Sunday, December 10, 2017

Preview - Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas (The Black Box on 20 December)

Having paired up satirical versions of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill in her series of Michelle & Arlene plays produced by Accidental Theatre, Rosemary Jenkinson’s latest work teams the DUP leader up with US President Donald Trump in a visit to Belfast. The short play – Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas – forms one half of C21 Theatre’s two-part Christmas production in The Black Box on 20 December.
“I’ve been longing to do Trump for ages. From the beginning of the year I’ve been thinking that he’s manna from heaven for a satirist. He makes so many great proclamations and even his style of delivery makes him a great, larger than life character that any writer would love to tackle.”

The premise for Trump’s visit to Northern Ireland is his desire to investigate our famous peace walls, and the former First Minister is on duty to show the Republican president around the city.

Jenkinson agrees that there’s a “bizarre paradox about our walls … our shame is also our pride” and Trump would definitely be impressed with their height, longevity and maybe even the murals. Maybe he’d fancy himself drawn like King Billy?!

Because the President is already quite outrageous in many people’s minds, Jenkinson says that as a writer she can “go much more crazy and push the boundaries further, and people will go with whatever scenario you produce”.
“Arlene Foster is more serious and watches what she says, and although Trump takes himself seriously, he has no filter and is inadvertently hilarious … As long as you have [Trump] with grounded characters [like Arlene Foster] he can soar and you can let him be as wild and out of control as you like.”

It’s Jenkinson’s first chance to write a Christmas show, although she has no plans or inclination to write a children’s pantomime (“which would be too conservative for me”). The playwright has no problem with satire being entertaining. In the case of Trump’s Big Bad Belfast, “it’s a Christmas show so it has to have a lot of jokes and I want the audience to have a great time”.
“But it’s not just a case of ‘let’s have a light laugh here’. Everything has an edge and everything has a political reason for being in the play.”

The show will touch on the right to bear arms in the US and its history of mass murders – “lampooning the American way” – showing up cultural differences through a fictional incident involving the handling of a weapon when Arlene and Trump are out and about in Belfast.

With a total of three rapid response plays produced this year, Jenkinson says that she enjoys the “immediate response rather than waiting to see whether your work will be produced”. But she still values more traditional writing which allows her “to work on an idea and do research so you know you’ve got something more real than this kind of [short turnaround] fantasy”. Her recent play about asylum Lives in Translation (produced by Kabosh as part of Belfast International Arts Festival) will return to NI stages in 2018.

The cast of two are already familiar with the characters they’ll be playing. Miche Doherty (who recently played Trump in Shannon Yee’s rapid response play All The Best Words at Accidental Theatre in November) will be joined by Maria Connolly (who plays Arlene Foster in the Michelle & Arlene series of short plays).

Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas is paired up with Brendan Quinn’s Game Of Gnomes (a one man festive show about the actor Bernard Sythe who is working as a CastleCourt Elf).

You can catch The Chronicles of Christmas in The Black Box at 1pm and 7.45pm on Wednesday 20 December. Doors open half an hour beforehand.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Making the Grade: a documentary of distinction about learning to play the piano

Not every film has to be flashy. Not every film has to be unusual and in-your-face challenging. Sometimes it’s good to appreciate something that is well made, keeps its focus, uses structure, and is heart-warming. Particularly at Christmas when quality seems to have a habit of going to the wall.

Making the Grade is just such a film.

It presents a series of vignettes captured over seven months with learners and teachers across Ireland, loosely arranged using the framework of the eight music grade exams.
“The best thing about playing the piano is when you get it right: then you thing you’ve done your job.”

At the FilmHubNI Christmas screening, director Ken Wardrop told the assembled cinephiles that he was drawn to make the documentary by his mother who strangely wanted to take her piano with her when she moved house, despite not having played the ‘very fine piece of furniture’ for forty years!

What could have been a very boring sequence of similarly framed interviews is transformed by the quality of the cinematography, the quality of the sound, the quality of the people on show, and the quirky yet relatable stories that are conveyed.

One of the Microsoft ‘Tips of the Day’ used to suggests that “It's never too late to learn to play the piano”. Young and old compete for viewer attention and Making the Grade includes people who have been badgered into learning as well as those who have returned to the ebony and ivory keys after many, many years away. Some find it therapeutic, many find it frustrating, but all seem to enjoy getting their fingers wrapped around the music and working towards their next examination.

There are smouldering volcanoes of teachers as well as ones who are more eccentric, joking, flirting or free flowing. At times the portraits are quite confessional: we learn a lot about the hopes and dreams, hurts and disappointments of life. While there’s a prevalence of beautiful kitchens and well off families, we are also introduced to learners who practice on plastic keyboard while standing in their narrow hallways.

You don’t need to be a great music lover to appreciate the richness of the documentary, with the variety of teaching methods, musical styles, instruments and piano stools (the upturned hands are my favourite).

Ken Wardrop’s documentary Making the Grade demonstrates the importance of relationship, trust, stickability, confidence and enjoyment. And it showcases a talent for telling a simple story well.

Sleeping Beauty - confident, pacey and upbeat pantomime that did not disappoint (Waterfront Studio until 7 January)

Even before the curtain opened, the audience were screaming and booing as the evil Maleficent burst through to introduce himself. Then the curtains swished to the side, revealing the set and introduced the rest of the six-member cast of Sleeping Beauty. It’s a powerful – and probably text book – beginning to a very upbeat pantomime that went out of its way to keep the audience involved all the through the two hour show.

Baby Beauty is cursed by the dark and sinister Maleficent (played by Gary Crossan). Belfast drag queen Truly Scrumptious (Gordon Crawford) plays the dame, Nana Banana Magee, who along with two fairies, Muddles (Nuala Davies) and Stardust (Emer McDaid) whisked the infant off to grow up in a cottage in the magical fairy kingdom woods.

This cued up a great opportunity to work The Time Warp into a Christmas show as the characters jumped into the future and picked up on the story on the eve of Princess Beauty’s sixteenth birthday. Jolene O’Hara plays the Princess who inevitably fell for the long lustrous locks of Prince Harry Stiles ‘with all the styles’ (Gavin Peden). He delivered some of the cheesiest chatup lines in Belfast: my favourite was “Is your name ‘Wifi’? Because I’m feeling the connection!”

The curse was ‘activated’ (though maybe the youngest audience members would have preferred a less technical term?), the princess fell down to the floor, and a rousing song drove the performance into its long interval.

The second half briefly became a bit too frantic, losing a sense of where the plot was going with so much action, before recovering and guiding the show towards a bake-off, audience singing, Maleficent’s powerful rendition of Man! I Feel Like a Woman, and an all too short grand finale.

The colourful costumes worn by Nana Banana and the two ‘Little Magic Mix’ fairies matched the brash set. Leather cowboy chaps with bizarre codpieces were the uniform for Prince Stiles and Maleficent (who had a fine set of metallic robes to add to his horny helmet and bushy beard). While the ogre’s outfit and prodding fork didn’t quite fit the look of the rest of the show, the dummy ‘sleeping’ Princess Beauty was a comedy masterstroke.

The humour in Patrick J O’Reilly’s script was relentless, crammed full of jokes and puns and relatively little innuendo. There was a regular reprise for anyone in the audience who missed any important dialogue or lyrics. Crawford’s rich solo singing voice stood out while the ensemble harmonies were very effective.

Fighting and violence was very hands off and cartoonish, with great sound effects. Sarah Johnston’s fresh choreography gave the cast a move and a pose for nearly every line.

Together this created a very coherent and professional pantomime that director Lisa May kept going at a blistering speed and more than gives the old dame down on Great Victoria Street a run for its money despite the smaller set, smaller cast and smaller ticket price.

If you’re looking for a family friendly Christmas show with audience participation, pace, laughter and lots of pantomime charm, head down to the Waterfront Studio to see Sleeping Beauty. It was my first ever festive visit to the venue, but one that did not disappoint. GBL Production’s Sleeping Beauty continues until 7 January with up to 13 shows a week.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Michelle & Arlene Holiday Special: negotiators on the run in a madcap dash to do a St Stephen’s Day Deal (Accidental Theatre, 7-9 & 21-22 Dec)

Rosemary Jenkinson’s satirical and entirely fictional political comedy is back with the further adventures of Michelle & Arlene. After their summer visit to Ibiza where the two game politicians grew closer than one might ever expect, coming to a new understanding around some policy issues, the leaders have concocted a new cunning plan to break the political deadlock around the failed talks.

At a press conference, Arlene and Michelle announce that as of 9am on 22 December they will lock themselves into a room in Stormont and not leave until a deal is finalised. “It’s not a stunt” insists the DUP leader, played again by Maria Connolly who is dressed in a smart skirt and a jacket adorned with a familiar crown brooch that is only a hint at the depths of her loyal sense of fashion that will later be revealed.

Soon the pair concoct a plan to slip out of their negotiating cage and spend a few days away in more pleasant environs. Mary-Frances Doherty plays Sinn Féin’s leader in the north of Ireland, sporting a blonde mane and a suitcase full of snacks.

An envelope stuffed with who knows what is handed to a Bulgarian gangster in the audience, handbags are stolen, consular support is not an option for two negotiators on the run, and Arlene is firmly in the driving seat as the pair dash across Europe to get home for Christmas. Throw in some wood pellets, Prince William’s wedding, and a Biblical moment sitting on a hay bale in a stable the back of a horse box, and the farce is unstoppable.

The portrayals are consistent with the first episode – Arlene’s beady eyes constantly dart back and forth and Michelle can’t help herself from needling her unionist colleague – though the addition of the Lord Carson power pose adds to the ludicrous nature of the slapstick. Projected animations add yet more humour between scenes with the politicians’ heads bobbing across a map of Europe as they travel around.

There’s less singing than in first production, though The Power of Love duet (‘Love is the light / Scaring darkness away / I'm so in love with you / Make love your goal’) leaves a scary imprint in my memory. While the novelty of the original play is also somewhat diminished and the excuse for the roadtrip is whimsical, the production touches on a lot of familiar issues, makes caustic observations and continues to throw much-needed light on the lack of political progress and the policy cul-de-sacs that seem so hard to reverse out of.

Artistic director Richard Lavery threatens that rapid response plays will continue to be produced at Accidental Theatre: “we’ll keep making them as long as the folks on the hill don’t do anything”

This contemporary one-act, one-hour performance will raise a giggle from audiences, shock them with the fictional actions of the recognisable characters, and leave them wondering whether this far-fetched, rude and irreverent production isn’t actually highly relevant.

Michelle & Arlene Holiday Special: Planes, Trains & Tractors! continues in Accidental Theatre’s space at 12-13 Shaftesbury Square on Friday 8, Saturday 9, Thursday 21 and Friday 22 December at 8pm.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Peter Pan - an enormous cast with an even larger set hits the festive Belfast stage (Grand Opera House until 14 January)

Last time I was at the Grand Opera House, Frank Carson was on stage and I was still at primary school. Thirty five or so years later I returned this week to see Peter Pan in the Great Victoria Street theatre whose restored exterior has recently been revealed with the removal of its scaffolding. Look out for the newly gold-leafed statue of Mercury tooting out from the front corner.

On stage, you’ll be met by an equally glittering set and lighting design for this year’s Christmas crowd pleaser. Peter Pan (Mikey Jay-Heath) flies in through the window into the children’s bedroom. Tinker Bell (‘Tink’ to her few friends, and played by Hollie O’Donoghue) eschews aerial manoeuvres and instead roller-skates her way through the show, displaying the mean, grudge-carrying, raspberry-blowing side of her fairy personality. Her love rival is Wendy (Kweeva Garvey) who endures snide remarks, looks after the children from the McMaster Stage School, and comes to terms with Peter Pan’s lack of suitability as a life partner.

Qdos Entertainment pantomimes come with big sets. The big nursery set – which alone would be extravagant for the duration of many a two act play on a Belfast stage – cleverly folds away almost to nothing and soon we’re in Neverland, before bouncing to the Jolly Roger pirate ship, underwater and back home. It’s in Neverland that we meet the big-voiced Tiger Lily (Natalie Winsor) whose wardrobe displays a Native American/Amazonian tribe crossover sense of swimsuit fashion.

Every pantomime needs a baddie, yet David Bedella’s Captain Hook strangely charms his way into the audience’s hearts with his strong acting, sense of timing and deep bass voice. Also on board the Jolly Roger we meet the cook May Smee (May McFettridge/John Linehan), her husband Smee (Paddy Jenkins) and ship’s entertainer Starkey (Paul Burling). And to complete the set of nine principals, there’s Mimi the magical Mermaid, played by former ‘Bad Girl’ and soap star Claire King.

With live music, pyrotechnics, an animatronic crocodile which sadly only appeared once, enough costume changes to make the wardrobe team weep, a good dose of innuendo for the parents (and teens) to giggle at, and a projected 3D sequence that had the kids screaming well into the next scene with excitement and terror, this is a big production. And on top of that there’s an ensemble of eight to add to the all singing, all dancing feel of this pantomime (with what feels like a tribute to The Wiggles’ Captain Feathersword at one point).

Yet the balance of Peter Pan – the production rather than the wire-tastic actor – feels wrong. Alan McHugh and Jonathan Kiley could trim at least two principals from their script and prevent a queue of stars building up on stage waiting for their moment to step out and do a ‘turn’ rather than a tighter team driving forward the somewhat-ignored plot.

Paul Burling’s imitation routines are merry and entertaining. Despite being the long-running (28 years) and top-billed dame and delivering an impressive chunk of lines in Irish at one point, May McFettridge was less fluent in her ad libbed sections than I remember from previous gigs where she has appeared, and seemed fixated on the first three or four rows of the audience (perhaps an effect of the bright lights and it being press night). That said, her appearance as Wonder Woman was unforgettable and her bosom buddies got the laughs they deserved in the second half. Claire King was buoyant in her interactions with the theatre goers, but didn’t quite generate the warm response that her effort merited.

David Bedella’s early rendition of Blondie’s One Way Or Another sets him apart from much of the rest of the cast early on in the show. Mike Jay-Heath and Kweeva Garvey have mastered their aerial manoeuvres and sing as if flying was the most natural thing in the world an deserve more time on stage.
“Oh yes we can! Oh no we can’t! … It’s like the Brexit debate all over again!”

While slapstick and puns remain, a lot of panto tropes are sparsely used in this darker than expected production. There’s only one “he’s behind you” and it seems as if actual jokes and skilled sword play have replaced some of the worn thin elements of traditional pantomime. Though teenagers (amongst the most tuned-in and politically correct citizens at large) may also suggest that a gorilla sodomising an actor in drag could also be dropped in the future.

With its jaw-dropping crocodile, death, resurrection, and some key change-tastic music, the Dale Farm sponsored Peter Pan is in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until 14 January, playing up to 12 shows a week.

Photo credit: McCracken Photography

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Song of Granite - cold, hard and impenetrable (QFT 8-14 December)

There’s a firm directorial vision behind Pat Collins’ film Song of Granite about Irish traditional singer Joe Heaney. The uncompromising black and white reconstruction of Heaney’s early life in the village of Carna in Connemara carries through from his cot and class to his time working on the farm, before he fled to work as a doorman at a swanky London hotel as a prelude to his prolonged spell living and singing in America.
“From now on when you’re singing, open your mouth … open it up”

Those are the words of Heaney’s primary school teacher, advice that this biopic suggests he only partially followed in later life. A series of actors play the songster across the different stages of his life. As the singer grows older, grainy archive footage is interwoven with reconstruction to tell the tale – in the most gentle sense of ‘tell’ – of his career and his deliberate self-estrangement from his suffering family back home.

Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, as he was also known, sang sean-nós (unaccompanied). In his traditional heartland, he would lean against a pub’s bar while everyone else stands stood, frozen like statues as they listened. Outside the Gaeltacht, some of his folks songs would switch to English.

His stripped back performances are echoed by the 104 minute film that is so bare of cinematic furniture it feels like the film has not been finished. The empty landscape around which Heaney grew up is cold and hard, much like Collins’ film. Unfortunately, while the scenery also has a deep beauty, Song of Granite is impenetrable and it’s a struggle to stay engaged throughout.

The black and white sits well with the discordant, dirge-like string soundtrack that suggests an emotional dissonance and depression with his lot, a sentiment never far from the subject of the hundreds of traditional songs in Heaney’s repertoire.

Song of Granite is bleak, even though it only hints at the Heaney’s unusual personality and complicated relationship with his family. The songs are the only highlight in this underwhelming film that is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 8 until Thursday 14 December.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Europe at Sea - a documentary portrait of the EU’s security policy vision

One of the EU referendum narrative threads voiced concern at the rapid emergence of a European super-state that sought to wipe out the supposed principle of subsidiarity* in an increasing number of sectors: financial, economic, trade, foreign policy, and defence.

Europe at Sea is a new hour long documentary that explores some of the major pressures on the European Union and the European landmass.

The film introduces Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of ‘liquid modernity’ with global citizens increasingly choosing their own flow through the work, home and values, freed from the traditional cultural/national patterns of old. This is seen as one of the drivers for the increasing level of migration around the world that is also provoked by conflict, climate and economic pressures.
“Small could be beautiful but it is not effective. Are British people no better off? It’s playing with fire.”

Those are the words of the EU’s chief diplomat in light of the UK EU referendum result. Filmmaker Annalisa Piras’ documentary follows the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy over a year. Aged 43 at the time of filming, she’s the youngest of the commissioners and works in an office bedecked with an Obama ‘Hope’ poster and colourful drawings by her children.

How can the EU face up to the challenges it faces? Mogherini argues that Europe needs to take control of their defence, working with allies in NATO, but aware that the US may no longer play as positive a role in world affairs follow its “mistakes” in the Middle East. She has a vision of a security force that combines military and civilian personnel, able to tackle areas like cyber-security where NATO is weak.

The camera follows Mogherini on a visit to Lampedusa. It brings home one of the many readings of the film’s title. The 3 October 2014 tragedy in which a fishing boat sank off the coast of the Mediterranean island with the loss of 339 lives and the rescue of only 155 of the migrants who were being trafficked across to Europe. The incident sparked a compassionate response across Italy, and occurred in the last month of Mogherini spell as Italian foreign minister before she moved to Brussels.

Operation Sophia was set up in 2015 to disrupt the people smuggling in the southern central Mediterranean. Naval vessels and crews from 25 countries participated in a joint mission, training the Libyan Coastguard, ‘neutralising’ smugglers’ boats, arresting traffickers and saving lives (over 33,000). However, tackling the cause of the migration would require action in Africa.

The House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee report from July 2017 found that the initiative had failed to achieve its objective. Baroness Verma said:
“People smuggling begins onshore, so a naval mission is the wrong tool for tackling this dangerous, inhumane and unscrupulous business. Once the boats have set sail, it is too late. Operation Sophia has failed to meet the objective of its mandate—to disrupt the business model of people smuggling. It should not be renewed.

“However it has been a humanitarian success, and it is critical that the EU’s lifesaving search and rescue work continues, but using more suitable, non-military, vessels. Future UK and EU action should focus on tackling people smuggling in source and transit countries, and supporting sustainable economic development and good governance in these countries. Italy has found itself on the front line of a mass movement of people into Europe, and deserves credit for its efforts to respond.”

The documentary ends with a chart showing how Chinese, Russian and Saudi military spending is massively increasing as the same time as the EU is collectively reducing individual defence budgets. Mogherini sees the opportunity to create the world’s second largest security force to efficiently tackle the challenges faced by Europe and be a significant peace-keeping force.

While at times Europe at Sea feels like an uncritical puff piece to promote the benefits of European integration, it’s a great educational primer to the thinking and attitudes behind the wider European project. Voices of challenge would have lengthened the film’s duration and perhaps weakened its impact. The camerawork is compelling and the access granted around the documentary’s primary subject makes it very watchable.

Produced by Springshot Productions and Journeyman Pictures, Europe at Sea is now available to view ($) on Amazon.

- - -

*Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union in effect seeks to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen while putting in place checks to verify that any action at the level of the EU is justified and that constant checks are made to verify that action at EU level is competent and justifiable in light of national and regional aspects.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Beauty and the Beast - cheesy 1980s rock opera at Lyric Theatre until 6 January

There’s something for everyone at the Lyric Theatre’s kids show Beauty and the Beast this Christmas.

Children will relate to the madcap Theo, a job juggling single Dad, played by Mark Dugdale who makes up songs about pizza and has the energy, cheese and chutzpah of a character straight out of a CBeebies show.

Older folk will appreciate the lyric from the 1980s that pepper the script (“I’d do anything for you Dad, but I won’t do that”) and the soundtrack into which composer Katie Richardson has channelled the rock pop hits that may have soothed her to sleep in her cot. Watch out for the influence of Grease, Beach Boys, George Michael and The Communards amongst the rock and pop tracks.

Rock star The Beast (played by Ross Hoey and modelled on Meat Loaf) is the furry-legged creation of his monstrous and all-controlling music management diva Shazza (Orla Gormley). His speaking voice is deep and distorted. Her outfits are straight out of Flash Gordon with sci-fi headpieces that local milliners will want to copy of the Christmas party scene, and protruding hips that might be all the rage on next year’s Belfast Fashion Week catwalk if anyone wants to pick up Diane Ennis’s designs.

Charlotte McCurry plays Bella, a young woman who is worried about her father’s workaholic behaviour. She reluctantly accepts a job as executive assistant to The Beast, quickly rubbing up against his brusque manner while slowly uncovering the star’s softer and more mellow side.

Electric guitars, drums, and heaps of bass at times drown out the words being sung live on stage. But when the voices break through, there’s a richness to the performances from the cast of four.

The Beast has had a year-long dry spell, unable to compose any new hit songs. Bella lost her own passion for singing with her Mum’s passing. As the petulant star tholes towards his back-chatting assistant, the pair’s duets (including “Maybe all I need’s a muse”) are among the most electric moments of the show.

Derek O’Connor and Trevor Colgan have rustled up a script that echoes a simplified version of the 1740’s French fairy tale and explores whether The Beast can be rescued from his malaise, and whether Bella can find her place in the world.

The three and four-handed power ballads near the end of the second half certainly help the performance belt its way towards the high energy finale. “Shout Out Stand Tall” was also a musical success that showcased McCurry’s talent.

The stage hands who use elbow grease to move Ciaran Bagnall’s rotating set deserve a curtain call of their own. The frequency with which the circular platform revolves does, however, become an intrusive distraction from the actors’ performance.

Beauty and the Beast doesn’t take itself too seriously. Humour pervades the choreography, costumes, dialogue and lyrics (“You’re the macaroni to my cheese”). A pizza slice and a stack of remotely controlled pizza boxes dance around the stage in one early number. In a production that is not afraid of celebrating the bizarre and the kitsch, director Paul Boyd has thrown a lot at the production and, to his credit, most of it works.

I’m not sure that Belfast has ever had a rock opera Christmas show before, and I’m not convinced that five year olds will get everything that’s going on (any more than they would at a traditional pantomime with content designed to go over their innocent heads). But there is plenty going on, it’s clean, it’s funny, it’s colourful, it’s in tune, and the powerful soundtrack easily masks just about every cry, shout and noisy sweetie wrapper that a young audience can throw at it. That’s quite an achievement.

Beauty and the Beast continues at the Lyric Theatre until 6 January.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Festive theatre in (and around) Belfast at Christmas 2017

Every year the number of Christmas shows in and around Belfast seems to increase. Here’s a list of what’s available in the major venues, ordered by the start of their run.

Oh no it’s not? Then leave a comment or email me what I’ve missed!

What the Reindeer Saw, Lyric Theatre, 19 November – 6 January [reviewed]

Cinderella, Courtyard Theatre, 25 November – 23 December

Hansel & Gretel, The MAC, 28 November – 7 January [reviewed]

Beauty and the Beast, Lyric Theatre, 30 November – 6 January [reviewed]

Peter Pan, Grand Opera House, 2 December – 14 January

Aladdin, Island Arts Centre, 2-9 December

The Nightshift Before Christmas, Theatre At The Mill, 5-31 December

Sleeping Beauty, Waterfront Studio, 6 December – 7 January

Michelle & Arlene Holiday Special, 12-13 Shaftesbury Square (Accidental Theatre), 7-9 December and 21-22 December

The Winter Circus – Family Shows, Tumble Circus, Writer’s Square, 8-27 December

The Winter Circus – Late Night Cabaret, Tumble Circus, Writer’s Square, 8-27 December

The Terrible Tragedy of the Twinbrook Turkey, The MAC, 12-23 December

Shh! We Have A Plan, Crescent Arts Centre, 13-24 December [reviewed in 2015]

The Spectacular Aladdin, SSE Arena, 14-27 December

Cabaret Patinoire, The Black Box, 14-16 December

TFI XMAS, 12-13 Shaftesbury Square (Amadan), 14-16 December

Trump’s Big Bad Belfast Christmas, The Black Box, 20 December

Sinbad the Sailor, Island Arts Centre, 3-6 January

Hansel & Gretel - turning the Grimm tale on its head for this time of austerity (The MAC until 7 January)

Hansel & Gretel is back on a festive Belfast stage with Stephen Beggs and Simon Magill’s reimagining of the Brothers Grimm tale. The setting is whisked out of the dark forest into the bright and shiny shopping centre, and it’s the parents who are greedy rather than the more down fiscally realistic kids.

In a very sweet opening scene, Gretel (Rosie Barry) sits at the family’s upright piano, playing and singing a soulful rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas before being interrupted by her ever-so-slightly younger twin Hansel (Michael Drake).

The two siblings are gearing up for an austere Christmas, making the most of what they’ve got to prepare the house on Christmas Eve. But Mum (Louise Matthews) and Dad (Keith Lynch) are determined to put a dent in their already battered credit card and spend their way into having a great Christmas despite his job loss during the year. It’s as if currency does grown on the famed magic money tree.

The action switches to a two level shopping centre set. An overworked security guard (Keith Singleton) pops up with announcements about the worsening weather. The centre closes and Hansel and Gretel are trapped inside (rather than being left behind in a forest). But the storm has brought various fictional characters to life, including a rather evil Sugar Witch (Colette Lennon) with the Big Bad Wolf (Richard Croxford) in tow whose sweet factory assistants (including Brigid Shine) really should join a trade union and fight for better adherence to health and safety policies in the sweet factory.

A child is kidnapped. A batch of liquorice is made. Disempowered cartoon super heroes and storybook characters come to the life. And a green-suited Santa (the second of the season) appears on the right side of the joint quest to escape and return home.

Throw in some songs, excellent singing across most of the cast, good choreography, snow and some amazing costumes from Carla Barrow (the upside down ‘A’ built into Awesome Man’s outfit together with Fantasti-Girl’s sparkling outfit, boots and a platinum blond wig straight out of Dynasty) means that this production should be cooking on gas (as the show’s sponsor might say).

Yet a little bit of Christmas magic seemed to be missing. Hansel & Gretel succeeds in not being a pantomime and avoids most of the familiar tropes. However, while the cast physically step off stage and out into the audience, there’s very little encouragement for the young audience to engage with the story and the action. They’re passive observers, chewing on the candy from the Phoenix Sweetie Shop downstairs, sitting back in their chairs instead of leaning forward wanting to be part of the magic. It’s a bit of an opportunity missed, particularly at Christmas, and particularly when Colette Lennon is such a brilliantly unpleasant baddie that deserves spontaneous boos and the good guys have such bounce in their steps. [Update - words reaches me that the show has bedded in and engagement is much improved!]

Michael Drake impresses in his first professional role and Keith Singleton is irrepressible as he switches between the security guard, Peter Pan and one of the rather fabulous
Three Pigs whose appearance is all-too-short, much like their curly tails. There’s a lot of attention to detail in the choreography and the sustained mannerisms of each characters. Rhiann Jeffrey has left no stone unturned in her vision for her for Christmas solo directorial debut. Louise Matthews and Keith Lynch work well together as parents, but really shine when they morph into the American accented cartoon duo. Garth McConaghie’s score is a great showcase for Colette Lennon’s voice which confidently soars to notes that Kate Bush might struggle to hit.

While cast in a reimagined Hansel and Gretel for the second Christmas in a row, Rosie Barry has been able to throw off last year’s sulky Primrose from the Lyric’s Gingerbread Mix Up and create a much more likeable and wholesome role model as Gretel. About thirty seconds from the end of the second half when she sits back down at the piano and hits a chord, the magic returned, and the glitz was replaced with a tangible family unit. A really powerful and tear-inducing moment to end the show.

Hansel & Gretel runs in The MAC until 7 January 2018.

The Disaster Artist - grasping cult success out of the jaws of certain failure (from 6 December)

In what should be a nerdy, behind-the-scenes reconstruction of the making of an appallingly bad movie, The Disaster Artist constructs a very watchable, entertaining portrait of the ‘artist’ Tommy Wiseau who had unexpected success with the cult film The Room.

Taking just $1,800 from the box office at its opening weekend, the movie which is estimated to have cost $6m to make – funded from Wiseau’s unexplained deep pockets – has developed a cult following that celebrates its awfulness with midnight screenings attended by costumed fans who shout out key lines and throw things around the cinema. The Prince of Wales Cinema in London screens The Room several times a month to a full house.
“He’s a figure of mystery … who is this man?”

Expect more questions than answers! The Disaster Artist begins with the origin story of the unusual partnership between cocky Tommy Wiseau and shy Greg Sestero who met in an acting class in San Francisco. Headstrong Tommy suggested that they should follow their dreams, and Greg packed his bags and headed to live in Tommy’s apartment in Los Angeles.

The wannabe actors struggle to get work until they take matters into their own hands. Tommy writes a script for The Room, casts himself as the lead, Greg as the second lead, and sets about producing and directing his masterpiece. ‘Car crash’ doesn’t begin to describe the bedlam on set. While definitely a novice at directing, Tommy’s acting is also frustratingly poor, but given his lack of inhibitions, we watch with increasingly despair to see if he will ever hit rock bottom and begin to doubt his abilities. The pair’s pinky promise to “never give up on our dreams” carries them through.

As we know, reaction to The Room is bittersweet: the film is a critical failure but a slow-burning popular success. But you don’t need to be at all familiar with The Room to be entertained by The Disaster Artist. In fact the only disappointment with the film is that you will come out of the screening wanting to immediately go in and watch the original movie. Bad news: I don’t think The Room being shown in Belfast any time soon, the screening at the QFT on Saturday evening is sold out and it’s not available on any streaming service, so you’ll have to make do with a DVD or some YouTube clips of the ‘best’ worse scenes.

James Franco plays Tommy and also directs the film. Speech and language therapists attending a screening of The Disaster Artist will be distracted by Tommy’s very peculiar speech pattern and syntax, and his accent while possibly due to a car accident may also be a clue to his uncertain background. James Franco captures every conundrum at the heart of the central character and plays alongside his younger brother Dave Franco who dyes his hair to step into the role of Greg.

The seriousness with which Tommy directs take after take on The Room’s set is contrasted with the uncontrollable mirth at the film’s premiere that follows the audience’s initial loathing. The end credits show how faithfully the makers of The Disaster Artist have recreated some of the original film’s scenes with nearly interchangeable actor, costumes, intonation of dialogue, props and sets.

The egotist and his babyfaced friend are an unusual and somewhat co-dependent pair: Tommy is nothing without his younger crutch to encourage him; Greg is nothing without the opportunities (somewhere to live and something to act in) that Tommy provides. Tommy can’t catch a ball thrown to him, but his total lack of self-awareness means that he’ll not avoid the situation.

A lot of the female characters are quickly discarded along the way. Megan Mullally quickly impresses as Greg’s Mum but doesn’t escape San Francisco. Amber Brie has an intermittent supporting role as Greg’s girlfriend Amber until her frustrations cause her to move out of town. Script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogen) brings a lot of levity to what could have spiralled into an exasperating hour of on-set nonsense with his bemused reactions to the madness that he’s being paid to support.

Going into the cinema preview frankly expecting to be underwhelmed by a reconstruction of a movie I hadn’t seen, I walked out having been taken on a journey of annoyance, bemusement and finally satisfying glee at this off the wall real life story of friendship, passion and ignorance.

The Disaster Artist is released on Wednesday 6 December and is well worth a watch over the festive season. Check listings for Movie House, QFT, Odeon, Odyssey and Omniplex - the screening dates are quite varied over December and January.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Chipmongers - now open on Lisburn’s Antrim Street with its flavoursome menu

Chipmongers have opened their first branch in Northern Ireland in Lisburn. Since my youth, the Antrim Street shop unit has been battering fish and frying chips, but having now sampled a generous sample of the menu, it’s clear that the quality of cuisine (not normally a word associated with a chip ship) and attention to detail have definitely been given a lift in this new venture by Michael Ferris.

The titular Chipmonger Burger had a satisfying crunch as I bit into it. The crispy onion bits contrasted well with the melted Applewood smoked cheese, mixed leaves and sauce on top of the beef patty.

Chicken Goujon Boat is flavoursome, with two fillet strips resting on mixed leaves in a tortilla ‘boat’, drizzled with ranch sauce. In terms of taste, it’s much closer to restaurant fare than normal takeaway.

There’s sometimes a danger that crispy, bubbly batter can be more of a meal than the fish hidden inside. Not so with Chipmonger’s Fillet of Cod which is fried in a light batter that adds taste but leaves the fish intact to do the talking.

The new kids on the block are open from noon until 10pm seven days a week and offer delivery within a 2 mile radius for £2 Thursday to Sunday. Add if you order from the Chipmongers app (iOS/Android) before the end of January 2018, you can use the offer code ‘cm20’ to get 20% off your first order.

Thanks to Chipmongers for the lunchtime treat.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

This Beach (Brokentalkers) - a dark satire about migration & one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year

As I went to bed on Saturday evening, the radio news bulletin announced the tragic news that over 30 migrants including children had died off the coast of Libya when their boat capsized. The Libyan coastguard had rescued around 60 people from the water and another 140 people in a second boat.

According to IOM figures, nearly 3,000 people are believed to have drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, and the UN report that at least 33,761 people are reported to have died or gone missing between 2000 and 2017.

I had just returned home from a staggering sold-out performance of This Beach in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre.

The dark satire takes place on a sandy section of beach that has passed through the one family from generation to generation. Sabine Dargen’s simple set is littered with deck chairs, booze and a parasol for shade. When bodies float ashore, the residents incinerate them as a matter of routine. When a young man (Neimhin Robinson) revives as they prepare to drag him away, something stops them, and he is allowed to live.

The beach is a metaphor for a country; the family, its citizens (underscored by the characters taking the first names of the actors). The play by acclaimed Irish theatre company Brokentalkers examines the thought processes that lead to excessive nationalism and defensive actions which dehumanise the ‘other’.

The eighty minute long drama examines abuse, entitlement, ignorance, racism, misinformation and above all else, fear. The effect of smallminded thinking is physically demonstrated as the protagonists deny that their actions are causing the beach area to shrink. History’s continuing effect on the present is beautifully observed as the father figure Daniel (Daniel Reardon) excavates the beach for objects of significance, yet applies none of his learning to his own attitudes.

His son Bryan (Bryan Quinn) has a profound sense of entitlement, brusquely shrugging off other people’s defiance until his own weak spot is unearthed. His friend Anthony (Anthony Morris), an old comrade in arms, has no sense that the family’s ways are unorthodox, playing along with whatever’s needed to keep the beach tidy.

One character, a young woman Venetia (played by Venetia Bowe), is marrying into the beach-owning family. She’s a filmmaker and video artist. Having captured the nameless young lad’s story she retells it, twisting it into her own dramatic form, stealing its authenticity and exploiting the giver of the story. A challenge for those of us who report about migration, and an aspect of the play that has its roots in the response of refugees in a camp outside Berlin to a visit by the playwrights Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan. In an interview with the Irish News, Keegan explained:
“The refugees were quite upfront with us in the fact they weren’t really interested in the likes of us white European, somewhat privileged artists, coming in and cherry-picking their horrendous experiences.”

Venetia’s mother (Pom Boyd) is the outsider. At first she protests against the deeply engrained behaviour she witnesses. However her compassion towards the nameless ‘boy’ who is found alive on the beach quickly takes a sinister twist. Over half an hour the exchanges go something like this:
I need water. I’ll get you a beer. / What do you need? Water. Another beer. / Do you need anything? Water. I’ll get you a blanket. [She wraps herself in the blanket.]
There is a danger that even those of us who value the lives of refugees and asylum seekers can end up ignoring their true needs, or helping them in a manner than feeds us more than supports them.

As the characters strip down to their beachwear, they also discard the masks and filters that sanitised their conversations at the start of the play. We see the real people. It’s just one more aspect of the incredibly well crafted production that packs so much into its one act performance.

While the language is salty, the production is stinging as it holds up its mirror to European attitudes and behaviours. The script is punchy, full of the phrases and sentiment that is bandied around in everyday conversation as well as the language of newspaper headlines. Everyone in the audience will find parts of themselves represented in one or more of the six characters on stage.

Co-written and co-directed by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, and shaped by dramaturg Bjarni Johnsson, This Beach is a superb piece of contemporary theatre, packed full of challenges and biting commentary. Combining the script, set, acting and effects, This Beach is one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year. If you’re in Cork or Bray next week, don’t miss the last few performances of its Irish tour.

This Beach is in The Everyman in Cork (Monday 27-Wednesday 29 November) and the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray (Friday 1 December).

Friday, November 24, 2017

What The Reindeer Saw: festive frivolity in the Lyric Theatre until 6 January

Santa 45 (played by Alan McKee) is being inaugurated into the role, taking over the role of chief gift giver from his father. “Let’s make the North Pole great again” he intones in his speech to the assembled elves that heralds a time of unpopular change. His personal assistant Cornelia (Rosie McClelland) tries to prep him for the tasks ahead, but Santa seems more interested in playing darts in the reindeer shed than taking advice from the learned elves around him. What The Reindeer Saw starts out so well, but the fun with Trump abruptly stops and is never quite properly revived.

The long first half drags as Mr Claus comes to face to face with a workers’ revolt and a North Pole trade union official, a republican of the local variety. Add to this his performance issues with the elfegant Mrs Claus (Conor Grimes), the Secret Service elves (played by scene-stealers Jo Donnelly and Gerard McCabe) and four singing reindeer. After the interval, the threads of the story are efficiently tied up and director Tony Devlin steers the cast towards a big heart-warming finale with a suitably snowy resolution.

The normal rules of theatre seem to be torn up every December late November as entertainment and mirth are put way above other theatrical crafts. It sometimes feels like ambitions are lowered, voices are raised, and gags are handed out like sweets from a tub of Haribo to audiences that are assumed to have drowned their discernment in the bar.

Last year’s Grimes and McKee-authored The Nativity … What the Donkey Saw was Troubles-free and a much classier, sweeter tale. For 2017 the comedy double act have revived What The Reindeer Saw as a more shouty and crude production, with the music and singing blasting out at the audience at an uncomfortable volume.

The lyrics to the songs, set to carol tunes, are clever. Elf puns litter the script, and the final payoff with its language-based joke is well (should that be wellf?) worth the wait.

Rosie Moore’s costumes – including a very alternative Claus outfit – are fun and colourful. For once, Ciaran Bagnall’s set is unusually bland, and I fear that the revolving stage may be the death (or at least the cause of bank strain) of the pointy-eared stage hands who have to manually rotate the central section.

The live music from Sir Elfton John (Rod McVey sitting to one side of the stage) adds to the sense of occasion, and the rich vocals in Mr & Mrs Claus’s duet (to the tune of Once in Royal David’s City) create one of the standout moments of show.

The reindeer lock horns at least once too often, the flight simulator scene picks up speed very slowly, and it’s unfortunate that more is not made of the great tomfoolery between Donnelly and McCabe (complete with strong Country Antrim accents and a quare lot o Ulster Scots). The talented pair end up spread too thin across their roles as security agents, builders, mechanics, and furry animals.

If you’re looking for an evening of light-hearted banter at which to let your hair down with colleagues or friends, set your GPS for the Lyric and pull the hand brake on tight as you park your sleigh on Ridgeway Street. What The Reindeer Saw continues at the Lyric Theatre most evenings (except Monday) at 7.45pm until 6 January.