Theatre Review: ‘Ghost Stories’ by Pan Narrans Theatre – Accidental Theatre – 29/10/15

“The most significant contribution that our large brain made to our approach to the universe was to endow us with the power of story.” These are the words that ring out as an introduction to a night centralised on the ability stories have to captivate their audiences. An office transformed into a small theatre, The Accidental Theatre is tucked away on the fourth floor of the Wellington Building on Wellington Street just opposite Belfast City Hall. Although small the Accidental Theatre was boasting a large bill of writers, performers and poets all coming together through a passion for telling stories.

Appropriate to the story-telling theme, the stage set-up is a few bookcases of worn out books and a chair in the centre. It all has a very lived in feel enhanced through sparse lighting perfect for the intimate setting. Kicking the night off is a performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror classic “The Raven” performed by Michael Patrick.

Poe’s classic although typically understood as a Gothic horror poem is transformed by Patrick into a comedic performance of an eccentric and dishevelled man encountering the visitation of a raven to his abode. With the raven being simply a soft toy hand puppet played by Patrick himself, there is a great deal of humour through watching the ridiculousness of the man’s fearful reaction to the raven’s repeated screeching of “Nevermore!” A particular highlight is when it perches on an audience member’s head and also when Patrick takes a seat from an audience member to watch and mull over the raven perched at the other end of the room. Other comedic moments include reading “over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” for which Patrick shows the audience a book simply titled “FORGOTTEN LORE”

Continuing with the comedic horror element is a poetry reading by Phyllis McKenna. Her first poem “I Woke Up This Morning” humorously reflects on a date that takes a somewhat macabre turn. Her conversational, colloquial poems tell comedic stories such as “Mountain Lonely” that recalls the reader’s being stranded in the Divis mountains where “white lines are no longer a safety feature.”

Delving into a more classically horror orientated realm and away from comedy is Peter Fahy’s performance of Faust as Mephistophles. Dressed in a devil costume his chilling performance although simply one of spoken word still manages to be both unsettling and captivating especially after the audience has been eased into the evening through comedy.

The fourth act of the evening “Acid” is an original piece both written and performed by Gavin Turtle. Confused and unsettled, the protagonist enters the room with the sounds of rave music in the background. Gathering from his phonecall that he was at a rave and has taken two acid tabs the performance shows that there is a much darker side to partying and things certainly take a dark turn within this performance. With the setting being an abandoned warehouse with a mirror hanging in front of him, staring into the mirror and humming he steps through and the audience is left with a very dark and ambiguous ending.

After an interval the next performance is from “The Dead School” by Patrick McCabe, adapted and directed by Jim O’Hagan and performed by Owen McCavana. Looking dishevelled McCavana enters the stage wearing a get up that leaves a lot to be desired: a coat, shorts and bare feet. In a performance that toes the line between comedy and horror, it begins with the audience being shown how to cut onions and tomatoes to make chilli. Urging the audience to “massage” skin off onions and wielding a knife around, McCavana’s performance shows the underlying danger beneath a crazed and unhinged character. What begins as deliriously happy and filled with dark humour sinks into darker, more unsettling realms as his character has flashbacks to a career as a teacher. As the voices of his pupils sound in the theatre, he asks the ironic question of “Did he really think he could get in my head?” As the performance comes to an end with McCavana repeatedly punching a pillow he is pretending to be his pupil, the audience are left with the chilling words “There wasn’t so much cheek out of him after that.”

Original piece “Butterflies” written by Jonathan Baille and performed by Holly Hannaway certainly doesn’t offer any light relief from McCavana’s unsettling performance. A very sparse setting with simply a chair and a spotlight is all that is needed as Hannaway delivers an extremely enthralling story of family and mental breakdown. Although it is shown at the end that her character is telling a doctor her story, up until that point it feels as though she is speaking directly to the audience. An extremely emotionally fuelled performance that excels in making the audience unsettled through its troubling details, it shows that human beings can be haunted by more than mere ghosts. As Hannaway is dragged out of the room by the silent and foreboding doctor the audience is left to draw their own troubling conclusions.

Catherine Rees and Patrick McBrearty’s performance of “The Weir” by Conor McPherson very much stays true to the ghost stories element of the evening. Beginning mid conversation, the setting is in a haunted house as Rees urges McBrearty to tell a ghost story. As he recounts the details of a story about a young girl using a ouiji board that seems to summon up a spirit of a woman, the audience are left hanging on to his every word. Conversational, the audience are left feeling as though they are eavesdropping on two strangers’. Rees follows the first story with her own about her young daughter dying in a swimming accident. While McBrearty’s character is sceptical about his story, Rees’ character is completely certain that her daughter rang her asking to be collected. As the two stories finish that eeriness after hearing a ghost story is palpable.

After the last interval, the final act of the evening “Murder on the Dancefloor” provides some comic relief to what was a pretty heavy second half. Written and performed by Gary Crossan, Christopher Grant and Stephen Coulter, it also features Rosie Barry. The four make up rivals in Northern Ireland’s disco dancing competition. Based in 2002, much of the comedy in the performance is through the hindsight the audience has on that particular year. A particular highlight is how the prize for the competition is a £25 Virgin Megastores voucher accompanied with the line “I’ve the rest of my life to spend that Virgin Megastores voucher – they’re not going anywhere.” Ending the evening on a lighter note “Murder on the Dancefloor” has its audience in stitches from the very onset.

Pan Narrans “Ghost Stories” although quite laid-back felt like a community of theatre, poetry and literature lovers coming together to celebrate the art of story-telling. With such a variety of performances it catered for all tastes and was the perfect way to kick off Halloween. Ranging from fun moments to dark, troubling moments it was a captivating evening by all accounts and showcased just some of the great talent in the arts sector that Belfast has to boast of.

Theatre Review: ‘The Night Alive’ – Lyric Theatre Belfast – 9/10/15

The first night of Conor McPherson’s ‘The Night Alive’ kicked off the Belfast International Arts Festival which runs until November 1st. After running in both London and New York, the Lyric Theatre are hosting the Irish premier of the play in co-production with the Dublin Theatre Festival.

‘The Night Alive’ follows a few days and nights in the life of Tommy, a middle-aged man separated from his wife and children. Living less than comfortably at his uncle Maurice’s residence, right from the onset Tommy’s life appears the very image of squalor. Such dilapidation is showcased right throughout the play with a delightfully detailed set that displays two single beds either side of a small room, a dirty kitchen beside the back door and a mantlepiece crammed with junk. Akin to a particularly grotty student house, the detailed set is immediately striking, sufficient for the duration of the play and sets an atmosphere of hard times.

The play kicks off in the aftermath of Aimee being attacked on the streets with Tommy and a blood soaked Aimee entering through the back door. With barely enough money to keep his room lit up Tommy is immediately shown to be a character without much money to his name but a willingness to reach out and help others despite this. Offering up what little living space he has so that Aimee has somewhere to stay, an unlikely friendship of sorts begins.

‘The Night Alive’ is comedic from the onset despite unfavourable circumstances and subject matter. It makes light of a heavy situation when Tommy offers Aimee some Bonio dog biscuits and confesses that he doesn’t actually own a fridge.

The passage of time within the play is executed with expertise through atmospheric lighting that allows the audience to differentiate between morning, day time and evening. With a darkened set but changing lighting to be seen outside the set’s window ‘The Night Alive’ conveys the reality of the atmospheres of early morning, late night and everything in between with striking proficiency. Although perhaps a small detail, it really enhances the play and easily allows the audience to witness the mastery of stagecraft that McPherson is exhibiting.

The morning following Aimee’s stay at Tommy’s sees the arrival of Tommy’s “associate in the business” the bumbling but lovable Doc. Tommy and Doc are a duo that could somewhat accurately be described as Del Boy and Rodney, and Withnail and I, meets Father Ted and Dougal. Arriving with a bag of stolen turnips and potatoes Doc is a comical character from the onset. Some delightfully Irish humour is provided when Amy asks why he’s called Doc and finds out he’s actually called Brian but got called Doc because Brian was just “a bit long.”

Arriving back again in the middle of the night with a bag of chips to share between the three of them, Doc becomes something of a “third wheel” beside Aimee and Tommy’s blossoming friendship. They both sit opposite one another for their chips on an extremely low key date type situation. This is comically accentuated through Doc offering them pepper from a giant pepper mill which is fundamentally at odds with the decrepitude of their situation.

When Aimee and Tommy run out to the shops to check the lottery numbers, Doc is left on his own to tidy up. It is at this point that the play hinges between comedy and utter tragedy when an unnamed intruder enters the house. The unassuming Doc simply believing he is a friend of Tommy’s doesn’t question the suited gentleman. When the thud of the hammer hits the back of Doc’s neck, the play enters the realm of the hugely unsettling. This unexpected and troubling development from a henceforth comedicplay is extremely jarring and serves to show just how engrossing the largely unremarkable lives of these ordinary individuals had become.

Any comedic elements that follow in the duration of the play are marred by this tragic attack on an innocent character. Through Uncle Maurice’s bleak meditation on life, death and raising Tommy from when he was boy, the question “What happened to all the sweetness?” rings through with particular significance. Although Maurice appears at first as a sensible character that counterpoints the unhinged and scattered life of Tommy, in these moments that force us to contemplate life he is shown to be just as clueless and frustrated as everyone else.

‘The Night Alive’ weaves together comedy and tragedy impeccably well. Although shocking, the tragic element lends something more substantial to a play that deceives its audience to be almost wholly comedic in its genre. Despite bleak situations and unsettling actions, what shines through the most is the human strength the characters show to carry on regardless and with hope of something better in the face of constant adversity.

Album Review: ‘Music Complete’ – New Order

With a music catalogue dating back to the early eighties and a further history with Joy Division dating back to 1976, it’s amazing to consider just how long New Order have been on the music scene and the amount of music they have managed to produce throughout the years.

Couple this with their faith in upholding a truly unique sound that has stood the test of the past 35 odd years and you have a really exceptional band. “Music Complete” their tenth studio album has reached second place on the UK album charts. While at a glance it seems surprising that a band who have been around as long as New Order are able to permeate this high into the 2015 UK music charts, it really isn’t that surprising at all when you hear the album.

There is always the fear with bands and artists that have been around for as long as New Order that any of their new releases somehow won’t measure up to the musical tastes of the modern audience. The idea that they reached their peak in the eighties and that their sound will somehow seem aged because of this is very much a potentiality.

Yet, New Order have managed to achieve a delightful measure of experimentation with modern dance/electro music coupled with a loyalty to that unique, inherently New Order sound. If you compare say, New Order’s very first single “Ceremony” with “Academic” a track off “Music Complete” while the latter has a more modern feel to it, that ability to create a helplessly appealing but simplistic guitar riff lies at the bottom of both these tracks. Weaved throughout “Music Complete” is loyalty to a sound that can only be accurately described as absolutely New Order.

First track “Restless” is an appealing combination of steady guitar and some glorious but tasteful synthy goodness. Bernard Sumner’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood-esque vocals are as prominent as they ever were and with a nice guitar solo thrown in too, it gets the album off to an intriguing start.

The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowland produced the track “Singularity” which begins with an odd, distorted but nonetheless interesting sound that you’d be forgiven for mistaking for Metronomy. Fast paced electro accompanied with the chorus “One day at a time, inch by inch. For every kiss on lovers’ lips. For lost souls who can’t come home. Friends, not here, we share our tears.” These lyrics are deeper and more complicated than we have come to expect from New Order.

The Hot Chip-esque track “Tutti Frutti” wouldn’t feel out of place in a nightclub and is a particular highlight of “Music Complete.” For the chorus Sumner’s vocals are accompanied by La Roux’s Elly Jackson and it really enhances this upbeat track. The band also take a leaf out of Clean Bandit’s book combining violin with electro tracks adding another interesting layer to the song.

“Music Complete” alternates from upbeat tracks such as “Tutti Frutti” “People on the High Line” and “Plastic” to more emotionally fuelled and intense tracks such as “Stray Dog” which features Iggy Pop’s reading of a particularly bleak poem by Sumner alongside some instrumentals that are at subtle moments distinctively Joy Division-esque.

Final track “Superheated” bring the album to a triumphant close. Fast paced and featuring vocals by Brandon Flowers, it is fast paced and upbeat but with an emotional undercurrent through a violin and harp infused opening. With simplistic lyrics that lament a relationship gone wrong it ends with the repeated lyrics of “It’s over…” for an overall appropriate ending to the album.

“Music Complete” is overall an ambitious album that will appeal to both long time New Order fans and indeed any one unfamiliar with their music. This is achieved through an adventurous fusion of a modern, electro/dance sound with their unmistakable unique style remaining instated throughout.