Friday, December 08, 2023

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – pantomime on a grand scale with some signs of evolution (Grand Opera House until Sunday 14 January)

With a big auditorium, advance ticket sales that must be the envy of other venues, and 12 shows a week, the finances are there to throw the kitchen sink at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Belfast’s Grand Opera House. You won’t find a Christmas show with a larger cast, with more glitter, with as impressive a street dance troupe, or with as spectacular a pre-interval stunt.

There’s a lot to like with Snow White (played by Aisling Sharkey) fighting off the evil Queen for the eye of a prince. Local performers Conor Headley and Jolene O’Hara are back for a second year and excel as Prince Connal of Coleraine and Queen Dragonella, though Headley’s solo before the close of the first act is somewhat eclipsed by the other performer who rides out over the heads of the front rows (only possible with perfect lighting and stagecraft to pull off the illusion). O’Hara revels in the wickedness of her role as the baddie and her ultimate dispatch from the story is accompanied by a trademark soprano trill.

As has been the case for 33 seasons, top billing goes to panto dame May McFettridge (John Linehan) with the most elaborate frocks. This year he stars as May of the Mirror, in charge of proclaiming who in the land is truly the fairest of them all. Funny man Paddy Jenkins keeps May company while even funnier comedian Phil Walker gets by far the most generous slice of time on stage telling jokes and rapping as the Queen’s court jester Muddles.

Many in the big cast are spread thin. Flawless came to national attention when they reached the final of Britain’s Got Talent back in 2009. Their style of street dancing is energetic, acrobatic, and while they only get to performance two numbers and take part in a skit with the resident comedian, they make a big impression, albeit as a variety act shoehorned into the plot. (The other half of the troupe are performing in the Edinburgh pantomime.)

Also woefully underused are ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (led by Belfast-based Scott English playing Prof) who appear in the show’s title but get very little time on stage. Their role as banished former palace protectors of Snow White allows them to offer her shelter. But the seven actors have little meaningful contact with the majority of the rest of the cast and I’d love to see an updated story arc that properly integrated them into the main narrative. Otherwise, I worry* that there’s an implicit tokenism and powerlessness in the portrayal of dwarfism. (PS: Some of the seven might make great understudies for the rest of the cast.) *I’m conscious I’m worrying out loud in public about something that really requires a quiet conversation to listen to those directly involved. I’ve a month to try to make that happen …

Not every pantomime convention makes it into this year’s offering at the Grand Opera House. There’s less of the “he’s behind you” audience responses. There has been some tinkering with the traditional Brothers Grimm/Disney plot in the second act poison apple scene. The use of double entendre now relies less on sexual innuendo, and scatological humour and fart gags are to the fore. It’s great to watch parents turn to each other and exchange raised eyebrows and smirks over the heads of their young children. (I’d love to hear the conversations in cars on the way home with kids repeating the Shih Tzu joke!)

While people in the boxes are no longer scolded for being posh, the audience in the front rows are ridiculed – though some of the ad libs at the performance I attended sailed uncomfortably close to the line of 2023 sensibilities. It would be fascinating to see how the Belfast Snow White show compares and contrasts with the other three versions running in Darlington, Glasgow and Southampton. (Crossroads Pantomimes have productions running in 24 cities across the UK this season.)

The audience enjoy the spectacle. Theatrically, the final poetic payoff to the pantomime story was somewhat fluffed at my performance and the curtain came down all too quickly after the final bows without another number or a megamix to send us out into the cold Belfast night with a proper song ringing in our ears.

Pantomime is always changing. Hopefully the artform is keeping ahead of audience expectations. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an ambitious production, technically complex and full of strong performances. It’s in the minor nuances and coping with the scale of the show that improvements could be made. Directed and choreographed by Jonny Bowles, performances continue until Sunday 14 January.

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Monday, December 04, 2023

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget – feathered friends flock to fight for freedom (Netflix from 15 December)

The pesky freedom fighting chickens are back in Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget. Following their escape from the clutches of Mrs Tweedy and the farm she ran like a prisoner camp, the chickens are enjoying life on an island overlooking the scene of their torture. Strong-willed Ginger and accident-prone Rocky are happily rearing little Molly, a chip off her parents’ block. All is calm, until human activity is spotted across the water back on the mainland. Ginger calls the community to action – to lie low – spurred on by maternal responsibilities. But Molly’s curiosity spurs her to investigate and before long the feathered crew are breaking into a farm … or is it a chicken-friendly theme park? And who’s the boss behind this new venture?

Watching back the original Chicken Run (BBC One Sunday 10 at 14:00, BBC Three Friday 15 at 19:00, or Netflix) it’s clear that the animators and cinematographers went to extraordinary lengths to light the sets and create convincing backgrounds. My copy of Chicken Run was on VHS: a lot has changed since Aardman Animations’ first feature-length was released in 2000. While the characters in Dawn of the Nugget are all still stop motion plasticine figures, much of the background and set is computer generated. The end result gives the production a more modern feel.

Some of the original voice artists have been replaced (Thandiwe Newton and Zachary Levi taking over Ginger and Rocky from Julia Sawalha and Mel Gibson), but it’s good to hear Jane Horrocks back as the fast-knitting Babs. Fowler still embarks on military reminiscences to any captive audience. The cunning rats – Nick and Fletcher – continue to rescue the chickens from tight situations. And watch out for the new scouse character Frizzle voiced by Josie Sedgwick-Davies.

While the plot is less tight than the original, there are plenty of great one-liners, hare-brained contraptions, and visual gags. Rocky’s ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (and sometimes the reverse) still gives him unfair moments of heroism in contrast with Ginger’s lower key constant stubborn perseverance to protect her offspring. There’s a Mission Impossible-style sequence complete with a suitably orchestrated score, and an explosive finale that could have stolen its storyboard from a Bond film with the villain getting their comeuppance while their lair experiences what SpaceX would call a ‘rapid unscheduled disassembly’.

It may be a cockamamie tale about hens standing up against humans, but Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget is a decent animated sequel that will entertain adults returning to a childhood favourite, and win over a new generation to this tale of feathered fightback. Available to stream on Netflix from Friday 15 December.


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Sunday, December 03, 2023

Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas – are there ghosts loose in the manor hoose? (Lyric Theatre until 6 January)

Step into Darkwood Manor where the unseen Lady Alice is convalescing upstairs with her care assistant Ciara, the handyman McKillop is pootling about, the butler is lingering in the corner of the main room at a piano, and in waltzes the absentee man-in-charge Toby for his annual Christmas visit, this year accompanied by his fiancée Nancy.

Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas is a ghost story without many scares. There’s a heist, a fraud, a séance, a few mummers, a good load of skullduggery, some double crossing and a great sax solo from the resident musician Frankie McIlvanna. Stuart Marshall’s wooden Hansel & Gretel library set neatly forms the backbone of the manor house

Conor Grimes and Alan McKee have been making adolescent and adult audiences laugh at Christmas time for decades. This year’s script feels novel and the first outing for a new show that will doubtless be refined and revamped over coming years. McKee plays the cast-strapped city boy Toby with an eye for antiques, old and more modern; while Grimes enjoys getting to grips with the more rural McKillop.

Ali White adds an air of mystery as a celebrated psychic medium and, in the second act, has great fun with her spirit voice. She’s a big presence on stage and totally owns her big revelatory musical number based on the popular I Will Survive. Nicky Harley is underused as the plain-speaking Ciara who brings more than a hint of scepticism to the manor house along with disapproving glares that could cut other characters in half.

There are some great physical effects during the séance – the second show I’ve seen in a couple of weeks that incorporates one into the script – and the cast are to be applauded for fully committing to that pivotal scene as well as the play’s other moments of mayhem. Hopefully the Lyric Theatre bar’s wine rack is well stocked with bottles of Jacob’s Creek wine given its importance to the plot.

The cast all have good comic timing and a sense of how to move in comedic ways. During the interval, someone categorised the show as having “Tyrone humour”. Plenty of audience members were shrieking and snorting with laughter, and in some cases sounding like they were wetting themselves, during a bewildering Forrest Gump sketch that somehow materialised in the first act. My funny bone is hard to tickle so my limited laugh count may not be as good a guide to whether the show was hilarious.

Oddly, classic elements of Grimes & McKee shows – so frequently directed by Frankie McCafferty – that I’ve come to expect were largely missing this year. Particularly absent was the normal tomfoolery that usually includes deliberate mistakes (once accidental, then repeated nightly), ad libbing and corpsing. By sticking quite rigidly to the ghost story narrative, they omitted any crowd-pleasing, fourth-wall breaking references to local politicians or topical events. Thunder and lightning effects accompanied nearly every mention of ‘Darkwood Manor’ yet this repetition never became the knowing butt of a joke. Maybe as the run progresses, there’ll be space to let the script and the choreography meander.

The ending felt anti-climatic with a neat and just yet tame resolution to the uncovered situation. The best heists – at least on film and TV – seem to lull audiences into a false sense of security letting them believe that they understand exactly what has just happened, before another layer of double or triple crossing is deftly revealed and the audience are once again wowed having had the wool pulled over their eyes.

Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas continues at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 6 January.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

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Saturday, December 02, 2023

Maestro – the extraordinary portrayal of an extraordinary couple (QFT until 7 December before Netflix release on 20 December)

The act of sitting with a notepad and a pen in hand ready to scribble in the dark already slightly distracts from the normal audience experience. For film previews, the early morning start complete with rush hour traffic and parking frustrations adds commotion to what filmmakers intend to be a relaxing luxury night out in front of the silver screen.

Every now and again, a movie comes along that makes you forget about what else is going on in life. The performances enthral, the storytelling consumes your mental bandwidth, the music captures a mood, and you’re taken to a different place for a couple of hours.

Maestro is one of those films. The word ‘extraordinary’ comes to mind. I don’t attach stars to reviews, but if I did, Maestro would have the maximum number available. Bradley Cooper looms large over the film, a hugely positive influence on its success. He’s playing Leonard Bernstein, as well as directing and credited as co-writer with Josh Singer. While the film’s title and early scenes revolve around the chain-smoking musical genius, the balance changes over time and Maestro becomes as much about the experience of Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) as her better-known musical husband.

Montealegre is never seen to play second fiddle to Bernstein. She enjoys him, accepts him, and for a long time doesn’t seek to change him. If Cooper’s Bernstein is ebullient and driven, Mulligan’s Montealegre is tolerant and resilient. Over time they become visibly and emotionally out of sync. Bernstein was given huge freedom by his wife but was unable to use it responsibly. Exploring their complex relationship – which they attempted to hide from their children – is one of the main drivers of the film’s appeal.

The next most significant aspect is the music. The vast majority of the soundtrack features pieces written by Bernstein, underscoring dialogue and setting the emotional temperature of scenes. Cooper is seen conducting the London Symphony Orchestra for six enchanting minutes as the flamboyant Bernstein in an incredible scene that precedes a pivotal emotional change in the narrative. Captured live in long takes, there’s a sense of authenticity familiar from Cooper’s earlier performance in A Star is Born.

Matthew Libatique’s cinematography captures beautifully lit scenes in black and white, and unfussily switches to colour for later periods. Impossible shots drifting through buildings or switching location mid-pan are never showy demonstrations of special effects, just brave storytelling decisions by editor Michelle Tesoro that pay off. Maestro deserves to win significant awards for the two lead actors and many of the crafts that make the film a success.

Bernstein had a multi-hyphenated career as a public extrovert performer and a private introvert composer. A great American conductor who brought his vision to old classics. But also someone who wrote new musical theatre (which some deemed not to be “serious”). And a music educator who embraced the power of television.

“I want a lot of things” is a line of dialogue that sums up more than just Bernstein’s creative urges. Cooper conveys a man who was impetuous, last minute, talked over people, had a nervous disposition and took huge risks with how he lived his life. By the end of the film we witness a calmer individual who has learned to sacrifice, to be more loyal (perhaps not ever fully), and to better understand his own strengths and weaknesses. The conclusion is painfully sad.

Much has been written and opined over Cooper’s use of a prosthetic nose to better mirror Bernstein’s appearance and whether a Jewish actor should have been cast to play Bernstein. I’d sensitively suggest that the slight disguising of Cooper’s own readily recognisable features – it’s pretty subtle and changes to age the conductor from his mid-20s to his early-70s as the film goes on – assists in drawing the audience away from the star actor and thrusts them deeper into the film’s rich story.

Maestro has been given a brief theatrical release by its distributor Netflix before being released on the streaming platform on 20 December. See it in a cinema if you can. A big screen and proper sound system makes such a difference. And if you do watch it at home, turn the volume up loud and set your phone down. You can catch screenings of Maestro at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 7 December.


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Friday, December 01, 2023

From Lisburn to Lapland – join the elves to tour the city centre on a hunt for what the man in the red suit wants for Christmas (Three’s Theatre Company in Lisburn City Centre until 21 December)

It’s beginning to look a lot like … Santa’s elves need help figuring out what the man in the red suit wants for Christmas. But help is at hand from young volunteers who accompany them on a hunt across Lisburn City Centre, powered by candy cane, rhymes, riddles, some dancing, and the infectious energy of two chatterbox elves.

From Lisburn to Lapland features recently promoted Elsie and somewhat forgetful cousin Sproggy guide their young charges and accompanying adults from inside Bow Street Mall, out through the shopping thoroughfare, calling in with some retailers to pick up treats (hot chocolate much appreciated on a freezing cold evening) and clues. And if you complete the quest and encounter a grateful Santa – conveniently he’s often to be found resident in the light-tastic Castle Garden – he may recognise your contribution.

With no reindeer available, we travel by foot, observing the Elf and Safety rules, particularly when crossing the road. Two stage managers who are less intoxicated with elven mischief are on hand, and youngsters are decked out in hi-vis jackets. Other shoppers humour, nay respect, our exuberant and playful behaviour. What no one can control is the Pied Piper effect of other little people instinctively joining the tribe mid-show, entirely unwilling to be prised away by their embarrassed parents … it’s a good sign that the show is working and pitched at the right age.

The script bounces along with nonsense rhymes, friendly elves that are easy to help, and the added wonder of the light display stretching above the length of Bow Street and the brilliance of the gardens.

Three’s Theatre Company is no stranger to bespoke, site-specific works. Founder Anna Leckey – born and bred in Lisburn – tends to include an element of choice in her shows. Often it’s the selection of which headphone channel to listen into the inner thoughts of one of a number of actors in a scene. Her first professional show was funded by the then Lisburn City Council and this Christmas her street animation is supported by the expanded Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council.

You can join Elsie and Sproggy by booking a slot online over the next few weekends in the run up to Santa’s big present-giving deadline.

Photo credit: Simon Hutchinson

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Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Night Before Christmas – cast of six talented actor-musos in a quest to make books great again (The MAC until Sunday 7 January)

It may be The Night Before Christmas, but after a rousing opening number – Happy Christmas to All – it’s soon apparent that not all is well in Queen Talia’s land. The books are disappearing, the storyteller can’t remember her stories, and a bureaucrat is more set on making ‘his’ kingdom great again through citizens’ hard graft and suppressing creativity than fulfilling his role as the young monarch’s advisor.

Allison Harding excels as Noelle, bringing hard stares, raised eyebrows, charm, bewilderment and an infectious enthusiasm as others attempt to thwart her plans to give a Christmas treat to Talia who used to sit at her feet listening to stories. She has a great voice to deliver Garth McConaghie’s rich set of songs. The seriously officious science-loving Commissioner of the kingdom is played by Sean Kearns (not his first role as a commissioner this year). Aside from the apparatchik, watch out for Kearns bringing out a more playful side, dancing in a baby doll dress high above an utterly fabulous duckling just before the interval.

Nuala McGowan, Daniel Rivers, Katie Shortt and Jack Watson bring to life the remaining characters and also play instruments on stage (including a percussive coat stand that provides cartoonish special effects to accompany comedic moments of Adam Ashford’s choreography).

Three fairy tales are woven into Noelle’s quest to restore literary order. Stephen Beggs and Simon Magill retell them with gratifying speed and in a manner that anyone adapting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol could learn from. The final story delivers a show highlight with the appearance of the Three Little Pigs who sing the barbershop number Piggy Power – which must surely be the best song on stage this Christmas – alongside a wolfish official from council building control who doesn’t conform to lazy judgements about his character.

It’s good to see that a liberal dose of literary fairy dust has been sprinkled over Christmas shows in Belfast this year. The Night Before Christmas takes place on Diana Ennis’ two-level set faced with shelving stuffed full of books, hiding doors and other treasures. Lines from the script festoon some of her costumes.

Fergus Wachala-Kelly’s white-on-black animations are regularly projected across elements of the set, amplifying the narrative on top of McConaghie’s soundscape. Director Lisa May never allows the energy to drop and makes good use of the talented cast across the bookish set.

Adults will soon catch on to a smart, subversive, almost satirical, commentary about Brexit and government behaviour that is laced through the script and songs. While the venue pitches the show at five-year-olds and over, talk of being “bound together in gossamer strands”, Inchworm, and the tale of the Little Match Girl (which passed me by as a child and an adult) may fly over the head of younger audience members. It’s quite a loud show, with lots of music and words being pushed out towards the audience. But fear not: the run includes a handful of relaxed performances.

The Night Before Christmas makes a plea to face the uncertain future together. It’s a show that will put a smile on your face and keep it there. Performances continue in The MAC until Sunday 7 January.

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

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Sunday, November 26, 2023

Hansel & Gretel – ambitious oven-ready show delivers a modern sugary Christmas spectacle (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 6 January)

Hansel & Gretel gets off to a cracking pace, and keeps it up for most of the performance. It’s aimed at children and families, and it confidently throws a rake of characters at the young audience in the manner of children’s television or a cartoon. The songs are accompanied with catchy choreography that wouldn’t feel out of place on TikTok. The costumes have incredible detailing, drawing us into the brown bookish world that has been built on the Lyric Theatre stage. And the dialogue has enough cheeky nods to knowing adults to give the older folk sitting in the stalls something to giggle at while the younger eyes feast on what is before them.

Tara Lynne O’Neill has built a wider drama around Grimm’s story. Friendless Monty is being bullied at school. While hiding from Bugs, Slugger and Split he is transported into the world of the central fairy tale. In this version, the Woodcutter remains true to his children and it’s an evil aunt and uncle who place the twins at risk. A mousey Monty persistently highlights dangers and creates avenue of rescue as the pages are turned and they head towards the sugar-rich house. Along the way we meet talking trees, a brilliant Beaver Scout leader, a bookworm, and many, many, more. Monty must piece together the advice he’s given and learn to look at problems and tackle them from a different perspective.

The language is rich and triggers the imagination. We can play along with the evil aunt (Christina Nelson) as she struggles not to make everything she says rhyme. We can wonder at the diverse musical styles that Katie Richardson has conjured up. Bertie Jones’ Turn It Upside Down is a favourite, performed with distinction and panache by Mark Dugdale who gets the best rail of Gillian Lennox-designed costumes in the show. The twins (Catriona McFeely and Odhrán McNulty) unfussily harmonise with Monty (Conor Quinn) while Orla Gormley cooks up a storm as the sickly saccharine hostess they meet in the woods. They’ve been well drilled in their dance moves by Paula O’Reilly.

Shaving five minutes off each act might help the concentration of the youngest audience members, but with a production that needs to cater for wains and owl bucks, a perfect duration is impossible to achieve.

There’s an astonishing richness across the elements of design. Books drop in over Stuart Marshall’s set to form a literary roof. Gretel’s Glaswegian twang when she’s fooling around with Hansel is but one of the gorgeous regional accents that flavour the dialogue. Mary Tumelty makes children’s heads turn with a mesmerising constellation of light over the audience during Look Up To The Stars. Richardson allows percussive melodies to play in the background of scenes. All the while, director Patrick J O’Reilly steers the characters’ movements and gestures and pulls the different departments together to create a thoroughly modern telling of an old tale. It’s great to see an ambitious Christmas show that delivers a spectacle. Children deserve excellence.

Hansel & Gretel continues at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 6 January.

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The Eternal Daughter – a study in grief, guilt and childlessness (QFT from Friday 24 November)

Julie returns to a sprawling country hall her Mum used to visit. She’s there to write a screenplay about the mother-daughter relationship and mark her Mum’s birthday. Tilda Swinton plays both Julie and elderly mother Rosalind. The former struggles to sleep and is in a constant state of distraction that prevents progress on the new script. The distant latter pops sleeping tables like mints and when she’s not dozing, dredges up fateful memories of previous stays in the venue.

The Eternal Daughter begins with a taxi winding its way up rural roads through thick fog that is so ever-present on screen that it might be listed in the credits as a cast member. The film settles into its groove of Gothic ghost story, exploring grief, guilt and childlessness. All the while the wind howls, the windows rattle, the building groans, and Louis the dog (Swinton’s own pet) adds warmth (and whimpers) to the lonely scenes.

Joanna Hogg’s film is the latest in the chain of sparse Covid productions that enjoy small casts rattling around vast locations. At times, the warren of corridors and intimidating central staircase visually nudge the movie towards the horror genre. Carly-Sophia Davies is rather brilliant as the belligerent hotel receptionist who excels at customer disservice and seems to be in the middle of her own off-stage personal drama. In the otherwise empty hotel, the night shift is covered by Bill (Joseph Mydell) who shares his perspectives on loss with the morose Julie.

Swinton revels in the two parts written for her by frequent collaborator Hogg. Long stretches of storytelling are devoid of dialogue, with Swinton able to convincingly convey Julie’s emotion and inner turmoil through gestures and movement. We watch as a middle-aged daughter wakes up to how her parent views and judges her life choices, aware that it is now too late to change the outcome.

The Eternal Daughter is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 24 November. Bring a warm jumper or a fleece: all that fog would chill your soul!


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Friday, November 17, 2023

It was Paradise, Unfortunately (No such thing as theatre) – delving into Dionysus and discovering the seeds of surprise (Outburst Festival, until Saturday 18 November) #outburst23

Raphael Khouri takes his audiences on a trip through Berlin, Beirut, Amman, Saudi Arabia, and Los Angeles to Athens and beyond in a performance that was commissioned by Outburst Arts. It’s a mesmerising exploration of the ‘god of theatre’ – Dionysus – which explores their many and varied ancient representations, and traces threads of commonality through history, through countries, and through supposedly different characters.

Transgender playwrights are rare. Arab transgender playwrights are even more rare. Yet the illusive Dionysus turns out to reflect much that is true about self-confessed theatre addict Raphael.

The use of a lecture theatre visualiser allows artefacts to be set down and displayed on screen. It’s a fresh and novel approach, a softer and much more analogue presentation than PowerPoint would allow. There’s a poetry to the rhythm and pace of Raphael’s delivery, with his assistant stacking photographs, positioning books and curating the material that accompanies his talk.

As we hear about the wide-spread worship of Dionysus and ‘his’ alter egos, we learn about the mass participation in festivals that celebrated theatre in his name. Ecstasy and enthusiasm were at the heart of theatre that was associated with a god who was trans (like so many if you check the different representations). So why or where was that history and openness lost? And we find out the link to plants, and leave the venue with something tangible to help us grow, as well as ideas bubbling in our minds about the distant past and how it compares with the present and the potential for the future.

The final performance of It was Paradise, Unfortunately (No such thing as theatre) is at 19:30 on Saturday 18 November. Use the main entrance to the new UU campus building in York Street.

Outburst Festival continues until 18 November. Check out my other recommendations.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

2:22 A Ghost Story – a night to remember as two couples stay up late (Grand Opera House until Saturday 18 November)

It’s been a stressful few months. What with the new house and the renovations and starting to redecorate, on top of a new baby, and husband Sam disappearing off the grid to the island of Sark on an astronomy field trip. Jenny’s sleep has been disturbed by a voice at 2:22am for several nights. She’s tired and could do with more of a hand with the asparagus in the kitchen as she’s thrown a dinner party for Sam’s old mate Lauren and her latest boyfriend Ben. It’s going to be a late night.

The clue is in the title. 2:22 A Ghost Story plays out a supernatural tale with just four people and a baby in the house. Sam (Nathaniel Curtis) looks down – physically and intellectually – at everyone, a smart arse with a logical answer for everything and an instinct to share his knowledge along with his supply of jokes about Catholicism. Curtis manages to simultaneously project warmth, smugness, with a dash of ick. Jenny rarely relaxes, and Louisa Lytton plays the new mum like a coiled spring, snapping at Sam and worrying about her unsettled child.

Joe Absolom seems to revel in his role playing the slow burning disruptor, a self-made builder with racist tendencies, who at first seems to be the voice of the working class amongst the four adults, before he steps out to share his own backstory and takes the wind out of Sam’s sails. Lauren (Charlene Boyd) bounces between her fondness for Jenny and her long-time friendship with Sam. Hostess Jenny totters around on platform heels for the guts of six hours, while Lauren slips her shoes off and wanders about barefoot.

Each scene is brought to a premature end – startling many in the audience every time it happens – as the lights flicker and the room’s clocks race forward. Anna Fleischle’s set adds to the unsettled vibe with a kitchen living room exposing its social history and with an out of proportion vaulted ceiling that wouldn’t be out of place in a cathedral. The steel beams supporting the extension and new patio doors are absurdly thick for a domestic property. The kitchen’s island unit is impractically low, adding to the sense of a distorted perspective (though probably a design decision that preserves sightlines around the auditorium).

It’s a good script for actors to get their teeth into. There’s almost a race to get the lines out in the early parts of the play. Pairs of characters neatly talk over each other: the wine has only begun to flow and the couples are already animated. The dynamic range for the characters and directors (Matthew Dunster and Isabel Marr) is quite limited, veering from intense to angry to frantic and then shocked. Instead, the tension is ratcheted up with a candlelit scene and a flambéed toy. Ian Dickinson’s soundtrack is very muted, barely audible even when the characters are discussing a playlist. The cast are neatly reflected in the shiny glass of the doors that lead out to the garden where foxes are fornicating and a thick fog is brewing.

The big reveal near the end provoked audible gasps from around the stalls. Looking back, the clues are there in the earlier dialogue and actions, though there’s a completely unnecessary foreshadowing (though the accusation is pointed at the wrong person) that somehow detracts from the cleverness of Danny Robins’ writing

It’s ambitious to try to sustain an audience over two hours with a domestic drama that turns into a ghost story with only one major twist. There was a loud buzz of conversation between scenes: people were certainly engaged and 2:22 A Ghost Story had some of the Grand Opera House audience on the edge of their seats. Performances continue until Saturday 18 November.

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Monday, November 13, 2023

The Safety Catch – an extraordinary piece of theatre about the legacy and logic of roadracing

The Safety Catch is set up as a fictional confrontation between road racing champion Michael Dunlop and a friend of the family Liam Beckett who asks the rider to think about the possibility of stopping racing.

Steeped in the lore and drama of road racing, Nick Snow’s play also looks at the mentality and logic of the riders. As an examination of the human condition that drives people to take extreme risks, it finds universal drama that can appeal to a non-sporting audience. A tussle between a friend who has lost too much and a rider who might not know how to stop.

Beckett (Fra Gunn) establishes that he was a close friend of Robert Dunlop, brother of Joey, and father to William and Michael. Joey, Robert and William all died in road racing accidents. In a bold move for a play about sport, Beckett’s dialogue often has the rhythm and style of an extended Shakespearean monologue, rather than a contemporary play. Lashings of Greek mythology are thrown in, with Trojan prince Hector in combat with Achilles. This kind of overwriting would often be a step too far, but describing a sport which so readily uses the language of the battlefield, it works and adds another rich layer to the story.

Andrew McCracken brilliantly conjures up the gruff and taciturn biker who doesn’t need words when communing with his machine. Michael carries not only the family name but also the legacy of their tragedy. This weight is almost tangible in the way McCracken holds himself. Michael is brusque, occasionally wry, and always deadly serious about his ability and success. McCracken shows great throttle control, shifting gears from being quiet and dismissive to almost exploding with fervour in a post-interval monologue that describes Michael’s fight with the bike.

I’m not a fan of road-racing, but The Safety Catch engages and informs, and a week later it’s still vivid in my thinking. I’ve witnessed the spectacle of road racing just once in my life. As a family we headed up to Dundrod. I remember the intense sound as the bikes went past. But other than the long, straight empty roads, I’ve no actual memory of what the bikes racing past looked like, probably too small and too far back to catch much of the blur of man and machine.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed a minister who is chaplain to the road-racing community. He’d conducted the funerals of more than 20 motorcyclists. Did the ethic of a sport that kills so many participants bother him? “Yes it does, but while they make that choice I’d like to be available for them and their families. I’m not an apologist for road racing… But I respect their wish to do so … I’m not there to start the race, and I’m not there to make their bikes go quick. I’m there for them as people.”

Just as the house is victorious in the long run in a casino, we’re told that that the road wins in racing. Against those odds, Beckett asks what some in the audience are wondering: how can a rider sit on the start line knowing that to be competitive, to go that little bit faster, they will be creeping closer to the mechanical limits of their bike and the road conditions. The better you become, the more risk you carry.

In the wake of a death, radio phone-in discussions rarely get any further than “it’s in the blood” when explaining why young men – and it only seems to be men on the road with women sticking to track-racing – knowingly put themselves in such danger.

But Snow’s play provides a range of deeper answers. Michael talks about sitting on the grid, believing he won’t die this time. Weighing up the odds, one race at a time, feeling confident that he can beat the road. That’s sufficient to rev up the engine and start.

The sporting commentator deliberately pulled back from covering road racing five years ago and now focuses on football. Beckett pushes back on Michael, asking whether he’s too much of a coward to consider stopping.

For the men at the top of the sport, they’re not racing against the other competitors. The real race is between man and machine. Whereas his uncle Joey is described as a beautiful rider, at one with his bikes, Michael is more brutal, taming his machine like a wild horse.

Racing enthusiasts dominated the audience at the performance I attended in the Lyric Theatre. Many that I talked to hadn’t been to a theatre before except for a family pantomime. People in the know said they recognised the portrayal of Michael Dunlop’s manner that they saw at races, they admitted that the theatrical version was necessarily far too loquacious.

Dee Armstrong has created a corrugated iron and wooden panelled set, a shed in which Michael spends most of the production servicing a bike. Director Joe O’Byrne allows The Safety Catch to pay tribute to the achievements and death of the Dunlop riders in a way that is unvarnished and never overly fawning. The scenes that open up a wooden box containing three family helmets are packed with emotion and unspoken sentiment.

While the play relies on real events, the confrontation is a work of fiction. It’s been written with the knowledge but not the active cooperation of Michael Dunlop who shuns the limelight and lets his recording of winning do the talking.

A nostalgic or uncritical conversation might have been turgid. But that’s not what the creatives and cast have produced. The Safety Catch is an extraordinary piece of theatre: intelligent, deep, funny, moving, unapologetic and very realistic about the sport and the competitors it’s describing. Hopefully the play will return with a longer run that can not only capture the enthusiasm of the racing community but also those of us for whom the need for speed is hard to fathom but the human story is completely absorbing.

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Saturday, November 11, 2023

The Headless Soldier (The Belfast Ensemble & Outburst Arts at Lyric Theatre as part of Outburst Queer Arts Festival until Saturday 11 November) #outburst23

The Belfast Ensemble premiered their first version of Abomination in the Lyric Theatre as part of Outburst Festival five years ago. It was a thrilling bonus, tacked on the end of a restaging of The Doppler Effect.

At this year’s festival, they’re performing The Headless Soldier, an opera in three parts that began when Afghanistan was in the news, and would have played against the continuing news reports from Ukraine if it hadn’t been for Gaza and Israel taking over the top slot for international conflict reporting in bulletins. This post is more of a response than a formal review.

Future students will probably write essays that remark on the opening line: “This is a mixture of raspberries and cranberries.” It’s mundane, and one end of the continuum presented over the next hour and a bit that stretches from home to more traditional war zones. Though home can also be a war zone, which is partly the point. Is there a point of discontinuity between a parent’s aggressive thoughts, words and deeds and the violent thoughts, words and deeds of a soldier or mercenary? Or the repercussions of any number of inequalities, acts of prejudice, bias and discrimination that we experience in life?

Helen (Sarah Richmond) says sings that she is intolerant of caffeine; but that turns out just to be the tip of her iceberg of irritation and hate. Acupuncture. Therapy. She’s tried it all to manage her issues, and perhaps wanted to take matters into her own hands too. The second act properly introduces her husband Thomas (Ed Lyon) and son Zach (Shea McDonnell) and we discover that while personal conflict consumes Helen, Thomas is torn apart by global concerns. Meanwhile young Zach has been drawing pictures of a soldier with no head.

The interval allows the themes to settle. The man off the TV news report visits – there’s a beautiful reveal of Christopher Cull’s character – and disturbs Zach’s reverie in his bedroom. Zach’s torch shines a light; the man’s brightly coloured toy rifle extinguishes what light is left on his battlezone. It’s a dark final act with well-directed movements that are made to look so much more disturbing because there’s a child on stage.

If a mother loses her head over seemingly small things, is she just fighting in a different battleground to those protesting at housing provision, or the soldiers in khaki who are fighting for freedom and democracy? But whose freedom and whose democracy? And maybe what seems like adult behaviour actually starts with us as children railing against what aggravates and annoys Maybe Zach is no more innocent that his parents or the headless soldier? Is it futile to fighting against all this?

There’s a 15-strong orchestra under the stage, a teak platform that provides a number of domestic spaces, a plastic box full of Lego bricks that find their way to the floor, and some harsh blinders from lighting designer Mary Tumelty who switches mood in time with the music. Gavin Peden’s two-layer projections add contemporary context to the universal. Projecting some of the lyrics onto the back wall – made to look like chalk on a blackboard – is effective. Every singer’s diction is excellent, but there’s an extra playfulness and sense of poetry when the words are in vision. And there’s plenty of good acting in this opera.

Theatre allows lines to be drawn between unusual dots. The act of sitting in a seat for an hour or more gives space to recognise yourself in the story, or to question whether what you’re seeing and hearing is universal or just applicable in some situations. The Headless Soldier plays with that freedom to stir up settled thoughts. And it proves that swear words were surely made for opera!

The fact that this work has been co-produced and programmed as part of Outburst festival also raises unspoken questions of how the conflict experienced by queer communities – and not forgetting the conflict between queer communities – fits into the human tendency towards intolerance, fear, misery, war and peace.

With music (and direction) by Conor Mitchell and the libretto by Mark Ravenhill, The Headless Soldier is a provocative operatic triptych. The final performance as part of Outburst Queer Arts Festival is on Saturday 11 November ... assuming the blood can be washed out of the costumes in time!

You can find some other recommendations in my preview of Outburst festival.

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Last Rifleman – emotionally pitch-perfect with a strong backstory and filled with the kindness of strangers (Sky Cinema) #bff23

In 2004, a patient absconded from his English nursing home and travelled across to attend the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations in Normandy. Bernard Jordan’s escapade inspired a number of screenplays. One was the debut feature script by Kevin Fitzpatrick which has recently been released as The Last Rifleman.

This fictionalised reimagining transports the action to Northern Ireland where Artie Crawford (Pierce Brosnan) lives in a care home. When his wife Maggie (Stella McCusker) dies, he decides to take care of some unfinished business and travels to Normandy for the first time to pay his respect to the fallen 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles.

There are many reasons why this should not work as a film.

It could be something akin to a travelling home for Christmas travel disaster movie … of which there are many and I despise them all. It could be relying on stiff-upper lip patriotism – of which I’m not a huge fan – to stimulate emotion. It could be laced with schmaltz and ridicule the actions and difficulties of a plucky nonagenarian. It could resort to pulling emotional heartstrings like a horror film engineering a series of jump scares.

Despite all those fears, The Last Rifleman works, and works well.

The script very slowly reveals a devastating backstory that explains Artie’s motivation for travelling. The kindness of strangers – in particular, a series of intergenerational accomplices – rescue him every time he stumbles in his journey. Artie’s confusion at not being able to locate anyone else from his old regiment makes sense like a punch in the gut (he didn’t have the advantage of the film’s title ahead of time). A significant act of remembrance is very sensitively shot.

And in amongst the seriousness of his quest, there’s a lot of humour with another care home resident (Ian McElhinney) turning into a PR supremo and Tara Lynne O’Neill giving a lot of side-eye, pursed lips, and under-the-breath insults as a member of staff. Clémence Poésy is super as the French mother on the ferry who still has some esprit de la Résistance in her blood.

To be honest, I struggle to place Brosnan’s accent. Born in Drogheda, he also lived in Meath, but playing 92-year-old Artie, he sounds like he’s somewhere between the US, Scotland with a touch of Dublin, delivering lines that are very Bell-fast, so he is. The saving grace is that for long periods, he doesn’t have to say a lot, so instead we learn to track Artie by groans and heavy breathing. (Mamma Mia fans will want to know that at one point Brosnan sings … and it’s not awful this time.)

I cry easily in the cinema, but last night I wept buckets. It was of considerable relief that the person in the next seat had also developed a bit of a sniffle and the lights stayed off during the credits. Early on, Terry Loane’s skillful direction conveys a powerful feeling of grief in Artie’s last moments with his darling Maggie. It defines the measure of the film’s lead character and brands Artie into audience hearts from that point on.

Watching the gala screening of The Last Rifleman last night as part of Belfast Film Festival and just a few days ahead of Armistice Day, my mind quickly wandered to thinking about war, the conflict in Gaza and Israel, and in Ukraine. At this time of year, I tend to wear a red and a white poppy. It a conversation starter rather than instantly offending people. I want to remember all those who died in wars. I’m not ideological enough to be a pacifist. But I’m never going to be drawn into labelling so-called sides as all good or all bad, morally upright or totally wrong. There are at least some regrettable actions on all sides. There are good people trapped in circumstances from which they cannot or will not escape. Innocent people suffer everywhere. Artie meets a German soldier along the way who says: “It’s a shock to learn you’ve lost the war. It’s a greater shock to discover you’ve been on the wrong side.” For a few minutes, the film pauses and considers that war isn’t simple in a beautifully awkward encounter.

If I could change one thing, I would drop the final scene which includes real veterans along with the cast. I don’t think I needed to know what happened next after Normandy, though it does allow the pipes to play!

The Last Rifleman is currently showing on Sky Movies Premiere. It looks great on a big cinema screen and it’s a shame there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity for even a limited local release.


Check out my other recommendations at Belfast Film Festival which finishes on Saturday 11 November.

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Thursday, November 09, 2023

How To Have Sex – lonely in a crowd, with friends but vulnerable, consent that isn’t freely given (Queen’s Film Theatre until 9 November) #bff23

Three young women celebrate the end of school and distract themselves from looming exam results with a boozy holiday in Malia, Crete. Will it be a rite of passage into adulthood for Tara, Skye and Em? Will it make memories and friendships that will last a lifetime? Or will it be a week with nights that can’t be remembered and encounters that can never be forgotten?

The hectic holiday makers have little time for reflection or relaxation. It’s full-on screaming, smoking and boozing. Drink shots, vomit, more drink, puke, the cycle is unending. When the teenagers’ energy levels eventually wilt, a quick nap and they’re ready to head out for another day of boozy shenanigans. It’s like Skins on vacation, but with a lot more naivety, fewer jokes and even more troubled drama. (Though I was the only person at my screening to laugh out loud at Tara’s gag about the pigs hiding in trees.)

Mia McKenna-Bruce’s Tara wears an ‘angel’ necklace with more than a whiff of irony. It’s a constant visual reminder that external appearances don’t tell the whole story and there’s more to Tara than the cinema audience and the other holidaymakers realise. Tara’s friends (played by Lara Peake and Enva Lewis) will want her hot take if she hooks up with a boy, but don’t really have her back when it matters.

The fellas in the next-door apartment are like wolves. They demand attention, shouting and whistling over from one balcony to another. Badger (Shaun Thomas) is extrovert, up for anything, in your face, and unashamed. But it’s the quieter Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) who is the real predator, the kind of guy who has a bedpost that could collapse at any moment due to the notches he’ll have carved in it to record his ghosted ‘conquests’.

Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut How To Have Sex is assured and deeply raw. She holds no punches in exposing the complexity of teenage emotions, desires and anxieties. Despite the film’s title – and Skye and Em impelling Tara to have sex for the first time – Walker doesn’t need to expose bits and bobs to tell her story. What she does reveal is even more sensitive. While Tara is sweet on Badger, it’s Paddy who presents an opportunity and a quiet venue. What follows is a case study in how coercion and alcohol affect informed consent. 

How To Have Sex starts out with the girls going on holiday to find freedom. But they quickly discover that other people seem to be the ones free to criticise their looks and take advantage of their vulnerability. Despite the swimware, the unspoken demons of body image insecurities are visible. The holiday is stuffed full of moments when characters feel lonely in a crowd. They don’t want to stand out but are uncomfortable just fitting in. Their freedom includes not noticing when a girl doesn’t come back the apartment one evening, left behind on their night out. Petty rivalries emerge even amongst friends. It’s turning into a holiday where they’re free to experience hurt and disappointment, and worse.

As Tara wanders alone and begins to process what’s happened, a stranger – a Scottish girl staying in a villa – intervenes and looks out for her. It’s a moment of hope and compassion, but also a potentially worrying development in case she too takes advantage of Tara’s situation. Can anyone be trusted in a resort? Faith in humanity is stretched thin by this tale.

Walker’s film is fictional but very familiar. It is slow to glamorise. While being made to watch How To Have Sex might make parents of teenagers lock away their passports or forget to renew them, screening it to 17 and 18 year – it has a 15 certificate – might jolt them into realising that the dangers their parents and teachers speak of are real. And it might put them on their guard for any preying Paddys out there.

How To Have Sex was screened at Belfast Film Festival and is on release at Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 9 November.

Check out my other recommendations at Belfast Film Festival which continues until Saturday 11 November.

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