Monday, May 30, 2016

Setting out to Ithika and other marvellous journeys

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Life out of the box

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




Sunday, May 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, May 13, 2016

Great Scott! Time for a May medley

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


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

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Beltane: comedy, theatre, bands & dancing - what else d'you want?

It's been a busy week for artsy happenings in Frome but I'll be as quick as I can. On Tuesday Damian Kingsley's Knock Knock Tour came to the Three Swans en route from Land's End to Edinburgh raising money for Shelter - a great night of comedy which also raised over £300 in audience donations. And Edventure 'community enterprise' training course has come up with the excellent idea of a Free Food Fridge in the market square for donations of surplus fresh food. This initiative has been pioneered in Europe but Frome is the first town in the UK, and the fridge was launched in style by the massed marching musicality of Frome Street Bandits.

Another exceptional Roots Session, if that's not a tautology, at the Grain Bar on Wednesday as Phil King entertained with guitar and shruti box ~ a new experience for me. You can sample his style on Youtube: You know where to find me is one of the tracks of his new album.

Art watch: I tried to go to Jim Cauty's talk about his RIOT TOUR in Bruton Art Factory but sadly it was sold out so I missed the significance of the jam jars in the exhibition. But Bruton is a gorgeous place to visit, anyway just for the views and Bean Shot Coffee.
Closer to home (about 500 yards actually) Rook Lane Chapel has an exhibition of workplace drawings by Lucinda Rogers. mostly from around Frome and ranging from landmarks like the old Lamb Brewery to artisan workshops for crafts like glass-blowing, woodcarving, pottery and baking. There's no hierarchy of value, and the artist's statement praises Frome for being a working town and 'not just a pretty face', adding 'I find the wealth of activity in Frome is very inspiring and worth celebrating'. The exhibition was a backdrop for a concert at the chapel on Saturday ~ pictured singer is Bee from Dexters Extra Breakfast ~  and will stay on for the rest of the month so do take a look if you can.

And now for a little nostalgia. Remember a time when milk came round in pails and the bobby on the beat kept a helpful eye on you? No, me neither, because I also didn’t live in Camberwick Green, but Frome Drama Club brought just such a place to the Merlin stage with their production of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer-prize-winning play Our Town. Grover’s Corners, population 2,462, is in a corner of New Hampshire, and a hundred years ago the talk was not of Trump but trivia: the minutiae of daily life, the choir-masters’ drinking, and how to string beans, all woven together by the playwright to show not only the transience of life but also that “there’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Deceptively innocent at first, this poignantly thought-provoking play makes big demands on the actors, not only in terms of mastering the flat drawl and slow delivery of the North-Eastern provinces but also because Wilder wanted the action to be created through mime so the audience has to imagine everything from moonlit gardens to coffee-cups, milk pails and bouncing balls. It’s a difficult task to make the ordinary seem extraordinary, particularly when it’s mostly not there, so all the cast should be massively commended, especially Django Lewis-Clark with Georgina Littlewood in the key roles of youngsters facing life, marriage, and death together. Laurie Parnell as ‘Stage Manager’ gives us a superb reprise of his narrative role in Under Milk Wood but with an American accent. His role here is to constantly break the theatrical ‘fourth wall’, interrupting the action, summoning other contributors, asking for questions, and generally reminding us we are in a theatre and out of real time. And what is that thing we call real time anyway? You know how it is, you’re 21 or 22 and whoosh, you’re 70. How true.

Maybe it was something to do with Beltane or the bluebells (they're out in the woodlands all around) but it's been a great week for dancing. The Fair Frome Fiesta at Silk Mill on Friday featured three excellent local bands ~ the Wochynskis, the Valley, and fabulous Captain Cactus with his gorgeous Screaming Harlots, whose 'hula-swamp western frontier madness' had us all boogieing.
At the Cornerhouse there was dancing in the purple rain till late on Saturday night with Purple Fish, self-styled 'ultimate rock tribute band' and no argument from me.
Finally: Sunday, being May 1st, was Market Day, pleasantly crowded in the sunshine with the usual amazing array of stalls loaded with sensual delights and quirky artefacts. Archangel had music in the courtyard, and after the market there was a Soul Carnival at the Silk Mill but your correspondent was by now getting a little tired and retired home to see if there's anything on the telly.... ooh good, Big Bang Theory 200th birthday on E4...

Friday, April 29, 2016

Giving Madame Bovary a voice

The tale of an adulterous, profligate, ultimately suicidal, French housewife doesn't sound ripe for comedy, though Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary briefly became a best-seller in 1857 after an obscenity trial. But the Peepolykus creative team ~ Javier Marzan & John Nicholson with director Gemma Bodinetz ~ wanted to 'give a voice' to its inscrutible heroine, so there is some gravitas at the heart of the wild proceedings in their extraordinary, hilarious, clever, magical, production of The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary, currently at Bristol Old Vic. For a summary without spoilers I can't surpass the company's facebook page:
Laugh and cry as Emma Bovary chooses the wrong husband... Lose yourself in mesmeric love scenes featuring devastatingly handsome men... Question the impotence of women in a patriarchal society, if you want... Marvel at how many parts a Spanish man with limited English can play... And of course, some lovely accordion playing.
The 'bijoux' cast comprises Javier Marzan, John Nicholson & Jonathan Holmes playing 20 characters and Emma Fielding playing the wayward heroine. The story opens with couple of rat-catchers on a cart who explain they are a framing device for the story: "Flaubert would be rolling in his grave - with envy, the production values alone would blow his moustache away."
And there you have it - ludicrous liberties with both literature and theatrical convention of this ‘lovingly derailed’ version of a classic tragedy. But she’s complex, this heroine who demands Is it unrealistic to want to be happy? and when events get too funny she stops the play to remind us of this, and the men shuffle contritely like boys at a bun-fight when the teacher gets serious, but then - luckily - they get back to all the crazy stuff again and even the ending is up for grabs as the cast have a quick rethink… Everything is sharp as a jump-cut, scene-changes mostly indicated by chalk scribbles on the near-blank set and costume changes faster than the speed of light. Among other highlights there's a fantastic seduction scene so magical they did it twice and a posh party where Emma is all lit up like a chandelier (literally) as lights whirl and the handsome Marquis scoots around (literally) while dull Doctor Bovary dances with a lobster.  You really should see it for yourself- you have till 7th May.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Poetry and motion, & That anniversary.

Monday's Frome Poetry Cafe was also the launch of Rosie Jackson's superb collection The Light Box at The Garden Cafe. Nearly fifty people, amazingly, found seats or standing room to listen to Rosie reading her acclaimed poems examining love, art and life with precision and passion. The title poem refers to a container for exotic moths, appropriate for these luminous, delicate, personal glimpses. We had an exceptionally good open mic session too, twenty readers including popular regulars, debut performers, and published poets from Bath, Bristol & even London, as surprise visitor Tamar Yoseloff delighted us with her contribution ~ and her comment: "I wish we had an event like this in London."  
Then on Tuesday, another feast of words, as Six Acclaimed Writers read at St James Wine Vaults in Bath. Frome's Claire Crowther is one of this group who meet for 'writers' retreats', as is Tamar (who I first met six years ago co-tutoring on Crete) Sue Rose, Siriol Troup, Anne Berkeley. Joined by Bath's Carrie Etter, their varied voices created a brilliant event, made even more fun by late supper at Rustico Bistro.

Back in Frome there was an interesting mini-residency at the Archangel where Dan Guido, 'abstract expressionist raw self-taught artist' from New York, has taken over the upstairs room and is filling it with raw expressionist abstracts. Dan is immensely friendly & forthcoming: he quotes Kahil Gibran on his bio, paints with tiles, wants to create massive pieces for stage backdrops, and identifies with Jean-Michel Basquiat. If you miss his constantly expanding exhibition this time, look out for his next trip ~ he's already hooked on Frome.
The Archangel Sunday afternoon music session this week featured Amelia Orgill & Steve Driffield, while the Griffin on Saturday night gave us a double bonanza: Backwood Redeemers plus Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots. What a time, you could well say, to be alive... except that both these brilliant band dress the part with dramatic panache so a touch of stage lighting would be appreciated... then I could include some photographs!

And now to Velvet Bottom: I tried to uncover some literary connection as pretext for including my long walk in this magical place of overgrown lead-mines and bluebell woods near Cheddar Gorge, but all google provided was a letter written by Coleridge including the comment 'We visited Cheddar'. Tolkien was allegedly inspired by the gorge when describing Helm's Deep though, and nearby Long Wood Nature Reserve is spookily reminiscent of fantasy landscapes, so that will do.

Finally, it was the big Shakespeare anniversary this week ~ his death this time, 400 years ago, which has been settled on as the same day as his birth rather in the way any religion decides its dates: for convenience in the absence of actual records. The only recorded fact is that it followed a heavy night of drinking. Personally I think we should instead have honoured the 390th anniversary of the extraordinary writer of the plays credited to 'Shakespeare' on April 9th, when Frances Bacon died. If you think this is the stuff of conspiracy theory, read The Shakespeare Myth and the Stratford Hoax, a convincing and succinct summary by Walter Ellis printed 1937.  Like others since (including Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, John Gielgud, and recently Mark Rylance), Mr Ellis feels that rightful credit is suppressed by the Stratford industry ~ the catchpenny show-shop, he calls it, though it's a multi-million business now. Thanks to my brother Pete for sending me this pamphlet and reminding me of childhood conversations with my father, an erudite supporter in the Bacon camp.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

When living costs the earth... (creativity is still free)

Who owns the land we live on? It's a question that begs another: how land can be 'owned' anyway? ~ aboriginal cultures believed the land owns its people ~ and Salisbury is a good place to raise it.  The developments on Solsbury Hill are still a raw memory (in 2000 I workshopped a community drama about the hill's history and the road protest was vividly recalled), objections to plans for nearby Stonehenge rumble on, and now of course there's fracking...
This Land is a powerful and thought-provoking drama from Pentabus with Salisbury Playhouse which has arrived near the end of its two-month tour at the theatre of its coproducers, and will play in their Salberg Studio till the end of the month.
To avoid preaching, playwright Siân Owen has created a central story around a rural couple whose relationship is struggling for ordinary reasons so the arrival of the drilling rigs becomes a metaphor of their fracturing relationship, but though this mundane strand becomes slightly laboured, the time-shifts which span over a thousand years are strongly imagined and often very funny. Rosie Armstrong and Harry Long, taking on every role from 800BC to 2216AD,  are particularly good in these cameos, superbly switching personalities with minimal costume change. Set, sound, & lighting also support the concept brilliantly - literally, as drilling begins. The show's tour continues until 6 May ~ check it out, it's well worth seeing even if you don't need reminding that the earth does not belong to us, we borrow it from our children. Image Richard Stanton.
Back in Frome, the Art Society Spring Exhibition has opened in Black Swan Arts gallery, presenting a wide variety of subjects & styles & with postcards for sale. Artist & trustee Paul Newman awarded the Vera Skinner prize to this small wetland landscape called Two in a boat because he found it so intriguing... congratulations Carol Symon.
And as well as the Archangel Sunday afternoon session ~ a terrific set from Nicky, Vikki, & Griff ~ we had live music on Saturday too, al fresco, courtesy of our two Vinyl & CD record stores: Rivers of England (two of the nonet anyway) pitched in Cheap Street for Raves from the Grave, and outside Covers on Catherine Hill, the White City Shakers Old Time String Band entertained passers-by, including a strikingly good harmonica player who whipped out his instrument, grabbed the mic, and joined in. So here they are ~ which one's which is, I hope, self-evident...