Talking Movies

August 24, 2017

The Pillowman

Decadent Theatre Company again took over the Gaiety stage with Martin McDonagh’s trademark blend of macabre madness, but set in Mitteleurope rather than the Wesht.


Katurian (Diarmuid Noyes) is in deep trouble. Somebody in this unnamed (and semi-mythical) totalitarian state has been acting out particularly horrible short stories by a writer, and he’s the writer so he’s the prime suspect. Abrasive policeman Tupolski (Peter Gowen) and his thuggish underling Ariel (Gary Lydon) have Katurian prisoner in their Spartan barracks. And by Lenin if they have to beat the eyes out of his head and unsettle him with asinine nonsense they are going to make him confess. Unless of course he didn’t do it, but if not him then who; could his brain-damaged brother Michael (Owen Sharpe) really have done such horrible things? Would Tupolski really torture innocent Michael just to make Katurian confess? Why does Katurian write such horrible stories in the first place? And what does horrible parenting have to do with it all?

Owen MacCarthaigh’s deceptively simple set; almost a bare stage with desk, seats, cabinet, and furnace in a circle; spectacularly splits to reveal a house or woodland behind, dependent on which of Katurian’s tales is being silently played out (very broadly) by Jarlath Tivnan, Kate Murray, Peter Shine, Tara Finn, and Rose Makela. Ciaran Bagnall’s lights and Carl Kennedy’s sounds combine to create tableau during the most disturbing of these glimpses into Katurian’s dark imagination, the origin of his creativity. I saw The Pillowman in UCD Dramsoc in 2006 as a spare four-hander, so director Andrew Flynn’s visual extravagance here took me aback. It amuses and horrifies effectively, but also leaves the audience with less work to do. Sharpe’s sometimes camp mannerisms were also in stark contrast to Michael’s defeated stillness back in 2006, akin to Marty Rea’s recent Aston.

Pinter is a strong presence in this play. The first act is comedy of menace as Katurian is bewildered and intimidated by Tupolski’s odd interrogation. The second act is arguably McDonagh’s most soulful material ever, as the two brothers share a cell. The dark and comic invention of Katurian’s reimagining of fairy tales throughout remains astonishing, a highlight being the Pied Piper of Hamlein. And then there’s the third act where McDonagh seems to mash together Pinter and Orton; “I’m sick of everyone blaming their behaviour on someone else. My father was a violent alcoholic. Am I a violent alcoholic? Yes. … But that was entirely my choice”; but then deliver a tour-de-force entirely his own, Tupolski’s short story – which I still remembered chunks of 11 years later. It is outrageously offensive, and sadly it was clear the audience in the Gaiety was self-censoring itself, whereas in Dramsoc we had recognised it was of a part with Tupolski’s character and, having made that recognition, thereafter stopped tut-tutting and let out ears back to fully enjoy the verbal marvel McDonagh was constructing. Cruelty and callousness are part of comedy, perhaps inextricably so; it’s hard to imagine Swift or Waugh without them.

I still prefer some of the notes struck by Andrew Nolan’s Tupolski in 2006, but Noyes’ sincerity, Gowen’s swagger, and Lydon’s hidden decency make for an impressive central trio.



March 16, 2016

Sing Street

Writer/director John Carney builds on his American debut Begin Again’s success with another funny can-do tale of musical swashbuckling, this time set in 1980s Dublin.


Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a rich kid whose cosy private school adolescence comes to a crashing halt when parents Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) announce an austerity drive. A fish hopelessly out of water at Synge Street CBS he is viciously bullied, but after being befriended by entrepreneurial fixer Darren (Ben Carolan) he meets aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and ascends the pecking order at school after forming a band to impress her. Older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) provides sardonic mentoring while multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) provides the musical foundations over which Conor, soon renamed Cosmo, lays lyrics about Raphina. Cosmo increasingly clashes with school Principal Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley) as the band ‘Sing Street’ become increasingly disruptive in their appearance and attitude. But will Conor’s increasingly ambitious efforts be enough to stop Raphina emigrating to London?

“But is there a difference between liking a thing and thinking it good?” – Brideshead Revisited

Bridey’s question is extremely pertinent for Carney’s movie. The original music is great, especially the band’s first song ‘The Riddle of the Model’. Carney’s script is very funny, and Reynor is on terrific form as the stoner older brother. But this feels like a backward step from Begin Again on a number of fronts. Reynor’s character is almost a mash-up of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Zooey Deschanel’s roles in Almost Famous, and, though Sing Street captures elements of the period perfectly; school exercise books, constant smoking; there is also an air of total fantasy (doubly odd in a film which so obviously wants praise for its grittiness) which has Brendan as its focal point. He’s almost a time-traveller from 2015 landed in 1985 in the social critique he lays on his parents’ marriage and the Christian Brothers’ ethos. His dismissal of Genesis makes a nonsense of his affection for Duran Duran, and then you realise his taste is temporally inconsistent. Brendan ought to be agonising over whether Bowie, Springsteen and The Clash have sold out on their latest albums, and avidly listening to The Smiths and REM, not watching Top of the Pops. And then there’s U2… Never mentioned, never listened to, in 1985 Dublin.

Raphina never convinces as a real person, she is merely an object of desire, and the film has so little interest in Conor and Brendan’s sister; especially her reaction to their parents’ separation; that you wonder why she’s there at all. But while the female characters fare poorly, compared to Conor and Brendan, they’re not alone. Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) is also sidelined, and Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice) are interchangeable comic relief. Sing Street’s set-up recalls The Inbetweeners but pretty boy Cosmo, living in a three storey house, is not likeable. He humiliates the school bully; fully aware said bully is a victim of abuse; and aggravatingly ‘rebels’ against Brother Baxter; who has to contend with regular students’ violent behaviour without Cosmo’s New Romantics nonsense; with Carney stacking the deck by creating an uncomfortable unfounded expectation of molestation.

Sing Street is an entertaining film made with much confidence, but that doesn’t excuse its many puzzling artistic choices and the most ridiculous ‘upbeat’ ending since The Way Back.


October 16, 2015

Simon Rich: Absurdist Conscience

Simon Rich’s work as a staff writer at Pixar finally saw the light of day with Inside Out, and with a second series of Man Seeking Woman coming soon to FXX, here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on how Rich has moved from pure absurdism to something more like a biting satirist.


“‘Chess players are not naturally confrontational. But by the time I entered the number five spot, my opponents were growing bolder. ‘We know you’re cheating,’ they’d say. Or, ‘You’re obviously cheating.’ Or, ‘Please, Terry, why won’t you stop cheating?’” – Elliot Allagash

Rich’s first novel was published in 2010. A novel of scheming and anecdotage (and the anecdotes are mostly about scheming), its tale of a bored teenage billionaire upending his school’s social hierarchy was labelled a Pygmalion riff and optioned for cinema by writer/director Jason Reitman. Elliot and his raconteur father Terry have obvious predecessors in Percy and Braddock Washington in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, with the innocent John T Unger being reinvented as Rich’s narrator Seymour Herson. Seymour becomes president after Elliot destroys rivals with schemes that include diabolical exam cheating. But as Seymour edges closer to Harvard he reaches his limit with Elliot’s antics… To read Elliot Allagash is to want to tell people, verbatim, just how Terry became the Harvard chess champion without understanding chess, what the secret of ancestor Cornelius Allagash’s private club was, and how Elliot took revenge on the restaurant that refused him service. It’s that hysterically quotable.

Click here for the full piece on covering the evolution of Simon Rich’s prose comedy from Ant Farm to Spoiled Brats.

March 30, 2014

Phantom RIP

It’s been a strange experience listening to ‘105.2 FM’ for the past two weeks. It’s the strange afterlife of Phantom, before TX FM starts tomorrow…


“They’ve closed the chapel at Brideshead … the priest came in … and took out the altar stone … then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy-water stoop and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary, and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday … I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room. I can’t tell you what it felt like.” – Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

There is, you see, an appropriate Brideshead quote for almost any occasion. It was a very odd feeling listening to the last hours of Phantom on Sunday the 16th of March, before this strange automated playlist ghost of a station took over, calling itself ‘105.2 FM’ not ‘Phantom 105.2’, and playing more Smiths and Pumpkins and Jeff Buckley in the daytime than we’ve been accustomed to. Having talked about the latest disastrous move by management as being ‘Phantom’s death rattle’ for years, it was unexpectedly moving to hear the actual death rattle as favourite DJs like Richie Ryan and Jack Hyland disappeared one by one. You see I’ve complained about it like nobody’s business over the last few years. I moaned about Michelle Doherty being moved off Finest Worksongs, I griped about John Caddell moving from Key Cuts to Finest Worksongs, I tiraded whenever they changed anything about Cinerama (and especially when they cancelled it), I mocked the decision to hire Vogue off of Fade Street as a DJ, I was outraged by the firing of founder Simon Maher, and, well, Joe & Keith, well, ’nuff said surely. But I was complaining because I was still listening – to the end.

I have spent hours sitting at my desk writing to the sound of Phantom blaring out of a farcically aged clock radio for many years. And I mean many years. I first discovered it as a pirate around this time of year in the months of frantic revision leading up to the Leaving Cert, and their later jingle ‘we’re the reason you own a radio’ rang quite true. I discovered Garbage and The Jam purely from listening to Phantom as a pirate. And when it was on legal hiatus the only shows worth listening to on official radio tended to be those presented by Phantom alumni (Jenny Huston, Dan Hegarty), because, well, what else was there to listen to out there? Especially in the desert of daytime radio… Phantom is the reason I listen to Metric and Death Cab for Cutie. It’s what finally made me appreciate LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire after years of resistance. TX FM’s playlist tomorrow may be similar but the gutting of Phantom removes my abiding affection and loyalty and makes tuning in a questionable decision. John Caddell said Phantom had made mistakes as a commercial station. Sure, but I thought of another quote:

“McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.
Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?” – Hunter S Thompson, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72

Phantom RIP.

February 19, 2014

The Vortex

Director Annabelle Comyn forsakes the Abbey and Shaw for the Gate and Coward in this cutting 1920s comedy with an unexpectedly serious and intimate finale.


The Vortex opens with the sensible Helen (Fiona Bell) and acerbic Pawnie (Mark O’Regan), waiting in an opulent drawing room for vain and apparently ageless socialite Florence (Susannah Harker). Coward follows Chekhov’s lead in having a whirl of characters pass thru one location as we meet unsmiling servant Preston (Andrea Kelly), fatuous singer Clara (Rebecca O’Mara), and, after Florence’s belated arrival, her devoted young lover Tom (Ian Toner), her defeated aged husband David (Simon Coury), her histrionic coke-stoked pianist son Nicky (Rory Fleck Byrne), and Nicky’s calculating flapper fiancé Bunty (Katie Kirby)… A Freudian frisson instantly shivers between Florence and Bunty over Nicky’s undivided love, and when it transpires Bunty and Tom knew each other intimately years before the scene is set for emotional carnage when all concerned up sticks to Florence’s country house for a Charleston-and-cocktails fuelled weekend party.

Comyn’s regular designer Paul O’Mahony provides an elegant crescent of mirrors and walls which slide along to reveal a staircase for the second act in the country, which begins with a literal bang as Chahine Yavroyan’s dramatically surging lighting design provides the effect of old flashbulbs for keepsake pictures of the couples dancing. Comyn showed in The House her skill at blocking large chaotic ensembles, and 8 people bounce around the stage to the over-pumped gramophone recording of the Charleston in Philip Connaughton’s choreographed party, during which Nicky’s coke addiction becomes evident to Helen. Byrne is marvellous as the highly-strung Nicky, trying to overcome his terrible upbringing, while his self-absorbed mother makes a fool of herself as Tom and Bunty move closer together. Toner is impressive as the slowly awakening Tom, while Kirby makes Bunty somehow both cold and right.

O’Regan Fassbenders delightfully as Pawnie, aided by hoovering up the play’s best lines. It’s tempting to link Coward to Waugh and say the trick of 1920s dialogue is the casual use of ridiculously hyperbolic words. Bright Young Things only ever dub things, no matter how trivial, as ‘ghastly, gruesome, sick-making, beastly, horrid, deathly’ or ‘heavenly, divine, sublime’. Well-spoken but OTT-phrased bad behaviour became Coward’s trade-in-stock but, while the curtain anticipates Hay Fever’s flight of guests, this is a more serious work. The third act focuses on Nicky’s insistence, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that Florence abandons her obsession with her continuing youth and instead acknowledges her blame in his failings as a person. But this once controversial scene echoes Hamlet and Gertrude’s bedroom contretemps, and leaves us hungry for an aftermath that is never analysed – to dissatisfying effect.

The Vortex may have been the ‘theatrical shocker of the Jazz Age’, but what shocks now is not its sex and drugs but its cavalier dismissal of its ensemble.


The Vortex continues its run at the Gate until the 17th of March.

March 4, 2011

Personal Movies

What then might a ‘personal movie’ be?

I would define a ‘personal movie’ as a film which may not be that great objectively, but which holds for you a deep personal meaning; which is either enigmatically inexplicable, or, is incommunicable except in emotional connection with a time, place and person. A work of art can often become a kind of mental hook on which we hang experiences. I first read Brideshead Revisited mere days after picking up my Leaving Cert results and then immediately afterwards buying Blur’s Parklife album. To this day there are times when I’ll be reading Brideshead and the sound of the brass intro to ‘Badhead’ will float through my head, not as a discordant note in a story set in the inter-war period, but as an essential part of my first experience of reading this rich novel while I waited to start college. I’m sure everyone has similar Proustian moments of hearing a song and instantly associating it with a certain time and place.

I think the same is true for personal movies. They will take on a resonance which can be almost completely unrelated to their quality, and the resonance of that first encounter will forever echo thru subsequent viewings. A friend of mine became hopelessly devoted to The Holiday, fully aware that it’s a terrible film, because of the emotional resonance of particular architecture featured in the film as well as its theme of betrayals in love. Another friend had something of a Joycean epiphany while watching Betty Blue as a teenager and has, perhaps not coincidentally, ended up living in France. Resonance can come from within a film or be introduced into it from without, and sometimes can just be a matter of timing. I avoided the release of Almost Famous in early 2001, and only finally saw it on television in early summer 2004, which meant that the film resonated with me more than it ever could have in 2001 as in the interim I had discovered Led Zeppelin…

Just over a year ago, as preparation for my Top 10/Worst 10 Films of the Decade one-off return to the University Observer, I posted Films of the Decade? This provisional list of 20 films featured a few personal movies but I felt I could argue they were also either great movies or reflected the decade exceptionally; in other words that there was some sort of Eliotian objective correlative for the personal meaning they held for me. I saw Roger Avary’s 2002 film The Rules of Attraction just days before my birthday during its extremely limited release in 2003. I’ve since heard others say it’s the best film from Bret Easton Ellis’ work and an improvement on the source novel. The film’s unflinching bleakness struck a chord because I was at a low ebb when I saw it; tremendously frustrated with problems in writing my PhD dissertation. Since then it has repeatedly aired on TV, uncannily nearly always when I’ve felt hopeless, and the ecstatic bliss of its nihilism has lifted me out of my ruts.

I think everyone has a stack of personal movies like this, and who knows, perhaps the reason old classics are classics is simply because, however odd it may sound, they are deeply personal movies – for millions of people.

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