Monday, March 29, 2010

Great to reconnect on Thursday with Grace Gould who runs the Salisbury Poetry Café: I enjoyed guesting and the amazingly high standard of all the open-mic participants at the Arts Centre - special mention to Anthony Fairweather for his witty musings on the lobbying scandal: Geoff Hoon for sale or rent... to the tune of King of the Road. Look out for a special feature of 'The Salisbury Set' at the Frome Poetry Café later this year...

My father, who admitted to irrational pride in his prejudices, shunned musicals so although my childhood was immersed in theatre I'd never seen Sondheim on stage till this week - and in the unlikely setting of Shepton Mallet. The Musical Theatre School students performed a more-than creditable interpretation of A Little Night Music, revived last year on Broadway by Trevor Nunn who believes "Sondheim writes as richly poetically as Shakespeare does and as psychologically insightfully as Chekhov does."
Shepton always seems to be aiming for some county record as 'most inert town centre' and on Saturday afternoon its stillness was almost gothic but within the Academy theatre all was song and silken rustling as turn-of-the-century love affairs and liaisons unfolded. A Sondheim musical, I discovered, is not just Shakespearean and Chekhovian, it's also like a luxurious dessert that makes you want to lick your spoon slowly to make it last. The dialogue has witty Wildean putdowns like "Are you addressing me young man? From the quality of the conversation so far you can hardly expect me to have been listening.”, the satire is incisive but unsavage, and the lyrics - to quote Trevor Nunn again - are brilliant little plays in themselves. Nicholas Silverthorne, playing way above his age as leading man Frederik Egerman, had talent and charisma in bucketloads, and the costumes were very nearly ravishing (corsets are a cruel necessity if the women are to avoid looking like mobile drapes.) Sadly I couldn't find a picture of one of this zestful cast's lovely tableaux, so here's one of the great SS himself as it's the week of his 80th birthday.

Back on the subject of childhood theatre visits: however irascible it made him, I could never resist asking my father 'Which bit did you like best?' so I was delighted to discover that Ken Loach used precisely that question as his starting point for Looking for Eric . Eric Cantona wanted him to make a film about football fans, and in search of a story he asked the Man U superhero what was the best moment of his career. It was a pass - not a goal, but a moment when he gave something glorious to his team, and that notion of mutual support tapped into something Ken Loach had wanted to express for some time.
I know all this because this wonderful director introduced his movie himself at the Kilmersdon village hall on Saturday night, speaking frankly about his passionate belief in community and the power of people working collectively. "We did it from everyone according to their ability, for everyone according to their need." he said, making Marx's words sound far more sensible than any of the policies of the last thirteen years. He tells us too that Eric Cantona in real life is a surprisingly modest unassuming guy - which could also be said of Ken Loach. An amazing privilege to hear this sincerely committed director speak, and all credit to Reel People film club for such a great night.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

UP DOWN BOY at the Brewery, produced by Myrtle Theatre Company, is a family story featuring Matty who is charming, his mother who is lucid and sympathetic, and some stunning animation that lifts the two-hander formula as high as a flying superhero. What it isn't really, though, is drama. Matty's mum veers between maternal emotions of exasperation and grieving for the end of an era as she packs her son's case for college; her monologue of reminiscences, enlivened by Matty's illustrated imagination, is the storyline. There's genuine feeling here, and some unpalatable memories of indifference from professionals and rejections from public, but a scriptful of anecdotes looped together with 'Remember when....?' isn't really a play. But it's presented with endearing sincerity by both actors and it's 'honest, funny, and touching' so it does do what it says on the flyer.
All credit to writer Sue Shields, clearly snapshotting from life, and to the whole team... and it's interesting to see the different approaches of Myrtle and Firebird, both with the immensely important goal of social inclusiveness. Myrtle's website statement is "We use theatre to explore social concerns..." Firebird, more overt in their use of the term disability, say: "Our job is to make plays for everyone..." Let's hope with theatre companies like these, making plays soon means never having to say how unacceptable the term 'mongol' is.

Realism of a different sort... Sound & Fury's KURSK, which had its final night at BOV on Saturday, was a Promenade Performance, which meant not that the audience sauntered around the set but that all seating was removed and the Studio Theatre transformed into the interior of a British submarine – equipment, mess deck, bunks, shower and all. Despite their pre-publicity I managed (this won’t surprise anyone who’s ever had me on their quiz team) to miss the point that the key episode in this drama, the Russian submarine disaster which the men unexpectedly witness, is based on a real event ten years ago. Knowing this does add a political edge, but even if the entire scenario had been invented this was amazingly poignant and a brilliant a piece of theatre. Pacey performances from all the men conveyed the normalities of their abnormal world, their rivalries and camaraderie, jokes and fantasies, loneliness and pain. Moral dilemmas and unseen tragedies of the Cold War crisis are mirrored in the human situations unfolding around us only a few feet away, and though there were plenty of laughs in the Red-Dwarf tedium of the men’s isolation, when ‘New Dad Mike’ (Tom Espiner) hears bad news from home the grief in that auditorium was palpable and unforgettable.

A new venue for spoken word is always good news, so three rhyming cheers for Sue Drew who will be launching a Poetry Cafe in the Art House café in Melksham to coincide with the town's food festival in June... watch this space for further details. And indefatigable Bath bard Kevan Mainwaring reopens the doors of Garden of Awen on Easter Sunday for another night of lyrical frolic, this time on a theme of Tricks and Fools.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One thing clearly apparent in Juliet and her Romeo, the Bristol Old Vic interpretation of these famous romantics 60+ years on, is that there are very good reasons for strict Care Home guidelines. If Nurse and Friar had followed them they would have restrained Romeo when he was scampering round brandishing a fruit knife in a geriatric tantrum, not sent him on the run with a carrier bag of scooby-snacks. After gate-crashing a party and scoring a resident from the private ward, and then all that horseplay with a Zimmerframe and walkingstick, he was bound to get overexcited and do something silly like cushion Tybalt to death. Friar Lawrence (Tristan Sturrock, who excelled throughout) was keen to confess but the senior doctor counsels discretion in another smothered residential home scandal ripe for exposé.
Seriously, though… something rather grim happens when the ages are upended. The duty of care is more apparent, and becomes a stronger theme, without that seed of innocent hope. And the loss of youthful energy makes everything more bleak, despite the Last of Summer Wine comic elements: the gang aggression now is not reckless teenage swagger but a lifetime of malice dragged into dotage, and the lovers not brimming with the sap of passion for life itself but in the disconcerting grip of senile mania.

But despite innate anomalies in the re-envisaging of the plot and a disappointing lack of chemistry between the lovers, this is a courageous reworking of Shakespeare’s story with some unforgettable moments: Siân Phillips is luminous in every scene as Juliet. Dudley Sutton's Mercutio, even in a shell suit and crocs, makes the long Queen Mab speech mesmerising. The set perfectly evokes genteel but adamant control, and music movingly enhances this interpretation: Old Macdonald's Farm for the doddering dancers, while Juliet's head is filled with strains of Al Bowlley's 1930s melodies.
And mega-exciting to be at the opening night, especially with Rosie Finnegan who knew half the crowd from her front-of-house days. For the buzz alone, a five-star night.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

SHINE is the title of Frome children's author Kate Maryon's first book, and the theme of her launch at La Strada on Saturday. The event was crammed with the shiny faces and glittered cheeks of Kate's young fans, and several of her grownup admirers too. (Here's Suzy Mizrahi with Rachel Ward, whose own YA book Numbers is multi-shortlisted for awards, holding their copies.)
Kate started to 'write, write, write' as an escape tunnel from her home life, scribbling from the age of four, "writing down all my scared feelings I didn't know how to spell", until eventually her frozen feelings melted and she fulfilled her granny's prediction: 'One day that girl will shine.'
Kate unfolded her heartwarming story with the aid of a cast of nine picked from her enthusiastic audience, including a scary father who threw things and a fainting granny who was too beautiful for this world. A brave and unusual book launch that showed this author can certainly convey real-life experience authentically and in an entertaining way that engages attention unforgettably. So let's raise a glass to Kate's perceptive granny, even if she did pass out from time to time.

"War is a drug"... I'd read about The Hurt Locker before I went to see it, so I knew how disturbed I'd be by the authenticity of relentless violence and ruination of that invaded land. What was more insidious was the sense of enduring minute-by-minute with no-one to turn to or to trust. The enemy is everywhere: hidden behind windows and walls, in the marketplace, in your own unit, in your own head... deeply disturbing, way beyond matters of morality, because the question posed is not Will Our Brave Boys come home alive? nor even, In what disturbed state will they live the rest of their lives? It's if this destructive rage is so deep in the human psyche, how could we live without wars?

Eddie Izzard, as a performer and as a person, was on my A-list of demigods even before he ran 1105.62 miles in 51 days. I've now dragged my old running shoes out of comatose retirement and signed up for a Sport Relief run myself. Who knows, I might celebrate septagenarian status with another marathon...
And what has this to do with writing? Everything. If you want to run, don't obsess over the success of professional athletes - watch Eddie Izzard confound every probability and defy every piece of expert advice to do it his way. That's got to be an inspiration for anyone with a desire to achieve against the odds, writers and joggers alike.

Big excitement for me this week is seeing the flyer for Vampire Nights at the Alma Tavern in May - my short play alongside one by Conor McPherson, acclaimed writer of National productions The Weir and The Seafarer.
"As True Blood and Being Human demonstrate", says the bit on the back of the flyer that’s too small to see in a blog-pic, "our fascination with the vampire myth is as strong as ever. This darkly comic double bill features two plays with strange and disturbing new takes on the undead theme... Love Bites is by local novelist Crysse Morrison whose short plays Thursday Coma and Your Time Starts Now were a hit with critics and a sellout success at the Alma last year. Not for the squeamish!"
Actually mine is fine for the squeamish, me being quite squeamish myself, but Conor M - combining old-fashioned yarn-spinning skills with a canny grasp of the flawed contemporary psyche, as the New York Times puts it - definitely needs PG rating.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Tempest is a complex play with a complex protagonist in Prospero - usually. In the retelling by Firebird Theatre, the tragic hero is not the wronged Duke of Milan but his slave Caliban. In fact Prospero, for all his Eric Morecombe glasses and Eddie Izzard housecoat, is a nasty piece of work - a bully who, like a BNP leader denying racism, shows his true colours with every contemptuous word. No wonder Caliban is vengeful. "You think you are a monster because they say you are - you behave like a monster because they say you are. Once called a monster, it stays in your mind all the time." This is Firebird's free adaptation of the drama, identifying a theme which has strong resonance for this group of 16 disabled actors.
You'd have to be made of flint not to be moved by their simple, powerful, storytelling style, supported by echo and response, signing and cello, and hospital-scrubs-style costumes. The romance between Miranda's and Ferdinand which concludes the human's feuding is used primarily to provide welcome comedy: "No sex before marriage" thunders Prospero. "Sir I promise" responds the young prince, and Miranda strikes a diva pose of thwarted disappointment.
But the final, and profoundest, message belongs to Caliban: I am also changed by the storm. I will not worship fools again... but one day they may respect the difference and see the man. Big credit to Bristol Old Vic for supporting this innovative company and this production.

Garden of Awen has cornered the Poetry Cafe market for laid-back bohemian eclecticism, it seems. Sunday's event, affably hosted by Kevan Manwaring, was the usual unusual pot-pourri of words and music, mingling poetry with story-telling and song, with bread & cheese free at the end of the night. In the relaxed setting of the Chapel Arts Centre we heard Irish reels on the fiddle, children's poetry from Iceland, a fable from Japan, WB Yeats recited and William Blake strummed, as well as poetic 'green shoots' from the audience. Very pleasant.

And March 8th of course is International Women's Day, which was celebrated in poetry and prose at the Garden Cafe in a wonderfully inclusive event organised by Rosie Eliot - 18 writers sharing thoughts about grandmothers, mothers, daughters and grand-daughters, about mother earth and moon magic, about crones and cunts and feather boas, and about men. Stunning writing, genuine feeling - from the opening applause for Kathryn Bigelow, in the news today as first woman to win an Oscar as best director, to the final love poem by Gordon Graft in acknowledgement that "One of women's greatest achievements is to live with men". Here's Rosie with some of the writers.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

I was looking forward to seeing ENRON - 'Lucy Prebble's dazzling play imaginatively staged by Rupert Goold' - at the Noel Coward theatre as reviewers have given it more stars than the American flags round the Washington Monument. It's the true story of the unscrupulous rise and titanic descent of the energy company of that name: key players explain in detail the actual scams which are self-evidently no more sustainable than a petty pyramid-selling scheme, so they must have been pretty stupid as well as staggeringly greedy. As an exposé of the culture that brought Western banking to its knees it was a splendid all-singing all-dancing spectacular. As theatre, it was didactic and overlong. You can usually glean the impact of a play from audience comments afterwards, but all I overheard in the queue in the Ladies loo was a mutter about 'Emperor's new clothes.' Which could be comment on either investors' or reviewers' gullibility really.

Can't let the second series of Being Human end without a fond mention. Some of the scripts didn't reach the crackingly high standard of the first series, true, but the final episodes have been chillingly brilliant and I'm already agog for series 3. Toby Whithouse, who won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Television Drama Series 2009 for creating the series, was interviewed in ALCS News and gave this advice to aspiring scriptwriters:
You should never write for an audience. The only thing that defines you as a writer is your own voice and so nurturing and defining that individual voice is the most important thing you can do... Every time you write, say to yourself, “this will never ever be performed” or “no one else will ever read this”. Because that liberates the work. It means that you are just writing for yourself and gradually defining and sculpting your own voice. Ultimately, it is that voice that is going to make you successful, that is going to make you happy. The moment you start writing to please an agent or an audience, you’re diluting the very thing that makes you different. You can be inspired by people, you can be influenced by people, but you should never change for people....
Good points well made - and they can't be made often enough.

Eastern footnote: While I was enjoying the celebrations of Chinese New Year in Thailand, my writer friend Christine Coleman was launching her novel Paper Lanterns in Hong Kong. The UK launch will be in March - see Chris's lively blog for details.