Saturday, 16 November 2013

Lives of the First World War

My project Castleton Lanterns will be setting up a community for the Castleton Lanterns men on the Lives of the First World War project site.
(image © IWM Q 000743)
(image © IWM Q 000743)
The Lives of the First World War project will hold the stories of over 8 million men and women who served in uniform and worked on the home front across Britain and the Commonwealth.
It will bring together fascinating records from museums, libraries, archives and family collections across the world, so that everyone can help to discover, remember and share the life stories of those who were involved.
The IWM's innovative and interactive digital platform to mark the Centenary of the First World War will be officially launching in February 2014.
(image © IWM Q 001580)
(image © IWM Q 001580)
The project needs your help to explore the documents, to link them together to help preserve the incredible life stories for future generations.
Over the course of the centenary, Lives of the First World War will become a dynamic, permanent digital memorial - a significant digital legacy for future generations.
We'll be sharing information on the Castleton Lanterns men who we have identified such as Thomas Robinson (Right), Samuel McCall (Left) and James McCann.
We'll also be sharing the photos of men we need help to identify, along with information of those on the Roll of Honour for Castleton Church in the hope that you will be able to help identify them. We-are-the-voice-of
Click here to sign up to their mailing list to make sure you get the news first about how and when you can get involved.
In the meantime, please have a look through the images of our Castleton Lanterns men and see if you can identify any of the faces, or provide any information.  You can also look through the images on our Flickr channel or on Tumblrfollow me on Twitter or like the Castleton Lanterns page on Facebook.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Castleton Lanterns Exhibition Launch Red Barn Gallery Thursday 3 October

The launch of the Castleton Lanterns exhibition in Red Barn Gallery will take place on Thursday 3rd October 2013 at 6pm. The exhibition includes lantern slide images of men of Castleton Church, York Road who served in the Great War, and will run across Remembrance Day until Wednesday 13th November 2013.
Thomas Robinson

In April, a box of old lantern slides was found in the organ loft of Alexandra Presbyterian Church. The images were of soldiers and sailors in First World War uniforms and were made by the famous Belfast photographer Mr Alex. R. Hogg. The committee minutes of Castleton Church state that in 1918 Mr Hogg was asked to put together a lantern slide exhibition ‘of our men at the front’ which was to be shown on 16th December 1918. Tickets for the lantern slide show were sent to the families of serving men.

Unfortunately the slides were not named and Alexandra Presbyterian Church have been attempting to identify the men in the slides. To date, over 20 men have been identified but there are many more faces to put names to. Red Barn Gallery have stepped in to help the project attract a wider audience, to enable the families to see their ancestors’ images and to ask the people of Belfast to visit to aid in the identification of the men.
Francis Ernest McCann
The importance of finding the families of the men is demonstrated by some of the stories being told. One such story is of Francis Ernest McCann and James McCann. Francis served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and James served in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. On 1st July 1916 (known as The Somme), Lance Corporal James McCann was killed. James is commemorated at Thiepval Memorial and his photo was listed in the Belfast Telegraph when he died. This enabled the identification of James as Slide Number 58.

David Morrow, a reader of the Castleton Lanterns blog got in touch to tell us that these men were his relatives and was able to identify Francis Ernest McCann as Slide Number 5 and provide a photo to confirm. Francis was married in 1916 to Sarah Baird Crossan, survived the war and went on to have children. He died in 1937 of cardiac failure having suffered from bronchial problems as a result of being gassed in the trenches. During the Belfast Blitz of April 1941, Francis’ wife Sarah and two of their daughters were sadly killed in Glasgow Street. One daughter survives today. David was also able to confirm that Slide Number 58 was James McCann as suggested, evidenced by his treasured family photos.
James McCann

David supplied a letter written by James’ friend James Magill who wrote to his mother Mary to tell her how her son had died and how he had received a proper burial. Another Royal Inniskilling Fusilier, the letter writer James Magill had been wounded in France and the Belfast Telegraph had printed his photograph. We were then able to identify the man who wrote the letter James Magill, as Slide Number 73. James Magill survived the war.

James Magill
Karen O’Rawe, Project Manager of Castleton Lanterns said

“The example of James Magill, Francis Ernest McCann and James McCann demonstrate just how closely connected all the Castleton Lanterns men were. They were brothers, best friends, pals and colleagues. It’s important to find their stories and tell them, to understand their lives and remember them, coming up to the anniversary of the start of the Great War. It is sad to hear the stories of those who were lost or wounded beside those who lived and flourished and I’m sure the families who gathered to watch the lantern slide show in 1918 must have felt something similar.

“We are asking everyone who had relatives around the York Road at the time to visit the exhibition, and to log on to our website at We have a list of all the men on the Roll of Honour for Castleton (click here to see Eddie’s Extracts Roll) listed and you may find that your family member is pictured. We’d love to hear your stories and see your family photos.

Alfred Brown
It is easy to forget how much these families gave up, how a whole generation of young men was lost and how much the community needs to remember not only the sacrifice of those who died, but also the sacrifice of those who lived. The attempt to identify the men, their stories and their families is a way of shining a light on their lives. With no remaining veterans of the Great War, it is especially important that these faces do not become numbers or statistics. These men have names, families, memories and experiences that with research and your help, we will be able to record for generations to come.”

Frankie Quinn, Director, Red Barn Gallery said “The Red Barn Gallery is delighted to be involved in this important historical project. This project compliments our aim to inspire and educate through exhibitions, projects and workshops with the objective of encouraging the appreciation of photography in Belfast.

Thomas Scott Freebairn
We have a particular interest in “Shoebox Archives”, photographs of people, places and events which have sat unseen for years. This recently unearthed treasure is an important part of our shared history and a must see for anyone with an interest in the history of our city.”

The exhibition launches on Thursday 3rd October 6pm – 9pm, and runs until Wednesday 13th November, at Red Barn Gallery, 43b Rosemary Street, Belfast.

Everyone Welcome

Further information from: Karen O’Rawe /

Coming up: Romeo and Juliet by C21 Theatre Company

After a great production at the Grand Opera House, C21 Theatre Company have returned with a tour of their thrilling bite size production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, especially adapted for schools and smaller theatre venues.

This turbo-charged, pared-down version distills all the beauty, violence and tragedy of the original, with a dynamic cast bringing Shakespeare's words to exhilarating new life.

You can see my review of the previous production here.

Tour dates:
Monday 30 September 7pm Belvoir Players Book here

Tuesday 1 October 7pm Braid Arts Centre, Ballymena Book here

Wednesday 2 October 11am & 7pmThe Courtyard Theatre, Ballyearl, Newtownabbey Book here

Thursday 3 October 8pm Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick Book here

Friday 4 October 11am Conway Education Centre Book here 

Tuesday 8 October - Friday 11 October 10.30am & 7pm Crescent Arts Centre Book here  

Click here to find out more about c21Theatre Company


Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Open University Course Books for Sale - SOLD

I am selling my Open University Course Books. They're all in good condition, though I have made notes and underlined sections.  I'll sell them by course.  Get in touch if you would like to buy them and let me know what you would like to offer -


AA100 The Arts Past and Present 

Book 1: Reputations
Book 2: Tradition and Dissent
Book 3: Cultural Encounters
Book 4: Place and Leisure
Course Companion
Illustration Book 1
Illustration Book 2
Assignment Booklet (Oct 2008)
Online Applications CD-Rom
Reputations DVD/CDs (5/6)
Tradition and Dissent DVD/CDs (4/4)
Cultural Encounters DVD/CDs (4/4)
Place and Leisure DVD/CDs (4/6)

A200 Exploring history: medieval to modern 1400-1900

Block 1: France, England and Burgundy in the fifteenth century
Block 2: The European Reformation
Block 3: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms
Block 4: Slavery and Freedom
Block 5: Creating Nations
Block 6: Nations and Imperialism
Course Guide
Media Book
Visual Sources Book
TMA Booklet (2009)
DVDs 1-3
CD Rom
CD Audio
Also set book: Exploring History 1400 – 1900 (Rachel C Gibbons)

A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman worlds

Block 1:The myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra
Block 2:Myth in Rome: power, life and afterlife
Block 3:Ovid and the reception of myth
Block 4:Myth and reason
Textual Sources 1
Textual Sources 2
Visual Sources
Assessment Booklet 2010

A326 Empire: 1492-1975
Block 1: What are Empires?
Block 2: How do Empires begin?
Block 3: How do Empires work?
Block 4: How were Empires experienced?
Block 5: How do Empires end?
Block 6: Conclusions and Legacies
Empire DVD
Empire CD
Assessment Booklet
Course Guide
Website Guide
DVD Transcript
Visual Sources Book
Assessment Booklet (2011)

A219 Exploring the Classical World

Block 1: Homer and the Greek 'Dark Age'
Block 2: Classical Athens
Block 3: The Roman Republic
Block 4: Rome – City and People
Experiencing the Classical World
Block 5: Revision and Retrospection
Readings Book 1
Readings Book 2
Illustrations Book
Course Introduction
Audio- visual Notes 1
Audio – visual Notes 2
Assignment Book
Specimen Examination Paper
CDs 1 – 6
Lysistrata (2 Cds)
DVDs 1 – 4

AA309 - Culture, identity and power in the Roman empire

Block 1: Emperor and Empire
Block 2: Rome, Italy and the Empire
Block 3: Roman Greece and Asia Minor
Block 4: Roman Britain
Block 5: Roman North Africa
Block 6: So what was the Roman Empire?
Supplementary Texts
Offprints Book
Colour Plates
Illustrations Book
Specimen Exam Paper
Assignments (2010)
Course Guide and Glossary
Plan of Ostia
Plan of Pompeii
Cds 1 – 6 and DVDs 1 - 2

Friday, 21 June 2013

Love For Sale at the Belfast Book Festival

Last week was a busy week...
Work, The All Ireland Performing Arts Conference, the kids, Castleton Lanterns, a wee genealogy project and co-producing The Break Musical at Pick N Mix. Somehow I managed to find time to go and see Love For Sale at the Grand Opera House (part of the Belfast Book Festival).  

Adapted from a short story 'Love for Sale $17.50' by Charles Bukowski, Black Egg presented this odd and slightly unnerving story of a man who falls in love with a mannequin.  I'm sure it was a difficult sell, but I like weird things, so off I went, dragging along the lovely Drew Dillon to accompany me.

James Doran tells the story of Robert, (Michael Liebmann) who has always had a thing for dolls. He limits his desires to his sexual fantasies until by chance he meets Stella, standing in the window of a junk shop... 
He offers the owner a price and he brings her home.  This relationship is obviously quite odd, and the audience is slightly unnerved as Robert stands he in the middle of his living room, talking to her and touching her as if she is not an inanimate object.  There is some nervous laughter in the audience and a few baffled looks.  With interruptions from his friend (Ciaran Nolan) and female lover (Jo Donnelly), he hides Stella away so they can't see.  He turns down drinks in the pub and does not want his girlfriend to stay over.  

“...there were advantages – he didn’t have to take her to dinner, to parties, to dull movies; all those mundane things that meant so much to the average woman. And there were arguments. There would always be arguments, even with a mannequin.”

He falls more in love, he dresses Stella up, talks to her, makes love to her. Eventually he realises that he shouldn't be ashamed of her and decides to tell his girlfriend, when all hell breaks loose.  The really lovely thing about the play is the direction by Fionnuala Kennedy and Paul Caddell, which subtly leads the audience's emotions in the opposite direction from where they started.  At the beginning of the play, we are disgusted by Robert's obsession, by the end we are rooting for him.  In the fight with his girlfriend, it's her that appears unhinged, not Robert, even though if this happened in real life, we would all react in the same way she does.  

We were all wondering if, in fact, we all wouldn't like a Stella in our lives? 


Monday, 27 May 2013

Can't Forget About You at the Lyric Theatre Review

It was with some trepidation that I reserved my ticket for Can't Forget About You at the Lyric Theatre. With an 18 certificate, a statement advising of 'scenes of a sexual nature' and half naked photos of Declan Rodgers plastered all over Facebook, it was a show I had to carefully choose a companion to go with.

David Ireland developed this script in his year as Artist in Residence at the Lyric.  My top two shows since the Lyric reopened 2 years ago are 'Brendan at the Chelsea' and 'Molly Wobbly's Tit Factory', both of which opened on the Naughton Studio stage, so Can't Forget About You had a lot to live up to.

In the first few scenes my heart sank as the Troubles were referred to and the stereotypical Ulster mother appeared.  I'm not a lover of 'troubles plays', but I don't think we should rewrite history either.  A story which ignores our troubled society is as misguided as one which showcases it.  With this play however, David Ireland shines a light on just enough of our cultural differences to provide a believable backdrop to his modern day love story.

Declan Rodgers does a fine job of portraying Stevie, a young man of Protestant upbringing who has broken up with his Catholic girlfriend much to the delight of his religious mother (Carol Moore) and bigoted Ulster-Scots loving sister (Abigail McGibbon).  When Stevie finds a new female companion in Martha (Karen Dunbar), his sister is delighted as Martha's background, perceived religion and heritage seem a perfect fit.  That is until she finds out what age she is...

While his God-fearing mother believes in traditional ideas such as marriage before children and staying with your husband no matter what, Stevie is concerned with more relaxed ideas.  Religion is not important, after all he defines himself as Buddhist; you don't have to be in a relationship to have sex, never mind married; and being unemployed is as good a job as any. Stevie doesn't want the traditional way of doing things and his family don't want to consider more modern ideas about relationships and religious tolerance.  But of course his family eventually accept Stevie's choice and he finally realises that he wants the traditional way of living after all.  

This is what the play does best. Yes the script is really very funny, there is partial nudity and bad language and it's lovely to see an audience leave the theatre with huge grins on their faces, but to say that's all this play is about is to do it a disservice.  The tension between traditional and more modern ways of thinking is reflective of contemporary society in NI.   While one section of our community looks forward to a future of tolerance and a less judgemental society, another section looks back to our troubled past and wonders how we can ever move on.

The idea that tradition may in fact have something to offer is served up in a witty way by David Ireland, as is the idea that tradition is not everything. We are so busy fighting for what we think we believe in that maybe we need to realise that we all need a little of what the other side believes in after all.  With a strong cast of fine actors, a well put together script and an enthusiastic audience, Can't Forget About You finds it's place as the highlight of the Lyric's 'Tales of The City' programme of events.

Oh and Wonder Woman makes an appearance...if that's not a reason for booking a ticket, then what is?        

Can't Forget About You runs until 16th June at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Click here to book tickets.


Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Inventors at the Balmoral Show

I am devastated that I can't make this event.  It looks fabulous.

Cutting-edge theatre company Kabosh, in partnership with Ulster Bank, presents ‘Inventors’, a hilarious series of performances celebrating the history of invention in Ulster.

Need to find a way of stopping amorous cows crashing over fields to get to your bull because 
he’s so blooming attractive? 

Wonder why we love our tea so thick you could stand a stick in it?

Are your cows all moo and no milk?

From Harry Ferguson’s three-point linkage system to Samuel Davidson’s tea-drying machine to Marconi’s radio telegraph – visit the Balmoral show and hear tales of history’s innovators and revolutionaries.

Join Kabosh as they transport you back to the music hall era of the early 1900s, where the city’s most awe-inspiring entrepreneurs are pitching their visions to change the world as we know it.

Written by Carlo Gébler, Vincent Higgins, Seth Linder & Jimmy McAleavey
Live original music created and performed by Ursula Burns
Directed by Paula McFetridge, Artistic Director of Kabosh

There are regular performances from 11.30am - 4.30pm on 15th 16th and 17th May 2013 in the pop-up barn at The Balmoral Show. The pop-up barn is located by the cattle marquee and cattle rings.

Click here to find out more.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Love, Billy at the Lyric Belfast Review

Love, Billy is part of the Lyric Theatre's Belfast season, Graham Reid bringing back Belfast’s most famous family for a fifth installment in the now legendary series of Billy plays.

"Love, Billy sees Billy Martin returning to Belfast after 25 years away. He left without warning or informing anyone and now all of the Martin family are awaiting Billy’s arrival to celebrate their father Norman’s 74th birthday. They haven’t seen Billy in all that time and still have no inkling of why he left. There are family grudges to be resolved and Billy’s story to be revealed, at the heart of which is a man struggling to adapt to a family and city he knew so well but hardly recognises any more."

There are some fine performances, especially from Joe McGann and George Shane who inhibit their characters with confidence.  It was great to hear mention of a relation of mine, Buck Alec and his toothless lion (also mentioned in Brassneck's latest production The Sweety Bottle).  I thought there were some really nice moments of wit, particularly from Ciarán Nolan as Ernie Greer, and from George Shane as Norman Martin, Billy's father.

But in the end, I have to be honest, I found this show difficult to enjoy.  While it did have some nice moments, overall the production is bland.  Some of the words seem unnatural in the characters' mouths, the script could be edited into an hour long show without losing anything and nothing of importance or interest happens.  While the set looked nice, it's angle made it very difficult to hear, as at times the actor's voices were not projected out into the auditorium (I was six rows from the front).  Cutting out the pointless set changes and paring down the repetitive script may have allowed the actors to build up a bit more energy.

At curtain call the actors were clearly expecting a standing ovation when the audience applauded politely instead.  It seems it was a night of disappointment for both them and me.

Love, Billy runs till 25th May at the Lyric Belfast.  Click here to book tickets. I'd love to know what your thoughts are.



Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Iron Man Three - My Review

I don't rate Robert Downey Junior and I hate Tony Stark.  I've never liked Iron Man and I never understood why everyone likes him.

But it seems that (shock horror) I was wrong.  Iron Man Three is a great film, on a par with the Avengers. Tony Stark has lost a bit, but not all of his annoying pretentiousness. The humanity he shows in this film unbinds Tony Stark from not only his over-inflated ego, but also his suit for most of the film.  This is what makes the film better than the rest. It seems that Tony Stark is indeed a real person, one who can be vulnerable and loving, protective and 'normal'.  The panic attacks he suffers in this film make him endearing and his not being in a suit for most of the film allows RDJ to show off his acting ability.  

And, James Badge Dale as Eric Savin!  Wow, I love him.  I have followed James Badge Dale's career for a while and I think he's a great actor.  His intense stare makes for a great baddie. Guy Pearce is strong as Killian and I think that Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts had her best film yet.

Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin was great, until the twist, then he wasn't.

The suits are cool, the destruction of Stark's home is stunning and I loved how Stark's suit was killing people before he even got into it. Some pretty amazing special effects really set this film up with the better superhero films. Special mention for Paul Bettany as Jarvis. We love Jarvis.

I hope they don't make another one. Time for RDJ to hang up his suits and go out on a high.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Political Drama, What Drama?

Now you’re an expert on Danish coalition politics to add to your knowledge of how a filibuster works in the Senate - how come you don’t know how Stormont works, who works there and why? 

Political drama on these islands has been in short supply. We tend to concentrate on comedy, satire and just plain poking fun at politicians and the political process. Why have our devolved Parliament and Assemblies not inspired writers and producers to tell us about the drama on the Hill, in the Bay and at Holyrood? Is it because we don’t find our own politics interesting enough or are we too cynical even to watch politicians?

Join the discussion with panel members to include Simon Heath, executive producer of the BBC2 series Party Animals (2007) which looked at young, ambitious people close to political power and starred Andrea Riseborough and Matt Smith. He is currently working on Line of Duty 2, soon to start filming in Northern Ireland.

Lesley Riddoch, broadcaster and commentator, thinks Scotland has gone a bit bonkers over Borgen. Having spent her pre-teens in Belfast she is always happy to come back and she has just started a PhD comparing Norway and Scotland.

Matt Qvortrup lectures in Comparative Politics at Cranfield University and is an expert on referendums; beng from Copenhagen he might be able to tell us if the Danes have gone bonkers over Borgen too. Having worked as a journalist at the Danish Parliament and published an official history of Danish Prime Ministers he can offer an insider’s perspective.

Tim Loane is a screenwriter, playwright and director. He has written award-winning political satires for the stage and his screenwriting includes being creator and lead writer of Channel 4’s Teachers, the political thriller Proof for RTE and the Channel 5 re-boot of Minder.

Neil McKay is the writer of numerous dramas including the BAFTA-awarding winning Mo with Julie Walters and Appropriate Adult and See No Evil: The Moors Murders. He also recently adapted Kate Summerscale’s best-selling crime story The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher for ITV.

The discussion will be chaired by Quintin Oliver, Stratagem, Northern Ireland’s first dedicated public affairs company celebrating 15 years in the lobbying business.

This event will take place at the MAC and is part of the Belfast Film Festival.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Our Country's Good at the Lyric Belfast Review

This year is the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Our Country's Good, the contemporary classic by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Adapted from the novel The Playmaker, which is based on historical fact, the drama tells the story of how convicts in the penal colony of Australia were allowed to produce their first play, The Recruiting Officer.

Our Country's Good makes a case for the revolutionary and redemptive power of theatre. The governor suggests that the convicts put on a play which, he believes will be beneficial to both them and their jailers.  The officers keep the convicts in their place with humiliation and punishment and are not convinced that the production will be useful. The prisoners are understandably suspicious. Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark agrees to direct the play and his journey towards opening night is difficult one, with the company losing cast members throughout rehearsals to disagreements, punishments and artistic differences. The reality of penal life, highlighting lashings and hangings creates a harsh canvas for Wertenbaker to build an often witty tale of discovery and understanding.

The Lyric Drama Studio under Philip Crawford's direction have yet again produced another excellent, thought provoking show.  The strength of this production is the raw talent on the stage.  The actors are well cast and their potential is obvious, with Rosie Barry in particular shining in her role as Dabby Bryant.  Carla Bryson portrayed Duckling with great ability and her strength as an actress is highlighted as she despairs over Harry's death.  I particularly enjoyed the convicts' treatment of Ketch Freeman, the hangman, as they spat on him everytime he spoke. Luke Bannon played this role with just the right amount of nervousness, the character's hesitant disposition underlying his determination and humanity.      

If the value of theatre is to confront, teach and captivate, then Our Country's Good succeeds. This is a great production with many stars of the future getting their first credit on stage.

Click here to watch Philip Crawford discuss the play.


The Man Jesus at the Lyric Theatre Review

Wednesday night saw the world premiere of  The Man Jesus at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.  A one man show written by Matthew Hurt and starring Simon Callow, the show tells the story of Jesus, from the point of view of various characters we know from the Bible.

Matthew Hurt's programme note says that the play is 'an attempt to peel away the the layers of assumption and the residue of mythology so that we can look into the face of a man'. Given the religious mythology that has been layered on the historical Jesus over hundreds of years, this is a tall order.

The stage is completely stripped back, the brick walls and fire evacuation sign giving a sense of stark bareness, of barrenness, almost of bleakness.  This allows the audience to focus only on the actor on stage and gives the feeling of the story being told in any space or time.

Each character portrayed is given their name in Aramaic, Jesus as Yeshua, Judas as Yehuda, Mary as Miryam.  While I understand the concept behind this decision was to remove the preconceptions an audience member may have, I found this confusing to follow and spent a lot of time as each character was introduced trying to figure out who the biblical character was.  Every character had their own accent, perhaps to enable the audience to differentiate between each.  I found this very distracting and would have liked to see each character presented with more physicality, removing the strong accents completely, and providing a completely stripped back portrayal.

Simon Callow himself is an amazing actor and handled the show well despite being ill.  His passionate portrayals and understanding of the stage is excellent.

The Man Jesus is a brave play which absolutely does present Jesus as a charismatic man, an important human being and as a radical of his day.  The play does not attempt to dismiss the mythology which has sprung up from his story, but looks at how his charisma, strangeness and different opinions affected those around him and describes how his magnetism encouraged people to follow him.

Of course, it should be noted that while Matthew Hurt attempts to strip the story back and remove the years of legend and layers of mythology, he uses as his source, the Gospels, which cannot be dated accurately and are anonymous.  Other Gospels were not included in the Bible at all. The Gospels are themselves a mythology and thus we can never truly know The Man Jesus.

The Man Jesus is playing at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until 20th April.
Click here to find out more.            


Sunday, 17 March 2013

Hang in There at Culturlann - Review

After taking her life, Colleen finds herself in the company of Póla, a seasoned occupant of "the other side" whose questions force her to take a closer look at her past life in a bid to find peace in her new surroundings. When one door closes... when will the other one open? Hang in there is a short play exploring one possibility of what could be waiting for us after life.

Bronagh Diamond's short play 'Hang in There' was produced during Féile an Earraigh at the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road and features Danielle Magennis as Colleen and Cathy Brennan-Bradley as Póla.  The play opens in darkness with a simple set consisting of just a bed, a chair, a door and a cardboard box.  Oh and a rope hanging ominously from the lighting grid. 

Colleen has has taken her own life and finds herself in an unknown place and is frightened.  An odd woman with a clipboard wants to ask her questions about her family, about her life, about why she hanged herself.  Colleen is an educated girl, with a job and a loving family, but her life has not gone the way she expected. It seems that all the opportunities she was promised as a child, such as seeing the world and having an amazing career were not true.  I like that Bronagh made this character intelligent, educated and not an obvious candidate for suicide.  It serves to dispel the myth that those who are suicidal must be mentally ill, have terrible lives or no prospects.  Anyone can feel hopeless and despairing, and there are many reasons why someone may feel suicidal. Póla acts as a counsellor and a guide.  She advises Colleen that she can't move on through the door until she looks back at her life and accepts peace.  This character draws information out of Colleen and adds both much needed humour and context to proceedings.  

This play does not preach to those considering suicide, it doesn't say you will go to hell if you take your life but it does try to highlight the pain of the people left behind.  Where Colleen can move on through the door, the people left behind will never move on. While Colleen's problems have ended, they've just been passed on to her family. A play dealing with such emotional issues was never going to be an easy watch, but humour was used to good effect and helped to lift the story out of complete despair.               

I would like to see the writer develop the story a little further, perhaps by giving the audience more insight into Colleen's life.  The strongest points in the story are when we see the mother's pain and are told about the effect on her little brother when he finds her body.  A particularly nice moment when Colleen and Póla are looking through photos accompanied by music could be enhanced by using projection to show the audience what they are looking at.  This would help the audience to make more of a connection with the character.    

Credit must be given for producing such a brave play especially in the heart of West Belfast where suicide rates are so high.  Suicide rates in NI have doubled in the past 15 years, with a sharp rise in North and West Belfast. There are not many people who have not been touched by suicide, and mental health is still a taboo issue. Perhaps with a little bit of funding to tour around communities, this play would help to raise awareness and help to force the subject of suicide into the open.

If you are in urgent need of help please call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000 or the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.


Saturday, 9 March 2013

Otello at the Grand Opera House

Opera North ran three operas this week at the Grand Opera House. 2013 is Giuseppe Verde's anniversary year and Opera North are celebrating with their production of Otello.  For the first time, I actually had company for the opera, and it was lovely. 

The opera is based on Shakespeare's great tragedy Othello, a story of malice, jealousy, torment and madness. The tragedy of the story is breathtaking and this production certainly broke a few hearts.  With half price tickets available as part of the Backin Belfast campaign,  the theatre was full of people who had not attended an opera before, the cheaper seats providing a less risky night out.  This did mean though that there was quite a bit of annoying whispering and people eating popcorn. 

I enjoyed the performances immensely, the lead playing his part with just enough frantic jealousy.  The scenes of violence within the piece were well choreographed and I truly feared that Elena Kelessidi as Desdemona would get hurt as Otello pushed her around.   Otello's entrance to the bedroom in Act 4 was terrifying and the tension was built up beautifully by some very good acting though it seemed at times that Ronald Swann was having to push his voice.

Kelessidi's voice grated a little at the start but the vulnerability with which she played the part was palpable.  Her pleading innocence in the prayer scene in particular brought a tear to the eye.
As for evil Iago, his manipulation of events was played by David Kempster with callous intent, the performer clearly enjoying his dual personality.  

Despite lacking a bit of energy in the opening scene, the chorus was generally very strong, and passionate.   As always the orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes, blew me away.

Depicted in a garrison, the set was cold and menacing reflecting perhaps Otello's descent into mad jealousy and was put to good use.  There were plenty of places for Otello to hide and listen to conversations without being seen.  Lighting wise, I thought it a bit predictable and would have liked to have seen the lighting used more creatively. 

The surtitle screens were a bit low down to be read from the Upper Circle, I but found that I barely needed them.  Despite being sung in Italian, my knowledge of the story and the performers' expression kept me on course the whole way through.

Overall, a great night out.  I only wish the Backin Belfast discount was available all the time, to allow more people to see such amazing productions.

My love affair with opera continues...



Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Planet Belfast at the MAC REVIEW

Given the amount of money I seem to spend on theatre tickets, I thought I'd have to miss out on this show by Tinderbox.  However every time I opened my facebook profile, someone had posted a photo of Tara Lynne O'Neill on the phone and peering through what looked like fishing line.

Other production shots shimmered with lights and projections and at last, just a few nights before it closed, I bit the bullet and booked a ticket.

Not knowing what the show as actually about stood me in good stead, as a story about a Green politician in Northern Ireland wouldn't really have attracted me.  However I'm glad I booked something I wouldn't usually have attended, as otherwise I would have missed out on what was a really strong show.

Abigail McGibbon played Alice, a Green party MLA who is confident and ballsy, opinionated and volatile. These traits do not make her a likable character and she certainly didn't seem the maternal type despite her impatience to be a mother.  Her husband Martin, played by Paul Kennedy is hiding in the sidelines of her success. He is given a job solely so his employer, Danny from the victim support centre can get her to attend his event.  He is on the wrong end of her short temper on many occasions and when he commits adultery, I guiltily thought she deserved it. I really enjoyed the chemistry between these two actors.  The scenes of closeness always had a hint of restraint about them, normal in this kind of relationship where one partner is always watching for a mood swing or violence.

Conor Grimes as Danny, from victim support, was a revelation.  I think I expected a 'Grimes and McKee' type performance but what we got was a straight-faced character, played with a hint of lunatic. Claire, played by Tara Lynne O'Neill is the beautiful blast from the past who encourages Alice's emasculated and bullied husband into an 'almost affair'.  As with Martin's employer, the only reason why he is picked out for special attention is because he is an easy route to Alice.

The show has a lot to say about our local politicians and their inability to look beyond the small things, and highlights the enhancement and perpetuation of our victim status in NI.  However the thing that works best about this script is that at no point did I actually like any of the characters, but somehow I still cared.  The relationships between a violent bully, an ex-paramilitary/ victim, a feeble husband and a manipulative bitch should not make for a touching story.  It's testament to Rosemary Jenkinson's characterisation that each of these relationships has something to offer the audience. Despite their faults we all recognise ourselves or our family on the stage.  A minor annoyance was that some of the dialogue jarred a little and seemed unnatural coming from a Belfast mouth, but it was only a minor thing that didn't detract at all from the script.  A dark Belfast humour is present throughout and for someone who never laughs out loud at theatre shows, the script made even me let out a few guilty guffaws. For the most part I enjoyed the more naturalistic way the characters' conversed, at times talking over one another, or answering simply with a laugh as they would in real life.

I can't sign off without mention of the set by Ciaran Bagnall.  Beautiful and different, it gave the whole piece a futuristic science-fiction feel which only added to the production.  I would really like to borrow it for the backdrop to my wedding renewal ceremony, if anyone from Tinderbox is reading!



The Seafarer at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Thursday night saw the opening of The Seafarer at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.  Of the whole season brochure, this was the production I had picked out as the one I most wanted to see.  Co-produced by Perth Theatre and Lyric Belfast, the production is directed by Rachel O'Riordan and is both a Scottish and Northern Irish Premiere.

Gary McCann's set is beautifully intricate, every shabby detail carefully placed to give the overall effect of a deteriorated, ramshackle hovel.  The setting reflects the characters' own battered lives, filled with difficult memories, troublesome relationships, gambling and alcoholism.  The actors all portray very different characters, which both compliment and repel each other. Richard, the older brother played by Ciaran McIntyre, is a domineering old man, easily aggravated and wily.  His younger brother Sharky, played by Louis Dempsey is trying to dry out, and while staying with Richard has become his skivvy.  The dynamic between these characters is both tender and tense with Richard and Sharky highly frustrated with each other at various points.  Ivan is an old friend of the brothers, a seemingly simple man, with a friendly nature, despite his alcoholism.  In a particularly strong cast, it is Sean O'Callaghan as Ivan who shines as this endearing rogue.

Tony Flynn's Nicky is a comic character, the Del Boy of the piece.  He is invited for a game of cards by Ivan, much to Sharky's disgust.  Given that Nicky has seemingly stolen Sharky's wife, kids and car, the dynamic between these two characters is unsurprisingly tense. Nicky brings along Mr Lockhart played by Benny Young, whose devilish scheme to bring Sharky to a terrible fate is the night's main event.  As Mr Lockhart's Mephistophelian plan becomes clear, the four men Richard and Sharky, Ivan and Nicky fall back on their friendships despite the stories, hard lessons and violence which have come to light during the card game.

Kevin Treacey's lighting is perfectly rendered as the bright daylight fades naturally and night comes in.  When Lockhart's intentions become obvious, his threatening behaviour towards Sharky is highlighted by the ominous, shadowy and forbidding lighting.  It makes for a subtle lighting design, with a big part to play in the audience perception that something very very bad has come to this particular Christmas card game.

Despite a story which deals with supremely difficult themes, there are many laughs to be had.  From Ivan's spectacular fall in the kitchen, to Nicky's sunglasses and Richard's treatment of Sharky, this story is optimistic and life affirming rather than hopeless and despairing.  Much credit to director Rachel O'Riordan who has coaxed out of these five gifted actors fine performances which are instinctively natural.  She ensures Conor McPherson's script is brought to lustrous life in all it's understated but dramatic splendor.

The Seafarer continues at the Lyric Theatre until 23rd March.  Click to book here.      

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Romeo and Juliet

Tonight I went to see C21 Theatre Company's Romeo and Juliet at the Grand Opera House.  This is a show I last saw at the Globe Theatre and it lasted over 3 hours.  As we were in the Groundling area outdoors in the rain, my memory was that it was endlessly long and very uncomfortable.  C21 promised a shorter version aimed primarily at a secondary school audience.  The production comes in at 80 minutes which is perfect for it's audience.

First mention must go to Jolene O'Hara, a talented young actress who embodied the role of Juliet with ease.  Her delicate beauty and passionate performance was touching. The role of Juliet is a powerful one and I thought she dealt with it well. Romeo, played by Michael Lavery, was a good match for her in performance and also in passion.

The other cast members Mark Claney, Eoghan Lamb, Rachael McCabe and Dan Leith played various roles, and despite a few accent issues on occasion, all were strong.  As a whole the production enthralled the many teenagers in the audience. They sat wide eyed as the story developed and by the end a few were crying.

The show is touring to schools and thus the set and lighting was simple but effective.  The white nets of Juliet's balcony were put to good use as a symbol of innocence and virginity.  On the night of her marriage to Romeo, the lights coloured red and she was innocent no more.

Arthur Webb did a good job at directing the production.  His experience as an educator clear, his knowledge of teen minds meant that the audience's attention was not distracted.  Peppered with humorous moments, music and lots of not too passionate kissing, a teen audience will engage well.  Credit also is due for the adaptation which kept the scenes short and focussed.  A sterling presentation from C21 and great to see them in the Grand Opera House.

Click here to find out more about c21Theatre Company

Click here to book tickets for the Grand Opera House from 26 February - 2 March