Saturday, October 18, 2014

Kate's progress... and a bit about Elizabethan days, and recycling.

Toppings Booksellers is renowned for author events, usually held in their friendly bookshop at the top of Broad Street in Bath. But so many people booked to hear Kate Tempest read from her newly published poetry collection Hold Your Own on Wednesday, the event was transferred to Christ Church, where every pew was crammed. ‘You’re packed in like sardines!’ said the cheerful vicar. Kate, unchanged by fame (she sensationally scooped the 2013 Ted Hughes poetry award and is tipped to take the Mercury prize this year) is slightly worried about performing in a consecrated space. 'In my poems there’s a lot of language’ she confides.  ‘No problem’ yells the cheerful vicar from the back. Kate opens with her longest piece, the story of Tiresias. Her version is a mix of savagely authentic Greek myth and contemporary street wisdom, with resonance for everyone who's ever had to realise that all you've known / is now / no longer enough. That notion of stoic survival continues through poems of childhood, womanhood, manhood, and blind profit.  Right at the end, Kate goes off-script. “These are dark times" she says, "You can feel so powerless. The only thing that has any worth is how you treat other people." And for her last performance Kate mounts the pulpit to deliver a passionate rap against media-led society (take a look at Progress in your copy of Kate's must-buy book) and when she ends she seems slightly shocked that all of the four hundred people in front of her have risen to their feet to applaud.

Leaping back in time to 1558: the hopes of England are pinned on a young queen and Living Spit have run out of historical characters who look like Howard Coggins and raised their theatrical bar: characters who in no way look like either him or his partner-in-parody the marvellous Stu Mcloughlin who, let's face it, doesn't look like anyone. After their brilliant Henry VIII and Winston Churchill interpretations, the dynamic duo are back with a reconstruction of the Elizabethan era that delivers the usual mix of hilarious absurdity and surprising poignancy. Elizabeth I virgin on the ridiculous played to sell-out audiences in Bristol and came to Bath's nice little Rondo theatre this Friday. With a mix of history lesson ("dear diary, thanks for being such an excellent tool for barefaced exposition" drools Lizzie into her Barbie notebook), vulgar & anachronistic comedy, morose metatheatrical banter and brilliant guitar-accompanied songs, Stu and Howard create the intrigues and thrills of those extraordinary times when a virgin queen survived every external control to assert her right to reign. And when you're done laughing, that sad existential question still lingers: How can I be Queen of England and not actually get anything I want?

Back in Frome I've been learning about plastic ~ specifically, that our town is the home of Protomax, world leaders in recycling waste into plastic panels that can be made into whatever you want from stylish tables to commercial hoardings. If you're thinking you don't need any hoardings and you prefer wood for furniture thankyou, you might like to ponder on the fact that the 25 million boards currently used each year are currently chipboard and therefore, like all exterior wood, treated with toxic preservatives which mean they can't be recycled and have to go to landfill. A fascinating talk from managing director Mark Lloyd at the Old School House on the uses and potential of this machinery, including emergency housing in disaster areas. Every town should have one of these factories!
And congratulations to Frome film makers Bargus, winners of Salisbury's '48 hour challenge' Shoot Out  with The Tenth Muse, a psychological thriller written by Nikki Lloyd which will be shown at the Westway at November's Independent Film-makers night. Looks spooky, sounds scary and sensational!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"The future is there, looking back on us."

Frome Poetry Cafe on Monday: a dreich night illuminated by two fabulous guest poets and some delightful readings from the floor.
Stephen Boyce and Rosie Jackson both shared some newer poems as well as reading from their published work. Rosie's newly published collection what the ground holds is full of intimate observational moments ~ the indigo scar of coal dust lovingly caressed, the long one-breath kiss of airport reunion ~and paired beautifully with Stephen's anthologies: Desire Lines and The Sisyphus Dog, which also craft small personal moments, small and vivid as the dab of red his father pointed out to him in Constable's Haywain, to take us directly into the awesome landscape of private life. Appreciation to our open-mic readers, too, for a delightfully varied contributions, including Norman Andrews' moving memory of a childhood harvest in the blitz when a burning spitfire spiralled into the field and he saw that the pilot whose uniform still smouldered on the stubble/ wore a woollen jumper sent to him/ by one of the million women who knitted/ so that our boys would always die warmly. 

Bulgaria. It's that place that 'sounds like it's part of Russia, but it's bloody Paradise ~ the sun, the beach, and if you're not bollocksed by lunchtime you're not on proper holiday.' Or maybe it's the place where everyone is lazy and officials aren't supposed to make decisions, they're supposed to take bribes. Tom Philip's absorbing panoramic play Coastal Defences acknowledges both clichés, the Brit tourist and the jaundiced Bulgarian, and explores an aspect most of us know less about ~ the months of peaceful protests in 2013 and 2014 against a coalition government which allows poverty and corruption to keep everyone in 'a space that floats between East and West.' Tom is clearly fascinated by this land and its people, but there's enough distance from the issues to maintain the drama of the central stories of longing, hopes and fears, of the diverse characters we meet, all vividly evoked by Jill Rutland, Nic McQuillan, and Chris Bianchi. A superbly sparse set by Rosanna Vize sets the scene with roses and a dominant emblem of corporate power.  There's plenty of humour, but with a situation this close to reality inevitably pain and loss too, although ~ the writer suggests ~ maybe more understanding can bring respect for the natural beauty of the Black Sea coast and appreciation of the ancient culture of Sofia. On at the Brewery in Bristol till Saturday 18th as part of the autumn season of new writing from Theatre West, worth seeing.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Meeting of Minds and other ephemera

Black Swan Arts is currently hosting an Frome Art Society's annual exhibiton, aptly titled Diversity in acknowledgement of the range of talent, subject, and media ' from delicate watercolours to bold acrylic, detailed pencil drawings to impressionistic oils'. You can vote for your favourite, which gives my inner child great glee, and I chose Meeting of Minds by Jules Horn whose website describes her process: Albert Einstein said that there are two ways to live your life – as if nothing is a miracle or as if everything is a miracle. I see miracles, and for me, painting is a way to fully experience the miracle of consciousness.  For me, the act of painting is a meditation – a celebration of life. Every brushstroke is a distillation of the now – when I am painting I am intensely in the moment and the resulting work is the physical manifestation of that.  I really like that notion. The show's on till October 25th.

It was World Mental Health Day on Friday and Frome's Cheese & Grain was filled with stalls and events to raise awareness and events to promote feel-good activities from belly-dancing to acupressure treatments with free samples by Viv from Massage Theories. As well as information on specific issues like dementia or depression, groups like Fair Frome Food Bank and Mendip Community Credit Union were there to talk about local support available. All serious & important stuff, but the ukulele band and free soup & cakes gave the whole place a great party atmosphere.
A very valuable event, congratulations to all.

And I can't, obviously, omit to mention the big event of the weekend for me and Rosie: our autumn double-bill for Nevertheless Productions at Cornerhouse Frome, Crossed Wires.  The main play Champagne Charlotte is a bitter-sweet and intimate study of a mother-daughter relationship set in a home for the elderly and audiences found it emotionally affecting as well as deeply thought-provoking. Brilliant acting from Sara Taylor and Kerry Stockwell maintained a constantly shifting empathy in Rosie's absorbing, ultimately redemptive, script.  My curtain-raiser Muffin Man is slighter but fitted our theme as it's also an awkward encounter with a happy ending. Ross Scott and Fleur Hanby Holmes perfectly found the mixed vibe of banter and insecurity in their characters.  Here's some of the audience feedback ~ you can see it all on our Nevertheless page ~
It was fantastic! I could relate to the second performance as my granny is in the same predicament ... Great scripts, witty and poignant in equal measures, and lovely actors ... Well matched double-header, both entertaining, second thought-provoking ... Very well acted and perceptive, sharp scripts ... Very genuine and real ... The plays were both funny and touching. Very good, thought provoking  ... Fun – well written, poignant. Entertaining and innovative ... Though-provoking – well paced – audience aware ... FAB! ... Loved it – multilayered fun ... GREAT! Really enjoyed both ... Enjoyable and thought-provoking, sensitively acted ... Very clever and entertaining ... Enjoyed both plays ... Very thought-provoking ...THANK YOU ALL FOR A GREAT NIGHT!
~ and here's Frome's Comedy Czar Tim O'Connor handing over the trophy for best comic script submitted to the festival competition. (Yes I know I posted it before, but it's inscribed now.)

Friday, October 10, 2014


Listen up, because this is an interim blog. I'm interrupting normal service with an important announcement: if you have a chance to get to Bristol before 25th October I urge you to go see Dead Dog In The Suitcase at Bristol Old Vic. Why? because it's fabulously staged, imaginatively political, wittily evocative and darkly provocative, and you'll miss a real feast of physical & musical theatre if you don't go see this fabulous Kneehigh production. The Beggar's Opera is the accredited inspiration for this dramatic fantasy, but along with the ska & songs culled from the edge of existence you'll find vibrations & evocations from fairy stories and greek myths, Shakespearean tragedies and classic movies, and even a bit of Boyce & Marlene from Only Fools...  but as the cast warn us in their opening song, look closer and you might recognise, this world is no different from your own...  And by the climactic end, which I wouldn't dream of spoiler-ing, you'll be cheering this amazing cast and production team as wildly as we all did. Oh, the puppetry is great too.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Drama from Salisbury to Bath, via Uganda (and Frome)

Salisbury's version of Boston Tea Party coffee house is an amazing Grade-1 listed building dating back to the early 1300s and it was here in an upstairs room that Crossed Wires gave its premier performance for the Salisbury Fringe last weekend. An audience of more than sixty crammed between the medieval pillars to watch our twin tales of difficult relationships eventually resolved, and donated generously on their way out (thanks, guys!) After a quick celebratory glass in the astro-turfed garden of the delightful Kings Head (15th Century) Rosie and I scooted on to Castle Street Social Club to listen to the script-in-hand readings from Juno Theatre: five 'short plays inspired by famous women' ~ listening rather than watching, as the actresses were largely invisible from the back seats. Outstanding in this quintet was Glad Tidings by Lesley Bates, an encounter between a feminist angel and reluctant recipient of the annunciation ("If He wants to talk surrogacy, it'll cost..." "He doesn't DO money!" "Well then I don't DO pregnancy.") ~ enjoyably entertaining but also making subtle points about women's roles and male expectations. I also liked Martine Shackerley-Bennet's short witty piece Heady Days, a kind of dark Alice-in-Wonderland beheaded-foe croquet game between Queens Elizabeth and Mary.

In 2002 Joe Douglas, aged 18, went to Uganda for his gap year and began a relationship that cost him £20,000, much angst and many growing pains, and resulted in a show called Educating Ronnie which won an Edinburgh Fringe First award and came to Merlin Frome on Wednesday. Joe tells his own story direct to audience in disarmingly frank style: he's 30 now but it's difficult to gauge to what extent he's acquired a full grasp of the wider perspective in this not-unfamiliar tale of an emotional response to economic gulf.  Ronnie's emails appealing for a chance to thrive, or simply survive, veer from heart-rending to manipulative, and Joe's story is at its most affective & theatrically effective when he loses confidence in himself as selfless sponsor and feels the pain of anyone in a collusive, emotionally abusive, relationship.  There's a happy ending of sorts ~ Joe is back on even keel with Ronnie ~ but it's up to you whether you leave the theatre feeling he was a hero or a mug, or both, or maybe just angry shame at the massive inequality that defined the friendship between these two young men in such inevitably unequal terms. Michael John McCarthy's excellent sound design enhanced this macrobert production.
The Memory of Water is such a stunning script it would be impossible not to enjoy a production of this tragi-comedy by Shelagh Stephenson about three sisters re-meeting for their mother's funeral. Acerbic and succinct, the dialogue veers from laugh-out-loud to pin-drop poignant, and Bath Drama relished the opportunity to bring this superb piece to the Rondo. As the sisters bicker about their reminiscences, their memories dissolve and erode their chosen adult personas: the high-flyer faces hidden pain, the romancer hits realism, and the practical one downs a bottle of whisky and lets fly her lethal resentments. Memory, its power and its unreliability, is the theme that beautifully and thought-provokingly links these women to each other and to us: Can you feel nostalgia for something that never existed? Mary asks, and wonders if it's true that water can retain a memory of substances long after there's no discernible trace of them ~ the theory of homeopathy, her elder sister Teresa's business, which is also affected irrevocably by the deluge of events in this tumultuous night.  Congratulations to the whole team, especially Mike (Nic Proud) and Mary, played superbly Alexia Jones at short notice.  On till Saturday 11th.  

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Different strokes

 Frome's literati were off to Bath in droves, or maybe even murmurations, on Wednesday for the launch of a new pamphlet with Poetry Salzburg from Rosie JacksonWhat the Ground Holds. This very successful event was hosted by Knucklebone Poets and included a moving tribute from Lindsay Clarke, novelist and long-time friend, but the high point was Rosie's reading from her collection. Her poems are exquisite, delicate strength created through precise wording and profound feeling. Classic myths glimmer through contemporary experiences, and the ordinary becomes unfamiliar and scarred with legend. And the attention to detail, in lichen or wild rhubarb, reminds me of Blake's words: to see a world in a grain of sand.. hold infinity in the palm of your hand. Beautiful.

Told by an Idiot  arrived at Bristol's Tobacco Factory last week with their Young Vic production My Perfect Mind, "a comic tale of a man not doing King Lear." As you might guess from the tagline, it's about as meta-theatrical as a piece of theatre can get without dissolving into ~ in the words of Edward Petheridge ~ "slapdash and pretentious at the same time, like something at the Tate Modern." Using the actor's (true) experience of travelling to New Zealand to play King Lear but suffering a stroke instead, the action plays around with Shakespeare's lines and the notion of kingly folly and thespian ambition in an amiably absurd way. Much of the show is very funny ~ and Paul Hunter, playing everyone from Lear's psychiatrist to Laurence Olivier, is sublime ~ but a lot of the audience laughter is inevitably that half-smug, half-relieved mirth that comes from being able to recognise the reference and 'get' the gag. But if you know your Lear and enjoy in-jokes, it's a great show.

Looking ahead in Frome: Rosie Jackson is one of the guests at the next Poetry Cafe on Monday 13th, along with Stephen Boyce who recently featured in the Winchester Poetry Festival, while CROSSED WIRES ~ the double bill of play by Rosie Finnegan and me ~ will be at the Cornerhouse on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th. (Phone 01373 472042 to save your seat, the list is filling up fast!)
But before that, we're off to Salisbury tomorrow to open the show at the Fringe Festival... more laters. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Autumn season specials

It's Open Studios across Somerset for the 2014 Arts Weeks, a fortnight ending October 5th, with several venues in Frome. There are some interesting local-history installations at the back of 15 Sun Street : here's one of the two big murals by Sally-Anne Fraser using 'stitchery and a variety of techniques to bring outside space to life.' Photo montage is by David Goodman.
Over at the Silk Mill, Annemarie Blake has a wonderfully vibrant and exciting exhibition of paintings from a week spent on site at the Glastonbury Festival, mixing lithography, etching, conté and egg tempera "to capture the energy and atmosphere of this annual temporary city." There's also a lovely portrait of Annabelle Macfadyen, accordionist extraordinaire, doyenne of the Frome Street Bandits, Lady Mayoress and a special friend of mine. Upstairs in the workshops, Amanda Bee has sketches and prints from Cornwall and 'Raggedy' has the usual amazing selection of 'wearable art' for anyone sharing her desire that we should all 'dress like nobody's judging.'

Bath's Rondo has been basking in a Brontë bonanza, staging stories from all three of the emo sisters: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and the least-known Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Rosie and I sallied forth on Saturday to do, not quite the Full Brontë, but at least Emily and Anne. Butterfly Psyche and Livewire theatres have combined their talents to produce a set of impressive adaptations, retaining the 19th Century Gothic melodrama of the writers' imaginations and creating scores of richly-varied characters with just two actors. Alison Campbell was simply superb in the complex tragedy of Wuthering Heights, identifying passionately the longing of every obsessive adolescent to find a lover "more myself than I am." In Dougie Blaxland's faithful interpretation, Alison takes on a couple of Cathys and a Nelly, while Jeremy Fowlds has a brace of Lintons, a Lockwood, and several men whose names begin with H, as the drama unfolds in 90 minutes of compelling storytelling. Truly disturbing ~ I really did dream of ghosts ~ though I'd have liked a sound design with more wuthering (and less Greensleeves) but impressive performances directed by Jazz Hazelwood rightly won huge audience praise.  The final play of this traumatic trio, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was more popular in its day than either of the other novels (though, curiously, suppressed by Charlotte after first publication) and has similar themes of dysfunctional male degeneracy, debauchery and domestic violence,  summed up sadly by stoic suffering heroine Helen Graham "If I had known him better at the beginning, perhaps I would not have loved him at all." Alison Farina adapted this one, teasing out a complex storyline for actors Madelaine Ryan and Tom Turner, directed by Shane Morgan. An impressive achievement all round.
So October is nearly on us, with another autumn special: Salisbury Fringe where Rosie and I will premiere Crossed Wires, our new double-bill for Nevertheless Productions, on Sunday 5th at Boston Tea Party. Rosie's been rehearsing Champagne Charlotte in Salisbury while my actors for Muffin Man spent Sunday at the Cornerhouse, where the show will  run on Friday 10th & Saturday 11th. Ross Scott and Fleur Hanby Holmes are so fantastic in their roles my only worry is they may peak too soon... but they're consummate professionals, so that won't happen! For Frome, call 01373 472042, for Salisbury just show up.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Back in the UK, wassup?

I generally aim to be home in Frome for Carnival, but I wouldn't have missed this last week at Cortijo Romero in the Alpujarras even for the glittering procession of bicycling bees, as I enjoyed such a fiesta of lucent creativity with the self-styled WRITE CLUB. Our sessions each morning and again at twilight produced high-standard pieces imaginative, moving, surprising, and sometimes hysterically funny... 
And between times, there's that beautiful garden to laze in, superb meals, dawn yoga & night dancing, and walks into town to practice our Spanish on charming barmen who with our wine brought platters of equally delicious tapas, charging an incomprehensibly small amount for these delights.
Two fantastic groups back to back feels like a perfect place to press pause on writing courses. After two decades of leading sessions in fabulous venues from Thailand to Chile, including Turkey, Tuscany, France, Spain, Crete, Kythira, Zakynthos and Skyros, I've been privileged to work with some unforgettably wonderful people and hear fresh-minted words ranging from moving and profound to frankly hilarious, constantly amazed at the power of the pen in these ten-minute impromptu pieces.  And now it feels like time to make a change, though I have no idea what that will be. Uncertainty is the fertile ground of creativity and freedom.... step into the unknown and you step into the field of all possibilities.  I heard that Deepak Chopra quote for the first time on Skyros this year and found it synchronicitously affirming of the severance I had already decided.  So my last post about teaching ends with an image from 1994, my very first course in Gümüşlük ~ or rather just after it, when we all went for a refreshing Turkish mud bath.  The good muck of life, giving endless renewal. Thanks a million, all of you, I've learned so much.

Back in the world Forster so aptly epitomised as a place of 'telegrams and anger' I'll avoid comment on the race to self-destruction between war-mongers and planet-abusers, and comment on a more modest literary issue: literary censorship.
"As a writer you have a choice to make – are you going to accept censorship or not?" was Hilary Mantel's response to the fury greeting her latest publication The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
It was hailed by the Guardian as 'unexpectedly funny' and by Maggie's former guru Timothy Bell with a call for a Police Investigation for 'bad taste.' As English PEN, which supports writers across the world penalised for free expression, points out: Lord Bell’s call for the police to investigate Mantel for writing a work of fiction is disproportionate and wholly inappropriate. It's also ironic, since Mantel's work is an imaginary fantasy about someone now dead, that the baron considers this a more appropriate target than distorting data about living people for personal financial gain, as he was found to be doing in 2011. Remember the Bell-Pottinger lobbying scandal three years ago? Just saying.
A bit more serious, I think, is the closure of Exhibit B, a performance designed to raise awareness of the ongoing history of racism. The show, which has already been shown in several European capitals and won 5 stars in Edinburgh, was due to run at the Barbican but a petition of protest from nearly 1500 people claims the content is racist. Only a tiny minority of those protesting will have seen this difficult piece, and I haven't so I don't know either, but I found the statements from the actors (all black) defending their work very convincing.  They met with the demonstrators to plead the integrity of the piece: "We find this piece to be a powerful tool in the fight against racism. Individually, we chose to do this piece because art impacts people on a deeper emotional level that can spark change." But shouting protesters won the day, which I wish was true for much bigger protests for peace and planetary protection, homes for homeless, or equity for the poor and dispossessed.
Anyway, less of all that, it's really good to be home among family and friends, with a new pub theatre production coming up at the Cornerhouse soon - October 10th & 11th are the diary dates to note. Further details after Sunday's rehearsals!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Bus and boat and bus and boat and bus and plane and bus and plane and bus....

Athens Sofitel lounge is usually a midway pause on the homeward journey from Skyros island, the double-ferry, triple-bus trip behind me and only the flight to London and onward train or bus journey southwestwards to go. This time I'm poised for another outward flight as soon as I get back to the UK as, for logistical reasons I won't bore you with, this is the only way I can get to Malaga in time for my next writing course. So in order to arrive fully focussed at the gorgeous venue of Cortijo Romero, I'm checking in with my final posting on the fabulous Atsitsa Bay venue en route, while Greek memories and mosquito bites are both still vivid. 
So many high spots, like the nine mile walk to Skyros town with its labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes with its authentic local nightlife in the bars & tavernas and long beach below the jutting crag covered with sugar-lump buildings, a sickle of sand stretching from the gaudy little harbour right round to Dimitri’s ouzo bar where you can watch the southern rocks darken into violet at dusk. About midway is Juicy Bar, 14 years ago when I first came here the only beach bar with loungers and reed parasols and still a favourite place for mellow music and smoothies and shade. 

Back at the camp the tempo changes again as like Prospero’s isle Atisitsa is full of strange noises: massive drumrolls of thunder & battering downpours that seep into our bamboo huts and turn the red earth paths into muddy moats, and later the swooshing of floods swept from the Magic Circle for Kym Suttle's unmissably fantastic early morning yoga. And there’s music everywhere, Susie’s choir, the ad-hoc guitar-&-keyboard band, Kym’s dance music, discos in the bar and songs around the site. Saturday night resonated to the chords of Richard Wagner at the Greek premiere of Julian Doyle’s movie Twilight of the Gods, an examination of the composer’s quarrel with his erstwhile friend Frederick Nietzsche which lasted until his death, after which the philosopher went “brilliantly and ferociously mad” to quote one of his last utterances before becoming catatonic. 
A week of fascinating evening activities, great food, and a daily saunter down to "20-minute Taverna" for an afternoon swim on the sandy beach there, but for me the main event was the morning and twilight writing workshops held under the pine trees of Marianna's cliff top bar: mutually supportive writers sharing some stunning pieces of work, a real privilege to know you all. 

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Atsitsa... where time beats a different drum

The weekend starts Thursday lunchtime for Skyros courses in Atsitsa so with no evening group tonight I hiked along the coast road to twenty-minute Taverna (misnamed unless you have wheels btw) where below the massive pine tree in the 'Cocktail Bar' there's wifi as well as solid sunshine. It's been quite a week. Since the 2-day journey to arrive here I've led eight workshops with thirteen writers sharing pieces moving, amusing, surprising & delightful, all of them at Marianna's cafe, a venue of almost unsurpassable beauty and constant inspiration.
I was going to say more, about evenings of dancing, a starry walk to the chapel for a melos (impromptu sharing of poetry and song), watching geckos darting through the pine-shadows, fantastic yoga sessions, bamboo huts, camaraderie, and breakfasts, but signal at this charming beach bar is fragile so I'll leave all that till tomorrow, when we walk nine miles across the island to Skyros town. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Rain, rudeness, and hasty packing.

There's a scene in Hay Fever which epitomizes the arrogant ill-manners of the ironically named Bliss family as they compel their four bewildered house guests to play a game of  'In the manner of ' after supper. (Incidentally Felicity Kendal's Judith Bliss offering a flower in a winsome manner was the highlight of the show.) Dysfunctional behaviour dressed up as bohemianism is as close to a storyline as you get from this script, revived by Theatre Royal Bath as a vehicle for Ms Kendal who is simply fantastic as in the central role ~ the rest of the cast, while probably good actors in other roles, couldn't do much to lift this farce about awkward pauses and rudeness which Noel Coward apparently wrote to lampoon some of his acquaintances. "I did the whole thing in three days and I didn't even rewrite" he claimed. A pity he didn't take a few more days and seek a dramaturge: someone with the succinct wit of Oscar Wilde or the good-humour of PG Wodehouse might have helped him create character and story to enhance the ridicule. But the two-tier set is great and so is the lighting and the deluging rain that traps them in a huis clos situation.  Director Lindsay Posner.

No more reports on the southwest scene  for three weeks now as I'm away, heading first to the magical island of Skyros to lead a writing group for two weeks. Here's an eagle's eye view of the little town because I love it so much, but I'll be staying in the bamboo hut camp on the far side ~ with fabulous sunsets but limited internet access. Compensations include sunshine, great meals, meeting old friends and making new ones, yoga, singing and dance, and my final week will be spent in another inspirational environment working with writers: Cortijo Romero in Spain is also without wifi but with added benefits, including gorgeous gardens and a pool, so I guess I'll cope...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Children and animals

Never mind Bill Sykes' irreppressibly friendly dog, any actor mindful of that famous theatrical adage about children and animals would be on a loser with Oliver! especially the energetically exuberant version at Merlin Frome put on by Tri.Art Theatre School after an unbelievably hasty ten days preparation. With a cast so young you'd expect to make concessions to inexperience but none are needed, this is high-quality performance and brilliant entertainment. A fabulous live orchestra helps, and Claudia Pepler's direction maintains thrilling pace as melodrama unfolds through dancing frolics and dark places to a happy ending for the hero. Hugo Fisher is enchanting as Oliver, mesmeric whenever onstage, and you can't imagine a more delightful Dodger than Dillon Berry. Of the slightly-older ones, Ryan Hughes gives camp charm to Fagin and Daisy Weir is impressive as Nancy the loyal lover of psychotic Sykes.  It's on for two more nights, if you're in or near Frome, worth booking.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Up and away... nearly.

In 10 days time I'm off to the fabulous Greek island of Skyros to lead a writing course, then direct to equally-fabulous Cortijo Romero in Spain on a similar mission & I'm unlikely to be online much during these sessions so this week has been pressured, but in a nice way... Rosie and I have been planning our next Nevertheless production: Muffin Man and Champagne Charlotte, a double-bill of our own plays which will premiere in Salisbury Fringe Festival and then come to Frome Cornerhouse for two more nights. Excitingly, my curtain-raiser Muffin Man was the winner  in this summer's Frome Festival comedy play competition, giving me the proud title "Bard of Frome" along with a goody-bag of spoils including honorary membership of Frome Writers' Collective,  and I'm even more thrilled that Ross Scott and Fleur Hanby Holmes are taking on this two-hander. They're both currently knee-deep in other productions  but made time for a run-through so promising I can hardly wait for October...

Also looking ahead, Annabelle and I are planning to take Time Walk, our promenade narration of the story of the earth in a thousand paces, to various venues around the region.  Our first booking has come from the American Museum which has a fantastic garden that will be great for a family-friendly version of our epic voyage. Here's Annabelle enthused by a Rackmanesquely magical wooded dell, and I'm lurking in the Kaffe Fasse exhibition which was put together by Kaffe himself with theatre designer Johan Engels, a marvellous mix of Klimt-like glitz and theatricality with masks and esoteric props.

So is that it? you ask ~ a couple of planning meetings with your bezzy mates & a run-through, a little light packing, and you're 'pressured'? Well no actually, there's a whole flotilla of other projects including my next 70-minute one-act play for Stepping Out Theatre Company, as well as finding time for personal stuff like the Gaza protest march in London and a balloon trip... which was sadly postponed because despite the glorious sunshine there's too much wind... luckily there's always something going on in Frome and this afternoon La Strada was hosting a soiree for Paul Newman's superb drawings, with songs from Sara Vian. Paul finds they 'mainline people to their own memories' ~ call in to see the exhibition upstairs, and you'll see why.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bad Jews and worse Bolsheviks

Stalin's Daughter at the Brewery in Bristol has received so much attention and acclaim the run was extended by three days this week so I thought I ought to go. David Lane imagines Svetlana Alliluyeva telling us the tale of her years of refuge in Clifton in the early 1990s.  Kirsty Cox in Faraway Tree socks & sandals & frock takes the role of the traumatised child of the tyrant, arriving with a caseful of terrible memories and an imaginary friend and addressing her past and present simultaneously. Kirsty's long solo performance is a praiseworthy tour-de-force especially with so many mad / bad /dead and pretend people all inhabiting her room, including a potato man representing her papa. There's a lot about fruit too and some unresolved sexual tension with a green grocer. I think. I was expecting more insight into the historic aspect of the era though.
A fantastic full moon, bloated and dazzling, hung brighter than all the street lights in an indigo sky as I drove home. Wonderful.
Bad Jews, the current production at Ustinov Studio in Bath, was inspired when New York writer Joshua Harmon attended a service for 'grandchildren of survivors' that he found 'full of sterile clichés and scarily lacking in genuine feeling.' His response is this moving family-conflict drama. It's a comedy, and exactly the kind of humour you’d expect from Jewish comedy: rapid-fire, acerbic, provocative - and very funny. In fact it's so self-consciously in-your-face Jewish it takes a while to realise that what is at the heart of the story is their ordinary human traits, not their convictions ~ their longings and losses, not their dead grandfather’s chai, a gold medallion with religious & personal significance and the focus of conflict for these three mourning grandchildren. The witty tirades keep you laughing, and sometimes wincing, but at the heart of the story are profoundly important issues about how to deal with, and learn from, the pain of the past ~ which, according to Daphna, is carried for us all by the jews. She's a buzz of vituperative rage with a tongue like a heat-seeking missile especially when she discovers the treasured chai is headed to adorn the gentile neck of her cousin Liam's girlfriend. Her exchanges with Melody are relentlessly biting: 'Where did your family come from?' Daphna asks, eyeing her like a puff-adder watching a frog, and when the artless girl answers 'Delaware', she lashes her with American history before rephrasing 'So, where did your family come from before they came to Delaware to perpetrate genocide?' Liam is Daphna's main challenger, returning fire with equal passion, enraging her with his 'Bad Jew' identity and his contempt for 'the Chosen People talk', but he finds her Nazi code of tribal purity indefensible and identifies the flaw: 'You sound like someone who’s never been in love.' And it's quiet Jonah, we discover at the end, who represents a more private and personal way to deal with the past.
I haven't a single quibble with this marvellous production. It's directed by Michael Longhurst, Ilan Goodman as Liam and Jenna Augen are riveting in the lead roles, with Joe Coen's  Jonah and Gina Bramhill as Melody giving strong support.  The set (Richard Kemp) is excellent, and lighting (Richard Howell) and sound (Adrienne Quartly) deserve a mention too. So that's it. Take five stars, everyone.