A big noise in Pigtown

I went to see a superb production of the play, Pigtown, last night (June 19) in the Belltable. The newly founded Belltable Community Theatre Project—a cast of mostly amateurs—performed Mike Finn’s award-winning play and it will run until Saturday June 23. The play was dramatic but what happened AFTER the play was equally so. Someone other than Mick Daly—maverick garage owner out in the lane backing onto the theatre—made a big noise about…noise.

Pigtown was made famous by local professional company, Island Theatre Co. but I didn’t see it the first time around. I’m going to join the ranks of many in saying it is a truly exceptional piece of writing; often pure poetry and by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s a bonus that it’s all about the rich history of this fair city of ours. It’s a real love letter to Limerick and since, to quote a line, I was “bred and buttered” here, I really enjoyed it. The vibrant ensemble did it justice, anchored by a brilliant performance by John Anthony Murphy as main character, Tommy Clocks. In short, it’s the best thing I’ve seen in the Belltable in quite a while.

There was a harrowing scene in it where a local Garda expresses his frustration at people who hear terrible things but conversely, refuse to listen. Now, anyone who has been at the Belltable for an event since it reopened in late 2010 has most likely realised that there is a serious issue with noise disruption there.

This is as a result of a long running dispute with Mr Daly, whose business is in the lane behind the stage of the theatre. As reported in the local press, it boiled over last week about the noise coming from the garage interrupting Pigtown.

Most of the events I’ve attended there in the last 18 months, have been spoiled in varying degrees by a symphony of clanging, hammering, drilling, engine revving and other grating sound effects. To use a bad pun, it drives me mad. Nearly everyone I know has been treated to my ranting about this. I try not to refer to it in published reviews etc because events/performers deserve to stand on their own merit. I also didn’t want to damage the venue’s reputation by pointing it out BUT the failure to resolve the issue is doing enough damage as it is.

I was inspired to break the silence by the playwright, Mike Finn. He asked the audience to sign a petition seeking to compel the Belltable and Limerick City Council to resolve the problem. Last night, he stood up in front of the audience and got to the heart of it. The audience and practitioners shouldn’t have to suffer because there is a dispute between two parties. Both of them feel that they have the genuine grievance and that they are right.

Mr Daly feels that the extensive renovations to the building disrupted his business, which I’m sure they did (as any building site on your doorstep is going to do). He said he was there before the Belltable, which is true. He says he is entitled to work in his business any time he pleases, which he is. He claims the noise was always there but no-one noticed before the renovations. I would argue that most mechanics keep daytime hours and it is a mighty coincidence that extremely loud activity takes place during performances. He knows there is a theatre beside his business and could choose to be quieter out of respect to the audience. If it is a ploy to get at the management, you have to admit that it’s rather ingenious. But unfortunately, it is punishing all the wrong people; people who invest in the arts.

The Belltable management/board etc got funding for a major development and set out to execute it. The planning permission was granted. It was major work, so the venue had to run a programme in another building. Did they make enough allowances for the effect that this work would have on the neighbouring businesses? Could they have done more to lessen/ease the burden of the disruption? I don’t know. Do I believe the Belltable (and possibly other parties) have tried to resolve the dispute? Yes. Has it worked? Obviously, it has not.

The real question is: can this situation continue? NO!

Firstly, the fact that the Belltable had to reduce capacity and stage shows in a lesser venue for more than a year lost it some ground as a venue. It cannot afford to further alienate its audience. The noise is also an obstacle to attracting new audience members, as is a dearth of high quality productions/events on the programme. The pool of production companies/organisations in Ireland is small. People talk. Artists are protective of their work. There is a real risk that companies won’t bring work to Limerick at all. It’s probably already a factor and the city can ill afford any further disadvantage.

That Limerick Leader article refers to the cost of monitoring the noise at €3,000 a month. So I’m paying money to the Belltable to subsidise this nonsense when I can’t even hear the dialogue of the play! And taxpayers’ money paid for the €1.3 million redevelopment of the Belltable. It’s a farce straight off the stage.

Without placing blame on either party; the dispute is petty and ridiculous. Everyone is losing out. The Belltable is preoccupied with its noisy neighbour where it should be focused on fulfilling its remit and fighting for its future.

Seemingly, Cllr. Tom Shortt is going to try and set up meetings to resolve the issue. I hope there will be a happy ending to this particular saga. I just want to watch a play in peace! It’s not too much to ask, is it?

200th post!! Theatre review: Fight Night at the Belltable

I saw the play Fight Night last Friday at the Belltable Arts Centre and it’s a horrible cliché to say that it packs a powerful dramatic punch…but I’m past caring what people think. And that’s at least one thing I have in common with Dan Coyle Jr—the protagonist of the piece.

Dan’s grandfather, father and brother achieved great success in boxing and since he didn’t emulate that he feels like an outsider in his own family. It is only when Dan has his own son that he starts reflecting on his past and what led to the end of his boxing career six years before. Dan decides that to fight his demons outside the ring, he has to get back in it.

Of course, it draws comparisons with films like Rocky or The Fighter but the script—mainly a stream of consciousness style monologue—is emotionally complex with a firmly Irish flavour. The play has the relationship between fathers and sons at its core. Dan Jr must confront his father, his father’s assumptions and the family legacy. But he’s also battling his deepest fears (being a failure and a disappointment) and asking questions about self worth, love and life in modern Ireland.

These are weighty matters but Gavin Kostick’s script broaches the subjects naturally with conversational language. The audience is drawn in by this everyman quality. The movement of time is clear but punctuated by flashbacks and pivotal moments. Lighting and music/sound design were good. The direction by Bryan Burroughs was very solid. All the individual elements of the production were in harmony and the pace never let up.

Aonghus Óg McAnally was outstanding. Firstly, the piece was specifically written for him based on his own proposal as part of the ‘Show in a Bag’ initiative (an artist development initiative of Dublin Fringe Festival, Fishamble: The New Play Company and Irish Theatre Institute). It was a winner of both Best Actor and the Bewley’s Little Gem Award in Dublin’s ABSOLUT Fringe 2010. Both awards were well deserved.

His performance was energetic and very physical, incorporating the training regime. He skipped perfectly while talking for what seemed like 10 minutes at the opening and the ritualistic way he taped up his hands was fascinating, for example. Monologues probably pose the biggest challenge for an actor; there’s nowhere to hide! But he never hesitated or wavered in emotional intensity. The gloves were truly off and the play could not but be a total knock-out as a result. It might be a cliché but that doesn’t make it less true!

Fight Night is currently on a national tour and will also be part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival from next Tuesday, October 4 to 9.

Now for a small rant…
The play was top class but the turn-out was extremely poor. I’d say there were 14-15 people in the 220 seat auditorium. It must be soul destroying for an actor to come out and perform for a near empty house. AND there were some extra sound effects at the start thanks to the venue’s infamous noisy neighbour. It was a credit to McAnally as a professional that he still gave it his all under difficult conditions.

I don’t know why the audience was so low for an award winning play. It was covered in local press Ents sections and online; it featured as prominently in the Belltable’s programme as any other production. Granted, it wasn’t a local company. The miserable weather on Friday didn’t encourage punters to venture out and the subject matter/format wouldn’t appeal to everyone. A ‘one night only’ performance is also harder to sell because with a longer run at least you have the possibility of word of mouth marketing.

I’m going out on a limb to say high ticket prices might have had something to do with it. The first three and last three rows were priced at €12.50 and there were €17.50 and €20 options for the rest of it. I don’t think people should be expected to pay up to €20 for a 55 minute performance no matter how good it is. You can’t put a true value on art but people put a price on it all the time! I don’t mind paying a higher price for a large cast and/or high production costs i.e. elaborate costumes, special effects, a big set. But this play had one actor and the set consisted of a stool and a few props.

Myself and my two friends opted for the cheap seats and they were great—one row between us and the stage. The Belltable is still compact enough to have a good view from anywhere in the auditorium so I don’t think a cheap across the board ticket price would have done any harm. I know venues and practitioners have to recoup costs and try to make money but the recession is biting hard for audience members too.

Anyway, I want to know why more people don’t go to the theatre in Limerick and in general? What is so off-putting? Do you dislike certain venues? Do you have a problem with the choice of production on offer? Is the cost prohibitive? Are you intimidated by the theatre? I’m genuinely interested.

Thoughts in the comment box or by email to rfinucanefreelance@gmail.com. Best letter gets a prize…disclaimer: prize may be crap.