Addams household and the differently weird outsiders who come to visit. Which makes for an entertaining show, and St Agnes’ Choral Society certainly squeeze a lot out of the material that is available in the book, lyrics and music. The flight choreography could be tightened up as the week goes on: Fester really needs better arm movements and something to do when he’s drifting towards the moon, one of the more bonkers elements of the story that really should have been cut in the last decade.

The success of the recent Addams’ spinoff show Wednesday on Netflix may have a lot to do with the selection of this musical for St Agnes’ Choral Society’s latest production. But they certainly have the performers and the panache to pull it off the entertaining romp which continues at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 6 May.

Oh, and can someone tell Morticia that the Paris Sewers really are worth visiting! We brought home a (toy) rat and discovered a Northern Ireland connection!

Photo credits: Nicola McKee and others

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Tartuffe – there’s more than one hypocrite in the house (Abbey Theatre production at Lyric Theatre until Saturday 29 April)

The curtain rises to reveal a hedonistic scene of dancing in a once well decorated but now slightly dowdy room in a large mansion. As the family and servants throw shapes to the techno soundtrack, in the room next door a shirtless man is worshipping – and perhaps livestreaming – at the altar of a ring light in a slightly more modern space. (The show’s playlist is available on Spotify if you want to recreate the vibe.) The opening dance makes more sense once the characters are established … although that requires buying another ticket to go back and see how it actually foretells the rest of the action!

Right from the start, Tartuffe’s director Caitríona McLaughlin plays with anachronisms, allowing contemporary objects and culture to diffuse through a gap in the space time continuum and enter the decadent seventeenth century setting of the performance. Katie Davenport’s costumes are stunning with sumptuous dresses, coats and trews using garish patterns, with the apparel often twinned with bright sneakers. All these modern nods serve as a reminder that the play’s themes and issues are meant to be contemporary as well as historic.

Written in rhyming couplets by French playwright Molière in 1664, the script has been significantly localised by Frank McGuinness with Ulster/Irish vernacular creeping into the translation. The rhyming is retained, though while some of the cast make it seem so very natural, that’s in contrast with others who sometimes sound like they’re at a poetry recital rather than in a play.

The master of the house, Orgon (Frank McCusker), is very much the son of his mother (Pernelle, played by Geraldine Plunkett) who brilliantly sketches out the weaknesses and foibles of the assembled family and household servants at the start of a first act that zips along.

It’s quite some time before we meet the much talked about houseguest Tartuffe (Ryan Donaldson), whose pious pronouncements and claims of poverty have Orgon wrapped around his finger. The master is so besotted with this ‘man of God’ that he promises the hand of his daughter (Mariane/Emma Rose Creaner who is already betrothed (to the rarely seen Valere/Emmanuel Okoye), along with much, much more. We soon realise that Tartuffe’s lusty eye is looking in a different direction, and after the interval, this leads to the production’s standout scene with Elmire (Aislín McGuckin) helping remove the scales from her husband’s eyes.

Dramaturgically, Molière’s writing is content to give a character a long monologue in one act, and then not return to them for an hour or more. So we hear great things near the start from the cheeky housekeeper Dorine, played brilliantly by Pauline Hutton, only for this interesting character to be backgrounded for much of the rest of the play. Pernelle suffers a similar fate of being sidelined.

While the spread of dialogue and action may not be even, Molière’s ideas and McGuinness’ tweaks provide McLaughlin with a great material for physical comedy. Clare McKenna gets the brunt of the almost cartoonish slapstick throughout the play, with servant Filipote’s makeup having to keep up with the bumps and bruises. Paula O’Reilly’s choreography is not limited to the stylish TikTok-esque dancing, but also gives the servants a distinctive flourish and flowing movement as they slip in and out of the set’s eight or so entrances to set or clear the table.

Tartuffe is a play about religious hypocrisy, devotion to false truths, and how difficult it is to point out that the emperor/holy man is wearing no clothes. And it is obvious that there’s more than one hypocrite in the house. Orgon must pay the heavy price and face the stark consequences for his actions. Unless, there’s another twist up Molière’s sleeve …

This production’s ending hints that it’s the women in the house who rose above the hypocrisy, taking their bows upstage of the duped and duplicitous men. There may be merit in this reading of the play, but it isn’t particularly well signposted or established in the previous two and a half hours and feels like a final flourish too far.

The performances and creative design are very strong: this is a show that will deservedly win multiple theatre awards over the next year. The audience is left to look through a window into a once great but now grimy country house. However, as well as creating entertaining vistas and comedic situations, plays also hold up a mirror to the audience. Given that McGuinness was already taking the opportunity to spruce up – spice up, even – the dialogue, perhaps even more could have been done to gently connect the rhetoric with present-day issues of political chicanery and truth-bending now that religiosity isn’t quite so prevalent?

Abbey Theatre’s production of Tartuffe finishes its run at the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 29 April before moving to Letterkenny and Cork.

Photo credit: Ros Kavanagh

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Pray for Our Sinners – the power of allies who dissent and offer resistance as well as support (QFT until Thursday 27 April)

The treatment of young mothers and babies in Ireland by church authorities is well understood and well documented. It happened in plain view of families and communities who somehow felt powerless to intervene or challenge what was happening. But Sinéad O’Shea’s new film points out that not everyone remained powerless.

Pray For Our Sinners celebrates a couple in Navan who resisted and refused to go along with the flow. They took reputational risks to step into situations and say no. Husband and wife, Dr Paddy and Dr Mary Randles opened their home to young women, offering sanctuary and love, respecting their wishes above the shameful sentiment of the time.

Paddy had first-hand experience of corporal punishment as a child attending a Christian Brothers school in Dublin. And when the effects of beating children came to his attention in his GP practice in Navan, he spoke out. The Irish national media wouldn’t touch the story, even after the English News of the World picked it up. The film describes the extraordinary lengths the clergy went to to suppress subsequent reporting.

Now widowed, Mary tells the documentary maker about their actions around corporal punishment and standing up for young women – girls – who were being forced to give up their babies. Mary set up the town’s family planning clinic. There’s testimony from some of those Navan children – still showing visible signs of the trauma all these years later – whose stories were heard and their lives impacted positively by the Randles courage to ignore the fear and chill factor, and instead work against the system, advocate for change, and support the unsupported. All this happened under O’Shea’s nose as a child growing up in Navan.

Pray For Our Sinners raises the question of why so few people stood up to the church? The silent majority are the real ‘sinners’ of the film’s title. God may have been everywhere, but his spirit was profoundly missing. Little wonder that the backlash against institutional religion has been so harsh as the Irish theocracy collapsed. While the film reasserts the post-partition power of the Catholic Church in Ireland, it also finds room to question the role and motivations of Father Andy Farrell.

A simple retelling of his involvement in the shameful history might dress him as the villain. The man responsible for enacting church policy and shepherding his parishioners to conform to the brutal treatment of young people. There are those in the town who rather robustly and uncritically venerate the popular clergyman. Yet, O’Shea embraces a contradiction. While Farrell has many questions to answer about his role signposting girls towards mother and baby homes and arranging forced adoptions, he too was a dissenter and created resistance in other areas, making himself vulnerable to the church hierarchy he ultimately questioned. 

Given the potential for community amnesia, it’s important to record history and celebrate those who stood up and intervened when others sat back and turned their heads. There must have been other Paddys and Marys, other allies quietly disrupting the status quo back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. And we could surely do with more today. People willing to dissent, and willing to accompany others whose voice is not being heard. Which all reminds me of a favourite TedxBelfast talk by Lisa McElherron about dissidents back in October 2013.

Film previews often happen about 10 o’clock in the morning. Those attending emerge from the darkened cinema into the brightness and quickly disperse to carry on with their day’s work and duties. Yet time paused at the end of Pray For Our Sinners and for twenty minutes, those at its preview stood and chatted, vigorously unpicking what we’d seen and heard, running our own after-show discussion.

Pray For Our Sinners is an incredibly good documentary, well-constructed, engaging and quite upbeat despite the issues it is addressing. Catch it at Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 27 April. (The 6pm screening on Tuesday 25 is followed by a Q&A with the director.)


Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Six: the Musical (Grand Opera House until Saturday 15 April)

There isn’t just a president in town. Belfast is also hosting royalty this week in the shape of half a dozen queens, the fabulous women we tend to dismiss by bundling them up as “the wives of Henry VIII”. But having basked in his-story for too many centuries, the women are telling their her-stories in the musical retelling of their lives on the stage of the Grand Opera House.

Six is like a souped-up Horrible Histories megamix, with historical narrative enhanced with fun wordplay, stacks of sass, and innuendo that may – or may not – fly over the head of younger audience members. (There’s an age advisory of 10.) And like the TV show, there’s no attempt to paper over the awkward and uncomfortable realities of these women.

For those like me who weren’t paying that much attention in second year history class when the late and much missed Brian McClinton was rattling through the chronicles of the House of Tudor, the Six cast members quickly fill in the background to the handy rhyme “divorced – beheaded – died – divorced – beheaded – survived”.

Each woman gets to lead a song that reflects their own tale of sorrow, grief, and in two cases, decapitation. The musical styles and personalities vary. What’s initially made out to be a competition to see who has the biggest bundle of woe descends into a more wholesome appreciation of how they have been portrayed and overlooked.

The set and lights create a concert environment, with the cast really only leaving the stage to pick up props. Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s smart lyrics and book revel in anachronisms, and gild what is properly a sad story with a brightness that carries the meaning over the memoire.

Tonight’s queens – Chlöe Hart (Catherine of Aragon), Jennifer Caldwell (Anne Boleyn), Casey Al-Shaqsy (Jane Seymour), Jessica Niles (Anna of Cleves) and Rebecca Wickes (Katherine Howard) and Alana M Robinson (Catherine Parr) – were backed by their costumed minstrels, aka the Ladies in Waiting, Laura Browne, Ashley Young, Migdalia Van Der Hoven, and musical director Caitlin Morgan even adding the odd extra vocal here and there.

The green queen, Anne Boleyn (2), gets one of the catchiest songs, Don’t Lose Ur Head, and is played by Caldwell with the cheek of a Spice Girl. Robinson embodies Catherine Parr (6) with a soulful lesson about her sacrifices to survive in a rarefied world where women were at the beck and call of the most powerful man in the court. The production also communicates a strong sense of body positivity, something not always visible in touring musical theatre.

The tour’s cast will be changing at the end of the month. Yet one of the successes of Six’s format is the way new (and alternate) performers can slip in and out of the production – the UK tour travels with a phalanx of swings, at least two of which can cover all six of the wives – matching up with the fixed choreography and melodies, but able to inject some of their own personality and joie de vivre into their role(s). Go back and the see the show in the future, and there’ll be new twists and emphasis.

This is a real crowd-pleaser of a show. Sheer love for the production and familiarity with its lyrics and music – though not the tunes are equally catchy: a couple of queens get a raw deal with their big number – really help bridge the sharp mood change near the end that could leave a less well-regarded show teetering on the cliff age of buzzkill.

I love energy and style of Six. But repeat visits do remind me that dramaturgically even more opportunities could have been taken by the writers to talk about the achievements of some of the queens before, during, and (sometimes) after their marriage to the British monarch. So much of the enjoyable banter is bitchy rather than truly biting. That’s probably asking a lot of an 80-minute show, but if you’re going to dip your toe into the feminist waters, better to jump right in rather than stay at the shallow end.

Six continues its sold out run at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 15 April. But it will surely return: there’s no reason that Six won’t continue to tour for many years to come.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith (note that supplied imagery depicts a slightly different cast line-up)

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!