Review: Siege at Unfringed 2012

Writer: Ciarda Tobin. Director: Marie Boylan. Cast: Aidan Crowe, Erica Murray and Joanne Ryan. Stage Manager: Gerr Meaney. Lighting Design: Dave O’Brien. Sound Design: Andre McGovern

Limerick hasn’t hosted a Siege since the 17th century, so it was fitting then that the opener to the 2012 Unfringed Festival was titled as such. Swinging wildly between comedy and tragedy, this Trojan War-inspired drama set in modern Limerick was a real mixed bag. There were strong performances and production elements but Siege also an Achilles heel in a few areas.

The play—which ran from October 16 to 18—has a strong local flavour with the writer, director, and the cast all from Limerick. It is set on a housing estate where the gangster, Mouse, makes all the rules. He has a big drug deal in the works and when his girlfriend, Helena, and her daughter, Whitney, uncover his secret he unleashes a fiery rage, which threatens to consume them and all they hold dear. The play is narrated by missing person, Pa, who is Helena’s ex and one of Mouse’s former allies.

The 50 minute play moved at a fast pace as Pa oversaw a grim tale of love, crime, violence and betrayal—both in flashbacks and in real time. His frantic speeches gave an idea of how cheap life is on the estate; petty theft and the constant threat of violence are met with indifference (disinterest even) and if you ‘rat’, you get punished.

I felt at times that injecting pace came at the expense of fleshing out the plot and character development. The build-up to conclusion was suspenseful although the abrupt ending left the audience confused. There is a problem when they don’t realise when the play is over. For me, it seemed rushed.

Ciarda Tobin is deft in the frenetic monologues and in incorporating elements from the Greek myth i.e. the drugs hidden in a live horse’s stomach. She avoids sticking too rigidly to it because as Senator David Norris learned in his doomed presidential campaign: comparisons with ancient Greece don’t always work out. The problems we have in certain areas of Limerick are many and complex. I wonder if the production was trying to cover too much ground or say too much in under an hour?

There was also a heavy dose of comedy. The mood was often lightened with things like Whitney’s childish antics and the bitchy pub/karaoke scenes. There were plenty of one-liners, colloquialisms and local references to raise a laugh from the audience. But the funny elements risked trivialising the overall tone. Don’t get me wrong; it was good material (albeit a little reliant on stereotypes and clichés). I don’t know if it would translate fully to non-locals either.

It was slightly jarring to have so much comedy in the context i.e. there was a very eloquent note from the playwright on the programme. It explained that she wrote it “because I met a mother who barricaded herself and her two children into their house every night and prayed that they would wake up…the city is not at war so why talk about it? When one side is afraid to speak and the other is afraid to notice what is left?” That’s a powerful idea…and arguably a different play! But the spirit in which Siege was written is immediate and relevant.

Now, before local theatre practitioners queue up to lynch me, I have to add that Siege had many positives. The performances from Aidan Crowe, Erica Murray and Joanne Ryan were strong. Crowe was particularly impressive, playing the helpless Pa and a child. Whitney was one of the most vivid characters. Murray did well as a vulnerable but determined Helena and Ryan excelled in the comedy scenes. Gangster, Mouse, is the gaping absence among the many voices in the play but I can understand why he wasn’t included. A maniac can easily become a parody.

The auditorium seats were re-arranged so the audience sat in a circle level with the stage and there was no set—only props in the form of boxes, which the cast moved about as required. This fluidity worked really well and the acting was up close and personal.  The use of multimedia elements was creative. Projected video images to locate scenes and using sound effects i.e. a police scanner to further the plot was also clever. The lighting and sound design were good.

I enjoyed Siege and it had flashes of brilliance but I felt there was something missing that stopped it reaching its full potential. All of the commissions I’ve seen for the festival have been impressive. Last year’s, Her Name Was Pamela Mooney by Naomi O’Kelly, was endearing and visually punchy. But neither that nor Siege topped the wow factor of Louise Lowe’s Memory Deleted in the 2010 Unfringed Festival.

The Unfringed Festival has another week to go and the details are at www.belltable.ie

Zocorro Rose of Tralee review/Sept show for Lunchtime Theatre

I went to see Zocorro Rose of Tralee last week (August 31) as part of the Lunchtime Theatre at the Savoy initiative.

This monthly event is fast becoming one of my favourites. It’s novel, casual and always has quality material on show. The latest instalment was no different.

Leonor Bethencourt’s one-act play was a hilarious send-up of the distinctly Irish ‘lovely girls competition’, The Rose of Tralee. The Spanish Rose’s journey to the dome was anything but straightforward but she navigated cultural differences and the cut-throat pageant world with aplomb. The actress, who is actually Spanish, has a brilliant skill for comic timing and delivery. Though it’s like shooting fish in a barrel to lampoon the Rose of Tralee, the jokes, physical comedy and the story/plot were very funny. The audience loved it.

The character, Zocorro returns for the September 27/28 outing of Lunchtime Theatre at the Savoy with her new show, Marilyn Monroe Airlines – Always Late and Unreliable! Ms Bethencourt also wrote the brand new comedy, which will premiere at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin this weekend. The blurb reads as follows: “On the 50th Anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death, this show is an original homage to her legendary lateness and unreliability. Zocorro is the air hostess who brings the audience on a flight inspired by her turbulent life: Look around, compare, and if you find a cheaper airline, fly it!”

Tickets are already on sale for these shows and since Zocorro Rose of Tralee sold out in record time, if you want to go, you should book ahead (you just reserve a seat but pay your €10 at the door). The initiative—spearheaded by Limerick Local Heroes—is so popular that there is talk of adding an early evening show at 6pm with the admission including a glass of wine, for example. This is only a possibility but if you have attended the lunchtime show and you think this would be a good idea, be sure to let the organisers know!

Reserve your seat at: http://lunchtheatre.eventbrite.ie/ and for more info, see Facebook.

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?

Review of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

I caught the performance of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens by Bottom Dog Theatre Company on Thursday (May 17) in Dolan’s Warehouse. It was directed by Myles Breen with musical direction from Noel Lennon.

The show is a cross between play and musical—a cycle of monologues and songs inspired by real stories of people who suffered from AIDS during the eighties when the disease was first taking hold and regarded as a death sentence. For many of the initial sufferers, it meant certain death. This is painfully obvious in the work, which was very moving in tone. It tackled a serious subject with grace and sensitivity but it wasn’t without issues.

The monologues were in verse form, which meant that they all rhymed. (I wasn’t sure about that aspect because I think some pieces sounded contrived but that’s to do with the original text.) They were comic, dark and sometimes downright shocking. The actors were women and men, young and old. Elegies… covered the entire spectrum of people who contracted AIDS i.e. through unprotected sex, sharing drug needles, blood transfusions etc. Its perception as some kind of ‘gay plague’ is challenged while acknowledging that the gay community was a group deeply affected by the crisis.

Elegies… had a large cast. It was apparent that there was a mix of experience levels. Everyone held their own but some were more memorable. Examples include: Ann Blake’s Rebecca, who lost her husband and two kids to the disease only to lose her own sanity; Roisín Connolly’s drug addicted, Charlotte and Shane Whisker’s two sharply contrasting performances as Billy and Joe. Darren Shine’s flamboyance and Peter Hayes’ vulnerability also stood out.

The set was simple; four chairs underneath a display of red ribbons (the symbol for HIV/AIDS). The four singers—Nicola Gainey, Brian McCann, Jenny McGann and Liam O’Brien—performed in and between the monologues. The 10 songs are very good, particularly ‘I’m Holding On To You’, ‘My Brother Lived In San Francisco’ and the powerful finale, ‘Learning to let go’. They were sung well and with conviction.

The piece was produced in 1989 in the USA. The music is by Janet Hood and lyrics/additional text is by Bill Russell. It was inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Elegies… is very much of its time and place. There was a great deal of fear and uncertainty surrounding AIDS when it first came to light. It was set in the worst stage of the epidemic and captures the sense of despair and social stigma very well. It wasn’t over-sentimental.

On the other hand, the situation has changed a lot since then. Now, there is more information available and with advances in treatment, sufferers have a much longer life expectancy. Perhaps Elegies… needs a foreword or additions? After all, AIDS is still an incurable illness and is running rampant in the third world. I don’t think the stigma has gone away. There have been recent court cases involving people deliberately infecting partners with AIDS (like Nick does in Elegies…). The message of ‘safe sex’ hasn’t gotten through to some. Maybe someone should write a new play about AIDS?

Bottom Dog deserve credit for being the first company to perform Elegies… in Ireland. It strikes me as absurd that it wasn’t produced here until 2010—20 years after the debut. We’ve come very far as a nation where frank discussion of sexuality is concerned but not fast or easily! The two local shows followed seven performances at the Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival.

There were some minor technical and noise issues. I didn’t think the venue suited the show. It was a little cavernous where a small space would have been more intimate. But I’m glad I saw it. I saw Rent (which also deals with the subject of AIDS) in New York in 2005 and thought it was the most depressing musical ever. Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens gave an authentic insight into a turbulent time. It’s about remembering people for who they were, not what they were afflicted by. It’s interesting how a play about death can be life affirming in its way.

Theatre review: Love, Peace and Robbery at the Belltable

I went to see Love, Peace and Robbery by local company, Magic Roundabout Theatre Company, at the Belltable Arts Centre two weeks ago. I wrote a review but didn’t post it at the time but you see, there was method in my madness. The review was earmarked for Irish Theatre Magazine and you can read it here.