Sunday, March 15, 2020

A double bill of Dutch shows with beautiful visuals, gorgeous movement and audience participation closed Belfast Children’s Festival #bcf2020


Belfast Children’s Festival is clearly in rude health. This year’s events finished on Wednesday night with a double bill of Dutch physical performance that shone out as amongst the best of work aimed at young audiences. And the quality and inventiveness of local work featured in the festival – like Kindermusik and The Untold Truth of Captain Hook – held up against the international work.

At first the wooden box in the middle of the stage seemed quite shy. Movement behind one fabric face of the cube revealed light and shadow. Soon the coughing of the hermit hiding inside added a deeper layer of meaning, ‘social isolation’ to use the phrase de jour. Hermit comes alive at the point that the box spins round and digits appear, and then door bells galore, and later a pivotal moment of ringing the bell, looking inside and saying “I’m not at home”. Like much of the best children’s work, Simone de Jong’s words are minimal, but those that are uttered bring at first a deep sense of sadness and later joy to this beautifully crafted onehanded production that succeeds in exploring what it means to be alone, to be settled, and to feel at home. And the way that the show finishes – I’ll not give too much away – with the rehearsed performance morphing into a joyful time of audience participation is particularly heart-warming.

With a similar style of ending but a much more energetic performance, Tetris also captures the involvement – and at times invasion – of the audience with a playful dance performance that uses familiar shapes and movements from offline and computer games. Beginning with piano music worthy of a Saturday evening BBC Four Nordic Noir drama, the cast of four combine, intersect and tessellate their bodies into shapes. Arch8’s display of body engineering demonstrates great precision and strength. It’s as if human bodies could be stuck together with magnets. The crazy human centipedes are superb to watch, their extreme Tai Chi shapes and extensions a marvel of physical discipline. But then the audience are allowed to become complicit in the remote control of the dancers using a familiar cubic toy, and it was rewarding to watch children young and old set aside their traditional Norn Iron reserve and join in the on-stage antics with minimal instruction. The final switch of perspectives and role reversal

Both of these Dutch shows eschewed a passive audience experience and offered a wholehearted sense of participation to everyone present. Both shows used beautiful visuals and gorgeous movements to tell a story and project ideas and questions into the heads of their audiences. Great choices to finish a festival which speaks directly to children who have fewer preconceptions and inhibitions about engaging with new concepts and difference.

Hurrah for another successful Belfast Children’s Festival. And here’s to plenty more.

Photo credit: Simon Graham (right hand image)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Preview – 1984 – (Bruiser Theatre coproduction with Lyric Theatre from 18 April)

You could be forgiven for thinking that we’re now living in the middle of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in this age of self-imposed surveillance with our reliance on apps and social media, never mind government surveillance and the introduction of facial recognition cameras. And with alternative facts and a scant regard for truth and accuracy in some quarters, Orwell seems particularly prescient.

While Animal Farm was the novel favoured by English classes at my school, and served as my introduction to the notion of different political ideologies, 1984 is so much darker and more rewarding each time I’ve picked up and reread my battered copy.

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s Olivier Award-nominated stage adaptation of the classic novel is coming to the stage of the Lyric Theatre in April.

“Fantastic, bold, immersive and very clever” is how Bruiser Theatre Company’s director Lisa May described the script when I sat down to talk with her last week.



The local cast of nine (eight adults and one child) has just been revealed, and the director is bursting with ideas to take into the rehearsal room.

“I’ve had it in my mind’s eye for the last two or three years. It’s just so relevant and being written in 1948, you would think that Orwell had a crystal ball. Obviously he didn’t, but what he did have was a really amazing understanding of the human condition and our weakness, which is apathy.”

1984 follows a group of historians as they pore over the diary of Winston Smith, discussing the merits of long-erased Comrade 6079, and how his love for a woman called Julia starts to free his thoughts from his mandatory allegiance to a controlling regime. The appendix to Orwell’s novel also forms a vital part of the play.

Richard Clements has been cast as Winston, Sophie Robinson plays Julia, and they will be joined on stage by Tony Flynn, Jo Donnelly, Marty Maguire, Terry Keeley, Richard Croxford and Karl O’Neill.

“The play should appeal to the academic as well as to people like me who love the novel. It’s very true to the original. Icke and Macmillan don’t take any liberties with it, but they have created a framework that is so clever, that addresses all the themes in a very slick and tight manner.”

May has long been a fan of Orwell’s novel and in preparation for directing the stage play, she has been soaking up books and films about the book and its author. She describes 1984 as “meatier that any other show I’ve done in a long time … so I've sent the cast a cheat sheet to do some homework” in preparation for the conversations she expects to have at rehearsals about how it all fits together.

“I keep going down a never-ending series of rabbit holes – frustrating and wonderful – as I research. Therein lies madness! So I'm really looking forward to entering the rehearsal room, getting the cast engrossed in it, and beginning to explore it all physically, instead of just over thinking and slowly going mad!”

One of the key concepts of 1984 is ‘doublethink’: the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

There are parallels with theatre even before adding the notions involved in this particular story. “Theatre in itself is doublethink,” explains May. “[The cast and the audience] know they’re in a theatre and not Oceania. We willingly trick ourselves.”

One unanswered conundrum in the novel is whether Winston’s lover Julia is a member of the Thought Police. “That's one of those eternal questions that will come up in rehearsals,” says May. “Julia might be, but she might not. That’s also doublethink, so the actors almost have to go through a process of doublethink as we don’t provide the answer.”

Over the last few years, Bruiser have enjoyed success on stage with shows like Putnam County Spelling Bee, Cabaret, The 39 Steps, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Ladykillers, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ and The Colleen Bawn.

May sums up the company’s style as staging physical, fast, choral, ensemble work that places actors at the centre of performances without reliance on elaborate sets or costumes.

While there’s no room for slapstick comedy or farce in 1984, and the set is large – “though we’re going to use everything about it across the play” – there’s a sense of pace in Icke and Macmillan’s script that suits the Bruiser style.

May hopes that local casting, accents and setting – “I’m basing it here because it could be anywhere” – will help audiences to connect more and see themselves in the story.

The Lyric’s executive producer Jimmy Fay says that “this brilliant, chilling and exhilarating adaptation of 1984 will leave audiences gripping their seats in astonishment”.

“It also reminds us of our responsibility as human beings to each other. It is extraordinarily relevant to our current age of fake news and unexpected politics. Big Brother may be still watching us; in fact, he never went away. But like heroes in a David Bowie song, we are always rebelling against the shackles.”

1984 contains scenes of violence and an age recommendation of 15+ is advised.

“This production really shakes you up, it’s not easy viewing,” says May. “I want the audience to feel that discomfort … This adaptation is so clever that it turns the cameras back on us and suggests we are complacent in this, that we should take responsibility for what we put online and how we choose to live our lives.”

One of the lines in the play – though not taken directly from Orwell’s text – says: “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening.”

Or as Orwell put it: “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

The Lyric Theatre and Bruiser Theatre Company coproduction of 1984 runs from Saturday 18 April until Saturday 16 May. On the eve of the production, the Lyric will stage New Speak, with dynamic short performance pieces commissioned from five artists (Amadan Ensemble, Zara Janahi, Dominic Montague, Katie Richardson and Lata Sharma) that seek to engage with the urgent questions raised by our current political, social and economic moment.

The Hunt – a sardonic gorefest (UK and Irish cinemas from 11 March)

A handful of gagged oddbods wake up in a green field and find a stash of weapons. But it’s soon apparent that they’re ill-equipped to defend themselves against their hunters. But don’t choose a favourite character too quickly as The Hunt very quickly becomes gruesome and stays bloody until its almost dance-like finish.
“Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables”

Why a group of business elites would think that it was possible to get away with – and survive – this dastardly weekend activity is never properly justified. And why they’d be so blasé about their own number becoming collateral damage in the fightback is part of the reality that needs to suspended in order to enter into the film’s universe and find entertainment.

Directed by Craig Zobel and co-written by Damon Lindelof, The Hunt’s most interesting character emerges as Crystal, played by Betty Gilpin with sardonic wit and a great sense of timing. Her retelling of The Tortoise and the Hare is worthy of something Martin McDonagh might have slipped into his play The Pillowman. She’s more than a match for any of her fellow deplorables and is overequipped to fight back against the hunters. The final highly choreographed fight scene is beautiful to watch but quite fanciful.

The sense of a game board ever expanding until the prey are never certain what is real and what is truly part of their own personal hell is well executed. There’s a lot of grim humour wrapped around ghastly injuries and deaths, though the special effect for bodies exploding into smithereens is a little overused.

The idea of a pig called Orwell is good until you realise that the references to Animal Farm are ill-fitting and the ‘Snowball’ character makes no sense. There may well be an allegory buried inside The Hunt, but it’s pretty illusive. Instead we watch as a bunch of rich ne'er-do-wells take revenge against people that they dislike, proving that the rich have no sense and deserve whatever comeuppance is meted out against them. The elite are (mostly) liberal – a sugared drink is described as poisonous, though would the truly woke actually joke about pro-choice, race and gender in the way they do? – but despite picking up on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton rhetoric, it’s hard to buy into the trap that they would be Trump haters or Trump supporters. Any why the complete lack of remorse when their friends are gunned down one at a time? The satire is spread very thin over a slightly stale sour dough bagel of plot.

Last year’s Ready or Not was funnier and had a more satisfying ending. But if you want to escape into a repulsive world where life is little valued and another death is only ever just around the corner, then this is the film for you.

After a delay of five and a half months, The Hunt is released in UK and Irish cinemas on Wednesday 11 March (ahead of its US release on Friday 13 March).

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Kindermusik – since Mozart was composing aged five, The Belfast Ensemble want to inspire young people to follow suit #BCF2020

On Saturday afternoon, I sighed as I drove out of the Stormont Hotel car park and down the Newtownards Road towards the city centre. There are days when blogging about politics and covering party conferences clashes with artistic events. Should I stop off at St Martin’s? Or should I just drive past, swinging onto the Lagan Bridge and down the Westlink to head home.

I’m so glad I stopped.

Last year The Belfast Ensemble performed a concert version of The Musician, a children’s horror opera. This year they were back with Kindermusik, a gentle tale about a musical journey.

Once upon a time there was a page of music, but amongst the lines and notes was a dot who wasn’t like the other dots. She dreamt of freedom, jumping off the page, landing with a clang on the piano, and bouncing off onto a highly-strung violin. From there it was a quick hop to a clarinet with a sticky key, a grumpy old cello, a drum, a trumpet and a flute.

Instruments pick up where Abigail McGibbon’s storytelling snippets end – why isn’t she narrating CBeebies nightly Storytime? – and the young audience sit on cushions (with chairs for the older bottoms) in the middle of the floor, listening to the musicians who are seated on small platforms around the circumference. No conductor is required with eye contact across the room used to coordinate the playing. Beautifully tuned sounds reverberate off the old church’s brick walls. Conor Mitchell throws in a wee joke at the expense of jazz, and drummers and trumpet players should be on high alert for any signs of disrespect!

Over 40 minutes we all learn about pitch and duration, composing and harmonising. A bit of nifty deconstruction reveals that Mozart was aged five when he wrote his Minuet in G, as young as some of those sitting on the floor listening to Kindermusik. Soon the dot is composing its own tune, a familiar melody that is at first melancholic before blooming into something joyful.

Back in 2017 I wrote that “the genius of The Belfast Ensemble is that together the artists produce high quality, imaginative work that is riddled with enough layers of meaning that you are left wanting to hit rewind and go back to the beginning to breathe it all in again”.

This afternoon, I found myself sitting in a circle, listening to the music and words tell a story, with a huge satisfied grin on my face. Kindermusik is definitely high quality, definitely imaginative and oozes charm for young and old.

Kindermusik continues as part of Belfast Children’s Festival until Sunday 8 March.

Friday, March 06, 2020

The Untold Truth of Captain Hook – gripping and imaginative with a surprising set and mesmerising performances (Replay Theatre in Lyric Theatre) #BCF2020

Replay Theatre opened Belfast Children’s Festival this evening with a charming and intricate piece of theatre that mesmerised children and adults alike. The Untold Truth of Captain Hook takes a look behind the popular villain and imagines an origin story that humanises the figure of hate who looms large in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

James is a minute older and a decade less spontaneous than his twin brother Peter. When their mother dies and their father disappears, they have to fend for themselves. But ‘better together’ isn’t always an enduring strategy, and when the two lads become separated, one grows up quickly while the other clings onto childhood out of fear of further loss.

Chris Grant and Niomi Liberante play James and Peter with vim and vigour. Extended fight sequences show the rough and tumble of siblings playing at being pirates. Acrobatic Liberante exits the stage in novel ways and doubles up as another orphan Rupert. By the end of the show, Grant’s swaggering James feels a foot taller than at the start. Gary Crossan plays the father/narrator, allowing an increasing knowingness drift over the story like a sea fog as the audience are lured into the unfolding tale.

David Morgan’s tale is beautifully structured and weaves in so much of the Peter Pan universe while leaving space for new imagination. Promises, fears and juicy moist bananas speak to children. But their parents recognise regrets, dilemmas, and doing the wrong thing for the right reason. The soundscape is rich, though sometimes abrupt in its transitions. Diana Ennis’ set takes the shape of a tall ship’s quarter deck with time pieces covering the teak beams. The nautical design reveals surprise after surprise as the cast of three clamber over its levels and swing from the rigging. The use of shadow fighting projected onto the sails is a nice nod – though probably unintended – to Paul Boyd’s Peter Pan that ran in the Lyric over Christmas.

Janice Kernoghan-Reid works magic with repeated gestures, small props, and unexpected moments to draw together the strength of the writing and the design to create a rather stunning new piece of children’s theatre that runs in the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast Children’s Festival until Tuesday 10 March.

With Cahoots NI touring the world with their powerful shows and Replay Theatre on top form with Hook, Northern Ireland is demonstrating that it’s a powerhouse for children’s arts.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Masterpieces – an exploration of the pain, power and pleasure involved in pornography (Blacklight Productions at Smock Alley Theatre and Crescent Arts Centre)

Blacklight Productions have modernised and localised Sarah Daniels’ 1983 play Masterpieces in which she lays out a spectrum of male outrage, starting with telling misogynist jokes at one end and extending to the enjoyment of violent porn and snuff movies at the other. Other than some deliberately off-colour jokes near the start – which neither merited laughs nor received them in the Dublin show I attended – brace yourself for two hours 15 minutes of serious messaging without any satire to lighten the pressure.

Plays can often be used to unpick the complexity of an issue, confronting the audience with moral dilemmas and competing motivations that cannot easily be resolved. In the case of Masterpieces, the audience are faced with three men who are wholehearted and unapologetic consumers of all manner of porn, and three women who to varying degrees are willing to name the victims and call out a causal link between watching violent porn and becoming sexually violent.

Early on in the first act, a rowdy dinner party with three couples reveals the accelerant that will spark an eventual inferno, firing up Rowena to be on trial for a terrible action on a train platform. That some of the women can socially join with the men in telling rape jokes is an early indication of peer pressure and blurred lines of acceptable attitude and behaviour. With the ‘Rugby rape trial’ and the public sentiment around it still vivid in people’s memories, the Belfast run of Masterpieces will have an added frisson of revulsion on top of the understanding that #MeToo has awoken.

A social worker by day and maligned wife by night, Ellis O’Donnell plays Rowena with a growing determination. Her mother (Maureen Rabbitt) drinks heavily though it is only after the interval that we fully understand the pain she lives with. School friend Yvonne (Danii Byrne) is the first to voice concern at the sexual exploitation she witnesses boys ogling every day in school. Gemma Long plays a single mother, Irene, one of Rowena’s clients, creating the most gripping and empathetic performance of the piece with an early defensiveness that is coupled with a desire to change.

After the initial setup, Masterpieces settles down to a relatively undramatic sequence of one-on-one conversations and monologues directed out at the audience. Cast members uninvolved in a scene mostly remain on stage, sitting with their backs to the audience, though Cliodhna McAllister’s direction sometimes allows the women to watch and nod along sympathetically with other female characters.

Daniels writes her men as unrepentant and without any possibility of redemption. Playing Yvonne’s husband, Conrad Jones-Brangan towers over every woman who appears on his radar with a bullying and dismissive persona. “I’ve never raped anyone, I’ve never attacked a single woman” claims Rowena’s toxic partner (Aidan White) who is shallow, smarmy and wears a mocking Repeal t-shirt that sullies a cause he doesn’t pretend to understand. Meanwhile Eoin O’Sullivan slowly reveals the less than winsome traits of Rowena’s step-father. Síofra Brogan plays the judge and a number of other roles.

Other than a garden area to one side, the on-stage drama is conducted astride a three-level concrete cake structure which makes the actors look like polar bears in a zoo enclosure performing for the paying public. Ivy grips every structure, much like the abusive porn that is seen to pervade each character’s life.

Voxpops with the public admitting whether or not they use porn, and academics and workers talking about the impact of sexual violence on women bookend each act. These moments of realism only serve to underline the fantastical and somewhat forced nature of the some of the drama that might have been as effective with the mother/step-father couple removed.

Sporadically throughout the script, Daniels adds in minor characters and pockets of dialogue that try to unpack the reasons people give for excusing terrible behaviour. The most effective is a young mother who is trying to weigh up the love she feels for her teenage son with the anger she’d have felt if it had been her daughter he’d raped. Yet it’s as if simultaneously holding these two opposite emotions is being challenged as abnormal.

The video and unobtrusive soundscape work well, through the show’s lighting is uneven, sometimes leaving cast members speaking in the gloom as they walk around the set. Daniels’ cross-examination dialogue is salted with a good dose of fictional pretence that make old episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey seem like real-life court transcripts with cheeky back and forth jousting tolerated between Rowena, the judge and the prosecution lawyer.
“If they did to dogs what they do to women there would be a public outcry.”
If the play’s strength is its demolition of arguments against the harms underlying pornography, its weakness is that the production takes aim at so many different targets: men, legislation, courts, press barons, and sex shops. All are worthy of coming under the spotlight, but the width of field does blur the focus. And if there’s an accidental moral of the story, it’s that the three marriages at the heart of this anti-romcom play all demonstrate terrible choices that are worthy of much regret.

While there is much to critique and mull over, the unrelenting drive in Daniels’ writing, the ambition of Blacklight Productions to restage a play that split opinion back in the 1980s, coupled with the elaborate detailing of the set and some of the glimpses into other people’s lives make Masterpieces a novel if distressing trip to the theatre.

Masterpieces and its exploration of pain, power and pleasure runs nightly at the Smock Alley Theatre Dublin until Saturday 7 March and will be up in Crescent Arts Centre from Thursday 16 to Saturday 18 April.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Shirley Valentine – liberated, back on stage, stronger than ever, taking her stand in the sun and no longer in anyone’s shadow (Lyric Theatre until 15 March)

The Lyric Theatre have revived last year’s successful production of Shirley Valentine. Like their revamped Educating Rita, the rehearsal time for the second run has not been spent relearning the script and the performance but finetuning and enhancing the already impressive show.

Sitting in the stalls tonight I was reminded of Lisa McGee’s interview with Eamonn Mallie on UTV earlier this week when she explained that while a badly shot drama could often be improved in the edit, of a comedy script isn’t funny on set, it stands no chance of being funny on screen. For that reason, the writer of Derry Girls (in which O’Neill plays Ma Mary) is present on set every day during filming. McGee toils over the scripts and the cast have to bring them to life. Improvisation is not encouraged (though she admits that stand-up comedian Tommy Tiernan – Da Gerry, O’Neill’s on-screen husband – is sufficiently funny as a stand-up comedian to sneak in some suggestions).

The brilliance of Willy Russell’s script is even more obvious in 2020. Oisín Kearney’s edits to relocate the action from Liverpool to Belfast are still solid, and local audiences laugh knowingly at the references to Donaghadee and Bangor. But it’s Russell’s fine structure, the layers of mirroring, the quick wittedness, and comedic quality that really shines through this year.

The conceit of Shirley Valentine is that a 42-year-old woman has been taken for granted by her husband, daughter and neighbours who have made her believe that she’s mundane and boring free. She takes a stand and breaks free, heading off for a fortnight’s holiday in Greece to be in the sun for once instead of everyone else’s shadow.

Tara Lynne O’Neill uses comic timing, accents, poise, mannerisms, interaction with the audience, and stacks of brio to bring the eponymous character to life. At first trapped in her kitchen before breaking free into the Greek idyll, Patrick J O’Reilly’s complex choreography hides behind what seem like simple movements across the kitchen and the beachfront. The precision of the intermeshing of movement and dialogue is apparent when it turns out that Shirley hasn’t just cracked couple of eggs and peeled some spuds while offloading her situation to the audience, she’s actually cooked them on the oven’s rings.

Shirley is quietly pleased with her own jokes, and rightly so. O’Neill is in her element, conducting the audience’s reaction. The laughter across the auditorium seems to have doubled from last year. Every line in the first half hits its mark and the creative team have had the confidence to build in space for response rather than moving on too quickly.

Paul Keoghan’s lighting design with its sense of the recurring rising and setting of the sun is probably meant to illustrate the multi-week timeline of each act, but I’m still slightly baffled by the speed and symbolism. A very familiar yet muted soundtrack of hits from the 1980s only breaks through in the dialogue-free moments, even more evocative for the restraint shown. A stylised musical interlude foreshadows what we’ll later hear has happened in the house before the interval. The set and props offer up a whole series of surprises and alternative uses throughout the two-act play.

The brilliance of the script, performance and direction together with the obvious painstaking detail that has gone into the show’s design creates a very strong production. Shirley Valentine continues in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 15 March. The coronavirus may deter a surge of booking flights of Greek islands, but the stirring rhetoric will echo in the heads of many theatre goers.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog – humourless and puerile baloney that makes the movie Cats look like an Oscar contender

There’s a good sequence in Sonic the Hedgehog as the trailers roll and the plot is reprised (albeit in the wrong order) with a pixelated computer game version of Sonic scrabbling around in a baseball field, San Francisco, Paris and Egypt.

It’s a great two minutes of animation that unfortunately comes at the end of an hour and a half of humourless and puerile baloney directed by Jeff Fowler that makes the movie Cats look like an Oscar contender. There were very few oohs or ahs from the young audience at my screening. Two heavy hints at the close suggest there will be a sequel. Haven’t we suffered enough? There are movies – particularly ones that targeted at young cinemagoers – that just shouldn’t be made.

Rewinding quickly for anyone – hopefully everyone – who hasn’t seen the movie. The premise is that a furry blue hedgehog called Sonic with the cutest button nose from outer space who can run at superhuman (and perhaps supersonic) speeds (cue jokes about tortoises as they are slower than hedgehogs) has been banished to Earth by his mum/mentor (who doesn’t look like a hedgehog) for his own safety.

Over ten years, he seems to have picked up English, a love of movies, and an appreciation for a policeman Tom (James Marsden) who talks to donuts and lives with his veterinarian wife (Tika Sumpter). But Sonic lacks friends, and the consequences of the anger that realisation fills him with brings him to the attention of federal authorities who employ an unlikeable villainous technologist with a lorry full of drones to track him down.

“It feels like I’ve been running for my whole life” says Sonic early on, just as audiences begin to wish that he’d run longer and faster to escape the clutches of the moviemakers.

Sonic’s nauseating internal monologues (voiced by Ben Schwartz) are tedious. Jim Carrey plays Doctor Robotnik as if he’s the twin brother of Robbie Rotten from Lazytown. He’s cruel, evil, and thoroughly nasty and terribly driven (without any real motivation ever offered other than a throwaway line about being an orphan which doesn’t compute) and rarely funny.

The town of Greenhills is both free of crime and curiosity. San Francisco turns out to be a dangerous place to drive with few iconic vistas offered to represent the real-life city.

The raccoons are nice. More raccoons in films please, and fewer computer-generated hedgehogs. It’ll probably not be the worst film I’ll see this year, but it certainly sets the bar low and we’re not yet out of February.

Sonic the Hedgehog is playing in just about every cinema in the land which have more than two screens … so head along and see something else, particularly if you want to encourage children to enjoy the imaginative pleasure that cinema can be.

Terry Brankin Has a Gun (Malachi O’Doherty, Merrion Press) – a well-spun, thoughtful tale that enjoys its foray into past times but also has some dark and critical warnings to flag up about our future

Does the world need another piece of Troubles fiction? The answer for me depends on the quality of the storytelling and whether or not a book revels in long-lost wars or tries to explore something new about our understanding of what might make Northern Ireland tick in the future.

My reading list last summer was dominated by a bedside table of such tales.

Michael Hughes’ Country takes the competitive infighting that inflicts nearly every organisation and exposes what it might have been like in the South Armagh IRA. The cleverness of echoing Homer’s Iliad is somewhat immaterial as the sheer brutality of the tale and the broken humanity at its heart is sufficient to get you turning the pages at great enough speed to become wrapped up in the story.

Someone described Anna Burns’ Booked Prize-winning Milkman to me as being “one of the most bought but least read books” that often languishes ostentatiously but unfinished on people’s shelves. It was certainly only on the third attempt that I could muster momentum to get past the early chapters. Ultimately, it was a joy to spend time in the life of middle sister as she traversed Belfast, got to know maybe-boyfriend and the older ‘milkman’. The dystopian vision of with an inner city crippled by rules, taboos, and complicated lists of who was naughty and nice, never mind the unpacking of how sexual violence sat alongside the more often talked about forms of violence and a late scene when women fight back made it a rewarding if shocking book to read.

Dave Duggan’s excellent novel Oak and Stone explores what happens when a former paramilitary joins the PSNI during a recruitment experiment and finds himself distrusted by his colleagues and many in the community as he takes advantage of his old fieldcraft to investigate complex crimes. The novel situation, strong characters, and a recognisable Derry cityscape make it a cracking read.

Finally, Jan Carson’s Firestarters was both disturbing because of the realisation that it wouldn’t take much to ignite such actions as the book describes in east Belfast during a long hot summer, but also because Carson is such a gentle, caring person in real life and it was hard to fathom how her pure mind could imagine such an evil plot and serve it wrapped up in such delicious prose. It was definitely my favourite book of 2019.

For decades, Malachi O’Doherty has been writing about life in Belfast and the impact of religion (and cycling), as well as broadcasting his opinions on local politics and events. The stories he tells at Tenx9 evenings are distinctive and often fiercely funny tales from his own life. He’s expert at measuring words, constructing rhythmic phrases whose beat enhances their metaphor.

O’Doherty’s first full-length novel Terry Brankin Has a Gun has just been published and was launched earlier this week. It’s a real page turner. The titular character joined the IRA and got his hands dirty in operations before becoming a lawyer. When the spotlight of the Cold Case team is brought to shine on an incident from his criminal past, his portfolio of rented property comes under attacked and violent threats are made against his wife.

In the blurb, Henry McDonald (whose book Two Souls is still on my list to finish) appropriately describes it as “highly filmic”. As this modern-day story of a man unable to leave the IRA behind him is gradually unravelled, each chapter reveals a little of what connects the cast of friends and associates, how they met, how they came to carry such deep scars and secrets. It’s terribly satisfying as the jigsaw pieces slot into place and tick off questions that lingered from earlier in the book.

Everyone starts off as a good person until their flaws are slowly exposed. Basil McKeague is a deeply religious (though oddly sweary) police detective whose drive to expose sin turns out to be greater than his respect for proper investigatory processes and truthtelling. Kathleen Brankin discovers to her cost that she didn’t ask her husband enough about his past. Loyalist paramilitaries are realised to have much in common with their republic counterparts.

While the motivations for people’s past decisions are wedded in the murky days of the Troubles, O’Doherty also exposes how a Cold Case review process (think HIA in 2020 legacy terms) could be derailed by societal attitudes and personal vendettas. It reminds me of David Park’s The Truth Commissioner, another cautionary tale about the destabilising potential of a truth and reconciliation process.

Radio phone-in host Nevan Toland is as beautifully crafted as top republican Dominic McGrath. Your mind will see parallels with real life figures – which makes Toland even funnier that he is written – but there is also a definite sense that these aren’t cartoon characters. O’Doherty reminds readers not to misuse stereotypes: not everyone living along the Falls Road supported the IRA back in the day.

There are some fictional sleights of hand. Information held by a public service broadcaster for purposes of journalism is exempt from Freedom of Information requests, so party leader McGrath’s idea of getting hold of his BBC obituary via an FOI is a complete non-starter. Just how McKeague knows to turn up at the Welly Park Hotel to visit Kathleen escapes me, as does why Brankin would ever talk so openly on a mobile phone knowing that his position as suspect in a major investigation would likely lead to it being tapped. And the enduring good relationship with Nools is more convenient than it is convincing. But these are minor asides.

O’Doherty exposes the duplicity of politics and political ideology, shows how fear can bind up the vulnerable until their anger overflows, demonstrates the abuse of power and religion, and reinforces the nagging doubt that it’s difficult to separate justice from truth even if there is legislation in place to do so. And he questions how very long we’ll have to wait until guns – and violence – will be absent from our narrative.

Terry Brankin Has a Gun is a well-spun, thoughtful tale that enjoys its foray into past times but also has some dark and critical warnings to flag up about our future. The creaking shelf of Troubles fiction has another tome justifiably squeezed onto it. And O’Doherty’s readers will be wondering which world the talented wordsmith will take them too in his next novel.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Singing the (Good Friday) Agreement: peace in 4/4 time … only at the Imagine! Belfast Festival (Monday 23 March)

“singing the d’Hondt formula would just be weird”
We’ve implemented it, ignored it and extended it, but never before in Northern Ireland has it been sung!

But on the opening night of Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics, you can settle down to hear singers from Spark Opera perform the local première of a choral setting of the Declaration of Support at the start of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement text.

The doors of Accidental Theatre in Belfast’s Shaftesbury Square (under the big screen) open on Monday 23 March at 6.30pm for a 7pm start, and the Book Bar will be open to quench your thirst.

The Good Friday Agreement: peace in 4/4 time is a somewhat unexpected work was composed by Clare Salters, who worked in the Northern Ireland Office and was involved in the negotiations.

Alongside the musical performances from our talented choir who will bring to life a number of other appropriate choral pieces alongside the Agreement, I’ll be in conversation with a former politician who was inside the talks in Castle Buildings as well as a journalist who anchored hours and hours of the rolling late-night TV coverage that accompanied the negotiations. An evening of nostalgia and reflection.

So why not join us on Monday 23 March for an hour of music and talk with Spark Opera’s performers and our panel of guests. Tickets for this Imagine! Belfast event are available from the Accidental Theatre website.

The negotiations concluded in April 1998 – or entered their next phase – and when I caught up with Clare recently, I asked whether she’d immediately sat down to set the Agreement to music?
“[It wasn’t] really until 2018 when I became involved in the iPlay4Peace initiative. That was mainly focused on WW1 and the centenary of the Armistice, but it was obviously also the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and I’d been struck by how many people – particularly in Great Britain, though not only there – had forgotten its significance, what it covered, and why it was still relevant. So when the call came out for entries for the iPlay4Peace 2019 compositions I thought I should give it a go.”
The composition includes the opening declaration rather than the 30 or more pages of the Agreement!
“I’d really wanted to do the whole thing, but quickly realised that would make for too long a piece, and would be too difficult to sustain the opening cryptogram for the entirety of the piece without being monotonous. Plus singing the d’Hondt formula would just be weird. But I realised that so much of the spirit of the Agreement was encapsulated in that opening declaration, so I focused on that.”
Clare is no stranger to choirs, having sung in the Belfast Philharmonic for a number of seasons “before work took over my life”. But while she was familiar with orchestrating for instrumental ensembles, the former civil servant hadn’t tried her hand at choral writing since school days.

Her early days at the Northern Ireland Office were as “a very junior cog in the wheel”.
“Graduate trainees in the political directorate were part of the department’s note taking rota, taking it in turns to trot round after the Secretary of State to record all his – later her – meetings. It was a fabulous opportunity to be part of genuinely historic developments at a very early stage in my career. I was really lucky.”
Subsequently roles in the NIO included working on human rights and equality, the Patten reforms of policing, the legacy of the past, the St Andrews Agreement and restoration of devolution, the devolution of law and order functions and – latterly – Brexit”.

The choral piece has been performed in England, with a few familiar NIO faces in the choir, and will now get its Northern Irish premiere on the opening night of Imagine! Belfast festival in March.

How does Clare feel about the work being heard for the first time in the city where the words were crafted and negotiated?
“I’m really delighted. They’re words that need to be heard elsewhere, but they belong in Northern Ireland. The nerdy constitutional equivalent of ‘football’s coming home’!”
Presented by Slugger O’Toole in association with Spark Opera as part of the Imagine! Belfast festival.

Cross-posted from Slugger O’Toole

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Dream, Sleep, Connect – Rosemary Jenkinson holds up a mirror to our dystopian present (C21 Theatre at Lyric Theatre until 22 February + NI tour)

The opening soundtrack of Kate Tempest’s People’s Faces is very apt – “I face off with the physical … / There is so much peace to be found in people's faces … / More empathy / Less greed / More respect” – perfectly sets the mood for C21 Theatre Company’s latest production Dream, Sleep, Connect which investigates our modern tendency to eschew face-to-face contact for a spot of digital disconnection.



Connexia are quickly established as a global IT solution provider with few scruples and big profits. Programmer Chris has just finished working on a cutting-edge technology-led customs solution for the border – as absent of friction as it is staff on the ground – and finds himself constructing a big brother system to trawl through social media and weed out benefits scroungers. Meanwhile the upcoming work ‘do’ reinvigorates his efforts to find a +1 until his boss Lucy becomes less than h-app-y with his phone’s constant buzzing and messaging. His first meetup is a lucky escape, but the second shows promise.

The dystopian themes play well into the Lyric’s current season which includes New Speak and 1984 in April.

Richard Clements plays the geekish loner Chris who seems bullied by his mum, his boss and everyone who responds to his right swiping. Opposite him is the versatile Maria Connolly who deftly switches between three well-rounded roles as boss, date and girlfriend. We learn much through the tone of voice of Connolly’s characters: Lucy’s somewhat robotic articulation of the company strategy hints that they may not be alone in the office while Cora’s nervous chitter belies someone veering between fragile and paranoid as the pair meet for drinks in the local pub.

Rosemary Jenkinson doesn’t write politically correct theatre. She’ll have been delighted that audience members audibly gasped at the closeness to the bone of some of the dialogue in last night’s performance. Clements and Connolly display bravura and bravado as they deliver the lines and ignore sensibilities and poke at sores until there’s pain before applying a soothing balm of humour and jokes about corkscrews.

The simple set incorporates a disguised screen to let us snoop at the messages pinging back and forth on Chris’ devices and delivers a rather neat effect near the end of the one act play.

While the characters are not too extreme, this isn’t a drama that demands your emotional involvement. Director Stephen Kelly allows it to be played for satire and laughs all the way through and never attempts to bring too much realism to the fabricated situation (though the awkward first date banter may seem uncomfortably recognisable). While you can leave your pathos at the door on the way into the theatre, you’ll have to pick it up on the way back out and ponder the fresh hell we have created by mixing up long working hours, app culture, narcissism, transactional relationships, surveillance and privacy concerns with trending poor mental health. There must be more to life than dreaming, sleeping and connecting?

Dream, Sleep, Connect finishes its run at the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 22 February before touring through Strule Arts Centre, Omagh (Wednesday 26), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (Friday 28), Cushendall Golf Club (Saturday 29), Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry (Tuesday 3 March), Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (Friday 6) and Market Place Theatre, Armagh (Saturday 7).

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Doctor Who: The Scripts Tom Baker 1974/5 – a dip into the old ways of making classic science fiction

Peter Davison, the first fifth Doctor, is my favourite, the affection cemented by the actor’s performances in the A Very Peculiar Practice drama (which also featured two, never-explained, bin-hoking nuns who drove around a new university campus in a tiny Mini).

As a young child, I remember catching episodes of the long-scarfed Tom Baker (the fourth) on Saturday evenings while visiting my Granny in Ballymena. Picking up a copy of Doctor Who: The Scripts Tom Baker 1974/5 from his first season on the show – somewhat before my TV viewing began – it was interesting to see how both the scriptwriters, script editors and the actor himself had shaped the evolving personality of the Time Lord.

Five stories spanned the 20 episodes (each 24–25 minutes long) that made up this series, a far cry from the 50-minute standalone episodes with a loose overarching story arc that make up modern Doctor Who.

The scripts for each episode are annotated with the intended text struck out where it was replaced with (often) shorter dialogue contrived during rehearsals and filming. Two episodes were recorded every fortnight, with most of the action shot in chronological order, unless particular sets were only needed for a couple of scenes.

In an age of CGI and visual effects, the 1970s were simpler times. Fast cuts were scarce. Sets were built, but only had to stand up to the scrutiny of standard def TV sets, no HD or 4K to worry about. Scale models were built, and video footage was mixed with film.

The TARDIS materialisation/dematerialisation was achieved in camera by filming the first part of the scene with the TARDIS and its flashing light, then rolling the film back, removing the prop, and filming over it to create the illusion of fading away. Then just add a wheezing sound effect in the edit, which sometimes only seems to have been completed in the week before transmission.

While chromakey video is an everyday occurrence, particularly in TV news and weather studios, it was used – often with a yellow background – in order to superimpose models of monsters and explosions on top of real scenes. Some

Running a video storyboarding course some years ago, I used a one-minute clip from the Jon Pertwee era (The Green Death) to get the class to dissect the shots. The slow pace of storytelling and cuts meant that it was possible to sketch out the six-shot storyboard in real time!

The season featured Davros and the Daleks (sounds like a 1970’s band!) and much like the fabulous Thirteenth Doctor’s current series, finished with Revenge of the Cybermen in which the Doctor escapes his bonds with a trick he learnt from Harry Houdini and destroys the cyborgs (who are allergic to gold) just in time to race back to Earth to respond to an emergency space-time pager alert from UNIT’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Northern Ireland Science Festival – AI, Antarctica, brewing tea, juggling custard, saving energy, and discounting torture (until 23 February 2020)

Northern Ireland Science Festival is back for its sixth year, running until Sunday 23 February with its blend of science exploration, education and storytelling, with a particular focus on the climate crisis and championing sustainability. Always enlightening and never dull, the festival programme is full of play and discovery – with an enhanced Create, Make, Play set of hands on workshops – that will attract the young and old over the half term holidays.

With 270 events stuffed into in the 11-day programme, here are just a few of the myriad of gems coming up during this half term week.

Ask Us Anything sees a panel of Ulster University experts try and answer any science questions you pose. Belfast Campus, Monday 17 February at 6–7pm. Free but need to book place in advance.

StrongWomen Science sees fast-paced duo Aoide and Maria use circus skills to reveal scientific secrets. Expect liquid juggling, fire-eating, feats of balance and extreme acrobatics.
Tuesday 18 at 11am and 2pm in Crescent Arts Centre. Aged 7+. £6.

Margaret Sayers from ESB and Engineers Ireland will deliver the Sir Bernard Crossland Lecture in Queen’s University’s Riddel Hall. An electrical engineer by training, she’ll be talking about how we can switch on to the energy transition that is seeing a move to low-carbon products, e-cars and smart energy. Tuesday 18 at 5.30–7pm. Free but need to book in advance.

The Science and Engineering of Superheroes is Professor Colin Turner’s lecture topic as he assesses the validity or falsehood of some of the science and engineering that surrounds popular superheroes of page and screen, and gets the audience to help with some experiments. Wednesday 19 at 6–7pm in Ulster University Belfast Campus. SOLD OUT Free but need to book in advance.

This year’s Turing lecture – Digital Twins: The Next Phase of the AI Revolution? will be delivered by Professor Mark Girolami on the topic of intelligent digital avatars. Thursday 20 at 6–8pm in the Assembly Buildings Conference Centre. Free but need to book in advance.

If you’ve watched The Report on Amazon Prime you’ll be aware of some of the issues behind Why Torture Doesn’t Work, Shane O’Mara’s explanation of the neuroscience of suffering and why it produces deeply unreliable and even counterproductive and dangerous information. Thursday 20 at 8–9pm on The Crumlin Road Gaol. Aged 18+. £8.

The Science of Beer and Cheese Tour tastes the refreshing craft drinks on offer at Northbound Brewery in Campsie before a scenic trip to Dart Mountain Cheese in the Sperrin Mountains to hear their story and sample their award-winning produce. Friday 21 February. Age 18+. £18.

The Mathematics of Dessins d’Enfants is an interactive exploration of the incredible mathematical theory of children’s drawings. Models, illustrations and hands-on activities will unlock some of the secrets. Saturday 22 at 10–11am in The Open University offices. Free but need to book in advance.

White Space with Beth Healey hears from the medical doctor who conducted a year-long mission for the European Space Agency to a research station in Antarctica to study the effects of the extreme environment with its isolation, inaccessibility, altitude and low levels of light. Hear about her daily life during 2017, and what lessons it teaches us for future settlements on Mars. Sunday 23 at 1–2pm in Ulster Museum. £5.

Spilling the Tea on the Perfect Brew is a tea testing session in the front Green Room at the Black Box where SUKI Tea will share the history of company founder Oscar Woolley and help you create your own personalised blend of tea. Rescheduled to Tuesday 3 March at 7–8.30pm. £10.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Emma – a humorous take on the Austen classic full of grotesque characters and a myriad of misunderstandings (in UK and Irish cinemas from 14 February)

With sufficient wealth in the early 1800s came the possibility that idle hands would seek amusement through the manipulation of those in their company. Or at least that’s the trap that 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse falls into as she endlessly matches up friends and acquaintances, dispatching them to the local church altar. Yet her antennae are ill-tuned to pick up the correct signals, causing herself, and those around her, much distress.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma is at first snobbish and particular, though by the end she’s learned a little humility. Her best friend – or primary victim – is Harriet, played by Mia Goth as a delightfully awkward girl whose romantic feelings can come to the boil in an instant. Bill Nighy makes quite an appearance as her fidgety widower father, displaying hypochondriac tendencies inherited by his frightful other daughter (Chloe Pirrie).

A youthful George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) sees through Emma’s games and is the only one to ever call her out. Miranda Hart, John O’Connor, Tanya Reynolds, Amber Anderson and Callum Turner join the grotesque cast of figures that you’ll immediately love to hate.

The soundtrack is sporadic, and less is definitely more with bursts of music to accompany scenes of dancing, and some lovely a cappella singing helping join scenes together. Cotswold properties and immaculate period details shine out along with rather fine costumes. The exquisite level of detail does, however, sometimes divert attention from the quality of the acting, the very many knowing glances, and the contorted network of relationships that weave together into a story.

Debut feature director Autumn de Wilde delivers a pleasant, assured and quite humorous adaptation of Jane Austen’s fine novel through Eleanor Catton’s fine script. A cheeky lack of undergarments feels like a shout out to the Poldark audience, but otherwise she sticks to including snogs over smut. The quality of her vision makes her an exciting talent to track in coming years.

What’s missing in Emma is Little Women’s sense of speaking into today. Other than a strange nod towards The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s very little contemporary messaging. Instead, you’re invited to sit back, relax, and enjoy a surprisingly comical version of the classic novel.

Emma will be screened from Friday 14 February in Movie House Cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre.