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 Gemaa 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...

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Times a'changing...

Down in the tunnels below Bristol Temple Meads station something dramatic is happening. Tobacco Factory Theatres Beyond is staging the In Your Face Theatre production of Trainspotting. "I was shocked, and I wrote the fucking thing" Irvine Welsh is quoted as saying when he saw it in Edinburgh last year. But he wrote it in the '90s, about the '80s, so maybe times have changed. If you remember the novel and/or the equally controversial movie with the sensational soundtrack, you won't be surprised that the plot is basically the same as the 'advisory notes' on the flyer: "nudity, drug use, sexual violence and very strong language throughout". Key scenes are all there, shockingly gross & funny & frightening & tragic, and a seven ferociously talented young actors evoke the principal characters: psycho Begbie, sweet Sick boy, sexy Gail, and Mark Renton as narrative voice for a disaffected subculture which impinges, like the flying poo, on everyone else too. ("I was going to wear these jeans tomorrow," I heard one bespattered man mutter on the way out.)
This is high-definition 'in-your-face' theatre, with audience members inches from the action and likely to be sat on, spat at, sprayed, poked or slurped at random. But however vulgar or violent, the graphic cameos are not gratuitous. From Renton's opening Choose Life speech to the final scene, it's a shout of rage for young lives at the bottom of a hierarchical society, dismissed as debris from childhood. It's theatre to shake windows and rattle walls, and Gavin Ross as Mark Renton gives such an incredible performance that when he stepped forward to speak to the audience at the end it was several minutes before he could get a word through the cheers. Staging and soundtrack are superb too, do go and see. You may have to kill for a ticket. Images Andreas Grieger

And straight on from Sandstorm, and Tubthumping in time-slip Glasgow, over the river to Bristol's 'vanguard venue' Mr Wolf for a great gig featuring some of Frome's finest singer-songwiters: Al O'Kane with support from Tom Corneill and Emma Shoesmith.

And now for something completely different. Impressionism: Capturing Life is the charming but costly temporary exhibition currently at the Holburne Museum in Bath. My pilgrimage there was rewarded by this small gem by Seurat: Une baignade, one of a series of studies for the Bathers at Asnières, on a canvas small enough to fit in the lid of the artist's paintbox as he painted 'en plein air'. Other than this, and a stormy landscape by Boudin (who apparently inspired Monet to paint outdoors) there's not much striking or even unifying in this small collection. Curator's notes on the movement explain the artists' themes while naturalistic were also glamorous to appeal to wealthy art collectors, subjects 'reclining on the banks of the Seine' to evoke frivolity & luxury. Asnières is actually an industrial suburb, the riverside buildings are clearly factories, and the group are young workmen. It's my favourite painting partly for that reason. (The final painting, in the National Gallery, is also arguably post-impressionist, in fact early pointillist. Just saying...)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

All's Well in a busy week

Does the end justify the means? The notion has been debated for centuries by different example but probably none so bizarre as Shakespeare chose for All's Well That Ends Well, currently performed by Bristol's incomparable Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory.
This is considered one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays – not for anti-semeticism as in Venice or domestic abuse like in Padua, but because the heroine uses tricks to get her man, first winning him like a fairground teddy by curing the king and then, when he runs away to war after the wedding, pulling the 'bed-trick' by switching places with his new amour - initiatives which though successful were not regarded as genteel. A further problem is that the object of her affections is the most unappealing hero the bard ever created -snobbish, chauvinist, and petulant. Caliban had more redeeming features. None of which stops the current SATTF production at the Tobacco Factory from being massively enjoyable.
Theatre-in-the-round is an ideal format for a tale unfolded in cameo moments across different locations, and Andrew Hilton's incisive direction brings clarity to complexity. His team of actors are all superb: Eleanor Yates is totally endearing as feisty Helena and Julia Hills marvellous as the Countess who loves her as a daughter. The other plot strand, the comic buffoon brought low, is wonderfully funny despite (as with the Malvolio story) the bullying involved, as Alan Coveney convinces a blindfolded Paul Currier he has been captured by enemy forces. Chris Bianchi as the king and Marc Geoffrey as the little dancing teacher are brilliant. Production shots show the effective 19th Century costumes but can't convey the energy and humour of this terrific production, on till April 30th, highly recommended. (images Mark Duet)

Meanwhile elsewhere the lowest boughs of the elm tree are in tiny leaf, which would have stirred Robert Browning to homesick excitement, and Frome had a delightful Willow Festival in Rodden Meadow with all ages contentedly practising withy skills beside the river.
The Independent market returned in sunshine from an extended winter break after December's gridlocked event. Happily this Sunday there was more space, especially welcome for the artisan food stalls in Stony Street and the craft on Catherine Hill. Once again great acts on the Busking Stage - here's September Son. And as another reason to spend all weekend in town, the Frome Art Fair across three venues ~ Rook Lane, Silk Mill & the Round House ~ displayed the amazing diversity and talent of so many local artists, like Kate Cochrane who's also had a painting selected for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours Exhibition.
Frome Writers' Collective's monthly meeting in the rather gothic upper room at the Three Swans this week featured a talk from Alison Clink on pitfalls and perils of self-publishing. Based on her own experience with The Man Who Didn't Go To Newcastle, this was informative, entertaining, and also encouraging.  Around half of the 70-strong membership were attracted by this theme and many had experience to share afterwards. FWC, like the artists' groups, is a great example of the value of networking, in my view the main reason Frome is so vibrant and creative a community. I'll end with another example: our local radio station, Frome FM, which is about to launch a season of script readings from productions by Nevertheless - if you scroll down to the player you can listen online here.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

What life has done to us... dramatically speaking

Bristol Old Vic is 250 years old this year, the first British theatre to reach this distinction. This has not been achieved without struggles (it was nearly a banana-ripening warehouse during the last war) and director Tom Morris attributes its survival to the people of Bristol ~ “a 250 year-old love affair between the theatre and the city” ~ and the official birthday in May will involve a weekend of events both plebeian and gala amid a season of celebration featuring 'five world-class productions - one from each century of the theatre's life.
Representing the 20th century is American playwright's Eugene ONeil's painfully autographical Long Day's Journey into Night, the story of a family in anguish. Three of the four members are hopelessly addicted and one is dying: the father is addicted to money, his elder son to drink and his wife to morphine ~ a 'dope fiend' as her consumptive son puts it. Action takes place over one interminably long day of confessions ignored and reproaches denied, every exchange a cats-cradle of evasion and recrimination. It is, the programme notes admit, 'the saddest play ever written' and, as you will imagine, needs rather splendid embellishment to become a centrepiece in a major celebration.

This production can boast an award-winning director (Richard Eyre, with unstinting eye for visual detail) and star players ~ Jeremy Irons with Lesley Manville as the scapegoat wife, Hadley Fraser and Billy Howle as the sons and Jessica Regan as the maid.  They have a splendid set too (designer Rob Howell) ~ more splendid in fact than suggested by script references, though metaphorical confines are cleverly evoked by lighting shifts; opaqueness, pallid costumes and muted fog-horns all emphasise the bleakness of these ruined lives. (Peter Mumford lighting, John Leonard sound). At over three hours running time this is a marathon for everyone concerned but there was hearty applause on press night and reviews are starry. "Applause at the curtain call reflected the audience's appreciation of Miss Manville's skill," suggested the Bristol post, tactfully.

Another day, another drama of dreadful marriage: Bath's Ustinov Theatre continues a season of French-Canadian plays with Forever Yours, Mary-Lou by Michel Tremblay, translated by Michael West. In this tale also addictions are a tragic factor: for Liam it's beer and belligerence, his wife's are piety and taunting. An admirably simple set comprises four hard-backed chairs and little else.  Liam, Mary-Louise, and their two daughters face the audience throughout, apparently without seeing us: their dialogues overlap and it becomes soon apparent the girls are in a different time zone from their contentious parents. They, like us, are listening in to the Titanic struggle between their father and mother which they remember and which has defined the adults they have both become.
A laconic script, impressive uncluttered direction and superb acting (the father outstanding) all combine to create an unforgettable 75 minutes of quality theatre. Paul Loughran and Caitriona Ni Mhurchu are the parents, Caoilfhionn Dunne and Amy McAllister their daughters. Polly Sullivan designed the set,  Isobel Waller-Bridge was composer and sound designer. Terrific work, all.  You have till the end of April to see for yourself. (photos Simon Annand)

Theatrically this has been a week to echo Philip Larkin's verdict.  But blame not the parents for they were fucked up in their turn...   Man hands on misery to man.  It deepens like a coastal shelf.   Get out as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The week clocks changed and so did the weather.

John Mullan is a Jane Austen expert: he lectures & publishes articles about the significance of Emma to modern literature, and is a highly entertaining speaker, as Rosie and I can confirm from a visit to the rather sumptuous Chapel at Bruton for an answer to the question What Matters in Emma? which turns out, wittily, to be Everything. Emma is a valuable study for any writer of fiction: she pre-empted modern novelists in her use of hidden agenda in viewpoint and her dialogue is superbly differentiated. Mr Mullan revels in deconstructing the small pivot points of plot, and points out ~ which I hadn't noticed before ~ that Mr Perry the apothecary (who makes a killing in vale of bored hypochondriacs) is widely quoted by every character but never actually heard to speak.  Of course if you don't like Jane Austen this revelation won't get you spinning with giddy excitement, but I enjoyed the further evidence of Jane's skill, and indeed the whole talk, and appreciated the welcome with rosé and posh nibbles, too.

A great week for music in Frome. Grain Bar Roots Session featured DLM, a class act from a seriously talented trio, and for
Sunday's afternoon spot at the Archangel, Ben Cipolla shared his own songs and some excellent covers from his busking days, including an unforgettable version of Is this Love.
Good Friday's special treat, for some, was the Wurzels at the Cheese & Grain, ably supported by The Back Wood Redeemers ~ possibly the only band to have yelled at a massive crowd 'You want Jesus or Johnny Cash?'
Spring bank holiday Monday is always Daffodil Day in Mells and traditionally most of Frome makes its way along the three-mile river path to join the crowds enjoying this good old-fashioned country fair.
The Acoustic tent sadly had fallen victim to the storms so the line-up had to lose its larger bands, but Shootin' the Crow rocked with their mix bluegrass and rock&roll. We left before the Wurzels came on the main stage, but even two miles away we were still pursued sounds of zider drinking songs... Great day out, and a rainbow too.

I tend to ignore cultural festivals in my ardent chronicles of Frome but this time I'll make an exception & conclude with this delightful image of Sarah at the Co-op counter channeling the true spirit of Easter. Not a hot cross bun, a cool smiley one.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Some of those March days...

Dickens might have had Dublin in mind when he wrote of one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold, when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.  
I was visiting a friend from college days at Trinity, which ~ I realised as I travelled through the city without recognising an inch of it ~ is now nearly half a century ago. Jenny and I were among the group living in a scruffy den subdivided for students in Sandymount Green, now a trendy suburb where house prices top €1million: It was in that backyard that Mo, my boyfriend since the first year, and I had our wedding party as soon as the finals were over.
We were considered a 'mixed marriage' which was quite rebellious in those days, as was our other decision to then set off to wander the world by public transport. This was 'the summer of love' and though life brings changes I don't think either of us regrets those days of freedom. Here's Trinity as it looked then, and as we looked then. Jenny went on to teach foreign students about Irish culture and now lives in Howth Head, overlooking Dublin Bay and with great walks along the beach.

Back in Frome, Merlin Theatre was featuring The Producers by Mel Brooks, a satire about the jew-centred nature of Broadway which has been around a long time and is chiefly famous for the outrageous and very funny number Springtime for Hitler.
There's sacks of energy, enthusiasm and talent in the song & dance sequences and some excellent acting: Leo & Ulla, the confederates of sleazy producer Max, and director Roger & Carmen his 'common-law assistant' all have great charm and stage presence. The costumes are splendid and as a fund-raiser this appears to have been a big success. As well as providing a showcase for local talent, the production provides an uncanny streak of contemporary relevance too as the crazed dictator cavorts before his minions crowing Give a great big smile - Sieg Heil, everyone to me! soon we'll be going - you bet we'll be going - you know we'll be going to war!

 On Friday the Good Gallery hosted a Mad March Teaparty, with teabags instead of a dormouse stuffed inside the extraordinary teapot made by Steven Jenkins ~ guess how many for a hamper ~ and real hot cross buns and tea. Interesting affordable art and good conversations: sadly this pop-up gallery only has two more weeks of lease.

A very affable group too at Frome Society for Local Study on Saturday when I arrived to talk about 'the writing scene in Frome' to a disconcertingly large audience, though as the society has over 500 members and has published ninety books on local history, I shouldn't really have been surprised. Over the time I've lived in this town I've seen massive escalation of interest in every genre of writing, with support groups & stand-out names in poetry, drama, fiction for both adults & children, memoir, and nonfiction... we have courses & workshops, talks & readings, socials & trips, and performance opportunities too.  It all makes for an egalitarian, non-cliquey, supportive environment in which writers can thrive, and so many people have contributed to this that my appreciations nearly rivalled Kate Winslet at the Oscars but, as Kate would've said too, they all deserved it: Make the world you want to live in, I say, and I'm incredibly lucky to live among creative people who believe that too. (Thanks Gill Harry for the sketch of me in full flow...)

Frome-free footnote: Congratulations to 'A Clearer Head', the team of eggheads who beat the Eggheads on Thursday, scooping £29000 prize money ~ accrued after 28 unbeaten sessions ~ for Alopecia UK. Well quizzed, ladies, and great to see you giggling at the question about the bald eagle.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Stardust night and days of Spring sunshine

I've been wanting to see Bristol's award-winning Wardrobe Ensemble since this young company moved to their classy  new venue in the Old Market and, as I remember 1972 as extremely enjoyable, their current production seemed ideal. 1972: The Future of Sex focuses on three couples and one loner on the night Ziggy Stardust first invaded the nation's living rooms.  It's a time of redefining boundaries but exciting new freedoms bring kickbacks too, and hints of darker times ahead: homophobia, prevalence of porn, rifts in the sisterhood, continuing troubles for transgendered... the show is determined not to be naïve and there are several interesting interjections along the permissive way, like a brief history of porn from paleolithic times, and equality struggles since Mary Wollstoncraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Every romp is counterposed by reminders that new freedoms were scary and demanded new responses from both sexes - and men too have a right to say no to cunilingus or yes to cross-dressing.
But this is theatre not a thesis,  and what works brilliantly is the high-energy cleverly-choreographed physical comedy (especially the orgasms), fabulous live soundtrack (Tom Crosley-Thorne), a great cast (James Newton outstanding both as transgendered Anton and as 'not cool' Michael bombarded by space hoppers). As social commentary it's astute on many points - definitely with the scenario of 'History Man'-style Sociology lecturer and ardent student - but looking back, though conceding confusion and general randiness, I 'd say the media manipulation came later on, like Thatcher, and we were more self-aware than the kids in the Wardrobe give us credit for... But I would say that, wouldn't I?
Devised by directors Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones together with the cast, 1972: The Future of Sex goes on national tour after its sell-out run in Bristol as part of Tobacco Factory Theatres Beyond.  I was lucky to squeeze a ticket (or rather a hand-stamp, this is pub theatre after all) on Thursday which turned out a popular night for theatre directors: in my row also were BOV's Tom Morris and Tobacco Factory's Ali Roberts, who's about to make an our-loss/their-gain move to become Artistic Director at Kneehigh Theatre.

Roots Session at the Grain Bar this week featured We Used To Make Things, a classy London band who always get a great welcome in Frome, superbly supported by Kirsty Clinch.

The Black Swan Arts Young Open competition was judged on Saturday in three ages-groups between 8 and 19, and showed an exciting range and creativity of subject, interpretation, and medium.  Imaginative strong images jostled with charmingly colourful 3-D pieces in a dazzling display ~ congratulations to everyone involved, including the gallery curators.
Also on the subject of art appreciation, our Frome ekphrastic poetry group Words at the Black Swan has, like the Wardrobe ensemble & hopefully similarly successfully, moved to new premises in Cordero Lounge in the precinct. Frome Word Gallery, as we are now, will run monthly art-inspired workshops but no longer tied in with the Sunday market and responding to different exhibitions in the town.  Rebecca Brewin led the first session around the in-house art, with some fascinating responses.  
And to end this post, here's Max Moody soundtracking the Barefoot Boogie at the Bennett Centre on Saturday night.