Archives for October 2011

Both Sides at the Crescent Arts Centre

Marie-Louise Muir | 13:07 UK time, Wednesday, 26 October 2011


Ransom Productions based in Belfast have put on belters of plays in the past, taking a punt on new writing from here and putting it on stage to critical acclaim.

Highlights include Robert Welch's "Protestants" and Richard Dormer's "Hurricane". Their latest production is their bravest to date. A double bill from David Ireland (the Lyric Theatre's writer in residence and recent Meyer-Whitworth award prize winner) and Robert Welch (author of the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature).

I say brave, because both plays push the envelope of taboos in our society. In particular, Ireland's play "Yes So I said Yes" which shows male rape and bestiality, all performed with as black a humour as I have ever seen from Ireland's pen. I never thought I would laugh out loud at such uncomfortable scenes, but I did and so did the audience. Snuffy, the lead character, is a former loyalist paramilitary, displaced and dispossessed since the ceasefires. While pushing the boundaries of taste and decency, Ireland has touched on the most taboo of subjects, the Northern Ireland elephant in the room,. For former paramilitaries and their supporters, how can we be at war one day and the next day be christened the Chuckle Brothers?

But be warned, that final scene, played with great courage by actors Roy Heayberd and JD Kelleher, is tough to watch. It's horror morphs into bizarre as the rest of the ensemble cast sing and dance in front of the two actors in a style reminiscent of Mel Brook's Springtime for Hitler in Germany.

Interval, the audience stay, no one quite meeting the other's eye, complicit in our laughter in the final stages of Ireland's play.

Next up, Robert Welch's play "Static". A hospital bed centre stage. A man is lying in it, dying of cancer. He is also a former terrorist, Armagh-based, now a successful horse man, but he is known locally as a killer. And he likes this status, especially among the young women of the area. This is all revealed as the morphine driver in his arm slowly releases the painkiller which releases his tongue. He was a sniper. He shot a soldier in the head. Now he is a dying breed, once a branded as a freedom fighter for Ireland, now, in moments of lucidity, railing against former comrades who have gone with the new dispensation at Stormont. Robert Welch captures the agony of cancer with the dying spirit of a former combatant.

Rachel O'Riordan, Ransom's Artistic Associate, says the project came about as she wanted to take a challenging look at life here now. When political change happens, it creates, she says, a cultural and social shift.

What I felt most powerfully was the trauma and fear that underlies Northern Ireland today. Yes we have a government on the hill, ministers, departments, a new sense of devolved self, but how do you move on from 30 years of killings? How do the people at the core of this horror change and accept a new role, or in many cases, a lack of role?

The shift that has happened, be it political or cultural, and it has changed us. Watching both plays challenges us to see that change. And to know there is no going back. And if you're shocked all the better.

"Both Sides" is at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast until the 28th October. It then goes on a Northern Ireland tour.

Nose bags for theatre reviewers?

Marie-Louise Muir | 16:49 UK time, Monday, 24 October 2011

Am off to see another offering in the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens tonight. "Both Sides Now" by Ransom Productions. But, all this cultural activity leaves me with a problem. Food.  I don't finish work until 7 and events start anytime from 730 on, and I am usually raving with hunger. I don't eat before I go on air, due to fear of bodily gases(if you must know!) in the middle of an interview. 

Last week I found myself racing up the road on foot to the Lyric Theatre, stopping off at a Stranmillis shop to buy a packet of KP Nuts and smuggling them into the show, crunching and rattling the packet during the louder bits. They were sustenance of sorts, protein enriched, but they're not my dinner. Meanwhile, I have a stew cooking in the slow cooker for my children and husband (working mother guilt for not being there) while I will be salivating at the thought of it sitting in the Crescent Arts Centre.

I wonder if theatres could provide a nose bag of sorts for reviewers and late night workers like myself to keep our blood sugar levels up during the show? But then, if you were sitting beside me and I unwrapped an egg & onion sandwich, you wouldn't thank me. There's an eating etiquette. I've canvassed opinion from seasoned reviewers, Jane Coyle and Grania McFadden, who tell me that chocolate is my only man. Now, maybe chocolate peanuts would be better? And no, I'm not sharing!

The Request Programme at Obel Tower Belfast

Marie-Louise Muir | 13:57 UK time, Monday, 24 October 2011

I went to see a play in an apartment at the weekend. It was on the 17th floor of the Obel Tower, Belfast, spacious, luxurious, ensuite in the master bedroom with spectacular views of Belfast Lough. I sound like an estate agent. We gathered in the lobby as residents went to and fro. Or were they? I started to question whether everyone was part of the play. But, in fairness, I think they were just people who lived in the apartment block. We were invited to come up to the apartment about 15 mins before the play started. It was a one woman show, “Request Programme”, from Cork based company Corcadorca, and we were told to have a look around. So we had a bit of a snoop. Family photos, books, copies of Hello magazine, a packet of Chocolate Kimberleys in the cupboard. I toyed with the idea of making a cup of coffee and leaving the cup in the sink with the unwashed dishes. And then the “owner “ of the flat came home. Played by Catherine Walsh, “Request Programme” is without words. We watch this woman go about her evening rituals once she has come home from work. We watched her do the dishes in the kitchen and put on the kettle. We followed her into the bedroom while she took off her work clothes. We followed her back into the kitchen while she made a cup of tea and watched the tv for a bit. We stood outside the bathroom door while she did a pee. We watched as she worked on a quilt she was making. We were there as she brushed her teeth and washed her face and got into bed. She turned out the light and we sat in the dark while she lay in the bed. And then the light was on, we were there when she got up, went back into the kitchen, took out a bottle of pills and washed them down with a small bottle of bubbly. The End.

It was compelling and slightly hypnotic to be there, in this space, with no words, watching this actress act out the loneliness of a woman who finds her life so  unbearable she commits suicide. It’s just that the end was too sudden for me. The lights came up and the drama ended, just moments into taking the pills. I was left thinking the director could have dragged it out a bit more, taken us back into the bedroom, left us in the dark with her, making us uncomfortable, heightening our sense of complicity at watching her for a final time. 

Then it struck me today, this play is 40 years old. Written in German in 1971 by Franz Xaver Kroetz, it must have been shocking to witness the breakdown of another human being in such an intimate way 40 years ago. But when I walked into that apartment on Saturday night in Belfast to see it, I was bringing with me the baggage of life today. While I turned the “noise” off, phone to silent, no texting, tweeting, status updating during the play, I was almost innured to the message of the play. This is the generation of watching people 24/7 in a house filled with cameras for a tv show. This is the generation that tells “friends” in cyberspace the highs and lows of their lives in 147 characters. This is the generation that takes it for granted that they will see images of a dead dictator on the internet moments after his death.

Watching a woman take her own life in a 1971 play seemed less shocking. But that’s what has shocked me the most. Not the play, but my own reaction to it.

Kenneth Branagh

Marie-Louise Muir | 12:31 UK time, Monday, 17 October 2011


Kenneth Branagh and Marie-Louise Muir


Finally got my long-awaited interview with Kenneth Branagh on Friday. He's been in town slogging it out on the stage of the Lyric Theatre with Rob Brydon in The Painkiller for the past few weeks, but with the last few performances in sight, he took time out to come in and talk to me! I even came in on my day off and deposited the youngest child with her wee friend (and very understanding mother) while I went in. This wasn't the first time I had met Ken. Well, I doorstepped him last week when he was in with Mark Lawson of BBC Radio 4's Front Row. The corridor outside Studio 3 of BBC Belfast was an inauspicious meeting place, especially as I started to babble with nerves. "We met before" I blurted out, "Yes, when I was working in the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith". Oh he said., with interest.  No I said. I was working in the Lyric Theatre's cafe, summer job, 1987, I gave you spaghetti bolognaise one night. His PR lady was moving him on as I struggled to put a sock in it, but I heard myself saying, in order to prove that I did have some cultural credibility, "I went in to see you in the play  Public Enemy. You were great". Aghh! Note to self. Stop talking when you know you are babbling. Actually, he was great. The play (wot he wrote) is a thriller , in which Branagh also takes the lead, a Jimmy Cagney-style Belfast hitman. He spoke in a Northern Ireland accent and I felt proud hearing the accent in the middle of London.

So when he came into studio on Friday, I didn't mention the spaghetti bolognaise! He was such fun, doing the Belfast accent, telling anecdotes about being on the set of the Billy plays and revealing that he is actively interested in the new Billy play Graham Reid is writing, about where Billy is now. He talked about the grief he felt when his parents told him he had to move house from Belfast to Reading, bawling his eyes out, but that the promise of a back garden took on Wembly-esque dimensions!

He looked tired, the sheer physical impact of nightly French farce taking it's toll. But he's heading off to Sweden to film Wallander and there's talk about another Thor. But we'll be waiting for the next Billy play. Wouldn't it be great if it premiered here?

 You can hear the interview on Arts Extra today on BBC Radio Ulster at 1830 (and for the next 7 days on the BBC iPlayer)

The Painkiller at the Lyric Theatre Belfast

Marie-Louise Muir | 13:02 UK time, Monday, 3 October 2011

Photo of Ken Branagh and Rob Brydon at the Lyric Theatre Belfast


Forget about what's happening on stage. Even if it is Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon. There was more interest in who was in the audience on Saturday night at the Lyric for The Painkiller. David Walliams, having survived his swim the length of the Thames was there, as was Sir Derek Jacobi. It was the talk of Facebook even before the play started. I genuinely don't think I have felt such a frisson about a play in Belfast before. I was at the press night on Thursday night. The closest to celebrity that night was BBC Radio Ulster's Mark Carruthers OBE!
But you could sense that it was living up to its name of being the hottest ticket in town. Normally press nights at the Lyric include local hacks, including me, BBC's Maggie Taggart and Grania McFadden from the Belfast Telegraph. But on Thursday, there was a man sitting in front of me, scribbling down notes throughout, while two older ladies, audience members, took great delight in pointing at him. It seems this lesser spotted theatre critic was the Telegraph's Charles Spencer. He seemed to like it. The play and seemed oblivious to the attention of the two ladies!
So back to what's happening on stage - Sean Foley's adaptation of Francis Veber's French farce "The Painkiller". Sean Foley wrote "The Play what I Wrote" which Branagh directed in the West End. In this production, Branagh takes to the stage of his hometown, playing a very suave, sexy looking professional hit man, Ralph. May I pause here to say that it is obvious that Branagh, despite his 50 years, works out! May I pause here to say that Rob obviously doesn't work out, which adds to the comic effect of his exposed garish boxer shorts and his trousers around his ankles bouncing up the steps of the bedroom.
Rob Brydon is a press photographer, Brian Dudley, who ends up in adjoining rooms to Branagh's character in a hotel. The two characters are both in town to take a different "shot" of a huge trial taking place across the road from the hotel in the nearby courthouse.  
It's Brydon's first stage play, and he is very good. It was an odd moment though when he walked out onto the stage as I half thought we should have clapped him, just for being Rob Brydon. Ditto for Branagh when he came on. 
As farces go, this is no different. There's a lot of trouser dropping, general disrobing, simulated sex, mainly between men, but this display of flesh and general carry on maybe won't go viral quite like Rhianna in the field in Bangor. And then there's the walking into doors, slipping on wet floors, and the physical comedy, particularly Branagh's, which is laugh out loud brilliant.
At one point he is given a large dose of valium, injected with comic precision into his left buttock,  and his slow awakening from it, incapable of speech or of even walking in a straight line, is a masterclass in farce.
There's been ambivalent reaction to the play. Some like it, others loathe it. I laughed a lot, even if it was silly in places. But bottom line, excuse the pun, It's a farce. And while London basked in 30c, and it was bucketing from the heavens here, it's good to know that Ken and Rob and their famous friends were in town.

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