REVIEW: Barrack Room Ballads

"It’s an unlikely proposition – a musical version of a set of poems by (deeply unfashionable) Rudyard Kipling performed by 34 teenagers with a seven-piece live band in a tiny space not really designed for theatre. But it comes off in spades.

Timed to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War, this 60-minute show is as moving as it is slickly directed by Conor Mitchell who also composed it, with strong rhythmic choreography by Richard Chappell.

We open with a rallying, slightly defensive speech by Kipling himself and then it’s on to settings of the poems which all, one way or another, note, celebrate or lament the common soldier.

The tiny rectangular playing space, with orchestra sandwiched in alongside it is overlooked by galleries within the museum. That means that the audience is seated and performers are positioned on seven levels and half levels. There’s a lot of height but not much width.

The young people are dressed mostly in plain white which reflects the imaginative lighting (designed by Els Berghardt and Declan Kelly) reflects fascinatingly off it ranging from a gingham effect to bright coloured flushes.

Mitchell’s music is as tuneful as it is evocative – much of it firmly inspired by the music hall style and which is, of course, right in period. There’s more than a whiff of Walton’s ‘Façade’ in some numbers too.

The show proposes that music is essential to survival and sanity and that every soldier needs a song. The lilting ‘Pass the Hat’ which shifts rhythmically from 4/4 to 6/8 is delightful. So is the Sullivan-esque song for two men confined to barracks for being “drunk and resisting the guard”.

There are some good cameo performances in this show and plenty for everyone to do although it’s firmly an ensemble piece with the cast listed in the programme rather than credited with individual roles.

Few people who see this show will forget the expression on the face of the boy who plays the hapless Danny Deever – to be famously hanged in the morning.

Part of the poignancy lies in the age of the performers –  only a year or two younger, in many cases, than the soldiers they are portraying.

The orchestra does a grand job, especially in the vamp numbers and the link music which requires anxious “chattering”, but there are occasional cohesion problems with singers, largely I think, because constraints of the space mean that the young cast cannot see MD Alex Bellamy.

It’s an impressive, quite original theatrical idea which sits conceptually, and very thoughtfully, somewhere between Cats and Oh, What a Lovely War! Well done, Youth Music Theatre UK."

REVIEW: The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher - a study in mood (Belfast Ensemble at Lyric Theatre until 24 June)

"The first rule of Belfast Ensemble is to expect the unexpected. In fact, they’d never be so derivative to steal someone else’s strapline. But it’s never what you’d expect. I described one of their previous productions as “genre-busting” and it’s true for their new work, The Fall of the House of Usher.

Taking Edgar Allan Poe’s short story as their inspiration, the collective have created a visual and aural treat that suggests and confuses and amazes and challenges. But what continues to set Belfast Ensemble apart from other theatre-makers is the way that the lighting, sound, set and acting all have equal billing and equal effort going into them.

Empty wooden frames hang down over the raised stage (that itself contains a belated surprise). The frames suggest that we’re looking through different windows into Usher’s life, an analogy used very effectively by the priest who conducted by late-Aunt’s funeral last year.

Seven musicians set the mood of Usher (Tony Flynn) who paces up and down the stage with the poise and purpose of a ballet dancer. Voiceless, but not without message, he examines his late sister’s belongings that have been packed into a suitcase. Distorted video projections are caught on the actors’ white painted faces while a recorded narration tells the story.

Abigail McGibbon – the only cast member who speaks live on stage – play’s Usher’s sister. Like an intense banshee wrapped in a red cardigan she powerfully spits out her words, adding to the sense of mental distress, throwing up the possibility of foul play.

Matthew Cavan tends to Usher’s corporal needs, with the placid actions and reactions at odds with the brooding tension that wordlessly is created between the characters. Three or four different lighting scenes use height to change (and sometimes eliminate) the shadows cast by the frames on the stage while projectors map solid blocks of light onto the floor. And watch out for some clever trickery that turn Tony Flynn’s trousers and shoes purple.

Conor Mitchell’s score expertly weaves over someone’s cover of Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? It’s a beautiful moment, complete and fulfilling, one among many in this hour long performance. The story of grief, upset, fear and instability is a study in mood. A demonstration of what’s possible when a group of people let their imaginations run wild and find new ways to express old stories.

It’s not an uplifting piece of theatre. The plot is creepy, the characters are sinister, and there isn’t really a moral backbone upon which the story can rest. However, The Fall of the House of Usher is stimulating and disturbing and a quality example of a contemporary musical horror book adaptation that you couldn’t have predicted would be so satisfying to watch."

REVIEW: The Fall of the House of Usher

"It is the unpredictability and fearless theatricality of Conor Mitchell’s work that continue to make it so exhilarating. Here, Edgar Allan Poe’s tale of the supernatural provides a natural springboard into his boundless imagination and artistic risk-taking. This is no mere adaptation of a literary classic but a total stage installation, which transforms Poe’s story of close sibling connections and otherworldly terror into a heavily stylised, multi-layered piece of music theatre.

With his whitened face and stiff bearing, Tony Flynn bears a striking resemblance to Robert Wilson’s Krapp, as he arrives home to be absorbed into Else Borghart and Declan Kelly’s fragmented, abstract set whose lopsided doorways and window frames invoke a once-grand house, now disintegrating as its occupants die away. As his lines are delivered entirely in voice-over, he relies on sharply honed physicality in his embodiment of Roderick Usher, the only son of an only son of an only son, the final survivor of a wealthy but dysfunctional dynasty.

Moving with a balletic grace, Flynn’s gaunt face and glittering eyes bear witness to a lifetime of troubled relationships, most notably with his violent parents and damaged, recently deceased twin sister, played by Abigail McGibbon with a mixture of steel and sweetness.

Hints of an incestuous relationship are extremely subtle; what emerge most strongly from their shared childhood memories are brief moments of fun, mischief, interdependence and genuine love in the eye of the emotional maelstrom created by their dreadful parents.  Her sudden, unaccountable loss comes as a massive blow to him

Matthew Cavan, arched of back and arch of expression, is the shrewd, all-seeing servant, exuding a suppressed, forbidden love for his master.  His ailing mother previously filled the role of trusted retainer and there is nothing about this doomed household that he does not know.

Against Mitchell’s clashing, powerfully played score and lush text, Simon Bird and Gavin Peden’s lighting and video effects propel the storyline in and out of semi-darkness via a dizzying succession of spooky projections, prismatic flashes and dancing numerical puzzles.

This is theatre straight out of the top drawer of European tradition, being conceived, made and presented right here in Belfast."

https://theevenhand.com/2018/06/22/the-fall-of-the-house-of-usher/

Latest reviews for Ten Plagues

https://www.asiw.co.uk/reviews/ten-plagues-sherman-theatre

With Ten Plagues, the Belfast Ensemble are producing some firecracker theatre at the moment. Their visit to Cardiff with The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon was a huge success.

Here lies a visceral hour of music theatre. The meshing of the Black Death and the AIDs epidemic might feel a bit clichéd, though here it forms a vibrant retelling of events in a meta form of duo timelines. Mark Ravenhill has written cut throat words, that pierce through the music with furious riots. The music of Conor Mitchell, is a marvel of dissonance and ironic structures. There are nods to Schubert and Bach on the piano and the cabaret music of Britten and Weill. This fusion of words and music are a jolting vision of plague time London.

Matthew Cavan is singer for the night, bringing a mighty theatrical presence. His flaming snipes, his emotional outpourings of lust and grief are crammed into Ten Plagues as he tries to come to terms with the fact he survived the plague, whilst friends did not. There are many familiar themes between both these times, the fear of infection and the means of staying healthy still linger even today (the worry of Anthrax, bird flu and Ebola were fleeting media spins, were they not?). The gritty video work of Gavin Pedan use the back drop of video tape static, footage from My Own Private Idaho and concerned public service announcements from the era, all to startling effect.

Intensely watchable, compelling listening.

CULTURE IRELAND supports the ensemble

We're pleased to announce that Culture Ireland will be working with us on our project BARRACK ROOM BALLADS, in association with Youth Music Theatre UK and the National Army Museum. We'll be taking part in Culture Ireland's brilliant GB18 programme during the summer. Below is a little something about the programme we're participating in. 

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Culture Ireland will support a special focus of Irish artistic activity in Britain in 2018 and will present a vibrant, contemporary and high quality programme including a range of events across artistic disciplines in high-profile venues, institutions and festivals in Britain, building on Ireland's special history and relationship with its nearest neighbour.

Following the successes of previous programme strands (Imagine Ireland in 2011, Culture Connects across the EU in 2013, I Am Ireland as part of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme), this new initiative will create unique opportunities for artists and companies in all artforms to perform across Britain and develop new audiences and their networks of contacts.

New show goes into development

Our latest production is announced as THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. This new work will be workshopped in late February and open in June (dates coming soon!). It's early days, but we're excited to be welcoming Declan Kelly and Els Borghart, two world-class Irish visual artists to the ensemble! They'll be working with us to create the piece in June. 

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We want to take this story apart, look at the greater themes behind it and see how we can refocus it to the world around us now. 

ensemble makes theatre top 10 of 2017

Taken from https://theevenhand.com/2017/12/27/the-even-hands-top-ten-theatre-dance-events-of-2017-in-northern-ireland/

'Rarely, if ever, does one leave a Conor Mitchell/Belfast Ensemble show humming one of the tunes.  The ‘tunes’ are just too complex, too challenging, too discordant for that. But in the immediacy of a live performance situation, that music feels fresh, energising and so, so original.

Mitchell’s 2011 collaboration with English writer Mark Ravenhill and the iconic singer Marc Almond produced Ten Plagues, a dramatic song cycle, which was premiered at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival and won a Fringe First Award.

In November, the Outburst Queer Arts Festival hosted a single performance of TenPlagues. Ravenhill travelled from London to the Lyric to see it and was reportedly as thrilled as the rest of us by Belfast cabaret artist Matthew Cavan, who shouldered the daunting burden of stepping into Almond’s sparkly stilettos and gave one of the performances of the year.

Ten Plagues draws its inspiration partly from Schubert and Schumann’s classical cycles and partly from the edgy European torch song tradition.  Ravenhill’s vivid score makes only tangential reference to AIDS, opting instead for overt images from the Great Plague of London in 1665 and the Biblical plagues of Egypt. But there is no escaping its resonances to the epidemic labelled in tabloid newspapers as ‘the gay plague.’ When the wan-faced Cavan sings, almost in a whisper, the line “I wanted to kiss you but you stopped me”, we are left in no doubt about its contemporary relevance.

A chilling story of survival is narrated via a libretto containing horrific word pictures – a child at the graveyard gates, the heaps of rotting bodies, the tolling of the death bell, the pit of corpses, the stench of fever. They emanate from the blighted, diseased landscape which this despairing, tormented survivor is doomed to navigate.

At the piano, Mitchell is an integral element of the performance, injecting emotion and alchemy and living every second of a plaintive, outraged rant against a society which rejects and isolates the victims of this cruel illness.

There is general agreement by all who were present on the night that this is a piece of work which absolutely must be seen by a wider audience, at home and abroad. Here’s hoping that 2018 will bring it to international attention.'

https://theevenhand.com/2017/12/27/the-even-hands-top-ten-theatre-dance-events-of-2017-in-northern-ireland/