Review: Jake O’Kane at the Waterfront Hall

My sister Gail (left) and me with Jake O’Kane after his hilarious Still Sittin on the Fence show at the Waterfront Hall. 

My parents are huge fans of local panel show The Blame Game as well as one of its  resident panellists: Jake O’Kane. After several unsuccessful attempts at trying to secure tickets to see the live recording of the show, they also tried to book tickets for Jake’s stand up appearance last year to no avail. And so, when my sister Gail saw the announcement of tickets going on sale for Jake O’Kane’s Still Sittin’ on the Fence series of shows at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, we knew we had found the perfect Christmas present for the parentals as well as an ideal family night out. 

The show ran from 9-13 January and we were lucky to book tickets for the four of us at the Saturday night show, which was consequently the last night of its run at the Waterfront Hall. 

Once seated, the audience’s funny bones were warmed up by north Belfast comedian Terry McHugh . From his relocation to Co Tyrone with his ‘culchie’ wife to his daily shenanigans as a father of three (you’ll never think of an iPhone in the same way) to his unbreakable mother who has survived seven mild strokes, two major ones and tried to walk off a heart attack, McHugh’s take on family life is unique and highly amusing and by the time he left the stage a smile was already firmly in place on my face. 

Whilst I enjoyed a really good chuckle at Terry McHugh, I literally howled with laughter once Jake O’Kane took to the stage. The show is a loose end-of-the-year review, looking back at what made 2017 memorable – for all the wrong reasons. His repertoire of material combines so many subjects, such as local and international politics, from the fall out of Brexit to his campaign to harass MLAs on a daily basis on twitter; the pitfalls of being ginger; recent health scares; the legacy of a mixed marriage; and why you should never, ever, swim with dolphins. The end result: pure, unadulterated hilarity. From start to finish I crackled so much my stomach ached. And I wasn’t the only one. The audience were constantly exchanging tear filled glances whilst practically doubled over from laughing so much. 

Jake O’Kane’s end-of-the-year shows has become an annual must-see and now I know why. With the structure, material and timing to make the audience laugh with total abandon for the full duration, Jake O’Kane’s Still Sittin’ on Fences is, in my opinion, a comedic masterpiece; this is one comedian that I would happily watch again and again. 

For more information on Jake O’Kane and his upcoming gigs visit: https://m.facebook.com/jake.okane/

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Feeling Festive at The Heritage Killenard 

Gail and Kellie at The Heritage’s grand staircase.

Christmas can be a stressful time. With getting gifts for your loved ones, writing cards, decorating the house and trying to arrange catch ups with all your friends, by the time 25 December rolls round, you are exhausted. This year however, my sister and I came with a plan to take back Christmas: a spa break at The Heritage Killenard.

Situated in the Laois countryside, this 5 star hotel encompasses a spa with thermal suite, a health club with leisure pool, walking trails, a golf course and children’s play areas; there is really something onsite that will appeal to all visitors.

The road to Laois.

When we set off from Belfast to Co Laois, it was the morning after a total snow fest, however thankfully by Saturday morning the roads south were clear and three hours later we arrived at The Heritage. 

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We were booked in for the Tea, Treats and Overnight Stay package and once we checked into our room, we dropped off our bags and made our way to the Thermal Suite at the spa. Encompassing tropical showers, foot salt baths, jacuzzi, sauna and steam room, this was the perfect place to relax after the drive. It was hard to think the relaxation could get any better, but it did when we were treated to a half hour back massage and a half hour facial. I honestly think what unfolded during that hour was the best massage and facial I have ever had. Not only did it relax the knots in my back and leave my face feeling soft and supple, but my therapist was fantastic at explaining what she was doing, the benefits it would have and how to maintain a healthy back and keep my skin in better condition going forward.

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Once the stresses of everyday life had melted away, it was time to get showered, changed and ready for part two of our indulgent getaway: festive afternoon tea. Served in the Lounge, we were seated by the fire and were perfectly located to soak up the festivities. The afternoon tea consisted of a selection of finger sandwiches, fruit and plain scones, and several sweet treats such a Christmas log, coconut macaroon in the shape of a snowman, mini mince pies and chocolate gateaux, all washed down with a glass of mulled wine.

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Once we could eat no more, we explored the hotel, from the stunning winter scenes at the entrance to the ceiling high Christmas tree as well as the gorgeous and cosy reading nook. We were hoping to explore the Fairy Garden outside but as it was chilly we opted to enjoy a few drinks at the Slieve Bloom Bar instead.

The ‘winter wonderland’ views we woke up to.

When it was time to call it a night, we retreated to our beautiful twin room where we slept the night through in plush and snug beds. When we awoke the next morning it was to a winter wonderland as snow had fallen overnight. The scenery looked truly magical however we thought we would need to head back to Belfast sooner rather than later as the snow was falling pretty heavily and was forecast to be on the rest of the day. So to fortify us for the journey home we headed to the Arlington Restaurant for breakfast. You could choose from a cooked breakfast off the menu or help yourself to the hot buffet, as well as to a selection of cereals, cold meats, pastries and breads, including a terrific gluten free section. With a plate of sausages, eggs, tomato, mushrooms and hash browns demolished, it was time to pack up and hit the road. As we checked out we were each given a bottle of water at our reception for our journey back to Belfast which I thought was such a thoughtful farewell from the Hotel.

From start to finish I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my stay at The Heritage Killenard; from the delicious food, luxurious treatments, stunning accommodation and I have to say the most professional staff who really made you feel like a VIP, it was a fabulous experience. My sister are already plotting a return visit to this wonderful haven – and who knows, maybe even a new Christmas tradition has been born! 

Posted 23/12/2017

Joe Hill: In Conversation 

Joe Hill reading an excerpt from Strange Weather

Every once in a while, you stumble across a writer whose works resonate with you. Before you know it you are buying everything you can with their name on it so that you can immerse yourself in the worlds they’ve create for as long as possible. That is how I felt when I first read Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. The book tells the story of aging rock legend Judas Coyne who has an eccentric hobby: buying oddities of the macabre variety. With a cannibal’s cookbook and a used hangman’s noose in his possession, he jumps at the chance to procure a ghost. Delivered to his door in a heart-shaped box, Judas soon begins to regret the latest addition to his ghastly collection. Heart-Shaped Box was a heart-stopping, refreshing, unique and vividly imaginative debut novel, and once I had finished it I was completely hooked on Hill.

Since my first encounter, I have delved time and again into the worlds crafted by Joe Hill and I’ve loved every trip, so I was beyond excited to hear that he was coming to Belfast. Organised by No Alibis bookstore, the event, which was hosted at the Ulster Museum, saw Joe Hill read an excerpt from his new book, Strange Weather, which is comprised of four short novels; ‘Rain’, ‘Loaded’, ‘Snapshot, 1988’ and ‘Aloft’. Joe then joined Matthew Craig in conversation where they discussed his writings, from his novels to his Locke & Key comic book series, hus influences as well as his views on social media, how real world events effect his works and the process of transforming his writings for the small screen. 

Whilst I love every event No Alibis organises, this was a very special night. Joe Hill is fascinating, astute, engaging and so, so funny; laughter regularly rippled throughout the audience and whilst he said on the night that he has to remember not everyone finds things funny that he does, I think when it comes to his humour, Belfast is definitely on the same page. He’s also incredibly generous with his time, he happily answered oodles of audience questions (awarding the best three with Strange Weather umbrellas), as well as taking the time to chat to guests as he signed and dedicated their books and posed for photographs. 

Keith Burch, Joe Hill and Kellie Burch at the Ulster Museum as part of the Strange Weather book tour.

In his own words, Joe Hill is a reader before a writer, and I think that’s what makes him one of our generation’s finest storytellers. With a distinct literary voice and an uncanny ability to paint remarkable pictures with his words, he has an exceptional talent to allow readers to totally lose themselves in the memorable narratives he creates. So, if you don’t hear from me for a few days, I will be adrift amongst the clouds of Hill’s making. 


Strange Weather is out now. For the latest No Alibis events visit: www.noalibis.com

Posted: 12/11/2017

Poppies: Weeping Window 

The Ulster Museum, which is nestled beside Botanic Gardens and boasts a stunning and unique architecture, is one of my favourite spots in Belfast. From the wonderful exhibitions it houses, including collections of art, history and natural science, to the special one off events it hosts, from science festivals to book launches, everytime I visit I discover something new. 

Over the weekend, after much anticipation, I got to attend the latest, and possibly one of the most iconic exhibitions to visit Ulster Museum – Poppies: Weeping Window. Brought to Belfast by National Museums Northern Ireland and the Belfast International Arts Festival, Weeping Window is one of two sculptures by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper marking the centenary of the outbreak of war. This beautiful sculpture comprises several thousand handmade ceramic poppies cascading from a high window to the ground below; the final result is simply stunning. 

Weeping Window, which was originally part of the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation housed at HM Tower of London in 2014, will be on display at Ulster Museum until 3 December; if you haven’t seen it yet, I can’t recommend it enough. 

Posted: 8/11/2017

NOIRELAND COMES TO TOWN

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Since I first uncovered crime writing, I instantly fell in love with this adrenaline pumping genre; whether it is a police procedural novel, a heart stopping thriller or, dare I say it, a novel written from the perpetrator’s point of view, I will never tire of delving into the murky depths of this fascinating and hugely engrossing style of literature. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I heard about NOIRELAND, a three-day crime fiction festival which was recently held at the Europa Hotel, Belfast, to celebrate and showcase the amazing talent emerging from Ireland as well as to explore crime writing from across the world, and looking at the impact Ireland has had on the genre.

The Festival, in addition to a series of talks from authors such as Benjamin Black, Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville, Arne Dahl and Sophie Hannah, to name but a mere few, also offered workshops for budding crime writers. Unfortunately I was unable to take advantage of the ‘Weekend Rover Pass’, which gave access to all the talks taking place over the weekend, however I was lucky enough to attend three fabulous events: Line of Duty – In the Spotlight, Robert Crais In Conversation, and Playing in the Dark – Aidan Gillen Talks Crime With Brian Gilloway.

Since series one, I have been a dedicated fan of Line of Duty. As the series has progressed and found its rhythm, it really has become addictive viewing. It is one of the few shows that incites so called ‘water cooler conversations’ in an age of streaming and boxset binging and so I was delighted to have the opportunity to listen to creator Jed Mercurio, actor Adrian Dunbar, who plays Superintendent Ted Hastings, and the show’s producer Stephen Wright, discuss its roots, the secrecy surrounding the fate of even the most regular characters, why Northern Ireland is the perfect location for filming as well as how it has become one of the greatest crime series on the small screen.

Of the three events I attended, I have to admit Robert Crais is the speaker I knew least about. However, after a talk that was humorous, insightful, inspiring and completely engaging, I have added his list of novels to my ‘need to read’ list. As well as discussing his time writing for such iconic shows as Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues and my own personal childhood favourite, Cagney & Lacey, he also discussed his transition to crime novelist and how he created the dynamic (and fabulously named) duo: Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Summed up in a nutshell, he stated: “All writers are cannibals; they chew up their lives and use it to create their characters.” Concise, insightful and definitely my favourite line from the festival.

Aidan Gillen is a face most people will recognise, whether it is as Stuart Jones in Queer as Folk, Councilman Thomas ‘Tommy’ Carcetti in The Wire, John Boy Power in Love/Hate, Charles J Haughey in Charlie or Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish in Game of Thrones, to name a few. In discussion with Brian Gilloway, Gillen touched on how his career in acting started, how an actor demands a certain level of attention but also how his early success left him overwhelmed by the spotlight, how he has managed to carve a career playing unique and differing characters as well the differences when portraying a fictional character versus a real person. Witty, self deprecating and the face of many iconic characters in the crime genre, Gillen in conversation was definitely the perfect way to conclude a fabulous festival.

NOIRELAND was the brainchild of No Alibis’ proprietor David Torrans, and with the promise it will return, I already can’t wait to see how he could possibly top this year’s line up. However, if any one can do it, David and the NOIRELAND team can. But to keep my literary cravings satiated until then, I have just secured tickets for a fantastic No Alibis’ event, to listen to the incredible storyteller that is Joe Hill, who will be at the Ulster Museum on 10 November.

For more information, visit: http://noalibis.com

Holiday Reads

I was on holiday at the start of the month and as an avid bookworm, for me no suitcase is sufficiently packed without the presence of several books (hard copies for me as I am still resisting the call of a Kindle). These are my top four reads that kept me fully engaged whilst I relaxed on the beach and by the pool.

1: A TIME TO SPEAK – HELEN LEWIS
Synopsis: A remarkable story of courage and endurance during the Holocaust. Helen Lewis, a young student of dance in Prague at the outbreak of World War II, was herded, like Madeleine Albright, into the Terezin ghetto, then deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Separated from her family, she struggled to live amidst the carnage of Hitler’s Final Solution. How she did so, and what she did in order to survive, is a gripping story, told with wit, candor, and controlled anger.

What I thought: World War II is a period in history that has always fascinated me; at its heart, this War highlighted the complexities of human nature. So many years later, it still baffles me how so many ordinary and sensible people could be blindly swept up in a movement that saw them turn on former friends and neighbours and willingly herd them to ghettos and concentration camps from which it was unlikely they would return. Whilst A Time To Speak does mine the depths of depravity a human can inflict on another, what makes it such a compelling read is how strong and brave people like Helen Lewis were, who refused to give up or give in. It also highlights that the War was not simply a case of good versus bad; for every bitter betrayal there are uplifting instances of kindness, from brave neighbours who put themselves in danger to try and protect Lewis to the few guards in the camps who showed mercy to their prisoners rather than tormenting them, such as the kind officer who went out of his way to discreetly feed the starving prisoners of war in the concentration camp. This is a remarkable story that needs to be read and remembered; not only does it teach a valuable history lesson but also offers an invaluable insight into how to be a better human.

 

2. FINAL GIRLS – RILEY SAGER
Synopsis: The media calls them the Final Girls – Quincy, Sam, Lisa – the infamous group that no one wants to be part of. The sole survivors of three separate killing sprees, they are linked by their shared trauma. But when Lisa dies in mysterious circumstances and Sam shows up unannounced on her doorstep, Quincy must admit that she doesn’t really know anything about the other Final Girls. Can she trust them? Or can there ever only be one Final Girl?

What I thought: Final Girls is a gripping and taut thriller that had me hooked from the get go. I loved the fact that Quincy is an unreliable narrator; whilst she is famous for the tragedy she survived, no one really knows what happened that night in the woods when all Quincy’s friends were butchered but she survived, including Quincy. With a bad case of amnesia, Quincy refuses to embrace the title Final Girl, instead opting to focus on her career and her quest to be normal. However, when Sam turns up on her doorstep after the death of Lisa, Quincy is forced to look at who she is really and confront the secrets lurking beneath the surface. As the layers from her past start to peel away, the reader takes the journey of self-discovery with Quincy. This is a superbly crafted thriller that taunts and teases and had me frantically turning the pages until I found out how it finished.

 

3. HERE AND GONE – HAYLEN BECK
Synopsis: Audra has finally left her abusive husband. She’s taken the family car and her young children, Sean and Louise, are buckled up in the back. This is their chance for a fresh start. Audra keeps to the country roads to avoid attention. She’s looking for a safe place to stay for the night when she spots something in her rear-view mirror. A police car is following her and the lights are flickering. Blue and red. As Audra pulls over she is intensely aware of how isolated they are. Her perfect escape is about to turn into a nightmare beyond her imagining. . .

What I thought: Haylen Beck AKA Stuart Neville is one of my favourite thriller writers. Whilst this is his debut novel under the pseudonym Haylen Beck, I had high hopes for this novel before I even started it. With the change of name comes a totally different direction. Switching the Northern Irish setting synonymous with the writing of Neville, to that of a small town in America, this standalone thriller allows Neville, as Beck, the opportunity to explore his love of American crime fiction – and the result is phenomenal. From the opening, this book chilled me to the core. Beck is more than adept at ratcheting up the tension throughout the book, to the point I was dreading how it might end but I couldn’t stop reading. Audra and her children, Sean in particular, are fabulously constructed characters that are impossible not to care for. As well as solid characters, Beck’s strength lies in making everyday scenarios seem sinister by showing how vulnerable we really are, making us question who can really be trusted and showing the lengths we will go for to protect our loved ones. This is an absorbing, adrenaline-fuelled tale that gripped me from start to finish.

 

4. THE ESCAPE – CL TAYLOR
Synopsis: When a stranger asks Jo Blackmore for a lift she says yes, then swiftly wishes she hadn’t. The stranger knows Jo’s name, she knows her husband Max and she’s got a glove belonging to Jo’s two year old daughter Elise. What begins with a subtle threat swiftly turns into a nightmare as the police, social services and even Jo’s own husband turn against her. No one believes that Elise is in danger. But Jo knows there’s only one way to keep her child safe – RUN.

What I thought: CL Taylor is the queen of the slow but fierce burning thriller, and this is no exception. With a protagonist that suffers from agoraphobia, Jo’s reaction to the initial threat posed against her family is to construct metaphorical wall after wall to keep them safe. CL Taylor’s exceptional pacing means that the book feels more and more claustrophobic. However, as the threat gets closer, Jo’s need to protect her daughter is that fierce that she finds herself doing the impossible in a bid to keep her daughter safe. CL Taylor adds twists and turns in all the right places so that it was impossible to predict how the book would end, a major plus for me. Combining suspense with heart and soul, thrills with an examination of the love a parent has for a child, this is one book that will affect you on a totally different level.

Posted:17/10/2017

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