Fight Back Festival and Theatre in Lockdown

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the pang of absence lately upon hanging up a phone call, FaceTime or Zoom chat. Though these technologies help us to stay in touch, and bridge the gap between one isolated household and another, they also highlight the distance that is separating us. The slightly pixelated images of friends on your screen, constrained by the reach of their webcam, as you have an online “pub” session during lockdown serves to remind us of the things that we are missing. A chat over zoom can’t really replace the feeling of walking into the pub and seeing your mates sitting at a table in the corner, a packet of crisps torn open in the middle of the table for sharing, someone already mid-scéal as you sit down and join them.

It has been uplifting to see the ingenuity, community spirit and enthusiasm that has been displayed by the theatre sector from the outset of this lockdown. The theatres closed, but people stepped quickly into the breach and began generously sharing work online. Amid this wave of creative generosity though, I can’t help but feel a cold current of absence running through it. When we move theatre online, we lose a lot of what makes theatre what it is. Like the Zoom “pub” gatherings, though a great deal of care and talent is evident in them, these online theatrical offerings remind us of the things that we love about theatre that are missing.

As I watched the first week’s plays in The New Theatre and takeyourseats.ie’s Fight Back 2020 Festival, this feeling of absence was brought into focus. The four works told engaging stories, written and performed by talented artists but throughout them all, the lack of so many vital elements of live theatre were brought into focus on camera.

The Festival opened on Tuesday 7th April with An Unmade Bed, written by Elizabeth Moynihan and performed by Laoisa Sexton. The story was one of a woman struggling in a relationship with a man addicted to recreational drugs. The setting of the piece during the Covid-19 lockdown heightened the sense of isolation and entrapment that the woman was feeling as she warred with her love for her partner and the knowledge that his addiction was wearing them both down. In terms of pacing and tone, the work would, like most of the other pieces in the festival, have benefitted from a directorial eye. Overall, the fifteen-minute work felt more like an eloquent short film than a play, with a voice-over narrating beautiful close up shots of Sexton’s character observing the world from her window, and slow fades and between shots of her in a tangle of white sheets as she considers her relationship. Billed as a short film, this piece would be more satisfying, as the cinematic nature of the performance and editing meant that An Unmade Bed did not come across as the theatrical play it was described as.

The second day of the Festival brought a similarly meditative piece, with Tara Maria Lovett’s The One Tree, performed by Pat Nolan. This short play is the most theatrical of the week, with Nolan’s grounded storytelling style holding the audience’s attention as he speaks to someone just beyond the camera. Filmed from a single angle, with static images marking scene changes, the simplicity of this work is its strength. Lovett’s magic-realist script and Nolan’s performance bring to life a bittersweet story of love and loss in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the input of designers and directors, the space to elaborate on the story, and freed from the restrictions of a tightly focused camera, The One Tree has all of the ingredients for a successful one man play.

Day three presented a double bill of Shard, written by Stewart Roche and performed by Neill Flemming, and The Pleasureometer, written by Jack Harte and performed by Gerard Lee. These two contrasting pieces were filmed in a similarly straightforward manner as The One Tree, and both similarly felt like scratch pieces for successful one-handers. Shard tells an increasingly unsettling story of a commune on an island off the coast of Cork. The plan to set up the commune seems suspect from the outset, but as older and more powerful forces than they could ever have expected come into play, the characters gradually realise that they are in far out of their depth. The piece could be a longer one, with the suspense of the story held for longer, and as with An Unmade Bed, the piece would have benefitted from directorial input in the staging and filming of the play. However, the story is engaging and original, and Flemming delivers a strong performance as a member of the commune recounting the story from quarantine in the near after being rescued from the island. Finally, The Pleasureometer provides some comic relief to close the week. As he laments the closure of the pub for the lockdown, Lee’s character meditates on the community that is formed around the pub, with the different characters that he sees only in that setting – the Teacher, the Cynic, the Young Lad, and Himself. Himself, the classic chancer that every community has. Telling the story of one particular day in which Himself brings along a new invention to test on his fellow pub-goers, Harte brings some comic lightness to the lockdown situation, and provides a laugh to end the first week of the Festival on.

When I set out to review work online, I had no idea of the quandary I was setting up for myself, the position I would be putting myself in as a theatre critic reviewing not-quite-theatre. Though the skill of their writers and performers is evident, all four of these works, and many of the other works that are being produced online in lockdown, are a reminder of the collective effort that goes into creating a production – the designers, the technicians, the directors, the dramaturgs,  the writers and the performers. No man can be an island in theatre. While we enjoy and support the work that is filling the gap left by the closure of venues, and make no mistake I have been enjoying it, we must also fix our minds on the eventual return to the stage for we can’t forget that theatre is in its very essence a live, collective art form in which social-distancing is not an option.  As the writer Griselda Gambaro once wrote, “A theatre piece of itself, demands a confrontation with the audience. It demands that you connect with people; it demands a collective and social effort with the company and later with the audience.”

Review – Wilde Creatures

Pleasance Courtyard

04/08/18

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Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, though few in number are enormous in the scope of their understanding. They are snapshots of reality through an imaginative lens that teaches vital lessons in kindness, generosity, understanding and respect. Taking the story of The Happy Prince as a frame, Wilde Creatures deftly draws elements of almost all of Wilde’s fairy tales together to bring these lessons, and the beautiful stories that convey them, vividly to life on stage.

The town has become very quiet, the beautiful statue of the Happy Prince is no more, and the Mayor has stopped children from playing in the town centre in order to keep it tidy. The town is not happy. It is decided that there should be a new statue to liven up the town square, but the question is, who deserves to be the subject of this statue? Of course the self-important town Mayor believes the statue should be of him, but the townspeople decide to take a vote. Performing various Wilde fairy tales through storytelling and song, the Wile Creatures ask whether the statue should be of Little Hans, the student, or the princess. As they tell their stories, gradually the townspeople, and the audience, learn that maybe the best way to liven up the town is not through creating a statue of a powerful (selfish, greedy or unkind) person, but by opening back up the square to everyone and caring for its citizens who are struggling.

The Wilde Creatures display impressive versatility as performers, playing multiple musical instruments, and flitting between characters in the stories with gusto. Tom Jude’s overbearing Mayor and Lauren Silver’s brattish princess are two highlights, with both performers creating delightfully unlikeable characters. Alongside the strong performances, Barney George’s ingenious set creates a changeable, captivating Wilde world.

Wilde Creatures is a lively, charming production that reminds us that “humans are the most beautiful flowers of all.”

Wilde Creatures runs at Pleasance Courtyard on alternate days with The Canterville Ghost until 26th August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Loose Canon – Book Review

Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin

Ian Shirocore

Red Door Publishing, 2016

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“The common characteristic of all Atkins/James songs is that they don’t sound like each other, and they don’t sound like anything else.”

The appeal of Ian Shircore’s book Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin, is best summed up in this line from chapter 17. It is a celebration of the diverse and accomplished careers of Clive James and Pete Atkin, as well as an exploration of how their collaborative work came to be what it is.

Blending technical analysis of songs with entertaining personal anecdotes, Shircore writes a book that is an interesting and entertaining read for both the casual and the devoted listener. While it is definitely aimed at an audience of long-time Atkin and James fans, fans who were listening through the duo’s most active years in the 1970s, this is by no means alienating or limiting. I, a twenty year-old listener of Atkin and James’, felt welcomed into the book with open arms.

Even in the most densely factual and analytical passages, Shircore writes with flair. Making liberal use of metaphor and lyrical images of his own, with a description of James’ writing in Have You Got a Biro I can Borrow as a “dancing constellation of internal rhymes” standing out as a particular example of this, Shircore mirrors James’ own tendency to marry technical particularity with natural flair. The information about James and Atkin, beyond their work, that is woven through the exploration of a selection of their songs adds depth to the discussion of their work and gives an insight into the artists as people.

Shircore writes with an easy, open style that makes this book an accessible and engaging read. This casual tone can, at times, lead to some repetition which takes some chapters on a circuitous route to their point, and to sweeping statements which can err on the side of hyperbole in the case of lines such as the one in which “Together at Last” is described as featuring “the most spectacular enjambment ever.” However, overall it is one of the strongest features of the book, opening the doors and leading the reader through an exploration of James and Atkin’s varied and fascinating careers with ease.

Loose Canon takes an engaging and insightful look at the careers of Clive James and Pete Atkin through a close examination of a selection of their extensive songbook. It is a book to be read whilst listening to the songs it discusses; between the writing of Shircore, James and Atkin, “the music in the room, both beautiful and true, on plushly hushed extended wings, is flown to me and you.”

Hot Brown Honey – Review

Originally published on The Reviews Hub

Spiegeltent, Tiger Dublin Fringe

10/9/16

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Briefs Factory’s feminist cabaret and burlesque extravaganza, Hot Brown Honey, has the audience crying with laughter, whooping, clapping and stamping their feet, but it isn’t from this that the show gets its electric energy. The Honeys are a group of women who are unashamedly angry and this is a show that makes no question of its bold intention to smash the patriarchy.

In a series of vignettes, the Honeys present the audience with well worn images and stereotypical characters before turning each and every one on its head. In one instance the audience is introduced to a “typical Samoan woman,” a romanticised idea of a woman in nothing but a leaf skirt sitting weaving herself new clothes from leaves. However, this illusion is shattered in moments as she turns and performs an impressive reverse strip-tease with a costume that seems impossibly, magically versatile. Another example is the caricaturing of characters that are defined by their physical features as Busty Beats appears wearing a costume with breasts the size of beach balls.

While most of their routines have a sizeable dash of the ridiculous and over-the-top about them  (one needs only to have seen the costumes for the “Don’t Touch Her Hair” number to know that) that does not detract from the weight of the message in each segment.  Tearing into questions of sexism, racism and homophobia, and tackling results of colonisation, the Honeys leave the audience in no doubt as to just how serious they are. This may be an audacious, entertaining and fun show, but it also leaves a sobering mark.

Through a fierce cabaret of hip-hop, song, circus and politics, Hot Brown Honey takes the audience through a whistle-stop tour of intersectional feminism and provides plenty of laughs and sass along the way. As the Honeys themselves say, “fighting the power never tasted so sweet.”

Hot Brown Honey runs until September 16th in the Spiegeltent at Merrion Square.

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Northern Star – Review

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Rough Magic

Project Arts Centre

27/04/16

“We botched the birth,” says Henry Joy McCracken, speaking of his and his fellow “Mudlers’” attempt to bring their idea of Irish independence to fruition. The same phrase could be applied to describe Stewart Parker’s Northern Star. Rough Magic’s production is a good production grappling with an unwieldy play.

Northern Star tells the story of the seven ages of Henry Joy McCracken, as he reflects on the past seven years while hiding in a safe house with his partner and child on the run from the Yeomanry. Parker writes each age of McCracken in the style of a different writer, working his way through the Irish canon from Sheridan to Beckett. This ode to the canon, and examination of the theatricality of the rebellion and representations of it, seems a clever device. However, the changes between the writing styles, and the emphasis put on them means that the plot is often smothered in Wildean foppery or Beckettian linguistic play and patter. This issue is compounded by a lack of finesse in reproduction of many of the writers’ styles, leaving the watcher with a sense of having seen an empty, superficial imitation. While the performers and audience are caught up in this romp through the many styles of the Irish canon, it seems that the plot sometimes puts its feet up and dozes off.

This production does, however, deal well with the script. The suggested doubling of characters is well executed, with the changes to the actor playing McCracken in each age effective in allowing the “main” McCracken (played by Paul Mallon) to observe and reflect on the memories, as well as keeping a freshness in each segment. The performances were, on the whole, impressive, with Charlotte McCurry and Ali White delivering particularly good turns as Mary Bodle and Mary-Ann McCracken. Zia Holly’s set, based in the wings of a theatre, was cleverly conceived to compliment the conscious theatricality of Parker’s writing. This did, however mean that it did, at times, fall into the same trap as Parker’s writing in that it distracted overly from the plot and action. The solemn tenderness of Mary Bodle singing a heartbreaking song about McCracken to their son is somewhat distracted from by a large plush shark sitting just behind McCurry.

Northern Star is a play which tells a compelling story, and which employs and explores interesting theatrical styles and devices. Both are positive features, but unfortunately in this situation neither compliments the other, leaving both falling short.  Though Rough Magic bring high quality performances and design to the production, they still fail to provide the clarity this play needs.

Northern Star runs at Project Arts Centre until 7th May before touring.

Taboo – Review

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The New Theatre

16/02/16

Taboo, written by John Morton and directed by Sarah Baxter can best be described as provoking a “yes, but, no, but” reaction. Well performed and directed, this play had good potential and many positive features, but fell sadly short in terms of script.

Both Morton and Fox, under Baxter’s laudable direction, give engaging turns as Tom and Lily. Opening the show, Fox demonstrates excellent comic timing and ability to quickly switch characters as she rehearses nervously for her impending date with Tom. Morton bounces of this agitated energy effectively, bringing a good balance of character to the stage. The two performers maintain this quality of performance throughout, despite having to contend with an unwieldy script.

Morton’s writing displays an strong aptitude for character-writing, and for natural, light dialogue. However there were issues with the construction of the story; rather than following a clear, smooth arc, the story felt more as though it was following two lines that were lightly joined together. The switch in tone mid-way through the piece came across as abrupt and awkward. Though there had been hints that all was not as it seemed in the earlier scenes, there was too heavy-handed an introduction of darker elements later in the play for this to balance with the light comedy of the start. In addition to this, the script would benefit from generous editing in places. At times, such as one particular scene in which the characters discuss urban legends, the dialogue and action dragged, losing the audience’s attention.

With an interesting and entertaining root idea, Taboo takes an almost-there script and puts it on stage with skill and vivacity.

Taboo runs at The New Theatre until 27th February.

 

Trainspotting -Review

Smock Alley Theatre

4/2/16

 

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Renton doesn’t choose life. Renton chooses “something else.” Tracing the interlocking stories of a group of friends, acquaintances, “associates,” whose lives have been ravaged by heroin, Trainspotting is a sharp, painfully funny and agonisingly heartbreaking piece.

From the off the cast bring an impressive energy and passion to the performance, with Shane O’Regan once again showing his skill and versatility as an actor, delivering a vivid, raw turn as Renton.  O’Regan captures the multi-faceted nature of the character; he is not just “a junkie,” he is a character that has a burning vitality and story around him. As well as portraying the intensity of Renton, O’Regan has a particular skill for quick quips, delivering sharp laughs and gags with a perfectly measured but naturalistic style. Lórcan Strain’s performance as Tommy was also impressive, capturing the changing situation impressively. The entire cast caught the essence of their characters, however, in the case of Foley and Healy there were moments at which this was masked by dubious Edinburgh accents. Inaccurate accents, laid on too thickly resulted in lines being lost.

Noteworthy in terms of Tracy Ryan’s direction is her use of the all too often neglected upper levels of the Boy’s School giving a powerfully immersive feeling to the piece. Ryan allows the audience to take in many aspects of the characters and situation by having the characters engage directly with them, breaking down the distance created by more traditional staging.

Adding to this immersive feeling, Brian Murray’s lighting design, with its initial club atmosphere, right through to moments of intense use of shadow, was a particularly strong feature of the production. Once again, the clever use of the space available was evident in the design.

The whole production was well-constructed to truly draw the audience into the characters’ story, to the extent that at one point when a number of characters are chanting for another to jump dangerously from a height, members of the audience were so caught up in the atmosphere that they joined in the chant before realising what they were doing and stopping.  This is a good indicator of just how engaging and powerful this production is.

Trainspotting is not an easy play to watch, it demands engagement both in terms of your attention and your emotions, but it is a great play to watch. I came out of the auditorium well and truly phased by the intensity of the production; it didn’t feel like watching characters, it felt like watching people, and that is what makes Trainspotting an entertaining but stomach-turning and heart-wrenching piece of theatre.

 

Trainspotting runs until February 13th

 

The Importance of Being Earnest – Review

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Gate Theatre

16/01/16

Although it was first staged just short of 121 years ago, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, still feels fresh and, well, earnest. Even in reading the text, the vigour with which each character lives their lives is infectious; in performance it becomes a feast of vivacious madcap antics. Earnest fits the style of the Gate theatre perfectly, and Patrick Mason does a superb job with it.

Marty Rea’s acting has always impressed me, but in this production he truly came into his own, revealing perfect comic timing and a flair for face-pulling akin to Danny Kaye. Of the three portrayals of the character of Jack Worthing I have seen, this is the only one that I feel does justice to the character.  The rest of the cast all deliver impressive performances, with every actor pulling their weight.  Particularly notable were Lisa Dwyer Hogg and Lorna Quinn making the perfect duo as Gwendolen and Cecily, bouncing the energy of the two characters back and forth with sharp but easy precision.

From here, I wish to turn to the set, designed by Francis O’Connor. Few sets can capture the tone of a piece and the nuances of the characters that inhabit each setting as well as O’Connor’s does. With a relatively bare pre-set, we have little clue as to how much the set is going to bring to the production (though the addition of an image of Wilde on the back wall was a clever and playful touch!). Soon however, the many surprises of the set are revealed as a whole host of sliding panels and extensions transform into the home of Algernon Moncrieff, with everything a well-to-do dandy could want, through a garden, to the home of Jack, the polar opposite of the foppish Algy.

Wilde himself described Earnest as “exquisitely trivial,” and that was certainly the feeling in the auditorium at the Gate. I regretted wearing eyeliner as tears of laughter streamed down my face; from polite titters to uproarious belly laughs, the room rippled almost constantly with a wave of collective laughter.  This production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a lively, smart and suitably irreverent evening of Wildean wit and frivolity.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs until 6th February 2016.

 

The Boys – Review

Smock Alley

18/11/15

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Written by Michael Harnett and directed by Patrick Sutton, The Boys tells the story of a group of teenage boys (or perhaps more appropriately, a gang of lads) from Drumcondra and the events of their Inter-cert year, 1967. Following the ups and downs of the year for each of the four boys, this play hits the highs with an infectiously heady optimism and hilarity and the lows with an equally catching poignancy and pain.

The four actors, all recent graduates from the Gaiety School of Acting, handle their roles with skill and energy, with both Killian Coyle as Hackett and Shane O’Regan as Brennan delivering particularly impressive performances. Each actor has a primary role of one of the boys but all take on the guises of parents, girlfriends and many other supporting characters when their anecdotes demand it.  With only small changes of costume, a wig here, a hat there, and simple changes of posture and voice the cast portrayed all of the characters of the boys’ Drumcondra of 1967 with clarity and vitality (with O’Regan’s caricature of the Belvedere College secretary being a comic highlight!)

The script was well composed, capturing the distinctly youthful manner of speech of the boys (I know, I’m not too far from their age myself!) as well as the phrases and nuances of the Drumcondra accent. The transitions from levity to seriousness were also very cleverly written, always flowing naturally, catching the audience in a moment between laughter and tears.

The Boys is a recognisable, sometimes all-too real, tale of growing up, with all of its antics, heartaches and changes that will have a laugh and a tear competing in your throat.

The Shadow of a Gunman – Review

Abbey Theatre

Dir: Wayne Jordan

21/7/15

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To me, Sean O’Casey is a literary magician. Everything about his writing from his naturally poetic language and sharp social and political insights, to his shrewdly realistic characters and perfectly paced action make O’Casey one of my favourite playwrights.That declared,I can move on to this particular production which I can safely say went far beyond simply doing justice to O’Casey’s writing.

It is a difficult balance to pull-off, but the entire cast, and every element of the design in the show managed to walk that line between humour and horror, laughter and tension. Bringing the show truly to life, this balance kept the characters down to earth, engaging the audience as they find life’s everyday humour even in such times of danger and tragedy.

The lighting design by Sarah-Jane Sheils subtly keeps pace with the action, with some striking moments which highlight perfectly the underlying tension in the play. This light falls on an understated, yet complete and effective patchwork of a set designed by Sarah Bacon which captures that essential marriage of comedy and tragedy that makes this play what it is.

Inhabiting this design is the cast, whose performances all compliment each other and come together to create a strikingly real world upon the stage. The stand-out performance however, was without a doubt  Mark O’Halloran’s as Donal Davoren. From the moment the curtain went up, O’Halloran did not simply stand on the stage, he possessed it, even when silent or still.  O’Halloran’s performance was commanding and compelling, bringing the Davoren vividly to life.

Wayne Jordan’s The Shadow of a Gunman is a dynamic and potent production that draws its audience into the lives, hearts and minds of these inhabitants of this 1920s Dublin tenement with passion and perspicacity.

The Shadow of a Gunman runs until the 1st of August.