Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Gloaming at the Empire

Another new experience for me this week, courtesy of Moving On Music

The Gloaming is described as a "newly minted collective of five remarkable musicians poised to become a vital force in Irish music. Navigating between the contemporary and traditional genres, their creativity trumps predictability – with music that is haunting and beautiful in equal measure".

I can count on one hand the amount of times I have heard live traditional Irish music. Twice after a funeral, once in Madden's where I was drinking not listening and once in a theatre show.  Other experiences include Riverdance on Eurovision and the token working class Irish dance in Titanic with Kate Winslett.  I'm not a big fan of uilleann pipes (they sound like stylophones) and my experience of tin whistles is kids murdering Greensleeves. As you can probably tell, I'm not the best person to review the event in any intelligent or knowledgeable way.

However unlikely it may seem, I'm delighted to say I enjoyed the gig.  Not only did I enjoy it but I am going to buy The Gloaming's CD when it is released in a couple of months. I won't say I'm now a fan of Irish music because that would not be true, but there was enough in the Gloaming's music to redefine my perceptions of what Irish music is.  No tin whistles, but a Grand piano, guitar, 2 fiddles and a shruti box. The music sounded ancient and enduring but Thomas Bartlett's piano, in particular added a contemporary edge.      

The ebb and flow of the music is something I really liked.  I guess I'm used to one tune finishing before another is played, but the seamless transition from songs focusing on Ó Lionáird's haunting vocals to the catchy rhythm of Martin Hayes' fiddle playing ensured a depth I never knew existed in Irish music.
From beautiful melancholy songs sang in Irish to fiddle-dee-dee reels, the colour of the music energised the room and provided real interest even to new attenders like me.

I particularly enjoyed the effect the music had on the audience. One older man standing in front of me swayed and bounced to every single beat the band played. His bobbing about like the floor was on fire seemed funny, but in this context it was my not bobbing about that was unusual.  The foot tapping on the floor started out very quietly until eventually the whole room was vibrating to the beat of hundreds of feet.

It was how the music made me feel that I didn't expect.  This was not a room full of people listening to a band play music, this was a community of friends joined in listening to the the history of the music, the stories being told and feeling the emotions being played.

Next time, I might just join in with the bobbing about...

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Magic Flute at the Grand Opera House

Last night I ventured out into the freezing cold night to attend my first ever opera for adults.  I have been to two childrens' operas this year - NI Opera's Noye's Fludde and Scottish Opera's Elephant Angel.  You can read what I thought about them here:  Noye's Fludde and here: The Elephant Angel.  

I thought it was about time I tried an adult opera.  I chose The Magic Flute for a few reasons.  It was produced by Scottish Opera whose last production I had seen, it was sung in English and it had dialogue as well as singing (I now know this to be Singspiel style).  I also noted an 'Opera Unwrapped' event the night before which made the production even more accessible to me.  

Opera Unwrapped is a great tactic for bringing in new attenders.  Opera is an artform that is stereotyped as foreign, elitist and for the wealthy.  Given this stereotype, it can be intimidating attending an opera for the first time.  This informal event is a great idea and it really added to my understanding and enjoyment of the full production.  

The story is about a young prince who is asked to rescue the Queen of the Night's daughter who has been abducted.  Other themes are also clear; religion, the path to enlightenment, masonic ritual and the number 3, but I engaged most with the magical love story. 

I have to say the fabulous set and costumes blew me away.  Opera really does do it bigger, better, brasher and bolder.  The beautiful industrial serpent was stunning. When I think of how long it must have taken to make him, I only wish he could have been kept on stage longer. The set itself was in Victoriana steampunk style.  Industrial looking with wheels and cogs, you'd be forgiven for thinking the whole tale took place inside a watch.  I loved the scientific feel of the set, the dual levels of the set allowing bearded men in the gallery to look down on the action below, just like the old operating theatres where students looked down on the surgeon at work.  The chorus included nurses, and men with top hats with head lamps in them, reminiscent of both coal miners and scientists. 

As a non opera goer and a terrible singer I can't say anything technical about the singing except to say that it all sounded perfect to me.  Acting wise however, I did have my favourites.  Papageno, clearly the star of the show gave an assured performance, his character driving the energy of a lot of the scenes.  His timing was impeccable and I really enjoyed the ever present twinkle in his eye.  The three Ladies were very entertaining, given playful direction for some of the wittiest scenes.  The Queen of the Night's costume was stunning.  I thought Mari Moriya really lived up to the drama of the character using her costume and body shape to accent the meaning of her words.  Of course a special mention must go to the orchestra, their beautiful understated accompaniment accentuating the larger than life characters on the stage.   

As a mix of pantomime, theatre, opera and musical theatre this production really caught my attention.  As a lover of epic fiction, ancient mythology, science fiction and fantasy, fairytales and polished production values, this opera really spoke to my love of fantastical adventures.

It may have been the last night of the tour for this production, but for me it's the start of a long and epic romance with opera.


The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Abbey

A couple of weeks ago, we decided to head off to Dublin to see our friend Charlotte in The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Abbey.  I'd never been in the Abbey before so I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.  On first glance the Abbey is nothing special.  It's just another building on a Dublin street.  Inside the staff were friendly and the auditorium was comfortable.  But what is different about the Abbey is the feeling that you are part of something special. The importance of the Abbey in Dublin's cultural history is obvious as soon as you enter the door. There's a distinct sense of history that I feel mostly in ancient churches and at Holy wells.  Never before have I felt it in a theatre.

I really enjoyed the visual effects used in the production, from the amazing costumes, the stripped back set and the lighting.  But by far the highlight of this show is the acting ability of the whole cast. Tom Canton as Dorian was a revelation.  I could not believe my eyes when I read that this was his debut, not just on the Abbey stage but as a professional actor.  I followed his Dorian in his gradual descent into madness.  This was a strong performance from a man who will become, I think, a great actor.

Even I felt corrupted by Jasper Britton's performance as the gleefully decadent and immoral Lord Henry, and I thought Frank McCusker's Basil was a work of understated genius. Charlotte McCurry's Sybil was played to fragile perfection - her place always in the background, her sobbing heard but ignored, her love cruelly dismissed.  I mostly enjoyed the chorus which served to highlight Dorian's fall from morality, and echoed his inner most thoughts, but I felt that their interruptions slightly distracted from the action at times.

All in all, a mostly strong production in a stunning venue.  I'll certainly be back.


Monday, 19 November 2012

Penny Arcade at Outburst Arts Festival

Described by Outburst Queer Arts Festival as a 'one woman queer revolution' and a 'bona fide cultural icon', Penny Arcade had a lot to live up to. As a specially devised show for Outburst, 'The Woman who Knew Too Much' samples work from Arcade's past performances.

After a glowing introduction by Cian Smyth, Arcade bounded into the room through the audience, her personality shining as she danced her way to the stage. She proceeded what was to be a whirlwind introduction to her world. Her crazy existence was replicated on the Black Box stage, her performance chaotic from the outset. Despite the disarray, which made me nervous at times, she settled into what would become a beautiful and charming performance.

She told stories of her own life, interspersed with monologues of people such as her aunt in Soho, a homeless girl suffering from Aids and drag queen Dame Margo Howard Howard. These characters were at times amusing, at times heartbreaking and acted as an illustration of the times Arcade lived through; times of gay liberation, the cultural Renaissance of the sixties and the NEA Culture Wars of the nineties. Associations with cultural icons such as Quentin Crisp and Andy Warhol are discussed in the rundown of her rollercoaster life, as are her dealings with prostitution, rape and drugs.

Peppered with references to Northern Ireland, Arcade grounded herself well to the locality. In particular a reference to veteran gay rights campaigner P.A. Mag Lochlainn who died last week was met with a loud cheer from the audience. She thanked all the barmen and technicans by name which was a lovely touch. 

Penny Arcade was courageous, honest and enlightening, nostalgic and enchanting. She believes that if you tell the truth in Ireland and are funny then it's hard to go wrong. And she was right.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Enquirer at Belfast Festival

My last theatre event of Belfast Festival was Enquirer by the National Theatre of Scotland. Despite my disinterest in journalism, my hack friends had been telling me how brilliant the show was, and so off I went to an unused office in Fountain Street, to see what the fuss was about. We were ushered in and told to have a look around.  The office was set up as real newspaper office complete with overflowing bins, newspaper bundles and a lifesize cardboard cutout of a blonde to throw darts at. There was a conference room, an editor's office and a particularly novel room inside a filing cabinet. Actors read articles on their computers, counted money and ambled around the room mumbling to themselves.

When the time came to begin, we surrounded the actors as they began their story. As a promenade piece the set and direction worked well.  As a small person, it is always relatively difficult to get into a spot at the front where I can see, especially if you are continually moving around.  However the strategic placement of newspaper bundles at different heights allowed some audience members to sit at times, and the placing of actors sitting on top of filing cabinets and desks and moving through the audience meant that even the shorter people were able to follow what was happening.

Prompted by the recent phone hacking scandals and set against the background of the Leveson inquiry, the show focuses on the morality of the newspaper world. The script is based on interviews with a number of journalists, some of whom were very honest about the failings of the industry and others who claimed innocence. This contradiction is one which is obvious throughout.  While one editor denies all knowledge of any married editor even having an affair, another admits to having a book in which all payments to sources were written down.

The play also highlights the public passion for reading fluffy news. Editors will not prioritise really important news pieces such as the massacre in East Timor if it's 'a big news day' in London, such as a Royal wedding.  This piece is really the only time in the show that I actually felt anything for one of the characters. The rest of the time I spent wondering how these neurotic, caffeine fueled, coarse people managed to get away with being so horrible.  Even as a poor journalist recounted a persisting  nightmare in which she viciously murdered Bryan Ferry, I couldn't help but think she probably deserved the nightmares.        

But morality is not the only focus for this play, there is also the belief that online news is a real threat to printed newspapers and I thought the final image of all 6 actors buried in shredded newspaper was particularly strong.  One journalist pointed out that she had more followers on Twitter reading her writing than she had reading her column in the newspaper.  It certainly gave me the impression that where the phone hacking scandals had caused arguments and regret, they only changed a long accepted way of working; it is actually the digital age that will cause the end of the industry altogether.

All in all I enjoyed the play, but I was not blown away by it as others were. I thought the setting was perfect, the promenade nature of the performance suited the subject and the acting was strong.  The lighting suited the piece well and stage management deserve a gold star for moving around so much shredded paper. However, I did not feel any connection with the characters. I had very little sympathy for them or even understanding of them and still have no interest in journalism.  



Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Minsk 2011 at the Lyric Belfast

Minsk 2011, a reply to Kathy Acker by Belarus Free Theatre almost wasn't part of the Belfast Festival. As this article explains, the Belarusian authorities attempted to derange the company's production in Northern Ireland.  I, for one, am pleased that the event was able to continue as planned.

I don't purport to be a political animal and I know next to nothing about Belarusian politics.  It was interesting to discover then that Belarus is Europe's last dictatorship and that Belarus Free Theatre is banned within it's own country, and has been forced underground.     

The show begins with people stepping forward to a microphone, but before they are able to speak, they are pulled away by a group of thugs.  Eventually they don't even go to the microphone, just look at it.  One is accosted for simply looking at his watch, another for clapping.  These episodes, representing Belarusian censorship, set the scene for the stories which are to follow, highlighting the distrustful secretive atmosphere which exists for the people living in Minsk.    

We are thrown into a variety of scenes which focus on attitudes to sexuality in Minsk.  The show itself is frantic and filled with important messages, themes of violence, repression, despair and abuse sitting alongside messages of hope, a sense of home, family and the need for freedom.  
The audience is assaulted by the frankness of the language, spat out with such force that at times you don't actually need to read the English subtitles to understand what the actors meant. The audience is shocked by the treatment of women, of gay men, of people meeting in groups of more than 3 people.  The audience is saddened at the scene of a bomb in a station where blood is soaked up by sugar, and by the cheap alcohol which neuters the public against the regime.  

The production ends positively, with a Belarusian song and stories of how much each actor loves their home, how they have children and parents there, how they are still attached to their homeland. We are reminded that it is not the country that is at fault, but it's dictator.

This play has sharp teeth, it's anger is palpable.  It fights to be understood and deserves a place to be heard.  I'm glad that the company made it to the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast Festival.  On reading about the harassment and arrests these young actors have gone through just to be part of Belarus Free Theatre, we're lucky to have had them here at all. 



Monday, 5 November 2012

Tron Theatre's Ulysses

Ulysses was the first show I picked from the Belfast Festival brochure, and was at The MAC Belfast.  I haven't read Joyce's original. I have however studied Homer's Odyssey in depth, and love it so much I read it over and over again.

Joyce's Ulysses mimics Homer's Odyssey, and this play is based on Joyce's Ulysses.  I could have read Ulysses, or looked up Wikipedia to see what Joyce's story was about, but I decided not to.  I thought it might be much more interesting to watch a play which is effectively the reception of a reception of the famed epic.

With zero knowledge of Joyce's Ulysses, and given it's 'I started it but I couldn't finish it' reputation, I knew this was going to make for an interesting experience.  Actually the only thing I did know about Ulysses is that Dervla Kirwin's Jewish ancestor is in it! (Who Do You Think You Are?)

Ulysses has 18 chapters which correspond, often oddly, to episodes in Homer's Odyssey.  To say that I followed every parallel would be a lie, but I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to relate a lot of the scenes back to the original.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes relating to the Lotus Eaters (Martha's letters), Nausicaa (Gerty's immodesty) and Circe (Bella's Brothel), though there were many gasps to be heard from the audience in the latter scene...

The set conjured up the many different settings of Bloom's Odyssey around Dublin and the lighting beautifully accented it.  The actors were all strong playing over 80 characters and I thought all in all this was a well put together production, particularly for such a complex story.  I did feel at times that some of the audience was a little lost, but I guess that was to be expected. I freely admit to having been a little lost at times too.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Ghosts of Drumglass

On Monday I went to see Ghosts of Drumglass by Kabosh, a site specific theatrical experience in Drumglass Park, known to most as Cranmore Park. Given that I often walk through Cranmore Park on my way home and my kids play there, I was looking forward to seeing what scariness Kabosh would come up with.  

So the story goes that the Musgrave family died with the passing of the last remaining child, Henry. From a family of 11, no descendants were produced to carry on the blood line. In the darkness of the park, the ghosts of the past threaten to fragment the peace of the present that eludes them. The ancient trees of Drumglass surrender the secrets of the Musgrave family to those who trace the steps of the dead. 

When we first arrived we were split into two groups and led into the toilets, first the ladies then the gents.  With hidden performers banging inside the cubicles, blood dripping from doors, incense and sinks filled with horrible things, we knew we were in for an interesting experience.  We were led around the park by Jimmy Doran, playing Mr Musgrave and by some volunteer guides.  The soundscape was excellent, particularly in the playground scenes.  Children's voices and strange shrieking poured from the play area, while swings swung of their own accord, toy animals moved and roundabouts spun.  I think this was the most effective part of the play and it was suitably spooky.  The start of the play seemed to take a while to get going. I found it a little difficult to follow Musgrave's setting of the scene, possibly because it was quite long-winded.  More likely it was because I was a bit nervous that a hand was going to grab me from the plughole of the sink I was standing against...                 

Ghosts of Drumglass was a really nice, accessible fun way way to spend a Monday night.  Jimmy Doran and Michael Liebmann were great as the main characters and the supporting cast were suitably creepy.  It's a show that doesn't take itself too seriously and the image of Jimmy having a conversation with a talking teddy bear will stay with me for a long time.

I don't know how they were doing 4 shows a night. It was absolutely freezing - if anyone has earned a stiff drink or five, it's this cast and crew.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Belfast Festival, Ulster Museum and Frankenweenie

This weekend we decided to lay off events and just try to complete more Take Back Belfast challenges as part of Belfast Festival.  One of challenges was at the Dickens exhibition at the Ulster Museum so off we set to see what we could find.

First stop though was the Black Bear Cafe on Stranmillis for breakfast which
was lovely.  We had pancakes with scrambled eggs, bacon and mixed berries. Nom.

Then we crossed the road over to the Ulster Museum where we had a look round the Art exhibitions.  My son and I love to wander around the museum and by far the exhibition we most enjoyed is the Royal Ulster Academy Exhibition.  There is such a broad mix of artworks, from craft to portraits, sculpture to paintings both traditional and contemporary.

This rat lady was a favourite of my sons but I found her a little disturbing.  My own favourite item was the sculpture which oozes love, comfort and the safety of partnerships. Of course, the nudity ensured my son avoided it.


We also enjoyed the nautical Kenneth Shoesmith Exhibition and a gallery of beautiful old Italian paintings of which the Carrickfergus Madonna (pictured) was one.  These paintings are simply stunning and need to be seen to be believed.  Some of them look like they were painted yesterday.

The Ulster Covenant exhibition was interesting but there wasn't a lot for Dylan to look at so he got bored very quickly. I did however particularly enjoy this Ulster propaganda.

After watching a Brazilian dancer in the foyer, we set off to find the Dickens exhibition , since this was the reason we were there.

We were disappointed in the Dickens exhibition.  There was lots of information but none of it was child friendly.  We could not see the original materials from the Charles Dickens Museum in London as there were trestle tables seemingly abandoned in front of the cabinets.  We found the answer to our Take Back Belfast challenge and left.

Next stop was the amazing Magpie Collective in the Naughton Gallery at Queen's which opened on Thursday night.  It is a beautiful exhibition consisting of a blanket of flowers made from plastic bottles held up by magpies.  Dylan was allowed to take a flower home, an is determined to make a blanket for himself.

We took a few more photos of Belfast Festival Anthology plaques, wrote some haikus and then decided we'd had enough.  We were cold and wet and it didn't seem like the rain was going to stop so we decided to go to see Frankenweenie instead.  It's a lovely wee film, full of nostalgia and creepiness.  I loved that it was shot in black and white, though Dylan did express the opinion that 'it would have been better coloured in'.  A homage to Frankenstein, there are many other horror films alluded to such as Dracula, Wickerman and Gremlins.  Some of the characters are modeled on classic horror actors Boris Karloff and Vincent Price.
The dog is gorgeous and has some really lovely moments, such as when it drinks water and it spurts out from his sewn up skin.  I don't think the film is perfect, but we enjoyed it on a stormy Saturday afternoon.

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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Macbeth at the Lyric Theatre

Everyone knows elements of Macbeth, whether it's Macbeth's famous words "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" or the weird sisters' mantra "Double, double toil and trouble". 

Any production team on Macbeth must feel the weight of theatre history on their shoulders. With so many different productions there is a need to be distinct, to add something to the Reception of the Macbeth story. 

The first thing that struck me when I entered the theatre is the magnificent set for this story. Diana Ennis has captured the mood perfectly.  The set is steeped in suffocating darkness, the weight of pebbles on the upper layer crushing the signs of normality below.  It is dramatic, epic and courageous, a portent of the production to follow.

I loved Lynne Parker's take on the weird sisters.  They are completely integrated into the society around them, having domestic lives as well as going mysteriously about their supernatural lives.  Their furtive glances and artful ability to slip into the shadows is creepy.  The witches are all powerful, always around Macbeth, whether in his mind, putting words into his mouth, within the domestic characters surrounding him or as apparitions.        

Stuart Graham as Macbeth is strong, and he is adept at removing his ties to reality bit by bit.  His descent into madness is realised with true fear and incomprehension.  His partnership with Lady Macbeth never seems quite passionate enough.  "Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it." says Lady Macbeth.  I was a little disappointed in this portrayal which was too subtle a depiction of what I see as a tenacious and manipulative character.  Even before her descent into guilt, I never quite believed that she was the powerful woman of ambition that she is written to be.   
Paul Mallon makes an interesting McDuff.  At first I couldn't understand his seemingly underwhelming response to the news of the massacre of  his family.  But the stiff way he holds his body and the hang of his head was not unemotional but rather his body was filled with restrained anger.  The power and emotion he mustered into in a yell of pure revenge when he killed Macbeth ensured I felt his pain and then some.
Banquo is especially brilliant as a particularly devilish apparition, challenging Macbeth without saying a word, a testament to Michael Condron's skill as an actor.  
Two moments jarred with my overall experience.  The apparation which appears from a trapdoor on the stage adds misplaced humour which does not fit with the overall sense of hysteria Macbeth is feeling. The modern costumes and use of torches fits well with the production but I felt that the addition of army style radios was a step too far into modernity.

All round I thought this was a fantastic and interesting production and one that adds to the reception of the myth of Macbeth.  The production felt particularly rooted in Ireland, and indeed in Northern Ireland.  The blackness of the set, crunching of pebbles and strategically distributed haze would not feel out of place on Belfast's Black Mountain.  It's not too fantastic to believe that you could meet one of the weird sisters walking through our streets.  The retention of the actors' Belfast accents and the simpleness of their dress gives more than just a nod to their Belfast birthplace.

Macbeth runs until 24th November at the Lyric Belfast.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Falling Song at The MAC Belfast

So this review is going to be difficult, mostly because I am a wee bit scared of contemporary dance, even if it is termed 'dance theatre'.  I find it beautiful to watch but I'm always on the hunt for a story, a reason, a point.  Tonight's show was at the MAC Belfast as part of Belfast Festival at Queen's.

The Falling Song seemed to be about, well, falling.  A child who climbs a high tree and falls, a couple falling in love and falling out of love again, apples falling from a tree, catching people who are falling over, an ice dancer who needs the support of his bar to stop him falling and ambitious Icarus falling from the clouds.  Despite the childlike excitement of some of the scenes and moments of real humour, I felt there was an undertone to the proceedings that always hinted at suicide - falling off a cliff or having to be protected from a fall. The setting of  ropes around trees made me think of gallows, or suicide by hanging. Perhaps this is based on awareness of my own mental heath issues but I always felt the falling into depression undertone, no matter how lighthearted the performance got. 

Ballyholme Primary School choir were excellent.  Well organised and rehearsed, they added a child-like simplicity to proceedings. I enjoyed the live music which was at times loud, brash and pumping, reflecting the emotion of the characters but also uncomplicated and transparent when the characters were reflective and supportive. The piece flowed really well, the scenes just the right length and the dancers were lithe and beautiful (with particular mention for Jesse Kovarsky who stole the show for Matthew and me...).  

The end for me was a puzzle. I'm not sure if the characters realised they had a choice whether to let themselves fall; that having each other while falling was better than having no-one; or if they all actually killed themselves.  

Needless to say, I'm glad I found a story line and I'm delighted that I'm now a little less scared of contemporary dance.



Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Elephant Angel

The Elephant Angel is billed as a heart-warming new opera for audiences of all ages.  It was written by composer Gareth Williams and novelist Bernard MacLaverty.  It is based on a true story, and tells the tale of a lady zookeeper who takes a baby elephant home with her each night during the Belfast Blitz, looking after it and keeping it safe with the help of the children who live near by.

Despite my love of epic stories, loud music and fantastic costumes, I'm not an opera fan.  I generally can't hear the singers because the music is too loud and I hate not understanding the story.  So this opera suited me down to the ground.  It is for kids so it's less than an hour long, it's sung in English and best of all I already knew the story.

The story of the real Elephant Angel, North Belfast's Denise Austin is here for anyone who wants to read it.

I was pleasantly surprised by the performance.  The set was simple which meant that Sheila the elephant stood out.  She was put together beautifully and I thought the person playing her moved her limbs well.  The fiery lighting in the scene directly after the Air raid was gorgeous, and I loved the orange tinted glow of the children's faces.

Armagh composer, Gareth Williams' music is simple, well suited to the age group and with many lovely moments.  I particularly liked a scene in the school playground where the music was able to be at the forefront of the sound.  Strong characters, a sad story and a lovely setting meant that my 13th Belfast Festival event was not unlucky at all.

Looking forward to Festival event number 14 tomorrow - the Falling Song at The MAC Belfast.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Silent by Fishamble

I wasn't going to write a blog post tonight.  I'm tired. I have a show to see every night this week.  I thought I'd go to bed early, maybe read a bit, muck around on Twitter and get some rest.

But tonight I went to see a show at the Waterfront as part of Belfast Festival at Queen's.  It blew me away.  Absolutely amazing.  My first thought was how can I put into words what I just witnessed?  It's not possible.  I feel like I've been through a washing machine of emotion.

Silent is the touching and challenging story of homeless McGoldrig, who once had splendid things. But he has lost it all – including his mind. He now dives into the wonderful wounds of this past through the romantic world of Rudolph Valentino.

It's a hard sell - it's a play about depression, heartbreak, marriage breakup, suicide, death, loss, guilt, homelessness and vulnerability.  But despite this, Pat Kinevane takes us on a splendid rollercoaster of a journey, full of laughter, friendship and dancing.  Speaking directly to individual people in the audience made his performance all the more real. Each person in the audience was made to feel like his only friend, his hope, his confidante.  At his lowest ebb, he asked in a tiny voice "Patricia, are you there?" and Patricia from the audience answered in a shaking voice, "Yes".  Never before have I been so glad that the audience was there.  It felt like we were the only thing keeping him on the stage, like he really needed us to stop him falling off the edge of the world.

When the end came, the audience rose to their feet in a wave of support for this broken man.  The spell Kinevane had woven was extinguished and I realised I was sobbing.  For this broken man who had disgusted me, made me laugh, made me cry and made me pity him.  Most of all though, I wanted to be that small shaking voice who reached out from the audience and answered "Yes, I'm here".

You need to see this show. If you see one show during Festival, it's this one.

I'll babysit for you. Go.

Book here.  Now. It's only on until Wednesday.






Belfast Festival First weekend

Belfast Festival is here again and as usual I have booked far too much and spent a fortune.  The festival opened on Friday and our first event was Fifty Fanfares at Victoria Square.  The trumpet, cornet and trombone players were strategically located at the various levels of Victoria Square and played a newly composed piece of music by Michael Alcorn.  To be honest this should have been right up my street. As a brass band lover and an ex horn player I loved the idea behind this.  However it just didn't work.  It didn't start on time, it wasn't well rehearsed, there were hardly any fanfares and it was far too 'modern' for my parents who I had brought with me.  Because it didn't start at the time advertised we missed the end to get to our dinner reservation, so maybe it got better.  We were all really disappointed.   

After dinner in Frankie and Benny's (not good), we went to hear the Ulster Orchestra's Opening concert at the Waterfront Hall.  Entitled Planetary Motions this was something I'd been looking forward to for a while.  The programme began with John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine which was stunning.  It's a piece I've always loved and the Ulster Orchestra played it beautifully. Joann Falletta is a mesmerizing Maestro, perfectly turned out and clearly enjoying her control of the music.  Next up was Michael McHale playing Gershwin's Piano Concerto.  I'm not a fan of Gershwin or the piano, but this local boy sure does know how to play.  On that note, this story is the reason I hate pianos: Sparky and the Magic Piano

After the interval it was time for Holst's The Planets Suite, one of my favourite pieces of classical music and this was the first time I heard it live. The visuals by D-Fuse were nice but I think the lights should have been dimmed a little more to give the full effect.  I enjoyed the concert a lot and I'll definitely be back for some non-piano based music :-) 

On Saturday we decided to find free stuff to do, so we downloaded the Take Back Belfast app and set off to see what there was to see.  We popped into the Naughton Gallery at Queen's to have a look at Tom Binns Design.  His work is beautiful with some really amazing necklaces, though they look too heavy to actually wear. Dylan was delighted with the shark teeth necklace and also by one made of weapons. While looking at the necklaces an artist from the Magpie Collective asked us to come in to see what they were putting together.  They were making a blanket of flowers out of plastic bottles and asked us to help.  I am so looking forward to seeing the installation when it's complete on Thursday.

For Take Back Belfast we have to complete various challenges.  So we were on the lookout for the Belfast Festival Anthology red plaques.  Dylan wanted to find all 50 but we do have 2 weeks to complete it.  We had a quick look into the White Room but the next show wasn't for a while so we moved on to the Crescent Arts Centre for a coffee and to have a look at the Nina Panagopoulou exhibition. We also swapped a book at the Pass it On bookshelf.

After lunch our next stop was The First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary street were Néle Azevedo had a single ice sculpture set up in front of the pulpit.  This was stunning.  As the ice melted from the man, the puddle below him grew.  The puddle was microphoned so every drip echoed around the church.  It's possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  And also very sad to see and hear the man crying real tears as he disappeared.  Dylan was allowed to help to put a new sculpture up when he finally melted completely.  I love the shape of this church and the windows are stunning.  Many important Belfast families worshipped here and it's great to see walking tours being brought inside.  It was lovely to meet local Belfast historian Raymond O'Regan and chat about the church's beautiful stained glass windows.

After this is was time to go home to get ready for dinner at Salt in St Anne's Square with my sister. We ordered from the pre-theatre menu and then went off to the MAC to see Huzzies by Tinderbox.  The show is about a girl from Belfast who wants to escape from her dysfunctional family and forms a band. There were some really beautiful moments in it, and Katie's (of Katie and the Carnival) songs were fab though I think there could have been more.  We finished off the night with a few glasses (bottles...) of wine at the MAC and then the Duke of York.

Our First Festival weekend continued on Sunday, though slowly, due to a pounding headache.  We decided to take it easy, and headed down to Custom House Square for the highlight of Néle Azevedo's installation.  She asked volunteers to place 1517 ice sculptures on the steps of the Custom House, each commemorating each life lost in the Titanic disaster.  We placed a few sculptures then stood back to watch them melt.  Knowing that each one of these crying melting disappearing figures represented a life lost, added an extra dimension to the solitary figure from the day before.     

After coffee Dylan and I took my parents to the MAC to have a look at the exhibitions as they hadn't been before.  My Dad loved the Red Cross exhibition and I the Roxy Walsh one.  Everyone had a go in the 15 second film Festival booth and then we went upstairs for a look at Joanna Billing's installations.  On the way home we stopped at the Old Museum building to take a photo of the red plaque for our Take Back Belfast challenge.

Over the next couple of days, I'm seeing Fishamble's production of Silent in the Waterfront Hall, Elephant Angel in the Grand Opera House, The Falling Song at the MAC and Macbeth at the Lyric.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Pvt. Wars at the Baby Grand

Last night I went to see PVT. Wars at the Grand Opera House.  Produced by up and coming new theatre company Pintsized Productions, directed by Terry Keeley and written by James McLure, the play stars 3 of NI's best young actors - Martin McCann, Chris Robinson and Gerard McCabe.  

The 3 characters Silvio, Natwick and Gately are Vietnam veterans, scarred by their experiences both physically and mentally.  They are all voluntary admitted psychiatric patients in a veteran's hospital and while the war is barely mentioned, the experiences the men went through ensures the ghost of war is always present.

McLure is a talented playwright.  His use of comedy is measured, well placed and timed to perfection. One particular scene where Silvio tries to teach Gatley how to pick up a girl has the audience in stitches.  Despite the laughter though, our knowledge of Silvio's extreme injury ensures that there is an undercurrent of despair to this scene that only serves to highlight the characters' pain. McLure reinforces the point numerous times in the play that the men could leave anytime, but the outside world terrifies them. There doesn't seem to be a way out for them.  Even when it appears Silvio might leave, a letter comes which destroys his chances of getting away.  The hopelessness portrayed in this scene is particularly vivid.

The characters are well developed, but stereotypical.  Natwick is a privileged posh, cultured man, Silvio is a macho swaggering Italian-American and Gately an innocent country boy.  The three men however have the war and their mental problems in common.  Natwick is neurotic, suicidal but not brave enough to kill himself, Gately spends the whole play obsessively trying to fix a radio and Silvio shows clear psychotic tendencies and a fixation on flashing women. It is clear as we head to the end of the play that actually the only thing keeping these three men grounded is their uneasy friendship, despite their obvious differences. 
This show is a credit to the abilities of all three actors.  The hilarity of the pranks, the sex jokes and the comic misunderstandings is always underpinned by sadness and despair.  We may laugh but we never forget that these are three fragile damaged souls. 

Gerard McCabe's innocent Gately is the anchor of the play. Without him you feel the other characters could not be friends however uneasy that friendship might be.  He both begins and ends the play and his reflection on the sunrise in the last scene just adds to the anguish of the veterans' situation.  

Chris Robinson plays Natwick's depression to perfection.  He is terrified to stay in the world but equally terrified to leave it through suicide. One scene where Natwick attempts to make Silvio like him is particularly good and highlights the actors' impeccable comic timing. 

Martin McCann, who has not been on a theatre stage for 6 years, encapsulated Silvio's character precisely. Of all the characters, Silvio is the most dangerous. It can't be easy to play a psychotic character and still make the audience want to take you home and protect you!            

The play was written not long after the Vietnam war and the public were aware of the difficulties veterans' had returning to society.  Today we still have young men and women returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We still hear stories of veterans being made homeless, of high suicide rates and not enough help being available.  The stigma attached to living with a mental illness does not help and still exists today.  It's clear that the central messages of McLure's play are still relevant.  

PVT. Wars continues at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 20th October. Please go along and support this young company.  Click here to book.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

I Am My Own Wife Review

Telling a story based on real events is never easy.  Telling the remarkable story of cross dresser Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is beyond not easy, it's a huge undertaking. The writing itself is outstanding as you would expect from a Pulitzer and Tony prize winning play.

The actor, John Cronin is exceptional.  He has a sense of stillness about him that many actors don't have.  He doesn't need to make a gesture, change his costume or use a prop to let the audience know which character he is.  His posture, accent and the look in his eyes are enough to convey the character he has become.  This is a particular ability I admire in an actor - Damian Lewis from Homeland and Band of Brothers being another example.
Despite playing 36 different characters, his performance is always measured. Character changes are realistically balanced and there is no sense of unnatural speed.  Every character, no matter how insignificant, is precisely defined and effortlessly conveyed.  This is a testament to Cronin's acting ability.  In fact the entire production is a testament to his ability.  The breadth of accents in this production alone are enough to make most actors run away.

The set is beautiful and acts to enhance Cronin's performance.  I particularly love the contrast between the beautiful old things Charlotte surrounds herself with and her choice of dress. Gilded mirrors and red velvet chairs are set against her plain black dress, hair covering and orthopedic black shoes.  This plain style of dress both reflects and amplifies her character traits, her purposeful collecting of materials, her quiet acceptance of events and her resourcefulness at working through situations.  She is not a stereotype; she doesn't wear make-up, or heels or act frivolously.  

The show was gorgeous, Charlotte herself was endearing, the direction was perfect.  I loved the set, the sound, the visuals.  I particularly loved the lighting in the last scene and it seemed the audience was hesitant to applaud in case they broke the spell Charlotte had woven.  John Cronin gave a virtuoso performance of this highly technical play, and made it look effortless.

This play is for theatre people, for actors, for people in the business as well as the usual audiences.  You will see how theatrically nimble this actor is, and you will be jealous and amazed and rise and applaud as I did.

I am My Own Wife is playing at the MAC Belfast until Saturday 6 October.  If you don't see it you will regret it.



Monday, 24 September 2012

The Plough & The Stars Review

Last week we had date day. We've never been able to do date night like other couples because of the hubby's un-family friendly working hours.  I had booked tickets for the matinee of The Plough and the Stars, an Abbey production, on tour to the Grand Opera House

First of all, we decided to try HOME on Wellington Place which we'd been meaning to try for a while.  We kept it simple, Sean having a burger and me trying the fishcake.  It was lovely, really simple, informal and friendly.  The service was speedy, the price was cheap and the food was tasty.  What else could you ask for? 

Then we were off to the Grand Opera House.  As usual at a matinee, the place was full of school kids.  This is always a risk you take if you choose to go to a matinee and sometimes it's a curse, at other times a blessing.  Our seats in the stalls were right in the middle of two different sets of school kids, but we had nothing to worry about. Despite a bit of shuffling around and a laugh in an inappropriate place, they were exceptionally well behaved.  They clearly knew the text as the anticipation in the air was obvious.  Just before a particular character died, I heard a whispered 'This is the bit where she dies, I hope I don't cry' from a student sitting near me.

The Plough and the Stars itself was excellent.  I didn't know the story at all, not having much interest in Irish literature until very recently.  As always I am drawn to the historical context - the birth of Ireland as a nation and the effect on the people living at the time.  While the romantics constructed their perfect rebellion and heroes were revered for their amplified deeds, the real people of Dublin were struggling through their lives with illness, poverty and pain.  O'Casey centres on these people in his play; the heroes are not the republicans at the GPO but the real people such as Fluther Good and Bessie Burgess.         

I found the performance a little slow to get going, perhaps lacking a little energy but this is natural at a matinee performance as the actors conserve their energy for a second 3 hour show.  Frankie McCafferty was, for me the stand out performance; his Peter Flynn was engaging, comical and well rounded.  I also enjoyed Gabrielle Reidy's Bessie, who has such pivotal character development throughout the play.  The cast supported each other throughout and were a tight team on stage.  The set was great, both functional and authentic and I loved the visual reminder of nationalism with the flags, but the scene changes and flying seemed clunky and unnecessary.  The lighting at times seemed to intrude on the play and there were changes in lighting which distracted from the actors' performance.  However small technical issues aside, the production was a great introduction to the Abbey's work and we have already booked to see The Picture of Dorian Grey at the Abbey in November.

Nice to catch up with 'A Bartender' Tony Flynn after the show as well, though he will always be the demon Mephistopheles to me...                


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Dredd 3D - A flawed masterpiece

I haven't read the original Dredd graphic novel and I haven't seen the Sylvester Stallone film, probably a wise move given it's 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  But I was so excited by the build up to this film.  Sold as a futuristic Neo-noir action film, Dredd lives up to the hype, and then some.  

Ok, so there's not much of a story, and very little depth but I'm not sure there needed to be.  The story is sparse, as is the emotion. Judge Dredd is not the kind of person you imagine could break the rules or even crack a smile.  Karl Urban was brilliant as Dredd, though I do believe his chin should win an Oscar as it definitely had the most to do.  Slightly unfortunate though that the similarity between Urban's chin and another actor's, meant that my husband spent the entire film thinking it was Hugh Jackman under the helmet.     

The film looked good and the 3D was stunning in all the right places.  I am a big fan of shiny, stylish films.  I like the details, the slow motion effects, the blood spattering all over the place. I love special effects and sexy graphics, glittering backdrops and theatrical music.  I love the drama of it all.  I particularly liked the use of the 3D slow motion when highlighting the effects of the drug Slo-Mo and the inclusion of my girl crush La Roux 'In for the Kill' on the soundtrack was just the icing on the cake. You can listen to it here LA ROUX 

Deemed ultra-violent by some people, I completely disagree.  The violence wasn't particularly shocking because it suited the film and the Mega City One setting.  The film was bereft of emotion and because you didn't see how a death affected other characters, the scenes of murder and mayhem became almost beautiful.  I'm not a big fan of violent movies and never before have I thought that throwing someone from a height and watching their head break in slow motion was anything other than gratuitous violence.  But it was brilliantly done.  It was as if someone had actually just lifted the graphic novel out of it's pages and put it on the screen. The focus was on the stunning artwork, great design and the razor-sharp dark edges of the setting.  Despite my not knowing the original character, I could tell that the film has stayed true to it's historical format.

Despite it's flaws I loved this film. I thought the acting was strong, the effects were s-excellent and the 3D was relevant and actually added to the experience, where usually it detracts.  I also LOVE that the violence wasn't cut, edited, changed or amended to fit with the censors (Taken 2 anyone?).  


Sunday, 2 September 2012

Belfast Bred walking tour

Last weekend I went on the Belfast Bred food tour.  It's been around for a while and I had always wanted to check it out.  I guess I didn't because I'm not a big foodie and thought it was aimed more at tourists.  Now I wish I'd checked it out sooner.

We had arrived a bit early so went to a cafe to get a scone and some coffee, not realising just how many samples we would get on the tour!  The tour started at Sawer's Deli in Fountain Street.  

Our tour guide Barney told us some of the history of Sawer's and introduced us to the Manager who continued the story.  We were taken inside and given various food samples from octopus to Guinness Cheddar. 

Despite clearly being busy as the shop was being extended into the unit next door, the Manager and the staff made time to show us interesting items in the shop like this jar of real gold used for garnishing desserts.

Barney then led us out of Sawer's and round to Mourne Seafood Bar, one of my favourite restaurants. On the way he told us stories of his life, about food he remembered eating when he was young and also gave us some interesting insights into the history of particular buildings.   

After a chat to the Manager of Mourne Seafood bar and some freshly cooked Salt and Chilli Squid, off we went again, following Barney to the John Hewitt Bar. Again we heard some interesting facts about Belfast as Barney led us across Royal Avenue on a busy Saturday morning.  Passing shoppers looked bemused as Barney, in his lobster adorned chef's hat, shouted 'Hello' to everyone in his broad Belfast accent and rang his bell to get us to hurry along.  

At the John Hewitt we sampled some cider and lager as the Manager told us about the history of the bar and it's relationship with local beers and breweries. We felt rather special, being locked in the pub for our tasting session. 

The artwork that was on the walls while we were there, apparently linked to the Titanic Boys show in the Grand Opera House deserves a mention.  Some of the pieces were beautiful and the art is part of the reason why Belfast people love this wee bar.  

And we were off again, this time down the cobbled lanes past the Duke of York to Nick's Warehouse.
Barney continued with his brilliant stories of the history of Belfast and joking with the tour group.  I really think that this is what made the tour so special.  Fra Gunn, who plays Barney, is a gifted storyteller and engages everyone with his character, both the paying members of the audience and passers by.  He clearly enjoys what he does, and he is adept at ad libbing when he needs to.  I enjoyed seeing his typical Belfast banter with the chefs and managers of each venue. 

Nick Price, owner of Nick's Warehouse gave us a fascinating insight into not only his restaurant, but also into his own interests.  A quirky character, it was nice to hear the passion in his voice when he talked about food.  We sampled different types of cheese, which were all lovely, though my favourite was as always, the goats cheese.

And off we went again, following Barney through the busy streets towards McHughs Bar, the oldest building in Belfast.  This place is a gem.  The old photographs are a genealogist's dream, and I found it difficult to listen to the Manager with all the history on the walls around me.  

In McHugh's we were brought a volcanic rock heated to 430°C and a steak to cook on it. I'm not a big fan of steak, and would never order it, but even to me it tasted amazing.  

Barney led us on to St George's Market.  This was our final location, after two and a half hours.  We hadn't even noticed the time go.  It seems like a long time, but the tour is evenly broken up and as well being seated in the venues, you can also sit at various benches on the way.

The tour is absolutely not just for tourists. I know quite a bit about Belfast History, but Barney gave me a few extra facts which I'd never heard before. You also don't need to be a 'foodie' or even need to try all the samples. I started the tour practically a vegetarian, cooking with quorn rather than meat. The week after the tour, I took myself down to St George's Market to buy some real meat, simply because McHugh's made me realise how much I missed it.        

Belfast City Council describes the Belfast Bred tour as a 'unique theatrical walking tour exploring the food and drink of Belfast'. But it is so much more than just a food tour.  The tour tells us stories of Belfast city, of Belfast characters, architecture and history.  Barney is a great character and Fra Gunn a brilliant storyteller.  It's great experience and I wish I hadn't left it so long to book.

Information and booking info on the tour is here: Belfast City Council