Thursday, April 19, 2018

Tender Napalm - dark, unsettling, ambiguous but thought-provoking dystopia (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 21 April)

Philip Ridley’s 2011 play Tender Napalm drops the audience into an unnamed couple’s disturbing relationship. Actors Emer McDaid and Gavin Peden walk onto a stage that’s naked except for 10 white stools and a clothes rail. As Woman and Man they begin a verbal duel, shooting elaborate poetic insults at each other based around parts of the other’s body. The language and imagery quickly turns violent, physically and at times sexually.

Soon the parrying switches to another game. The aloof couple are marooned on a desert island. Letting their imaginations roam free they make up stories that revolve around the destruction of the other. Man tells a superhero tale of fighting a sea serpent which is as tall as three double decker buses. Woman imagines armies of little monkeys who help lock her Man in a cave. Over 100 minutes, bombs, unicorns and even UFOs are added to the presumed make-believe universe.

The pair’s games have rules. Each new chapter in the story cannot contradict previous canon. Ever more elaborate escapes are invented to recover from near fatal cliff hangers. Weaved into this fantasy is what could be the couple’s origin story. The truth is never clear. Ridley presents the dialogue and leaves those listening to rationalise what they are hearing. There are some clues that hint at traumatic events in their childhood, mental illness or perhaps violent loss as a couple.

Despite the intimate language, there is little intimacy between the couple, other than the echo of long gone better times. We’re watching an ex-couple, two people who have moved beyond tenderness to inhabit a world where they go round in circles dropping napalm on each other. The word ‘naked’ is so often repeated in the script that it becomes a Chekhov's gun that fails to be fired: what might be an almost deliberate shying away from anything sensual adds mystery to the narrative. (To be fair, I think I saw a whole year’s worth of – mostly male – nudity in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio in February alone.)

While the plot is ambiguous and disquieting, the quality of the acting cannot be questioned. The young pair are in total control of their unusual situation. Gavin Peden leaps around the stools like a caped crusader and petulantly interrupts Woman’s stories. He combines Man’s bouncy boyish nature with an aggressive streak while Emer McDaid is less harsh as Woman, calm and assertive with just a hint of menace (particularly when she holds the garden shears) right up until the point her character caves in. Director Breman Rajkumar has created an unfussy choreography that makes good use of the empty space and invites the audience into some of the scenes.
Contre un bon repas chaud / Nous prenait une toile / Nous récitions des vers / Groupés autour du poêle / En oubliant l'hiver

Other than a blast of the rather apt La Bohème by Charles Aznavour, the only sound effects are the metallic noise of white stools being moved or knocked over. The challenge for the cast of Tender Napalm is to make people believe that the relationship was once viable despite the nasty rhetoric and to keep the paying public hooked while the clues are slowly laid out on the bare stage.

When the actors change costumes at one point and travel back in time they both look and sound noticeable younger. Two lesser actors might have struggle with the stripped back set or sound, but McDaid and Peden deliver performances that are rich and magnetic. While I’m not sure any two people leaving the theatre will agree on what story was being told, In the Moment Productions have put on a thought-provoking and unsettling piece of dystopian drama.

Tender Napalm continues at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 21 April.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Abigail’s Party – a great production of a classic play with lush performances to match the 1970s décor! (The MAC until 5 May)

Into an orange and brown set that accurately captured trendy late 1970s décor strides Beverly, decked out in a floaty dress from similarly warm-toned material. A modern woman confident in her white shag pile rug-covered environment, slowly shimmying around the room setting out cheesy nibbles and making sure the drinks cabinet is in order.

Beverly’s husband Laurence is a hard-working estate agent with an faux penchant for the finer things of life (art, books and classical music) while his wife’s social climbing is rooted in more shallow pursuits.

Into their modern abode – brilliantly created by designer Diana Ennis – come new neighbours, a young couple Angela and Tony, and neighbour Sue whose unseen fifteen year old daughter Abigail is hosting a party next door.

What follows is a brilliantly observed examination of competitive aspiration, gender politics, and the culture of misogyny: a window into 1977 that still reflects into 2018 society. The radio news bulletin that acts as a prologue to the play hints that membership of the European Community/Common Market and sex discrimination and equal pay legislation were issues at the time.

Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party opened in Hampstead Theatre before an abridged recording was broadcast as Play for Today on BBC One. The MAC’s production stays true to the Essex accents and lets the themes within the story resonate while resisting the attempt to shift the story to Northern Ireland. (Though the set with its low seating and sideboards standing on spindly wooden legs do remind me of a house I visited as a child.)

Roisin Gallagher is at the core of every scene, never swerving in mannerism or accent as she plies her guests with often unwanted food and drink, abbreviating everyone’s name (other than her husband’s) to a single syllable, finishing every sentence with a question (“Don’t you agree with me Ang?”) and slowly losing her inhibitions as she gives way to the influence of alcohol and frustration. It’s a flawless performance that anchors the discomfort that director Richard Croxford creates on stage.

Laurence (played by Will Irvine) at first seems like a hen-pecked, later ill-suited husband whose patience is eventually stretched beyond breaking point with consequences. Brigid Shine plays a diminutive Angela who is full of chat but is definitely under the thumb of her often monosyllabic husband Tony who replies to most questions with ‘yeah’.

Like cracks on a wall, tensions between partners grow over the evening. But the wildcard on stage that acts as a quite catalyst is Susan, played brilliantly by Imogen Slaughter. Other than being a single mother previously married to an architect, Susan has no backstory. However, the ambiguity which Slaughter injects into the role leaves the audience longing for more information about why she is quite so uncomfortable as Beverly and Angela bombard her with questions about her past and her plans for the future. There’s always a hint that there’s something we’re not being told.

As the alliances and annoyances rotate around the five-some, Abigail’s Party turns into a fascinating character study. Music of the time is frequently referenced and the record player sitting in the metal framed bookcase is put to good use.

Angela’s dancing deserves a special mention as Brigid Shine once again proves that her character will try to do things for which she is totally unskilled. It’s a beautiful moment in a play that ends with Beverley taking a bow still with a glass in her hand.

Abigail’s Party is definitely the most entertaining play I’ve seen on a Belfast stage so far this month. It pulls off laughs without reducing the complexity of the on-stage relationships which are great fun to pick apart at the interval and the end. A great production of a classic play. Abigail’s Party continues at the MAC until Saturday 5 May. Catch it before Beverly drinks the bar dry …

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Colleen Bawn – Oirish melodrama given the full Bruiser treatment (Bruiser + Lyric Theatre until 28 April)

A fair maiden – Eily O’Connor, nicknamed the Colleen Bawn – lives on the other side of the lake. The man, Hardress, to whom she is secretly married plans to marry another, Anne, since his first wife’s use of the vernacular ill-befits his social standing. A friend Kyrle has long carried a flame for Anne. And Hardress’ mother has a problem with her mortgage which could see them all homeless unless she repays the twisted magistrate landowner, or accepts his hand in marriage.

Throw in a hunchbacked servant Danny who reckons one of the chess pieces could be permanently lifted off the board, a stray shot and a happy ending and you’ve got a convoluted tale based on a true story that was adapted into Gerald Griffin’s novel The Collegians.

First performed in 1850 in New York, Dion Boucicault’s melodrama The Colleen Bawn has been given the full Bruiser treating, with seven cast members playing many more characters with instant costume changes, quick asides to the audience, props thrown across the stage and scene changes that are nearly a rapid fire as the dialogue.

The first half is peppered with on-stage music from the cast of seven with three guitars, fiddle, flute, piano, tin whistles, percussion and great harmony voices injecting gusto into the plot that swirls around the audiences brains unless they’ve read the synopsis beforehand. The issues of class and dialect surrounding secret wife Eily drive the contemporary commentary stirred up by the play, and the reprise after the interval is incredibly useful to reduce the brain power being consumed by piecing together the story to begin to analyse what is going on underneath the dialogue.

The live music mostly disappears in the second half with Matthew Reeve’s soundtrack taking over and Grace Smart’s oak-beamed, low-ceilinged set providing the novelty.

(Though the script’s mention of no moon seemed to be contradicted moments later by the painted backcloth in the boat scene.)

The ensemble is incredibly tight and Lisa May’s direction creates a focus for each scene despite the majority of the cast staying on stage during the full performance.

Patrick McBrearty’s Danny carries the most pleasing west-coast accent. With a simple twirl, Cavan Clarke morphs from double-dating Hardress into the unorthodox Father Tom.Enda Kilroy bounds around the stage with a comedy-sized top hat worn at a jaunty angle like a superhero playing the local magistrate and wannabe detective.

Maeve Smyth captures the grace and simplicity of Eily, and is probably a little more ‘Colleen Ruaidh’ than dark-haired Colette Lennon Dougal (Anne) whose character attracts this moniker and is played with a spirit of always looking on the bright side. Jo Donnelly steals scenes and with her eyes and her great sense of comic timing.

Today’s Sunday matinee audience probably contributed to the performance being more sober than farcical. The overall the pace was much more comfortable than Bruiser’s overly manic The 39 Steps and it was an amazing choice of script to show off what Bruiser can do to bring out the jest and joy in a play.

The Colleen Bawn runs until Saturday 28 April and is a co-production between the Lyric Theatre and Bruiser Theatre Company. In a week that saw Bruiser Theatre lose 85% of its Arts Council grant, this quality production once again proves the company’s pedigree and distinctive place in the NI theatre sector.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Further Shore (Poetry Ireland at Lyric Theatre) #GFA20

I’m not a big fan of poetry. It requires far too much concentration to parse the phrases, summon up the imagery and look into the often obtuse mind of the poet in order to get any understanding out of the words. All that sustained effort rather kills what joy might have been encapsulated into the original stanzas.

But last night’s A Further Shore event at the Lyric Theatre wasn’t a chore or hard work. The medley of spoken word and song used a range of work which remembered incidents and ways of living during the Troubles and gradually worked up to the negotiations and the 1998 Agreement.

Instead it was a nuanced and at times moving remembrance of past times. Not so balanced to become boring, but carefully seeded with surprise and honesty in the many perspectives it opened up to the packed theatre audience and those watching RTE’s live stream.

Alan Gillis’ Progress began the process of time travel, followed by words from John Hewitt, Seamus Heaney, Gerald Dawe, Gráinne Tobin, Colette Vryce, Ciaran Carson, Rita Ann Higgins amongst many others as atrocities and attitudes were explored and “the book of the dead became fatter and fatter”.

Directed by Lynne Parker and produced by Poetry Ireland for the Government of Ireland, A Further Shore featured Irish actors – few of whom are strangers to the Lyric stage – who performed the snippets of work: Cathy Belton, Richard Clements, Ellen Cranitch, Niall Cusack, Peter Hanly, Darragh Kelly, Frankie McCafferty, Abigail McGibbon, Neil Martin, Eleanor Methven (who devised the show), Carol Moore, Tara Lynne O’Neill, Stephen Sexton and Francis Tomelty joined by Linda Ervine.

Kevin Doherty and the Telegraph Band added warmth and a gentle rhythm to the reflections, playing a handful of songs dotted throughout the two hour programme, with And the Band Played On a particularly apt finale. When are they next back playing in Belfast?

“How far back would we want to wind the clock back to avoid the conflict?” asked the narrator, veteran journalist Olivia O’Leary. Her monologues deliberately left questions at the doors of previous Irish or British governments.

Projected press photographs and images of paintings accompanied the words. “Be careful not to patronise the Irish” was sung with gusto as the red white and blue Union Flag slowly turned green white and orange. There was humour amongst the sombre contemplation with the yes-ishness of Moyra Donaldson’s Ulster Says No hitting home.

“The language of peace is difficult and it’s taking us – all of us – a long time to learn it” remarked O’Leary as the journey pulled up at the 1994 ceasefires and the poetry and music gave way to a short address by Tánaiste Simon Coveney who described the performance as “powerful, funny, tragic and evocative” which “reflected on our shared journey towards this extraordinary short” while acknowledging that “we face the challenges of our own time”.

While Peter Robinson is speaking on a panel at today’s QUB event marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, there was an absence of DUP attendance at last night’s event in keeping with their anti-Agreement stance.

The most sustained applause of the evening was given to Senator George Mitchell who briefly reflected on the “700 days of failure and one day of success” that characterised the five years of negotiations that he chaired. He finished by asking “Can we leave the past behind? Can we rekindle the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Friday, April 06, 2018

The Jazzabelles - climbing a steep and rocky hill to the Floral Hall (Lyric Theatre until 7 April +tour)

Three women step out from their dreary lives to form a close harmony singing trio amidst an atmosphere of misogyny, lascivious lyrics, gay bashing and religious zeal. It could be a piece of musical theatre set in 2018, but it’s not. The Jazzabelles tells the story of 1950s Belfast-women Prissy, Vera and Ella.

Prissy by name and nature – the character, not the actress! – Rosie Barry (in real life, one third of The Swingtime Starlets) plays a bored housewife whose talents and ambitions are stifled by her overbearing scripture-quoting husband Jack (Neil Keery). Vera (Ciara Mackey, an impressive Lady of the Lake in Spamalot and  runs a dance academy and is underwhelmed by the mediocre students who audition. And Ella (Claire McCartney) sashays her way around the offices she cleans, longing to be singing into a mic on the stage at the Floral Hall rather than making do with a mop.

Nick Boyle wrote the words and music and leads the three piece band (piano, bass, drums) that play to one side of the stage. Each woman is provoked into reconsidering their options, with a solo song to accompany their change of heart and the sudden formation of the group.

As Prissy tells her husband, it is all very narratively expedient: “went to a bar, met some girls, formed a trio and got a manager”. The manager in question is a velvet jacket wearing, smooth talking impresario Vince played by Stephen Beggs.

As you’d expect, the road to musical success is uneven and full of potholes. The discomfort Prissy feels while singing about ‘Honey Hips’ is nothing compared to an unexpectedly large protest that invades the theatre. Then throw in some blackmail, gay bashing and a reformed gambler who is a walking reminder that “the whiter the sepulchre, the dirtier the secrets inside”.

The staging and Neil Keery's direction are conservative with three mini-sets relegated to the back wall of the theatre: an office, a living room and a dance school. The costumes are vintage and period choreography is very convincing. Dan Leith steals the first half when pianist and lothario Rod solos ‘I fall in love too readily’, redeeming an earlier scene shared with McCartney which is surely the most deliberately excruciating example of courting in Lyric history.

While there’s a sprinkling of humour throughout, SkinnyBone Theatre's musical falters a little due to its pedestrian script that treads water with flat dialogue between songs and only really delivers a couple of dramatic moments well into the second half that make the audience buy into the characters. Some of the tunes also ill-fit the singers’ voices, with repeated changes of register curtailing their vocal power.

The casts’ accurate depiction of their depressed and suppressed characters mean that the early close harmony singing lacks a lot of the joy and verve one would expect if this had been a concert rather than a musical play.

In the final numbers, however, all three women can truly smile, let go and give it their all in the reprieve of the catchy 'Jazzabelle Swing' that you’ll be humming as you leave the Naughton Studio.

The Jazzabelles is a fun vehicle for three great voices. It runs in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 7 April [SOLD OUT] and then tours through Down Arts Centre (Friday 13 April), Armagh Market Place Theatre (Saturday 14) and The Old Courthouse Theatre, Antrim (Friday 20).

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Me You Us Them – an accessible play about race, power, entitlement and expectation (Terra Nova at Accidental Theatre until 29 March)

Me You Us Them examines what race means in Northern Ireland. A web of characters from Armagh, Belfast, Donegal, Hong Kong, Iran, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Sudan – often from more than one of those at a time – step forward on the stage and deliver short vignettes that reveal their experiences of life.

The Accidental Theatre audience sit around three sides of the black wooden stage. Melissa Dean and Stefan Dunbar reach into boxes and pull out clothes and accessories to transform into each new set of characters, while three chairs are sometimes used to give shape to the set.

Playwright Andrea Montgomery has built up characters based on workshops with women and men who have shared their stories. Many of the stories feature overt racism – a girl being taunted on the bus, a nurse being dismissed by a patient because she isn’t white – while others explore (in a very Northern Ireland kind of way) whether inappropriate thoughts and desires could as racism or passive racism while the audience chalk them up to creepy and pervy behaviour.

Stefan Dunbar’s eyes widen as he steps into the persona of a young Belfast man who’s certain that he’s not racist but doesn’t want that type of person living in his aunt’s old house. “Our street is our world and it belongs to us!” Dunbar switches from being mild-mannered to being red-faced and angry between characters, though it’s his conversation between two ladies from the Malone Road that stuck in my mind long after the show finished.

A Jamaican nurse tells a few home truths as she dissects local identity divisions, notes a shared hatred of the English (another form of generally accepted racism) and suggests “you’re all the same when you go to the toilet”. Melissa Dean shifts comfortably between ages and accents. Her face continues acting even when she has no lines.

Over the 70 minutes, connections between the characters are gently revealed. The linkages are not too forced, and thankfully don’t distract from the quality of the messaging. In fact, the joy of the well-crafted characters is their unreliability. Conversations, even ones that start out fractious, expose unexpected nuances. There’s a glimmer of recognition when the young Belfast man confronts a Nigerian girl and discovers that she doesn’t want to live in the house either.

Andrea Montgomery has a knack for writing and directing 'awkward' scenes in which the misalignment of characters’ expectations and assumptions is revealed and the audience are left wanting to slide under their cushioned seats as the embarrassment grows. It's fabulously uncomfortable.

Me You Us Them is an accessible play about race, power, entitlement and expectation. It stops well short of explicitly attempting to make audiences feel guilty through over-moralising, but if they’re really listening, then there’s plenty of material to inspire introspection. The production continues in Accidental Theatre until Thursday 29 April. While the run is fully sold out, it may return later in the year.

Photo credit: Neil Harrison

Dr Scroggy’s War - confident performances that question what motivates patriotism (Lyric Drama Studio until 31 March)

Dr Scroggy’s War is a Howard Brenton play that steps into the trenches of the First World War and behind the scenes of the pioneering facial reconstruction surgery carried out by Harold Gillies on injured servicemen. The piece shows off the talents of 21 members of the Lyric Drama Studio which works with 18-25 year olds who want to develop their skills and are considering a career in acting.

James Wallis plays working class Jack Twigg who postpones an Oxford scholarship to join up as an officer with the London Irish Rifles. He identifies a weakness in the plans for the Battle of Loos. When his reservations are ignored he joins the front-line and is exposed to the deadly shelling. Wallis balances an inner feeling of self-confidence and patriotism with a nervousness about the unfamiliar worlds into which he is dropped and later a despair at his future prospects.

The first half of the play explores the issues of class, hierarchy and the horror of combat while after the interval, the focus switches back in England where Gillies (Colm McCready) is the eccentric father of plastic surgery and works hard to boost morale among the disfigured soldiers. A skilled surgeon by day, McCready ably portrays the medic’s madcap eponymous alter ego which comes out at night to inject patients with the medicine of fun.

Sister Catherine Black is ably played by Katherine Devlin as she tries to bring decorum to the wards and Gillies' excesses. Maryann Maguire impresses as Twigg’s mother, initially flippant but later filled with loving concern when she visits her injured son. Overall it’s a tight ensemble performance right across the cast who maintain a range of English and Irish accents throughout the play.

Chris Warner’s sound design provides scenes with the sound of echoey hospital corridors, swanky parties and battle fields: one of the most sensitive and effective soundtracks I’ve heard in recent months. Stuart Marshall’s set allows wooden panels to be rearranged, creating rooms and doubling up as the retaining walls of the trenches.

The highlight of the play is a royal visit which both moves (amplified by Megan McGarry’s poise and measured movement as Queen Mary) and entertains (thanks to Matt Cavan’s music hall choreography). While the final scenes in Brenton’s script quickly squeeze in a whole raft of ideas around pacifism and the Easter Rising, Philip Crawford’s direction keeps its pace and soldiers on towards the finale.

The Lyric Drama Studio’s satisfying and confident production of Dr Scroggy’s War shines a light onto new aspects of a war which is under the centenary spotlight and reminds audiences that out of conflict comes the invention of products, techniques and practices that can later benefit all of society. Its questioning of why people remain patriotic in the face of the hell of war has contemporary relevance as conflicts around the world are beamed onto our screens.

The totally sold out run continues until Saturday 31 March with just a few tickets still available for the Friday 7.30pm performance.

Photo credit: Neil Harrison

Monday, March 26, 2018

We’ll Walk Hand in Hand – a time-travelling analysis of NI civil rights in 1968 and 2018 (Lyric Theatre until 31 March)

Turning a long-duration historical event into a successful drama that will resonate with contemporary audiences and deal with the contested understanding of the actions of people fifty years ago has got to be a challenge.

But that didn’t stop Martin Lynch from tackling the 1968 civil rights movement and marches in his new play We’ll Walk Hand in Hand, which was developed after extensive community engagement programme and the involvement of local academics.

Lynch pulls a couple of theatrical rabbits out of his playwright’s hat in order to create space in the play for reflection. In the first half, the audience watch as a mature Lesley Gilmartin (Susie Kelly) and Vincent Maguire (Noel McGee) look back at their actions as QUB students half a century ago, and think about what drew them as a cross-community couple into the civil rights movement.

While young Vincent (John Travers) has opted for the path of non-violent protest, his brother and father are involved in the IRA. Not too far away, Lesley (Emer McDaid) struggles to explain to her Protestant parents living in Woodvale why this is a cause that deserves her attention. (Both sets of parents are played for laughs by Maria Connolly and Conor Grimes.)

After the interval, the perspective successfully swaps around and it’s the young Vincent who has the opportunity to look into the future to see what he and his ex-wife have become in 2018 as they face up to the civil rights issues of today. A grand-daughter (played again by Emer McDaird) and her weedy boyfriend Mike (Warsame Mohamed) updated the notion of a mixed marriage and introduce other ethical dilemmas.

While the structure is complicated, the direction and costuming make it seem quite straightforward (unless you stop to figure out the relationship between Connolly and Grimes’ characters in the first and second halves!) The main cast are joined by a community ensemble who play the more minor characters.

Where the ambitious play succeeds is in dealing with the complexity of the different positions, motivations and suspicions back in 1968. There’s room for older Vincent to look back at his paramilitary Dad and acknowledge that he was at least partially shaped by circumstance. There’s barely a ‘side’ in the civil rights story and popular analysis that isn’t represented on stage or in the script. That’s a major hurdle for a left-leaning playwright to have overcome given how (political) critics will try to tear his work apart.

David Craig’s psychedelically coloured set with numerous steps and platforms (and nod to modern Belfast icons and architecture in the second half) allows the cast of 16 to space themselves out during the musical numbers which lighten the mood and place the action in the late sixties. If only some of the cast had been directed to mime rather than distract some of the choral harmonies with their off-key singing.

Faced with an over-serious (and in his imagination over-sexed) bespectacled student, John Travers could have played a very bland Vincent that was all principle and no play. Instead he injects the character with brio and a cheeky impudence that heighten the impact of his disappointing discoveries when he travels forward in time.

The show is stolen – twice – by Emer McDaid, first as the staid student who comes into the civil rights movement like a mathematical solution worked out from first principles, and then as young sassy Micheala who combines being carefree with carrying all the cares in the world in her twenty-something body. McDaid’s voice and sense of rhythm lift many of the songs and help deliver the necessary feel good moments that balance out the historical narrative.

Having bitten off a difficult task, Lynch is to be applauded that the history isn’t buttered over the script too thickly. It’s in the modern day dialogue that certain lines jar and question how well the community engagement was listened to: I see no real world evidence of family planning clinic escorts hitting pro-life protesters, and I’m not sure a Somalian (grand)mother would swear in the way Mike’s mum does given her character’s backstory.

Overall, We’ll Walk Hand in Hand is a welcome break from some of Lynch’s back catalogue of work that tends to play sectarian divisions and stereotypes for laughs rather than using the rich nuances in society to tell stories of substance that can still incite the audience to laugh at themselves.

We’ll Walk Hand in Hand is a Green Shoot Production and runs in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 31 March.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sink or Swim – an ambitious and innovating first production from new company Headrush, Ireland

It seems like a young actor from Ireland will stop at nothing to be famous. What starts out as a confessional piece, soon morphs into a murder mystery before settling on down as a psychological thriller as we watch Cara Fitzgerald move to London for an unsuccessful run of auditions before returning to her home town to get a part in a feature film being made on Red Cove Beach (cleverly shrunk down to a sandpit on stage).

Sink or Swim is the ambitious first production from new company Headrush, Ireland (with a comma!) formed by students who have recently graduated from creative courses at QUB. Their first solo show is a great advert for the versatility of actor Julie Lamberton who plays the central figure plus another 15 or 20 characters with whom Cara interacts. Each has a consistent accent, mannerisms and gait.

The direction physically twists and turns Lamberton during dialogue as she dances between different sides of conversations. The actor also supplies the voices for off-stage audio: news reports, phone calls and Skype chats with her Mum. It’s a real one-woman show.

Sink or Swim is exhausting to watch: mentally and physically. It builds up quite a pace, flitting between numerous locations – a rather heavy circular wooden set on wheels to one side of the stage revolves to open up a bar, a bedroom and an interrogation room – and jumping backwards and forwards in time to revisit scenes as catastrophic Cara reveals more about her motivation and actions. And while the action was spinning around on stage, my stomach was tying itself in knots, desperately hoping that this last turn would be the last and I could jump off the emotional rollercoaster and finally knit the plot back together.

While playwright Jonathan M Daley has created a piece that shows how a young performer unravels under the burden of making a permanent mark on society, the myriad of locations, the sheer number of characters and the long run time all deserve pruning to better showcase the good ideas that the work contains. The #TimesUp / #MeToo scene is topical but unnecessary while other aspects – like why the main set looks like a swimming pool – are skipped over too quickly or not reinforced enough. And starting a fictional work with "this is a true story" seems a little disingenuous.

The production’s innovation rival the quality of the acting. The use of LED strip lighting proved very effective in the low-ceilinged Accidental Theatre venue (though a simple inch-width of cardboard taped to the ceiling in front of the LEDs would shield the audience from the brilliance). The live chorus effect as villagers talk about Cara was novel and very effective, as was the level of control over the Skype conversations each time the video recorder under the TV screen was blattered.

While the plot was overly complicated, Julie Lamberton’s acting and singing, together with the moments of humour among the dire straits meant that Headrush, Ireland’s first production mostly swam along the surface rather than sinking. Better to have been too ambitious but mostly pulled it off than not to have tried to push the boundaries. So hats off to Headrush, Ireland: they are certainly a company to watch with their smorgasbord of production ideas, on stage talent and chutzpah. They plan to be back this summer with a new play We Like It Here directed by Emily Foran.

Sink or Swim was performed at Accidental Theatre between 22 and 24 March.

Photos from Headrush, Ireland.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Art - a deconstruction of the art of needling and male histrionics (Grand Opera House until 17 March)

Three old friends, one of whom is wealthy enough to have bought a £200k piece of modern art, disagree over the 5 foot by 4 foot all-white painting and in the process call into question the nature of their friendship.

Art, a ninety minute no interval play, weaves together monologues addressed straight at the audience with one on one conversations between the characters before bringing all three men into the same room for the explosive finish. Alliances are built up and fall in a matter of minutes as each bond in the triangle is tested.

Nigel Havers (etched in my mind as Tom Latimer from 1980s TV show Don't Wait Up) is Serge, a rich doctor who is horrified when one of his best friends Marc takes an instant dislike to his new artwork. Denis Lawson (New Tricks) plays Marc as an uber-honest, straight-talking critic of modernism. While Serge owns the painting, it's Marc who owns the show, with most of the relationship woes revolving around his manner and sentiment. Both Havers and Lawson bring an enormous polish to their performances.

Stephen Tompkinson (Damien Day in Drop The Dead Donkey) plays the youngest of the three, Yvan, a man who is on the verge of getting married and has recently begun to work for his in-law's stationery business. Tomkinson brings a hilarious rant about wedding invitations into the middle of the art criticism, rewarded by audience applause, as his character struggles to see how the like or dislike of a mostly white painting could be more important that his pending nuptials. He also brings a modicum of conciliation into the fraught friendship, and is perhaps the person on stage in whom the audience can most see themselves.

The production has the feel of a play whose dialogue speeds up with every performance, while the pauses elongate and the audience's laughter lingers longer each evening. (It plays as a tragedy, rather than a comedy, to French audiences!) No one stumbles over their lines. Faces turn red and blood pressure seems to genuinely rise as the tension builds.

Yasmina Reza is queen of the needle. As a playwright she puts words and pauses into the mouths of characters who can turn the emotion of a room 90 or 180 degrees in an instant. That was demonstrated to me three years ago when Prime Cut produced The God of Carnage at The MAC. Twelve years older, Art manages to pull off that same combative style with a cast of just three under the direction of Ellie Jones. Translator Christopher Hampton (responsible for English language versions of both Art and The God of Carnage) recolours the original French text into English, shocking the audience each time a new swear word is added into the colourful vocabulary being spat across the living room.

When the curtain went up I realised that the set was familiar: I probably caught Art in London around fifteen years ago. Mark Thompson's tall white walls with gigantic cornicing and elegant cream furniture are very Gallic and have been preserved from the original London run. Hugh Vanstone's lighting is remarkably sophisticated, not only denoting each of the three homes with differing angles of sunshine, but also subtly altering during each scene to emphasise the mood.

The crazy artwork isn't the only white elephant in the room. Is a revival of a play about three well-to-do white men (one in his 50s, one in 60, and one who has turned 70) justified in 2018 when there are so few roles for women? There's no doubt that it's entertaining and shows off the talents of three seasoned actors who bring Reza's script to life. The insecurities and vulnerabilities apparent in platonic male friendships are less often put under the microscope than couple's or women's relationships. In the end, I suspect that the quality of the writing merits Art's continuing success. This particular rosy-cheeked baby shouldn't be thrown out with the bathwater … but I do wonder what an all-female cast could do with the script, and hope that if the UK and Ireland tour continues beyond June that a little more diversity is brought into the otherwise excellent cast.

Art is a reflection of appreciation, dependency, fellowship, loyalty and the dangerous game of trying to lie in order to protect a friendship. The play continues in the Grand Opera House until 17 March, before transferring to Dublin and then touring the UK.

Photo credit: Matt Crockett

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Penguins - clambering, swimming and nurturing together (Cahoots NI at The MAC until 14 March) #bcf18

Penguins is a beautifully danced show that tells the story of two penguins living in a zoo. The only words in this almost non-verbal performance are those that occasionally drift across from unseen zoo visitors leaning over the fence and talking about the penguins clamber over and swimming around their enclosure.

"Look at the penguins! Are they a couple?"

Choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra has equipped dancers Osian Meilir and Jack Webb with familiar gestures that draw the audience into the world of these two penguins which are allowed to have subtly distinct personalities. We watch them play, share meals, preen and enjoy each other's company as they jump over the boxed set and swim over the shimmering pool floor.

As the 45 minute show progresses, we witness their disappointment when they realise that unlike all the other nests, there's doesn't have a white egg. Instead the stand astride a rock found in the pool, until a zoo keeper (Corey Annand) substitutes it for the real thing.

The dramaturgy is as delicate and thrilling as the dancing, with coloured ties hinting at gender and the repetition of various movements providing the piece with shape as Roy and Silo nurture little Tango when she is born. Their faces beam with joy as they teach their new-born to move and swim.

Co-produced by Cahoots NI with Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Prime Theatre, it should not be a surprise to find that some of the props have magical properties. The zoo keeper's little chest of drawers is the gift that keeps on giving, while there's even room for a signature Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney disappearing trick towards the end.

Garth McConaghie's sound design uses a plucked strings, soft brass and percussive sounds to create light melodies that echo the playfulness of the two male penguins. The bright phrasing and repetition draws in the young audience - Penguins is pitched at three year olds and above - and adds to the charm of production. Sabine Dargent's playground set comes to life with Simon Bond's lighting design, with translucent panels hiding as much as they revel.

Based on a real pair of penguins* the show explores themes of friendship, family, nurture and acceptance in a very gentle manner. With several shows in development and out on tour each year, Cahoots NI's reputation justifiably stretches far from their base in Belfast. And the Penguins will surely swim further afield and feed off appreciative audiences in warmer climes in the months and years ahead.

Limited tickets are available for the two performances of Penguins on Sunday 11 March. The final performance during Belfast Children's Festival is on Wednesday 14 March before the production continues on its UK and Ireland tour through Limavady, Armagh, Dundalk, Castleblayney, Navan, Roscommon, Blanchardstown, Dublin, Salisbury, Bournemouth, Swindon, Bath (in the appropriately-named 'The egg' venue) and Bolton.

Photo credit: Robert Day

* Staff at New York City's Central Park Zoo noticed that chinstrap penguins Roy and Silo were performing mating rituals (necking and making mating calls) and in 1999 attempted to hatch a rock as if it were an egg. When zoo keepers gave them a 'spare' egg from another pair of penguins which could not hatch it, Roy and Silo incubated the egg for 34 days and spent two and a half months raising a female chick (that staff named Tango). They aren't the only two same-sex penguins to grow close and incubate an egg, but they are the ones who were described in a New York Times article! [After being bullied out of their nest by a more aggressive pair of penguins, Roy and Silo grew distant and Silo 'hooked' up with a new partner, a female called Scrappy. This final cruel twist doesn't form part of the mesmerising on-stage story!]

The Assistant's Revenge - a dark and magical, musical mystery (Cahoots NI in The MAC until 11 March) #bcf18

When a routine trick goes wrong in a nearly fatal way, American escapologist The Fabulous Felix (played by Gary Crossan) calls upon singing private detective Sam Sullivan (Kyron Bourke) to investigate the threat on his life. And so the fedora-wearing sleuth begins to unpick the locks and loosen the ties that surround the magician and his two assistants: young Molly (Maeve Smyth) and his sister Crystal (Ursula Burns).

The Assistant's Revenge is pitched at eight year olds and above (but definitely not for toddlers) and as you'd expect with a Cahoots NI show, there is room for lots of magic and illusions. With live music throughout - at one stage involving all four on-stage performers - and large scale illusions, there's with which to be fascinated. And with such precise control over the lighting and sound, Bosco engineers the perfect distractions to keep the gaze of audience lingering exactly where we wants it.

The illusion begins as soon as you come in and sit down on a bench in the big top that has been constructed inside the sixth floor room in The MAC which I associate with election manifesto launches and press conferences. With the sound of traffic and the odd siren subtly creeping into your consciousness, everything is already in the hands of Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney and his dream team from Christmas 2015 with on-stage music from composer Ursula Burns and the added voice and keyboard tinkling from Kyron Bourke.

The feeling of terror builds as we sense the performer's panic during a reconstruction of the incident that set off the investigation. Lights flicker, along with crackling sound effects, and whenever the central curtain opens, it's always a surprise what lies behind.

Crossan is cocky and plays Felix as an artist who has tricked himself into believing that he can treat the women in his life - and helping his act - without the respect and recompense that they deserve. Smyth impresses with her voice as well as the inner steel that underlies her smiling persona as the beautiful assistant. Bourke very naturally shifts from singing to speaking as he narrates each stage of the investigation accompanied by his husky voice and delicate touch on the keyboard (dressed up as an antique piano). While Burns is trapped between her keyboard and harp for much of the show creating the bed of music upon which it is based, she steps out front for a beautiful song and shows that she can act as well as compose and play.

The cast are as confident with the music as they are with the magic, producing some memorable harmonies that add to the already rich performance. Mc Eneaney and Charles Way have included some lovely lines in the script that adults in the audience will appreciate! While the plot jumps backwards and forwards in time, and I got lost in some of the final conclusions that 'solved' the case, the mood of the piece and the quality of its delivery isn't affected.

It's the kind of show that will leave parents scrambling for answers on the way home as little minds explore the science and trickery behind the magic, and question the complexity of the characters and their motives.

At just under an hour long, The Assistant's Revenge is a great piece of theatre from Cahoots NI for young and old and a great addition to this year's Belfast Children's Festival programme. Some tickets are available for the final three shows on Sunday 11 March.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Ten Picks from Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics (12-18 March) #imaginebelfast

Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics starts on Monday 12 March and runs through to Sunday 18. It's now in its fourth year of creating collisions between politics and arts, conversation and performance. Events include workshops, talks, exhibitions, film screenings, performance art, music, theatre, poetry, tours and comedy, with the majority of events free.

The full programme can be found online (or in a PDF).

This year's competition invites you to submit a 1-2 minute film describing a change you want to see in the world. Mix your imagination with your reason, pick up a political or cultural cudgel, have a rant, or create an animation. The organisers are looking for thought-provoking submissions, new perspectives and thinking that challenges established orthodoxy rather than technical masterpieces. Smartphone or tablet footage is perfectly acceptable! The deadline is 18 March and the Victoria Square Apple Store are running extra training sessions during the festival if you need help getting up and running on their range of devices.

[cue] Pick of the Pops theme music ...

10. The Bare Necessities sees artist Kate Guelke barricade herself into The Barracks (off Hill Street) and will rely on visitors and their gifts for company, food and water. Visiting hours at this durational performance run from 11.30am-2.30pm and 5.30pm-8.30pm. Call in with a gift and your presence, or watch online.

9. Homeward Bound is a 30 minute play which tells the true story of Lesley and her 49-year old husband Seth Goodburn who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after a short illness and died just 33 days later. It's a play, written by playwright Brian Daniels, that gives people (including health and social care professionals) the opportunity to reflect on the importance of compassionate person- and family-centred care at the end. The play will be followed by a discussion with the actors and Lesley Goodburn. Accidental Theatre in Shaftsbury Square at 3pm on Monday 12 March.

8. EIGHT is a theatre piece by Ella Hickson that asks its audience which six stories they want to hear from a palette of eight actors who play a student, a cheater, a teenager, a parent, a socialite, a high flier, a rebel and a homosexual. Directed by Rachel Coffey and produced with Queen's University Drama. Accidental Theatre, Shaftesbury Square from 7.30pm-9.30pm on Tuesday 13-Thursday 15 March. Whose story do you want to hear?

7. Emmet of Arabia is a one-act play that looks through the eyes of the parents of an 18 year old lad from Derry decides to do something about the endless, unjust wars around the world … and joins Isis. Paddy and Claire are mystified as to how this could happen. Hilarious, touching and political. Presented by Mockingbird Theatre Group in the Sunflower Bar at 8pm on Wednesday 14 March.

6. Join the gang from Banterflix film podcast to watch All The President's Men in The Strand Arts Centre at 8.30pm on Wednesday 14 March. Recently released The Post could be seen as a prequel for this 42 year old classic film which documents the Washington Post investigation into the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to the fall of the Nixon Presidency. Given the current interest in the White House and the continuing topicality of concepts like 'fake news', this 42 year old film is contemporary with its timely reminder of the importance of good journalism as a means to hold those in political authority accountable for their actions.

5. Another film in the Strand Arts Centre. This time, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man which is based on the deeds of the Shankill Butchers in 1970s Belfast. Told retrospectively, a journalist (James Nesbitt) is on the trail of the leader of the ruthless and murderous 'Resurrection Men' gang. Eoin McNamee will be in conversation before the film. 8.30pm on Thursday 15 March. Over 18s.

4. Terror by Ferdinand von Schirach. A Lufthansa-Airbus is high-jacked by terrorists. Strapped into his Eurofighter, Major Lars Koch is ordered to divert the Airbus from its course. With 164 people on board, the flight suddenly changes course towards a football stadium with a capacity 70,000 crowd gathered for a soccer match. If the terrorist do not change course, can he, should he, shoot down a passenger jet? The clock ticks. Major Koch makes a decision. And the audience must deliver their verdict. Can human life ever be measured against others? Who is responsible? Who is on trial? Duncairn Arts Centre at 8pm on Thursday 15 March; QUB Senate Room at 5.30pm on Friday 16 March.

3. A 3.6m Public Pulpit will be erected in St Anne's Cathedral car park on St Patrick's Day and after a few scheduled talks at noon to introduce the concept of taking ownership, it will be available for members of the public to ascend the stairs and give voice to their message. The traditional Christian pulpit can be understood as a vessel to deliver 'truths' to the masses; the Public Pulpit aspires to communicate the views of the masses of individuals. Open until 6pm.

2. Join Colin Hassard, Leyla Josephine and the winners of the 2017 Imagine! Belfast poetry and conflict competition for a night of spoken words and artistry in the Crescent Arts Centre at 7.30pm on Saturday 17 March.

1. The Sunflower Bar will host a four part tribute to Hip Hop from 7pm until midnight on Sunday 18 March with a screening of Bombin', Beats and B-Boys, a showcase of breakdancing, the Hip Hop Comedy Game Show and gritty collaboration between the Northcoaster DBMCs and special guests.

And don't forget about the superb Quartered audio walk (reviewed), the civic conversation about Universal Basic Income, the panel discussion on Civil Rights, Democracy Day in the Crescent Arts Centre all day Wednesday 14, including a FactCheckNI session with students from Methodist College, and the Open Government Network's Re-imagine Democracy conference in The MAC on Thursday 14.

Belfast Children's Festival (9-14 March): delighting young audiences for 20 years!

Belfast Children's Festival is back for its 20th year with a celebration of unique and unforgettable events for young audiences and their families between 9 and 14 March. The programme includes lullabies suitable for newborn babies, as well as industry workshops for producers.

Horses is a dance performance from Belgium-based kabinet k & hetpaleis about "wanting to be a grown-up and wanting to remain a child, about power and vulnerability, about carrying and being carried, and how we learn to trust and count on each other". The MAC, Friday 9-Sunday 11, 8+

Oh Yeah Music Centre are hosting a Volume Control gig by the most recent cohort of 14-19 year olds from the music and events industry mentoring project. Showcasing upcoming musicians in a gig organised by young people for young people. Oh Yeah, Friday 9 at 7.30pm, 13+

The festival's birthday party is free and open to all in Botanic Gardens and the Ulster Museum on Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 with art workshops, theatre, dance music. In particular, check out the readings from Patrick Sanders' posthumously published book Your Little Tiny Welcome to the Great Big Whole Wide World on Sunday at 1.30pm, 2.30pm and 3.30pm.

Produced by Cahoots NI with Birmingham Rep and Prime Theatre, Penguins tells the story of two male Chinstrap penguins who walk, play, swim and dance together, and decide to try to hatch a rock in place of an egg. Friendship, fun, identity, what it means to be family and the magic of local director Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney and international choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra. The MAC, Saturday 10, Sunday 11, Wednesday 14, 3+

The Assistant's Revenge is another Cahoots show, this time the brand new murder mystery with a magical twist. It all begins when a small-time private eye gets a phone call, and it plunges him into a world of danger and deceit in a case with more twists and turns than a ten-inch corkscrew. With beautiful music by Ursula Burns, the last few seats are available for performances at The MAC on Friday 9, Saturday 10 and Sunday 11, 8+

Getting Dressed tackles what can be a stressful activity for children starting school. Climb a mountain of clothes, plunge into piles of pants or swing in swathes of skirts. Whether they're big or small, scratchy or soft, ordinary or extraordinary, the festival organisers promise that clothes and getting dressed will never be the same again. The MAC, Saturday 10 and Sunday 11, 4-7

Amadan Ensemble ask whether girls and boys are so different in Pink & Blue. Join the two clowns in The MAC on Saturday 10 and Sunday 11, 4+

Greg Caffrey is back with a one act work-in-progress children's opera The Man With The Chocolate Beard after last year's The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse. Belfast City Hall, Sunday 11, ages 8+. SOLD OUT