Monday, August 31, 2015

Postcard from El Granada

Just south of San Francisco there's a five-mile crescent of champagne-pale soft sand, and at the northernmost tip, behind the headland from Mavericks beach - one of California's top beaches for surfing - a small community developed in the last century as a seaside resort. It has a 'concentric circle street planning' (very easy to get lost in, if you were wondering) with wide avenues of eucalyptus trees, and a coastal path runs alongside the beach, between the sand dunes and the mega-busy Highway One running down the Pacific Coast all the way to Mexico.  Around 5000 people are lucky enough to live here, and I've been lucky enough to visit annually for the last five years.
This year, as usual, my plan was to walk and to write and enjoy the incredible beauty of this peaceful place, but somehow all I've done for a week is walk and take pictures.

 For around five or six hours every day,  I've walked along beaches and coastal paths and across Pillar Point bluff: I've pictured seals & pelicans, flowers & butterflies, rabbits and even a racoon as well as long views of rolling waves and closeup patterns on sand and bark... peaceful solitary days, supplemented with some pleasant interaction: a yard party and folk concert on Saturday ~ here's my generous friends' lovely home, and my host Mo Robinson headlining with harmonies from Peter Bland,
and a few of the images that stay with me, along with songs like Sunny AfternoonHotel California, and a phrase from a poem by Pablo Medina: what the ocean says, and says again and then forgets.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

As blackberries ripen and August ends...

It's that heavy end of summer now, fields stripped down to cornrow ridges and the verges decorated with silver thistledown & bright red hips. Autumnal, in short, but a pleasant aftertaste of  the summer festival this week: readings from the Writers in Residence event revealed the impressive inventiveness mustered on sight by the phrase 'It was a chance meeting that changed everything". Impromptu tales penned in shops and cafes, romantic, historical, poignant, quirky and very funny, were all shared at the Bell in Buckland Dinham on Thursday night in a delightfully laid-back event hosted by Sue Watts for Frome Writers Collective. Here's Nikki Lloyd reading her winning story, about the relationship between two women revealed with beautiful delicacy and an unexpected ending.

And what can I say about the Tri-Art Summer School production of West Side Story at Merlin Theatre except that it was a spectacular triumph, thoroughly deserving the standing-ovation applause of each full-house audience: a vibrant ensemble show that dazzled from the opening chords of  the overture to the moving final moment, with funky dance routines, superb voices, fabulous costumes, great filmic visuals, and a stark set that cleverly utilised mirror effects to increase impact.  The boys' gang set pieces were terrific but even more impressive were the girls: I like to be in America and I feel pretty were absolute highlights, as was the poignant duet between Maria (Tabitha Cox) and Anita (Marie-Claire Wood) after the street killings. Strong support from Ryan Hughes as Riff and Aynsley Minty, Nick White and Steve Scammell as the grownups, but the night belonged to the youngsters. There was a ban on cameras but I do hope someone managed to video the lads' unforgettable Officer Krupke routine with Ben Hardy-Phillips as Action leapfrogging his gang across the stage and 'Baby John' Dillon Berry's incredible trilling social-worker pastiche ~ posted on Youtube it would get about a zillion views.  Creative Team Leader Claudia Berry must be very happy ~ and brochures are out now so you don't miss out on the next big Merlin production, Little Mermaid.  

There's art stirring in wild places too, with the Step in Stone project in the disused rock quarries of East Mendip.  Six different venues throughout the summer till 18th October are featuring site-specific artworks in various media, and on Sunday the Westdown/Asham Quarry featured a call-and-response trumpet duet by Frome composer Helen Ottaway, together with birdsong and shadow sounds from long-gone industrial processes.
The art trail is intriguing but the whole place is enchanting now, reclaimed by trees and buddlia bushes and reedy marsh pools where dragonflies flit, reminding me of the temples of Cambodia reclaimed into jungle by determined Ficus Strangulosa trees.  The trail route is a walkers' right of way now, definitely a place to return and explore, when I'm home again in a few weeks.
I'm off to California now, to walk the coast and write and spend time with good friends. As always, there's much over here I'll miss ~ Merlin's 40th birthday celebrations for one, and all the excellent live music around in pubs & bars ~ here's Chic Mystique at the Artisan this afternoon.
Also happening while I'm away is the Festival of Puppetry in Bristol which looks awesome, various stage shows, and the Great British Bakeoff (only joking) but I did at least get to see the extraordinary and brilliant Grayson Perry self-portrait in Bath's adventurous little Victoria Gallery. It's a map of his life, half-chronicle half-citadel and totally engrossing.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Flaneurs in Lille

Travel to a new place is always thrilling, reminding me how soon the unknown becomes familiar. Some deep territorial instinct seems to claim the small details and promptly spin them into remembered knowledge while the bigger picture remains indifferently mysterious. That's how it felt last weekend in Lille.
Our room overlooked the railway and traffic in ‘Toutes Directions’ and massive new build, but the larger life of the city was far less interesting than our daily trips along 'our' route ~ the cycle track discovered on the first night ~ taking us directly into the old town of Flemish buildings painted ochre & russet with sloping triangular roofs and rococo cherubic & garlanded mouldings.

It’s easy to lose yourself here, as the tourist ‘city map’ apparently locates roads where there's room for the print rather than with reliable reference to location and has no truck with scale, but Lilleans are friendly, and speak English far better than my pigeon French.

And anyway Hazel and I were happily indifferent as we sat with our notebooks at a pavement bar, beside a fountain, by the river, on a bench in the park or a log in the Bois du Boulogne. This was a writing retreat, our ‘artist’s date’ with the kind of process writing we used to do when we performed  words together as Live & Lippy a decade ago.
Why a citybreak in Lille? Because this random location and impulsive decision had a quirky energy we hoped would re-ignite a shared creativity that has, inevitably, lapsed since Hazel left Frome to live further and further north, now among the Cumbrian hills. So this post is not a travel guide to a city in Northern France, just a few personal glimpses: our notebooks filled daily without attempting much objective analysis. We observed life around us, flaneur-style, at the Palais des Beaux Arts, at the Veille Bourse on Argentinian tango night, at the student bar in the old horse market, the pop-up cafe in front of the cathedral on Sunday, along the river where paddleboarders glided by like swans, beside crumbling walls of the old citadel, at the open-air zoo in the park... For me this trip was about staying offline & offscreen for three days, using a notebook & pen, and connecting more intensely with a physical world. And having a really nice time too.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

art and nature in Bruton

Hauser and Wirth in Bruton is a great place to visit, I discovered this week: not only beautiful barns filled with extraordinary art, but the most amazing gardens stretching seemingly into the far hills of Somerset, with massive clumps of pink, purple, blue and bronze flowers humming with bees and swifts darting across the pool. It's a short train trip from Frome, with a footpath stroll through fields and allotments from close to the station. The reward, as well as this luschious vista, is a one-woman show from Jenny HolzerSofter Targets  features a series of dark aphorisms flowing in liquid light through differently coloured rooms, with coffin-like  sculptures carved with sinister phrases that could be the last words of someone unknown... there are bones too, tagged with messages that might be the last thoughts of the dying victim. It's sombre and challenging but too interesting to be depressing, and well worth a visit. Plus there's the Bruton Art Factory exhibition near the station, which is very jolly.

I'm heading off now with my writer-friend Hazel Stewart for a weekend in Lille, which has apparently reinvented itself as France's most underrated major city & an architectural feast (there's even an art gallery in a swimming pool). Lonely Planet is enthusiastic: "this once-grimy industrial metropolis has shrugged off its grey image and transformed itself into a glittering and self-confident cultural and commercial hub. Highlights include an attractive old town with a strong Flemish accent, three renowned art museums, stylish shopping, some excellent dining options and a cutting-edge, student-driven nightlife scene."  Expect a glittering and cutting-edge report later. 

Monday, August 03, 2015

"In August most of Europe goes on holiday"

In Frome however, summer holidays come to us, with a beach party throughout Sunday's Independent Market.               Sand, seagulls, seaside disco and superbly steady sunshine supplemented by seaside disco to create this blissful idyll in the market yard, with retro photo-booth, donkey rides and ice-pops (I chose Pina Colada, but no-added-sugar, so that's ok.) With all the usual artisan food, art & craft, and clothing stalls, extensive flea market, and busking stage including a great set from Leander Morales, this street market unfolded into a perfect English holiday.
Writers don't stop for the sun, of course: Words at the Black Swan monthly workshop was led in the afternoon by Bath poet Sue Boyle who led us into the magic of mysterious glimpses in poetic postcards,
 and then a swift scamper up to the Merlin amphitheatre to join the 'Flash Fiction' picnic. Organised by Frome Writers Collective, this was a great little showcase of the group's varied talents: the challenge was a 500-word story starting There's that sound again, & I loved the winning story by Alison Murdoch, a witty sci-fi take on trying to live in a human body when you've never heard of hiccups...
Meanwhile, Frome's new theatre company Shot In The Dark is heading for Edinburgh with a fair wind blowing from a big plug in The Scotsman for their suspense thriller Rope. It's a psychological study of a Dostoevskian motiveless murder, and writer Geoff Hunt who also directs, has studied several real-life cases to create a site-specific scenario for the streets of Edinburgh. If you're heading for the fringe festival, this is a production to look out for. A line-run before the trip gave me an opportunity to hear the script and take some typical, and non-typical, pictures of the show. Guess which this one is...
 Looking ahead even further, Nevertheless fringe theatre company is making big plans for the future and for our next production, so I'll end this post with me and Rosie plotting... at Castello, if you're wondering where in Frome is good for planning your own next artistic endeavour. Other venues also available....

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lives of quiet desperation... existential angst in Yorkshire 1980s

 Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, first broadcast nearly 30 years ago, is the current production at Theatre Royal Bath.  Radio seems self-evidently the most appropriate medium for narrative monologue, so any such transfer is a challenge, especially as the writer himself observed "the more still and even static the speaker is, the better the monologue works". Visuals, in his view, beg the question 'who are you talking to?' as the intimacy in these confidences is different for public viewing than as private musings.
Siobhan Redmond (Miss Ruddock in Lady of Letters), Karl Theobald (Graham in A Chip in the Sugar) and Stephanie Cole (Doris in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee) are superb choices for these tales of loneliness and suppressed desperation. I can't imagine these characters better performed, though Siobhan Redmond is so charismatic she couldn't help making Miss Ruddock delightful despite being a vicious troll. (This is the most upbeat of the trio, ending with her happily incarcerated and learning to swear.)
Direction compromises Bennett's views on staging with quite a lot of business involving teacups & clothing accompanied by music and lighting changes. A surreal set (Francis O'Connor) evokes the lonely minds of these three characters all mulling over the big issues of existence through detailing painful trivia. At the end of each section the curtains close from top as well as sides, effectively shutting down our window on their lives.

This is a production that will undoubtedly be well received and the performances, especially of the first two, deserve admiration, but I have a problem with the lionising of Alan Bennett. It’s clearly an outrage of Lord Sewell-style proportions to question this writer's mastery, but I do. There can be quirky charm in his humour but, unlike Peter Kaye’s ‘overheard-up-north’ observational comedy, it often teeters gratingly into the patronising. There is pathos beyond the banal, true, but it takes a long time coming.  There's insight in his perception of relationships & religion as props, but his take on mothering borders on misogynistic. And there's something intrinsically uncomfortable about the way his Helen-Mirren-aged women have false teeth, partial dementia and snobbish obsessions. I believe Alan Bennett was a very kind man but last night it seemed he'd probably agree with Katy Hopkins there are just far too many old people around. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

mostly about costume...

Illyria touring theatre company is a regular and very popular visitor at Merlin's ECOS amphitheatre, and Shakespeare's plays are among their staple offerings - always performed uncut and with 5 actors.  To use the full script with original pronunciation must inspire admiration, but it's the creation of 21 characters by quick changes of attire, voice, & mannerism that's the main entertainment (I think with the comedy rozzer this version had 22). Top-hats in rainbow colours were useful, and overall design could be loosely described as Mad Hatter Tea-party costumed by Boden.  Some of the character shifts work incredibly well: sweet Bianca also plays cocky servant Tranio and Petruchio, the outrageous 'tamer' of Kate, changing personality superbly including once in a single scene. The Duke whose cruel joke sets the comedy in motion (in a longwinded opening more generally omitted) becomes an ASBO Kate as well as a dithering suitor for her sister.  There were wigs, there were fart jokes, comic props, occasional impro, and rapid-fire script delivery including a variety of accents...  there were lots of laughs, in short, finishing with a flourish and a rock gospel song. A bit disappointing that rain meant a transfer into the theatre, as this panto-style production is designed for outdoor performance and that's where it's best viewed.

On a theme of flamboyant apparel, I've long intended to visit the historic fashion collection at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, and as there's currently a Jane Austen exhibition this seemed a good opportunity for enhanced self-indulgence. The exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery is mainly prints of Bath around the time (1801-1805) Jane lived there, with a few John Nixon caricatures, but with quotes from novels and letters as captions. Jane didn't think much of place apparently, rejecting several residences as too small (New King Street), too gloomy (Seymour Street) and putrefying (Green Park): she wrote little while there, and viewed the city's fashionable venues as superficial gatherings for marriage-hunters and the 'nouveau riche' - like Mrs Elton in Emma.
Next stop the Fashion Museum where, as well as these superb examples of Janite attire, there's examples of marvellous frocks and jackets through the ages, and visitors are not only allowed but encouraged to photograph them. That's a definition of bliss for me.  So much to drool over, including a long array of fashion icons I actually remember. Many strange designs but only one awful one: the 'Dress of the Year' last year looked like a massive seagull atrociously entangled in plastic bags and salvaged by Greenpeace.
Despite wearing the same green jeans for years, I have an alter-ego fascinated by frocks.  As a teen I drew and painted imagionary 'dress designs': my 'Emma' collection involved high bodices and lots of tiny buttons on the sleeves. My mother actually made me one, in purple and exactly as drawn. I've still got the old sketch books and it's surprising to see how much they pre-empted street fashions of the later sixties. Zeitgeist. I guess.

So this post ends with a picture of me and a 50-years-later interview by Dan Biggane of Frome Standard, all about my very different life now. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Peddling performances, one-night stands, & theatre on the move

"A movie under the stars in Victoria Park, powered by bicycles, to raise money for Frome's Missing Link" ~ what's not to like? The Sustrans Crowdfunder page to bring Peddle-powered cinema to Frome filled up quickly, and on Friday there were two showings of Ghostbusters, early evening for the youngsters and late-night for the rest of us. And if you tired of 30-year old iconic imagery of paranormal activity in New York, you could watch the bike wheels making chinese dragons in the night... big congratulations to Sustrans supporters for this great initiative, and to all the stoic peddlers of all ages who kept the spirits spooking and the parapsychologists exterminating.

Leaping a decade forward, on the other side of town Merlin Theatre was rocking the 90s musical RENT in an amazing 24-hour production, like the open-air movie also a fundraiser.  Lack of cash for refurbishment led to this innovative idea by Ryan Hughes, co-directing with Claudia Pepler, but there's never any shortage of talent among the young performers and the entire team well deserved their standing ovation. The story is based on Puccini's opera La Bohème with tuberculosis in Paris replaced by the 'gay plague' AIDS in New York's bohemian artistic quarter but the struggles with drugs, debt and death are timeless in any city. Fantastic performances all round, with Ryan Hughes unforgettable as the tragic Angel.  This show too was on for one night only so it's lucky Frome is a such a small town I could scamper between productions and enjoy large chunks of both.

All of which enthusiasm leads neatly to the Tobacco Factory Autumn Season launch on Tuesday. In a party atmosphere director Ali Robertson promised us their best programme ever, and there are certainly some great-looking shows coming up ~ including the biennial Bristol Festival of Puppetry: 12 days of performances, films, and workshops. And the SATTF double-bill for Shakespeare's 400th anniversary was also revealed: it's Hamlet and All's Well That Ends Well, with tours planned in the UK and beyond.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

as the glitter-dust settles

So how do you avoid that post-production comedown? A trip to London's Globe, of course! I've had the groundling tickets for months, and on Tuesday Rosie and I headed off to see Richard II with Charles Edwards as the fatally flawed hero-king. This play was a dangerous one for Shakespeare, as it raised the notion that monarchy has no 'divine right' and an unpopular ruler can be deposed without the wrath of God ~ a radical idea that his patron Elizabeth detested even more than our current leaders dislike any opposition to imposed austerity: it was easier to grab power from abusers in those days.
Richard II has long been my favourite play: as an emo teen I related totally to the rejected king's self-pitying speeches ~ I still have my tear-stained 1955 Penguin edition ~  and I've seen some brilliant productions. This one was the best. From the marvellous opening, when the child king is promised unimpeachable power amid showers of golden glitter, to the fantastic ending of ultimate betrayal (a bold decision to change his murderer to the one he most loved) the performance was superb. Every line seemed thought in that moment, and the traumatic meltdown as the king realises his delusion is unforgettably shocking in its quiet understatement.
So when Rosie & I noticed, while sharing a veggie platter & bottle of wine after the show, that the cast were in the same bar similarly refreshing themselves, I accosted the mufti king with camera and stammering groupie speech, and this snap is the result. Taken I think by the Earl of Mowbray. And I can report the actors are as lovely as their characters are duplicitous. Awesome day all round.

Back home, the review is out for Midsummer Dusk ~ you can read it on our Nevertheless Theatre webpage or the Frome Standard website. Thanks John Payne for your appreciative words (brilliantly crafted... magical... unexpected gem of the festival...) and thanks to official photographer David Chedgy for yours too ~  and for sharing the 'Last Letter Home' as your personal favourite picture of the festival.
Photographer Alan Denison sent me this picture of the Short Story Competition winners, with organisers Brenda Bannister and Alison Clink, to supplement my images on the Words at Frome Festival page. There will be details of their names & winning stories, eventually, on their Festival Short Story page here.

And over in Bath there's a Canaletto exhibition at Holburne Museum: a small but fascinating & informatively displayed collection of the 18th century Venetian landscape artist's perception of London ~ including the promenade in Vauxhall Gardens with its 'supper booths' and public entertainment, showing that pop-up bars & open-air theatre have long been part of our culture.
Canaletto was in London on a commission to promote Waterloo Bridge, newly opened in 1750. His images were used for guidebooks, although the manipulated perspective, with buildings shifted to enhance views, gave an idealised version of reality. But then I suppose so did Wordsworth, with his eulogy to Westminster Bridge... which brings me nicely back to London bridges, and crossing the new Millennium Bridge to come home after our big Day Out.