Saturday, January 21, 2017

I’ll Tell My Ma – four generations tell it like it is in witty one woman comedy show (The MAC until Sat 4 Feb)

There were two big talents on display at I’ll Tell My Ma on The MAC’s downstairs stage last night. The first was the comic flair of Christina Nelson who morphed between four generations of hilarious women in a West Belfast family in this ambitious one woman show.

Niall Rea’s ingenious costume design and its one foundational dress expedited Nelson’s metamorphosis from a mouthy school girl to a lusting airline attendant and from a creative writing granny to a uncompromising great grandmother.

But it’s wasn’t just the dress or even the accents that varied. Nelson’s entire demeanour changed as she slips between characters: mannerisms, breathing and stance. She’s a joy to watch. Nelson’s sense of comic timing left space for the laughter to rise and wane, while her sense of pace kept the show moving without becoming rushed.

First and last on stage is Granny Geraldine who is being mentored by a post-epiphanic tutor Danny Morrison – yes, that Danny Morrison – at a local creative writing group. Suffering from empty nest syndrome, this divorced mother is one of eleven siblings.

Throw in some impressions of nuns, references to West Belfast schools, era-specific tracks between scenes, not to mention the other female members of the family, and you’ve got an hour and a bit of Belfast comedy gold that had the Friday evening MAC audience in stitches. The loud chatter in the stalls during changes of scene signposted the recognition of social and geographic landmarks in the script.

The other talent exhibited was that of Patricia Gormley who wrote the play and until now performed it herself during Féile an Phobail. While the language is earthy in places, the humour is rarely cheap and alongside a couple of jokes that are as old as Great Granny Eileen, there was a lot of original material and local colour.

Amongst the witty dialogue and family-wide trait of mixing up words, the whoops of audience laughter are silenced when Nelson recounts the circumstances of a tragedy in her family. With autobiographical elements woven into the story, Gormley’s play resonates deeper than a simple West Belfast comedy. (You can read Gail Bell’s interview with Patrician Gormley in the Irish News.)

Having previously toured small community venues with only an ironing board as a prop, Joseph Rea Productions’ attention to detail and Alan McKee’s direction along with a mostly static set and some lighting tricks to elevate I’ll Tell My Ma into a strong piece of comedy theatre.

I’ll Tell My Ma runs in The MAC until Saturday 4 February. A tour is planned. With the deft wit running through Patricia Gormley’s imaginative characters, it would be great to hear their further adventures turn up on the Radio Ulster airwaves as a short series - though the characterisation of working class life might be too nauseating for some.

Photos: Joseph Rea Productions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Oliver Mears on Powder Her Face (Lyric Theatre, 27-29 January) and his six years at NI Opera


Northern Ireland Opera is about to bring the black comedy Powder Her Face to the stage of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. It’s the last production that will directly involve their artistic director Oliver Mears who heads off to London shortly to take up the reins as director of opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

Powder Her Face is being performed in the Lyric Theatre Belfast between Friday 27 and Sunday 29 January. The production is directed by Antony McDonald and will be accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Chalmers. Mary Plazas stars as the Duchess, alongside Adrian Dwyer (Salome), Stephen Richardson (Turandot) and Irish soprano Daire Halpin. It’s a co-production between Northern Ireland Opera and Opera Theatre Company.

Interviewed in a South Belfast café, Mears describes NI Opera’s most recent show Don Giovanni as “a special one” with a great cast and strong representation from Northern Ireland both on and off the stage. As a ‘rental’ of a production he directed in Norway, it was a cost effective way – though not logistically straightforward – to restage the show in Belfast. Mears says that there’s a “great advantage to have these relationships with other opera companies in other countries”. It’s one of the ways in which NI Opera has thrived and built its reputation over past year.
“When I started [at NI Opera] I didn’t want to just do the core repertoire like La bohème, Carmen and La traviata – great as those pieces are – we wanted to bring a whole range of repertoire to our audience.”

Powder Her Face is emblematic of this policy. It’s a compact piece: a chamber opera with a cast of four and only fifteen players in the orchestra. The music was composed by Thomas Adès and the English libretto written by Philip Hensher in 1995. Mears remarks that “for a modern opera, it’s rare to find one with 300 plus performances across the world”.

The two act show tells the story about the life and many loves of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll.
“[She] was an extraordinary character who had a very bizarre life. Certainly someone who was very passionate about her relationships which became notorious, culminating in a spicy sixties scandal around the time of the Profumo affair.

“It’s a tragic story of someone who had immense wealth and privilege and through the power of her sexuality became someone who was a social outcast. In some ways that’s not surprising given the strength of misogyny down the decades even until now.

“But it’s not depressing. The orchestration is amazing. It’s varied in its musical colours and alive in terms of its characterisation. It’s very witty and richly textured.”

The opera begins with the once promiscuous Duchess living on her own as a figure of ridicule in a hotel. (Later in life she ran out of money and moved out into a nursing home.) Subsequent scenes flashback to her earlier life and work forward though marriages, affairs and tragedy.

When I look back at some of NI Opera’s recent productions like Salome and Turandot, ‘dull’ certainly isn’t a word I’d use to describe them. They’ve been both exciting and challenging, embracing the emotional power and extremes that opera engenders. Powder Her Face promises to be another edgy production, particularly given the opera’s notorious reference to fellatio amongst the real life plot.
“She was a colourful personality and certainly some of the things on stage in this show are colourful as well. Truthful to the type of life she led. I don’t think there’s anything gratuitous or salacious … it’s based on a real story, and the scandal focussed around the headless man photos that were the core of the divorce case in the sixties … you can’t escape that side of the story and be truthful to what her life was.”

Mears reminds me that “opera is simply in its very nature controversial”.
“It’s about people with extreme attitudes, extreme emotions, living on the edge in terms of their behaviour, so it’s not surprising that for some it’s a little bit too much to stomach. Opera has always been shocking down the decades.”

But he cautions that it “hasn’t ever been our intention to cause controversy for its own sake”. Besides, as W. H. Auden said:
“No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”

Oliver goes on to underscore the power of the opera as an art form.
“Opera is about emotion and that’s why people go and see opera because they want to be moved by the predicaments of the characters on the stage, and they want to be able to see something of themselves, perhaps, in the characters.

“If opera is not about emotion it is nothing. Wagner made very grand claims for the special place that music has in the arts because it is the art form that can move as no other art form can. And it’s particularly the case for opera because it has the potential for combining acting, design, singing and music in a complete, one-off live event.”

When speaking about NI Opera, Mears rarely says “I” preferring to speak about “we”, honouring the wider team. I ask how the company has developed during his six years at the helm?
“When we started we had absolutely nothing. We didn’t have a website. We didn’t have a name. We didn’t have an office … The progress since then has been about trying to create a culture of opera in Northern Ireland, trying to establish the idea of a national opera company and what that means. For me it meant foregrounding and showcasing the finest talent that comes from Northern Ireland and the island in general.”

He stresses the importance of the Young Artists Programme which nurtures and promotes emerging talent and gives them roles on stage: “Talent development has always been at the very heart of what we have done”.

The cultivation of an opera culture in Northern Ireland and fostering regular attendance has included the need to create a level of expectation about the shows that NI Opera produces.
“When people go to see a production by NI Opera they have a pretty good idea of what it is going to be like. They know it’s going to be brilliantly designed, very theatrical, very immediate and direct, and often it will in some way resonate with some of the history or culture or society here.”

His vision of a national opera company includes not being bound by a single building.
“We were very clear that we wanted to do work all over Northern Ireland. And that’s why we did our first show in Derry because I think there was an expectation that we’d do everything in the Grand Opera House. So we wanted to knock that one on the head and say that we can do stuff anywhere.”

Audience development has been a core part of NI Opera’s mission.
“When I started I said that my ambition was for the company was to make it a company that everyone here could feel proud of and feel that ‘this opera thing could be for me’, having a really good night out to be entertained at the opera.”

From early touring productions that played to audiences of thirty or forty in small venues across Northern Ireland, NI Opera has built up its audiences to the nearly three thousand who attended the sold out performances of Turandot in late 2015.
“There’s an even bigger audience out there that can be systematically encouraged to come to our shows. The work we have done demonstrates that there is an appetite for opera which is made by a company in Northern Ireland and isn’t just brought in [from elsewhere].”

Mears reflects on the similarities between his old and new jobs.
“Audiences demand quality. They demand excitement. They demand to be moved at the opera. That’s the same whether you’re talking Belfast or London.”

On the cusp of moving to London, Mears says “it’s very humbling to behold” the rich tradition and history of Covent Garden and the experienced and passionate team he will join.
“I can’t wait to start. It is an amazing place with amazing people. I’m not just talking about the singers and the chorus and the orchestra. I’m also talking about the people in the administration, costume and … all the people who dedicate their lives to the organisation. It really is a family … and that chimes completely with my own thoughts about what makes an arts organisation successful and is what I’ve tried to do here [at NI Opera], to create this feeling of a family obviously at a much smaller scale.”

Directing an organisation doesn’t mean becoming hands off from productions.
“I love the idea of being in a position to create experiences for people in opera that will stay with them forever. That can involve commissioning work, putting teams together, but it can also mean creating work myself. I’ve been very lucky to be able to foster both aspects in my career and I would like to continue to do that.

“A lot of the most exciting opera companies in the world are led by practitioners and it’s a great facet to be able to understand other people who are working and making work in your company if you have also come across the challenges and difficulties and dilemmas in making work yourself. You understand what their needs are and how they would want to be supported and how they can give of their best. That’s ultimately what you’re doing as a director or artistic director, enabling people to give of their best.”

Would Mears’ twenty something self be surprised that a passion turned into a job and took him to the Royal Opera House in London?
“When I first went to the opera I was still at university. I was a late starter really. The first opera I saw was Káťa Kabanová by Leoš Janáček, not performed very often. But the reason I wanted to go and see that was that I was into all things Russian – books and music – and it’s based on a Russian play even though it’s an opera by a Czech composer.

“I really saw myself as going down the path of theatre. But there was something about the unique electricity that there is at the opera with the orchestra and the singers and this incredibly rich and opulent musical texture which was very thrilling for me the first time I saw an opera.

“My whole career has been about trying to recreate those moments for others in my work and to convey some of the atmosphere and electricity when I saw an opera for the first time. That’s why people have a need or a hunger to go to the opera. It’s a little bit like a drug, something that hooks you and that’s why it’s so important to keep making the case that opera really is for everybody. Because if you only give it a chance you might get hooked too.

“The problem is the barriers of preconceptions which you’re battling as well. Rightly or wrongly opera does suffer with the prejudice that it is elitist and incredibly expensive and only for a very small portion of the population. What I would say is that opera at its best should be for everybody and it isn’t just a safe establishment art form. It’s something that can be much more dangerous than that and something much more red-blooded.”

Mears promises to keep an eye on NI Opera and has had a role in programming the upcoming productions of Radamisto and Così fan tutte later this year.
“Of course I’m going to want to come back to see those productions and support the team. And I think I’ll always want to come back every now and again. Northern Ireland will have a very special place in my heart.

“We’ve grown to love the place and the warmth of the people and the generosity of the people. Belfast is a really dynamic and exciting city. We’ll certainly miss Belfast and miss the team that we’ve put together which is like a family.”

Mears isn’t surprised that the recruitment call for his successor as artistic director at NI Opera was flooded with applications. (Walter Sutcliffe takes over as artistic director in February and will speak at pre-show events on the Saturday and Sunday performances of Powder Her Face.)
“It was an amazing opportunity for me. We wouldn’t be talking about what’s coming next for me if that wasn’t the case.”

The company had been “crazily ambitious” and he credits the huge reservoir of talent, a team with energy and vision, and the Arts Council with its vision to financially back an opera company in Northern Ireland.
“How brave of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to create an opera company in the middle of the worst recession in modern times. They’ve backed us all the way. And it goes to show what can be achieved when an arts organisation does have a vision behind it and is financially backed. We’re not talking huge sums here, compared to other national opera companies.”

He gives the example of the city of Berlin which has ten times the population of Belfast. NI Opera was awarded £561k of funding from the Arts Council for 2016/17. The combined public subsidy of opera in Berlin is closer to €120 million.
“In the context of Northern Ireland and the budget that the Arts Council has to play with it shows that it is possible to do something exciting with that amount of money. I’ve never complained about the amount of money that we’ve had – that doesn’t mean to say that we wouldn’t like more, opera is an expensive business – but equally I think that other organisations like the Ulster Orchestra should be funded more as well. In general there needs to be more arts funding and more awareness of the all round societal benefits that come from funding the arts.”

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Assassin’s Creed – the Macbeth family hunt for the Golden Snitch (in cinemas from 1 January)

When it comes to computer games, I suppose I got stuck back in the 1980s with Jet Set Willy, Chuckie Egg and Elite as well as text-based adventure games like Lord of the Rings and Hitchhikers Guide. Not to mention Pokemon which is more of a fitness regime than a game. So I’ve no particular skill at shoot-em-ups and before heading to the cinema, no notion of the ‘universe’ that the Assassin’s Creed series of video games revolved around, nor any idea about the gameplay.

While Rogue One was (understandably) missing a scroller at its start, Assassin’s Creed introduces a few concepts to any bewildered audience members before the action starts.

The Assassins fight the Knights Templar. In this episode of ill will, they’re searching for the golden snitch Apple of Eden, a metal ball that contains genetic code. Much of the action is centred on Spain and jumps between 2016 and 1492. Callum Lynch (played by Michael Fassbender) has escaped death and finds himself incarcerated in a scientific research institute. With a blood line that connects him to Aguilar de Nerha in the fifteenth century, Lynch is strapped to a gigantic robot arm – the Animus – and forced to relive the genetic memories of his predecessors to identify the location of the much sought-after Apple which can apparently eliminate violence from the gene pool.
“Violence is a disease like cancer, and like cancer we have to control it one day.”
Given its video game heritage, the filmmakers have cleverly bridged the divide by including various game elements in the big screen production. What feels like a ‘loading screen’ appears to announce a time-shift. The camera follows a soaring eagle that glides into the new location. The ghostly projections that the institute’s staff see while Lynch is exploring his predecessor’s life feel very computer generated. Though the producers stopped short of putting an Assassins vs Knights Templar scoreboard up in the top left of the screen to capture the body count.

While the science is fairly mystical, the fighting scenes stick to physical combat. Very physical. Superhuman jumps are another stylised trademark of the film, with Fassbender demonstrating extreme parkour as he traverses across rooftops with fellow Assassin Maria (Ariane Labed). Coping with the perhaps understandably stilted dialogue – “We work in the dark to serve the light: we are assassins” – Fassbender sweats, bleeds, grunts and dashes about like a member of a secret cult on a mission.

It’s quickly obvious that scientific endeavour is not immune to the evil desires of powerful organisations and the kind of clearly wicked men who sit playing the piano while watching recordings of themselves delivering speeches to the UN.

The father/son relationship of disappointment and surprise within the Lynch family is mirrored with a similar relationship between visionary father Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) who wants to perfect humankind and daughter Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) who is the brains behind the science and the more idealistic of the pair (and also played Lady Macbeth opposite Fassbender last year). Charlotte Rampling plays the chief of the Elders, a powerful woman with an air of mystery who is unfortunately underexploited in the script.

Director Justin Kurzel creates a world without brash colours, and his brother Jed Kurzel scores its musical background (throwing in some electric guitar amongst the orchestral manoeuvring).

There’s an abundance of stone buildings, smashed glass, jumping through holes in roofs, furious fighting and spilt blood, while there’s absolutely no glamour, other than the architecture and Marion Cotillard’s nurse’s uniform. If you’re going to convert a game into a film, then that’s in essence what needs to be captured. And capture it they have. Apparently 80% of the action was live rather than CGI, though it’s clear that nearly every scene will have involved green screen or digital manipulation of the set and background to enhance the scale.

There is little of intellectual merit in Assassin’s Creed. No one leaves the cinema pondering the nature of violence and underground power structures that control the globe. No one will weep at the cutthroat success of the Assassins as compassion fatigue sets in very early. No one will have a pain in their side from laughing: I don’t recall a single funny line (other than Fassbender asking what is going on at just the point I wondered the same). No one will rush away to the history books to find out more about the Spanish Inquisition. No one will even ponder that the Assassins are no less evil than the Knights Templar. Though audiences will step out into the bright corridor outside the cinema screen and ask each other why the writers lost the will to add a proper fight scene into the final five minutes of the film.

Assassin’s Creed is a video game that has been squeezed into a virtual reality time-travelling regression machine and borrowed its chase sequences (though only one motorcycle) from the Jason Bourne franchise with a very small sprinkling of Highlander and Dan Brown.

It’s essentially a fantasy adaptation. Relatively pointless. But it’s one that will appeal to hard core gamers who appreciate that elements of the Assassin’s Creed world normally restricted to their PC and console screens has exploded into their local multiplex. And while it won’t push you back into your cinema seat or make you grip the armrest until your knuckles go white, it probably will spawn future cinematic releases to explore other time periods through the eye of battling descendants.

Assassin’s Creed opens in Movie House cinemas (and others) on 1 January.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Searching for the ‘Collateral Beauty’ in a Christmas turkey film (Movie House from 26 December)

The set-up for Collateral Beauty is that a New York advertising agency is facing tough times with a major client on the brink of walking away and the two partners need to make some decision. Trouble is that the one with the controlling share is grieving for his child who died two years ago and only seems to appear in work to set up crazy domino chains.

Whit (played by Edward Norton) together with colleagues Claire (Kate Winslett) and Simon (Michael Peña) decide to stage an intervention. Three local actors (Keira Knightly, Helen Mirren and Jacob Latimore) are engaged to interrupt the life of Howard (Will Smith) and either knock him back into the real world, or give them the evidence they need to prove that he is not competent to vote with his 60% share of the business.

Three advertising abstractions – love, time and death – are at the core of the plot and Howard’s sorrow. But these are also crucial issues with which Whit, Claire and Simon are coping badly in their own personal lives.

The scheming Helen Mirren and in-your-face Jacob Latimore are two of the most interesting characters in the film which often seems to rely on tears rather than solid acting to manipulate an emotional response.

It could be a great short story and the twist near the end shows signs of a polished script. (The final twist spoilt the ending for me.) The parallel suffering and symmetry mean that it could be adapted for theatre where the plot holes would easier to forgive. The soundtrack is light and the film enjoys some very classy cinematography. However, there are a great many things that don’t work about this movie.

The hefty cast is so star-studded that it becomes very distracting every time another well-known face pops onto the screen.

It’s set at Christmas time, but that has no bearing on the plot.

Movie plots are full of coincidences. But this one requires a bicycle to be abandoned, a subway to be caught, and a particular exit to be used … a feat that local mentalist David Meade might even struggle to implant in Howard’s mind.

The translation from script to screen is very unsubtle. Howard’s penchant for cycling against the flow of traffic wears very thin. If the dominos are supposed to be a metaphor for life-long journeys that cannot be changed or controlled then the mundane filming of the multiple sequences of collapsing plastic pieces fails to ignite much imagination.

The concept behind the film’s clunky title is poorly explained within the film and that it underlines its weakness. Beauty may indeed exist in the deep pit of loss that grieving parents find themselves trapped in. But when did ‘collateral’ seem like an appropriate word to prepend to the title. ‘Broken Beauty’ might have worked better.

It’s not Ghost. It’s not Crazy People. And it’s no Love Actually. Instead Collateral Beauty is a Christmas turkey of a film that needs to be seen to fully explore how such a great slate of actors could create such a weird movie. And that’s clearly why it has been released and will be successful at the box office. So many cast members will attract their following to cinemas. Hopefully they’ll find some ‘collateral beauty’ amongst the dominoes.

Collateral Beauty will be screened in Movie House cinemas from Monday 26 December.

A darker, sinister bouffon Santa - TGI Christmas (Black Box – 20 and 21 December)

After being treated to a great playlist of Santa tunes, the lights dimmed and the audience looked out at the simple tree, chair and fireplace on the Black Box stage for Amadan’s annual TGI Christmas show. Lulled into a family Christmas spirit with a superb reading that built up the anticipation, we wondered from where would the performer enter? When would we get our first glance at Jude Quinn’s red-suited creation? The answer was both obvious and totally unexpected when it came.

In silence, punctuated by increasingly loud waves of giggles, we grew to appreciate some of the struggles facing Santa as he moves around delivering presents.

While “he was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” and definitely had “a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly”, this was also an adult and sophisticated Santa. A darker, sinister one who can brutally judge the quality of hospitality left in a living room. A person who can perhaps distinguish bad from good better than he can discern naughty from nice. The UK government might describe him as creating a ‘hostile environment’.

Mischievous, curious, absurd, vain, rude, at times perverse, and only ever a tiny bit remorseful for the misery he creates in the supposed season of cheer.

For the most part it’s a one man show – with some help from Lunchbox Theatre – but when you’ve got a whole captive audience to play with, you’ve more than enough to create a tableau or two across the front of the stage. Costumes can be provided!

With a loooong stare or a gesture, Quinn – who trained at the Lecoq theatre school in Paris and is a master at the bouffon style of physical performance – confidently wields the power to freeze an audience member to their seat and leave their mates cowering. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we soon all know a treat is in store when the light comes on over the audience.

The musical cues and track choices add to the layers of physical and emotional comedy being created on stage. Quinn has a remarkable ability to minutely control his movements and to change his shape inside a costume, at one point making it look like two different people are controlling the two sides of his body.

The final lipsynced medley boosts Quinn into the premiere league of silent Stars in Their Eyes performers, as he morphs through the shape, gender and movements of so many well known artists in a routine that is highly synchronised with the shifting music tracks. (His Mariah Carey is amazing!)

Ultimately this is a Santa who is generous with his gifts for all the audience.

Thank F#ck It’s Christmas is probably the best lit shows I’ve seen in the Black Box, truly converting the Cathedral Quarter venue into a blacked off theatre space. This fourth annual version of the production is a fabulous showcase for Jude Quinn and Gemma Mae Halligan’s talents and their Amadan company.

The swear word in the title is the warning that the show has a sharp edge. But a style of comedy that attracted a wide age range to the performance I attended. When Band Aid sang “It's Christmas time; there's no need to be afraid” they certainly didn’t have Jude Quinn’s Santa in mind!

Tickets are still available for the Wednesday 21 December performance. Laughter guaranteed at the Black Box where doors open at 8pm.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rogue One: hope rewarded with a fine space opera with familiar cameos and a gutsy heroine

A child hides in a ‘priest hole’ as her father is taken away to work on an evil Imperial weapon of mass destruction. Next seen fifteen or so years later, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has been tracked down by the Rebels who want to use her to find her father and disrupt his contribution to the Empire.

Soon Rogue One is bouncing between locations at a frightening rate, introducing characters from the (space) opera-sized cast who look familiar from TV drama before disposing of them with the flick of a switch on consoles that are so low tech that they use cathode ray tube displays.

And so they escape from somewhere, they find someone, they fly somewhere, they break into someplace else and they climb up and up before experiencing dangerous passage over wire mesh walkways. Harrison Ford isn’t in this one so it doesn’t risk crossing over into the Indiana Jones franchise.

Expect to see a family being torn apart, rivals engaging in low trust co-operation, reunions, death, grief, revenge, a sprinkling of stardust and faith in the force. Remarkably, the gutsy heroine isn’t forced to immediately fall into the arms of her ambiguous sidekick Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) and is the leading character

Plenty of humour is squeezed in amongst the death and destruction. Even some of the dialogue feels knowingly cheesy. Every film in the ever-expanding franchise needs a droid, and K-2SO is a fine addition to the small fleet of metallic friends. He’s a little too honest and could well be related to Marvin the Paranoid Android, minus the depression.

I’m no fan of Star Wars, but Rogue One is a pretty decent science fiction film, with space ships fighting, alien races, lots of running, and a universe dominated by English speakers. It tips enough of a nod to the more loveable Star Wars films with cameo appearances by any number of spoilerific characters.

There are lots of familiar craft and paraphernalia. It turns out that Storm Troopers come in more than one colour and uniform. I bet the doll merchandisers are pleased with that creative decision!

The plot essentially ensures that it is a standalone cast in a complementary storyline that explains some of the background in the original crawler text without messing with the canon.

Whether or not a by-product of the 2D production that was later upgraded to 3D for people who like to wear glasses, there is a consistent visual style to the film that overuses shadows and keeps a very small depth of field to allow only a single actor to be in focus while blurring out everything else around them, even people quite nearby.

You’d swear that many of the ships floating in space were models made of 1980’s Lego bricks of the exact shade of stone grey. The musical score is big, bassy and brassy right from the star, with fervent strings and drums beating to build up the tension.

If you’re following Northern Ireland politics and the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme scandal, some of the lines of dialogue feel like they should be appropriated for a local parody:
Orders? When you know they’re wrong you might as well be a Stormtrooper!

So I’m still in command? … Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.

By the end, rather a lot of 'hope' has been thickly spread in a not so subtle pointer to the title of Episode IV: A New Hope.

Compared with last year’s offering Episode VII: A Force Awakens, the plot of Rogue One is much less derivative of the original movie (Ep IV). While it avoids the tedium of flying deep into a huge space ship, dodging left and right, many of the battle scenes feel like they have jumped out of video games and onto the cinema screen. (Though later this week it’s the turn of Assassin’s Creed, a film that is based on a video game franchise.)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Pony Panto - edgy, energetic, and exciting festive entertainment (The Mac, until 23 Dec)

The Ponies were in good form when they bolted from their stable and leapt onto The Upstairs stage in The MAC on Friday evening. Pony Panto has been growing for many years, building up from an intimate show for the company’s friends and followers to what has become a less extreme and more mainstream yuletide performance that regularly sells out.

After a dark opening that reflected much of the year’s news agenda, matters livened up on the Cathedral Quarter stage with many old favourites returning to the programme: high energy dance routines, live music from the Brothers Scullion, quick costume changes, a VIP seat, audience participation galore, a dance-off as well as different performers guest starring during the run.

‘Love’ was the theme for 2016, and there was a lot of it about … except in the hearts of some frightened audience members who worried that they’d be next on stage. (Though if you enter into the spirit of the on-stage challenges, there’s not much to be feared, and often the audience shock the cast with their talents and creativity.)

There’s always a heavy sprinkling of diversity in Pony Panto but Mary Nugent stole the show this year with her banterful exchanges with the mistress of ceremonies and dancing as part of the troupe proving that celebral palsy and a wheelchair don’t impede, but perhaps even enhance, participation and performance.

Live-drawing artist-in-residence Melanie perched up in an eyrie at the back of the stage, projecting her superb sketches onto the wall. With a reputation for being raucous and rude, the edginess of previous Pony Pantos was a little blunter this year. But this safety created space to savour the company’s new takes on line dancing and roller disco, routines which combined comedy with intelligence.

If you want to let your hair down, laugh out loud at a well choreographed evening of dance-enhanced sketches and music, then check out Pony Panto at The MAC. Most of the remaining shows in the run are already sold out. However, if you hurry there are still some tickets available for the final two shows at 7pm and 9.45pm on Friday 23 December.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Gingerbread Mix Up (Lyric until 7 Jan) loud & musical, full of bangs, screams & audience participation

When you open up a Christmas show to audience participation and pantomime responses then you have to be ready for anything. And the cast of The Gingerbread Mix Up in the Lyric Theatre coped well this afternoon with the occasional underage and perhaps over-caffeinated heckle from the stalls as they romped through the high energy, festive three-hander.

Martin Murphy’s show is loosely based on the story of Hansel and Gretel, with the woodcutter chopping out a number of characters (including himself) and removing a lot of the original scenes!

Primrose is a sneery, stroppy, selfish monster of a twelve year old who (without intervention) might grow up and find a job as a wicked witch. Her parents – particularly her Mother – conspire to abandon her in the middle of a forest. The wicked witch’s grammar-obsession cat Pardon lures her back to a cottage constructed from gingerbread and confectionery where the not-totally wicked witch dreams of cooking up something special for dinner.

Rosie Barry stomps around the stage as Primrose in her tunic wowing the kids in the audience with her cheeky retorts and lippy language. Despite being twice the age of her character, she has the headphones-on-engrossed-in-a-3DS-screen look down to a tee and even throws in a Pokemon reference.

Christina Nelson is the comedy queen rocking her Dame Edna glasses and outfit as Primrose’s Mum before transforming into the witch. Her feet bounce over the stage as her whole body expresses the emotion of any particular line. With an outrageously detailed costume and props that fly in and out, she’s the driving force of the performance.

Kyron Bourke plays the father and the witch’s cat Pardon. He stole the show in the Lyric’s Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf last year with his revolutionary piano playing and magical rendition of December Moon. While The Gingerbread Mix Up is punctuated with songs composed by Ursula Burns, none particularly showed off his husky vocal talent. (At times this afternoon, the backing track overpowered the micced up performers in the sound mix.) It’s a shame that the gingerbread cottage didn’t have a piano in a corner that would have allowed the cat to croon a soulful song or two.

The set is craftily shared with the Lyric’s adult-oriented Christmas production, The Nativity … What the Donkey Saw, and gradually reveals itself to the audience, starting with some incredibly precise lighting in the opening minute. Effort has been put into adding puppet characters that dance along in the background of some songs and a comedy bunny motorcycle courier who delivers telegrams to prod the action forward. The matching fabric across furniture, fittings, costumes and accessories in the opening scene is typical of the detailed design behind the show.

There’s an odd lack of symmetry – perhaps a final scene cut? – that means Primrose’s parents and Kyron Bourke’s ‘Dad wig’ don’t reappear in the second half. It felt like a lost opportunity to link Pardon with the animatronic cat that sat in the first scene’s set so cutely scratching its nose.

But the kids in the audience won’t notice any of that and will be gleefully shouting at the stage even when it’s not clear quite what the appropriate encouragement should be.

Suitable for children of play school age and over, The Gingerbread Mix Up is loud and musical, full of bangs, screams and enthusiastic audience participation. It’s playing in the Lyric Theatre until 7 January.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Competition: Enjoy the “Spirit of Christmas Past” at Cultra this Sunday

Competition over - congratulations to Roger! Enjoy the day.

Want to win a family pass to enjoy the Spirit of Christmas Past that will be wafting across the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra this Sunday? There will be seasonal smells, Christmas fayre, a magic show, as well as brass bands and carol singing around the Christmas tree between 11am and 4pm on Sunday 11 December.

You can visit the Christmas Market to pick up a gift or two or some ready-made decorations. Witness Santa on Trial for theft in the Omagh Meeting House.

Or settle back to hear renowned Charles Dickens expert Leon Litvack recreating the magic of A Christmas Carol, with a dramatic reading in Victorian costume. Catch the Magician conjuring up his magic.

And then step back in time and discover how seasonal decorations transformed people's homes and be inspired with some decorative ideas for your own home.

Children can write their letter to Santa who will be taking time out of his busy schedule to warm his toes in front of the fire … though that’ll need to be booked in advance since there’s only so long Santa’s toes can survive before they’ll go as red as Rudolf’s nose! But the bearded gentleman does promise to appear at the end of the day to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas.

During Advent, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum are hosting all kinds of other seasonal festivities, including Christmas Evenings on Friday 9 and 16 December with brass bands, making cinnamon toast over an open fire, decoration making and Santa.

To enter to win a family ticket for Sunday 11 December, simply email alaninbelfast+cultra@gmail.com before 2pm on Friday 9 December and leave a name and contact number so the promoter can get in touch with details about the ticket. One winner will be randomly selected from the entries.

Good luck!

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Coming War On China - a disturbing and uncomfortable watch (ITV 6 Dec 2016)

John Pilger’s authored documentary The Coming War On China invites audiences to rethink their worldview and consider whether they’ve been looking at the wrong aggressor across the Pacific Ocean. Could concern about Chinese airstrips being built on disputed islands in the South China Sea be as a result of focussing western gun sights on one small area and forgetting to pull back to see the full picture of what’s been happening in the region over the last sixty or more years? Is China “wilfully misunderstood” by the west?

The two hour film will be shown tonight (Tuesday 6 December 2016) on ITV and was previewed last night in cinemas across the UK. (I saw it in a temperature-challenged Queen’s Film Theatre.) The narrative builds up a picture of historical US misuse of the South Pacific for military gain before focussing on its continuing build-up of bases around China.



It’s an odd mixture of archive footage, photographs, contemporary footage and pieces to camera by Pilger. The Star-Spangled Banner appears twice, confronting the patriotic untruths that the film-maker wants to overthrow.

The first ‘chapter’ could have been a documentary in its own right, looking back at the ‘Bravo’ nuclear bomb testing in the Marshall Islands that destroyed one island and irradiated thousands of people on others. Just as animals were strapped to the decks of moored navy vessels during explosions to gauge the effect of the blasts, local people were not evacuated from nearby islands – in fact they were told that the US were there to improve the habitability of the region – and were later even ferried to live on ‘safe’ islands were everyone would suffer from thyroid cancer while being measured as guinea pigs in a long-running study.

Monetary compensation – blood money – was woefully inadequate and poverty remains as rife as the ill health that blights these tortured communities. Yet the US defence industry’s rape of these islands continues today with a missile test site with its $100m missiles and a lush green golf course importing workers each morning from a neighbouring ‘slum’ island across the bay with 12,000 people crammed onto a one mile strip that has lacked a working sewage system from the 1960s.

Maps flash up on screen to show the location of the thousand or so US military bases outside the North America landmass. US officialdom disputes whether a couple of hundred troops in a US conclave is a ‘base’ when it’s built onto the side of another nation’s existing base. But the war on words is clearly a mere smokescreen.

The second part of Pilger’s film reconsiders the relationship that Mao Tse-tung desired with the US, pointing to evidence that he sought to be a friends of the US, cooperating rather than being an enemy. But the legacy of the “yellow peril” communist-fearing foreign policy is still felt today.

(Chinese) experts contend that in the past China built a wall to keep barbarians out while the US sought to convert people around the world to their way of thinking. The market economy in China is one where billionaire capitalists cannot control the politburo policy like they can in the US. Yes they want to prevent the US dominating Aisa Pacific, but China doesn’t want to run the world. While there’s an absence of American talking heads to back up this alternative world view, and it’s poorly balanced with some gentle criticism of China’s record on gender discrimination, oppression of political opposition and an increasing class poverty gap, the new narrative is engaging.

A further chapter examines resistance to US military presence on the Japanese island of Okinawa, South Korea’s Jeju and its return to five locations in the Philippines. Pilger argues that the US is intimidating China and is acting as the aggressor and escalator of conflict in China’s back yard. Would the US appreciate a military build up off its western seaboard?

Pilger says that “nuclear war is no longer unthinkable” and later asks experts to outline the devastating effect of thousands of tons of smoke entering the upper atmosphere and triggering a nuclear winter that would cease crop growth for several years. He asks how the process can be stopped before it starts a war? Scenes of Trump speaking about China at the Republican National Convention are not encouraging. Can ordinary people act as an alternative superpower, swapping their normal silence for loud shouts that call for reason and abeyance?

The Coming War On China is a disturbing and uncomfortable film to watch. It educates about US abuses of power and challenges viewers to think for themselves whether the history and analysis that they are fed daily by western society are complete and accurate. Some of Pilger’s contentions will be quickly disputed and no doubt knocked over. But the thrust of his line of reasoning bears examination.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Nativity … What the Donkey Saw (Lyric Theatre until 14 January)

For the second year in a row, the Lyric have revived an old friend as the festive show for grownups to play alongside the family-centred one. Originally written in 2004 – the Grimes and McKee version that is – The Nativity … What the Donkey Saw has been sanded down and Trumpified to restore its contemporary feel amongst some of the stories that have dominated the news in 2016.

Whilst never terribly irreverent, there’s a little monkeying donkeying around with the Gospel storyline as the early chapters of Matthew and Luke are meshed together. Love blooms between Mary (played by Kerri Quinn) a young apprentice carpenter Joseph (Terry Keeley) who comes in each day to order his sausage roll in a bap from her Centra deli counter. [A Jew eating pork is just one of the anachronisms in the show.] With Caesar J Trumpius calling for a census to collect taxes (except from himself), the young married couple buy a budget donkey with a mind of its own and make the tiring journey to Bethlehem.

Despite the publicity photographs, there isn’t a tea towel in sight amongst the costume changes that come thick and fast. Alyson Cummins’ static wooden set is busy with a hotel bar, the stable, and a mezzanine garden all squeezed onto the stage along with the musical director Peter McCauley who is penned off in a corner to provide live accompaniment and a foil for the cast.

The show is driven by fourteen songs – including The 12 Days of Christmas, I wish it could be Christmas everyday, Fairytale of New York – with the lyrics amended and even some comedy actions added (“When a child is born”) to fit the on-stage story. The five cast members all have good voices, croon in tune and create remarkably good harmonies. Belfast theatre really has upped the quality of singing this Christmas. They may be available for weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs once the run is over. Deborah Maguire’s choreography gives the routines a sense of class, and the boy band number is scarily convincing.

Kerri Quinn gives Mary an injection of chutzpah while Terry Keeley’s Joseph is never really allowed to escape the script’s ‘nice but dim’ characterisation. The Wise Men – complete with their much needed “healing antiseptic uncture” – work better than the County Antrim-soundin’ shepherds in thon field wae their knees a-knockin’.

The Nativity is written by Conor Grimes and Alan McKee. The lispy archangel Gabriel isn’t the only character whose accent and mannerisms are familiar from their previous shows. But the pair don’t hoard all the best lines and avoid the temptation to make the show revolve around them. Tara Lynne O’Neill provides a great source of laughs playing six male characters (including a glitzy present-bearing gangsta rapper) with raised eyebrows, false moustaches and a sense of comic timing.

There’s no attempt to moralise or in the retelling of the story, other than to book ahead and get confirmation of your room reservation. Whether you’re sober or have had one too many Shortcross Gins in the Lyric’s new bar, there are plenty of laughs throughout the show and it’s a particular delight that The Nativity is a Troubles-free zone. Local mentions aren’t totally absent: the Continental Market at the City Hall gets a gentle slag. The performance also sticks to vernacular rather than swearing, and limits itself to a light smuttering of innuendo in a single cock-fighting storyline. My twelve year old enjoyed the show: that’s a serious recommendation from the ever-cynical youth of today.

The Nativity … What the Donkey Saw runs in the Lyric Theatre until 14 January 2017.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Pinocchio – conjuring up a tale of the unexpected for audiences in The Mac (until 1 Jan)

Cahoots NI went back to the original 1881 story of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi to conjure up this year’s Christmas production that runs in The MAC until 1 January.

Right from the start there’s magic in the air as snow falls on the gathered carollers. While the story takes ten minutes to get into its stride, the pace picks up as puppet Pinocchio (Max Abraham) emerges from a log on Geppetto’s (Bob Kelly) carpentry bench. At times the story is told through mood and music as much as dialogue and lyrics.

The orchestra are concealed behind a couple of upstairs windows in the set which switches from house to streetscape to courtroom in the blink of an eye. It’s like* Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In with panels and doors opening and closing to reveal characters. (*But only if you’re old enough to remember!)

Nearly 150 years old, the story is still contemporary with child trafficking, insecurity, shame, con artists and a prescient line – probably written many months before the worst of the EU referendum and US Presidential campaigns – reminding the audience that “a lie can travel half the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”.

Every time a page in the script story is turned, there’s another surprise, another jump to an unexpected situation. Where else in Belfast this Christmas would you see someone juggling two knives and a lettuce, a woman being stretched and a young puppet being shrunk?

This is no Disney story. A naïve Pinocchio descends into darker and darker places before his rebirth and eventual transformation. An upbeat final song recaps the Pinocchio’s journey and finally shifts the mood into the light.

The choreography is tight throughout and cast members’ laser-like eyelines keep you focussed on the action (or where the director wants you to be looking). The sleight of hand and misdirection even continues as fog rolls out across the stage and props appear during scene changes.

The pelt-covered Jo Donnelly (Cat) and Hugh W Brown (Fox) inject mischief and attitude into their ‘decent criminal’ roles, while Sean Kearns was described as “the goodest baddie ever” by one youngster attending the opening night as The Great Rocombollo transforms from being moderately nasty at the start to being positively sinister by the end.

Audience participation is minimal. The show is aimed at six years and above, with young children in the audience loving the music while the magic kept the interest of the older ones. Large scale tricks are incorporated into the story (cast members appear and disappear like money in your current account) and even the small effects work effortlessly (like Pinocchio’s telescopic nose and the donkey ears).

Everyone sings in tune. Pinocchio’s young stripy-legged friend Candlewick is played by Philippa O’Hara who sings, tap dances and contorts her way into the audience’s hearts, particularly when she takes a feisty friend-forever turn after the interval. But the emotional content is provided by Charlotte McCurry whose voice angelically reverberates around the auditorium as she periodically sprinkles magic dust over Pinocchio’s wobbly state of affairs.
“The choice is yours Pincchio, always”
There’s a quality to the production which is rich with layered sound effects, bird like shadows cast against the set, costumes that are quirky and otherworldly, and props with more than a hint of steampunk. While you can’t have a spinning piano and Kyron Bourke’s spine-tingling singing every December, the creative team of Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney (director), Charles Way (script), Garth McConaghie (music) and Hugh W Brown (lyrics) have crafted an enchanting world for this Christmas Belfast stage.

Pinocchio is a Cahoots NI production (sponsored by Phoenix Natural Gas) and runs in The MAC until 1 January.

Chi-Raq - Spike Lee’s satirical musical about deprivation in gangland Chicago (QFT until 8 Dec)

The film’s title Chi-Raq is a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq that sums up the gang violence in parts of Chicago’s South Side. It’s also the nickname of the part-time rapper and full-time gangster Demetrius Dupree (played by Nick Cannon). His rival is Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) who sports colour-coordinated sequinned eyepatches.
“Guns have become part of America's wardrobe.”

A shooting at Chi-Raq’s gig shocks his partner Lysistrata and is quickly followed by a case of coitus interruptus when her house is burnt down in the middle of the night. But it’s only when a child is shot dead in the street during a shootout that she finally wakes up to the appalling and needless loss of life.

Teyonah Parris oozes confidence in her role as the leading protagonist. Inspired by Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee’s sex strike, Lysistrata’s solution is to sign up women in the rival gangs to a policy of “no peace, no pussy”. Their plan is to (sexually) starve the warring men into negotiation and a cessation of hostilities. The oath they repeat starts:
I will deny all rights of access or entrance
from every husband, lover or male acquaintance
who comes to my direction in erection …

Director Spike Lee not only grabbed Aristophanes' Greek comedic play Lysistrata and pulled it kicking and screening into modern times, substituting rhyming rap for the Greek poetry to create an anti-gun crime musical. It’s an unpredictable and unconventional offering with a pumping soundtrack, humiliation of the military, and a narrator in a succession of loud three piece suits (who else but Samuel L Jackson!) who turns to face the cinema audience to keep them up to speed with developments.

It must have been a hair-raising pitch to the funders and production companies. But Amazon Studios signed up and Chi-Raq is the first original feature film they have released.

The script is laden with puns and laced with innuendo and sass. It’s not subtle. The imagery is rich in boobs and bums (and that starts with the men). Text messages flash up on screen to give a flavour of reaction to events, barely visible long enough to read in any detail. The pumping bass totally overpowers some of the lyrics and dialogue, but the story is simplistic and often visual rather than burdened with a need to hear the words. It’s a musical, so expect a song and dance even at little Patti’s funeral, though it’s marred by the appalling creative decision to include tinkling more appropriate to a piano bar.

Cinema doesn’t have to be easy. It doesn’t have to be palatable. Yet there is definite discomfort watching death being used as a vehicle for entertainment and I’m still not convinced that the excuse of Chi-Raq being satirical fully absolves the writers from the crass suggestion that sex is the most powerful weapon available to the black womenfolk in Chicago. Perhaps if it had been funnier, but with the tone remaining so serious for much of the movie it was frustrating. Yet for all its flaws, it’s a creatively clever film with stacks of ambition that plays with form and boundaries.

Homicide is more prevalent in Chicago than the death of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the US government invests in the economic development of Iraq to help its recovery, this musical satire questions why there is no similar investment in homes and jobs in Chicago. Spike Lee’s message is to “Wake up” to the reality and not to wait for someone else – like the state – to do something about it.

Chi-Raq is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 2 and Thursday 8 December.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Light Between Oceans - a long and windy masterclass in emotional blackmail

In the film The Light Between Oceans, WW1 veteran Tom Sherbourne seeks work as a relief lighthouse keeper off the coast of Western Australia to replace an incumbent who ultimately doesn’t return to work.

Local girl Isobel lost two brothers in the war. The remote, rugged, chiselled Janus Rock location attracts Tom. But it’s his remote and rugged, chiselled chin that catches Isobel’s eye and she quickly woos him and soon has a rock on her finger.

Two traumatic miscarriages inside two years take their emotional toll on the couple. Yet when the ocean offers up a baby (and a dead man) in a wooden rowing boat that drifts towards the beach, Isobel convinces Tom to suppress the incident in his lighthouse log and take the chance to save a life. The couple keep the child as if it was their own.

Yet one family’s blessing is another family’s grief and Tom’s guilt leaves a trail, allowing the ethical dilemma to begin to be explored. No number of good choices and virtuous motivations can make amends for the original crime.

Alicia Vikander shows a mastery of the role of steely sea siren, luring the silent lighthouse keeper onto the moral rocks. Her grief is convincing and her emotional range is superb, so much wider than the introvert played by Michael Fassbender who is caught in the darkness between the rotating beams of light he operates. In the second half of the film, Rachel Weisz plays the mother of the washed up baby, a role that is superficial and far too shallow.

Running at 133 minutes long, the film is constructed of four half hour episodes followed by a fifteen minute epilogue. The scenery is bleak, the wind constantly howls, and the music is designed to hug at your heart strings and open up your tear ducts. Yet Derek Cianfrance’s masterclass in emotional blackmail was ultimately desensitising and the slow-paced melodramatic film failed to cast its spell over this audience member.

The Light Between Oceans is still being screened in many local cinemas.