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

Sunday, March 04, 2018

I, Tonya - the story of an abused, ambitious and abrasive figure skater

After an abusive upbringing and marrying an abusive boyfriend who plotted to upset the chances of one of her strongest figure-skating rivals, the production and screening of I, Tonya is perhaps the most fitting acknowledgement to Tonya Harding's life up until her mid-20s.

Given the fog of truth that surrounds events in Harding's life, Craig Gillespie's film using Steve Rogers' script) aptly pieces together testimony from family and friends - all of whom are labelled as unreliable witnesses - in order to tell the story of her rise and fall on the ice. The film cleverly dances between aspect ratios, preserving the feel of mid-1990's 4x3 TV footage on the big screen and some footage from the original source TV interviews is shown during the final credits.

Allison Janney plays LaVona Harding, a chain-smoking waitress who worked hard to support her child's talent at ice skating. From an early age, the coveted 'first woman to land a triple axel in competition' was talked about. But her finances didn't extend to the fine costumes and off-ice lifestyle that competition judges were keen to promote. And her temper put her in conflict with her daughter. Janney captures the

Margot Robbie has come a long way from her three year stint in Neighbours. Last seen as the distant mother in Goodbye Christopher Robin, and before that spotted in a bath tub giving an economics lesson in the middle of The Big Short, Robbie can flit from Tonya Harding's performance face to real life misery and back a couple of times within a 10 or 15 second shot. Her fine-tuned emotional control, much of it visible though close-ups in this film, is rewarded with her nomination for Best Actress at this year's Academy Awards.

In fact various themes seem to be running through the films that have floated to the top in this year's Oscar nominations. Dancing in snowy Moscow in Red Sparrow and now ice-skating in I, Tonya. Tales of women with determination in Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and now I, Tonya.

Characters don't come much grittier than Tonya Harding. Hit, stabbed and shot at - and that was just by her mother and her husband (Jeff Gillooly played by Sebastian Stan) - she sometimes danced to ZZ Top rather than sticking to a more orthodox classical repertoire. She was the first to land the triple axel jump, but that's only the plot point at the end of the first act, not the main story.

The amateur attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver) before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer is the crisis that propels the film towards its conclusion.

The director and script deftly play with domestic abuse and attempted maiming with a lightness of touch that neither papers over the awfulness of the situation nor makes the perpetrators out to be heroes. And so the supposed bodyguard, and for one time only criminal mastermind, Shawn Eckhardt portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser as an over-explaining screwball who finds two even more unlikely thugs to do his dirty work.

The ice skating sequences are integral to the plot but are not allowed to dominate the action. (Maizie Smith and Mckenna Grace deserve mention for their on-ice portrayal of Tonya Harding as a child and an adolescent.)

I, Tonya tells the story of an abrasive and abused underdog who paid heavily for the ambition of those around her (at least that's the slant taken in this retelling). I'd missed the fuss around figure-skating first time round in the 1990s, but I'm glad I've caught up with it now. With an unusual but effective method of storytelling, it's definitely my favourite sports-based film (admittedly from a pretty small short list given my aversion to watching other people physically exercise).

You'll find screenings in most local cinemas.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Red Sparrow: Inceptional motivations drive a thrilling character to extreme ends as she fights for freedom (from 1 March)

On the Banterflix End of Year show, I named Atomic Blonde as my film of the year, neatly ignoring masterpieces like Dunkirk and The Death of Stalin to put my vote behind a Bourne-style spy thriller with a kick ass heroine and an moody Cold War Berlin.

When I saw the trailer for Red Sparrow - something I normally avoid - I half wondered whether this Russian spy thriller would somehow merge the best of Atomic Blonde and Salt with The Death of Stalin. How wrong I was.

The story begins with two beautifully intercut sequences showing the end of a career: a Bolshoi ballerina being injured on-stage while an American CIA operative blows his cover in a nearby park. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is annoyed that his source has been abandoned and petitions Langley bosses to return to the field.

Dominika Egorova (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is distraught by her premature retirement from dancing, and worried that her mother's healthcare and apartment will now be at risk. Her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a senior player in the intelligence services, enrols her in an elite intelligence unit, the 'Sparrows': men and women who are taught to use their seductive wiles entice and ensnare targets on behalf of the state. Their training is seen to include handy skills like lock-picking as well as the mastery of sexual positions.

The film eventually gets to the well sign-posted point where Dominika is challenged to gain Nate's trust and find out the name of his source likely to be a high-ranking mole in the intelligence hierarchy.

Lawrence's steely portrayal of Dominika shows a young woman who becomes ever more detached while she learns to tune in her emotional antennae to command control over her victims. She creates an incredibly calculating character whose psychology is as deadly as her dance-like kicking and punching. Yet her biggest weapons are her twin desires to protect her mother and avenge her entrapment as a broken sparrow.

Scenes at the training school - run by a perverse Marton (Charlotte Rampling) - are explicit in a cold and calculating way, and incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Later on in the film, violence in so many forms (except traditional fights scenes) is equally discomforting. The trust between Jennifer Lawrence and director Francis Lawrence is incredible, but the lengths to which one agrees to be pushed by the other verges on the obscene. Empowering for the actress (according to interviews) but nearly switches to become a Matron-esque ploy to see whether the cinema audience can swallow the extreme portrayal.

Clichés are strewn across the dialogue. The scenery is stunning. The use of English with heavy Russian accents is only sporadically confusing. As a love interest, Joel Edgerton could be a stunt double for David Brent which would ruin any moment even if there was some chemistry between the lead actors. But at no point do the pair offer any sign of romance or what could pass for real passion.

The film's greatest weakness is the complexity of its plot. Justin Haythe's screenplay and Jason Matthews' original novel allow Dominika to dance with a choreographed complexity that mean her moves are nearly impossible to follow. During the last 45 minutes I found myself mentally pausing the film to try to understand what had just happened and why it was to Dominika's advantage. It's too complicated and not pacey enough to just blindly accept what's happening on screen, yet it's an Inceptional head-melter of a puzzle to unpack.

Despite all this, by the end of 139 minutes the film had got under my skin and I left the cinema and walked back to my car wondering whether Red Sparrow had finished up as a satisfying thriller. The mind games are a lovely change from car chases and fighting. The strength of character shown by Lawrence was powerful to watch and the notion of an incredibly strong victim staying one step ahead of everyone around her was a strangely appealing subject.

Once you've seen the film, you'll may understand why the revealing Versace dress Lawrence wore in a recent outdoor promotional photograph was quite in keeping with her Red Sparrow character, even if it was entirely ill-suited to the freezing temperature.

Given that author Jason Matthews will release the third book in the Red Sparrow series on Saturday 3 March, I suspect Jennifer Lawrence will return to cinema screens and kick off another Francis Lawrence franchise.

You'll find Red Sparrow in cinemas including at the Movie House from Thursday 1 March.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Legally Blonde - singing, skipping and dancing in the pink (Grand Opera House until Saturday 3 March + UK tour)

The first few minutes of Legally Blonde were a sea of pink, shrieking and giggling, both on and off the stage, with the audience sipping pink cocktails through pink straws while the cast introduced UCLA student and sorority president Elle Woods.

When the cerise-tinted star's boyfriend unexpectedly ends their relationship (citing her lack of seriousness) rather than producing the expected ring, Elle reacts by following him to make an unconventional and pom-pom waving application to study law alongside him at Harvard and adapts with difficulty to the new competitive environment.

I'm told by the aficionados sitting around me in the Grand Opera House that the musical's plot closely follows the storyline of the film, based on a novel by Amanda Brown.

At one level it's a show about building confidence, overcoming prejudice, the power of friendship, setting and achieving goals, as well as a nod to the cuteness of dogs and a reminder that everyone needs a good hairdresser! At another it's a strange hodgepodge celebration of women's self-objectification queasily balanced by a well-packaged open-shirted delivery man, with a pivotal moment of male sexual powerplay that should in 2018 have provoked Elle to shout "Me Too!"

While the premise is flimsy and the entertainment is untaxing, there's a sophistication to this touring production which cleverly uses whitened versions of already familiar costumes to form a six person Greek chorus who pop out to challenge Elle when she needs to alter course. The folk up in the fly tower are kept busy dropping the set into place, and the transformation from courtroom to accused's bathroom is visually funny and speedy. And who realised that you could simultaneously sing, dance and synchronised skip in the dark with neon ropes?

Legally Blonde can now take over the mantle from Lally the Scut for bringing the largest tricolour to an Northern Ireland stage. The rendition of Ireland and the subsequent parody of Riverdance works particularly well with the local audience and disguises some weaker songs which change key every stanza and are nearly impossible to hum. There! Right There! was another audience favourite with its un-PC refrain "gay or European" as a witness's credibility was questioned by the crack team of Harvard students.

Lucie Jones skilfully takes Elle's character on a journey of assimilation and gravitas-building before emerging from her boring navy legal chrysalis to embrace her inner sparkling pink self once more to demonstrate her legal prowess. The former UK representative at Eurovision is an able singer and dancer, enhanced by the strong ensemble voices and impressive vocal gymnastics by Laura Harrison (who plays Vivienne).

If you love the film, you'll not need rose-tinted spectacles to enjoy this live musical recreation of Legally Blonde which plays in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 3 March before continuing it's UK tour.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Game Night - a mirth-inducing madcap escape night gatecrashed by the mob (cinemas from Friday 2 March)

Stop the press. Making me cry in the cinema is an easy task for filmmakers. But making me cries tears of laughter accompanied by sustained out-loud chuckles is a complete rarity.

So hats off to John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein who managed it with the incredibly well-judged Game Night based on Mark Perez's script.

Three couples gather for a weekly game of board games and mind games. Annie (Rachel McAdams) and Max (Jason Bateman) met while competing at a pub quiz. Now there are competing against Max's stressed sperm to make a baby. Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and Kevin (Lamorne Morris) have been together for nearly forever, but don't quite know everything about each other. Ryan (Billy Magnussen) brings a different identikit date to the meetup each week. There used to be a fourth couple, but Debbie and Gary (Jesse Plemons) split up. He's a creepy cop who lives next door to Annie and Max with his white terrier, unhappy that he is now being excluded from the fun.

Into this competitive harmony comes Max's older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) whose winning streak in life seems unassailable. He organises an over-the-top game night, a kidnap mystery using a local gaming company. However, his own business dealings come back to haunt him and after a while, the clueless couples - joined for the ride by Ryan's latest date Sarah (Sharon Horgan) - figure out that the frenzied scene that plays out in Brooks' living room is more realistic and sinister than it should have been.

There are gun shots, car chases, slipping, sliding, pauses in the middle of the action for couples to argue, and some beautifully directed and edited scenes that surprise in ridiculously mirth-inducing ways. There are twists aplenty, but when the premise is so implausible, there's no harm stretching disbelief just that little bit further.

The bleeding sleeve that disappears is forgivable. The fact that Lamorne Morris and Sharon Horgan are just playing themselves (or at best are cast as Winston from New Girl and Sharon from Catastrophe) is fine since their characters work so well in the Cluedo-esque ensemble.

Horgan's delivery of sarcasm together with McAdams' attempts at bravado are the icing on a very sweet cake. Barry Peterson's suburban cinematography is exquisite and the tilt-shift model-like shots finally make sense in the closing credits. And while I wish Bunbury and Morris (Michelle and Kevin) had been given more to do in the screenplay, it's worth waiting until the very end of the credits to discover more about the man at the centre of their disagreement.

Cancel your own game night and head to a local cinema from Friday 2 March to see Game Night. It's the funniest film I've seen so far this year ... and it's far better than the trailer.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

May The Road Rise Up (C21 Theatre at the Lyric Theatre until 24 Feb + NI tour)

There's an adage that says when circumstances suddenly change and the dominoes start to fall, many of us are only two pay cheques away from homelessness. Rosemary Jenkinson's new play May The Road Rise Up puts flesh on the saying and follows the ups and downs of Mia, a Tesco delivery driver who loses her health, her partner, her home, and along the way her respect for government schemes that put points above need.

C21 Theatre Company's production is one of four one-handed shows being performed in Belfast theatres this week, a tangible sign of the budget pressures that theatre producers are operating under. While a reduction in on-stage talent can be constraining, it can also be liberating. One man shows offer the opportunity for seamless shifting between characters with an actor challenged to convince the audience of each transformation through gestures, stance and accent.

Christine Clare plays happy-go-lucky Mia. Dashcam footage is projected on the simple backdrop as she narrates her route delivering food and (mostly) drink to Belfast addresses. It's a stream of consciousness, at times like a list being recited, with commentary and reflections on what is happening around her. The flexible backdrop was probably at its most effective when it delivered visual gags in some early scenes: a shame that later scenes weren't enhanced with this technique.
"I fed the 5,000 …"
Humour never deserts Mia even when her beloved Ryan (an out of work law graduate whose occupation is filling in application forms) leaves and her back pain means she can no longer drive. No matter her circumstance, Mia is never short of a friend and she continues to party with her mate Paddy (cue a parody outbreak of Queen with house anthem "I want to take E").

The carefully-judged plot balances the spiralling circumstances that pull Mia down with her attempt to keep a positive attitude and find solutions. If anything her expressions of hope prevent the play from descending into abject misery. A wall of brown cardboard boxes is slowly pulled apart, a visual metaphor for Mia's predicament. Jenkinson described her own experience of pain not being recognised in work capacity assessments for benefits in an interview with me to preview this production.
"One sneeze and his eye would be out his earhole."
Mia shifts from delivering food to relying on a food bank. Then her bed is swapped for a sofa and ultimately a cardboard box. Her fellow street friends are vibrant characters full of human kindness and witty repartee. While a positive influence is acknowledged, Jenkinson doesn't hold back in her criticism of some hostel staff and church groups who work with the homeless. When held up to the light, imperfections are found in every system that is supposed to support rather than obstruct.

Clare is confident in her delivery of the myriad of lines that are full of Belfastisms and street-speak. Director Stephen Kelly and movement director Gary Rowntree have created a strong library of mannerisms to accompany the different stages of Mia's quandary, and some imaginative use of the limited props.

The hour long performance finishes with a call to "rise up". While individual stories sometimes break through into news programmes or the inside pages of a newspaper, the arts are another effective way of highlighting how the systems and people charged with protecting and supporting the most vulnerable can end up doing the very opposite.

May The Road Rise Up follows on from last year's production of Entitled by MACHA in tackling the deficiencies within the benefits system. Mia is a likeable, though clearly flawed, character that is rarely larger than life. That realism has the consequence of dampening some of the potential dramatic effect.

While it may not move you to tears, the play will educate and inform, and you'll leave the theatre wondering why these systemic policy failures continue to be supported by society. The question of what to do next after being on this journey of empathy is left as homework for the audience.

May The Rose Rise Up finishes its run in the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 24 February before jump into Mia's delivery van and touring through Marketplace Theatre, Armagh (Thursday 1 March), Sean Holywood Arts Centre, Newry (Friday 2), The Strand Arts Centre, Belfast (Thursday 8), The Courtyard Theatre, Newtownabbey (Friday 9), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (Saturday 10), The Alley Theatre, Strabane (Thursday 19 April) and Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (Friday 20).

I'd like to think that at the funeral of 'Ginger John' who passed away one cold night, Frosty might have finished his fond eulogy with the words of the Irish blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

- - -

Kabosh Theatre have another Rosemary Jenkinson play out on the road, with a revival of Lives in Translation (which premièred at the Belfast International Arts Festival) and are touring it through Tallaght (Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February), Drogheda (Thursday 1 March), Ballymum (Friday 2) ,Galway (Sunday 4), Lyric Theatre Belfast (Wednesday 7), Dundalk (Thursday 8), Armagh (Friday 9), Derry (Saturday 10) and Limavady (Tuesday 13).

Sunday, February 18, 2018

EdgeFest - Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful and East Belfast Boy - getting inside the heads of two men (Prime Cut at The MAC until 3 March)

Prime Cut are currently presenting two very different pieces of one-handed theatre in Belfast as part of The MAC's EdgeFest season of plays that address Northern Ireland's mental health crisis. You can book to see them as solo shows, or else see them back-to-back on a few dates when performances deliberately overlap.

After a relationship was cruelly cut short and his parents passed away, middle-aged Malachy is locked into a cycle of depression. Depression tinged with hope. Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful is staged on a sloping platform with a shallow pool cut into it. A trickle of drops fall down from above, like the tears that run down Malachy's cheeks and into his soul. The ripples are reflected off the shiny back panels of the stage, seeping into every area of his life. Later it rains and it's apparent just how much control and precision has been built into Ciaran Bagnall's set.

Charlie Bonner lip-syncs to Torn and soon tells the listening audience that "I'd like to pop off quietly having cleaned up after myself". The tall bearded man describes his journey towards this place of nightly contemplation of ending his life. And he explains what stops him. At times, Bonner portrays a man who is as shallow as the water into which he steps. Yet he also draws out the depth in John Patrick Higgins' script which gives voice to a man whose mental health is in turmoil.

The dialogue is peppered with humour - prepare to laugh at suicide and very masculine descriptions of vaginas - but it is delivered from a position of morose misery. For extended periods, background music plays from Malachy's battered and slightly soggy portable radio, sometimes competing with his crucial utterances.

I was disappointed that the sum of the parts - the good script, set, acting and direction (Rhiann Jeffrey) and great lighting - didn't add up to create a mightier theatrical experience. The building blocks were there, but the mix of pathos and humour never quite gelled for me, though Malachy's final speech was a powerful reminder about what keeps people going when they hit their darkest moments.

After the interval, the pace changes with a remarkably youthful Ryan McParland springing onto the stage as Davy, the East Belfast Boy of the play's title. He frenetically dances to the techno track booming out. Davy is young man who is never stands at peace. It's a perfect piece of casting given McParland's previous history of playing jittery characters. One hand is constantly hovering over his crotch while the other tends to his sniffing nose.
"I never want to leave these streets; you know everyone, even the ones you don't like."

The piece is packed with emotion and deliberately cluttered with words. We learn about Davy's life and loves in spurts, gleaning facts and assimilating information from the stream of consciousness written by Fintan Brady, based on workshops in 2015 with young men from Beersbridge and Newtownards Roads.

Sarah Jane Shiels' lighting design allows the stage to darken and the audience to become the focus as Davy bounces his ideas, personality and lip off the front few rows. It's incredible - though slightly frightening - to watch McParland ad lib in character, actively building up rapport with the crowd, and creating laughs at their expense when they answer questions he poses (sometimes semi-rhetorically). He becomes a young twenty-something guy who lives in a world whose only certainty seems to be that using leads to dealing.

Anyone familiar with Oona Doherty's recent dance shows will recognise her choreography that gives Davy his energy. The heartbeat of the pumping techno soundtrack drives the show forward and director Emma Jordan pulls the chaos and energy together to create an hour long show which startles and surprises, confuses and alarms. The ending is unsignposted and an unsettling finish to an otherwise enthralling piece of theatre.

You can read my preview of the EdgeFest season of theatre over on Culture Northern Ireland. The first play The Man Who Fell To Pieces is now on tour. Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful and East Belfast Boy continue in The MAC until 3 March.

Recognising that the arts can be a vehicle for expression and healing, a series of free workshops, panels and drop-ins looking at mental health and emotional well-being are being held in The MAC on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 February. Check their What's On page for details.

Production photos: Matt Curry

Monday, February 12, 2018

Engage with the Power of Reason - #imaginebelfast festival (12-18 March)

Next month sees the return of the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics with over 80 free events in over 30 venues across the city between 12 and 18 March. It's aim is to encourage people to engage with the big issues of our times, whether that be Brexit, poverty, (in)equality, gender or fake news. There'll be talks, workshops, theatre, comedy, music, film, tours, exhibitions, dance, poetry and a video competition.

The full programme is now available to download as a PDF.

US activist Carmen Perez - national co-chair of the Women's March on Washington - will deliver a keynote speech on 14 March as part of a series of talks and workshops on Democracy Day that will look at participatory budgeting, deliberative conversations, the end of facts, and the fitness of purpose of the Good Friday Agreement.

Peter Hitchens will argue for closer and more trusting ties with Russia. Veteran political and satirical cartoonist Martin Rowson will explore the techniques, practice and purpose of his craft. [Ed - Alan's still dubious about Rowson's caricature of him back in November 2009!] Oxford's Prof Danny Dorling will dive deep into an assessment of the extent to which inequality created the momentum behind the leave vote in 2016's EU Referendum.

What currency does the concept of Universal Basic Income have compared to the existing system of social security? Can Belfast become a City of Sanctuary? Does Belfast needs a Night Mayor? Banterflix film podcast have arranged a screening of All The President's Men.

Artist Kate Guelke will spend the duration of the festival barricaded in a small room at The Barracks and placing herself at the mercy of visitors from whom she'll accept 'The Bare Necessities' required to maintain human life: food, water, company. What does a person really need to survive?

The festival organisers encourage people to submit short videos (less than two minutes long, and can be filmed on mobile phones) that describe a change they'd like to see in the world.
"We would encourage you to be as imaginative as possible and offer new perspectives that challenge established thinking and orthodoxy. The best entries - not the most technically accomplished films, but the ones that we feel are the most thought-provoking - will be posted on our website and considered for screening at a future festival event."
Check the Imagine festival website and the full programme for dates, times and venues.

Photo credit: John Baucher.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Questions of A Man - candid, sincere and very timely (Dylan Quinn & Jenny Ecke at Lyric Theatre)

Questions of A Man brings together a series of reflections on masculinity. It's the start of dancer Dylan Quinn's conscious process of questioning himself about his actions: starting with his childhood memory of crawling under his desk to look up his teacher's skirt, to the fear he now realises that he can instil in others by walking into a room burdened by misplaced and overwrought expectations.

The opening sequence between Quinn and his dance partner Jenny Ecke - he casually gets her name wrong and it doesn't bother him as the first of many male-isms - cycles through a series of physical male manoeuvres that take advantage of women. And as Ecke becomes more assertive and aggressive in subsequent replays, Quinn becomes angry and bitter towards her. His clown-like makeup doesn't make it funny and doesn't excuse his behaviour.

Other routines mime along to a Radio 4 Women's Hour discussion about domestic abuse, with hand gestures accentuating the worrying undertones in the male contributor's argument, a confession about familial power imbalances that cause the past behaviour of other men to echo into the present, and a mirrored piece in which the inner male monster loses its disguise and is exposed in devilish detail by Tom Feehily's lighting.

Quinn's Questions of A Man is accessible and, for me, much less obscure than his previous pieces that I've reviewed over the last few years. The 5th Province in January 2015 was my introduction to dance - and the first and, to date, last time political blog Slugger O'Toole hosted a dance review! - while March 2016's Tost raised more questions about communications than I could find answers.

Future pop songs may all be judged by the Quinn method of dancing in a giant penis outfit to test whether the words are respectful or sexually outrageous. Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines ("I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two … Not many women can refuse this pimping … Do it like it hurt, like it hurt") débuted at number one in the UK Singles Chart on 2 June 2013, was banned from being played in Queen's University Belfast amongst a number of other colleges, and became the most downloaded song of all time in the UK in April 2014.

Dylan struggles to get out of his phallic suit … while Ecke quietly sips her cup of tea. When she finds her voice in a later sequence, it's dripping with sarcasm. Later Quinn sweeps himself under a carpet as Ridley Scott explains the reasons - commercial overriding moral - behind the replacement of Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in his latest film All The Money In The World.

This is not a piece in which a woman's voice and perspective on Quinn's profession of guilt or complicity will be directly heard. It's a confessional piece publicly marking the start of one man's wrestling with what it should and shouldn't mean to be male and masculine. But the questions are there for everyone, no matter their gender.

Jenny's slightly disdainful façade throughout the show is perhaps a deliberate mocking of Dylan's belated recognition - "about bloody time" she might even be thinking - that masculinity has been used as a cover for the abuse of women over the years. It perhaps excuses the show's near mansplaining about the issue which has finally become embedded as a societal talking point over the past few months.

If the Lyric's other show The Threepenny Opera is opera-lite, then Questions of A Man could be labelled as dance-lite. That's not to downplay the physical control and the choreographed movements and dialogue. But while dance is the medium, the conversation on-stage and in the foyer and bar afterwards is the message. Immediately after the show, the Lyric was buzzing with members discussing their own actions and contributions towards poor images of masculinity … and femininity.

Questions of A Man is candid, sincere and very timely.

- - -

Update: It's always good when a review starts a conversation. Dylan Quinn has responded to the review above and I've captured his thoughts at the end of this blog post to make sure they don't get lost.
I don’t often respond to reviews, I respect and appreciate the time taken to review the work we create. Alan Meban has been great at taking up the challenge of viewing contemporary dance and our work and for that I am very grateful. I have chosen to respond to this review as I feel the issue is important considering the content of the piece.

We hear the point that the piece was questioned for near mansplaining about the issue, we had questioned this during the process …. however we intended to be man explaining, man exploring and hopefully then men reflecting. It is true that it does not represent a woman's voice however it is the product of having listened to these voices very carefully because without men entering into the debate and owning their own behaviour and mistakes, not in a default self-defensive mode but with an openness that demonstrates a commitment to re-evaluating their behaviour, things are unlikely to change.

Some of the work is indeed very personal and some is observational, it may at times appear confessional however this was not our primary concern/focus. We hope and believe that in exploring the personal on stage we can enable the person off stage to be reflective.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Man Who Fell To Pieces - a moving celebration of brokenness and a call to action about wellbeing and mental health (The MAC until 11 February + tour)

Over a number of weeks and months, John's life has been falling apart. His stressful work environment and wedding planning are only two of the pressures that have been twisting his insides and pulling at him.

The Man Who Fell To Pieces explores John's physical and mental breakdown, as well as the mental ill health of those closest to him: his fiancé Caroline, mother Alice and the ever present household handyman Henry.

Caroline and Alice stare into a bag sitting on the kitchen table. When John finally opened up and Caroline realised what John had been hiding from her, she picked up all his pieces off her living room floor and brought them to his mum's house where they are now sitting in a bag on the kitchen table. The women debate whether it would be better to send for an ambulance or a handyman to 'fix' John back together.

I spoke to writer/director Patrick J O'Reilly last month for a preview piece written for Culture Northern Ireland.
"He's telling the story of his depression, his breaking points and his way of dealing with depression by using his imagination. When he tried to vocalise his feelings, it was incoherent. How do you talk about depression without using clichés - like being 'sad' - and without it being less empathetic?"

While John is a fictional character, the issue is a very personal one to O'Reilly. Over six months in 2012, he experienced a pervasive sense of low self-worth and hopelessness. For him, anti-depressant tablets were not a good fit for the context and circumstances behind his feelings, all of which feeds into the character of John in the play. One of the reasons O'Reilly attended the Jacques Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris was to understand how to physically portray someone falling apart on stage.

An opening title sequence humorously introduces the picture frame concept of physical detachment that will continue throughout the play. It also lays a bed of happiness in the souls of the audience which will take the edge of some of the sharper observations later on as John's road to breakdown is revisited.

Alice is played by Maria Connolly and is a fast-talking, in-your-face mother who over the years has dealt with her own mood changes and frequent episodes of anxiety by calling for help. The yucky dark blue dressing gown that is normally wrapped around her sometimes opens up to reveal a little of a beautiful patchwork dress; but her moments of happiness never last very long.

Roisin Gallagher at first plays fiancé Caroline as strong and stable, dealing calmly with the issue of her broken best friend. But through a series of flashbacks to key episodes in John's life over recent weeks, we see how her emotions and wellbeing have been affected by his growing depression. Being self-absorbed can blind us to other people's situations.

In one of the final scenes, Gallagher silently displays a tenderness towards the brokenness of John that remains a moving memory the morning after the show, and makes this sentence hard to type given the mistiness of my eyes.

Patrick Buchanan's tool belt-wearing Henry is a reminder that help is available. The character is not allowed to develop much empathy and Buchanan is often left spouting DIY facts and home improvement tips, one step removed from the real problem at hand.

Henry is a warning that those we rely on may not fully understand what is going on our lives: misinterpretation can only be avoided by wiping away the stigma and being open and truthful about our feelings.

Surrounded by a talented cast, Shaun Blaney tells John's story and reveals his pain and feelings through a very unique performance. His physicality - from his face through his limbs to his torso and his legs - brings to life the character of John as he is pulled apart and falls to pieces. It's remarkable to watch, and his deliberately hesitant monologues from the side of the stage guarantee the audience's empathy.

The action all takes place inside the shell of a white-timber-framed house designed by Ciaran Bagnall. Nearly everything is cracked or about to falling apart, and the lack of solidity in the fixtures and fittings adds to the frailty of the piece.

Katie Richardson's soundtrack supplies deep and unsettling noises before breaking out into song at key moments. The music isn't allowed to compete with the cast, but instead is like a fifth actor walking on stage: for example, "when love remains we carry all that we can save" from Nothing Is Going To Tear Us Apart. The simple yet sympathetic lyrics allow the four cast to act without words while the music tells parts of the story.

As an audience member, you cannot ignore or step over The Man Who Fell To Pieces. It's a terrific and terrifying visceral insight into aspects of mental illness. Across the four characters you will see yourself and others you know and love. As a wake-up call and a conversation starter, it's an original piece of theatre from Tinderbox that uses emotions, props and music to tell a story that deserves to be seen and heard by a wide and varied audience.

O'Reilly developed The Man Who Fell To Pieces as part of Prime Cut's REVEAL programme in 2015. The two other shows in The MAC's EdgeFest season are being produced by Prime Cut:
Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful (February 15 - March 1) and East Belfast Boy (February 16 - March 2).

The Man Who Fell To Pieces plays at The MAC until Sunday 11 February and will then embark on a regional tour through The Alley, Strabane (Friday 16); Riverside, Coleraine (Tuesday 20); Cushendall Golf Club (Wednesday 21); The Craic Arts Centre, Dungannon (Thursday 22); and Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (Friday 23).

On top of the tour, Tinderbox's IN8 outreach programme will also take The Man Who Fell To Pieces into residential care homes, a prison and community centres, in order to reach groups of people who would not otherwise be able to attend theatre performances and explore these problems through creativity.

Production shots: Ciaran Bagnall