Review: Eggsistentialism, Belltable Arts Hub 9 September

eggsistentialism-e1468285941215Eggsistentialism, 9 September 2016 Venue: Belltable Arts Hub, Limerick. Written and performed by: Joanne Ryan. Directed by: Veronica Coburn

“To baby or not to baby?” That is the question posed in this brutally honest and exceptionally amusing autobiographical theatre piece.

While suffering from a terrible hangover on her 35th birthday, actress Joanne Ryan begins to ponder one of those big life decisions and her search for an answer leads her to fortune tellers and fertility clinics alike. She mines her experience of family, cross-examines friends, observes parenthood in action and does extensive research with the dedication of a PhD student. The result is equal parts theatre, stand up comedy and multimedia presentation.

The writing is sharp, imbued with personality and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Although having a child is an immensely personal decision, motherhood and its place in Ireland and the world get an airing too. At one stage, the audience gets a speedy account of some key moments in Irish legal, social and popular cultural history in the 20th century. Her life (and egg count) might be under the microscope but introducing political context encourages the audience to think and interrogate along with her. Are women defined according to whether they have children or not? Can you have a fulfilling life and legacy without offspring? Do children make your life hell through a canny combination of sleep deprivation and extra housework, not to mention disfiguring your nether regions? There is a balance between the serious and irreverent.

ahppnbooArt imitating life is to the fore here so the acting was very natural. Ryan is a natural comedienne with a line in self-deprecating delivery. I was in tears from laughter a lot. The actress detailing her results on online parenting quizzes and reading excerpts from dodgy 1980s parenting books are particular highlights. But her jocular stage presence is offset with scenes of real poignancy too. She very occasionally slips into lecture mode, bad egg puns and playing for laughs but those are rare and forgivable. She did well to compete with the continual scene stealing of her mother, Gloria, whose recorded voice and opinions play a great supporting role. Rob, her boyfriend, and other voices pepper the piece too.

The production design was outstanding. Hats off to Pauric Hackett (production manager, set & lighting design), Sinead Diskin (sound design) and Neil O’Driscoll (animation). The animations, using 3D projection, augmented the minimalistic set and made things visually interesting, from online news articles to timelines; the cartoons ensure the play isn’t a complete Vagina Monologue. The voice recordings and music are essential to the piece and again, provide variety to the show. Many aspects of the production are impressive. It was conceived first in Hatch LK (a Limerick theatre incubation project) before being developed further with UK outfit, Theatre Uncut, Fishamble’s New Play Clinic and went from page to stage under director, Veronica Coburn.

As a woman in my early thirties, you could say I’m bang on target audience but judging by the positive reaction of the audience comprised of both men and women of all ages, I wasn’t the only one for whom it resonated. Next stop for the play is the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival (12-17 September) and Smock Alley Theatre and I would heartily recommend going to see it.

It’s difficult to stand up alone and bare your real-life hopes and fears to an audience, especially on such a private and simultaneously public topic. The play is confessional, engaging, thought-provoking and damn funny. Joanne Ryan has given birth to a real bundle of joy in Eggsistentialism.

More information on the play here.BT logo

PS: It was lovely to see a nearly full house at the Belltable again! It’s been a turbulent few years for the venue and now it’s back on track with its autumn/winter programme. For more information, click here.

Culture Round-Up Sept 15

It’s been a busy September and I haven’t gotten around to blogging very much so I’m going to do a bit of a round-up…

First up, Elemental Arts & Culture Festival (11-13 Sept) seemed to be a success. There was a definite buzz around the city centre and lots of family friendly stuff, which was lovely. I got to a few things as well.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 23.12.34I really loved the documentary, Alive Inside. I’d really recommend it if you get a chance to see it online or on DVD. It follows a social worker called Dan Cohen, who runs a non-profit organisation called Music and Memory. They go into healthcare settings, mostly nursing homes, to show how to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss. The film shows how music can benefit those suffering from dementia, severe mental illness and conditions like MS. They supply headphones and iPods loaded with music, preferably a person’s favourite music. At a basic level, it can give them a pleasurable break from routine but it can also help them remember things, connect with the outside world and ultimately, improve their quality of life. It highlights issues with healthcare systems globally and the way we treat our aging population. But it deals with music as an element of culture, how we experience it and the interplay between music and feelings. It is truly amazing the way people reacted to music i.e. Alzheimer’s patients who didn’t normally communicate are suddenly alert and even singing and dancing in some cases. It begs the question: Could a ‘prescription’ of music be as effective (or more effective) as drugs? It’s a combination of uplifting and heart-breaking but well worth a look.

On the Saturday, I got along to the Fab Lab to see Love Letters from Limerick—an exhibition of traditional sign-writing and the art of hand painted lettering. Local sign artist, Tom Collins, is involved and visiting sign-artists, Sean and Kayleigh Starr, took part too. The pieces on display are very cool—a lot of distinctive signs and decorative items like embossed mirrors. There’s also a new sign that has been created for the project and erected on the side of a building on William Street reading ‘Everybody else is doing it so why can’t we?’—presumably in honour of The Cranberries’ album of the same name. The exhibition is running until this Friday, October 2.

I also called into the Hunt Museum to see Father Browne’s First World War—an exhibition of photographs by the Cork-born army chaplain. He ministered to troops at the Somme, Messines Ridge, Paschendaele, Ypres, Amiens and Arras. Some of his photos were stunning. I loved the immediacy of the trench and battlefield shots. By the way, the superb, Ranks: A Limerick Industry, is the Hunt’s current exhibition. Blurb is: “The Ranks flour mills were at the heart of Limerick for generations. This exhibition celebrates and explores the role of Ranks in Limerick’s history through stories from the local community.” If you’re in town and at a loose end before 25 October, I’d urge you to go and see it. I saw it before and it’s quite touching. It’s a huge part of Limerick’s industrial past but the personal accounts are nice.

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 21.24.25Also during Elemental, I had a look at Third Bridge by Andrew Kearney and Deirdre Power in Ormston House. The exhibition was “based on the collective action taken in 1983 by then first year students at Limerick School of Art and Design to construct a ‘third bridge’ over the Shannon, built from 180 polystyrene bricks, strung together, bracelet-like, by two 185 meter-long nylon ropes”. The effort “exemplified what Suzanna Lacy would later refer to as ‘new genre’ public art”. Mostly consisting of photos documenting the project, I thought it was very well put together and illustrated an interesting period in the city’s history. I would’ve loved for more photos to be in colour but it’s likely they were shot on black and white film. If they weren’t, I feel an even split between colour and monochrome would have been better but it was still a great show.  

I saw the play, Charolais, that night in 69 O’Connell Street. Told from the perspective of lovelorn farmhand, Siobhán, and a rather snooty French cow, it was very clever. Written and performed by Noni Stapleton, the black comedy is a tale of homicidal jealousy between a woman and a prize cow (literally). The solo performance was excellent—particularly when she was playing the part of the animal—and the writing smutty, raw and hilarious in parts. It premiered in Dublin Fringe 2014 as part of Show in a Bag—an artist development initiative of Dublin Fringe Festival, Fishamble: The New Play Company and the Irish Theatre Institute. I’ve seen some brilliant plays arising out of Show in a Bag including Bandit, Fight Night, The Wheelchair on my Face, Counter Culture and Connected.

The following Friday (18 Sept) was Culture Night and again, there was a fabulous buzz around the city centre with all the events going on. I called into LCGA, Limerick Craft Hub, the Hunt Museum, the Fab Lab and the Milk Market but the highlight was an Open House initiative at 4 Patrick Street. The building, formerly a shop before it was boarded up as part of the ill-fated Opera Centre Project, was also the birthplace of famous Limerick soprano, Catherine Hayes. You could only step in to see a limited shop floor space but then a young local soprano read a little bit about Hayes’ global career and sang excerpts from arias from operas Hayes performed in. It lasted 10-15 minutes max but it was a perfect slice of culture. I love the concept of Culture Night (and late opening of galleries/musuems could happen a little more often BTW). The hope is that it encourages people to seek things out on some of the other 364 days of the year.

To top September off, I was invited along to see Waiting in Line by local theatre company, Honest Arts, at the Jonathan Swift Theatre in UL last week. A sharp commentary of Ireland’s social welfare culture written by Pius McGrath and Tara Doolan, I thought it was observant and funny with strong performances. McGrath was particularly impressive. The set design was amazing; no surprise that it was nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award. The settings were projected onto the background (with realistic animations) using 3D mapping technology. This innovative technique is possibly the future of set design and suited the fast pace of the piece very well. Honest Arts garnered positive reviews for production, The Mid-Knight Cowboy, at the Edinburgh Fringe and Waiting in Line showed at the Toronto Fringe Festival. This vibrant, young company is a definite ‘one to watch’.

Review: The Trial, Limerick Youth Theatre

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 13.58.32I went to see Limerick Youth Theatre’s The Trial at 69 O’Connell Street last night (Friday 21 August) and I would recommend it. The last show is tonight (Saturday 22 August). Note: This review contains spoilers!

An adaptation of Kafka’s novel by Stephen Berkoff, The Trial is a challenging piece of work and I think LYT did a great job of bringing it to life.

The bank official, Josef K., is arrested “one fine morning” but he doesn’t know for what crime and no-one will tell him. Released but frustrated to the point of distraction, he tries to navigate the system but is continually denied any knowledge or access to due process. The law he is trying to wrestle with is a mystery, the people that try to help (including a lawyer) are ultimately as powerless as he and the authorities are uncooperative at best and brutal at worst. Thus, Josef K. is left in a perpetual state of uncertainty and the audience is led to believe that he may have wasted away wondering before a door, which he can never pass through—in a prison of his own making.

Let me preface this by saying that when I go to the theatre, I don’t like spending those few precious hours trying to interpret it as it’s happening. Call me boring, but I prefer when it’s  clear what’s going on because I enjoy it more. I once tried to read Kafka (Metamorphosis) and I gave up so I had an inkling I wasn’t going to love this piece. But, though the story and plot are confusing and some of the dialogue dense, the performance made up for it in entertainment value.

Firstly, the production design was top class from the stage arrangement to the set design and the musical direction & composition (both by Darren Maher) to the costume design (Marie Boylan, with assistance from Claire Dillon & Lauren Griffin). Though professional theatre practitioners were responsible for those elements, they created a solid foundation for the ensemble cast to build on.

IMG_0447The giant, looming Lady Justice model made from branches set the scene yet the upbeat lounge music playing before the sow started set up a strange contrast due to the serious subject matter. There were several catchy musical interludes throughout The Trial—singing and dancing alike. Some of it reminded me of the scenes involving the Sharks and the Jets from West Side Story; think menacing jazz hands, often creating a claustrophobic nightmare for Josef K. Cast member, Aoife Donnellan, did a nice job of the musical backing, which sometimes doubled as sound effects.

The muted colour scheme was broken by occasional bursts of colour in the costumes and the mask-like make-up was unsettling. Only Josef K. isn’t wearing a mask; the rest are faceless bureaucrats, enigmatic women, aloof officials etc. The props were good, especially Huld’s giant hands. The lighting design (Mattie Moran) played a part in bringing everything together too.

Movement was a huge part of the play. The ensemble played inanimate objects like tables, phones, clocks, public transport, staircases etc and that really had the audience tickled. If you’ve never seen someone acting as a chest of drawers or a bed, complete with creaks, you’re missing out. It’s hilarious and I’d imagine it takes a lot of skill. The ensemble was very impressive as a whole because they had to act as a chorus, a crowd, a workplace, a jury and a room at various points and they were never less than convincing.

There were a few stand-out performances. Liam Hillen as the hapless Josef K did very well because it’s an emotional rollercoaster of a part and carrying it is tough. Eoghan Hussey (Inspector/Huld) and Aiden Kelly (Father/Priest) deserve some credit as the pompous lawyer and the Gospel-type preacher. Emer Hayes has a great speaking voice and her short turn as ‘The Whipper’ (complete with realistic sound effects by two other cast-members) was a memorable one, as was Muireann Hogan as Block, Ellen King as the Laundress and Jack Coffey as the Bailiff. Naming a few is not to take away from the whole; the entire cast did themselves proud. (Full list of cast and crew at end)

One thing that annoyed me slightly was the multitude of accents being used. The scene announcements sound German and although it’s never referred to, it has a distinctly eastern European feel about it. But the audience were treated to a selection of accents like Irish Garda, German, British and American and I thought they could’ve just spoken in their own accents. That’s a minor complaint overall.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 14.16.17So, The Trial had a fair bit of comic relief but dealt with quite a dark subject. You’re never far away from a scene where Josef K. is humiliated, despairing, enduring psychological or physical abuse or wading through bureaucracy to find answers. Many characters are living in a state (or indeed State) of distrust and others just ignore or turn a blind eye. The play begins and ends on a bleak note. But, nevertheless it was interesting and perhaps a relevant piece of social commentary in many ways i.e. the justice system is complicated and sometimes unjust, getting tied up in red tape is unfair and distressing…I’m still not a convert to Kafka!

Director, Ann Blake, did a fine job of bringing out the cast’s strengths and brought a difficult script from page to stage, running a really tight show. LYT is a group of very talented young people, mostly teenagers, but they’re still amateurs. They really rose to the challenge of the professional production values and delivered a high quality performance worthy of the standing ovation it got.

To book tickets, ring 061-774774. More information on Limerick Youth Theatre at www.lyt.ie.

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Review: The Bachelor of Kilkish

Irish-Barber-Sketch-1I was at the opening night of The Bachelor of Kilkish, the latest from Limerick company Bottom Dog Theatre Company, last week (June 12) in the Lime Tree Theatre.

Written by Bottom Dog co-founder and well-known actor, Myles Breen, the play is about the eponymous ‘bachelor’, Eugene (Brendan Conroy) who is a 65 year old closeted gay man who owns a barbershop in a small, seaside town. His world revolves around the shop and local goings on—chatting with regulars like hotel owner, Pat (Pascal Scott), who drops in every week for a trim and sharing cosy tea breaks with lifelong pal, Agnes (Deirdre Monaghan) and young hotel receptionist, Jacinta (Clare Monnelly).

His polite, low-key existence is shaken up when fun and flamboyantly gay young barber, Ian (Stephen Tadgh), takes a summer job at the shop. As the small-town ‘old guard’ gear up for the summer festival and the Colleen of Kilkish pageant (sher, they’re all lovely girls, ahem), the status quo is under threat and things are about to change drastically…and I’m not talking about the rearrangement of the amusement arcade!

What followed was a play that swung between hilarious and heart-breaking. It dealt with a lot of issues sensitively, such as homophobia and from the other point of view—the experience of being gay in a conservative community, hiding who you truly are and fearful of being the subject of gossip. Other subjects were unrequited love and the simultaneous comfort and claustrophobia of small-town existence.

The contrast between Eugene and Ian is as marked as the dichotomy between a small Irish seaside resort in summer and in winter. The interplay between the two was one of the highlights of the play. Conroy played shy Eugene with great poise and dignity, building towards a new assertiveness and sense of self. Tadgh injected incredible energy to nearly every scene he was in as the witty, exuberant Ian. He has a flair for comedic timing and is wonderfully expressive in the role. The scene where he lip synchs and dances to Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ is a contender for the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. The whole audience was in stitches.

The two ladies played their supporting roles well. Both were vibrant in their own style and were convincing in the more morose, emotional scenes too. Pat and his son, Mike (Cillian Ó’Gairbhí) represented the more conservative, ‘conventional’ side of society but came dangerously close to being caricatures a few times. That said, there were a few very realistic incidences of classic Irishman reactions to being in close contact with a gay person very at ease with themselves. The uncomfortable exchanges had great comic realism.

The Bachelor of Kilkish is well written. Breen excels at sharp one-liners and there are many brilliantly funny moments and scenes in the play. This was a blessing and a curse I felt because when the tone shifted to more serious interludes, the audience was still laughing and it was hard to refocus. As I said, he approached the issues with innate understanding and addressed them carefully.

Final-Poster-The-Bachelor-of-Kilkish-Lime-Tree-2014For all the fun, it was terribly sad in parts too. I felt a real sense of empathy with Eugene. I couldn’t help thinking about all the others like him. The play had a good balance of light and shade in that way. It ended on a somewhat predictable, but hopeful and life affirming note.

He has a keen eye and ear for detail, making the setting seem genuine i.e. the townspeople referring to tourists as “swallows” because they fly in for a period and disappear as suddenly or the pompous, self-importance of commanding figures in local communities (we all know one or more!) spouting about reputations and brands.

There was a lot going on and director, Liam O’Brien, pulled all the elements together. The music was beautiful—making the scene transitions flow effortlessly—and the barbershop set was excellent and used in a very versatile way. The lighting was appropriately subtle.

I had a few minor problems with the play. I thought it was too long. It was pushing two hours and 30-45 minutes I’d say and I think if it could be cut back a bit, it should be because it would be the better for it. I thought the subplot involving Jacinta and Mike was drawn out, as were a few scenes generally. But these are small issues with a strong piece overall. (Note: I got a comment saying it ran for exactly 2 hrs 14 minutes with starting late and an interval overrun. I still reckon it was closer to 2 hrs 30 mins (not 45 thinking working it out in more detail). I took the delays into account and looked at my watch leaving at 11pm but I didn’t have a stopwatch. Perhaps it just went on too long in my estimation. My abiding point is: it seemed too long and dragged a bit so it could be cut back slightly. I stand by that.)

I really enjoyed The Bachelor of Kilkish and the 350 strong audience did too—showing their appreciation with a long standing ovation. Bottom Dog TC has produced some fine work since it was founded a few years ago and with limited funding.  The play was funded through the ‘Made in Limerick’ strand of City of Culture and I’m glad to say it was money well spent. Funny and touching, this quality of this production really demonstrates what they can do.

I’d recommend it. It’s showing in Kilkee this Thursday and Friday (June 19 and 20) and Friar’s Gate in Kilmallock this Saturday and Sunday (June 21 and 22).

Catch The Enclave before May 5!

438872188_640‘Enclave': A portion of territory surrounded by a larger territory whose inhabitants are culturally or ethnically distinct. A place or group that is different in character from those surrounding it.

I encourage anyone who hasn’t been yet to catch the exhibition, The Enclave, by Richard Mosse before it finishes up in Limerick this Bank Holiday Monday, May 5. It is in two parts—the photographs in a building in Rutland Street (opposite and down a bit from the Hunt Museum) and the multiple screen film in Ormston House in Patrick Street. I gather they should be viewed in the order: photos and then, film.

Now, I want to preface this by saying that I’m no expert on this mod-ren art craic. Sometimes, I genuinely can’t make any sense of pieces in exhibitions. It’s very much like: “A plastic bag under a marble slab beside some fishing line connected to a 2 x 4 plank…What the f**k is this?!” It reminds me of a news item I saw recently where a cleaner at a gallery had binned part of an exhibit by mistake. Well, the piece did include “cookie pieces scattered across the floor”. Easy mistake! This kind of thing has happened at least twice before. I once saw a jacket hung on a radiator in a gallery and wondered was it art or storage. I would just like to point out at this juncture, that I’ve seen many pieces of art I did appreciate.

From my untrained point of view, The Enclave is appropriately named. It is wholly “different in character from those surrounding it”. It is the result of a three year exploration of the conflicted landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo by the artist.

War and peace, order and chaos, living and dying…all human life is here

Firstly, the look of the photos and footage is unlike anything I’ve seen before; it uses a discontinued military reconnaissance film originally designed for camouflage detection but which registers an invisible spectrum of infrared light. The effect is a psychedelic, ethereal colour-palette. Everything is displayed in shockingly vivid hues and the beauty of the landscape, in particular, jumps off the wall and screen.

The film literally surrounds you. You step into complete darkness and it encloses you with a combination of the multiple screens, a haunting musical score and ambient sound recordings. The words “it grabbed me” don’t do it justice. Unless you’re made of stone, it reaches into you and takes hold.

1.south masisiThe phrase “emotional rollercoaster” is a bit hackneyed at this stage but The Enclave is fast and shocking and exhilarating and sickening and a hundred other things. The way it’s shot, with a steadicam, makes it seem as if you are walking through the landscape and villages and bearing witness to the beautiful and horrifying things too.

The stark contrast between all the things it is at once is both the best and worst thing about the exhibition: war and peace, order and chaos, living and dying…all human life is here.

I’m going to stop writing before I lapse completely into nonsense (or have I already? You decide). Just go and see The Enclave. It’s amazing. It reminded me why I still risk going to contemporary visual art exhibitions, lest I experience some kind of Falling Down style outburst. Picasso once said that art “washes away the dust of everyday life” (not literally, Italian cleaner). I really believe that. For all the dross and abstract that you find on show, there is no real way to sweep all traces of this particular exhibition away. It stays with you.

The Enclave was chosen as Ireland’s representative at the Venice Art Biennale 2013, the world’s foremost art event, so kudos to the team at Ormston House and City of Culture for bringing it here and executing it so well. The opening hours have been extended: Thursday 12-7pm; Friday 12-6pm; Saturday 12-6pm; Sunday 12-6pm and Monday 12-6pm. Admission is free. www.ormstonhouse.com