Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The week with an important date... summer solstice!

Yes, summer solstice brought us a full moon ~ first time since 1967 for this coincidence and there won't be another until 20162, apparently ~  so now the days will begin to get shorter and lets hope the rain starts to ease before Worthy Farm is completely under water. Glastonbury is not the only celebration on the horizon of course - here we're gearing up for a fabulous Frome Festival, whatever the weather. On Sunday afternoon the Grain Bar offered a taster from the box of delights that is this year's festival.
I was there to wave flyers for Nevertheless Fringe Theatre and the Poetry Cafe, and to enjoy samples of some of the performers ~ like composer/pianist Stephen Marquiss, spooky ghost-hunter Georgiana Hay and Martin Dimery with a tempting slice of his one-man show Shakespeare Rattle & Roll, showing how Buddy Holly would sing Sigh no more.. hey nonny nonny!
Also among the amazing range of productions there's an immersive theatrical journey entitled Legends of Frome, devised by the creative Edventure apprentices. I've had a peek of this in development and it looks fantastic, but everything ~ even the location ~ is under wraps so you'll have to just book & trust me.
And even though there's so much bubbling under for festival week ~ Friday 1st July to Sunday 10th, if you're not from round these parts ~ the usual art-y life goes on: a superb Roots Grain Bar night on Wednsday from a trio who could hardly get more international: Hiroki Okano from Japan joined by Canadian Domenic DeCicco and and UK's Nigel Shaw, between them sharing more instruments than I could count or name. Stunning session.
Friday night saw the opening of Black Swan Arts 30th Anniversary event, 1000 POSTCARDS, possibly the gallery's most ambitious project ever, and certainly the one causing most curating problems: to display one thousand postcards selected from the deluge submitted for this fundraising event. Launch night on Friday was so crowded the queue to view snaked all around the downstairs cafe as it seemed every entrant & their families wanted to check out the Wall of Fame poster - and view the postcards, of course, all of which are delightful or striking or both, and most of which are brilliant. The exhibition is on till 28th June with all postcards then for sale, including the 'big name' donations.
The market yard had more than stalls on Saturday as a bevy of richly-robed worthies from around the shires arrived to ring their handbells and O-Yea the features of their home in the annual Town Crier contest. They all looked marvellous in their feathered caps and braided robes - I didn't get a snap of the full troop but here's the Frome hosts in their own regalia.

What would life look like if we abandoned our 'civilised' industrial economy? And what other options are there, anyway? We The Uncivilised, an amateur film about a quest for these answers, was screened at Frome's Hubnub Centre on Saturday afternoon. Created by a young couple disillusioned with modern life who set off with a film camera to explore alternatives, this very personal story has some pithy interviews and finds some fascinating locations while ultimately highlighting very recognisable dilemmas. I'd have liked more interviews within the communities but there's excellent support on the website to help these valuable views gain wider awareness.
All of which new old-fashioned ways segueways neatly into my visit to the Earthhouse at the Ancient Technology Centre in Cranborne,  a 200-seater theatre under an earth roof held up by oak tree trunks, lit only by firelight as the sky darkens. Here you can gather around that fire to hear stories from around the world presented with sensational skill by Crick Crack Club. Their theme on Saturday was Bawdy! and there was much of that but other human longings & fears too in tales from Papua New Guinea to South America at this unforgettable event. Nothing like the kind of story-telling that makes you long for a fast-forward button, these were superb performers: immensely endearing quirky styled Nell Phoenix, rhythmic strength TUUT, and Tim Ralphs whose folk-ballad deploring the redundancy of porn-movie fluffers in these Viagaran days was my highlight of the night.
And now as England steadies itself for whatever lies ahead after the big vote, I'll end with a snap of the ECOS amphitheatre, built to celebrate England's joining the European Union. I'm really really hoping I won't have to tag this image with an adapted Wilfred Owen quote:
Oh what made fatuous Fromies toil
To build ECOS at all....

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A funny thing happened on the way to the Fringe...

Bath streets in sunshine are magic, all bubbles & buskers and strollers & singers & silver statues - you could make a massively long alliterative poem about its abounding delights and I was thinking of doing that on Friday when I visited, but instead here’s a haiku: sunshine i love you  / my personal Tramadol / hashtag smiley face.
I was back for the final day of Fringe Arts Bath, to see another Onset production at Burdall's Yard: Fear of God, with a strong central performance from Tiff Burr whose talents will be seen in Frome in Time Slides (about which more below). On then to to see Tinned Pizza Company take on As You Like it in a cleverly adapted & abridged version upstairs at Molloys, a friendly Irish (where Pinot Grigiot is £2.20 a glass, some local emporiums might note...)

Frome, never outdone in revelry,  enjoyed a republican God Save the Queens' Birthday celebration on Catherine Hill on Saturday, graced by her Maj with Young Pretender Chas in tow, Liz flinging aside her handbag and twerking vigorously to Dr Hook's disco sounds. Ciara Nolan & the traders on the hill throw a mean street party so other queens abounded ~ here's me being a queen cat...

Unless you follow the comedy scene closely you may not have heard of Gareth Richards, Naz Osmanoglu, Adam Hess, or Steve Bugeja, but they all want that to change as they head for the Fringe determined to win acclaim, fame, and TV fortune. Frome's Merlin theatre has been hosting three nights of Edinburgh Comedy Previews: the first two events, on Monday & Tuesday, shared the same style of blokeish self-observational humour, but the third night had Annie McGrath so was probably different. Monday was the best I saw, as the stage was set bistro style with club lighting rather than the school assembly look chosen by Tuesday's duo - and it didn't go on so long. All four comedians had their hilarious moments ~ Adam's critique of the Isis flag was one ~ but for me the highlight was Naz ending his set with an evocation of his boarding school as a child - too harrowing to be funny, but unforgettable. (Image: Gareth singing his stupid-white-guy blues)

And finally: with Frome Festival only just over two weeks away, our Nevertheless pub theatre production is coming together and looking great... Patrick Dunn, our wonderful musical director and live-on-stage musician, is recovering from his broken hand (kept that quiet, didn't we) and our talented & energetic cast Tiffany Burr, Gabriella Finnegan & Matt Harrison, have now all graduated from Bath Spa University theatre course and are devoting their talents & energies into Time Slides, a 'contemporary comedy with an intriguing twist, blending fact, fiction and fantasy' for anyone who likes literature, love, laughter, or life.  Booking through Cheese & Grain, events 712 (Thursday) and 813 (Friday), upstairs at the Cornerhouse 8pm - can you believe we're still only £5?
"Best hour you'll ever have still with a glass in your hand" - audiences to all our previous shows.

Monday, June 06, 2016

They say it's your birthday...

It's been a bumper week for birthdays. First off, Bristol Old Vic at 250 the oldest working theatre in the English-speaking world, celebrating last Monday with an all-day party in King Street where circus performers, dancers, and musicians entertained the crowds enjoying sunshine & festival-style feasting  - viz, vans of international cuisine and fluffy icecream. Inside the actual theatre there were free shows on stage all day. I joined the queues to see Yesterday's Island Revisited, a script-in-hand explanation, with film sequences, about a community drama project in the 1980s.  It was all terrific fun, let's do it again in 2266 for the 500th!

Also part of the BOV celebrations, and also revisiting a previous success: Kneehigh's revival of their 20-year old show about Marc Chagall with the enticing title The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. The romance between first-sight lovers Marc and Bella has fantastic dramatic potential ~ a young Jewish artist struggling to present his surrealist view of the beauty of life in an era of Nazi oppression and world wars. The uxorious couple (Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson) are absolutely delightful but the downside of a show with only two actors is a huge reliance on scripted exposition, mostly in speeches direct to audience. In this long string of information, the moments of interaction, dance and song all shine like lustrous pearls. Lighting design (Malcolm Rippeth) beautifully supports these cameos, and I liked the set (though not everyone did) which for me evoked a half-ruined playground, its angled props like a broken star of David. Live music from Ian Ross and James Gow was great too but how much more magical this would all have been with more show and less tell.

Meanwhile in Bath, Holburne Museum celebrated its 100th anniversary in appropriately elegant style: a soiree on the terrace of the rather beautiful glass-walled new extension and the launch of a book of 'ekphrastic' poems inspired by art in the museum's collection. From Palette to Pen  comprises twenty poems from an impressive list of local poets including Rosie Jackson, Dawn Gorman, Philip Grosse, Claire Williamson, Carrie Etter, and George Szirtes. Prime mover in this project was Frances-Anne King who was aided by Sue Boyle, Linda Saunders & Lesley Saunders in editing this prestigious publication. On a sunny Friday evening, it was delightful to catch up with poet friends there to read or support, including our own current Festival Poet Laureate Steven Payne - who will hand on this annual nomination at Frome's Poetry Cafe on July 4th, so bring your own poem and come along..

Elsewhere in Bath there's a Fringe Arts Festival continuing till 12 June with plenty of art to inspire in the galleries especially in Walcot Street which features exhibitions of work illustrating the utopia/dystopia continuum: Walcot Chapel is brimming with colour & dangling flowers & beautiful pieces like this glass mask, while down the road you're warned to 'be aware the drawings beyond this sign would disturb some people' in a setting like a student flat after a trainspotting-style party. There's much else on too, including daily performances at Burdall's Yard from Onset Productions. It's a fantastic space for theatre - I watched Inward Ripples which features Matt Harrison who will be showing his talents again in Frome in our Nevertheless pub theatre production Time Slides - another pre-festival hint here, as tickets are now bookable...

And in a week positively pulsing with celebrations for anniversaries and birthdays, Frome had a couple too: The Artisan marked their first year in business with fantastic rock cover-band Hammervilles, and writer Alison Clink chose Absolutely Bowie at the Cheese & Grain for her own celebrations. Much dancing occurred at both events. Saturday saw a Carnival party in Victoria Park, and Sunday - blimey is it that time again? - yes, we had another Independent Market day...

Monday, May 30, 2016

Setting out to Ithika and other marvellous journeys

Nobody's Home, developed in California by Theatre Témoin & Grafted Cede Theatre, workshopped with war veterans, greeted on Broadway with 5-star reviews as the sort of masterpiece which deserves not to go undiscovered, is now touring UK and came to Salisbury Playhouse this week. You might think anyone choosing a play billed as 'a moving exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder in a modern retelling of Homer's Odyssey' would expect some fairly gritty imagery and action, but six people walked out (we were in the Salberg Studio so their exit was not discreet) as the ex-soldier wrestled with epic perils and living nightmares.
Set in and around a bath, with brilliant lighting & sound and two terrific performers, this sixty-minute drama is a fantastic piece of theatre. Will Pinchin as Grant graphically shows the nightmare of his war and the terrible place it has left him, and Dorrie Kinnear is superbly chameleon as his helpless wife, the monsters & foes he faces, and even - in an exquisite final tableau - as the billowing sails of his final journey home. There was an after-show talk too but we were too wrung-out & overawed to stay. I may feel squeamish about my next bath though, and won't be eating watermelon for a while.

Last Tree Dreaming has been on a long journey too, since Frome artist Barry Cooper found this 250 year old fallen oak in Stourhead, realised it could once have been part of Selwood forest, and conceived the idea of a heritage project creating art from & around the tree. This community project has involved talks, story-telling, carving, drawing, and other activities, and the outcome is currently on display at Frome Museum. I saw the first work in situ last year, then at the Community Day last November, with Helen Moore & Azeema Caffoor, Julian Hight and others. The current exhibition has even more contributions - carvings by Anthony Rogers, video from Howard Vause, and a great display of all these elements with a social history of the times by Anthony Lacny and Helen Langford.  Massive credit to everyone else involved too - there were many. "I wanted the project to have enough room for everyone to have their own personal experience" Barry told me - actually while the picture above was taken (thanks Helen Moore.)

Wednesday was a busy night, with not only the exhibition preview but the Roots Session at the Grain Bar where three-woman band Velvet & Stone - two great guitar/vocalists and an exquisite violinist - were simply superb, and also the inauguration of a new mayor: for those who follow the progress of the Peoples' Republic of Frome, this year we welcome Back Wood Redeemer Toby Eliot (guitar, mouthorgan, vocals), seen here with lovely Lady Mayoress Rosie of Nevertheless fame.

Bruton Poetry Platform, a new initiative for Bruton Festival of Arts organised by Bryony Brook, had its inaugural session on Saturday with slam queen Liv Tork as compere & performer.  I was privileged to be a judge as in the elegant setting of At the Chapel, 18 readers shared poems on the theme of 'Life'. First prize winner was Megan O'Neill, here receiving Liv's congratulations on an impressive debut performance.

Back again in Frome, rehearsals for the Nevertheless Fringe Theatre festival production Time Slides are now firmly underway, with updated cast (Tiffany Burr now joining Gabrielle Finnegan and Matt Harrison) and integrated live music designed by Patrick Dunn.
And finally this week,  Frome Writers Collective website now includes a short video of me in conversation with Gill Harry Tdiscussing the writing scene and our town's renaissance over the last twenty years, with help from the festival and an inspirational community spirit. Literally scores of people are named and acclaimed throughout the story: it was fun to pull out all the old flyers and amazing to recall how we did so much on a shoestring, and somehow made a truth of the myth that  Frome boasts more creative artists than any other small town in the country...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Life out of the box

Mayfest - ten days when Bristol claims 'the city is our stage' with drama in 20 venues for this celebration of 'work that pushes hard at what theatre can be - from artists who are being brave and brilliant and doing that with skill, style, power and wit.'  It's a terrific-looking programme and I'd like to have seen everything but, as always, there's so much happening ~ in Frome this week we had two artist's talks, a council consultation meeting with local performers, and a wicked Grain Bar Session from fantastic Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots.
So it wasn't until Friday (sadly clashing with Party in the City, Bath's biggest night of free music) I arrived at Bristol Old Vic having chosen Opening Skinner's Box from Improbable'a whistle-stop tour of the scientific quest to make sense of what we are and who we are.'   As my recent TV viewing was mostly BBC4's The Brain and E4's Big Bang Theory, this looked like one for me. Directors Phelim McDermott & Lee Simpson took their 'compendium of cautionary tales' from the same-name book by popular psychologist Lauren Slater and some reviewers felt they didn't take it far enough. True, it's not so much a show as a lecture: the five actors though charming are interchangeable voices, and if you don't mind missing mimes of monkeys you don’t need to look at the stage at all. But I found it gripping drama, and totally fascinating. Much of the psychological research is familiar territory ~ those terrible tests to prove babies can't thrive without touch, and to show that compliance to authority will turn people into torturers ~ but there's something profound and poignant about our obsession with that bit of pinky-grey flesh called the hypocampus where emotion and memory lurk. How do we select our memories anyway, or do we live our hypothetical lives imagining everything?  Like I said, fascinating...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

May Medley (2): historical dramas, art, life, and fish.

If you want an antidote to all those ponderous & inscrutable period plays, filmed or staged, look no further than Bath Spa University Theatre where the third year students have brought the 18th century comedy The Servant of Two Masters vividly up-to-any-date-you-think-of, and the audience couldn't stop laughing.  On a candy-striped set as sublimely silly as the plot and dressed in costumes either ludicrous or gaudy or both, a company of talented young actors showed huge professionalism in this high-energy romp in which three determined women successfully outwit three foolish & greedy men. Bravo to Beatrice, superbly played by Gabrielle Finnegan, and her lucky Florindo ~ and how lucky also that two of the shiniest stars of the show are coming to Frome for Nevertheless Fringe Theatre festival production: Time Slides.

From matches to hatches and dispatches, without the blissed-out bit in the middle: Vamos Theatre brought their new show The Best Thing to Frome's Merlin theatre. This production, writer-director Rachael Savage explains in the programme, is a tribute and apology to the women of the late 1960s who gave up their children for adoption under pressure to do ‘the best thing’.  Her two-year research is synthesised into the tale of one such girl recalled after her death when her father and daughter finally meet, bringing reconciliation to both. I found these programme notes essential, as a two-generation difference is difficult for young actors to convey without speech or change of facial expression, and the projected black-&-white visuals seemed mismatched to era ~ I say this with some assurance as my first baby was born in 1968.  Vamos is famous and highly-regarded for its wordless masked performances and the four actors are immensely skilful at body-language but it still takes a lot of mindwork to join the dots.
It's a serious topic but the show isn't all sombre: there are laugh-aloud comedic scenes like the shadow-silhouette coitus to that 1966 World Cup commentary "They think it's all over ~  it is now!”, the typing lesson, and even the labour ward. But as a coulrophobic I find it difficult to relate to masked characters however clever their gestures, and the soundtrack ~ after an initial burst of Lulu’s 1964 hit Shout ~ relentlessly avoids evoking any era. Sound is important in a wordless story and I did wonder if with different music the school party at the back might have stopped texting & chatting as the drama onstage slowly unfolded. But it was great to see the theatre so full, and the four actors behind 17 different masks were loudly applauded.

Animating Images is the exciting new exhibition at Black Swan Arts, curated by David Daniels. David's own work is on display alongside several other renowned animation artists and there are films, examples of storyboards & character sheets, and explanations of terms & processes, with a talk on May 19th.

Away-day corner: I'm less involved with courses now, my writing interests having taken me other ways, but this week have actually led two sessions: one for the Edventure 'Earning a Living in the Creative Arts'  course at 42 Acres ~ great to work with a group of young people choosing to design their own futures rather than fit into the square holes of routine 'job-specifications'. At the end of the session I asked for a 60-second summary in different style from everyone ~ here's my 'recipe': Ingredients: several acres of sunlit ground  ~  an old house cunningly converted ~ a dozen shiny people, curious, humorous and articulate.  Method: Place the house on the grass.  Sprinkle in the shiny people. Listen to them. They are all wonderful.
And on Saturday I went to Cheltenham for a reunion session with a group that first met several years ago in the Isle of Wight on a Skyros Holistic Holiday weekend, and has, impressively, continued to meet regularly ever since in various venues. They're great company and excellent writers, and such is their enthusiasm that we wrote, read, and discussed, for over four hours at the Abbey Hotel. Cheltenham railway station is about a mile from the centre via a footpath route strewn with wildflowers and May blossom ~ a delightful end to an immensely enjoyable session.
Back in Frome, Archangel's Sunday musician was Tom Corneill, playing in the courtyard as the sun shone and various small people danced.  This week's footnote post is a sad one though.
A leakage of slurry upstream has poisoned this stretch of the Frome, killing over 500 fish and countless invertebrates: an anxious prognosis for the health of the river stock this season and for the kingfishers and otters too. Good news is that the Environment Agency stepped in swiftly and the water quality is being restored so hopefully the river will recover.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Great Scott! Time for a May medley

Conspiracy theories ~ those wild stories their wild-eyed tellers insist are fact ~ must have been around even before the first feudal baron insisted if he kept all the gold for himself it would trickle down into the populace. As arguments rage over the more outrageous modern cultural myths, Gonzo Moose Theatre Company has uncovered another bubble to pop: Great Scott, their new touring comedy, tells 'the true story of Scott of the Antarctic.'  Did his final voyage really end in failure, or is this a coverup by the authorities for the terrible truth... (no spoilers!) With the help of some OHP transparencies, various hats and pipes, variable accents and a lot of messing about, the brave team of Conspiratorians create the 'real' last journey of the explorer as reconstructed from his diaries, with much slapstick and song. There's no pretence of sophistication in costumes or props or set but there's a lot to enjoy and there was great audience rapport at the Bath Rondo on Wednesday night.
Roots Session at the Grain Bar has given Frome two excellent evenings since I last posted: the glorious Dempseys and entertaining duo Mambo Jambo who between them play (I think) 13 instruments.
And while various writerly gestations continue, an exciting hatching for Nevertheless Fringe Theatre: after auditions, our Frome Festival production Time Slides now has a terrific cast of young graduates from Bath Spa Drama course: Matt Harrison, Chloe Tailby, and Gabrielle Finnegan - welcome to pub theatre in Frome!

This post was going to finish with a comment about sizzling sunshine but the weather has wobbled a bit here and I don't know what followers in Russia & Ukraine are experiencing (or even why I have followers there ~ not complaining, just puzzled to see Blogger stats...)  So instead I'll end with this short & satisfying video: it's been exactly a year since Frome town council became fully independent, and The Guardian has featured a reminder of how the awesome Independent State of Frome now shows the way to other towns around the UK.