Sunday, May 21, 2017

Madame Geneva - a smouldering tale of the influence of gin (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 28 May)

Small theatre companies are producing some of the most exciting new work in Belfast at the moment. Fresh from Entitled, their sharply political critique of the welfare system, the company are back with Jo Egan’s tale of gin and prostitution, Madame Geneva based in the late seventeenth century and eighteenth century.

The ambitious show starts with a raucous musical number with much bodice tightening and rubbing of thighs as we are introduced to the so-called fallen women who are targeted (while men are overlooked) for virtue restoration having fallen for the evil charms of the devil’s drink which had recently arrived from Holland.

The action then bounces across to four men representing the reform movement who seek to eradicate gin – nicknamed Madame Geneva – from the streets of London and beyond, and plan to open the Magdalen Home for Penitent Prostitutes to teach “the habit of hard work”.

Alternating between the spoken word of stately figures of the patriarchy who are fond of a tipple and the musical expression of the poor, the show breezes through 60 years of history. Along the way we learn about the creation of the Bank of England to raise funds to create a permanent navy, witness the flip flopping government policies to encourage gin production (and benefit the MPs who own much of the farm land) and then prohibit its consumption, and hear how the Magdalen system was exported to Ireland.

Kerri Quinn pours everything into her on-stage personification of Madame Geneva, delivering a smouldering performance of speech, dance and song while rarely leaving the stage.

Tony Flynn brings gravitas and guile to his roles as Robert Dingley and William III. Rhys Dunlop impresses as artist William Hogarth (whose Gin Lane print adorns the cover of the Madame Geneva programme). Keith Singleton injects large measures of humour into the otherwise serious conversations as he plays a series of up-tight gentlemen. Guided by director Cara Kelly, the MACHA Community Company add another 12 bodies to the theatrical melee with some very confident performances, particularly from Andrew McClay.

The set is simple but effective, creating a gilded frame around which the audience sit in tiered banks along the two long sides of the floor-level stage. New groups of historical characters step out of a smaller framed door at one end.

The gin-fuelled rave is a suitably comedic anachronism. The image of an orange towel-clad, shiny-chested William of Orange discussing politics in a sauna will be burnt into the retinas of everyone in the audience. And the anthropomorphisation of the juniper berry drink as a banshee dressed up in evening attire least likely to be chosen as prom queen adds a real punch to proceedings.

I don’t easily warm to historical theatre. Much of the 1916-related drama has been hard to believe. But Madame Geneva creates an exciting combination of prose, poetry and song on top of Garth McConaghie’s soundtrack, Lisa Dunne’s intricate costumes and the enthusiastic contribution of the Community Company. The issues it raises – from attitudes to women and sex to taxation – are very contemporary. Definitely in my top three pieces of theatre seen in the last six months.

Madame Geneva is being performed in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 28 May. Check out the Lyric’s website for details of after show discussions about prostitution in NI, addiction, the media and government use of sexual violence against women in the context of welfare reform.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Colossal - an enchanting (& monstrous) tale of the unexpected (QFT until 1 June)

Gloria (played by Anne Hathaway) is an accident-prone, alcohol-fuelled, very forgetful, happy-go-lucky young writer who has been out of work for a year and shows no signs of pulling herself together to find a new job. Her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) packs her bags.
“… keeps moving, destroying things in its way, never looking down”

She returns to her home town, camps out in her parents’ vacant house and reconnects with Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a friend from elementary school, who runs the local bar. Unexpectedly, she comes to realise that what she does is linked to the actions of a potentially destructive monster that appears on the other side of the world and towers above the skyscrapers in Seoul.

Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, over 100 minutes Colossal explores how these personal and international catastrophes are connected.

Right from the start, the fine story-telling sets up a yarn that is unpredictable and keeps you guessing. The tale is so well told that you are securely reeled into the strange universe that has been created on screen. An element of surprise is always around the corner, usually accompanied with a dollop of humour.

Colossal could have been a classic anime film. Instead it’s closer to Certain Women as we watch a country-music accompanied character study of a woman sorting out her life in a dopey mid-west town. The devastating scenes from Seoul are mostly watched through footage on mobile phones and TV screens.

A film about private actions and hurt storing up public consequences and pain. A film bullying, jealousy and childhood trauma where men are the true monsters. But most of all, an enchanting tale of the unexpected.

Well worth a trip to the Queen’s Film Theatre to see Colossal before 1 June.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Power of Video conference returning to Belfast on Fri 26 May

The Power of Video conference is returning to Belfast next week, switching venue to St Anne's Cathedral. It's the brainchild of local filmmakers Billy May and Damien Gallagher.

Their programme will include YouTubers, filmmakers and content makers from the commercial and social media worlds. Shonduras, Philip Bloom, Daniel and Lincoln Markham, Zack Nelson, DevinSuperTramp, Toxic Tears and Cian Twomey are among those already in the schedule.

The Friday 26 May conference hosted again by David Meade is preceded by a hands-on day of workshops. In an expanded format, there will be a street food festival beside the Cathedral and satellite events across Belfast including NI’s first international professional Drone Race to be held in T13 in Titanic Quarter.

More details on the Power of Video website and ticket site.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Jawbone: a life on the ropes in a knockout film (QFT until 18 May)

Films sneak up and surprise you. There was a recent spate of films about jazz, a musical genre that turns out to be dark and moody and thus perfectly pitched to accompany the theatrical lives of key players over the years.

Jawbone is another such film. Men taking lumps out of each other while boxing for sport is not normally appealing to this reviewer. But Johnny Harris first screenplay, directed by Thomas Napper, delivers an intelligent and nuanced story as well as some tense fight scenes choreographed by the Clones Cyclone, Barry McGuigan.

While it starts off in a benefits office that cannot help but trigger memories of I, Daniel Blake. Jimmy McCabe (played by the film’s writer Johnny Harris) is not just fighting eviction from his home but is also up against the ropes fighting his demons and addictions.

A south London boxing club owner Bill (Ray Winstone) lays down the law when the prodigal son returns to train: no booze, no unlicensed fighting, no messing around. But Eddie, the boxing coach with an Irish lilt Eddie played by Michael Smiley, is less convinced by Jimmy’s comeback. This second chance calls the once rated fighter’s ability into question. But Jimmy needs money urgently and an unlicensed bid seems to be his only option.

Fitness, death, concentration and passion play out over 91 minutes along with a tense triangle of love, loyalty and trust between Bill, Eddie and Jimmy. This is an almost exclusively male film.

Much of the film is shot outside at night or in gloomy conditions, with atmospheric silhouettes throughout that benefit from a really dark cinema. Even when the action – somewhat inevitably – returns to the boxing ring, the brilliantly lit stage is surrounded by the baying crowd in darkness.

Paul Weller’s soundtrack of deep metallic strings emphasises the turmoil and distress. Such a great change from plinkity piano muzak. The camera allows the cinema audience to stare into the soul of Jimmy through his eyes. And in case they haven’t noticed, a line of dialogue helpfully reminds anyone not paying attention:
“Look at your man: when you look in his eye you see all of him”

The fight scenes are not allowed to dominate the film, but final bout was hard to watch and felt very much like a fight to the death. The make up and prosthetics illustrate why boxing is referred to as a blood sport.

Drink and boxing: if one doesn’t kill the other may, and Jimmy finds both difficult to give up. Harris, Winstone and Smiley are superb, balancing the emotional tension whilst teasing out the protagonist’s fight against addiction.

The ending is beautiful and has enough soul to irrigate your tear ducts. Jawbone is a story well told. It evenly matches great visuals, good sound, interesting characters and just enough sentiment to craft a tale of the unexpected.

Jawbone is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 18 May.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Sinners – theatrical ratatouille served with a sprinkling of spiritual snake oil (Lyric Theatre)

The muted tones of “Shall we gather by the river” being played on a Hammond organ was an appropriate call to worship as the audience filed into the Lyric Theatre for the opening night of Marie Jones’ new play Sinners.

Ohio-born Pastor O’Hare (Michael Condron) is now preaching daily in a tent mission erected on the Simpson family farm in rural Northern Ireland. Farmer Stanley (Charlie Bonner) has set down his pitchfork and swapped the muck of the cattle to pick up a ‘Job complex’ and a new clean living role assisting the preacher. His wheel-chair bound mother (Roma Tomelty) – steered around by a hilarious and underused Christina Nelson – is the only other member of the family to have signed the pledge form.

Alyson Cummins’ simple set consists of a enormous shower curtain on a circular rail that symbolises the canvass marquee and opens to reveal the farmhouse kitchen. It’s there we meet the rest of the family tree in a morning-after-the-night-before scene of debauchery and half eaten pizza with bodies strewn across the floor: agricultural son Dino (Patrick McBrearty), daughter Millie (Adele Gribbon) and her caricature of a poet boyfriend Jed (Michael Johnston), plain-speaking brother Sydney (Alan McKee), younger wife Tania (Séainín Brennan) and her tarty best friend Coleen (Louise Matthews).

Condron looks the part as a loud-mouthed, fast talking religious showman with more charisma than theology. While he lacks the deviousness of a serial charlatan, he’s clearly in comic heaven with the physical aspects of his part.

Bonner captures the essence of a County Down unionist farmer in his portrayal of Stan. In fact he has more than a passing visual resemblance for an independent councillor in that neck of the woods. The hold that O’Hare has over Stan’s life and chattels reminds me of the story of a real life Presbyterian elder in Crossgar who fell under the spell of Ian Paisley during the founding of the Free Presbyterian Church and sacrificed much before being discarded and disillusioned.
“I smell a fox on my land, a great big sleekit one.”

The fourth wall is raised and lowered as the theatre audience switches between spying on the Simpson kitchen soap opera and sitting under canvass lapping up the platitudes of the spiritual snake oil salesman who moves into the family home, and spreads his vegetarianism as fervently as his good news.

We sit back to watch the collision of Stan’s fledgling faith and his apparent need for atonement with those who love him the most and their plan to find an alternative salvation to reverse his lapse of judgement.

For all the talk about depravity, tabernacles and looking for signs, what could have been an acerbic deconstruction of false religion and piety instead becomes a mushy ratatouille of chopped up laughs, mixed with isolated farce and some overcooked acting.

There are plenty of giggles and great oneliners, but the second half fails to pick up the pace and deliver the sharp denouement that the concept deserves. Chekhov’s gun fails to be fired and despite the 50:50 cast, director Mick Gordon’s strongest scenes take place on an all male stage with the pastor, the farmer, his son and his brother. The inevitable seduction scene is more venus flytrap than honey trap.

When Alan McKee’s Sydney asks – cross in hand – about the kind of eejit who “sacrifice himself for a pile of heathen”, it could have been a jaw dropping moment of theatre. Instead the audience barely blinked.

The stakes rise but there’s little sense of anxiety in the audience. By the end, the plot has been painted into a corner and the play’s climax relies too heavily on a minor character to tie up the loose ends and dilutes the ‘twist’ with exposition about the nature of theatre, storytelling and religion. (Potentially this pays homage to Molière’s Tartuffe from which Sinners is loosely adapted or inspired.)

Too much of the dialogue is shouted with a hint of screech. A lot of fat could be trimmed from the script by cutting at least four of the cast of ten. At times, the script clumsily turns Tania into a on-stage director, handing out roles and ‘you do this, you do that’ direction to the remaining cast.

While not offering a fulsome redemption, there are some sweet and tasty mouthfuls along the way. The last supper tableau is well staged. The costumed stage hand is a neat touch (and should be listed in the programme as the eleventh member of the cast). The virtual choir adds another layer of humour with increasingly off-the-wall videography emphasising the size and prosperity of the mission. And it’s a sign of the times when the “turn your mobile off” message is now built into a playwright’s script: last night’s threat of “eternal damnation” seemed to do the trick.

Ultimately, Sinners tells the story of false religion and misplaced fervour, but settles for cheaper comedy over biting satire as the fake good news is exposed.

The Lyric Theatre tent mission is open and welcoming Sinners through its wide tent door until 3 June.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival - some remaining gems (until 7 May)

The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is well underway. What gems remain in its enormous programme full of ripe juicy events and gigs?

Wednesday 3 May

Join Anton in the Black Box Green Room as he delivers his sermon to save Belfast. Expect music, the slaughtering of sacred cows and a bit with a teddy. 8pm. £5.

Two back to back pieces of theatre by Tinderbox in The Barracks (Wednesday 3 and Thursday 4): #filtered by Sarah Lyle and Conscientia by Abby Oliviera. Always a treat. 7pm. £10.

Prime Cut’s award winning Scorch is back in The MAC (until Sunday 7 May)for what might be its final run in Northern Ireland for a while. Amy McAllister brings to life an exploration of gender, uncertainty and where the law meets teenage naivety. 8pm (and 3pm on Sunday). £12.50.

Thursday 4 May

Kieran Hodgon’s Maestro should be a very special evening in the Black Box as the performer explains how Gustav Mahler inspired him to write a symphony … something well outside his ability. 8pm. £10

Friday 5 May

Stephen Beggs’ new work My Father’s Chair opens in The MAC and runs until Sunday 7 May. A performance for young audiences (6 years+) and families about the nature of fatherhood. Times vary. £9/£6.

Sunday 7 May

Theatre critic and playwright Jane Coyle’s presents Both Sides, a double header of Beckett-inspired monologues in The Dark Horse in advance of an autumn tour. Me, Here, Me features a young woman sitting alone in a Paris café watching the life of the street unfold. But what is her story? In Before Before a woman sits in a Nice bar looking back on a turbulent life and a painful loss. Poignant stories accompanied by live traditional French music. 3pm and 7pm. £8.

Omnibus perform Mule in the Waterfront Studio. Inspired by the actions of the Peru Two this two-hander explores victimhood, media spin and personal tragedy. 7.30pm. £10.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Journey – a fictional look at how the Chuckle Brothers bromance might have blossomed

Over the years there has been much speculation about Ian Paisley’s change of heart to go into government with Martin McGuinness at his right hand. The transition from frosty political enemies to the so-called ‘Chuckle Brothers’ was acute.

Colin Bateman’s screenplay for The Journey presents a highly fictionalised account that explores what the early conversations may have been like between the two political minds.

The St Andrews talks have coincided with the North Antrim politician’s golden wedding anniversary party. The weather has closed in and it’s imperative that he returns to Northern Ireland in time for the planned evening of festivities. The British government has pulled strings and a private plane is made available. Sinn Féin are set to okay the gesture to get the ‘big man’ home. But Martin McGuinness adds a condition: he must travel on the same flight as the man who’s never spoken to him.

And so a toned down version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles begins as the two protagonists are whisked away, alone in the back of a people carrier, to be driven to Edinburgh Airport and to endure the obstacles that are thrown in their way.

Historically, much belief has been suspended, starting with the fact that his wife Eileen – recently ennobled Baroness Paisley – was at his side in St Andrews, such was the DUP leader’s ill health.

The Journey is a legend. Irish has a rich history of mythology, and there’s many a germ of truth hidden in the old stories.

The film’s wordy opening titles introduce audiences who were asleep during 2006 to the situation in Northern Ireland, framing McGuinness as the “mortal enemy” of Paisley.

Each actor in the nearly all male cast has been given a couple of tells to help the audience overcome their appearance and dodgy accents. Tony Blair (played by Toby Stephens) wears a red tie and is played as a bit of a buffoon, speaking in platitudes as if the hand of history was shoved up the back of his suit and operating his mouth. Ian Paisley Jnr (Barry Ward) wears his trademark blue striped shirt with a white collar.

His father (played by Timothy Spall) runs a comb and his fingers through his long white hair and laughs gleefully at his own jokes. While there’s the odd angry bellow, his belly laughs are absent.

The portrayal of McGuinness is the most rounded and consistent, except for his accent which has been rooted in west Belfast. But Colm Meaney captures the spirit of the folksy, family-orientated, stubborn yet wily political operator who has deliberately chosen to crack open the Paisley heart.

Cinematically, the story relies on a lot of overly elaborate narration in the form of words spoken into the Bluetooth headset of the driver (Freddie Highmore) from spooks who are monitoring the journey’s progress. In every sense of the word ‘progress’. The fairly clunky incidents used to ratchet up the dramatic tension, expose the insecurities, and force the relationship to take its next step.

But in the make-believe world of fantasy politics, they serve to introduce us to the religiosity of Paisley and the violent past of McGuinness. (Though those labels are threatened to be reversed at times.) The film slows down to remember Bloody Sunday and the Enniskillen bombing along the ninety four minute cinematic ride.

Bateman succeeds in making the audience smile. It’s a crazy excursion, and the author’s sense of mirth infuses much of the dialogue. There’s only so much drama that can be squeezed into the back seat of a people carrier, even one with room for a camera crew.

Yet the essence of truth is in there. Over weeks and months, dialogue not unlike this film’s script must have passed the lips of the two political giants as they grappled with their versions of the past and their twin hopes for the future.
“Save me your crocodile tears.”
That line was filmed in late 2015 but has unwittingly become even more humorous after the 2017 Assembly election campaign. If you were to plot a graph showing how the two ice blocks melted over the course of the journey to the airport, it would not be straight. McGuinness’s patience is stretched and like a volcano, every now and again the tired and drawn Paisley spouts rage.
“Sometimes my bark is worse than my bite.”
Slowly “Mr McGuinness” becomes the “boy” as he learns to play the difficult instrument he has chosen to sit beside and “Dr Paisley” morphs into the “big man” as the pair open their emotional kimonos and expose their frailty to each other.

McGuinness naturally laughs along with Paisley’s weak gags, sowing the seeds of the respect that kept the First and deputy First Ministers working together for their thirteen months in office.

Republicans and unionists – never mind Tony Blair – will be unhappy with aspects of portrayal. Victims and survivors too will question what is entertaining about the dramatisation of a car journey that did not happen but still encapsulates the worst of the peace process.

The Journey is unlikely to elbow its way into the race for the Academy Award for Best Picture next year. Nick Hamm directs The Journey as if it was a play set on a four wheeled stage. Pace takes a back seat in a movie that lasts nearly as long as a real leisurely drive from St Andrews to Edinburgh airport. (Only the aerial footage was actually filmed in Scotland!)

There are no Greengrass-style re-enactments of mass protests. There’s no need to bite your fingernails: we know how this story ends before it begins. The twists and turns drive the story forward but won’t make your heart race. Though there is an added sense of poignancy now that both the main characters are now dead.
“Why here? Why you? Why now?”
The film can’t really answer that question, other than offer McGuinness’s suggestion that “old men can afford to be bold”. You may learn more by reading David Gordon’s The Fall of the House of Paisley, or Ed Moloney’s Paisley: From Demagogue to Democrat? (on sale this morning in Belfast Easons for £2), Mary-Alice C Clancy’s Peace Without Consensus: Power Sharing Politics in Northern Ireland, Henry McDonald’s A Farewell to Arms?: Beyond the Good Friday Agreement or perusing the archives of Slugger O’Toole and local newspapers in Belfast Central Library.

Martina Purdy aptly ended a BBC News report on the St Andrews negotiations with words that sum up the essence of Bateman and Hamm’s film:
“What better day to demonstrate your ability to commit to your new political partner than on your golden wedding anniversary?”
The Journey is an evocative and entertaining imagining of what might have happened if Paisley had got into the back of a car with McGuinness and their bromance had been hot-housed on the way to the airport.

Belfast Film Festival have organised the première of The Journey at Dublin Road Movie House on Thursday evening before the film goes on general release in some Movie House cinemas and the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 5 May.