Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Scandal and sensibility

It was an age of pantaloons and powdered periwigs, macaronis and mantuas, so what has Sheridan's The School for Scandal to offer in the modern world?
 SATTF's clever, funny, production for Tobacco Factory Theatres picks out a link with the slanderous sensationalism of our twittering society from the opening moments, with a smart-phone selfie in the introduction to this pantomime of manners which sees reputations shredded over teacups for the entertainment of trivial minds and the sanctimonious are secretly scurrilous self-seeking hypocrites. As well as glints of modernity, like the payday loan interest rates, the prologue and epilogue underline the Shakespearean dramatic tradition, with themes of sibling subterfuge and characters hiding their true identity.
It's a moral farce brimming with louder-than-life personalities, and a strong cast jostles with stand-out performances: Lord and Lady Teazle (Christopher Bianchi and Daisy Whalley), Sir Oliver and his reprobate nephew (Chris Garner and Jack Wharrier), Byron Mondahl in 'ugly sister' persona as a dandy Benjamin Backbite, and Fiona Sheehan's delightful Mrs Candour.
Terrific direction from Andrew Hilton maxes the in-the-round staging  ~ as when the audience become the paintings when Charles cheerfully sells his ancestors to his disguised Uncle Oliver. Once the establishing scenes are done, the play becomes a succession of highlight scenes: the young reprobates' Riot Club style party, the Teazles having a major domestic behind brittle smiles, and the trio of gossips spinning a catherine wheel of fabricated revelations around an attempted seduction made farcically public. Emma Bailey's costumes are gorgeous and the minimalist set keeps action fast-paced. Another don't-miss goodie from Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory.  



Monday, April 13, 2015

Forth and back: unblocked writers, time travel, and electioneering Frome-stylee

Cheltenham Spa on Saturday sparkled in sunshine with pink blossom floating dreamily, mythic sculpture, (that's a hare and a minataur in somewhat intimidating-looking embrace on the Promenade) lively busking and even a small carousel, all confounding all my expectations of a stiff, horsey, kind of town. I was there to reunite with a writers' group which formed after sharing a weekend course at The Grange six years ago and still meets twice a year, members converging from all over the UK. It was delightful sharing an afternoon session with this friendly quintet which clearly thrives through a supportive ethos as well as great writing - and there's room for two more in their scribing circle so if that could be you, contact organiser Claire via a comment on her fascinating travel blog.

A superb day on Friday too, as Annabelle and I took several families on our cosmic Time Walk, telling the story of earth in a thousand paces. Here we are in costume in the superb gardens of the American Museum in Bath where despite distractions from primroses and birdsong, and an inquisitive rabbit, the children were encouragingly fascinated and charmingly responsive.  Even though the dinosaurs did take nearly four and a half billion years to reach, and disappeared forever a few paces later.

Back in Frome on Sunday, Democracy Day began ~ late afternoon, in fact ~ with a massive meeting with all five parliamentary candidates at Cheese&Grain and ended with a party for IfF ~ independents for Frome ~ candidates standing for council election. Following four successful years since the indies supplanted the party-politicians, and with nationwide interest in how they did it (see Flatpack Democracy) it's vital to maintain, and boost, support.

As this is Frome, music and creativity is inevitably involved, with Al O'Kane telling the story of IfF policies in a brilliant song which Howard Vause has made into a fabulous must-watch video. Live music from Al too, fresh from the Lamer Tree Music Awards final, with Tess Wakeling and Fasian Al'fasir Fharrad Farrer. Talent practically oozing out the walls - which revellers found on leaving were illuminated by more than moonlight...

I'm concluding this post with Poldark (which I don't watch) on the specious pretext that adulation of (insert lascivious adjective of your choice) Aidan Turner means a second series, and it's produced in Bristol. As was the brilliant Being Human (which I did watch) in which Aidan did for vampires what Colin Firth did for wet shirts with frothy cuffs. For a  bite-size chunk of Poldark action, click here. (spoiler alert, it's a spoof. Very funny too.)

Monday, April 06, 2015

... now that April's there ...

Frome is fashionable for its quirky independent coffee-houses ~ Garden Cafe, River House, Crocker & Wood and Divas to name but a few ~ so you'd expect a frisson of disapproval at the sudden arrival of a chain in our central precinct. A bit like a duck flying into a cattery, perhaps. But the Cordero Lounge, combining cafe with restaurant and bar, opened last week with no dissident voices raised at the massive launch party. This new venue is a tardis, its deceptively short frontage extending endlessly on two levels, both with glamorous decor and lighting. Looks set to be a great addition- especially on Independent Market day when streets overspill with sellers, customers, and the simply curious.
This Sunday we didn't match the density of last month's gridlock, to general relief, so it was far more pleasant browsing the vast selection of stalls, with live music from Frome FM and local writers on the Frome Writers' Collective stall.
Sara Vian with Shehzad Abbas played at the Archangel in the afternoon and Words at the Black Swan poetry group met to write in response to the amazing work of local artists aged 10 to 18 in the Young Open exhibition.
More music to end the day from the monthly Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse ~ exceptionally good, with several local musicians joining Simon Sax's quartet.
The long weekend of Spring concludes for most of Frome ~ and for much of the southwest too, from the standstill traffic  ~ with Mells Daffodil day.  Mells is only three miles from the town, so the easiest way to visit is on foot through Vallis Vale,  a beautiful walk on the first really warm day of the year as the path follows the river past moss-thick banks shining with celandine, with wild garlic already beginning to scent the air.
The bucolic sounding name of this event is misleading: there are daffodils on the banks of the village, true, and a sprinkling of morris men, but the streets are stiff with stalls and the fields filled with all the paraphernalia of festival: fairground, beer tents, bands, portaloos...  Entry between these two sections is through the graveyard via a slit in the wall only wide enough for one at a time, and it was impressive to see the English politeness of people queuing on both sides as they negotiated with those equally desirous of moving in the other direction. Apart from those who leapt over the church wall, of course.
And Frome Writers' Collective has, amazingly, completed its first year as a support group for all things writerly in the town. The informal monthly meeting upstairs at the Three Swans, saw a (semi)formal handover of The Chair, from Tighe O'Connor to Sue Watts, among other activities like creating a mayoral chain out of haiku.
I'm ending this post with a picture from Stourhead Gardens, just because I like it.  Just another reason at this time of year to always look on the bright side of life...

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lifting the lid off the Psych ward, and a sunny afternoon in London


Standup poet Rob Gee brought his multi-award winning show FRUITCAKE to Frome on Friday for a very successful "Poetry Platter" event at the Merlin, with an appreciative audience on the stage simultaneously enjoying Keren's amazing suppers and Rob's rapid-fire insights and 'commandments from the Psych Ward.' The material for his performance, all taken directly from Rob's experience as a psychiatric nurse in acute wards, is preposterously funny but also moving, shocking sometimes, and always delivered with genuine compassion for anyone who at some point in their lives finds themselves "knitting with one needle.""
Rob has no respect for the pharmaceutical industry and makes no judgement on those who explore alternative self-medication: "It is a point that we're not meant to be toxic-free, that's why the good lord gave us pleasure receptors, and livers."

A great finale to a busy week for me, with a reunion trip to metropolis which included among other treats Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre,  a brilliant evocation of the life & times of four lads from Muswell Hill with 'a certain unwashed je ne sais quoi' who came to be known as the Kinks. The actors, especially slumbrous-eyed John Dagleish as Ray and George Macguire as crazy brother Dave, are also fantastic musicians, and as our seats were unexpectedly upgraded from budget balcony to front stalls, we were right in the party atmosphere at the finale, when the entire audience rose to their feet to clap along and dance.










And, three minutes walk away, here's the current incumbent of the 'fourth plinth' of Trafalgar Square: it's Gift Horse by artist Hans Haacke (not sure why Greater London Authority specifies that Hans Haacke is an artist, maybe they fear tourists will one of the Queen's stable failed to win at the Derby and was hoisted up there to starve.) The interesting thing about this installation is that the ribbon on the horse's leg is a live ticker connected to the London Stock Exchange 'completing the link between money and history'.
 I had my own sunny afternoon atop that plinth once, as part of Anthony Gormley's One and Other project.  It doesn't seem like six years ago, but it was. I recited & read poems, mine and other peoples', for an hour and had an absolutely thrilling time ~ my blog entry the next day (July 19, 2009) brings it all back, and among the lovely comments from friends and strangers there's a link to my One&Other webpage, archived forever, with 139 little <3s. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The FWC blog hop edition!

Frome Writers Collective is one of those collaborative initiatives Frome seems to do so well, with regular meetings at Three Swans and a lively core group organising trips and other events for the writers, illustrators, editors, and publishers who have all joined. I'm privileged to be an honorary member, and very happy to support their Blog Hop (thanks Piotr for nominating me). So this posting will use as focus the five interview questions:

1. My genre? I've published both short stories and novels in the past, but now I'm focusing particularly on stage drama, with two long plays and several shorts produced. Currently my work-in-progress is for a Nevertheless Productions Frome Festival 2015 performance  ~  in the Dissenters Cemetery! Here's Rosie Finnegan, company founder & director of this piece, at our last production meeting.  Midsummer Dusk will be performed at twilight by three superb actors, and we think it will be fabulous.
I'm also connected with the poetry scene as organiser of the bi-monthly Poetry Cafe at the Garden Cafe in Stony Street ~ I've had some poems published (2 in Mslexia) and still perform randomly after a brief career as a performance poet (with a few slam wins) but have taken a step back to an organisational role now, as Frome positively brims with brilliant poets like Helen Moore, Rose Flint, Rosie Jackson, and more.
And I run the monthly Words at the Black Swan workshop, an open group meeting on the first Sunday of each month 3-4.30 in the gallery to respond to the current art exhibition. Next one April 5th, responding to the Young Open, which has some stunning images.
And linking poetry with drama, brilliant stand-up poet Rob Gee agreed to bring his award-winning one-man show FRUITCAKE to Frome's Merlin on March 27th. Not to be missed!
So in short, my writing life is a mix of doing it and working with other people who're doing it. Perfect.

2  Current projects?  As well as the play for Nevertheless Productions, I'm co-scripting a piece which will be performed by Annabelle Macfadyen, initially in the garden of the American Museum in Bath and later in Frome. Time Walk is basically the story of the whole of life in the last 4.6 billion years... massive research required but all fascinating. We performed a version in the festival last year and are now busily updating with recent cosmic research.
I also review for Plays International, which involves enjoying great productions at Theatre Royal Bath, Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory, Salisbury Playhouse ~ and of course at our own Merlin Theatre. My first responses are posted in my blog, then the best are combined for my column. And I count this blog itself as a writing project too ~ my aim is to show all the amazing creative stuff that goes on in Frome!
3 Jack London once said "You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club." Which may be true, as long as you don't stun it senseless, but in my experience of working with writers on creative courses for nearly 20 years, the problem is more likely to be self-doubt than lack of enthusiasm. Most writers have a severe self-critic, ready to whisper negatively whether they do write ('that's terrible prose!) or don't ("see, you've run out of ideas already!")  Negotiating with that inner voice is key: persuade it to let you originate freely, and then invite it back later to edit. Fay Weldon explains more in her essay Harnessed to the Harpy in the Penguin collection The Agony and the Ego (recommended for fiction writers, orderable from Hunting Raven Books)
4 When bored with staring at a blank page...  actually I can't help there, as writing to me has since childhood been as enticing as Black Magic to a chocoholic. I'd suggest going for a walk ~ but take a notebook. And of course, a creative writing course (like the ones on Skyros or in Andalucia) never fails to inspire...
5  My personal favourite place to work is anywhere I can take my laptop ~ cafes in Frome like the River House, Divas, the Garden Cafe. At home I've got a study which has sunset views. And I always, always, always carry a notebook.

So, on to the next FWC member to share their modus operandi.  Do take a look at the web page of Alison Clink, founder of the Frome Festival short story contest, prolific & much published short story writer, and now memoirist, whose book The Man Who Didn't Go To Newcastle is about to be launched. This immensely moving tribute to her brother combines pathos with humour and gives insight, as her publisher promises, "into what happens when ordinary lives are faced with the extraordinary."


Footnote to this somewhat patchwork posting: Bristol theatre company Show of Strength teamed up with Wells Festival of Literature on Saturday to offer twelve short plays in 15 shops throughout the day in their 'Trading Local' free theatre event.  FWC member Tim O'Connor was one of the writers, with a very funny monologue located in a flower shop.  I didn't get to see all the plays as I'd spent the morning at Frome's Welshmill Pump Track marvelling at the skill & speed of the bikers (youngest just 5 years old! and the older lads went round like rockets) but the plays I saw were all excellent. Here's David Reakes as Prince Steve, looking for a dance outfit in the sale rail... gentle humour with a powerful & moving subtext. And ~ because it's all theatre too ~ here's a glimpse of the bikers


and some of last week's musical gems: Back Before Breakfast at the Grain bar, and the community choir at Wesley Chapel. Frome really does have it all!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

from Minsk with love... and apples

There's not much I can tell you about The Harvest at Bath's Ustinov studio theatre. Playwright Pavel Pryazhko comes from Belarus, which since the breakup of the USSR still suffers under authoritarian government so it might be a political parody, though it also has enough physical comedy to be an affectionate homage to the silent movies... (Gavin, Smithy, and Stacey could all find jobs in this orchard, one feels.) It could be an imaginary prequel to Waiting for Godot when the tramps were young and had not only work but girlfriends.  Or it may even be a commentary on the disaffection from their landscape of the younger generation, as this quartet seem to find natural actions hard to grasp but are quickly articulate about their allergies and ailments. The reason I can't tell you much, though, isn't analysis but spoilers: it would spike your absolute delight in the clever interaction between the actors and their set and props as their fear of bad apples grows and their attempt to fix the rotten crates intensifies (see point one above).
All I can say is that the four actors ~ Dafydd Llyr Thomas, Beth Park, Dyfan Dwyfor, & Lindsey Campbell ~ are outstanding, the orchard set designed by Madeleine Girling is awesome, Michael Boyd's direction is great, the stage hands deserve a bonus, and a lot of apples were harmed in the making of this story. An hour of zestful fun that sends you home reflective, go see before 11th April. 


Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Riot Club - not very pretty I tell thee, but recommended viewing

They look like Cameron's infamous Bullingdon Club, but they're not ~ that was back in the 1980s, and POSH is set right now, an invented but horrendously-plausible example of the 'dining clubs' at the finishing schools of our ruling classes. Election year is a good time to revive this 2010 Royal Court hit, and this Salisbury/ Nottingham Playhouse coproduction makes a smashing job of it.  Literally, in Act 2.
I saw it on the day Jeremy Clarkson declared himself an endangered species (in his column in the Sun, so not endangered like an anti-fracking protester or a black homeless on Skid Row) which was apt, as that’s how the rich cubs of The Riot Club see themselves: like some kind of rare fox, apparently, hounded by contemptible hoi polloi who invade their stately homes searching for cream teas and question their inherited right to classism, racism and misogyny.  Laura Wade's script is brilliant, inviting us to both laugh and gasp at these barely articulate young men for whom the highest accolade is "fucking savage!" while showing the terrifying power their money & status still claim. Good to see the high-testosterone of the (excellent) cast counterbalanced by an all-female creative team, too.

We meet the dining dectet on the night the toast is "To leave a trail of glorious destruction in our wake" and we follow their high jinks throughout one Hogarthian evening in which revelry consists of excess, abuse, and humiliating forfeits. It's mostly very funny, both in their utterances and their antics (a highlight from Tom Clegg as Toby, force-fed wine into near stupor) but the undercurrent anger bubbles and surfaces after Alistair speaks for them all: "I'm sick to death of fucking poor people" ~  an outstanding performance from Jordan Metcalfe although with his schoolboy Plantagenet haircut he looks about as upperclass as Harry looks like Prince William. And when the swashbucklers have to rejoin the real world, how will they cover their tracks? Well they do what friends do ~ friends in a club like this anyway, where like the Hotel California you can check out but you can never leave. They … oh you’ll have to go and see it. On till April 4th at Salisbury Playhouse. The Salisbury Journal wondered what their "Tory heartland" audience would make of it, but happily the full-house chose to be charmed, rattled their jewellery and cheered. As did I.

Looking ahead to Friday March 27th in Frome, the spring Poetry Platter ~ an event where the audience joins the performer on stage in a bistro-style atmosphere with real food ~ is Fruitcake! Ten Commandments from the Psych Ward, brought to the Merlin theatre by Rob Gee.
Rob, who was featured in The Guardian recently, is a very funny standup poet but his material isn't trivial, and he's one of the leading voices in the current trend of satiric comedy.  This show has won 5-star reviews & awards and the price of a ticket, in terms of artisan coffees which I believe is the going measure of comparison, is a mere two... call 01373 465949 to book.

A small medley of footnotes to this post: The venue with no name at the Wheatsheaf narrowly avoided closure last week, thanks to a hasty facebook petition, allowing MJ & The Rocketeers to live up to their name on Thursday in a great session with even Tainted Love getting the 60s treatment. And as spring teeters in, there's street theatre from Show Of Strength in Wells next Saturday ~ Frome Comedy Club host Tim O'Connor is one of the writers of these short cuts, though sadly there's a clash with the Pump Jam at Welshmill Park that day.

And here's the Pavement Poet in Bath.... an idea for Frome Festival, anyone?

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Ideal Homes are easy when renovating riffraff get glowing...



Radiant Vermin is the new play from Philip Ridley produced by Metal Rabbit & Supporting Wall, currently at the Brewery in Bristol. What can I say? No, I mean, what can I say, without giving away spoilers, about this luminously inventive black comedy. After seeing Vanilla Jungle from the same team ~ and with the same award-winning actress ~ I was avidly anticipating this production and am now trawling the thesaurus like Will Self on speed for appropriately incandescent synonyms to convey how brilliant it is. It's billed as a wickedly comic satire about the housing crisis, and to that I will only add that if Satan and the Tory Government made a game show, it would probably be like this...
Glittering praises deserved by everyone especially director David Mercatali for choreographing the frenetic mime scenes, Gemma Whelan as Jill with her (not-so) passive-aggressive 'Christian values', and Sean Michael Verey as her Rodney-Trotter-ish husband. And when you've stopped aching with laughter you'll still be pondering those disturbing questions about social aspirations and cultural collusion, and why enough somehow is never enough...  Unmissable - and it's only on till Saturday (7 March) so if it's sold out you'll have to go to Soho Theatre to see it there. 

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Another Frome medley

Storytellers can seem like Morris dancers of the spoken word scene, so I was unsure what to expect from Tongues of Flame at Rook Lane but after seeing Miracle Theatre's take on Dr Livingstone's struggle to find the source of the Nile and knowing nothing of maverick explorer Richard Francis Burton who was equally avidly engaged on this quest, I went along to listen & learn from Giles Abbott at Mr Rook's Speakeasy on Thursday. Definitely a good decision.
Giles is a charismatic storyteller, and his extraordinary 90-minute performance created the man and his era in a range of ways: satiric, sensuous, and tragic, as we edged nearer and nearer to a man who shocked the establishment and remained always an outsider but was acknowledged the finest swordsman in Europe,  a man who "took to languages like other men take to drink", whose disguise as a Hakim was so effective he was allowed into the harem, whose observations of Somali female circumcision were censored by his horrified publisher, whose lifetime's notebooks of irreplaceable research into 19th century cultures and communities in India & Araby & Africa were burned on his death by his more conventional wife...  and he never found the source of the Nile.  But what a man! And what a performance. Marvellous.

Still on the subject of one-man shows, Pip Utton brought another driven personality to Frome on Saturday with his speech-from-beyond-the-grave by Maggie Thatcher. As our local paper said, "Frome's Merlin Theatre audiences have grown used to the theatre's associate artist Pip Utton's multiple personalities. Writer and performer Pip regularly metamorphoses into characters from history and the arts, ranging from Hitler to Churchill, from Chaplin to Dickens and more." Playing Maggie, Pip establishes himself as an ambivalent actor rather than his usual impersonation: his male Maggie, in Spitting Image style wig and pearls, is unrepentant but her alter-ego was a child of one of the mining communities she destroyed. "The Britain you wanted is the Britain we've got" is his starting summary to the lady who believed as Creon did in Antigone, 'there has to be someone to take the helm.' A thought that will divide, as the Iron Lady did in life and death.
Among other local news, Captain Cactus & the Screaming Harlots rocked the Grain Bar Roots Session, the cafe then reassembling itself by Saturday's craft market with an exhibition of paintings by Caroline Walsh-Waring, and I discovered a new literary group meeting  on the last Friday of each month 1.30-3.00 at Frome library. It's open to all so go along if you fancy a bit of reading & discussion ~ we were looking at some of Seamus Heaney's poems, one of which revealed he saw himself as a "wood-kerne", a lovely word which means an ancient Irish soldier, a hunted bandit, firing darts at the English through the forest.

And finally this week, thanks to Chapter & Verse host John Walton at Frome FM for inviting me to talk about performance poetry in general and the marvellous Rob Gee's upcoming visit to the Merlin Theatre (March 27th if you haven't booked yet!) in particular..  Rob came on the show in a phone interview to tell us more about his comedic take on the UK psychiatric system from his experience in the wards as a (reformed)(!) nurse. FRUITCAKE is still booking, so if you want to see why it slayed audiences in the States as a serial award-winner with a galaxy of 5-star reviews, come along. Did I say March 27th at the Merlin? thought so. 7.45, just £5 or a bit more if you book a supper too.