Review: Monty Python’s Spamalot

Review: Monty Python’s Spamalot

I feel very ashamed to admit I know very little of the work of Monty Python; the closest I have gotten to exploring their comedic offerings was catching ten minutes of The Life of Brian when I was a student. It therefore seemed very opportune when I got an invite to see a production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, which is being performed by the Ulster Operatic Company at the Grand Opera House until Saturday (14 October).

Adapted from the 1975 film Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Spamalot is a musical comedy which tells the story of King Arthur as he travels around the land gathering his Knights of the Round Table. This band of hapless adventurers is then tasked with a divine mission to locate the elusive Holy Grail – with uproarious consequences. On arrival, I wasn’t sure what I had let myself in for, but a few minutes into the production and after the absolute surreal rendition of ‘He’s Not Dead Yet’, I soon knew: prolonged fits of laughing which ultimately resulted in a stomach ache. It is fair to say Spamalot was bonkers from the get go, but it was the absolute best kind of bonkers; slapstick comedy, hilarious musical numbers and physical comedy all combined together to create a performance than had me grinning from ear to ear.

Superb guidance from director Neil Keery, musical director Wilson Shields and choreographer Brooke Allen was evident from start to finish; in my opinion the overall performance would not have looked out of place on the West End. The cast likewise put on exceptional performances. From the authoritative and determined King Arthur (Colin Boyd) to his ‘trusty’ Knights; Sir Robin (Brian Trainor), Sir Lancelot (Jamie Johnston), Sir Galahad (Ross David Chambers) – who looked like a medieval Thor, and Sir Bedever (Paddy McGennity), each brought a high energy and pitch perfect performance that thoroughly entertained me; there were that many stand out moments that I can’t even list them all. It is hard to think how Spamalot could be made even better, but the seemingly impossible was accomplished by the stellar performances of Jordan Walsh as Patsy and Ciara Mackey as the Lady of the Lake. From the outset Jordan had me in hysterics through his expert use of coconuts, whilst his ability to convey as much with his facial expressions as his lines was a remarkable feat. Ciara Mackey completely mesmerised me as the Lady of the Lake. Unbeknownst to me at the time of viewing, I have had the pleasure of seeing Ciara perform several times as part of the excellent Pleasuredome band, who are regulars at The Belfast Empire. I already knew she was a talent but after Spamalot my eyes have been well and truly opened; not only is she a phenomenal singer, she is also sassy, cool and has impeccable comedic timing.

Whether you are a Monty Python super fan or only being introduced to their work, Spamalot is definitely for you. This superb piece of comedy is clearly in capable and trustworthy hands with the Ulster Operatic Company. After an evening that was spent literally laughing out loud (a lot!), Spamalot has shown me what I have been missing when it comes to Monty Python. Right you book your tickets to Spamalot and I am away to check out the remaining 85 minutes of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Monty Python’s Spamalot by the Ulster Operatic Society runs until Saturday 14th October at the Grand Opera House. For more information: 

https://www.goh.co.uk/spamalot

Posted 12/10/2017

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Review: The Weir

Review: The Weir

 

I have been quiet of late as I have been on holiday (posts on that coming asap), however to give me something to look forward to, and to make the thought of the return to Belfast and to Northern Irish weather less painful, I booked a trip to the Lyric Theatre with my culture buddies to see The Weir last night.

The play is set on a balmy but stormy night and sees the local men of an isolated Leitrim town gathering in Brendan’s pub for a pint and a bit of banter to wile away the lonely hours before bedtime. However, with the arrival of a mysterious woman, talk turns to the history of the town and its folklore. As each man tries to make an impact by recounting tales, which flow from ghost stories, to those of personal loss, in order to impress the beautiful stranger, one story is more chilling, more sinister and more real than any of them could have foreseen.

Written by the talented Conor McPherson (who also penned The Night Alive, which is one of my favourite productions that I have seen staged in the Lyric), The Weir, which won the Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Olivier award for Best New Play, is storytelling at its finest. The pacing, the interaction between the characters, the humour and the carefully crafted tales they tell all combine to create a play that is compelling, captivating and utterly chilling. The fantastic writing is complemented by wonderful direction from Andrew Flynn, who ensures each nuance of this classic tale is perfectly measured to have ultimate effect.

In addition to the exceptional writing and direction, the play is brought to life by the fantastic performances from each member of the accomplished cast. Patrick Ryan provides laughs as the ever ‘debating’ bar keep Brendan, a young single man who is set in his ways. However, behind the laughs we are also offered glimpses of a serious man who is lonely and adrift when his locals are absent from his bar. Garrett Keogh excels in his representation of Finbar, a local who has left the country behind for the bright lights. The only married man in the bar, Finbar sees himself having attained loftier heights than is former neighbours, however as the tale unfolds Keogh expertly unveils the cracks in Finbar’s carefully polished veneer. Marty Maguire offers a layered portrayal of scene stealing, confirmed bachelor Jack, the joker of the pack who uses humour to mask an underlying hurt, whilst Frankie McCafferty serves a subtle and incredibly natural performance as straight shooting handyman Jim, who is kind hearted and acts as the peacekeeper trying to keep the egos in the bar in check. Kerri Quinn, who I have seen in a few productions now, simply mesmerises as mysterious stranger Valerie, a woman with a story to tell but who longs for nothing but peace and quiet in this small, rural community.

The Weir is a chilling yet beautifully told story that explores universal themes of loneliness, loss and community, and so like all great ghost stories, has maximum impact because the threads that weave it together are so believable. Perfectly paced to continually ramp up the tension, the punctuations of humour add much welcomed light relief to this captivating production. The Weir only runs until 30 September, so be quick and catch one of the last performances before it finishes; I can’t recommend it enough. https://lyrictheatre.co.uk

the weir

Theatre Review: Sinners 

This week I enjoyed a trip to the theatre to see Sinners, which was written by the superbly talented Marie Jones and produced and staged by the Lyric Theatre. 

The play tells the story of an isolated farming community that comes under the spell of the charming yet mysterious preacher, Pastor O’Hare. Whilst his unorthodox style of preaching has won over the locals, not everyone is sold. Her husband has declared his devotion to the new ministry, but Tania Simpson is not convinced; with the help of her family and friends she is on a mission to find out what the Pastor’s true motivations are.

The first half of the production was very much about setting the foundations of the story, whilst the second ramped up the drama and the comedy and when it finished I had an ache in my side and a smile firmly on my face. With a sharp script, clever staging and an accomplished cast, it definitely made a lasting impression. When it comes to plays at the Lyric, Michael Condron has become somewhat of a measuring stick for me as to whether to get tickets. I’ve seen him in a few productions now, such as The 39 Steps and Smiley, and he has always been a highlight, so with Condron cast as the charismatic Pastor O’Hare, myself, and my culture buddy Mark, were really looking forward to seeing what he brought to this production. Condron gave a mesmerising performance, making it seem completely plausible that he could cast a spell over and entire community. He also has an amazing ability for physical comedy and at times had me laughing without having to say a word. However, Condron wasn’t the only talent in the cast. Seáinín Brennan as Tania was fantastic at playing a woman who will go to any lengths to protect her family. She was passionate and fierce and utterly compelling to watch. Louise Mathews as Coleen, Tania’s sidekick and best friend, honestly had me snorting with laughter. She is a natural performer who commanded your attention anytime she put a foot on stage. Charlie Bonner as Tania’s husband Stanley, was a revelation. He perfectly captured a vulnerability which made it very realistic as to why he would be willing to dismiss his family’s worries to offer up his worldly possessions in return for redemption. Alan McKee as Stanley’s brother Sydney provided lashings of comedy to the proceedings. As a culchie living in the city, I found something comfortingly familiar about his portrayal of a local farmer. He perfectly captured the hilarious colloquialism of local life and that seriously amused me. I also have to say the younger members of the cast: Adele Gribbon as Millie, Michael Johnston as Jed and Patrick McBrearty as Dino added an unbridled youthfulness to the show as well as each having impeccable comedic timing that added a new dimension to the play. 

Unfortunately Sinners closed its run last night but if it returns to the Lyric or you get the chance to see one of these wonderfully talented actors in another production, I suggest you get yourself a ticket booked. Right, I am away to get ready for a new show coming to the Lyric; The Ladykillers (which runs from 10 June – 8 July and is adapted from the classic comedy by Graham Lineman); I’ll maybe see you there! 

Posted: 4/6/2017

Review: Million Dollar Quartet 

My family are my favourite people in the world and when we get a chance to all get together for a night out, I am truly at my happiest. So it was happy days indeed on Saturday night when we got together for a night out in Belfast. Our first port of call was dinner, and so with the idea of trying somewhere different we headed to The Crown Bar Dining Rooms. I am a huge fan of the iconic Crown Bar and so I was definitely intrigued to see what the restaurant, which is located upstairs, had to offer. The interior boasts a classic and warm ambience, whilst the staff are professional yet incredibly friendly (from booking the table right through to settling the bill, I could not fault the service we received). The menu had a fabulous mix of dishes, however, I sampled the chicken, chorizo and cider pie which was served with mash, vegetables and gravy. The portion size and presentation was impressive and whilst there was not as much chorizo as I would personally like, it was still a very tasty meal. 

The combination of the food, the superb selection of drinks, excellent service, welcoming atmosphere and fantastic location created a brilliant experience and I would definitely visit again. 

Next up was a visit to the Grand Opera House, Belfast, where I got to indulge my love for the theatre and for music when we attended the final night of Million Dollar Quartet. I had high hopes for this production and I was not disappointed. 

Million Dollar Quartet tells the story of record executive Sam Phillips, who founded the legendary Sun Records, and the night he made rock ‘n’ roll history when he brought Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins together to play for the first and only time on December 4, 1956.

As well as impressively singing and playing their instruments live, each member of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ superbly executed their roles, from Ashley Carruthers, who gave an animated performance which perfectly captured the frenetic energy of Jerry Lee Lewis to Matthew Wycliffe, as Carl Perkins, who exuded the intensity of a musician struggling to recapture the same level of success and fame he once had. Robbie Durham took on the role of Johnny Cash and whilst he bore an uncanny physical resemblance to his namesake, he also gave a wonderful performance that showed a vulnerability to Cash veering from being a musician who wanted to progress his career to being a man who was loyal and reluctant to turn his back on Phillips, who kick-started his career. Ross William Wild was tasked with portraying Elvis Presley and whilst he effortlessly captured his voice, he also added a physicality to his performance which captured Elvis’ larger than life persona. 

The biggest name on the cast list however was Jason Donovan whose portrayal of Sam Phillips was the lynch pin to the production. From narrating the story to introducing each song on the impressive set list, Donovan was responsible for taking the audience back in time to this iconic moment in history. With a flawless Southern drawl, an assured and committed stage presence as well as a faultless and passionate performance, Donovan fully engaged the audience (well, apart from one rude heckler who interrupted a key scene, although even this did not put Donovan off his stride). For me Jason Donovan was the perfect person to bring the remarkable character of Sam Phillips to life on stage.
With a raucous set of classic hits, from ‘Walk the Line’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes ‘, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’, an insanely talented cast and a superbly assembled production, Million Dollar Quartet is a wonderful show that will entertain you, transport you back in time and get you off your seat and on your feet for a dance. If you get a chance to catch this performance, I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Posted: 1/5/2017

 

Review: The Buddy Holly Story 

After several food posts, I thought it was time to give my stomach a rest and see what else Belfast has to offer, and so the invite to see The Buddy Holly Story at the Grand Opera House could not have arrived at a better time.
As it was Valentine’s night, my plus one had to be the husband, and I didn’t need to ask him twice. Whilst I love music from a bygone era, a trait very much inherited from my mum,  Keith is an old soul who I am convinced was born into the wrong musical generation. We both are fans of the Buddy Holly classics and were more than a little excited to see some of them belted out on the stage of the Grand Opera House. 

When we arrived, the venue was already packed, and the atmosphere was charged. As the curtain lifted we were immediately immersed in the world of Buddy Holly and The Crickets as the band go rogue on a Country and Western Radio Station by playing their take on the then controversial Rock ‘n’ Roll. This pretty much sets the tone for the show: Buddy Holly forged a career doing things his way; from the songs he played and how he played them, to refusing to get rid of his glasses, in fact opting for thicker frames, because no one else wore them on stage. He really was not like anyone else of his time. 

The Buddy Holly Story not only celebrates the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, but is a tale of romance, perseverance and tragedy, perfectly interlaced with humour and set against a backdrop of classic songs. As the story charts the life of Buddy Holly and The Crickets, from their first recording contract and their meteoric rise to stardom, to Buddy’s whirlwind wedding and the crossroads he faces in his career, the dynamic writing and electric performances kept me gripped from start to finish. 

The highlight of the show for me of course had to be the musical performances. In addition to acting, the actors all sang and played their instruments live throughout the show. From the raucous ‘That’ll Be The Day’ to the charming ‘Everyday’, it was hard not to dance along in your seat. However, for myself and a lot of the audience, it was impossible to stay seated for the elctric performance of ‘Johnny B Goode’. 

Alex Fobbester, who was tasked with the mammoth role of bringing Buddy Holly to life, really shone throughout. He managed to capture a progression to the character of Buddy. From his adrenaline fuelled performances, that were full of passion during the early days of recordings, to the flair and self-assured showmanship of his later performance, Fobbester wonderfully captured the evolution of Buddy the boy into Buddy Holly the star. The supporting cast were also phenomenal. From the exceptional comic timing of Celia Cruwys-Finnigan as ‘Vi Petty’, Thomas Mitchells as ‘Big Bopper’, Tom Sowinski as ‘Jackdaw’ and Matthew Quinn as ‘Hipockets Duncan’ to the fragility of Kerry Low as Buddy Holly’s wife ‘Maria Elena’, the pure energy of Jordan Cunningham as ‘ritchie Valens’, the pure sass of Miguel Angel as a Apollo performer, and the passion of Alex Tosh as ‘Norman Petty’, not to mention the fabulous Joe Butcher and Josh Haberfield as ‘Joe’ and ‘Jerry’ of The Crickets, this production was completely absorbing from all angles. 

This Valentine’s I discovered a new love: The Buddy Holly Story and if you are a fan of man himself, live music or exceptional story telling, I can not recommend it enough. It made me smile, laugh, dance and even shed a tear. 

The Buddy Holly Story runs at the Grand Opera House until 18 February, so catch it while.you can. For more information: https://www.goh.co.uk/

Posted: 14/02/2017

Review: The Nativity – What The Donkey Saw

When I was a kid, I remember being selected to play an angel in a Nativity play. Then I got sick, and no matter how determined I was to rock my halo, I was instead relegated to watching it from the sidelines. However, I recently decided to set aside my feelings of jealousy to all Nativity performers to check out the latest offering at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast: The Nativity – What The Donkey Saw.

My partners in crime for this Lyric adventure were culture buddies Andy and Mark. When we got to the Lyric Theatre, the place was abuzz with people getting into the Christmas spirit. I even spotted a few Christmas jumpers and festive headpieces. As the lights dimmed and the voice of God spoke to the audience (God in this instance being a very feisty and sassy Pamela Ballantine), the tone was set for the rest of the show. In this version of The Nativity, written by comic duo Grimes and McKee, Mary (played by Kerri Quinn) and Joseph (played by Terry Keeley) meet at the local Centra where Mary works at the deli counter. Before Joseph can put a wedding ring on it however, Mary is told by the archangel Gabriel, in a super creative costume, that she is carrying God’s child and so she, and a very understanding Joseph, get their nuptials out of the way before packing up the Hyonki (a budget donkey from Korea) and making the long journey to Bethlemhem to participate in the census called for by Caesar J Trumpius who is insistent on enforcing taxes on all, except himself of course. This is just one of the current cultural references in the script that ensures that The Nativity is bang up to date.

The Nativity – What The Donkey Saw is festive entertainment at its finest. The cast of five, which included Conor Grimes, Alan McKee and Tara Lynne O’Neill supporting Quinn and Keeley’s Mary and Joseph in an exquisite array of roles, from angels, shepherds, wise men, carpenters and Roman Centurions, all give stellar performances. As well as each performer showcasing exceptional comic timing, they also all seriously hold their own throughout the play’s numerous musical numbers. The play has adapted a number of well know songs to tell the tale of this modern day Mary and Joseph. ‘When a Child is Born’ for example was one of my stand out moments for me. The lyrics had mums and dads nodding along knowingly whilst the fabulously choreographed routine was a fun parody of any boyband music video ever. 

From start to finish The Nativity – What The Donkey Saw had me howling with laughter and for a performance that clocked in at over 2 hours, the time just flew by. Whilst Christmas is often a time for the children, it was lovely to attend a performance that is as much for the adults as the kids. This was my first festive outing at the Lyric Theatre, however I enjoyed it so much I think it a new Christmas tradition had been born. 

The Nativity: What the Donkey Saw runs at the Lyric Theatre until 14 January 2017.

http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk

Posted: 19/12/2016

Review: Cinderella 

When I was a kid, you knew it was Christmas once it was time for the school trip to the pantomime at the Grand Opera House. The bus to Belfast was always buzzing with excitement, and after we screamed, laughed and clapped our way through the show, the drive home was a much quieter affair. Since then I have had nothing but fond memories of the pantomime and so when SarahJayne Miskelly from the Grand Opera House invited me to attend the press night of this year’s show, I experienced that childhood excitement once again. 

This year’s show is the epitome of fairytale magic: Cinderella. The cast include pop and theatre star Gareth Gates as Prince Charming, actress Jayne Wisener, who is best known for her role alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s critically acclaimed Sweeney Todd, as Cinderella, and the ultimate pantomime icon, May McFettridge as Fairy May.  

Jayne Wisener as Cinderella and Gareth Gates as Prince Charming.
May McFettridge as Fairy May.

With such a stellar cast, I had very high hopes: I was not disappointed. From the outset, the laughs came thick and fast courtesy of Fairy May, who literally shone a spotlight on a few of the audience members (un)lucky enough to be seated next to the stage, and ‘welcomed’ them in her inimitable style. Throughout the show Fairy May excels in entertaining the kids in the audience as well as ensuring the adults also roar with laughter. May McFettridge has been a constant in Belfast pantomimes for as long as I can remember and judging from last night has continued to only get better and better. 

Once the audience were well and truly warmed up, it was time to meet Buttons, the poster boy of being ‘friendzoned’, who was played to absolute perfection by the fantastic Michael Joseph. As well as a clear flair for the comedic through the performance, Michael Joseph, as Buttons, was truly engaging and charming and actively encouraged children of all ages to interact with the show. 

Next it was time to meet the show’s namesake, Cinderella. Jayne Wisener is made for this role; as well as being gorgeous, she has a captivating stage presence and it did not take much convincing to believe a prince could fall for her charms. We couldn’t have Cinderella without her flamboyant ugly step sisters, who were played by Gerard McCabe and Tommy Wallace. On terms of a double act, these two were on fire. Layering gaudy costumes, big hair and cartoonish makeup, the characters of Alesha and Amanda demand the audience’s full attention. They are also played with a humour and an unabashed relish by McCabe and Wallace, ensuring they are characters you simply love to hate. 

Tommy Wallace as Amanda (left) and Gerard McCabe as Alesha (right).

Laughs also came from Vatman (Damian Patton) and Robin (Tom Rolfe), these two have slapstick comedy down to a fine art. As well as hilarious dialogue, there is a real sense of physically in their performance, from their movements on stage right down to their facial expressions. These two are on the search of Cinderella’s father, Baron Hardup, who is seriously in debt to the Crown. Although the Baron, played fabulously by Paddy Jenkins, does not have the most stage time, he makes every second count injecting each scene with wit, fun and a jubilant energy.

After the scene has been well and truly set, it was time to meet Gareth Gates’ Prince Charming. With a desire to meet an ordinary girl, Prince Charming swaps places with his man servant Dandini, played by the delightful Jordan Harrington. It is during this ruse that Prince Charming meets Cinderella. Gareth Gates makes a fantastic Prince Charming. Packing impressive vocals and almost as impressive dance moves, it’s easy to see how he could sweep Cinderella off her feet. Whilst Jayne Wisener and Gareth Gates had a definite chemistry as the lovestruck couple, what I did not expect was how adept they both were at comedy. Whilst singing ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ could easily have been a sickly sweet sugar high, both actors, as well Michael Joseph, transformed it into a stomach aching laugh fest. 

In addition to a talented cast, what makes Cinderella such a spectacle is the superb production. The scene when Fairy May is getting Cinderella ready for the ball is stunning and truly magical. Props are used in wonderful and unexpected ways: you will never believe a balloon could be so hilarious until you see one used in such an original way as in the scene between Fairy May and Buttons. 

This is not a show just for the little ‘uns. With jokes for the big and little kids, this really is the perfect show for the whole family and if you haven’t got tickets yet, I cannot recommend Cinderella enough: I literally cried with laughter. With current pop references, outstanding dance numbers and laughs galore, last night, probably 25 years after my childhood visits, I left the Grand Opera House completely spent from screaming, laughing and clapping along. I can honestly say you never outgrow the magic of the pantomime, and I know I will definitely be first in line for tickets to next year’s production of Peter Pan

Cinderella runs at the Grand Opera House until 15 January 2017. For tickets  visit: https://www.goh.co.uk

Kellie Burch, Gareth Gates aka Prince Charming and Keith Burch.
Buttons aka Michael Joseph with Kellie and Keith.

PS. Thank you ‘dairy’ much to Dale Farm, sponsors of Cinderella, for the very generous goodie bag full of all my favourite things: cheese, milk, cheese, custard, and more cheese! Love it!




Posted: 07/12/2016