Sunday, May 26, 2019

Beats – a gem of a film that drops its audience into the middle of the 1990s rave scene (QFT until 30 May)

I’ve a memory of standing uncomfortably against the wall of the Hollywood nightclub in Ipswich back in the winter of 1994. The music was loud, the beat could only be described as abdominal, and the headache was painful. After a long, slow diet coke, I drove back to the hotel in Felixstowe with one colleague at the earliest opportunity, leaving another two work mates bopping away.
“If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution!”

Brian Welsh’s new film Beats gets under the skin of the rave scene – the underground, often outdoor, dance events rather than the tame and gentrified nightclub ripoffs in 1994 Glasgow. New Labour was on the rise in parallel with upward mobility. People were migrating from the inner city out to the suburbs.

Johnno (Cristian Ortega) lives at home with his Mum and her policeman boyfriend. He is reserved and seems quiet, but his long-time oddball friend ‘Spanner’ (Lorn Macdonald) is his door into rave culture. D-Man (Derek, played by Ross Mann) “off the radio” speaks in clichés and is organising an illegal rave in a cat and mouse game with the boys in blue who are out to stop or break up the event. The anti-rave Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is on the horizon. The police aim to hit the young revellers hard; so too does Spanner’s humiliated brother.

Macdonald gives Spanner the air of uber-confidence, yet turns out to be just as hesitant as Ortega’s Johnno who portrays himself with handfuls of ambiguity and fluidity. While the action revolves around this bromance, Gemma McElhinney, Rachel Jackson and Amy Manson provide solid support as Laura, Wendy and Cat.

The exuberant second half of the film makes up for the dearth of music in first 45 minutes with somewhat dreamy yet oppressively strobing scenes. Filmed for the most part in black and white, the single rush of colour is reserved to put societal change and industrial collapse into context in the middle of a rave.

Ultimately, Beats is a film about camaraderie and friendship, less drug-celebratory than Dublin Oldschool, and less in-your-face than Trainspotting or T2, though no less poetic. Welsh has created a gem of a film that drops those of us who are thankful to be unfamiliar with his context right into the middle of a crowded and sensory-overloaded environment, like some kind of rave virtual reality game. It’s very effective and the relatively light storyline lets the atmosphere do the talking rather than the actors.

Beats (18) is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 30 May.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Now for the North – tender listening to herstory rather than history (Three’s Theatre Company at Lyric Theatre until 24 May)

Theatre can both lift us out of our current situation and allow us to step into the shoes of other people in other places, even in other times, and also help us to pause and examine ourselves in the light of an unfolding scene or pain.

While promenade theatre runs the risk of adding movement and discomfort to distract from the performance, it can also shift audiences into unusual locations that amplify the verbal and physical messages being imparted by the actors.

Three’s Theatre Company under the leadership of Anna Leckey has built a solid reputation for telling site-specific and engaging stories. Now for the North is being performed on the first anniversary of the Irish Referendum that repealed the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland.

Thirty of us stand in the women’s toilet downstairs in the south Belfast venue watching someone worry about the uncertain effectiveness of the morning after pill. Not unlike a rehearsal room or dance studio, the wide mirrors give normally unseen perspectives in a place that half the audience normally walk past on the way to the less roomy men’s facilities.

There’s a mixture of poetry (one set to dance), written word, music, monologues and conversations in rooms, landings and back stairs of the Lyric Theatre. Faces familiar from previous Three’s Company pieces as well as new talent can be seen out front and back of stage.

The typed-out thoughts of pregnant women and a GP (who feels that they are failing their patients by not being legally allowed to talk in any detail about the options they could consider) are accompanied by the shoes the people wore: very powerful props and imagery. A boyfriend (played by Cailum Carragher) wrestles with his instincts, emotions and values as he realises that the choice is not his. At one point there’s some added drama as two workmen step into a dark lift shaft and disappear from view.

The stand-out moment for me was a conversation between two young women planning a trip to a concert in Manchester. Gina Donnelly’s dialogue was bursting of humour – “it’s 50% of Oasis and it’s not 1996” – and pathos. While Rosie Barry gushes about the luxury-on-a-budget weekend they could enjoy, tealalolic Elisha Gormley’s character is uncomfortable with the idea of staying in a hotel (“[just] two teabags: for an Irish woman it’s not right”), turning to the audience and breaking the fourth wall to slowly explain how this suggestion brings back memories of a deeply painful and lonely experience. It’s an emotional triumph.

Having played around with romantic Valentines-inspired promenade theatre, Three’s Company have graduated to a new level of maturity and tackled something that can’t just be played for laughs or sympathy. The narrative thread present in some previous work is missing, choosing to tell unlinked stories rather than concentrate on a smaller number of characters.

Now for the North has poise and tact, believing in the power of listening the thoughts and feelings of relatable people who are making difficult choices in less than ideal circumstances to understand rather than judge them, without any need to resort to preaching blunt messages or relying on techniques that simply shock-for-effect. While Now for the North is undeniably a piece of campaigning theatre (and 20% of ticket sales are being donated to Alliance For Choice) it is mature and level-headed and will hopefully return for a longer and more developed run later in the year.

The final performance of this run of Now for the North was at 8.10pm in the Lyric Theatre.

All Mod Cons: moving, growing, changing, hitting - brand new drama at the Lyric Theatre until 9 June

Moving, growing, changing, hitting … it sounds like a lyric from a previously undiscovered verse of Daft Punk’s Technologic. But those verbs are at the heart of Erica Murray’s new play All Mod Cons.

Their mother’s funeral has brought siblings Jean (Mariah Louca) and Gary (Michael Shea) back under the one roof, but the house no longer feels like home. Elsewhere in the nameless city, Laura (Sophie Robinson) wants to escape from living with her parents and buy somewhere of her own. Hapless estate agent Gary (Michael Shea) mediates the somewhat fraught search process of viewing properties while the characters look into each other’s souls and find that underneath the surface, the foundations are shaky. Other than that, I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot.

Murray is the Lyric Theatre’s artist-in-residence for 2019 and participated in their New Playwrights Programme which hosts rehearsed readings during Belfast International Arts Festival. While I didn’t catch All Mods Cons during the festival, it was a joy last night to see the talented playwright’s work given a full production run at the Lyric.

Murray poaches her characters in a pot of water alongside their past decisions, then gentling turning up the heat to simmer then, adding the flavour hidden secrets, before finally bringing them to the boil when matters and emotions fly out of control. External changes happen in parallel with internal changes.
“… the world is our oyster! / I don’t like oysters.”

It’s a credit to both the cast and the director Ronan Phelan that the emotional arc of the characters shifts so gently that the one we can’t stand early on becomes the only sane and straightforward figure by the play’s conclusion.

Most of the cast aren’t very familiar to the Lyric stage, giving the characters a freshness unencumbered with memories of previous roles and traits. McCurry brilliantly delivers the most uncomfortable and excruciating lines as Gary, a man who can no more conduct a friendly conversation than sell a house. Robinson doesn’t let Laura screech drown out her character’s humanity. Louca brings a warmth and strength to many scenes and doesn’t allow vulnerability to overpower Jean’s sense of confidence and assurance.

While I’m not quite sure why Diana Ennis decided not to give Gary a pair of trousers that would reach his ankles, the costumes work well. The ambiguous, low-key ending works well on paper, but confused last night’s audience who delayed their applause and seemed to expect more to happen when the stage suddenly went dark

The dowdy set with its mismatched furniture (much of it oddly piled up against a back wall for the later scenes) is flexible and while the video signposting and Katie Richardson’s interstitial music gives All Mod Cons a very televisual feel, both aspects are effective and well executed.

Rich performances, well-constructed characters, solid direction and plenty of surprises as the steam builds up make this a great step in what will hopefully be an enduring relationship between Erica Murray’s rich imagination and the Lyric.

All Mod Cons continues in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 9 June.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Mothers Out Front – a world leader gets wrapped up in a climate emergency #MothersKnowBest (Sole Purpose’s NI tour)

Three Mums plan an environmental protest at a rally in Dublin. But when the newest recruit rashly improvises, they end up kidnapping an orange-tanned toupée-wearing world leader wrapped up in a blanket and holding him in a rural farmhouse in the hope that the Paris Agreement will be implemented (assuming anyone wants him back).

Muire McCallion’s Maeve is a young and ebullient, fast-talking and quick-knitting extrovert who injects fresh energy and wild ideas into her local Mothers Out Front group. Bernie (Carmel McCafferty) is older and more temperamental, while Theresa (Abby Oliveira) was clearly the leader until Maeve started to step onto her shadow and now annoyingly flip flops between hating new ideas and totally embracing them.

Sole Purpose Productions have a history of staging challenging theatre with a firm grip on contemporary issues. Mothers Out Front has that potential to be a roller-coaster of a farce that hammers home the importance of reacting to the climate emergency. Instead, the premise is better than the structure of Edie Shillue’s script. While Oliveira, McCafferty and McCallion throw themselves wholeheartedly at the material they have to work with, the pace sags mid-way through and the scenes where the group rehearse videos they want to publish online turn into preachy fourth wall-breaking interruptions.

Last night’s performance in the Crescent Arts Centre was a bit pussyfooting rather than a Pussy Riot, although the balaclavas were colourful, the set contained some surprises, and there were many laughs along the way as the preposterous tale unfolded. Given that the script is packed full of statistics and factoids about the impact of climate change, it’s unfortunate that details around Twitter, WhatsApp and the radius of the black helicopter’s flightpath overhead are exaggerated.

Six years ago, Rosemary Jenkinson’s satirical Planet Belfast tackled dirty politics and green issues. Theatre is a terrific medium to explore the strengths and weaknesses is dearly-held worldviews. Yet Mothers Out Front somehow doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions to commit to a dramatic plot and trust that the message will be heard and instead resorts to a weaker form of propaganda that educates more than it entertains.

Directed by Patricia Byrne and produced by Sole Purpose Productions and Zero Waste North West, each performance is followed by a Q&A with the playwright. You can catch Mothers Out Front on Sunday 19 May at An Coire, Maghera; Tuesday 21 and Wednesday 22 at The Derry Playhouse; Wednesday 29 May at Strule Arts Centre, Omagh; and on Thursday 30 May at The Alley Theatre Strabane.

Photo credit: Sole Purpose Productions

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Float Like a Butterfly – a pugilistic examination of being caged into a community that isn’t as free as it supposes (QFT from Friday 11 May)

Compared with the observational style of Pavee Lackeen: The Traveller Girl (2005), Carmel Winters’ new film Float Like a Butterfly has a very definite storyline and character journey.

Frances grows up in a community of Irish Travellers in rural Cork in the mid-1960s. Hazel Doupe plays the girl who idolises Muhammad Ali and would love to meet her hero. She trains on the beach and combines brains and brawn, something that her deceased mother valued, but her father (Dara Devaney) struggles to appreciate. Her Dad takes Frances and little brother Patrick (Johnny Collins) away from the encampment and they head out with their horse-drawn caravan on the road, a traumatic and somewhat circular journey that sees them return poorer in spirit and pocket.

It’s a story about loss: the loss of a bombastic father to prison after giving a vicious Garda officer a lame leg; the loss of a mother after a miscarriage; the loss of education and opportunity when the father is released; the loss of security; and the total lack of agency in a world which favours men and teaches boys to slap girls in order “to act like a man”.

Every face on screen is filled with character. Many scenes are shot from low down, giving a child’s eye viewpoint of the adult interactions. The primitive camping conditions and rich countryside colours are quickly established while a heavy score and some haunting singing by the cast injects the story with a sentimentality which, while somewhat overplayed, is balanced with an honesty about the weaknesses of this free-living.

The Irish Travelling community’s sexism and internal violence is contrasted with the racism and prejudice of those from the more settled community they encounter. One of the most telling scenes takes place in Uncle Bobby’s house: his settled behaviour – a self-imposed imprisonment in a cage of a happy home instead of being ‘free’ to roam in exile – irritates his extended family while his itinerant past upsets his neighbours..

Rather than providing resolution, the contrived ending – it would be impossible not to build up to a fight scene given the boxing references throughout – instead cements the masculine stupidity and grip of power over the women who burst through to explain that there is a better way but don’t seem to be able to escape the patriarchal cage that they have been trapped in.

Spanning all kinds of cinematic genres, Float Like a Butterfly is a coming-of-age movie, a road trip, an examination of filial love, as well as a search for freedom and identity. Ultimately, its success is down to the shining on-screen presence and piercing eyes of Hazel Doupe who pulls her vulnerable, pugilistic character up from the ground, time after time, becoming stronger with every bout and trial.

Float Like a Butterfly will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 17 May.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Preview – Mayday! Making (even more of) a drama out of Brexit with Rosemary Jenkinson (Accidental Theatre at the end of May)

Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson is turning her satirical pen away from Stormont and is dipping her nib in the dark ink pot of Westminster with her latest rapid response work – Mayday! – a one woman show with Jo Donnelly playing Prime Minister Theresa May. I caught up with Jenkinson earlier this week …

After bringing the increasingly irreverent and fantastical tales of Michelle and Arlene to the Accidental Theatre stage four times over the last 22 months, it’s now the turn of Theresa May and Brexit?
I love the rapid response format as it’s important for theatre to confront politics head-on, Dario Fo-style. I had a great time with the Michelle and Arlene satires, but as the Stormont stasis is still ongoing, I’ve decided to switch to Brexit. It’s the huge political question of our era. When I spoke to Richard Lavery of Accidental in mid-April about a Theresa May play, we weren’t even sure if she’d stay in power till the end of May but that’s what makes the play exciting. The more dynamic the politics, the more dynamic the play. I also love satire. Comedy makes you laugh; satire makes you laugh and think.
The Prime Minister is turning out to be quite a remainer, delaying all attempts to get the removal van around to 10 Downing Street. What attracts you to write about her Brexit predicament? You have a certain (human, if not political) sympathy for May?
I connect with Theresa May, firstly, as she’s a strong woman and secondly as she’s been handed an unenviable task with Brexit. Once I researched her, I was fascinated by how single-minded and ambitious she’s been: her dream of becoming Prime Minister seems to date back to her teenage years. Even though Mayday! is highly critical of Theresa May and the government, it’s a one-woman show and so it’s vital to get inside her mind. Naturally, I have empathy for events in her life such as her parents’ deaths and how she and her husband tried to have children and couldn’t. Human understanding gives a richer texture alongside the satire.

Satirical humour of course relies on being heartless, but that doesn’t mean your characters should be emotionless ciphers. Jeremy Corbyn appears as a cardboard cut-out, so the last thing we need is Theresa to be one too! Theresa, it has to be said, hasn’t the most highly developed sense of humour, so her comedy moments, as in the Dancing Queen, tend to be hilariously inadvertent.
Are you excited about Jo Donnelly stepping into the kitten heels of the isolated Dancing Queen premier?
The first actor I thought of for Theresa May was Jo Donnelly. She’s such a brilliantly instinctive comic actor and at the read-through she delivered the lines exactly as I heard them in my head. I’ve been dying to work with her a long time, so to say I’m excited is an understatement. She may be twenty years younger, but she’ll nail Theresa’s essence and put her own hyperreal spin on the character. Jo loves playing parts outside the usual Northern Irish stereotypes.
Jeremy Corbyn's presence is felt throughout the play. There's a real sense that he's not the biggest threat to May?
I think Jeremy Corbyn is a fusion in this play between being Theresa’s enemy and a fellow victim of Brexit. Clearly, in real life Theresa’s biggest enemies are within her own party. Continuing Brexit talks with Labour is both an attempt to buy time and to make Labour share the blame when a deal can’t be reached, but her gambit has only served to alienate the Conservatives even more. Boris Johnson is definitely her main antagonist.
Can Brexit be redeemed by laughing at the madness that surrounds those who are trying to negotiate a deal?
The only way to deal with impasses just like Brexit and Stormont is to laugh at them. With Brexit, you simply have to ridicule the number of votes we’ve had in parliament and the continual failure to find agreement. As Theresa’s favourite Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, might have said, “Never in the field of human politics was so little achieved by so many for so few.”
Mayday! will be performed in Accidental Theatre, Shaftesbury Square on Thursday 30 and Friday 31 May. Tickets £8-£10. Between now and then, the Prime Minister will no doubt continue to write new chapters in her own tragi-comedy reality show.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Me, Mum and Dusty Springfield – short and bitter-sweet story of growing up in the shadow of a pop legend (Grand Opera House until Saturday 18 May)

Outside the dressing room, Tom Jones, Cher and Chris de bloody Burgh are playing tributes to the recently-departed Dusty Springfield. Daughter Mary (Tara Lynne O’Neill) is getting ready to go out and close the evening with one of her mother’s best-known numbers. As she puts on her make-up, we hear her look back at her relationship with her single-parent, alcoholic mum, brought up in pubs and clubs as much as school.

A large full-height gilded mirror dominates the back of the black and white tiled set, giving the Baby Grand stage an unexpected feeling of depth and allowing O’Neill to turn her back on the audience and continue to get ready for her well-urned finale as we gaze and wonder how far the apple fell from the tree (quite far, it seems) and whether she’ll go on to repeat her mother’s, or her idol’s, mistakes.
“Left alone with just a memory / Life seems dead and so unreal”

While Me, Mum and Dusty Springfield isn’t jam-packed with Dusty Springfield singles, Stephanie Ridings’ script is full of humour (song lyrics rarely make for good advice at pivotal moments in life) and the melancholic unpacking of a claustrophobic mother-daughter relationship full of neglect, booze, one-night stands, big hair, giant rollers, impersonator jealousy, and heaps of empathy.

Julie Maxwell directs the 50-minute one-woman show with gentle confidence, never rushing scenes, and giving O’Neill space to tell the well-crafted story with its unforced parallels, never resorting to comic-acting or face-pulling to earn its laughs. The final, almost-inevitable rendition of You Don't Have To Say You Love Me is surprisingly tender rather than heartstring-tugging, maybe reflecting Mary’s relief that her Mum is finally trapped in an urn on the dressing room table, out of harm’s way, and no longer able to mess up her life.

Short and bitter-sweet, Me, Mum and Dusty Springfield demonstrates Tara Lynne O’Neill’s serious side and tells a single story well without needless complication and fuss. The show continues in the Baby Grand until Saturday 18 May.

Photo credit: Tara Lynne O'Neill

Saturday, May 11, 2019

A Streetcar Named Desire – dark, memorable and quite exhausting (in a good way) – Lyric Theatre until 8 June

Half an hour out of the Lyric Theatre after the marathon performance of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and my head is still thinking out loud with a New Orleans drawl: a testament to the cast’s consistent delivery throughout the three hour play.

If like me you opted for Maths and Sciences after GCSE, then you may have missed out on studying this perennial A-level English set work. So it’s a fresh story unfolding on the stage as Blanche travels from Laurel, Mississippi to stay with her sister Stella, married to Stanley, stepping down off the streetcar into a depressed district far from her ideal environs.

Aoibhéann McCann brilliantly portrays the complexity of Blanche: anxious and perhaps traumatised, sensual and fond of fine things, so deceitful that her truthful revelations barely impact, and one minute chaste, the next throwing herself at the first paperboy that passes. There’s a strength of character about McCann that anchors the whole play and allows the audience to suspend their doubts and instead hope that Blanche can pull through.

In the triangle created between Stella, Stanley and Blanche, it is Meghan Tyler playing Stella who fires out the witty quips that disguise the obvious violent regime she endures living with her brutish husband. Tyler conveys well the tug of war of loyalties between her heavy-handed husband and somewhat-wayward sister and never plays second fiddle to the Stanley–Blanche axis of angst.

It’s hard to have any sympathy for Stanley, played by Mark Huberman. Emma Jordan’s direction keeps his moments of physical and sexual violence to an absolute minimum, moving them off stage, or quickly blanketing the stage in darkness. While it’s kinder to the audience, the brevity and silence do somewhat diminish the devastating impact of these actions.

The play takes place in yet another magnificent Ciaran Bagnall set, with a feeling of height and depth, and warm rays of golden sun dramatically cast across the side-lit stage. The multi-level ground floor apartment space sits under a walkway to the upstairs apartment occupied by Eunice (Abigail McGibbon) and Steve (Sean Kearns), whose own domestic situation mirrors Stella and Stanley down below. There’s a cruel irony that Stella is trapped in a house, whose set has no doors or walls.

Carl Kennedy’s score is muted yet moody, peppered with evocative songs that provide moments of emotional relief before the cast ratchet up the tension once more.

Despite its lengthy run time and Blanche’s verbose dialogue, Williams’ play is tightly constructed, investigates the abuse of power and gender inequalities, while not copping out of its devastatingly hopeless and unjust conclusion as Stanley remorselessly completes the destruction of his sister-in-law who is once again forced into the reliance on “the kindness of strangers”.

In this well-deserved revival, the acting, direction, set, sound and lights come together with the classic script to create a dark, memorable, and quite exhausting piece of theatre that unsettles and disturbs. A Streetcar Named Desire plays in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 8 June.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

Browsing a Bygone Blue Book - a look back at the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1927

Worries about a decline in the number of students for the ministry and theological education structures; examination of relationships with other denominations; a repair fund for Assembly Buildings; a prevailing worldliness and demoralisation of the country; Irish language protests; appeals about heresy; and a letter from a Scottish sister denomination.

While the topics feel quite contemporary, this isn’t a post about this year’s General Assembly ‘blue book’ of reports for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Instead, it’s a look back the Assembly’s business in June 1927, some 92 years ago. This is an extended version of an article first published in the May 2019 edition of the Presbyterian Herald.

The death of my mother in June last year triggered a clearing out of cookbooks and sporting biographies from the shelves of the house I grew up in. One book seemed older and more tattered. At first, I expected it would be Sadie’s choral score for Handel’s Messiah. But when I lifted it down, it was the Minutes of June 1927’s General Assembly.

A good neighbour from across the road must have given it to Mum when she was ordained as an elder in Railway Street Presbyterian Church. The minutes and reports may have originally belonged to representative elder James Hasley who attended the 1927 General Assembly on behalf of Cargycreevy congregation, and then, somehow, the book made it into the hands of the Gillespie family and most recently the Mebans.

Flicking through the pages provides a sense of the social and political history of the time. The scale and size of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, its overseas missions and ministries across Ireland is astounding.

Back in 1927, PCI had 560 congregations across 35 Presbyteries. The largest churches were all in Belfast, some more sizeable than whole presbyteries put together. McQuiston Memorial was home to 1,450 families, closely followed by Great Victoria Street (1,434), Agnes Street (1,320), Newington (1,170), Westbourne (1,100) and Townsend Street (1,000).

Beginning at 7pm on Monday 6 June, General Assembly wouldn’t finish until 9.20pm the following Tuesday, 14 June. 523 representative elders and more than 500 ministers were on the roll.

On the opening night, Rev Dr James Thompson was called to the chair and addressed the House as the new Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He’d scooped all but one of the presbytery nominations. Rev W.J. Lowe was the Clerk of Assembly, and Rev W.A. Watson the Junior Clerk.
A table in the reports shows that since 1840, General Assembly had met outside Belfast on 14 occasions, in Dublin (9), Londonderry (4), Armagh (1).

After Tuesday morning communion in Rosemary Street Church, delegates gathered in the three-storey Assembly Hall and received corresponding members from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of England (now part of the United Reformed Church). Some early business granted permission for the 61 congregation-strong Belfast Presbytery to erect a new church in the Castle Hill area of the city.

The previous General Assembly in 1926 had taken the decision to ordain women to the ruling eldership. Only two newly-ordained female elders seem to have been chosen to represent their congregation: Miss E.A. Harbinson (Rostrevor) and Mrs Robert Small (Warrenpoint). The ordination of women to the ministry of Word and sacrament wouldn’t be agreed until 1973.

The business, reports, and committee membership were thus very masculine, with the exception of “an interesting and inspiring address on the subject of Temperance” delivered by the first female MP, Viscountess Astor (Plymouth Sutton), and the thanks recorded for “the ladies who gave most valuable help” to the Arrangement Committee by providing hospitality during the Assembly.

Education and training

The Belfast Presbyterian College had a cohort of 16 students, while in Londonderry, the McCrea Magee College was home to 33 students studying Catechetical Courses (benefitting from 26 scholarships and bursaries) with a further five students in its Divinity School. Seven students were recommended to their respective Presbyteries to be licensed.

A Presbyterian deputation from the Commission on the McCrea Magee College Scheme had lobbied James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, along with the Ministers of Finance and Education, to request “a substantial grant from Government funds, on the grounds of the valuable educational work [the College] is doing”. Their statements were “received with courtesy and sympathy”. However, the politicians outlined issues that would need to be surmounted before state grant aid could be given to the College.

The Belfast Presbyterian College reported expenditure “incurred by the cost of installing electric light in the houses of two of the professors”. Its Trustees agreed “under protest and without prejudice” to take over liability of the annual sum of £100 from the General Purpose’s Fund “towards house rent for one of the professors of the college”, a matter which they describe as “little short of a breach of faith”. The Belfast College Committee reported that 723 volumes had been added to its library in the previous 12 months. Its Elocution class was being taught with “unbounded enthusiasm”. With the College’s Botanic Avenue building hosting the Parliament of Northern Ireland (1921-1932), lectures took place in a house on University Square.

Meanwhile, negotiations were ongoing with Queen’s University “with a view to establishing a Theological Faculty”. The application for ‘recognition’ had been submitted, and it was hoped that “regulations under which examinations will be conducted and the affairs of the Faculty administered” would be completed in time for General Assembly in June 1928.

The Committee on the Students’ Bursary Fund responded to a memorial from the Synod of Dublin seeking the cause of the “serious decline in the number of students for the Christian Ministry” to be addressed. The Committee noted a 1921 statement circulated across the denomination that identified “the secularising tendency of the age, lack of sufficient religious instruction in the home and in most Secondary schools in Ulster, and the practical elimination of Greek from the Academic course.”

Other factors cited included “possible spheres of faithful and well-remunerated service demanding a shorter period in preparation” and “a loose popular attitude towards doctrinal essentials on the one hand and a too minute insistence of belief in non-essentials on the other”.

The report also looked at financial barriers, noting that: “The supply from the wealthier homes has failed. The time has come for our Church to take a step which will make it possible for any suitably gifted boy to enter her Ministry … no matter how obscure the place of his birth or how destitute of friends he may be.”

Church relations

Negotiations between the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland “with regard to Church Union” were to be kept in abeyance until after the World Conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne later that summer, to which PCI would send an augmented four-minister deputation.
The House agreed that the week in which St Andrew’s Day falls should be a week of “united intercession [prayer] on behalf of our Presbyterian Brotherhood throughout the world”.

A report from the General Presbyterian Alliance – a precursor to the modern World Communion of Reformed Churches – reported on a “touching request” for membership “from an isolated congregation in Russia seeking recognition as a distressed and remote member of the Presbyterian family”. The agenda of a conference of the ‘Eastern Section’ in Budapest promised to look at the “Spiritual Independence of the Church: Relations of Church and State” as well as Protestant unity across Europe, and relationships with the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.

A donation of £3 was made to the United Council of Christian Churches in Ireland (now known as the Irish Council of Churches).


The Committee on Church House and Assembly Hall reported that £835 had been spent on upkeep with “the building debt … further reduced, and it is hoped that by the end of the present year it may practically disappear”.

The ministerial mileage rate for Home Mission was set at sixpence per mile, with no travelling expenses for journeys under six miles.


The 1926 Assembly decided that newly-ordained ministers and those accepting a call to a new congregation would “cease to have a right to the use of the manse … when they retire from active duty”. A committee assessed the potential “grievance” given the expectation of accommodation that had been created upon ordination. They proposed a Manse Surrender Fund which would benefit ministers willing to surrender their life interest in a manse at the time of retirement in return for a “satisfactory annual grant in lieu thereof”, with this central funding supplemented by the congregation. A 2d in the £1 assessment was suggested. The overture was submitted to the House, but subsequently withdrawn.


The third Sabbath of January was to be “observed as Temperance Day” with a Special Sermon preached in all our churches, and special Temperance lessons given in all our Sabbath Schools” as well as an appeal for “a large collection”.

South of the border, the Assembly wished the “beneficial results produced by the Free State Intoxicating Liquor Act (1924)” would continue despite “deplorable compromises and surrenders” as the 1927 Bill passed through the Dáil. They still hoped that it would “fulfil its intended purpose of lessening the stranglehold of drink upon the people of Ireland”.

General Assembly desired the amendment of the licensing of pubs and clubs in Northern Ireland to synchronise common “hours during which intoxicating liquor may be supplied”. Every one of the 3,000 licensed houses in the north was deemed to be “a source of impoverishment and demoralisation to the country”.

Heresy trial appeal

After lunch on the Thursday, the House sat in private to “hear the appeals of the Rev James Hunter [Knock] and others against five decisions of the Presbytery of Belfast in relation to the five charges brought against the Rev Professor Davey for holding and teaching doctrines contrary to the Word of God and the subordinate standards of the Church”.

Belfast Presbytery had acquitted the college professor after a lengthy and somewhat unusual process, often referred to as the ‘Davey heresy trial’. The charges, evidence and Professor Davey’s defence had been published, sealed, marked as confidential and circulated to all members of General Assembly in advance.=

After four hours of debate, the business lapsed until the next morning when Davey himself addressed the House. Having considered the charges “with the utmost care … [along with] Professor Davey’s avowal of his own beliefs, together with his defences and his expressions of regret that statements in his books and lectures have been misunderstood, and also his pleas of justification”, each of the five appeals was dismissed and presbytery’s finding of not guilty of heresy was sustained. A division was forced for the first decision (707 for, 82 against); the remaining decisions were upheld by a show of hands.

An anti-Davey group who opposed modernism seceded from PCI after the appeals failed, forming the Irish Evangelical Church in October 1927 with 10 congregations. Twenty-six years later, Professor Davey would be elected Moderator of the General Assembly, in the year that marked the centenary of Assembly’s College.

Other business

The Presbyterian Historical Society Committee reported that larger accommodation was “urgently required” as “the work of this Society is being handicapped for want of room”. They hoped that with Assembly Building finances in a better position, they would be able to extend into a room that had been commercially let. [Today, the society is based on the ground floor of Assembly Buildings, opposite the denomination’s main entrance.]

Preparation of a revised Church Hymnary had been ongoing for four years across five denominations, and publication of the new volume containing 728 pieces was expected in September the following year. As ever, a spread of musical ability and style had to be catered for with “as many tunes as possible adapted for use in churches where the musical resources are slender, the requirements of churches with cultured choirs and skilled organists have also had special attention”.

Protestant denominations organised conferences and lobbied against the Irish Government's policy of the compulsory teaching of Irish in all schools, including ones under Protestant management.
Back in 1927, Rev Dr Bain was the editor of the Missionary Herald, discharging his duties with “great efficiency and acceptance” according to one report.

Scottish correspondence

Whilst not in official attendance, the General Assembly of the United Free Church of Scotland sent greetings by letter to the “honoured brethren” meeting in Belfast, reciprocating the message PCI had posted to them. The two reformed denominations cooperated in the evangelisation of Manchuria (north-east China): China was a major focus of missionary activity. During 1927, the Free Church congregation in Dublin chose to unite with PCI. The United Free letter finished with an observation and a prayer:

“As we are in Scotland, so you in Ireland are faced by the same great tasks in the presence of the prevailing worldliness and indifference that constitute a challenge to every Christian Church. It is our earnest prayer that God may bless Ireland, and give you peace and settled government; and that your Church may ever be a centre of light and truth in the land …”.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

High Life – taboo-ridden, hell-bound sci-fi tale of reproductive genetics and inhumanity (QFT from 10 May)

Director Claire Denis eschews the normal space vistas and shiny white sets to examine the worst sides of humanity as a set of prisoners head off on permanent day release towards a black hole in a dingy craft that looks like something Blue Peter might have created.

Living anything but the titular High Life, the prisoners are granted a second chance to escape long prison sentences to adventure into space on a mission that plans to harness the energy of a black hole. However, the ship’s doctor has a second plan, to harvest sperm and experiment with reproduction against the backdrop of dangerous levels of radiation.

Told in a non-linear fashion, the story begins with Monte (Robert Pattinson) maintaining the ship and tending to the needs of a toddler whose screams create discomfort in the otherwise lonely environs. Slowly, the fate of other crew members and the genesis of the child are revealed. Stuart Staples’ score staples the switches of scene and time together, perhaps the only beautiful aspect of the film.

Juliette Binoche plays Dr Dibs as a sensuous siren with waist-length hair and some unorthodox methods of collecting sperm samples. When two ships dock you’re left in no doubt that they’re mating together. Flying into a black hole sounds a lot like labour. The ship’s pleasure ‘box’ adds to the sleaziness (way more explicit that Woody Allen’s ‘orgasmatron’ in Sleeper, establishing Dibs’ sexual tension and guaranteeing the film’s 18 rating, while a violent sexual assault furthers the screenwriters’ premise that sexual desire and a thirst for satisfaction is at the basest end of both humanity and inhumanity, surviving depression and certain death.
“What do you know about cruelty?”
Playing the calmest and most collected character on board space ship ‘7’, Pattinson is rugged and resilient, with Monte never visibly aging throughout the 15 or so years period covered by the film. Without Pattinson’s sense of control and perspective, High Life could have descended even further into its black hole of depravity.

While the budget may have been small – with a small set and brief exterior model shots – the ambition for High Life was large, though I’m not sure it was fully achieved over its 113 minutes. The ending faces the same issues Soderburgh’s version of Solaris (2002), and yet avoids the nearly-happily after ever fate of Sunshine (2007).

Given the rules around how long young children can remain on set, it’s very unusual to have such a young cast member. We watch little Willow grow up and are left wondering what her ‘normal’ will be given the circumstances of her birth and life. Yet there is a paradox to the reproductive experiment at the heart of the plot: since the mission has little expectation of surviving the black hole, and has not had much success by the time the vessel arrives in its vicinity, Dr Dibs’ research is nearly as vacuous as the space she’s travelling as there will be no new Adam and Eve to propagate if they survive to the other side.

Aside from the changing aspect ratios at various moments of the film – which feel ragged rather than artistic – High Life is an amazing piece of filmmaking. The flashbacks are never accidental, woven tightly into the unravelling story. It doesn’t need Alien’s monsters to uncover the evil on-board the ship. But ultimately the film’s subject matter is taboo, human rights-busting and frequently vile and violent, this hell-bound spacecraft is too much like life on earth to be enjoyable.

High Life will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 10 May.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Terra Nova at Queen’s Hall, Ards until Sunday 5 May)

It can’t be easy staging a large-scale production of a Shakespeare play with community involvement while the shadow of a huge funding cut hangs above the future viability of your organisation. But intercultural theatre company Terra Nova have managed to keep their head above water, and if this afternoon’s performance that brought new audiences to a quality theatrical experience in a local community venue with a mix of amateur and professional talent out front and back stage is typical of the run, they should be very proud of the impact they’ve made.

Children danced in among the adults, perhaps more like woodland nymphs than fairies, in A  Midsummer Night’s Dream. The love square of “I am your spaniel” Helena (Comfort Fabian), Demetrius (Stefan Dunbar), Hermia (Roisin Gallagher) and Lysander (Jamal Franklin) was lusciously physical and Suzannah McCreight’s choreography of the frantic penultimate scene a real high point of a well-blocked performance.

Director Andrew Montgomery really succeeds in bringing to life the comedy in the Shakespearian original as well as adding some modern twists. The Mechanical’s realisation as members of the Women’s Institute (complete with a prodigious knitter) adds levity, while Patrick McBrearty’s Bottom doesn’t miss a single opportunity to ham up his role and amuse the willing audience, particularly with his Elvis-like pelvic thrusts. Rosie McClelland oozed allure as a sexually predatory Titania, playing opposite David Monteith’s Oberon.

A low full moon sat on the main stage, rather neatly centring the performance. Up on a side stage sat a band who provided all the show’s music. It was all very dramatic, with larger-than-life characters, an engaging storyline and a physicality which humoured young and old.

The intentional diversity of the cast – age, gender and ethnicity – is unlike any other show that you’ll see in Northern Ireland. While the amateur performances were overshadowed by the longer scenes featuring the professionals in the cast, the time-worn Queen’s Hall venue was as welcoming as the enthusiastic front of house team. There was much rustling of sweets and wrappers – though no phones ringing – yet this was forgivable given the sense of joy of an audience less accustomed to theatre enjoying the vivid production of one of Shakespeare’s most-frequently performed works.

There’s much to like in this version of the play, though some artistic decisions were a little questionable. The choir seemed deliberately discordant with chanting that distracted than added atmosphere to a couple of scenes. The very final scene on Saturday afternoon was anticlimactic with no sense of completion until the house lights went up without any curtain call: a strange omission for a show that set out to celebrate the talents of a community. It turns out that I – along with some other people sitting near me – left at the interval, thinking that this was the promised break for the Q&A and headed to the car park! That explains some of my confusion ... and the partial review!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s sold out run finishes on Sunday 5 May. Terra Nova certainly opened up the arts to new audiences without dumbing down the content or reaching for the lowest common denominator.

Photo credit: Neil Harrison

Friday, May 03, 2019

I Am Maura – a funny and tender coming-of-age play … with added liturgical dance (Lyric Theatre until 4 May)

Necessity is the mother of invention. The dire financial situation across the cultural and arts sector has resulted in a big increase in one and two-handed shows and multi-roled performances. It has also pushed many performers into staging their own productions outside of the larger theatre companies. And while it’s not a very sustainable way to manage the sector in the long term, some really creative gems flow out of these constraints.

One such jewel is I Am Maura, written and performed by Clare McMahon and directed by Benjamin Gould under the banner of Commedia of Errors.

It’s 2015 and Maura is a fifteen-year-old school girl who faces the daily trials and tribulations of school friends in Class 4F, parents, insecurities and relationships (and the lack thereof), all while exploring and establishing an identity while teetering on the cusp of adulthood.

McMahon brings to life dozens of delightful characters, introducing each with specific gestures, smells, physical and verbal traits. She shifts from side to side acting out conversations with BFF Ali, Emer, Lacie and the rest of Class 4F as well as a series of poor boyfriend hopefuls, Michael, Christopher, Joey, hot to mention Sister Frances and countless other people who populate Maura’s world of hickeys, homework, sex-ed and bedroom conversations with her ‘total ledge-bag’ idol Martine McCutcheon. It’s a time of Bebo, MSM, and a longing for more teenage drama than life on the Antrim Road can deliver.

The set’s school-blue lockers reveal surprises behind every door. Confession with a 92-year-old neighbour Mrs Gallagher reveals the wisdom and experience of the older generation if only the young will listen and connect. The funny moments keep on coming as men in the audience learn about toilet habits they’ve never heard discussed before. And the references to liturgical dance pay off in a fabulous finale that is visually rich and crying out to be pinched by Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee.

I Am Maura is a great showcase for McMahon’s writing and performing talent. It’s also a feel-good show – ‘cute’ is how one audience member described it afterwards – that fondly remembers the best and worst of tender teenage years, and brings to life a set of characters that grow in your imagination and nearly demands a follow-up show to discover what happens to them in later life.

You can enjoy I Am Maura in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 4 May before touring to Cushendall Golf Club on Friday 10 and Down Arts Centre on Saturday 11.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Curse of La Llorona – more shocks but less drama than the local council election results (Movie House from Friday 3 May)

If you’re a horror fan and you like a good old jump scare with a flimsy plot and a great score, then The Curse of La Llorona will be a delightful 93 minutes of cinema. While it’ll never be a classic horror movie, it’s well made, has some nice camera work, and doesn’t embarrass the genre.

If however, you like a plot to twist and turn, don’t believe that mumbo jumbo can replace discernible rules of engagement for a monster, and are bored by a woman wearing a wedding dress that is continually being confused with net curtains and table cloths, then beware this latest tenuous addition to the Conjuring ‘universe’.

Shortly after a widowed social worker Anna (Linda Cardellini) removes two brothers from a client’s home, they are found dead and their mother (Patricia Velasquez) seeks revenge in parallel with the 300-year-old Mexican woman La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) who is scouring the city for children. Anna’s family – the son (Roman Christou) is brave and stoic; his younger sister (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) other-worldly – are at risk as the haunting hand of history makes its mark. Raymond Cruz pops up as a former priest turned shaman who specialises in lighting candles and catching tormented souls.

Set in 1973, it’s a time of flared jeans, woollen jumpers and ghostly Scooby Doo cartoons on black and white televisions. However, this attention to detail is quickly overshadowed by flickering lights, sleepwalking children, long corridors and bottles potions. Exploding foodstuffs do liven up some kitchen scenes, and the slow motion shot of a police car’s flashing light gives a nod to the creative talent working on this run-of-the-mill horror.

“We are facing an evil that knows no bounds.” Except, this evil can’t cross an unbroken line of wood-shavings, rather contradicting the flowery dialogue. The wailing strings and blasts of bassy music will make your hair stand on end and your chest tighten. It briefly appears that something powerful will be said about a child’s ability to humanise a tormented spirit, but that moment passes quickly and tedium returns.

The Curse of La Llorona will be waiting for you at Movie House cinemas from Friday 3 May. However, it’ll have less drama, albeit more shocks, than the local government election results that will come out on the day of The Curse’s UK release.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – full of joy and mirth (Open Arts at The MAC until Saturday 27 April)

After years of not seeing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, suddenly three come along in a matter of weeks! Open Arts’ adaptation is running at The MAC this weekend and delivers a joyous and sensual celebration of theatre, combining the talents of their the Monday Players, dancers from Luminous Soul, musicians from Gamelan Orchestra and singers from Open Arts Community Choir.

Shakespeare sets up an Athenian square of love where no one loves Helena who loves Demetrious loves Hermia who loves Lysander. There’s a father who must be obeyed, an elopement, a rather wonderful play within the play, a fairy king and queen, and some great death scenes.

There’s a lot going on, but colour-coordinated costumes clearly differentiate the different strands of plot. Tuned percussion instruments and a few strings and woodwind provide a bed of eastern-sounding music under many of the scenes.

Gerry McBride’s Puck scoots across the stage with a hair-raising sense of urgency. His master, king Oberon is played solidly by Gareth Smyth, while queen Titania (Michelle Porter) flits around the woods with a troupe of fairy dancers who strike up some superb tableaus draped across the leafy set, and work some beautiful wheelchair choreography into their routines.

Cinzia Savonitti (Hermia), Andy Paton (Demetrius), Rab Nolan (Lysander) and Linda Fearon (Helena) really convey the emotion of their storyline – with some nifty crutch-fighting – while the ‘Mechanicals’ inject lots of humour with their play. Anna Kyle (It Only Takes a Minute) makes a great Bottom, alongside some brilliant moments from Monica Hughes (Quince), Carley Palmer, Darren Murphy, David Parkes and Tim Leathem.

Open Arts attitude towards inclusion and opening up the arts to everyone is obvious throughout the performance which, to quote Shakespeare, is “full of joy and mirth”, conjuring up the sleepy, dreamlike situation, stirring up fresh ironies (Oberon’s invisibility contrasted with the actor’s own sight problems), and adapting the script and action to take advantage of mobility aids and build them into the production rather than just try and work around them.

At the end of a long week in which humanity sometimes seemed stretched and broken, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a real tonic. A very polished production which worked as an ensemble to blend together diverse abilities: a credit to everyone involved on stage or back stage. You’ve one more chance to catch this great show tonight, Saturday 27 April at The MAC.

Photo credit: Neil Harrison