Saturday, July 22, 2017

Preview of 2017 John Hewitt International Summer School (24-29 July in Armagh) #JHISS

Borders, Brexit and Dreams are recurring themes in this year’s John Hewitt International Summer School which runs between Monday 24 and Saturday 29 July in The Market Place Theatre in Armagh. 2017 is the 30th anniversary of the John Hewitt Society, and this year’s event features 55 artists, writers and speakers participating in 35 or more events over the six days.

On top of the creative writing workshops and masterclasses, there’s a rich set of talks and panels looking at contemporary politics and culture. Some events are already sold out, so worth checking The Market Place Theatre website or box office before travelling down to Armagh.

The opening address on Monday morning will be delivered by Dame Helena Kennedy QC, a barrister and broadcaster who champions civil liberties and promotes human rights. As a Labour peer, she currently holds the record of rebelling more frequently that any of her other party colleagues in the House of Lords. She recently appeared– quite frustrated – on screen in Laura Poitras’ documentary The Risk that profiled Julian Assange.

Monday afternoon’s panel discussion asks 30 Years On: Where are we now? Seamus Mallon, Naomi Long, Steve Aiken and Steven Agnew will be in conversation, chaired by Peter Osborne.

The opening night’s gala event reprises In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: A Journey in Words & Music. First staged in the Dublin Abbey Theatre and at Belfast Festival last year, the show features a selection of the island’s finest and most respected artists as they look back over the last century and chart the journey of reconciliation from 1916 to the present day through poetry, music, drama and imagery.

Tuesday afternoon’s panel discussion looks at The Art of Conflict Transformation with Katy Radford, Paula McFetridge, Marguerite Nugent and Oliver Sears.

On Tuesday evening evening, Kabosh Theatre will perform Green & Blue, a play that looks back at border policing using Garda and RUC officers’ oral history. One of the most memorable pieces I reviewed during last year’s Belfast Festival, a thoughtful and respectful play that is worth catching.

Political sociologist and border studies expert Dr Katy Hayward will discuss the future of borders – frictionless and otherwise – on and around the island of Ireland after Brexit in her Wednesday morning reflection.

Thursday morning sees literature academic Dr Caroline Magennis take to the Armagh stage to discuss Unsettling Intimacy: Northern Irish Short Fiction after the Agreement. (Caroline is currently organising an international conference on the cultural legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, to be held in Manchester in April 2018.)

Friday morning continues the theme of borders with Dominique Jan Searle talking about The Garlic Wall and the border separating Spain from Gibraltar that was closed between 1969 and 1985. Dominique is the Gibraltar Representative to the UK and will talk about the human and political factors behind the dispute with Spain and how the future management of the frontier will be affected by Brexit.

Borders also return on Friday evening with a reading from Garrett Carr’s recently published book The Rule of the Land which documents his walks along the border that separates north from south. He’ll be joined by John Paul Connolly who voiced the book when it was adapted for Radio 4.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Half a Sixpence: two proposals and a wedding in BSPA’s rags to riches musical tale

Half a Sixpence is the rags to riches tale of Arthur Kipps, an orphan who is separated from his childhood friend Ann and becomes an apprentice in a Folkestone drapery shop.

Can the cockney couple rekindle their friendship? Or, egged on by an aspiring thespian, will the young lad’s attention be distracted by high society Helen Walsingham who runs evening classes for the underprivileged in the “town of vulgar prosperity”?

Throw into the mix a sudden fortune and a few swipes of fate and you have a two hour, class-riven musical with song, dance, and costumes galore.

With a cast of thirty 8–16 year olds, and only two weeks of rehearsal, director Peter Corry together with choreographer Gemma Quigley-Greene, musical director Thomas Brown and the back stage crew pulled off a minor miracle with the nearly word-perfect musical which had two public performances earlier this week.

Other than pantomime, the size of Northern Ireland audiences and venues dictate that very few performance have more than six actors in a production.

So it was a treat to have the MAC’s stage full of colourful talent for this Belfast School of Performing Arts summer show.

“Once a boy gets whiskers on his chin / He will soon start falling into sin”

Fresh back from The Voice Kids UK, Nathan Johnston’s voice found its confidence part way through the first half to deliver a sure-footed performance (that included tap dancing!) in the lead role which kept him on-stage for virtually the whole show, singing in nearly every number including solos and duets.

Victoria McClements blended her voice beautifully with Kipps/Johnston during Ann’s duets and delivered a stunning solo I Know What I Am, keeping up the Cockney accent throughout the entire show.

Her rival Helen Walsingham was played by Leesa Seffen, at first gracious and kind before toughening up under the influence of her stern mother (Ellen McAdam).

Glenn Parkinson’s camp Harry ‘Biff’ Chitterlow had the audience roaring with laughter (even when only his silhouette was visible pulling the curtain across the stage in the dark).

Four junior narrators provide frequent updates for anyone in the audience who has missed a vital plot point. Louis McCartney and Young Walsingham Michael Nevin (about takes up his scholarship at Winchester College Chapel Choir in September) deserve a mention as talented trebles who also added much to the humour of the show.

Peter Corry didn’t often let the action drop its pace, creating a remarkably tight and ambitious production. The live band hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stage stayed within earshot of the performers and some beautiful trumpet tones cut through above the rest of the soundtrack.

With only two performances and such a short time for tech, the odd issue with sound and mics are inevitable in this kind of production. Yet to the credit of the cast, they didn’t miss a beat and carried on regardless: good training for their future stage careers. (And it’s a good reminder that modern performers – young ones and older more established ones too – still need to be able to project their voices out into an auditorium and not always rely on amplification.)

The Half A Sixpence musical that I sat through several times as a child – enjoying performances by Ulster Operatic and other amateur groups – was revamped in 2016 and the version performed on the stage of the MAC this week is substantially less dated, while maintaining the turn of the last century feel of HG Wells’ novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul.

BSPA’s junior summer show was quite a treat, and the standard of the ensemble as well as the principals bodes well for the health of musical theatre in Northern Ireland. Keeping up the Tommy Steele theme, BSPA will be back in the MAC between 23 and 26 August with their senior show: Singin’ In The Rain.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dunkirk - stunning cinema with evacuation story allowed to eclipse the cast (QFT in 35mm from Friday 21 July)

The creative hands of Christopher Nolan are all over his new film Dunkirk as writer, director, producer and even arbiter of the distribution media. It reanimates the history books that describe the days in 1940 when victory snatched from the jaws of defeat as upwards of 300,000 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk where they had been trapped, surrounded by the German Army and being picked on by the Luftwaffe.

Nolan follows a handful of key characters. But unlike most disaster films, we never find out much about their back story or motivation. They’re just familiar faces there to juxtapose, and help weave together, the different strands on the ground, at sea and up in the air.

The film begins with Tommy running through the streets of Dunkirk, under fire. The soundscape is intense. And as the young soldier ducks behind the sandbags and reaches the beach, the visual width opens up and the scale of Nolan’s vision is revealed.

A young boy jumps on board his friend’s father’s weekend boat to help the war effort and sail to Dunkirk to rescue the troops. This storyline brings the civilian population into an otherwise military sphere of operations. Spitfire pilots defend the skies above the beaches being evacuated and try to protect the mixed flotilla of vessels sailing towards France.

Military officers assess the chances of survival and debate the times of the tide (leading to the gratuitous but funny line “it’s a good job you’re army and I’m navy”).

Kenneth Branagh stands on a pier pulling excellent faces for despair, hope and resolve. Mark Rylance sees the bigger picture as he holds his pleasure cruiser’s course for France despite protestations from a very disturbed Cillian Murphy who us rescued along the way. Fionn Whitehead plays a central army private along with Harry Styles (yes, that Harry Styles). Up in the air, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are anything but gung-ho in their dogfighting Spitfires.

There is as much fear and cowardice on display as heroism. Survivors often seem to be driven towards self preservation, making the luck that propels them towards staying alive (even at other people’s expense). After a while it becomes nail bitingly tense, and even through the success of the evacuation by sea is known by most before they enter the cinema, the feeling of defeat in the hearts of the returning soldiers adds a poignancy to the tale.

The action is self-explanatory and dialogue is used sparingly. Often the soundtrack and music are given priority and allowed to wash over the spoken words anyway. Hans Zimmer uses the mechanical groans of distress that emanate from torpedoed ships to sustain the beat.

Nolan messes with time, stretching and compressing it to fit the rhythm of his plot. It only becomes annoying at the end when he brings together the returning armada and a vulnerable plane (which glides nearly as long as the boats motor back across the Channel). It’s a brave departure from his back catalogue of blockbuster films. There are no superheroes. And it is perhaps cowardice on the great director’s part that he gives in to using the familiar strains of Elgar’s Nimrod (albeit at first disguised) to underscore some key scenes, bringing a smidgen of jingoism to a film that didn’t require it.

Dunkirk is a stunning piece of cinema that recreates and brings to life a well known scene from the Second World War. Despite the scale and sophistication of the production, it stays unfussy to the point of modesty and only stays on screen for 106 minutes, allowing the evacuation story to keep the focus rather than the fine cast. A grown-up film from Mr Blockbuster.

Queen’s Film Theatre are showing the 35mm print version of Nolan’s film for the first week of its run until Thursday 27 July. With soft edges, artefacts, and a colour scheme that today feels straight out of an Instagram filter, the experience adds to the realism of footage that could have been captured during wartime. (That’s the version that was previewed and the basis of this review).

After the first week, the QFT switches to the 4K digital version – using their shiny new projector – and having seen a few minutes of Dunkirk in 4K, it’s quite a different film, with a much sharper, more modern, action adventure feel and much more definition to the surround sound.

Dunkirk is being shown in the QFT (and other local cinemas) from Friday 21 July. It’s history that has not been narrated within an inch of its life – or truth – and history that, while told only from an Allied perspective, has not been wrapped in a large flag that distracts from the horrible reality of war and the decisions people take in war. Christopher Nolan should be proud of this film: it may well be his best.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Midwife - beginnings and endings; life, love and death (QFT, 14-26 July)

Martin Provost’s new film The Midwife (French: Sage femme) is a Parisian collision of beginnings and endings.

Béatrice Sobolevski (Catherine Deneuve) was once an important figure in the family life of Claire Breton (Catherine Frot) and reappears after a thirty years absence. Friendless and challenged by a serious health condition her plan to rebuild burnt bridges with Claire’s father is tragically belated. Meanwhile at the same time as Claire’s job in the midwifery clinic is coming to an end – being replaced by an industrial-sized technology-led ‘baby hospital’ – there is a pregnancy in the family and could a tender friendship be blossoming in the allotment?

The two Catherines play very distinct characters. Frot is the dowdy and dedicated medical practitioner who can disarm scared young mums and stays calm in an emergency. She earns little, lives alone and relies on no one. On the other hand, blunt and glamorous Deneuve is not alone by her own choosing. She keeps the company of poker players and drinkers in the bar – both of which explain why her cashflow ebbs and flows like the tide – but knows that those shallow relationships will not sustain her in her frail final days.

While sentimental, this movie is no tearjerker. Midwife is a two hour long film that gently meanders through the plot, only occasionally breaking off from following Claire (Frot) to peek into the activity of the other characters. You’ll see real babies being born, and older people kissing. There are work colleagues, a son and a long-distance lorry driver, but the two Catherines occupy most of the screen time, two older actors given the space to treat audiences without the necessity to introduce young nubile talent to

The premise is simple, but the film is well executed. There’s no wow factor, other than the babies popping out. But there is a sense of satisfaction as Claire develops a renewed sense of purpose, emotionally and physically letting her hair down, while Béatrice more fully comes to terms with the consequences of her past actions and faces up to her mortality.

The Midwife is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 14 until Wednesday 26 July.

Monday, July 10, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes … or Four Apes and a Little Lady (in cinemas from 11 July)

In a cruel twist of fate, after the virus outbreak (and the intervening films) the only remaining humans are all North American and hell bent on self destruction, distracted only by their desire to attack the apes who hold a mirror up to fallen humanity. Can Caesar – the chief ape – lead his people to the promised land? And unlike Moses, will he make it all the way? Nature throws some shapes of its own to remind the mammals that other powerful forces are also at play in War for the Planet of the Apes.
“We are not savages”
As someone new to the Planet of the Apes universe, this 140 minute film was a strange mix of a Bourne, some Biblical exodus movies, the Revenant, the Godfather, the Great Escape and Three Men and a Little Lady. Scenes of genocide, forced migration and combat are mixed with a comedy ape who escaped from a zoo.

Writer Mark Bomback and returning director Matt Reeves through an awful lot at the script: resistance, fortitude, sacrifice, revenge, betrayal, slavery, rebellion, ethnic cleansing, not to mention apes on horseback riding through the snow.

Intellectually, there’s a lot going on in War to think about. Arrows can beat bullets just like steam can beat electric in Starlight Express. Emotion is explored as the obsessed Colonel McCullough (played by Woody Harrelson) who is prone to primitive thinking becomes locked into a fight to the death with Caesar (Andy Serkis) who has to battle with avenging his own family loss. Communication within and between species is also studied – spoken and signed – though the loss of speech seems to be unnaturally devastating for some humans.

In one of the sweetest moments in the film a young child (Amiah Miller) slips around unseen in a heavily militarised zone. No one’s looking for her; no one sees her. I find it interesting that her ‘guardian’ ape Maurice, who has perhaps the greatest emotional intelligence of the troop, is played by a woman actor (Karin Konoval).

But oh the questions and loose ends that litter the movie like bodies piled up after an incursion. Where are all the women? What powers the army camp? Why does Caesar speak in English when the apes around him only speak by sign? Who carries the spare bullets?

We need to talk about 3D. I don’t watch usually films in 3D. I think this is only the second time I’ve sat in a darkened cinema while wearing dark plastic shades. We’re very used to capturing images on smart phones where nearly everything in the frame is in focus. The world is flat unless you use macro lenses or fiddle with the settings a lot more than the average user.

Television and film drama relies on depth of field, and pulling focus between nearby and faraway objects. Even news reports use focus to draw your eye from one area of the screen to another as the cameraman helps the narrating journalist paint a story about the topic.

But 3D cinema takes focus to a whole new dimension. No longer can you scan across the wide screen in front of you to take in details. It’s not just bits of the background that are kept out of focus. With a 3D film like War for the Planet of the Apes, often a head or a shoulder of an ape that is in-between you the viewer and the ape that’s talking will be a furry blur too. The director and the camera man literally call the shots.

Overall, I found the 3D experience a huge distraction. Though it works a treat in one scene not too far from the end when Caesar climbs up from ‘under the screen’ onto a metal grill and just appears into view. That was the money shot. But I suspect the 2D version will be a lot less irritating … particularly since War was shot in 2D and converted to 3D post production. (Here’s a 2010 blog post I’ve subsequently found that much better articulates that rant!)

War for the Planet of the Apes will be screened in Movie House cinemas in 2D and 3D (and other big chains) from Tuesday 11 July.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

RISK - unsatisfactory and uncomfortable, much like its subject (QFT until 6 July)

Laura Poitras had already been filming behind the scenes with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange when Edward Snowden’s release of NSA information hit the headlines. She was embedded with the team that helped Snowden evade US authorities and travel to Russia. That part of her footage was extracted into the successful standalone film CitizenFour (reviewed) and released in late 2014.

Filmed over five years, Risk is like prequel and a sequel to that story. However, Snowden is a relatively straightforward, clean cut character who can attract audience empathy in a way that the more complicated Assange cannot.

At first Poitras portrays a principled and pragmatic publisher of government secrets who admits that he may not behave in a “methodical manner” when subjected to threats. Then a layer of the onion is peeled away to reveal a paranoid protester who must have a crick in his neck given the number of times he looks over his shoulder while being briefed by a colleague in a wooded area near the WikiLeaks HQ.

‘Being briefed’ is misleading phrase for me to use: Assange frequently interrupts those who speak to him. It’s one of the traits that jumps out from the 92 minute film. He is unable to suppress his own thoughts escaping his mouth while he is supposed to be listening to someone else.

And then there’s his startling lack of empathy for other people, including the women who made the allegations of sexual assault. He dismisses the complaints and investigation as a radical feminist conspiracy. Suddenly he’s on the wrong side of this conspiracy.

The onion continues its raw reveal as we realise that although WikiLeaks is a small organisation, this is a boss who lets other people dial the numbers and start phone calls before he reaches over to take the handset. His team trim his hair, and even when closeted in his cramped quarters in the Ecuador embassy next door to Harrods in London (June 19 was his fifth anniversary), he is surrounded by WikiLeaks staffers.

One of his most trusted aides, Sarah Harrison, was unable to return to the UK for several years after helping Snowden flee to Russia. Yet we hear no complaint. Loyalty within Camp Assange is high.

One side effect of the extended period of filming is that some of the long-running characters disappear (like a soap opera). Jacob Appelbaum (journalist, hacker and computer security researcher) is at first prominent, speaking at conferences about WikiLeaks and challenging government figures, before making a quick exit from the scene (and his involvement with the Tor Project) when allegations of sexual abuse were made.

The case of Bradley Manning (who transitioned to Chelsea Manning over the course of the documentary’s timeline) is also woven into the general tapestry of discordant digital rebellion along with visits to Washington, Tunis and Egypt. Footage of Lady Gaga interviewing the white-haired crypto-journalist is surreal.

While never, or rarely, appearing on camera herself, Laura Poitras has chosen to narrate the film through a series of production diary extracts. The story she tells is bitty. The chosen end point is no better – and no more conclusive – than if the film had stopped ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

We see the risks that WikiLeaks staff take in their pursuit of publishing the ‘truth’. We see the risks some may have taken outside of their work. We are also introduced to the risk being taken by the filmmaker who has triggered government agency trip wires and is now viewed as a sympathiser if not a direct advocate for WikiLeaks.

At points in the film, Risk feels both unsatisfactory and uncomfortable. As a consequence it successfully reflects the WikiLeaks organisation and its leader Julian Assange.

The film no where near as complete and finished as CitizenFour. And Assange is no where near as likeable a subject as Snowden. But Risk is a good overview of the Assange era, even if his story – and incarceration in the Knightsbridge diplomatic mission – has not reached a neat conclusion.

If WikiLeaks made films about people doing things they didn’t like, Risk contains exactly the moments that they would include to shake the trust the audience would have in their subject. Laura Poitras has certainly done nothing to give Julian Assange hero status, nor has she rescued his reputation. The uncompromising documentary highlights his aloofness and the contradictions in his approach.

Risk is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 6 July.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Here We Lie - a dark morality play where lies are louder than truth (Lyric until 2 July)

With the hoods of their transparent rain macs up over their heads, the five members of the Here We Lie cast turn into feverishly grotesque goblins who feed off other people’s misery, the kind of souls who swap sympathy for information in times of trouble. Meeting in the aisles of the local supermarket, they swap tales gathered from social media as well as the streets of Loughshea.

When Brian (Antoinette Morelli with her hood down) admits to having an affair, Sharon McKevitt (Rosie McClellend) panics and screams out an even bigger revelation in retaliation. But she’s not dying.

However, words can’t easily be unspoken. Particularly when your husband blabs all in the pub and the local gossiping goblins decide that they can “Make Loughshea Great Again” by wallowing in your misery and boosting their profile and sense of self-importance by arranging fundraising, cake sales, and all manner of publicity.

In a time of need, everyone needs a friend. Enter Michelle (Louise Matthews) who has her own problems at home with unemployed husband Declan (Claire Connor) whose car accident while under the influence has created a financial meltdown. Meanwhile, mistress Paula (Bernadette Brown) has to contend with Brian’s conflicted loyalty.
“People aren’t stupid: have they caught on yet?”

The community grief at first deafens their ears to the truth. And when some do realise what is really going on, they are too caught up in their own plans and misfortune to be able to set the story straight. The circle of lies and deception spirals out of control as the community’s need for the fake news to be real heightens.

After the interval there are the inevitable confrontations; yet the revelations are pleasingly unpredictable if all the more shocking. Writer/director Patrick J O’Reilly’s has developed a sense of movement amongst the entire cast that accentuates the ghoulish and helps distinguish the gossiping witches from the main characters.

Niall Rea has created a dystopian world is which the entire set – including chairs, tables, beds, and walls – have been fashioned from supermarket trolleys and wire baskets. The only comfort comes from stuffed supermarket ‘bags for life’, perhaps referencing the temporary solace brought by money and the stuff it can buy.

If the set wasn’t a big enough clue, Isaac Gibson’s sound design firmly places the opening scenes in a supermarket and the comical tannoy announcements add to the dark mirth throughout.

The Lyric Theatre are currently hosting two shows with all-female casts. (The Ladykillers continues its run until 8 July.) The two shows raise questions about gender and comedy: whether audiences perceive women as funny – or funny in the same way – as men?

At times the script overly relies on cussing and swearing to generate the emotion of scenes. Bernadette Brown makes a fabulous jilted lover who challenges the cloud of deception and one stage intervenes without having to rely on over the top reactions. Louise Matthews has a superb repertoire of scowls that bring both Michelle and her rain mac-covered evil sprite to life. I never want to look out and see her at my window!

Here We Lie is a dark and sobering morality tale that is sinister rather than silly and avoids being played as a farce which might have garnered more laughs. We watch a victim being scapegoated as the entire community figure out how to live with the consequences of their monstrosity. Individually we may recognise ourselves in the on stage victims or perpetrators. But on a grander scale, Northern Ireland society too knows all about scapegoating and the ongoing upshot of community lies and mistruths.

Rawlife Theatre Company’s Here We Lie continues at the Lyric Theatre until 2 July.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

National Theatre's Salomé - intertwining two stories of oppression and occupation: one political, the other personal

The National Theatre’s performance of Salomé was beamed into cinemas this evening as part of its NT Live programme.

It’s a novel reworking of the tale that is briefly mentioned in the Bible but has been expanded in countless pieces of art and culture, not least in Oscar Wilde’s play which popularised the notion of a dance of the seven veils and formed the basis of the opera (most recently performed in Belfast by NI Opera back in February 2015).

Yaël Farber’s version intertwines two stories of oppression and occupation: one political, the other personal.

The prophet who preaches outside the authority of the Temple is willing to die but Herod the Tetrarch (Paul Chahidi) knows he must not kill John the Baptist (Iokannan the Zealot played by Ramzi Choukair) for fear of a popular uprising. So instead he is kept incarcerated in, force fed and forgotten.

Herod lusts after his step daughter Salomé (Isabella Nefar). She in turn is fascinated by John and he inspires her to start her own sexual revolution with a ritual of passing through seven gates and casting off the accoutrements which so attract her perverse father (who fancies her as the next Queen of Judea) in order to find freedom. And so when he asks her to dance and give herself to him, the femme fatale in return calls for the one thing he truly politically fears.

The story is narrated in flashback by an older ‘nameless’ Salome (Olwen Fouéré) who has been incarcerated and forgotten, much like the man whose death she requested. Pilate faces a deadline and is running short of time to extract the story from the woman who has kept her silence for so long.

Susan Hilferty’s set of rotating concentric circles at times leaves the powerless going round in circles while the women take control. In fact that’s the point of this production: putting women back in control of a plot that has for so long been written by men projecting their own notions onto the women in the story. Metaphor piles on top of metaphor – much like the grains of sand that slip through Salomé’s fingers and form heaps on the stage floor – and her own violation seems to be mirroring the colonisation of Judea by the Romans.

Biblical imagery and Hebraic singing are constant companions to the unravelling story. Iokannan only ever speaks in Arabic (subtitled), and in finding her route to freedom, young Salomé joins him and switches away from English. The atmosphere is electric, though the amount of water on stage must make the NT’s electricians into nervous wrecks. (Given a bigger budget perhaps fire could have been added to the water earth and air that are already in the production.)

Overall, the novel adaptation of the story together with the big production values that would elude all but the largest producers of theatre made this version of Salomé a very worthwhile trip to the cinema.

The only thing that spoilt it was not the obtuse and poorly poetic script. Now was it the dramatic use of big billowy curtains comes over a bit too Eurovision at one point.

The downside of watching Salomé on the cinema screen was the ever so slightly aloof mindset of some fellow punters who talked louder than they normally would in the QFT. Someone even got up and went out, not to the toilet, but to the bar for a refill of coffee at one point. At least the incessant text message beeps that interrupted the play’s introduction were silenced by the time the actors stepped onto the stage.

Salomé continues to run in the National Theatre's Olivier Theatre in London until Saturday 15 July. 

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Slack Bay - absurd, funny, French film that could be a word of mouth hit

I think I may have a new contender for film of the year.

Slack Bay. It’s French. It’s absurd. And it’s very funny.

Set in 1910, the bourgeois Van Peteghem family make their annual summer pilgrimage to an old house that overlooks a north coast bay.

It’s such a routine visit that they no longer fully appreciate the view. If they did look out the window, or turn their cliff top deckchairs towards the oyster pickers working in the low tide, they might have noticed that people are beginning to go missing with an alarming regularity.

Directed by Bruno Dumont, the humour is both dark and visual. Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville) is the eldest child of the bay’s ferryman who has a reputation for rescuing souls in peril out at sea. The child and his father have an unorthodox method of carrying people across the bay, though that’s nowhere near as surprising as the delicacies the mother serves up in their ramshackle home, morsels that are worthy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen.

There’s a touch of inter-class romance as Billie Can Peteghem (Raph) catches the eye of Ma Loute, but not all is what it seems, and this upstairs-downstairs coupling again is nothing when compared to other familial revelations. Religious fervour is added to the mix along with a couple of bumbling detectives who throw themselves across the sand dunes like clowns to investigate the disappearances before coming across all Mary Poppins. Throw in an ensemble cast that includes Juliette Binoche playing a highly strung sister and you have a cinematic winner.

Slack Bay isn’t being screened in Belfast … yet. But it’s a great summer film that could be a word of mouth hit.

Sinnead: a rap-turous audience with the Irish pop sensation

Over the last couple of year’s I’ve watched the character of Sinnead develop, through a scratch session at Accidental Theatre and then putting in a percussive appearance at Pony Panto in 2015.

However, performing Sinnead: One night only … for two nights on the MAC’s big downstairs stage has put the wannabe pop star’s name in bright lights and may have swollen her head (and other parts) to a no doubt hard to manage size. Pregnancy hasn’t slowed down this artist.

The no interval confessional show introduced adoring fans and new audiences to the origin story of how the Irish singing sensation Sinnead (pronounced ‘Sin-ne-ad’) came to live in Belfast.

There’s plenty of devil in the detail of this show. The props were ridiculous, yet filled with fun and unpredictability whether a bin full of audience questions or a bicycle. At times, Sinnead was deeply irritating. Her diction was hard to app-re-she-ate. Her eyebrows looked like slugs. She surely scored low in any Insight exam at Leaving Cert. Yet Paula O’Reilly has filled out and rounded a fascinating creation to work up this extended show.

A chavtastic track-suited band led by Donal Scullion provided the rich musical soundtrack for Paula O’Reilly and her two deliberately sullen backing dancers. Surprises abound with even the a couple of brass players being introduced with great theatre. Guests pop on stage and threaten to overshadow the star-billed phenomenon.

Keith Singleton is O’Reilly’s real life partner. His on-stage appearance as Decky complete with a broad Belfast accent was a revelation. The people’s pop princess is at her strongest when rapping new parody lyrics over old familiar tunes (and rhyming ‘ordinary’ with ‘strawberry’). Dissonance abounds when she flips over to sing the melody.

There’s something of the Ronnie Corbett to Sinnead’s style of elongated storytelling, with fewer off-topic diversions, but always with a fabulous last line to pay off at the end. The Beyoncé story would make a great parody YouTube video.
He puts his arms around me waist / So close that Lynx is all I taste / I’ve never felt the warm embrace / Of a fella that’s right swiped my face

The show finishes on a high with a new anthem for Andytown and the audience escape before any more people are singled out for special attention from the sharp-tongued minx. Paula O’Reilly’s alter ego has definitely grown in confidence.

If good things come in small packages, then the challenge for Paula O’Reilly is harvest her fertile imagination and develop some more comedy characters to sit alongside (but never replace) Sinnead.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Ladykillers – Graham Linehan's version of Ealing comedy heist in The Lyric Theatre until 8 July

Mrs Wilberforce is old and lives alone, tormenting the police with her paranoid notions of criminality in her locale. Professor Marcus rents out her space room and pretends to use it for music rehearsals with a group of friends, but instead the band of criminals are planning to rob a security van at the nearby railway station.

Lyric executive producer Jimmy Fay has taken Graham Linehan’s script for The Ladykillers – which adapts the original Ealing comedy film – and adds another layer on top, using a female cast to play the male criminals. While this could be seen as a crude response to the Waking the Feminists movement within Irish theatre, the resulting performances are less stylised and less predictable than they might have been with male actors, and instead inject extra off-beat humour into the piece.

Stella McCusker’s portrayal of Mrs Wilberforce is warm and elegant, a character full of suspicion and curiosity. All the way through, there’s a feeling that there could be more to Mrs Wilberforce than meets the eye. Yet this production misses a trick by eliminating any notion of ambiguity in its conclusion.

Abigail McGibbon plays the uber-confident Professor Marcus, a criminal mastermind with a cunning plan and an answer for everything and everyone.

Julie Maxwell brings the kind of facial expressions that drive TV or film comedy to the stage role playing Harry Robinson, a light-fingered, OCD crook. Together with Jo Donnelly’s effeminate transvestite Major Courtney, the pair are a joy to watch. Maria Connolly scouts the room like an army squaddie on patrol though her version of Louis Harvey feels more like Italian Mafia than a violent Romanian criminal.

Cheryl Fergison brings ample buffoonery to the role of One Round, a gentle oaf of very little brain who can be relied upon to upset every situation.

Nuala McKeever bends her knees as Constable Macdonald, the local bobby condemned to listen to Mrs Wilberforce’s far-fetched tales. And Christina Nelson makes a brief appearance that briefly adds colour and warmth to the play.
“Being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures of the middle classes”

The 39 Steps was another film adaptation brought to the stage of the Lyric last year in a co-production with Bruiser. It offered a high-conceit, fast-paced murder mystery set in 1935 which revolved around physical humour. In contrast, The Ladykillers is set twenty years later and relies on misunderstanding and misdirection as well as characterisation more than speed and knockabout comedy.

Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Black Books, The IT Crowd) is well used to writing situation comedy and set-based productions. Yet his version of The Ladykillers is not packed to the rafters with jokes, nor is it totally farcical, which is a shame because the quality cast are capable of delivering gags and audiences would lap them up having come to the theatre more for entertainment than for the cleverness of complex performances.

After the interval, both the heist and the pace of the play become derailed as Mrs Wilberforce realises that she has unwittingly become an accomplice and dissent breaks out amongst the gang which slowly self destructs. The cupboard scene is splendid, but the upstairs window is used a little too often (a problem with the script) and sometimes without much panache (the direction).

Stuart Marshall’s marvellous ramshackle set with its wonky walls fills the full height of the Lyric’s main stage with Mrs Wilberforce’s two floor flat and its view over the railway line, and supports the multi-level up stairs, down stairs, out windows comedy. There’s more than one “silly old bird” in the flat and the invisible parrot is a fun addition to the cast. Conor Mitchell’s sound effects and soundscape help anchor the piece in the 1950s and add a lot to the atmosphere.

Graham Linehan’s version of The Ladykillers works well as an on-stage tribute to the original Ealing comedy film. However, as a standalone piece of theatre for new audiences in 2017, its inherited pedestrian pace left me wanting more theatrical excitement despite the good performances.

The Ladykillers is playing in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until 8 July.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Churchill: a fond yet troubling depiction of one man’s burden of leadership

As a child I completed a project on Winston Churchill in primary school. My lasting impression that he was a bulldog of a leader, firmly in control of the country and a political giant who puffed cigars and was perhaps a little too fond of a tipple. (Now as an adult I’m regularly reminded about him when I walk past the blue plaque outside 33 Eccleston Square where Churchill lived for four years with his wife and young family.)

A new film Churchill hits the silver screen in cinemas today. It documents the four days leading up to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Churchill (played by the actor Brian Cox) wants to fundamentally change the Operation Overlord plans and the intervention of the PM – who is also Minister of Defence – is not appreciated by the military chiefs.

The bulldog politician is irascible, troubled by the ‘black dog’ of depression and alcoholism. His relationship with Clementine (played brilliantly by Miranda Richardson) is strained, although ultimately she is the only person he seems to listen to.

He sleeps long into the mornings. He shouts at a secretary. He insists on driving across the country to visit troops unannounced and demands to be able to address them.

On screen Alex von Tunzelmann’s script introduces us to a driven yet unmanageable politician who is stressed by the state of the war and haunted by his own military failure in Gallipoli. He refuses to allow troops to become cannon fodder being sent to certain slaughter. It’s a very human and fragile Churchill.

The figure whose speeches are still mimicked seems to have lost his speech-writing mojo. The man who was voted the Greatest Briton in 2002 has his leadership called into question.

Two styles dominate the filmmaking: close-ups of Churchill that highlight his furrowed features, and very wide shots that leave human figures wandering like ants across the lower inches of the cinema screen. Smoke bellows from his nose.

Jonathan Teplitzky’s depiction of Churchill and the wartime events may or may not take historical liberties. It may seem to drag even though it’s only 98 minutes long. But it succeeds in portraying the burden of leadership, the curse of being the one that people look to for hope, and the strain of having to give sacrifice purpose.

Churchill is a fond yet troubling film and is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre as well as other local cinemas from Friday 16 June.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Gifted – a film that survives a custody battle and is rescued by its toothy child genius

Gifted tells the story of a smart child called Mary whose uncle/guardian becomes locked in a bitter custody battle with his mother. Frank (played by Chris Evans) took on the role after his sister ended her life. Along with their one-eyed cat Fred – who is enough of a character to warrant a name – they move away from academic life in Boston and live simply in Florida.

Now old enough to enrol in first grade at the local school, it is clear that Mary is the latest in a line of mathematical talent running through the family. Frank is trying to do the best for his young niece, getting it wrong one step at a time like most parents. But his legacy-obsessed mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) – whose own numerical career was prematurely stunted through marriage and motherhood – upsets his finely balanced parenting equation.
“Never get on the bad side of small minded people who have a little power.”

The film veers away from becoming overbearingly sentimental while still throwing in a few tear-jerking moments. The plot’s credibility that is built up over the first hour is wilfully discarded in the final stages which require far too much rescuing due to a decision we’ve come to believe Frank wouldn’t make.

Weaknesses can also be found in the finer details. Why does a seven year old girl living with her unfashionable uncle have bleached hair? There are signposts towards competing attraction to Frank from Roberta (Octavia Spencer, who lives next door and cares for Mary each weekend) and the first grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate). Yet this smoking gun of a plot line is never developed. The courtroom arguments don’t quite add up and the film’s fulcrum is hard to believe.

The film gently raises questions about the nurturing and education of gifted children that will rattle around the minds of parents as they sit in the cinema. But it’s not a profound piece of drama.

Evil maternal grandmother. Slightly hapless male parent. Arguing lawyers. A dodgy judge. Lying foster parents. You could nearly write the script … except this predictable film is rescued by Mckenna Grace’s joyous delivery of her witty lines. The central parent/child relationship is convincing and their banter heartwarming.

Gifted is being screened in Movie House Cinemas from Friday 16th. Thereafter it will become great family viewing when everyone’s stuck in the house at Christmas.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Ignition: performers at their peak, working in tandem, telling stories without words

Two performers, a choreographer and a dramaturg walk into a bar – well a rehearsal room – and five days later performed a short new piece inspired by a single word that was emailed to them on the Monday morning.

That’s no joke.

But it is how Tinderbox Theatre Company’s annual Ignition project works.

It’s agile, it’s risky and it’s a way of rapidly prototyping new theatre and physical performance work.

(And looking back, it’s also how I started the review of last year’s Ignition piece. I’ll have to try to be more original next year. Particularly since Tinderbox are being so fearless in jumping between genres to innovate their work.)

Award-winning playwright Abbie Spallen was the source of the provocation. She could have emailed in the word ‘pineapple’ or ‘wind’ or ‘election’, but she chose ‘cuck’.

The theatre-makers leant towards “cuck as in cuckold” rather than any alt-right or pornographic meaning.

It’s quickly obvious that dancer Ryan O’Neill obeys the every command of his partner Vasiliki Stasinaki as he pants his way around the stage like a school child under the command of an out-of-control PE teacher.

He runs. Faster. Falls down. Acts like a puppy. And that’s only the start of the perspiration and humiliation. He is soon exhausted, helpless, and literally burdened with his bossy partner. The audience sympathy is palpable as the exercises become more and more physical and invasive, and he becomes more and more passive.

But then, stop. Wait. Is he beginning to fight back? Is he being less submissive? Will he break free from his conditioning? Will be become a monster like her?

Seeing the piece performed for the first time a mere 15 hours after leaving the Belfast count centre, I could see hints of political undertones. The handshake sequence is surely inspired by the recent analysis of Donald Trump’s attempts at power handshakes with other world leaders. And the dominating/submissive pairing asks questions about the future ConDUP relationship as the local NI party props up the Tories in Westminster.

While the piece performed with simple lighting and against the black walls and floor, with only a chair to litter the stage, the background music is a little more elaborate. Synth pads are replaced with adulatory applause and later “I need a hero” which accompanies a Dirty Dancing scene that’s been soaked in the tears of domestic abuse.

O’Neill and Stasinaki show combine a sense of intimacy with a feeling of oppression in the couple’s ever-moving power dynamic. The cowering and wimpering is awful to watch. Once more back on the leash, broken and powerless.

Tinderbox have created an accessible piece of dance theatre – for not all dance is at all accessible to this outside observer – that tapped into my inner emotions and was quite exhausting to watch. Incredibly satisfying to see performers at their peak, working in tandem, telling stories without words.

Hats off to Eileen McClory, Hanna Slättne and all at Team Tinderbox.

There’s still time to catch the second performance of Ignition at 8pm tonight (Saturday 10) at The MAC.