The Belly Button Girl

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*Edited, longer review. Contains spoilers.*

The Belly Button Girl The New Theatre

Writer and Performer: Tom Moran

Director and Producer: Romana Testasecca

The intriguingly titled The Belly Button Girl opens with our narrator (and sole performer) arriving at ‘Cousin Sharon’s’ 21st at a parochial hall in Dingle. Listless and not really enjoying the night, our narrator soon comes to life when he catches sight of the bar maid. Enchanted by her she quickly gains the moniker: The Belly Button Girl. Over the course of the weekend, through a series of accidents and misspoken phrases, they become close. The weekend closes as they wind up together in her bed in Portobello, Dublin. Our narrator is in love. Infatuated and contemplating their life together, we follow him over twelve months as their relationship grows and changes. Reminiscent of falling in love for the first time, The Belly Button Girl, is a story of love and confusion, edged with the hope of redemption.

A bench took centre stage, with beach paraphernalia decorating the front and back of the stage along with small items that are significant in the plot; an anchor, a small Buddha statue, pieces of driftwood. The set design, by Ursula McGinn, is delicate with each item carefully placed for maximum meaning. The soft blues and sandy pebbles recreate the feel of a small Dingle beach, where accidents and love stories can take place. This was complemented perfectly the excellently times lighting by Eoin Lennon. Bringing this together was the direction of Romana Testasecca, who demonstrates an understanding of the power of space and structure, and whose flair for movement reverberated through the performance.

Moran has a real knack for observation and some of the plays highlights emerge with the introduction of several secondary characters, from the ‘Sambuca lady’, to the ‘Massive Lad’ and the Dublin taxi driver. They offer the narrator an insight into the way in which capturing life’s small pleasures can lead to contentment. These were interesting vignettes, well drawn and showing characters who live a different kind of life, who have perhaps found a more accepting, comfortable way of being. However our narrator doesn’t seem to learn from them. It is not essential that all character arcs show growth, however as the ending circles back to the beginning one might have expected a little more character development. It was uncomfortable that fat bodies were commented on and found funny (the drivers belly jiggling and so on) and yet other bodies were not mentioned at all – to the extent that the belly button girl remains mysterious and unshaped – so it is difficult to believe that the focus on fat bodies and finding humour (often grotesque) out of them could be coincidental. Gross moments were excessive and became unnecessary. I’m not a fan of this type of humour however there came a point where it was just too much even for the biggest gross out fan. My theatre going companion felt that certain moments – particularly the one with the toothbrush – veered into misogyny, that the narrator was taking out his anger at women – and one particular woman – in the most grotesque, childish way he could think of. I’m not sure that the script showed enough awareness of the character, instead revelling in any moment for comedy.

Despite his interactions with others the narrator carries on like a piece of driftwood, washed up on stage, at the mercy of external forces. The key external force is, of course, the belly button girl. While the narrator is like the boy who didn’t grow up, she has her act together. Work, study, the future, and the intricacies of love are tackled by her with ease while he is still struggling with alarm calls and bra clasps. Although she is the focus of his desire, she remains elusive. In the future more could be done to fully flesh out her character, so the audience can see in her what he sees in her, and in turn believe in their relationship. Despite the title the play is very much about the narrator. Little is revealed about the belly button girl and there is an odd moment at the end where the audience expects to find out her name, but the moment is let go.

Overall, The Belly Button Girl is full of finely drawn detail, playful wordplay (such as selling toilets at a place called ‘the drop zone’) and sharp observations. The Belly Button Girl is an entertaining, eccentric, bizarre, funny story that with a little more work could be deeply human and relatable.

 

 

 

 

Boy Child

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Boy Child, Dublin Fringe Festival, The New Theatre – Dublin 

Creators: FeliSpeaks and Dagogo Hart

Boy Child begins with a dark stage. Performers are dressed in black and the use of props is kept to a minimal. It was clear from the off that this is a production that sets out to paint a story with words. The background is kept clear to avoid distracting from the poetry on display. Created and performed by two of Ireland’s premier spoken word poets – FeliSpeaks and Dagogo Hart – Boy Child draws on Nigerian influences, storytelling, and history to create a picture of a man trying to find his way in the world.

We often hear that it is difficult to live in the modern world and that men are trying to navigate the path between following in the footsteps of their fathers whilst also embracing feminism and changing the way the world works. Boy Child brings these real-life dilemmas vividly to life; as poetry, philosophical ideas, adolescent confusion, and desire stalk the stage. The play, however, begins with a woman who falls in love and gives birth to her beloved son. She draws on the generations of women who came before her for strength and fears that her beloved child will grow up making the same mistakes as his father. Yet at the same time, she works to maintain the same system and way of being that draws her son into his father’s life. Is a young man supposed to forgo all that came before and say that his father and father’s father were all wrong; that the soul-destroying back-breaking work they did was for nothing?

At the heart of Boy Child is a wonderful portrayal of a boy evolving into a man. It is nuanced, relateable and absorbing. This is a quietly beautiful image of a man a motion. A man being made and constantly remaking himself. Boy Child is a thought-provoking addition to the fringe festival that can open one’s mind up to new ideas and to seeing familiar ideas in a different way.

The performance poetry scene in Dublin comes and goes in fits and starts. Hopefully, this is a sign that it is being taken seriously as an art form and will open the door to further spoken word performances in Dublin’s theatres.

 Image: Contributed

Arachnophilia

Arachnophilia, The New Theatre – Dublin

Writer: Aidan Fitzmaurice
Director: Sarah Bradley
Having friends or family over to stay can be a fraught experience at times as ones house is taken over by another persons habits and demands. It turns out this is never more so than when the guest is a spider, or a Chilean rose tarantula to be precise. Not only that but it is apparently a well known phenomena that if a spider comes to stay ones spider sense (sorry) will soon be tingling and the day will be defined by feeding times and ukulele playing. And that is how is is in Aidan Fitzmaurice’s quirky comedy drama Arachnophilia.
Conor and Alice have been together for five years and it is time to start asking the big questions. The only problem with this is that Conor thinks they are having a conversation about children. Alice however thinks they are considering separating. When facing this new stage in life how is Conor to prepare; to lay the groundwork for a possible new family? Like many people he thinks that a pet will be a good idea. Whereas most people would come home with a puppy or a cat, Conor comes home with a spider. When Alice wants to know how a spider could possibly prepare one for having children she finds a quirk in Conor’s personality that had never shown itself before.
Alone with his spider Conor descends into a strange kind of obsession that quickly takes over his life (and work life). What he doesn’t know is that his pet can hear and understand everything he says. Bellhop lives in his glass box with his exoskeleton for company. They (yes the exoskeleton can move and talk) are a web weaving, game playing couple that adapt quite well to the idea of being spiders trapped in a glass with only a human being for company. That is until the singing starts. And the terrible movies. And hang on … what’s with the wasp without a sting?
Hugely entertaining Arachnophilia somewhat defies description. Full of laughs and spider related puns it has a touch of the absurd but this only adds to the comedy. It would be great to have the chance to slip into the mind of the writer as he created the premise. On Saturday The New Theatre was packed, with people standing at the back of the theatre in order to see the show. The set was very well done with Conor’s home life and Bellhop’s split down the middle; as they constantly interact but never manage to communicate.
Arachnophilia is charming and unusual. Full of laughs but some heart too this was an enjoyable and one of a kind play.
P.S. For those terrified of spiders, like myself, there are no creepy crawlies to be afraid of (unless a talking exoskeleton debating class war is not your thing).
Cast: Caoimhe Mulcahy, Harry Butler, Ian Dunphy, Meg Healy and Tony Canwell.
Presented Octopussouptheatre.

Punt

punt the new theatreWriters: Pius McGrath and Tara Doolan

Actor: Pius McGrath

An Honest Arts Production

 

Punt has been receiving excellent reviews since its arrival in Dublin off the back of a successful run at the Limerick Fringe 2017, so it was with interest that on a sweltering Friday evening, theatre goers sought shelter in the cool cavern of The New Theatre.

One of Jack’s earliest memories is of placing a bet at Listowel races and, amazingly, winning. This special treat, shared with his uncle Jim turned out to be the beginning of a lifetime love affair for the small town boy. The excitement and electricity of a day at the races captured the six year old and this recreational, communal activity soon became something much more dangerous. By the time Jack is off to the study in the big city he is preoccupied with making it to high stakes poker games and using his winnings to buy his way into bigger and bigger games.

At the same time internet gambling takes off. How many of us have been tempted by the free cash offers to place a bet and watch the wheel spin? Gambling becomes something meaningful and powerful in Jack’s life as it takes the space of family and former aspirations. Alongside this Ireland is booming and cash is flowing freely.

McGraph uses his body throughout the tell the story. Throwing himself about the stage with abandon and slipping into his memories and other characters with ease. When McGraph takes on the persona his best friend the comedy abounds as his thick accent and unique turn of phrase propel the narrative forward. It takes skill and confidence to be able to pull off a one man play: to hold court, dominate the stage and keep viewers interested with only your body and words. McGraph wears his character lightly. With just a chair, table and black background on which the words “bet now” flash behind him McGraph is alone on the stage as Jack becomes more and more isolated.

Punt delves into the intergenerational nature of addiction and how the big business of gambling is all around us. When I moved to Dublin it was a surprise to see how many betting shops lined the streets. Although with hope being difficult to find in these economically tough times it is not surprising that the momentary burst of optimism that Jack finds in every race, in every win, manages to sustain him for so long.

Skilfully written by McGraph and Doolan Punt is careful to avoid moralising and instead tackles the big issues through the individual story. It is through Jack that we experience the rise and fall of an addict, and it is with feeling that we watch his decline; resisting the urge to shout at the stage every time he takes the wrong step. Backed up by well timed visuals and sound effects it is easy to be carried along on this journey from hope to despair. The ending is powerful and well done.

With Punt The New Theatre continues to champion new work by promising Irish theatre makers and proves again that some of the best nights of theatre are to be found behind a socialist bookshop in Temple Bar.

Runs until July 14th 2018.

HOME

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Home – The New Theatre, Dublin

Writer: Megan O’Malley
Director: Fiona Frawley

Who is innocent and who is guilty? Only you can decide.

Home is the sort of play that when you think you have everything figured out it turns around and surprises you. Showing at Dublin’s The New Theatre Home also introduces the talent of writer (and performer) Megan O’Malley.

Tackling head on the sexual politics of a group of college students Home starts out as a spiky comedy. Each actor gets to show off his or her comedic ability as the audience peer in on their private conversations and meetups. It doesn’t take long though before one realises that there is so much more going on. Mike and Anna are on a Tinder date. Flowers, nervous one-liners and bad drinking games ensue. If only Anna’s sister Emily were not sat in between them glowering at Mike every chance she gets. Several hours later, drunk and tired, the trio make it home. The events of that night will unravel in police statements and court testimonies. The next morning Anna cannot remember anything that happened but when she discovers that she is pregnant one bad night is about to turn into a lifetime of regret.

There are no obvious winners or losers in this sharp political commentary that couldn’t be timelier with the ever-growing conversation around the Repeal the Eighth movement. Home avoids falling into didacticism and instead shows the murky grey areas between the laws provided by the constitution and real everyday lives. The early moments of humour fall to the wayside as the audience are drawn into the drama unfolding on stage. The play’s resolution is unique and deftly conducted. To avoid giving spoilers one cannot go into further detail except to say whatever you think will happen and whatever your political beliefs you will be surprised and entertained. The sadness that spikes the final moments are poignant are heart breaking. The uncluttered staging allows the words to speak for themselves in this memorable play from the Handy Baker Theatre Company.

Runs until 3 February 2018 | Image: Contributed

SAVE + QUIT

First Written for The Reviews Hub

SAVE + QUIT – The New Theatre, Dublin

Writer: Sophia Leuner

Director: Billie De Buitlear

Two Londoners find themselves having to decide whether it is time to move on. Two former best friends in Dublin look to see whether tragedy can bring them together once more. Save + Quit are two short plays connected by themes of moving on; of closing one chapter in life and deciding whether to walk towards another.

This is writer Sophia Leuner’s first work for the stage. It shows great ability and command of language. Comedy rubs up against pathos throughout. Class and the social divides that define a city are investigated through each character and their relationships with others. The audience laughed at the Tallaght / Dalkey romance and the city being separated by more than constant road works. The regional jokes played well in the second Dublin based half which also had some great moments of storytelling.

The young cast do particularly well at mimicking and impersonating others, switching between characters with just a change of stance. Save + Quit portrays both London and Dublin as cold and at times outright hostile places to live with the only chance for salvation being found in friendship. The isolation of urban life is picked apart as Joe and Steph struggle to manage as they move fully into their adult lives and as Cara and Dylan struggle to reconnect.

The stage is occupied only by two chairs with spotlights on each character as they speak. The hour fliess by as the face paced witty dialogue keeps the audience interested. Save + Quit is a character driven story that is full of wisdom as it unwinds. Adult growing pains are portrayed delicately, casually and with verve.

Save + Quit is a study of how we react when life throws up obstacles and changes. It is full of humour and with enough sadness to make a real impact. Worth a watch.

Runs until 20 January 2018 | Image: Contributed

The Restoration of Hope – The New Theatre, Dublin

The Restoration of Hope

The Restoration of Hope – The New Theatre, Dublin

Writer: Philip St John

Director: Matthew Ralli

 

The Restoration of Hope is The New Theatre’s pre – Christmas offering for 2017 and it is an interesting choice. It has one of the most unusual plot lines to grace the stage this year.

The action begins in an office on the quays. A man walks in singing a medley of Christmas songs and he sets about decorating his office with tinsel. The festive cheer doesn’t last however when out of the blue a drowning woman appears. Standing inside a red triangle is the newly deceased Hope Whyte, played by Jody O’Neill. In shock it takes her a few moments to realise that she is no longer on Dun Laoghaire pier, and is instead face to face with a strange man wielding a Bounty bar.

Partly inspired by the Faust legend Hope is given the chance to be restored to life, for a limited period of time, but only if she commits to a blood soaked contract. Working with her mentor Larry McGraph, played by Nick Devlin, Hope has to decide what another shot at life is worth and whether she is the sort of person who can take that step. Added in to the mix is demon Luca, played by Shane O’Regan, who is out to capture as many souls as he can. Hope is not a normal victim; she is a single minded business woman who is prepared to negotiate even this devilish pact.

There are moments of humour throughout and the play alludes to the larger issues of the day at different moments. This individual story offers an insight into the wider issues of power, authority and revenge. At times The Restoration of Hope is dark and wicked, with it’s tongue firmly in cheek. Much of the play is a two hander between Devlin and O’Neill who bounce off each other and expose each others fears and weaknesses.

Carl Kennedy’s sound design works very well throughout. The audience enter the theatre to the sound of a Christmas theme with a dark undercurrent twinkling in the background. Lights and careful staging are used at times to create atmosphere and momentum. A driving scene is a particular pleasure. Similarly, although sparse there is a good use of props throughout (look out for the sword!).

This is the second part in The Eerie Trilogy by playwright Philip St John but it is not necessary to have seen The Temptress as The Restoration of Hope stands alone excellently. This supernatural tale is also a great anecdote to the sentimentality that predominates at this time of year.

 

Runs Until 16th December 2017.

 

Co – Produced by Speckintime and High Seas Productionss, in association with Mermaid Arts Centre and The New Theatre

All Honey

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Dublin Fringe Festival: All Honey, The New Theatre, Dublin

 

Writer: Ciara Elizabeth Smyth

Director: Jeda de Bri

The Sad Strippers Theatre group were last seen at Smock Alley’s Scene and Heard Festival, where their production of Pacemaker was the funniest 30 minutes this reviewer has ever seen on stage. All Honey is a longer production at an hour long and is helping to close the Dublin Fringe Festival 2017.

Ru and Luke are throwing a house warming party (well, it’s actually an apartment warming party as others are quick to point out). It is clear from the off that the evening is not going to be a smooth one. Ru’s best friend Mae thinks her boyfriend is cheating on her and plans to confront him that night. Soon however she is persuaded otherwise. This proves to be unfortunate. The hilarious and somewhat awful Val has managed to turn up without being invited. It is not long before she has found the gin and fireworks are about to explode. Add into this mix oblivious and obnoxious Barry for a night of horror and hilarity. All of the action takes place in a brightly decorated box room where people pop in and out for secret conversations and confrontations.

The writing is quick witted, smart and funny. The hour flows by as the audience are drawn into the complex love lives unfolding before them. All Honey is surprising and involving; there is no knowing what will come next. What is assured is that this is a brilliant hour of comedy from five actors who work excellently together to delivery this one of a kind script.

Runs until 23 September 2017 | Image: Contributed

Happy Birthday Jacob

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Writer: Michael Marshall

Director: Laura Bowler

Reviewer: Laura Marriott

A well lived in kitchen, with children’s toys and fairy lights under the table dominates the stage with a door either side; one leading to an unseen upstairs, another leading outside. This door is always closed. Soon two brothers enter the stage. Jacob is seventeen and tense. Lucas is ten, in blue pyjamas, red socks and smiling. It takes a moment to realise what is missing from the domestic scene. The brothers are alone. Their mother has been gone for years. Their father, a drinker left one night. They are waiting for him to return, which helps to explain Jacob’s tension. As the older of the two he has taken on the role of parent. He is helped by his friend Terry who is loud, brash and sweary. She also loves Jacob and Lucas and tries in her own way to help. Her character is a little exaggerated but she brings warmth and comedy to the play.

The audience enter the theatre to the sound of 90s music: The Spice Girls, Madonna, The Backstreet Boys. Although not everyone would admit to it there was a lot of singing along and heads bobbing. Music is an important part of this production. Lucas plays and bonds with Jacob and Terry through music. They sing out loud, dance, jump about the kitchen with abandon. It is fun and beautiful. Music and recordings also plays a pivotal role in relation to their parents. The support team have done fine work on the sound, costumes and setting which complements the actors and narrative movement at all times.

Jacob has struggled to keep their parent’s absence a secret. He works, gets Lucas to school and does his best to be the adult. However, when their mother turns up again how long will they be able to carry on? The relationship between Jacob, played by Stephen O’Leary, and Lucas, played by Finian Duff Lennon, is excellently portrayed and is the highlight of the play. As their life together is forced to adapt to change the audience waits to see whether they will be able to hold on to each other. Despite everything that Jacob has done Lucas still holds out hope of one day having a family. He likes fairy tales with happy endings and more than anything would love his own. There are moments in the play that are touching and heart breaking; that provoked tears. To be able to make an audience both laugh and cry is quite a skill.

The New Theatre champions new writing and has given this play the chance to develop and respond to criticism. Happy Birthday Jacob seems to have benefitted massively from this experience and the team have turned out a well-formed theatre experience. There are few other places that give writers and theatre makers the chance to premiere new work. Plays such as this are a testament to the theatres ethos and show why it is important for new writers to be nurtured and given the chance to put their ideas of the stage. This is a very strong debut from playwright Michael Marshall.

 

Empathy on Stage: The Collector and Anonymous in Dublin

First Written for Howlround.com

The past few years Dublin has seen a flourishing of small scale theatre productions that are tackling the big issues of the day. Social concerns such as homelessness, unemployment, masculinity, and violence are played out on stages above pubs, behind shops, and in old churches. If you want to see potentially challenging, difficult, socially conscious stories that reflect the lives of ordinary people who have been left behind by mainstream politics then head to the closest improvised, unconventional theatre space. By engaging with these issues playwrights are returning empathy and awareness to a society that is increasingly hostile to anything that fits outside of traditional norms.

Daniel Wade’s debut play The Collector opened to rave reviews and a full house at Dublin’s The New Theatre this January. It is striking for several reasons. The first being that it was first introduced to the public as a staged reading at the same theatre, and came to full production thanks to an online Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

Graeme Coughlan and Will Murphy in The Collector.

The Collector opened in a dark, spare pool hall. The stage hummed with a darkness that belied the social issues burbling underneath. The stage was small—the actors stood within an arm’s length of the audience. The lights were set low and a large pool table set centre stage with a small desk and seat served as the set dressing.

Our protagonist Oren, is young and angry. Played in barnstorming fashion by Graeme Coughlan, Oren always knows how to find trouble. His bartender Uncle Des is more resigned to the way his life has turned out. Several years ago his son killed himself and in doing so killed a part of Des too. He lost his identity as a father and family man. Now Des works under the counter to supplement his benefits. The bar is a dangerous place frequented by gangland figures; staying open all night to serve the waifs and strays of the city. It is not the ideal place for anyone to find themselves but Des has few other options. Employment opportunities for his age group and skill set are thin on the ground and few workplaces are willing to give people time to recover from such a blow.

Suicide among young men, masculinity, and poverty are issues that are explored through this character driven narrative.

Oren’s life is thrown into chaos when he finds the body of his younger brother, Frank, who has also committed suicide. Frank was forlorn after a relationship with a visiting American male professor ended when he returned to America. To make matters worse, it seemed that everyone knew of Frank’s homosexuality except for Oren. To pay for Frank’s funeral, Oren borrows money and ends up in debt to a violent money collector.

Underlying all of this are different versions of masculinity. Oren’s violence and anger look helpless in this modern world and his new environment. He was unable to accept his brother for who he was and later finds himself unable to deal with his grief. Turning inwards he becomes increasingly aggressive, almost as if he wishes to destroy everything around him. Like everyone else he knows Oren has spent his life trying to get by, to make ends meet. Ultimately this is something he fails at. Unemployed, in debt and alone, his actions catch up with him one fateful night.

We in Ireland have been living in difficult financial times. With the economic crash of 2008 Ireland’s financial Celtic Tiger imploded and with it went the dreams and expectations that many had grown used to. Wade’s play resonates, as does the question it asks: What is it that makes a man a man? The traditional role of breadwinner is harder to fulfill in an economy fueled by low wages, casual contracts, continual reductions in welfare, and a greater number of potential workers than jobs. With the advantage firmly in the hands of employers it is harder for workers to assert their rights.

Although the two suicides are of characters that the audience never met they are the driving factor and catalyst for the events unfolding onstage. Suicide has barely been touched upon elsewhere on the Irish stage. This is very surprising when one considers the alarmingly high rate of suicide in Ireland’s men. According to the National Suicide Research Association in 2015 the number of female suicides per 100,000 people numbered three whereas the number of male suicides per 100,000 numbered sixteen. This is similar across Europe and North America. In the United States the average annual suicide rate is thirteen per 100,000 with men being three and a half times more likely to die in this manner than women. Characters like Des and Oren represent the many who are some of the most effected by the rollback of the state and reduction in funding for community and social services.

Ireland’s current bleak economic reality also serves as the backdrop for another recent small scale production produced by Purple Hare Theatre Company, that examines an important social issue. Taking place above a city centre pub at the improvised theatre space The International Bar, Mark Richardson’s Anonymous is about homelessness. It is about how men with jobs and families end up living on the streets. How they survive and how friendship and art can provide hope in even the darkest corners. One of the main characters, Sean, is a poet. This is something he largely keeps secret, writing his thoughts in his notebooks, the only items he has left that are his. Under Nathalie Clement’s able direction, we see how writing helps Sean to feel human and fill his endless days. It might also be his only way out of poverty.

Anonymous’ Sean and Dolan. Courtesy of Purple Hare Theatre Company.

The two central characters Sean and Dolan are both men who once lived in relative comfort until bereavement and unemployment tore their lives apart. No one wanted things to turn out the way that they did. Anonymous highlights how everyone is just a step or two away from losing everything. The staging echoes the narrative. Sean, played by Zeff Lawless, makes his home on the floor; alone, next to bags of garbage. When Lawless speaks though, the audience hears someone ostracised from society who they can also relate to. Richardson manages to bring empathy back into the conversation around homelessness.

Walking out of the play, I noticed people huddled in sleeping bags in shop doorways, and it was a startling reminder that homelessness is all around us. The play works to humanize people we might otherwise walk past, feet quickening, eyes averted. By introducing the audience to individuals who just happen to sleep on the streets the audience respond to their humanity and real human fears and hopes.

At the moment theatre productions such as The Collector and Anonymous are tackling important issues that affect the audiences’ everyday lives. As older, more traditional ideas of masculinity, of how to live and work are being challenged on all fronts, the theatre is serving as one stage where these issues can be worked through.