With ever evolving lockdowns, I spent a lot of 2020 house bound. And so I didn’t have much to blog about. However, I decided during this time to learn a new skill: graphic illustration through software.
I’ve always had an interest in sketching with paper and pencil but I have always had a fascination for artwork created with software. However, I had no idea where to start. And so, after much googling, I purchased a cheap graphic tablet and started tinkering away trying to draw illustrations onscreen.
After I got a feel for it, I decided to set myself a goal, to write and illustrate a children’s book for my niece for Christmas.
After many drafts, I created a character based on my niece, drawn in the style of the LOL dolls she loves so much. The story came next, based on a family trip we took to Portrush in January 2020.
After lots of drawing hours, and proofing, Boo Bear and the Bug Go On An Adventure was finally ready for print. I got a small print run commissioned with Belfast-based Kaizen Print.
I have to admit I was so excited when I picked up the hard copy books from the printer in November. They looked better than expected and I have to say this was undoubtedly one of my proudest moments of 2020.
Anyway, here are a few snaps of the book. And who knows, maybe the Boo Bear books will become a series.
This Halloween, the Lyric Theatre has the perfect online treat for those looking for a fright: ‘Listen at The Lyric: Ulster After Dark’, a series of especially commissioned audio plays inspired by Ulster folk tales and unexplained real-life experiences.
Directed by Emma Jordan and performed by three of Northern Ireland’s acting greats, Ulster After Dark is comprised of three eerie tales.
First up and setting the tone perfectly is Outside Her. Written by KarisHalsall and performed by the superb Stella McCusker, Outside Her is based on true stories, recounted by Karis’ family from Co. Down. The play opens with Iris telling a terrifying tale from her youth. After the traumatic death of her mother, Iris and her father move to a remote farmhouse, which legend has it was built on a fairy road. Iris, not believing in things that can’t be seen, chalks this up to being nonsense. However when the unexplained phonecalls and strange noises begin, she is forced to re-evaluate if it’s her mother attempting to contact her or something more serious.
Heightening tensions even further is The Familial Binds of Cheiromancy by Kat Woods, performed by the compelling Frankie McCafferty. The play recounts the story of Mark. Following in the family tradition as a psychic and palm reader, Mark decides to abandon his ‘gift’ after a terrible experience, much to his mother’s dismay. However, when Mark tries to make peace with his mother, everything is not as it seems.
Listen at The Lyric: Ulster After Dark concludes with Bad Ground, written by Gary Crossan and performed by the captivating Sean Kearns. This audio play introduces Frank Devine, who has returned to his dilapidated family home in Co.Derry to renovate the building and start a new chapter. Upon the suggestion of his daughter Sarah, Frank keeps an audio diary of his progress. However, after a prolonged of isolation, Frank seems to be chipping away at his sanity as much as he is at the rot of his old family home.
The Listen at the Lyric: Ulster After Dark series, although featuring rehearsed readings which are an evolving work in progress, is a genuinely spooky and captivating showcase. The wonderful direction, high caliber writing bursting with local colloquiums and the natural performances of all of the actors transport the listener to a place where the impossible seems very plausible.
As well as genuinely causing goosebumps, the Listen at the Lyric:Ulster After Dark reaffirms the theatre’s dedication to nurturing creative talent and providing a platform to showcase new work whilst the Lyric remains closed due to the ongoing pandemic.
Listen at the Lyric: Ulster After Dark is an authentically spooky selection of ghost stories which will provide the ultimate treat this Halloween. Prices start at a very reasonable £6, so if you like being scared, you won’t wamt to be tricked into missing it.
‘Listen at the Lyric: Ulster After Dark’ will be available to listen until 2rd November. Tickets are on sale at a standard price of £6 with optional donation tickets available at £12 and £20 to support the Lyric in continuing to produce great theatre during the pandemic.
I recently went back to school when I registered to attend The University of Wonder and Imagination. Created and directed by Paul BoscoMcEneaney, this fun and interactive hour-long theatre experience uses the magic of technology to deliver an ambitious theatre experience for all ages.
Staged by Cahoots NI as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, this unique production puts the audience in the director’s chair as the choices you make during the live event, hosted via Zoom, will shape your individual experience.
Orientation comes from the mysterious Professor Bamberg (SeanKearns) who explains the steps of your educational quest. As the audience solves puzzles they are introduced to a range of engaging lecturers in specially themed rooms; as you follow each quest, you could find yourself anywhere across space and time.
Our jam packed semester at The University of Wonder and Imagination saw us take lectures from the intriguing Professor Sharma (LataSharma), magical Professor Danny Carmo (CaolanMcBride), the creative Professor Lola Hurst (PhilippaO’Hara) and the imaginative Professor Wilbert Hoffman (Hugh W. Brown). The result was a mind boggling experience of wonder and illusion.
The University of Wonder and Imagination is unlike anything I have experienced before. Completely immersive, the experience is unconditionally engaging, educational and exciting. The purpose-built set and superb staging combined with the inventive incorporation of technology is revolutionary, showcasing that there is wealth of ingenious opportunities to be explored in the new era of theatre we have found ourselves in.
Theatre has not been the same since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. New approaches have needed to be employed to bring new works to an eager assembly of spectators. To continue to connect with its audiences, the Lyric Theatre has a launched a creative programme of audio plays. Listen at the Lyric offers an exclusive ‘first listen’ of brand-new work from emerging, established and new Northern Ireland writers.
I caught Burnt Out by Gary Mitchell, the second in the series of audio plays. Burnt Out is a dark psychological thriller which follows a couple as their perfect life unravels into a disorientating nightmare of suspicion, paranoia, and intimidation when they unwittingly move to a new home opposite a bonfire site.
Michael (Michael Patrick) and Cheryl (Roisin Gallagher) seemingly have it all: a posh house, good jobs (primary school teacher and salon owner), and 2.4 pets (Lancer the Alsatian and Scamper the cat). But the every day bickers of a married couple turns to something more sinister when they become the focus of attention of Loyalist youths who are guarding the bonfire opposite their house. When their claims that they weren’t responsible for lodging a complaint about the bonfire to the police falls on deaf ears, they soon find themselves the victims of a hate campaign comprising of missing pets, explosions and graffiti.
The couple are torn between seeking help from the police, such as the inane Constable McGoldrick (played superbly by the wonderful Tara LynnO’Neill), and Michael’s brother, Loyalist stalwart Danny (played with ferocity by Packy Lee) and the conniving Leslie (Shannen McNeice). However, as words and actions are twisted, Michael and Cheryl find themselves in a waking nightmare, where their lives unravel faster than you can say ‘get ‘er lit’.
Burnt Out, another shockingly captivating play from Gary Mitchell and directed with aplomb by Dan Gordon, uses dark humour, creative language and excellent performances from all the cast, to tell an enthralling tale which scratches beneath the surface of Northern Ireland in peace times. Much like Michael and Cheryl, the façade looks good, but tension is lurking close to the surface. Fast paced, edgy and perfectly translated for radio, this innovative play will have you ready to close your curtains and hide under the bed. Or that’s maybe just Covid talking. Either way, this is an exquisite piece of theatre, with an ending that will have you completely gripped.
I am a massive fan of the North Coast. After a fun-fuelled weekend with all the family in January, and the pandemic making travel more difficult, I decided a return trip was the perfect location for a staycation this summer.
My sister, brother-in-law and niece were booked in for a week-long stay, and so I decided to gate crash for a few days days.
I got the train from Belfast to the North Coast, my first time on public transport post-covid and so it was the ideal opportunity to see if glasses washed in warm soapy water fog up less when wearing a face covering (the answer is a surprising yes!).
Once I arrived and dumped my bag, the gang and I headed to my favourite place: Harry’s Shack at Portstewart Strand. After building sandcastles and races along the beach, it was time for a breather and a well earned drink. To adhere to the new social distancing guidelines, Harry’s Shack has added more tables onto the beach. Each has a unique QR code, which when scanned allows you to order food and drink online. Once ready, it will be brought to your table. This eradicates cramming round the bar trying to get served and is something that I hope stays as it makes for a really relaxing and pleasant customer experience.
Dinner that evening was to another favourite of mine: The Tides Restaurant. Located just outside Portrush, this family friendly restaurant has impressive views and an equally impressive menu. Offering three courses for the price of a main (or the option to swap one course for a glass of wine or a bottle of beer), it is excellent value for money.
I opted for the Spanish meatballs as a starter followed by the honey glazed duck breast. Both dishes were bursting with flavour and perfectly cooked. The Tides Restaurant does not scrimp on portion size and so I opted to swap my third course for a glass of wine. If visiting, and not driving, don’t forget to check out the cocktail list – in my opinion, the Porn Star Martini was the perfect night cap.
The following day we headed to the West Strand of Portrush. After building sand volcanoes, and a picnic on the beach, I decided it was time for a – very brief – dip in the Atlantic. It was totally baltic, but there is no better way to blow away all your inner cobwebs.
After a warm shower, we headed in to Portrush. My sister Gail and I looked around a few shops (if you are in the area, visit Memento for a quirky selection of gifts or treats for yourself, as well as brilliant customer service), whilst Alan and Rachel hit up the arcades. Once it was time to regroup, we headed to the outside playground located beside The Arcadia beach cafe. It was the perfect spot to enjoy the sun and work up an appetite.
After failing to get through to the Ramore, we booked a table for dinner at 55 Degrees North. I hadn’t been before and wasn’t sure what to expect but from the minute we entered, I fell in love. The staff are professional and friendly and the implementation of a one-way system helps maintain social distancing. We were very lucky to secure a front table, overlooking the ocean, and so I was in my element.
Again there was an excellent variety on the menu. After toying with the idea of the 55 Burger, served with onions and pepper sauce, I instead opted for the hearty and very delicious Sicillian chicken pasta, served with peppers, pancetta and sun blushed tomatoes. It really hit the spot. The cocktail menu at 55 Degrees North was also extremely reasonable and so it seemed rude not to sample what was on offer. The delicious whiskey sour I ordered was wonderful and acted as the perfect accompaniment for the scenic views; this is definitely somewhere I will return to.
The evening ended with a spin on the Portrush ferris wheel. With stunning panoramic views, this is an amazing way to see Portrush, regardless of your age.
My final day saw the rain roll in and so we retreated to the arcades once again, where Alan and Rachel cleaned up after scoring a Dumbo plush toy and a unicorn from the claw machines. Before we ended up barred from winning too much, we headed to Urban for lunch.
This modern restaurant exudes a classic yet industrial feel. A sister restaurant of The Tides Restaurant, I was not surprised by the mouth-watering dishes listed on the menu. I was immediately sold by the slow braised beef pappardelle, and it really did not disappoint. During August Urban is a participant of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and so we were very impressed when we were presented with the bill to see the savings we received.
With a full tummy, and a smile on my face, hidden below my face mask, it was time to board the train back to Belfast.
With exceptional scenery and a bustling food scene, the North Coast is an idyllic spot for a staycation. However, that has meant certain restaurants may be busier than normal, so avoid disappointment by booking your tables in advance. Apart from that, this is one part of the world I am happy to keep escaping to; if anything, the global pandemic has made me appreciate what we have on our doorstep all the more.
Afternoon Tea is one of my favourite treats, especially when enjoyed with some of my favourite people. However, with lockdown and the knock on effect it’s had on the hospitality industry, this is one treat I haven’t been able to enjoy as much as I would like lately.
My lack of a sugar fix, however, was recently treated thanks to Ivy’s Bakes on the Castlereagh Road, Belfast.
This fantastic family-run bakery offers a wonderful takeaway afternoon tea, brimmed full of all the special offerings you could hope for. It can even cater for allergies and intolerances, with gluten free and vegan alternatives, for example, also being available.
One major component of afternoon tea are the sandwiches; fillings available from Ivy’s Bakes include; egg and mayo, coronation chicken, ham and cheese, and salad.
Next up is the foundation of a good afternoon tea, as well as fruit and plain scones, you can also chose from white chocolate and raspberry (which are stunning!) and savoury options for those who aren’t such a fan of all things sweet. Mini packs of butter and jam are also included to take the scones to the next level.
An afternoon tea would not be complete without tray bakes and cakes and here Ivy’s really comes into its element; from rich brownies, lemon squares and lolly-shaped cakes, to giant Viennese Whirls, German biscuits and peanut mallow slices, there is something for all tastes.
For those who like a little bit of sparkle to their afternoon tea, miniature bottles of prosecco or champagne can be added to your order.
Presentation is such a huge part of the afternoon tea experience. To help recreate the look at home, Ivy’s Bakes also provides a cardboard cake stand which you set up at home with the oodles of freshly made goodies.
Initially I wasn’t sure how the afternoon tea experience would translate when moved to home. However, with quality baking, superb variety and good value for money, Ivy’s Bakes takeaway afternoon tea is a surprisingly good alternative. You can enjoy it where you like, when you like and with who like. In these uncertain times, that added flexibility can really be an added bonus to an excellent concept.
The face of theatre has unquestionably changed as a result of Covid-19. For the time being, group excursions, sell out shows, and opening nights are a no-go. However, the Lyric Theatre, BBC Arts and BBC Northern Ireland, supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, have curated a collection of six new bite-sized drama commissions that you can enjoy in the comfort of your own home.
Initially broadcast on Thursday (25 June) on BBC Two Northern Ireland, Splendid Isolation: Lockdown Drama, boasts commissions from some of Northern Ireland’s biggest names in writing and acting – including the wonderfully talented Lisa McGee (Derry Girls) and the brilliant Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones).
I missed the original broadcast on BBC Two, but thankfully the series is now accessible on BBC iPlayer. A short intro, narrated by Kerri Quinn (a regular treading the Lyric boards and star of Coronation Street and Come Home), paired with footage of a deserted Belfast, perfectly sets up the tone of the theatrical pieces: five minute commissions which explore the positive and negative aspects of social isolation and lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The quality of the writing, acting and directing in each set piece is of a superb quality; the result is a collection of fantastic little gems which pack an emotional punch. The impact of this creative body of work is all the more impressive as it was created and filmed whilst strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Each instalment is remarkable. ‘Just the Two of Us’, written by Sarah Gordon, is a hilariously relatable snap shot into the lives of partners Karen and Simon, who are trying to survive working from home together. Having had to divide our house into two makeshift offices during lockdown, I could completely understand how the Wi-Fi can suddenly become an all-powerful presence in the house, whilst the petulant dynamic between the two protagonists seemed eerily familiar.
Isolation has been a major negative of lockdown. However, ‘A Random of Kindness’ written by Owen McCafferty and starring the legendary Stella McCusker, and ‘Best Wishes’ written by Abbie Spallen and featuring David Pearse, are thought-provoking and heart-warming reminders of how a friendly face or an unseen but amiable presence can make a huge difference to those living alone.
Whilst isolation plays a large part of Splendid Isolation: Lockdown Drama, it is refreshing that it also delves into how this unprecedented moment in time has afforded us the opportunity to re-connect. When lockdown brings Gillian’s first love out of the woodwork in David Ireland’s ‘Love Lockdown’, she has to decide whether she wants to see him again, never mind exploring if it is even possible with social distancing restrictions.
Whilst there are moments of comedy throughout, there is also melancholy as loss plays a recurring theme. ‘The Girl at the Window’ written by Lisa McGee and featuring award-winning actor Anthony Boyle gave me goosebumps. It tells the story of Jimmy, who is packing up the family home after his father passed away during lockdown. Jimmy becomes obsessed with the girl in the house opposite, who seems to be watching him but is unresponsive to his attempts to communicate. With a powerful performance and an eye-opening twist in the tail, this brief production absolutely blew me away. Likewise, Stacey Gregg’s ‘Wake Cake’, also had a profound effect on me. The emotive material and the stirring performance from Kerri Quinn as a young woman in mourning was a stark and poignant reminder of what loss means post-Covid. With the only option in many cases being to grieve via a Zoom funeral, it gave a face to the startling reality that many people across the country have had to forgo physical support during a time when it is needed the most. Though somber, it was the perfect note to conclude on, emphasising why the extreme measures we have had to endure have, and continue be, so important as we strive to limit the loss of life throughout the pandemic.
Splendid Isolation: Lockdown Drama is a creative and inspiring project which delivers very welcome shots of culture to an audience, who like me, have been starved from the lack of real-life theatrical productions. Celebrating local talent, this ambitious project perfectly showcases the resilience of the arts sector and its ability to unequivocally translate everyday experiences into a record that captures a unique moment in time. This is a marvellous exercise in storytelling and collaboration; the result is an imaginative collection of theatrical pieces that can either be devoured whole or savoured at your leisure, but either way, you will feel enriched for having consumed them.
Splendid Isolation: Lockdown Drama will be screened on BBC1 on Wednesday 1 July at 11:20pm and is also available on the BBC iPlayer.
Angst: I am addicted to it. Since I watched My So Called Life as a barely teenager, I was hooked. To this day I still have an emotional reaction when I think of Angela Chase and (the ultimate 90s crush) Jordan Catalano. My addiction was further fuelled by Dawson’s Creek, swiftly followed by Freaks and Geeks. I have always known I get too emotionally invested in fictional characters, and in all these drama series I felt the tension and turmoil on a very real level, whether it was ‘will they, won’t they’ or ‘should they, shouldn’t they’; it mattered to me if Angela and Jordan got together, if Joey dumped Dawson for Pacey or if Lindsay Weir would ever kiss Daniel Desario.
As a teenager the intensity with which you feel is unsurpassable, and I figured my addition to angst would die a death as I got older. Fast forward 20 years, and, if BBC’s Normal People has taught me anything, it’s that my addiction with angst is as strong as ever.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Normal People, based on the novel by Sally Rooney, is about the complex relationship between Marianne and Connell – played beautifully by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. Established when they are teenagers at secondary school in Sligo, their story continues to unfold as they both move to Dublin to study at Trinity. It starts out like many ‘teen’ dramas. Connell is sporty and popular, Marianne is intimidatingly intelligent and an outcast. But that is where the stereotyping ends. Connell is smart and Marianne is vulnerable. And they both are achingly insecure. However, as they begin to find themselves, often through each other, that is where the magic of the drama happens. Across 12 episodes you see these characters grow and evolve. However, life, as it often does, gets in the way. They suffer dramas and traumas. Life is not a fairytale. And the storytelling is all the better for realising that.
This show, although verging on soft porn territory at parts, is a tragic love story that absolutely destroyed me. The characters of Marianne and Connell are, as the name suggests, normal people. They are relatable, likeable but also broken. There is no perfection, just characters who are multi-layered, nuanced and honest. Although, perhaps not always honest with each other. Which creates a wonderful set up for angst; the viewer knows what the characters want, but they are often too afraid to communicate it to each other.
Once again I found myself fiercely invested in fictional characters. I think that is why I love angst so much. It reignites that level of passionate I thought would become relegated to my teenage years. But it also acts as a mirror of self-discovery. It is very easy to be voyeuristic about the experience, but it is also hard to not see yourself in some of the characters’ traits.Rather than urging Marianne and Connell to be more honest about their feelings, it often makes you ponder how honest you are being with yourself – which, in my opinion, can never be a bad thing.
So, whether for Marianne’s wardrobe, the thirst trap of Connell’s chain (check out the instagram if you haven’t already – @connellschain), the haunting soundtrack (relive it at BBC Sounds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/brand/p08b2qwp), or the authentic storytelling, Normal People is worth a watch. And, if you are a bit of a sucker for an angsty drama, be prepared to become obsessed with this emotional rollercoaster of a story.
Lockdown has rapidly become the new normal. One of the things that has got me through the pandemic panic is my daily walk and rediscovering the beauty that exists on my doorstep. As my phone is filling up with little snapshots of these excursions, I thought I would share a few of my favourite snaps with you – I hope you enjoy.