Friday, February 17, 2017

Ardnaglass on the Air - rural living brings hilarity to the airwaves (C21 Theatre, Lyric + NI tour)

Take one ramshackle shed with a Yagi antenna in the corner of a busy farmyard. Add a muck-covered pig farmer who lives with his mum and a local barmaid who dreams of escaping her drunken husband for the bright lights of London. Throw in a one hour long community radio show which celebrates the quaint and quirky ways of rural living. And sit down and relax to enjoy an hour and a quarter of solid entertainment from C21 Theatre’s latest production, Ardnaglass on the Air.

Margaret Mary-Rose O’Boyle isn’t afraid of uttering a string of jaw-dropping double entendres that are nearly as dirty as her co-presenter’s overalls. Jo Donnelly gently steers her character between an impetuous tottering flirt to empathetic friend, and manages to give definition to the peaks and troughs of emotion that might otherwise have become a blur of excitement.

Sitting behind the mixing desk – do pirate stations really use DJ mixers to control their mics? – Marty Maguire drives the desk and guides the listeners through the local news, adverts, live breaking stories and a weather forecast that emphasises the latter rather than the former. Yet as the one act play heads towards its conclusion, Hugh Francis O’Donnell’s vulnerability emerges.

Convention is thrown out the window barn door. While some curious extra excuses for movement around the studio have been invented, presenting a radio show is a very sedentary pursuit. (Hugo Duncan is the one exception to this rule.) The big gestures of theatre aren’t available. But Stephen Kelly’s direction has created a rich palette of gestures and facial expressions that construct an intimate performance in the diminutive set. Casting a real-life couple adds a frisson of sexual tension to the on-air chemistry and certainly helps add a touch of realism to the scowls and disappointing glares when things go wrong on air.

As a townie, I feared that I was sitting laughing at a whimsical piss-take that was unfairly caricaturing culchie living. But rural dwellers up in the big smoke for the show confirmed afterwards that they recognised much about their friends and neighbours in the Jimmy Kerr’s script.

Ardnaglass on the Air is a hoot. It’s outrageously funny, full of vernacular and very entertaining. The only pothole in its farmyard is the ending which Jimmy Kerr has had to adapt from previous three-handed versions of the play. Instead of going out with a set-crushing bang or a surprise entrance it instead slows right down and fades out rather than keeping the energy up right the way to the pips.

You can catch Ardnaglass on the Air in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 18 February before it tours through Armagh, Coalisland, Newtownabbey, Cushendall, Newry, Limavady, Lisburn, Downpatrick and finishes in Jimmy’s home village of Moneyglass.

Review: Moonlight - seeking the stability of identity and security (QFT until 2 March)

Moonlight is a film in three acts. Each with a different actor portraying Chiron as a boy, a teenager and finally an adult.
“You don’t talk much but you darned well can eat!”

Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) befriend an uncommunicative youngster (played by a young talent Alex Hibbert) who stands aloof from his peers. The pair offer a positive parental influence and their home is a safe shelter while Chiron’s birth mother (Naomie Harris) neglects him and works as a health worker by day while selling sex by night. But the moral balance of Moonlight is always more complicated: the sensitive and caring Juan is the local drug dealer and supplier to the boys’ mother.

As Chiron grows up (now played by Ashton Sanders) the homophobic bullying he experiences becomes more pronounced and physical. A tender moment of self-discovery is followed by a violent confrontation that turns his life upside down and takes the remainder of the film in an unexpected direction.

Writer and director Barry Jenkins allows Chiron to remain a man of few words throughout. The transitions between actors are well signposted even though the visual similarity between the first two actors is more difficult to swallow when the incredibly muscular third Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) appears on screen, perhaps emphasising the complete change of lifestyle.

Jump cuts are out and instead the camera slowly pans around locations – perhaps as much a financial decision as a stylistic one given the low budget of the film.

Moonlight won’t provoke many laughs; nor will it generate tears. Instead it’s a fascinating, well-paced character study of a young black man coming to terms with his identity and his need for security. The lifestyle of the third instantiation of Chiron has more than a few echoes of Juan. Ambiguities and contradictions are everywhere.

While tackling homophobia, neglect and abuse, Moonlight also celebrates kindness, patience, acceptance and refuge. Broken relationships are healed – in a way that La La Land sadly couldn’t manage – and although a few too many quality characters are discarded as the years pass, there’s a character development arc and layers of meaning and questions that engaged and drew me in to this 111 minute film, leaving me wishing there was a fourth act.

Moonlight is screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until polling day, Thursday 2 March.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Looking Deadly: shape shifting actors inject life into a town’s rival funeral firms

The body of well known republican Tom McCarthy reposes in Lynch’s funeral home. Jane (played by Niamh McGrath) inherited the business from her father but local competition from Cost Less Coffins up the street means her finances are not healthy and the bank manager will soon be knocking on the door if the stress doesn’t invite the Grim Reaper to visit first. Rob (Keith Singleton) is her loyal yet under-appreciated mortician.

Looking Deadly is a black comedy directed by Amy Conroy that sets two funeral home businesses at each other throats while an array of quirky townspeople look on at the shabby dealings between the undertakers. There are no deathly silences but instead the theatre is filled with laugh out loud moments as the two actors shape shift between characters across the minimal black stage and set.

With a switch of the lights and spin of the coffin, the talented pair physically transform into Mick (the Michael O’Leary of the funeral home sector) and his hunched over son Seaneen. The death of local Doctor Mulhuddart provides the crisis point in the plot that finally stretches relationships to breaking point.

It’s a real treat. McGrath and Singleton deliver fifty five minutes of madcap physical and tongue-twisting verbal comedy together with synchronised gestures and beautiful accents that can’t fail to make you laugh.

Looking Deadly was performed in The MAC on Thursday 9 and Friday 10. Well worth catching the floral tributes along with the show as it tours Monaghan, Newry, Belmullet, Newbridge, Nenagh, Sligo and Carrick-on-Shannon.


Wednesday, February 01, 2017

T2 Trainspotting: worth the 20 year wait for Danny Boyle to choose to breath life back into the characters

It’s unashamedly nostalgic, yet T2 moves the story of the rag bag of heroin addicts from Trainspotting’s 1996 forward twenty years. Right from the first location the expectation is set that music will often speak louder than any character dialogue, and that humour will be present no matter how dark or deadly the situation. This is a film with bags more structure than the original: more of a night out in a pub than a rave in a club.

One by one the old cast are reintroduced, each with their own 2-3 minute scene, before Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns from a galaxy far, far away Amsterdam and the onetime gang are brought face to face with each other and their past actions. How have they adjusted to a world where their old tricks and habits no longer have the same currency?

Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) has a score – well, four thousand pounds worth of scores – to settle with Mark as he ropes his ‘mate’ into a hair-raising EU funding bid to develop his underwhelming pub. But while Sick Boy plots, Mark may already be stealing from under his nose once again.

Franco Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and his libido have been locked up in prison and he seeks his revenge served cold in a pool of blood rather than as a fistful of dollars. There’s a wonderful symmetry to the blackmail storyline as Kelly Macdonald reprises her role playing Diane Coulston.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Spud Murphy (Ewen Bremner) and the audience watch his redemption story unfold as he chooses to have a future, and chooses life.

But can Simon’s young Bulgarian beau Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) stay ahead of the old timers and prove that the young generation have more cunning and guile than Mark, Simon, Spud and Franco?
“Tell your story because we’re dying to hear it”

The film is not perfect. There’s an undeniable emptiness to the immoral living, a self-destruction that accompanies the drug abuse. Script-wise, there are far too many repetitions of the words ‘opportunity’ and ‘betrayal’. The movie’s pace suffers from arrhythmia in the second half. And Veronika is the only female character with any real depth. Yet ...

... T2 Trainspotting might well be my film of the year.

It shouldn’t work. Mixing in so much footage from the original film should undermine the sequel. But Danny Boyle’s genius seems to have created a movie that is both respectful of the original and sufficiently self-aware to introduce a lot of reflection on the sins of the past. It works as a standalone film too: at least for me who can’t remember that much about the 1996 version.

There’s magic at work in the edit. Mood and music switch in a beat without grating. Spine-tinglingly evocative old tunes are mixed with new. What sometimes look like rough camera work panning around a room delivers perfectly-framed images all the way through a jerky turn. Drone shots show off beautiful Edinburgh vistas while some special effects are thrown in when you least expect them.

King Billy even makes an appearance in a song that for anti-sectarian reasons will not be on the film’s soundtrack album but I fear will be heard during band parades in the summer.

While a particularly dire bog featured in the 1996 original, there’s plenty of toilet action in T2. The adjacent cubicle scene is physically brilliant, and porcelain makes quite an impact when it returns in a later fight sequence.

T2 has an uncanny ability to generate humour from nowhere. It induced several roars of laughter from this normally mirth-free reviewer. There are funny lines, funny snatches of music, funny shot composition, not to mention funny costumes. And then there are the creative portmanteau swearwords, no doubt imported from Irvine Welsh’s novels Trainspotting and Porno.

It’s complex. It races through your head as you leave the cinema. It has characters that shock and surprise, yet beg to be adopted and forgiven

Be a dreamer. Be like Spud. Choose life.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review - NI Opera's Powder Her Face (Lyric Theatre until 29 January)

Just ten weeks after their spectacular performance of Don Giovanni, NI Opera are back on stage with the smaller modern chamber piece Powder Her Face.

The plots of operas are often based around big personalities who make bad decisions and suffer the consequences; forbidden love and tragic death; power and downfall; secrets, scandals, shame and surprises. Rather than invent a central character, Thomas Adès took the real life story of Margaret Whigham (who later would become the Duchess of Argyll) as the basis for Powder Her Face.
“I was beautiful, I was famous, I was young, I was rich …”

On the Lyric stage, soprano Mary Plazas embodies the wealthy promiscuous woman who behaves as if money can buy her love and happiness. As the fifteen piece orchestra crank up Adès’ jazzy yet discordant musical opening, we quickly establish that the Duchess was disrespected and a figure of ridicule in her later life. The story then zooms back to the 1930s to follow her loose living and predatory conduct, marriage to the Duke of Argyll (no saint himself) and the reason for her divorce and fall from favour in high society.

Dressed in black, Plazas portrays a woman who teeters along the fine line separating confidence from vulnerability. “Will they write songs for me?” the young Duchess wonders. Oddly, other than occasional accessories and slower movement, little attempt is made to physically depict her changing age throughout the two act opera.

Daire Halpin provides much of the humour singing a number of roles in different wigs and costumes as maid, waitress, high society journalist and mistress. She gets the fun arias to sing and dances impeccably with tenor Adrian Dwyer who plays an electrician, waiter and delivery boy.

The other source of mirth is the set which is dominated by a larger than life mattress. A chaise (très) longue adds to the pantomime feel of the some of the scenes while Stephen Richardson’s entrance down some unanticipated steps onto the bed as the Duke adds to the symbolism of the piece. The judge’s bench after the interval is another unexpected but smile-inducing surprise built into the set. And what other opera would include vacuum cleaners, carrots, a lobster and a fluffy stuffed poodle as props?

Director and designer Antony McDonald has allowed this small scale opera to swell with its big set and big gestures. The small cast have clearly mastered a lot of choreography on top of the difficult score and the more intimate setting brings the acting more to the fore than than some of the other larger scale NI Opera productions I’ve reviewed. With its intimate theme, each cast member shows a lot more leg – and the case of Adrian Dwyer, buttocks – than normal as they expose the Duchess’ unravelling lifestyle and behaviour that is at the heart of her explosive divorce.

It’s a sign of how times have changed in Northern Ireland that the dramatic suggestion of a blow job fellatio now reduces a Belfast audience to nervous giggles inside a theatre rather than placards and protests outside on the pavement.

Many of the Ulster Orchestra performers under the baton of Nicholas Chalmers in the pit assisted with the enormous number of percussion instruments (including a swanee whistle) in the score. Some of the lyrics were drowned out by the musicians: a real shame given the English libretto and the relatively unfamiliar tale. NI Opera’s new artistic director Walter Sutcliffe needs to revisit the accessibility issue of surtitles. A bigger distraction was an audience member in F26 who conversed with people around her in a loud voice that must have carried onto the stage never mind back several rows to where I was sitting.

Interviewed earlier in January, NI Opera’s outgoing artistic director Oliver Mears talked about the woman at the heart of the opera:
“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.”

The version of Adès opera as performed on the Lyric stage certainly stays true to the public understanding of the salacious life of the so-called ‘Dirty Duchess’. The creative team deliver a well produced, well directed, well acted and well sung performance While the Duchess definitely falls within the purview of normal operatic themes, I still left the show wondering whether she was a fitting cultural subject?

Yet in a society that values prosperity and satisfaction above benevolence and service, Powder Her Face is a reminder that neither money nor sex buys happiness, while the pursuit of both can be ruinous to your soul and health.
“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.”

When your money is spent, your possessions have gone, your reputation is depleted and all you are left with is old age and notoriety, what do you have left?

Powder Her Face continues at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until Sunday 29 January. Co-producers Opera Theatre Company will be taking the show on an island-wide tour during February and March.

Photo credit: Patrick Redmond

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!