Monday, April 07, 2014

Letter from America

A week into my 'writing retreat' in Half Moon Bay, where the bay by surfers' beach is empty and a sign on the shore seems to acknowledge the terrible legacy of Fukushima.  No more barefoot walking through the shallows on these beautiful sands for me if radiation contamination along the California coast is now frankly admitted. I could say more, but I do that on facebook, so here I'll just say: the sky is blue, the iceplants are flowering, I'm enjoying long walks and long hours of writing... for me, at least, life here is very good.
I've followed the coast track all down the long scimitar beach, and over the headland to the seal sanctuary at Moss Beach, I've watched the sun set over the ocean from Miramar, I've enjoyed a day clambering the extraordinary rocks at Pescadero ~ these dragonish formations carved by erosion into the sandstone over millions of years have the strangely unonomatopaeic name 'tafoni' ~ and a convivial night of shared readings with El Granada writers' group, and I've spent quite a bit of time on my laptop too. Which is all exactly as I hoped it would be.

So that's it for this post, except for a quick tip for everyone back home:  Luke Wright is bringing his Essex Lion to Merlin Theatre on Thursday April 24th, and it's a definite don't-miss. I've seen the show already, and if I wasn't here, I'd be going again, so if you're in or near Frome that night, you're passing up a treat if you don't go. Tickets only a fiver and there's (bookable) supper available too. Luke always gets brilliant reviews: here's mine, from last October: "... hilariously satiric, angrily political, or unexpectedly compassionate... as well as rapid-fire rhyming, striking imagery, and sublime turns of phrase, Luke's observational comedy is never far from self-deprecating and it's this quality that makes his flamboyant style work so well. Whether he's pretending to strut in Cuban heels, parodying his penchant for posh plumbers or recalling teenage delusions, he reminds us that we all share the same conviction as the Essex lion spotter: how can a thing that makes you feel / be anything but fucking REAL?"

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lebanon to Arcadia

It begins like a bad joke:  an Englishman, an Irishman, and an American are taken hostage in Beirut... so which will stay imprisoned, which die, and which be released? Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness is a terrific script, topical when written in 1992 but timeless in its calm, incisive, investigation of the human capacity for love and fear, and exasperation too.
The three roles demand not only convincing accents but absolute emotional authenticity too, so all the more impressive that three young drama students from Strode College held their audience totally gripped with a brilliant touring production which arrived at Frome's Cornerhouse on Thursday night. Ross Scott as the Irish journalist, Lewis Elson as the English teacher, and Sam Rich as the American photographer, took us captive with them them for a breathless hour-and-a-half and brought real dramatic energy to this intense and moving drama.

Tom Stoppard said that nothing he wrote was supposed to be remotely bewildering, which bewildered me a bit when I read the outline of Arcadia ~ though it's often been revived since first performance in 1993, I hadn't seen before.  Two simultaneous timelines exploring the history of iterated mathematical formulae, landscape gardening and Byron.. the new Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production sounded confusing but it isn't:  each thread is clearly & cleverly intertwined and each intriguing revelation neatly fitted into the story. And it's ~ mostly ~ very, very funny. Brilliant directing from Andrew Hilton, great costumes, simple and effective set (a table) and terrific acting from all the cast, with Matthew Thomas charismatic as the 20th Century academic, Piers Wehner & Hannah Lee totally enticing as the 19th Century tutor and his gifted pupil and Dorothea Myer-Bennett superbly Wildean-witty as Lady Croom. It's on throughout April ~ definitely recommended.

Frome footnote: quirky little gallery-shop OWL had a special event on Friday night to celebrate new work, including an impressive life-size African deity created in felt by Gladys Paulus.  Sande represents women in sisterhood, and is based on the initiation masks of the Mende people of Sierra Leone. She's on her way to America now, where I hope she inspires as much discussion as she did tonight. That's John Law playing jazz on keyboard beyond the brooding goddess. Which reminds me I missed Acoustic Plus at Cheese&Grain again... though I did make Rag Mama Rag at the Olive Tree.
There's so much fantastic music in Frome I can never get to all of it ~ and I'll miss everything and everyone in Frome for the next five weeks. I'm off to California for a writing retreat in El Granada so my next posting will probably show the sandy shore and long waves of Half Moon Bay. Here's a glimpse from last springtime there...

Heathrow update: I can't fly off without bigging-up another Frome success: Flatpack Democracy by Peter Macfadyen describes how a group of local people, exasperated by the dysfunctionality of current local government systems, campaigned for independence and took the whole town with them. Upbeat and easy-read, this story is an inspiring handbook for jaded or enthusiastic townsfolk anywhere, explaining the process and the pitfalls ~ with pictures ~ and emphasising crucial points like Keep it light and Party!
Typically unconventional, the Sunday evening booklaunch (which is why this missed the first edition posting) was a walk through Frome's radical past led by feisty duo Molly and Ruth from Bread Print & Roses. Much fascinating historical data, illuminating quotes from William Cobbett on the destitution that followed the Cloth bonanza (Frome was listed as one of the wealthiest towns in England in the Domesday Book) and a quick roundup of all the dissenting churches that flourished in a town renowned for its non-conforming ethos and support for workers' solidarity. and I didn't know our MP in 1914, John Barlow, was a pacifist throughout the first world war! Another reason to be proud of Frome's past.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

15th Century grief & 20th Century grooming

In 1401 a Bohemian clerk called Johannes von Saz lost his wife in childbirth and next day wrote a dialogue with Death as full of vivid grief and rage as you'd expect from such an outpouring. Death and the Ploughman has been translated by Irish writer Michael West into a dramatic diatribe for voices, an argument by turns lyrical and chilling, with unexpected shifts and even dark comedy, and The Mechanical Animal Corporation with Tobacco Factory Theatres has taken this into Bristol's Arnos Vale Cemetery for an extraordinary piece of site-specific promenade theatre.
 'Promenade' always makes me think of strolling with parasols, but here we trooped by torch-light up muddy forest paths between tombs where dim-lit figures could be glimpsed tending their graves and decorated figures mourned on their own headstones, as we followed the ploughman in his contentious pursuit of Death deeper and deeper into her dark realm. Death disdains his protests. "Man lives in this world a stranger in a strange land: from the moment you enter this world you are old enough to leave it." The language is often biblical but the debate about love and suffering is timeless, and Death's speech of scorn at mankind's use of life is, though short of fracking and bankers's bonuses, as fresh as this week's facebook. Director Tom Bailey and his cast have created a gripping & unforgettable theatrical event, with a satisfying final verdict from the strange chorus: "The honour is to the ploughman, but the victory is to Death." It's on till Sunday ~ if it's not sold out dig out your warmest clothes & go.

I haven't seen Pygmalion since the movie of My Fair Lady in 1964 and I'd forgotten how seriously political a statement about the unpalatable nature of class distinction the play is intended to be, so it was interesting to see this unsaccharine production at Theatre Royal Bath. The allusion in the title seems deliberately ironic: Professor Higgins did not fall in love with Eliza as an artwork and make her real, he remained obsessively infatuated with his own skill and made a real girl miserably artificial, which makes a truly satisfying outcome difficult. Shaw had problems with his directors over this from the 1914 opening night on, but director David Grindley finds an ending the writer might have accepted while emphasising the situation comedy and verbal wit throughout. Effectively simple sets and beautifully muted costumes evoke the era superbly and there's a strong cast, with Rula Lenska as Higgin's mother and Jamie Foreman as Eliza's father excellent and Alistair McGowan as the high-functioning sociopath professor outstanding.

This week's Frome-fact: Hot on the heels of the Sunday Times accolade, The Times has published a list of the 30 most glamourous places to live in the UK with Frome at number 7 ~ just ahead of Primrose Hill. Their rational is based on occasional celeb-spotting rather than town life but it's nice to be popular, even with journos who praise house prices and the fact 'commuters from Bristol and Bath live here.'

And I can't post without a farewell to Tony Benn whose funeral is today. His image is featured in the window of the Health Food shop in Cheap Street, with a quote of wonderful simplicity and wisdom.  "If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people."

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Renaissance to Resurrection, and a town less ordinary

From A Very British Renaissance I learned it was Thomas Wyatt who made poetry one of England's most dynamic art forms, after visiting Italy while Petrarch was busy pioneering the sonnet as the perfect love poem. Wyatt took the form (eight lines to lament love unattainable, six to find resolution) and added passion: His line It was no dream: I lay broad waking is apparently unique to love poetry at a time when sexual union could only happen in reverie. "He captured the messy quality of life as lived, setting the tone for English poets from Shakespeare to Larkin" says glam guide Dr James Fox, though I'm pretty sure it wasn't a direct line to the Bad Sex Awards from here on. John Keats was scolded by contemporaries for allowing Madelaine to enjoy her swain's 'solution sweet' in The Eve of St Agnes, and as Martin Amis points out in his book England, early novels didn't allow heroines to copulate or even think of it: the exception is Jane Austen's Lizzie Bennet, whose father tactfully takes her aside to check she has the right chemistry with Darcy:"I know your lively talents, Elizabeth. You could be neither happy nor respectable in a loveless marriage." The BBC2 programme is on iPlayer for a while,  if you want to see why Holbein's painting of The Ambassadors tells the quintessential story of the era man discovered the world through art.

Art was the question, if not the answer, on Saturday morning in Frome where a banner outside Rook Lane Arts promising Something wonderful is happening, and it did, for after a burst of hail there was a rainbow in the sky above the banner in town with the same '70s-style message, commissioned as a 'new motto' for Frome (artist Ruth Proctor was apparently unaware the town already has the motto A wonderful place) and flown around towed by a small plane.
This was part of a day of concept art organised by Foreground Instructions for an Ordinary Utopia to "make an ordinary town a little less ordinary"~  not an overly ambitious mission as Frome has once again been named in national media as ~ for 'creative energy' ~ one of UK's best places to live. Like the hippy happenings I remember from 50 years ago, except with 'names' in the art-world bussed-in (literally) from London, this wasn't much known about by those not involved, and facebook discussion has been lively.
There's always excitement around new initiatives, but for some this was tempered by the Marie-Antoinette-ish nature of the opening event: throwing pennies down the streets for the locals to pick up. Artist Peter Liversidge provided a hundred quid's worth of small change to realise this whimsical proposal inspired by a nursery rhyme, though he annoyed locals by misprouncing the name of the town he was making 'a little bit more special' in this manner.
But Frome is a small town with a big heart, as the show-biz cliche goes, and there's interest in anything 'arty', especially the exploratory and contentious. As local painter David Chandler said: "It brings people together, and if it does that, it's doing it's job.'

Meanwhile Black Swan Arts was jampacked as results of the Young Open Art Competition were revealed, with fifteen children & teenagers winning workshops with local artists. So perhaps the ideal is to embrace all and avoid a 'hierarchy of excellence': art observed is inevitably a commodity, but we don't need to put higher value on what is esoteric and fashionable over what is accessible and ordinary.

Over in Bath the 3-week Shakespeare Unplugged Festival ended with Resurrection, a retelling by local writer David Lane of themes in five different plays, performed by the Engage Shakespeare Company.
Coincidentally this experience too began with a coach journey, as the audience was collected from Bath Egg and ferried to Burdell's Yard for a promenade-style performance in awesomely atmospheric settings, each suited the theme and mood of the scene. The concept is intriguing: What if these famous characters had evaded the death delivered by Shakespeare and lived on ~ in King Lear's case for 29 years, psychotic & inarticulate, tended by a now-cynical Cordelia. Ophelia resents her totem status, Titus' daughter has wrenched her father's tongue out to voice her vengeance, and two children, both princes usurped, have processed trauma in very different ways. Programme notes say the aim is to 'haul Shakespeare's themes into the 21st Century': there's much madness and murderous rage though in places the haulage maybe slightly lost in translation to anyone unfamiliar with the plays. That's not of course what matters ~ the monologues are gripping, and the stories vivid and visceral, timeless rather than merely contemporised, shifting through different rhythms so this almost seemed more like a symphony than a play. This exciting and richly theatrical production ends as it begins with a call to find our own tongues: Shakespeare would have appreciated this full-circling wheel.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Writers' journeys

Tonight's Frome Poetry Cafe had the theme of Journeys, so it was ironic perhaps that Daisy Behagg was left stranded at Castle Cary and couldn't join us... but our other lead poet David Johnson was on fantastic form with performance pieces about railway journeys and journeys into history ~ ending with a witty imagined 18th Century slam, with neurotic Romantics on tour / signing their volumes in the foyer. So mega sympathies Daisy ~ who will try again later this year ~ for your trauma, but luckily local eco-poet Helen Moore was on hand to step in, and the 17 open-mic poets took us on many fabulous journeys too. A full house at the Garden Cafe and a wonderfully rich evening.. one of those special nights.
Obliquely on the subject of journeys still: it's 100 years since Dylan Thomas was born, and Graffiti magazine had a little competition for pieces inspired by his poems.  Fern Hill is a favourite of mine since early childhood when my father read it to me, so I took its rhythms and notion of long-ago memories and adapted both to summer holidays on the south coast of Devon... and then came the storms, prompting an ending more disturbing than nostalgic. I'm pleased to say the judge liked it and Dawlish Warren won first prize. It's a fine line between homage and plagiarism, so I hope I haven't transgressed too much - you can judge for yourselves here:


Now as I was golden brown and straddling the rock pools 
Along the laughing beach and singing as the sand was home 
The sky high and dazzling blue,
 Granny held me in her towel 
Wiping icecream from my salty face
 And queen of the mermaids I wriggled away and ran back to the waves 
Heedless of any call beyond their gentle surging swell,
Toe-kicking the coarse wet sand 
All along the brown-sugar rim of the sea. 

And after the thermos-and-sandwich tea, dried and cardiganed,
Princess was I of turreted sand-castles and splendid forts
With scalloped moat and paper flags
Flying their stripes and stars
The whole world in my dominion.
And picnic packed and sandy shoes pulled on to go, we'd see
Slow foaming rivulets creep over our brave constructions
Licking the ramparts into sandslides,
slipping back into dunes as the sunset streamed.

Nothing I knew, in those childish times, that storms would obliterate
All of my memories in one raging night of terrible severance
Rail from rock, rock from land,
Nor that rousing from sleep
I'd see the path to my past wiped away forever
And watch onscreen that timeless landscape ripped away.
Oh as I played along those Devon sands happy and unknowing
Time held us all in ignorant thrall
Believing ourselves as strong as the sea.

Finally journey of this posting: my writer friend Sally Gander, author of the Y/A thriller The Big Deep, invited me to join her on a 'blog tour' and although it sounded like a cross between a discursive relay and a chain letter, I was intrigued enough to agree. The aim is to share personal perspectives on the writing process: each 'guest' blogger answers 4 questions and hands the baton on. So here goes:
What am I working on?
Currently, so many different things I feel like the sheep in Alice in Wonderland knitting with fourteen pairs of needles. I’m writing two plays ~ both in delicate stages of development ~ and revising two others. I’m also working on two monologues, one on spec for an actress friend, plus a short for our Nevertheless Productions event in Frome Festival. The theme is War Zones, which is a challenge for a militant pacifist. I’m also working with performer Annabelle Macfadyen on a script for a ‘Time Walk’ around Rodden Meadow in the festival, telling ‘the story of the earth in a thousand paces.’ Mind-blowing science but a lot of fun. And the blog trundles on:  theatre reviews, local arts, random thoughts on anything related to writing. I’m off to California for a month at the end of March, for uninterrupted focus on all these projects.
How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

 The same way every playwright’s work is different from others':  it’s my voice and not theirs. I write psychological dramas and use dark comedy a lot. I also tend to indulge in meta-theatrical elements ~ ‘smart-arsed’ to those who don't like plays that are self-conscious about being dramatic inventions ~ so I sometimes let characters address the audience direct. Well it worked for Shakespeare...
Why do I write what I do?
To find out what I mean. I think all writers at heart write to discover their own processes of thinking and feeling.
How does my writing process work? 
Scripts for stage are no different from stories on the page, at the start. A character starts talking to you, quietly at first, and then increasingly intrusively. There are challenges in their life, and other characters with their own opinions on these matter, and eventually they all colonise your head and your only choice is to start writing it all down. When it's all collected you carve it back to the bone, marveling how much verbal fat there always is, and work out what it’s all about. Then you hand it over to a production team, who wrestle it into a coma ~ excuse the mixed metaphors but this is a mixed process ~ and then breathe life into your words and make you feel that seeing your story on stage is THE most fantastic privilege for any writer.  Then when the production’s over you go into a bereaved state… until a character sidles up and starts talking to you….
Well, that’s how it is for me, anyway. I don’t have any routines, or any preferred time of day or place. I work directly onto my laptop, at home, in a café, or traveling ~ but always have a notebook beside me to jot down thoughts.

And now over to Cliff Lonsdale, who I met first in Skyros two years ago, when he would lie full length at the edge of the Aegean and write the most amazing pieces. He sent me this thumbnail biog:
Cliff is a writer and development consultant currently living in Myanmar with his wife and two dogs; prior to this he lived in Africa for several years. Cliff spends a large proportion of his life bouncing around in the back of a car on dirt roads; he tends to have quite a lot of time to contemplate life. His utterings, mutterings and general musings on this and many other matters can be found at www.clifflonsdale.com.

Friday, March 14, 2014

"It's a girl..."

While Theatre Royal Bath usually stages scripted plays, Bristol Old Vic recently has been going for adaptations of familiar tales: Great Expectations followed by The Little Mermaid and now, most ambitious of all, a 2-part version of Charlotte Bronte's classic Jane Eyre.  Seeing the whole thing takes over 8 hours if you go for matinee and evening performance, which is what Rosie and I did, using the break for tapas at our favourite dockside bar El Puerto. This double-production has had cracking reviews and so it should: for sheer theatricality as well as gripping story-telling. Director Sally Cookson has created something thrilling from this familiar story steeped in social history, finding strands of early feminism and egalitarianism in Jane's struggles but more importantly presenting her story dramatically, using music, physicality, and humour as well as speech and symbolism. Indeed, though the sparky interactions between Jane and Mr Rochester are great, most of my enjoyment came not from dialogue or plot but from imaginative staging: marvellous coach-rides jogged by the cast, Pilot the dog stealing each scene he bounded into, the haunting flame of mad Bertha's song...  My only reservation was the set which while commendably allowing for 3-dimensional action looks disconcertingly like a massive mismade Ikea flatpack but I loved the indigo costumes and the lighting. The multi-tasking cast of ten ~ including the brilliant musicians ~ are all engaging, with Craig Edwards and Felix Hayes outstanding.  If you're a Brontë fan you've probably already seen it: if not, you've got until the end of the month. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"The weirdest art form ever created"

Philip Ridley is a highly acclaimed young playwright and this Supporting Wall production of Dark Vanilla Jungle won awards and garlands of stars for performance last year in Edinburgh so, as this tour included Bristol's Brewery, this was a must-see for me. "A beautiful, breathtaking new drama about one girl’s craving for family and home… and the lengths she’ll go to achieve them," is the flyer summary, and there's not much more to be said about her story without making this monologue sound bleak, which it is not. It's vividly rich in imagination and language, startlingly poetic and from time to time darkly funny. From an empty stage, Andrea advances to 'tell the truth', starting with a wasp sting.  It's about being groomed and commodification of women and the invisibility of lost children in problem families, but the telling is as far from 'worthy' as a Shakespeare. Gemma Whelan's Andrea is utterly mesmerising, embodying her story as both child and teenager, evoking tenderness, passion, panic and fury as innocence is dragged from her and longings for love disintegrate. Contemporary realism and fantasy of mythic promotion merge in this masterly must-see play, which is in Bristol till 22nd March and then goes on to Soho Theatre. Fantastic script, utterly fabulous performance. And next time someone swears at you in the street remember, as Plato first said, they may be fighting a battle you know nothing about.

The Big Meal, the first of three plays in the new Theatre Royal Bath American season at Ustinov Studio Bath, is a 90-minute time-lapse study of the 80-year relationship of a couple who meet in a restaurant, moving from flirting to intimacy in moments, followed swiftly by hatches, mismatches, and dispatches through three generations. Writer Dan LeFranc knows his settings well so in one sense the story is realistic, but he believes playwrights should explore obsessions, quirks and nightmares, mining the strangest, truest parts of yourself...  the play is the weirdest art form ever created.  This one is certainly quirky. It's directed by Michael Boyd and the roles are played progressively by an excellent cast of eight, with Diana Quick and Keith Bartlett particularly impressive. As you'd expect the focus is on meal times: events are mostly uber-normal but clever compression of timescale and sharp script give plenty of food for thought as well as a lingering taste of poignancy. Expect also a lot of shouting, and an unexpected dramatic device that I can't spoiler-reveal, but it's very effective.  The Big Meal is on in Bath till 5th April and then goes to co-producers High Tide Festival in Suffolk from 10th-19th April.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Studying to compare this prison to the world...

I’m not familiar with King John, but despite his script being edited down to 70 minutes I'm sure the bard would have no complaints about Hammerpuzzle's version at The Egg as part of Theatre Royal Bath’s Shakespeare Unplugged month. It's a kind of Shakespeare sampler, with tasters of crazy ranting, thrilling soliloquies, star-crossed young love, murderous ambition and poisonous come-uppance, even cross-gartering. And there's lively comedy and live music,and above all absolute clarity of storytelling. Director Bryn Holding retains the timeless quality of this historic tale while highlighting contemporary elements like Philip the Bastard's railing against “Commodity, the bias of the world”. The cast are fantastic in multiple roles, doing full justice to an emotional range from maternal frenzy to the still, chill, last moment of the little prince who is the innocent victim of these conflicts. Set and costumes heighten this sense of continuing relevance. Hammerpuzzle offer workshops as well as creating accessible theatre and this is certainly a show that could appeal to a young audience.

While Shakespeare's phrases still chime today, Kate Tempest can create voices his audience would recognise, in theme if not in phraseology. Kate herself is a superb solo performer, and Brand New Ancients is a hard act for her new 3-hander Hopelessly Devoted to follow.  Paines Plough, who also produced Kate's first play Wasted, came to Frome's Merlin on their southwest tour with this story of a young woman in prison for murder, in love with her released cellmate, grieving for her lost daughter, and finding solace and ~ we have to hope ~ redemption by processing the pain of her life through music. The language is terse, often lyrical, always emotionally charged. Both Chess, the talented singer/songwriter, and Serena, the paroled cellmate, have children: together they embody the differently intense distress of being a jailed mother. Chess aches for the contact Serena now dreads, lamenting "I got two kids to feed, I don’t even know what they like to eat." The catalyst for change is record producer Silver, a recovering addict intent on nurturing Chess's talent whether she likes it or not. Kate Tempest's compassion and insight into how it feels to be confined in a woman's prison is impressive, Amanda Wilkin, Gbemisola Ikumelo and Martina Laird give compelling performances, and the set effectively evokes a sense of confinement also doubling as the facebook world outside. "What's social media?" Chess demands, and newly-savvy Serena explains "It's like social services."  This production too is aimed at young audiences, with drama workshops available.

And finally... a quick rave about the dance night at Cheese&Grain on Friday ~ two fantastic Northern Soul bands, The All-nighters followed by local legends Fat Stanley, had everyone bopping at this Frack Free Somerset fund-raiser. And while we're still in Frome, don't forget the next Poetry Cafe is on Monday 17th. The theme is Journeys, and David Johnson and Daisy Behagg will be our guests.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Visibility nil, restricted viewing 5 stars

South Bank in spring sunshine...
I always feel this, not the view from Westminster Bridge, is the stretch of Thames that Wordsworth really had in mind when he wrote of the towers, domes, theatres and temples that enthralled him.  My friend Helen and I met here and walked along to the Tate Modern to see the Paul Klee exhibition. I'd booked with high expectations but left still foggy as to why this artist's work is held in such high esteem. "Formerly we used to represent things which were visible," Klee wrote, "...today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things." But what reality is that? There's none of the emotional energy of Kandinsky or Mirot, or the spacial exploration of Picasso ~ and though Klee continued to work and exhibit throughout two wars, no suggestion of awareness of these conflicts although two of his close colleagues died at the front in WWI. Apart from some recurrent images ~ fish, circles, lines ~ what predominates is those tidy patches of colour, flat as paint-cards, closely contiguous and inscrutably titled.  Helen & I thought they'd probably make nice cushions, and found on our way out the Tate shop had the same idea.

And then on to Shakespeare's Globe for supper overlooking the river,  followed by a feast of fun at the brand Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a fabulous timber-framed theatre space created from designs based on drawings from early 1600s and lit by beeswax candles.
Their choice of opening production is brilliant: The Knight of the Burning Pestle, written around the same time by Francis Beaumont, is an anarchic pastiche of travelling troupes from the days of mummers and masqueraders, but with the bizarre post-modern twist of a meta-theatrical storyline. Not exactly a play-within-a-play, this is more two plays within a theatre that becomes the play, as narration is hijacked by the Grocer's insistence his apprentice becomes the fighting knight of the title and both conflicting tales are constantly interrupted by him and his good lady wife... perhaps you need to see it ~ though we were standing at the back of the Upper Circle with "Restricted Viewing" tickets, but with a hilariously bathos-laden script (Now in arms I'll never clasp 'er / for she's stolen away by your man Jasper!), high-energy physical comedy and fantastic acting, we loved every minute.

A tenuous literary link as footnote: I stayed over with Helen and next day we walked the Ayot Greenway, past Shaw's Corner where GBS lived & wrote for forty years. The house is maintained exactly as in his lifetime, down to the clothes and notebooks he used, but in those days this path was the train track to London. Shaw had a house in Fitzroy Square as well as Ayot St Lawrence, so we pictured him steaming past on this Lost Rail as we listened to the birds in the quiet woods.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Bliss is... elusive

Bath Literature Festival is currently bringing ten days on the theme of 'bliss' to the city, citing the feeling of pure joy and inspiration we get from the written and spoken word... something to cling to in times of uncertainty.  Bath Poetry Café may or may not have had this in mind when they jointly composed The Death of Actaeon, a play for voices performed in the Central Library on Saturday. I arrived during preliminary readings, just as guiding light Sue Boyle was calling to the assembled poets "Can I suggest we do the naughty nymph next?" I couldn't stay for the actual show but courtesy of Sue I did have the chance to read third nymph. A remarkable project, and I'm sure it was suitably well received - it certainly seemed huge fun.
Heading onward at noon I hoped to see some of the advertised Random Acts of Shakespeare in the city centre but though I found buskers, jugglers, and a cleverly poised golden fountain-man, this salon:collective initiative was sadly elusive. At risk of sounding pathetically old school, maybe some specific names rather than 'the streets of Bath' in the programme next time?
And then on to see the Soho Theatre production BLINK in Bristol Old Vic studio, a two-hander tautly directed by Joe Murphy. This play is billed as "a love story ~ a dysfunctional, voyeuristic and darkly funny love story, but a love story all the same." The narration is at first intriguing as Sophie, superbly acted by Lizzie Watts, deliberately prompts her Forest-Gumpy tenant into an obsession of extreme stalking which could have led to some fascinating social questioning about longing and loneliness, guilt and collusion, reality and fantasy, and how they can become blurred, but the plot abruptly took a While-I-lay-Sleeping swerve as Sophie's road accident puts her in a coma and Jonah's co-dependency takes a more clichéd turn. Writer Phil Porter credits Stewart Lee for his direct-to-audience style and aims to emulate his 'ability to make an audience laugh at him for sneering at them for laughing at themselves for laughing at a joke that isn't even supposed to be funny'.  The jokes get the laughter, but despite some sentimental moments, there's not enough compassion for the story to become deeply touching. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Stark, truthful and moving... what else do you want from a writer?


What a week for brave and startling writing. Tuesday was the launch date of Love's Gutter, a collection of poems by Thomas Glover published by Stepping Out with endorsements to die for from Philip Gross, Georges Szirtes, Rose Flint, Abegail Morley, Elvis McGonagall, and Luke Wright.  As Thomas's editor, I was thrilled that all these respected poets made time to read and to recognise the authenticity of these 'poems with punch and verve that linger behind the eyes for hours.'   It was a privilege to work with Thomas as well as a pleasure to introduce his words to the world - and specifically the launch party in Cooper's Loft. Thanks, Andrew, for catching all the assembled poets in a jolly moment after the readings.

And on Thursday night Nathan Filer came to the Merlin for an event initially billed as a Poetry Platter, a small and intimate on-stage soiree with supper and poetry. In the time between Nathan agreeing to do this and the actual event, his debut novel made headlines across the literary world by scooping the Costa Book of the Year award, so we sold five times the expected number of tickets and Nathan adapted his performance by general consent to focus on The Shock of the Fall. As my friend & fellow-novelist Debby Holt summarised, "The man is a star: a natural communicator, a born showman and a fascinating commentator about our weird world of writing." As well as being hugely entertaining, Nathan's presentation incorporated encouraging advice to aspirant novelists, and a frank and fascinating insight into his own journey.
Much has been made of Nathan's credentials as a psychiatric nurse in Bristol, but Nathan is quite clear that though his narrator is diagnosed as having schizophrenia, this is "not a story about mental illness, it's a story about Matthew and his family, and how they deal with loss and grief." He sees this first-person novel as in the lineage of Vernon Godlittle, Frank in The Wasp Factory, Christopher in Curious Incident, and JD Salinger's Holden Cauldfield. "There’s a lot of nonsense written about schizophrenia, some malicious and some misconception, and I don't want to propegate malicious myths," he says: "Matthew is brave, decent, and kind - he's also irascible, conflicted, and can be horrible. He has a pernicious illness but he does not let that define him.”
Even though we didn't have time to hear about his trip to the West Bank and subsequent deportation (you can read about that in his Palestine blog) we did manage a quick peek down memory lane as Nathan produced a cutting from the Frome Times about the first time he stepped onto the Merlin stage. This was ten years ago when as Writer in Residence I decided to bring slam-style poetry to Frome, and a couple of youngsters named Nathan Filer and Luke Wright were on the bill....   I had a rummage when I got home and found the same clip ~ and realised I still wear that top...

Seems a good moment to reflect on the joy of writing -  views about which The Guardian recently asked nine well-known authors. To save you wading through a welter of words like misery, discomfort, depression, boredom, anguish, dread, here's a breath of fresh sense from Will Self: "Frankly, if I didn't enjoy writing novels, I wouldn't do it - the world hardly needs any more... fiction is my way of thinking about and relating to the world." Julie Myerson broke the mould of melancholy angst too: "It is a joyous thing. I feel very lucky to be paid to do it.. but the person I'm really always writing for is me."  Well said, both.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Love loss chance sex and ambition

A new season from SATTF is always something to look forward to, and Tobacco Factory is the ideal venue for Shakespeare's mix of imaginary landscapes and magic realism in As You Like It.  It's a garrulous play, in fact an extended exercise in complex word-play for most of the speeches, and the wit needs careful signposting for a modern audience. Which is why it's even more remarkable that after three hours I really didn't want it to end. Director Andrew Hilton has assembled a stunning cast who all seem to live each moment for the first time, so even the longest exchanges feel immediate and engaging. Although this production makes the most of its women (Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Rosalind and Daisy May as Celia both mesmerising) inevitably the male energy predominates, but with an electric diversity through physical spectacle, music, visual gags, meta-theatricality (Touchstone and Jacques have more than a dab of Vladimir and Estragon about them) and dark psychological twists. Especially exciting are the moments when the forest glade of good Duke Senior, a kind of Occupy/voice-camp in Arden, abruptly morphs into evil Duke Frederick's court - brilliant mood-shifts by double-duke Chris Bianchi.  Harriet de Winton's vaguely 1940s costumes work superbly, and the minimal props are all that's needed.  It's on till 22 March and then touring till May, go see this magical tale the director defines as "about human experience - love, loss, chance, sex and ambition."

And that segueways into a quick film spot: Inside Llewyn Davis is a road-movie about a 1960s Greenwich Village folksinger and a ginger cat, so irresistible to me in at least 3 ways.  As it's written & directed by the Cohn brothers this is a mythic journey too ~ the cat is even called Ulysses ~ and shot in fabulous muted tones throughout. Oscar Isaac is in virtually every shot but as he's gorgeous that's no problem, and the soundtrack is movingly authentic, like the subfusc folksy venues. Even the long drive to Chicago doesn't flag thanks to John Goodman as an obnoxious fellow-passenger. There's no real surprises but beautifully-understated detail makes this melancholy story gripping from the start. It's a lesson too late for the learning, as Bob Dylan would sing.

Meanwhile in Frome, Pip Utton presents a double bill of warmongers at the Merlin: a revival of his renowned one-man show as Hitler, paired with Churchill.  Pip has an uncanny way of looking like all his one-man show subjects, and with bulky suit with white scarf, homburg, and stick, he shared a striking resemblance to the statue in Parliament Square which, in this conceit, steps down when the clock strikes thirteen to reminisce with whisky and cigars.  Much of this biographical material is entertaining ~ the caustic wit of Winston is renowned ~ and some, like his childhood abandonment, is moving. Of the war, he insists "There is no glory in death in battle" but there is glory in victory, and his unswerving policy 'to wage war' remains unregretted. The prime minister who was tagged after his death 'the most famous man in history' ends his tale and climbs on to his plinth again.

At Black Swan Arts, Print & Clay is the new exhibition from a group of ceramicists with a quirky indifference to the common perception  of clay objects as primarily functional ~ I especially liked 's huge manic moths making the wall a vast insect box. Due to gales floods and general elemental mayhem the opening night was unusually sparse but you've got till 8th March to see this delightful show. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Memories are made of this

The Full Monty, a Sheffield Theatres revival heading for the West End, exposed itself briefly at Theatre Royal Bath en route.  Like its stablemates Brassed Off and Billy Eliot, this heart-string-tugger is given heart only by its context: the economic plight of northern working classes in the 1980s. Trumpeting, dancing, stripping ~ just different ways to highlight the poignancy of the mens' emasculation when their jobs and entire way of life were axed by Thatcher.

Located among the abandoned steel-factories of Sheffield, with a fantastic set to evoke that mighty dereliction, the wider context of this structural dismantling is sketched in with Job Club banter and individual domestic crises as Gaz (Kenny Doughty) rounds up his recalcitrant Chippendales. The finale of this tale of a motley crew who “thought we could make a bob or two by taking us clothes off” is the literal 'reveal', the route via gags rather than dramatic tension. 
Directed at a somewhat stately pace by Daniel Evans, there's a strong male cast ~ standout performances from Roger Morlidge as fat Dave, Simon Rouse as dapper Gerald, and especially Craig Gazey as Lomper the thwarted suicide.  After the interval the pace hots, and the ladies of Bath went as wild as the Sheffield wives as the climax approached. Overall more sentimental than raunchy, but often very funny and the soundtrack is great.
And finally...  Like a genteel 19th Century dinner-party hostess I generally avoid reference to politics or the weather on my blog ~ facebook's the place for those tirades ~ but as England literally submerges here's a blog from campaigner Jane Young that sums it all up, and an image of the A361 across Somerset.  Lest we forget, though looks like we'll have till May to etch the memory of this winter,
When disabled people can’t get suitable housing, we have no money. 
When we need accessible public transport, we have no money. 
When poor families can’t afford both food and heating, we have no money. 
When people who appeal an incorrect “fit for work” decision need money to live on while their decision is “reconsidered”, we have no money. 
When those who care 24/7 for family members are penalised financially simply to remain in their homes, we have no money. 
When A & E departments are under severe strain and sick people are waiting hours even to get into the hospital, we have no money. 
BUT when homes in middle England are flooded, money’s no object and we’re suddenly a wealthy country.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Every end a new beginning

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” ~ Cesar A Cruz, poet & activist

Final compilation of feedback for Media Monsters, which had its last night at Alma Tavern Theatre on Saturday, showed thought provoking was the most frequently-used phrase on the forms (which will all be archived on the website of our production company Stepping Out Theatre.) Gratifyingly, this was often paired with comments like 'very funny' and 'great one-liners'. Our audiences drove through monsoon rain and lagoon-like roads to pack the theatre, clap and cheer our cast, and tell us their evening was amazing, terrific, and very entertaining: the performances fantastic and powerful, the direction inspired and imaginative, and the writing first-rate, intelligent, insightful, and truly talented.  
And now, suddenly, it's over. I'm going to quote our director's fb status again:
 "What a great farewell to MEDIA MONSTERS. It's been the best ride, EVER!! And onwards..... Xxx"
Ian McEwen talking about the stage adaptation of The Cement Garden said he found it strange to see someone else's imagining of the world he created, "but you realise you're just watching one of the infinite number of possibilities." Which is also true even when the story was written expressly for staging, and I've been inexpressibly privileged to watch the unique imaginings of this terrific team.  Paddy, Livi, Vincent, Bob, Marc... missing you already.

Martin Dimery brought his one-man show Shakespeare Rattle & Roll to Coopers Hall as a Frome Festival fund-raiser, en route to his next performances at Leicester Square Theatre Lounge.  Martin is a hugely talented singer/musician and wicked parodist as well as knowledgeable about the bard, so you can learn about Shakespeare's life, plays, and use of iambic pentameter as well as enjoying his songs and sonnets as sung by a range of performers from Elvis and Bob Marley to George Formby and Ray Winstone. Some ~ like the Sex Pistols version of the witches chant from Macbeth ~ are hilarious, some poignant, and the John Lennon version of Feste's song Hey, ho, the wind and the rain is simply beautiful.

Final footnote: a glimpse of Frome Library on Saturday for National Libraries Day. High winds meant the market outside was cancelled, but there was hot coffee & cake in the foyer with songs & stories in the childrens' section all morning.