The Arts Festival captures the night

 

DUBLIN THEATRE FESTIVAL REVIEWS:On the opening weekend of the Dublin Theatre Festival, 'Irish Times' reviewers assess the first-night performances.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Project Cube

SARA KEATING

The gothic landscape of 1927 Productions' inventive cabaret show is as charming as it is unsettling. Adapting silent-cinema techniques - sepia picture titles, narrative pacing music - for live performance, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is both an homage to and a gentle ribbing of form: impeccably staged but self-consciously poking fun at itself as well.

Against a projected animated backdrop, the two white-faced performers (Suzanne Andrade and Esme Appleton) perform 10 tales of terror. Narrated in an old-fashioned BBC World Service-style, heightened for comic as well as chilling effect, the stories take fairy tale tropes in unexpected twists and turns, never losing the attention of an audience that is alternately laughing and horrified. Inspired by Edward Gorey, and perhaps more recently Tim Burton, the vignettes are dark satires of contemporary values (Sinking Suburbia), politics (The Gingerbread Revolution), mortality (The Nine Lives of Choo Choo le Chat) and morality (the eerie two-part story The Lodger/The Grandmother). The image of the two weird sisters in these last two stories makes for a brilliant excavation of early horror films that loses nothing from live performance, as one brave audience participant will testify.

Andrade, who also directs, creates superb stage images against Paul Barritt's animated design, while Appleton slips seamlessly in and out of projections that are often still under construction around her. Lillian Henley's live performance of her original score provides pace, atmosphere, and - yes - more humour.

The dramatic arc of the short 55-minute piece could certainly be strengthened to provide a more coherent sense of subversion to the evening, while 1927 Productions could tax at least another half an hour of the audience's attention with its witty worldview. However, these are minor quibbles against a young company that has seen its quirky concept through to near-perfection.

Ends tonight

Dodgems

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin

SEONA MAC RÉAMOINN

The set and staging were probably the real winners in this sprawling, often brilliant, sometimes forced extravaganza of a fairground world acting as a metaphor for a changing Ireland. It seduced from the start, with the perfect mix of tawdry glitz and coloured lights, striped blazers, candy floss and jangled music from the on-stage musicians. In this seamlessly produced staging by Coiscéim Dance Theatre, the set revealed its dark side, its upper levels and lower depths embracing all and sundry. We were ready to be uplifted and carried off on a magical journey even if we didn't quite soar as high as we might have.

It was a bit of a mystery why, as all the elements were promisingly assembled and paraded. The iconic dodgems were both unexpectedly sinister and deliciously fun. There was comical sex and a ritual funeral, there was the old order of nuns, the new order of burkas, there was greed, kindness, predatory violence, shysters and romantics, nostalgia and hope.

Director/choreographer David Bolger and writer Charlie O'Neill hit on a marvellous concept, blending the exotic but unconventional ways of outsider circus folk, whose difference we revel in and even enthusiastically accept, with the experiences of our new outsiders.

This was the tricky bit and occasionally missed the mark. But perhaps integration is as complicated to produce theatrically as it is in real life. This would explain why certain perfectly formed sequences of the show seemed as separate and disconnected as the parallel lives of current immigrants. The successful weavings were more often in the dance, where difference was more embedded - a performer with no legs was less a freak than part of the constant action - or when the marrying of several folk dance traditions raised the roof. But several images remain. One was exuberantly realised, when Jason E Barber, a black dancer attired in full ringleted celtic twilight feis regalia, riffed on the surreal origins and future of burkas. Another image, more subtly suggested, evoked a flock of nuns going wild as they whirled and pushed a bevy of disabled kids so they could experience the thrill of the dodgems.

Apart from the potent mix of dance and theatre language, there was also the in-house argot of the circus, and the parlari sections of the script were the sharpest and most suited to the energies of the multicultural, multi talented ensemble who were on fire throughout. Ellen Cranitch's infectious score and the terrific staging and performances provided most of the glue in a show that could still take off with some tinkering.

Until Oct 12

England

Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane

HELEN MEANY

It must have been tempting for the performers in Tim Crouch's "gallery play" to add Damien Hirst to their list of artists whose work is a prized commodity on the global market. But they didn't need to.

Avoiding obvious didacticism and using simple, direct language, Tim Crouch and Hannah Ringham invite the audience to reflect on some essential questions about our world, and to fill in gaps in the fragmented narrative that unfolds. "Look", they say, as a refrain. Look and think.

Referring to paintings by Seán Scully on the gallery walls, they stand among the audience, describing the borderless international art market. Both play the same character, of indeterminate gender, who talks about an urbane Dutch-American art-dealer boyfriend who says that "good art is art that sells".

This threatens to be a self-conscious conceptual performance piece, caught up in its own conceit about "the difference between looking and seeing". But as the picture builds of the narrator who suffers from a serious cardiac condition, it finds its heart. The value the two characters place on works of art and on beauty becomes the way they understand what makes life worth living - while also suggesting that life can be bought as easily as a painting.

This intriguing, gripping production, which premiered last year, could hardly be more timely. Against the backdrop of unstable financial markets, it describes a transaction from one side of the world to the other: the transplant of a human heart across cultures. The second half, played to a seated audience in a smaller room, portrays our narrator, post-transplant operation, who has travelled to an unnamed Islamic country to meet the widow of his heart donor. As both actors take turns to play the narrator, as well as his interpreter and the widow, this becomes a multidimensional scene, which we have to piece together.

The smiling, almost childlike delivery of the first half gives way to an anguished sense of panic and misunderstanding as a different story emerges about the death of the heart donor, and the money that changed hands.

In the midst of linguistic ambiguity, the truth can't be finally ascertained. The valuable artwork the narrator has brought as a thank-you gift can't assuage the widow's grief, no more than cultural barriers can be bridged. In this brilliantly layered, complex piece, technology's promise of interconnectedness is an illusion, disguising irreconcilable difference.

Until Sept 28

You Are Here (Daytime and Night-time)

Quartiere Bloom, Dublin

PETER CRAWLEY

How can you wring a sense of history from a new development? That, more than the technical complexity of moving a small audience along separate and merging tracks through a city-centre apartment, is the challenge behind Living Space Theatre's intensely intimate site-specific production.

Presented in two parts, Daytime and Night-time (the pre-watershed version is racier), and positioning its spectators as flies on the wall, the show quickly designates a central character.

Passing over the adulterous couple (Aonghus Weber and Annemarie Gaillard) hunting for a love nest, and even Eleanor Methven's strong-willed writer of self-help books, currently self-helping her way through various prescription medications, Ioanna Anderson's play instead gives the apartment top billing.

This explains why our characters saunter past each other without acknowledgement - as though the apartment holds their stories in its rooms like distinct, separate memories. Still, the apartment is a bold choice for a central character, particularly when Tara Derrington's direction suggests this place has no character.

City-centre living was once the preserve of the poor and cramped, intones a voice-over - adding to a narrative soup of dialogue, monologues and sound effects - "now it's for the rich and temporary". Such sighing commentary is largely unnecessary when the laminate flooring and smirchless chrome dustbins are equally articulate. (And, in one inspired moment, even a potted plant gets a grumble.)

But while Anderson makes subtle points to match the intimacy - illuminating spiritual consumerism with a neon pink Buddha - her characters generally receive less attention than the furnishings.

Coloured wristbands dictate which stories you follow and fate decreed that I trail Gina, the harlot with a heart of gold, through both shows. Gaillard's effervescent performance suggests that somewhere beneath countless other woman cliches - the gifts, the neglect, the pregnancy scare - lurked an actual person. But switching on a television to see daytime soap operas, her natural habitat, almost undoes her efforts.

Inevitably, the story you miss will appear more interesting - the plot is always keener on the other side. In an environment where even damped-down theatricality can seem like over-acting, Carl Kennedy's vagabond estate agent offers snug-fitting comic relief, but only Methven - quirky, commanding, controlled - seems completely at home.

Despite the anticipatory buzz, the show feels more control than experiment. I longed for a freer rein between rooms, even at the expense of narrative coherence or closure. The most involving and fun sequences offer just that, pausing the action and allowing us to snoop freely around the flat, discovering the minute details of Kieran McNulty's set dressing and triggering Jack Cawley's droll sound effects.

The logical end point of Ireland's property obsession, the cornerstone and tombstone of our economy, is that people become less important than things.

"If these walls could talk," you think, prowling through the glorified rabbit hutch, before discovering that, in the bathroom, they actually do.

Until Oct 12

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Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre festival runs until Oct 12. www.dublintheatrefestival.com