Wednesday, May 30, 2012

And finally... culmination of all those weeks of planning. Mascara has opened at Alma Tavern Theatre. Ann Stiddard's set looked brilliant under Luke Murray's lighting design, the audience laughed at the meant-to-be funny bits and applauded wildly at the end, and Olivia Dennis & Oliver Millingham were simply fabulous.
I'm so proud of the whole team, including of course my intuitive and inventive director Steve Hennessy, who's also artistic director of Stepping Out Theatre Company. Phew... can't wait to see if feedback is as good as it was for the Frome preview - it should be!

If you'd been too busy for telly for two weeks and suddenly got a free day, what would you first watch On Demand? For me it's two comedies, both previously unknown and now, in their second series, suddenly recognised as writing genius. Episodes and Grandma's House are both superbly acted, full of wry social observation on the painful absurdity of relationships, and both about creative struggles ~ specifically with dramatic scripts. The Episodes couple (played by wonderful Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) are finding Hollywood about as dreamy as a bull-invaded china-shop; Simon Amstell's hell-is-other-people experience comes from his family, who would be truly monstrous if they weren't so appallingly funny. Even Grandma can't bear to watch and goes off to count her shoes when Simon's hopes of production are crushed by the train-crash of his relations in the final episode of series 2. Will there be another? Personally I hope they quit while they're ahead - both of them - rather than go the way of some of my other favourites like Being Human, subverting initial energy into clone characters and convoluted plot twists. I'd rather mourn them as classics.

May is simmering to an end, June is poised to burst out all over, must be time to promote the next Frome Poetry Cafe. We have three terrific guests: Carrie Etter and Alasdair Paterson are joined by newcomer Robbie Vane ~ should be an amazing night at Frome's Garden Cafe on June 13th!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Two weeks of intense rehearsals, two frantic days of final arrangements, and we're open for business. Friday and Saturday were the Mascara previews at The Cornerhouse in Frome, both blisteringly hot evenings on which full-house audiences deserved applause themselves for remaining raptly attentive. I'm going to let a medley of comments from our feedback forms tell the good news.

I was totally riveted throughout from the opening line to the ending. Wonderful. Kept me totally enthralled throughout. Thankyou for bringing this to Frome. An immensely subtle and powerful play, passionately performed, about a very complex subject. Much food for thought. Will keep me reflecting, and talking, for a long time. Excellent play – moving, clever and poignant, extremely well acted and very disturbing. What a performance - absolutely superb, we were totally absorbed... Tremendous – varied, thought-provoking, amusing and shocking.... very convincing and mature acting... brilliant... powerful, funny , very thought-provoking. Wow! Extremely powerful play! ... talented writer... acted with sensitivity and power... both actors v. good, especially Leonie... particularly liked the music + set... props/sound/lighting effects meant the quality of acting/writing really showed through... the end was dramatic and shocking, the club scene was great too... Well crafted play that raised thought-provoking issues. I particularly liked the way the story of the kidnapped girl was woken into the couples’ relationship... Engaging, challenging, thought-provoking – great night out... very well portrayed and sympathetically explored... believable and real and it made me ‘feel’... beyond amazing... awesome... emotionally hard-hitting... Wow !!
A stunning play which carried incredible intensity in every moment. We are privileged here in Frome. Brilliant acting by both performers. Pub Theatre at its very best.

After "thought-provoking", the most repeated words were "congratulations" and "thanks". So my congratulations and thanks too, to the whole team, and to Rosie for holding my nervous hand ~ almost literally ~ at these opening nights. Opening in Bristol at the Alma Tavern Theatre on Tuesday.

Friday, May 25, 2012

This week started with a blistering row - between my characters, that is - and discussions on music & costume... then the first part of the set arrives... full setup in hectic get-in at The Cornerhouse and looks amazing. I'm loving being involved with all this but no spoilers before our opening TONIGHT!

Between rehearsals for MASCARA and promoting the show I haven't managed to do much else this week but happily I did get to Toppings in Bath for the launch of Liz Brownlee's amazing book Animal Magic. This is the most extraordinary poetry book you'll ever read: Liz's meltingly beautiful words about some of the world's most fascinating creatures are interspersed with careful research telling simply the facts of their endangered lives. It's published by Iron Press, whose editor Peter Mortimer always gives so much support to aspiring writers ~ as I know from personal experience, as some years ago I sent him a story which he liked but declined to publish as he said it should have been a play. I rewrote it as a radio script, and it was subsequently broadcast. Peter had travelled all the way from North Shields to tell the crowded bookshop that 'of all the books I've published, this is the one of which I've been most proud.' A due accolade and a lovely event.

And my footnote for this posting has distinct, if tenuous, connection with this final image from MASCARA rehearsals: I've been reading an interview with actor Samuel West in which he says his favourite line of Shakespeare is the opening of Richard II's soliloquy in prison as he reflects on life and loss, his body constrained but his mind roaming, finding new identity as he tries to forgive the people who have wronged him. Parallels with my imprisoned character/s aside, this speech was the internal soundtrack to my teenage years. I read it, and the deposition scene that precedes it, so many times I knew them by heart. Even these days, get me started on 'Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down' and you may have a wait a while before I stop reciting. So Richard II is an intensely personal play to me, but as Samuel West points out it's modern too in its honesty about society nominating people to be 'kings' & telling them they're semi-divine, only to kill them.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The current season of plays at the Alma is Directors' Cuts, the annual showcase for BOV Theatre School graduates. The Yalta Game by Brian Friel, the choice of Timothy Howe, begins as an apparently frothy seaside romance as dandy flâneur Dimitry, whiling his days away in inventive gossip, nets another lonely young woman with his 'game' of people watching. “These categories – public, private - authentic, deceptive – are never as separate as we think” Dmitry tells the audience, and deceptive simplicity in the script plays with notions of self-perception, lies and longings. The clever set supports this sense of unreliable narration: it's a giant postcard, which unpacks into furnishings to create the reality Dimitry and his lover inhabit. But did this brief encounter really become the love of his life? Did they meet in Moscow, and dance, and kiss..? by the end we don't know if anything is real, even the dog... Witty direction and crisp acting brought out every nuance in a delightful production.

Baroque, beautifully staged and performed, with stunning music: all the hallmarks of Mark Bruce Company productions are intensely present in Made in Heaven which opened at The Tobacco Factory this week. There's more of sea than sky about this story ~ billowing satin waves where a mermaid loses her tail to a knife, a nun loses her head to a shark ~ but for Mark who wrote, choreographed and directed the show, the connections are symbolic. “A lot of things come from my subconscious," he says: "Characters come from Paradise, then you take them away.” It's a filmic world too, with references ranging from the crazed robot cop in Westworld to Judy Garland-esque prairie girls. Music is equally eclectic: Debussy and Chopin, Cohen and Leadbelly, White Stripes and Sonic Youth. It's violent and vengeful as well as sublimely beautiful, and dream-imagery like the angel baby, the butchered mer-tail, and severed head hacked by hockeysticks, is unforgettable.

Despite the fact my personal cosmos recently seems to have shrunk to Bristol and the road to Bristol from Frome, I haven't forgotten there's a wider world out there, with more than a few problems. Like every grecophile, I'm waiting and watching, with hope as well sadness and concern, for some resolution to the current crisis. Skyros holidays organiser Yannis Andricopoulos, who has written a trilogy of books on the significance of Greece and Greek culture, is following events in his blog, where he also pledges "We’ll not cancel Skyros holidays, whatever happens either in Greece or in the world! So book with confidence - you’ll have a great time, and give the Greeks the support they need in their most testing times since the war."

Local writer Niamh Ferguson, back from India to the delight of her Frome friends, is paying tribute to the power of the daily journal: her 'morning pages' morphed into emails that tell the story of her fascinating journey ~ to be published next month under the title Love From India. Watch this space for launch details!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Currently my days are largely obsessed with the progress of MASCARA: we now have a publicity shot, thanks to Hen & Chickens beer garden and a sunny day. I'm still overwhelmed by how much as a writer I can learn from these rehearsals as each scene is tried out in different ways ~ tenderness/anger, fun/thoughtfulness, momentum/stillness ~ to vary the light & shade and find the shape. "Don't give too much away too soon - surprise the audience sometimes," is one directorial guideline. Actors paraphrase their script to find the subtext, intentions are discussed and lines tweaked with scalpel efficiency. It's a fascinating insight into the process of bringing a play off the page into performance, exhausting as well as exhilarating.

And turning elsewhere: Tim Clare brought his touring show How to be a Leader to the monthly Word of Mouth event in BOV Basement. There as six rules, apparently, from the satirically plausible to the sublimely ridiculous, all wittily expounded by Tim with ruthless certainty and powerpoint presentation. I especially liked the Margaret Thatcher rap ("Iron lay-dee? ~ do your own fucking ironing...")
Over in Bath, it was interesting for Rosie & I to see Alliance at the Rondo, since this set of 6 short plays were all penned by the Bath scriptwriting group, curated by David Lassman and directed by Hannah Drake. The quandary set was "co-operation in the 21st Century - is it possible?" and writers' responses ranged from competition between job interviewees to survival instincts afloat after a shipwreck. Some fantastically strong acting ~ step forward Oliver Millingham ~ provided plenty of laughs in several of the pieces and I especially enjoyed the story of the unstable Occupy undercover agent.

Terrific hiphop dancing in the Egg foyer before the night's performance of DNA. Hull Truck has Arts funding and writer Dennis Kelly has won awards, so I’m confident they'll easily withstand carping so.... for me the first few words (“Dead! uttered repeatedly like the opening expletive of Four Weddings & a Funeral) were the highlight of the show. It's a tale of school bullying off even the Daily Mail scale, resulting in an apparent murder and a complex evasion, provided by a morose and munching mute with a mind worthy of Miss Marple, which leads to The Cops fingering an innocent fat postman. The plot fails the first credibility test (ie what happens when suspect produces alibi and gives a description of the missing boy's associates who foistered the fake evidence on him), but more importantly the characters are neither credible nor empathetic, and the torrential banality of the dialogue made the Revenger's Tragedy seem like a haiku. Quite well performed, though, and striking set.

Still in Bath, something really good to end with: Sarah Ruhl's play In The Next Room, the third in director Laurence Boswell's American season at the Ustinov, is inspired by early medical treatment for female hysteria.It's aptly subtitled The Vibrator Play and the equipment in question may look like a primitive dental drill but it's capable, sometimes with human intervention too, of delivering sexual ecstasy on the scale of Barbarella's pleasure machine. Everyone in the story is in some state of yearning and denial, and all in differently comical ways find relief with this scientific equipment, sometimes in hilarious tableaux of suppressed emotions. Engaging characters and great dialogue, as well as deeper emotional and social strands in the narrative, ensure this is so much more than a sexy farce, and the ending is bold, beautiful, and surprisingly touching. It's fabulously well acted, superbly dressed, and the splendid double-decker set is simply inspired. Two and a half hours of sheer enjoyment: five stars, at least.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ann Stiddard and Alison Comley who founded and lead Theatre West, launched their 2012/13 'new writing' project on a blustry Bank Holiday Monday at The Hen & Chickens with conviviality and pizza as well as complex instructions involving a big map of Bristol and much A-Z grid referencing. All the writers - there are thirty of us - drew random coordinates to find our dramatic locations and then dashed off in pairs to find inspiration and make videos of the area. I drew just off Portway next to the motorway, a largely-deserted street of unimpressive modern houses. And a rook, flapping low and slow over wet grass. "It can be anything from a specific siting to a feeling of emptiness" Alison says. Hm. I'm currently pondering outsiders... strangers... I'm-leaving-home-bye-bye.... Then a very jolly feedback session as everyone shared their impressions and pledged to get started on their script submission, due in just over a month... eek!

Rehearsals for Mascara are now underway and I'm absolutely delighted to watch as Ollie and Livi breathe life into my characters. "Possibly the best first read-through of any show I've ever been involved with," says director Steve. And from then on it just gets better.
Participating in rehearsals is an amazing learning process for any writer, so I'll be driving into Bristol as often as I can until we preview in Frome on May 25th before opening night at the Alma on Tuesday 29th!

Not a footnote but a grand finale for this week's posting: even though both performance and music are prime passions for me, I've never fancied going to an opera. And I wouldn't have seen one now if I hadn't been treated to the revival of Anthony Minghella's production of Madam Butterfly, a spectacularly sumptuous visual extravaganza immaculately performed by ENO. I say ENO in this casually familiar way but actually I was so unaware of the role of English National Opera that my initial response to the barman's logo was to think how nice that a posh place like this could let an ambient music fan wear his own teeshirt... But no-one, not even the most recalcitrant culture-vulture, could fail to be moved by how exquisitely the story is revealed, especially by the delicate creation of the child-puppet for the final scenes. The emotion lingers long after the final chords, and I woke next day with music in my head ~ not Puccini actually but Sonheim saying much the same thing: when love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong, your love is your life...

Friday, May 04, 2012

Like the secret wardrobe entrance to Narnia or that elusive platform thirteen-and-a-half, somewhere between the glittering docks and the urban centre of Bristol there’s a sidestreet with a door to a magical world…. The Bierkeller is a fabulous space for theatrical extravagance, and Gentleman Jack Theatre Company has used every cranny to create the most dramatic experience you’ll have this year, possibly ever.
The Revenger’s Tragedy, first performed in 1606, is aptly titled: Vindice, embittered by pre-action murder of his lover, embraces a vigilante role in the corrupt court of Il Duce, and among unscrupulous intrigues and lascivious excesses a murder-fest unfolds… but not before the Duke’s party, where the audience are all guests! We’re talking real party here, ducal family & entourage at the bar with us, live music, poledancing, sweets on the tables, money ~ and notes arranging assignations ~ on the crimson silk cushions... everything creating an uneasy atmosphere of self-indulgence which spills suddenly into the action of the play. As events move around the palace, so do we, moving through the gothic Bierkeller surroundings as silent witnesses to the deathly consequences of rage, envy, ambition, and lust. Lots of lust.
It’s all OTT and zestfully black-comic, but Thomas Middleton's script is delivered for real, apart from the odd ‘Omigod'-style interjection, and this integrity, combined with intense audience involvement in the action (Lussurio's penchant for fondling comes to mind, pleasantly) is what makes this production much more than just a brilliant parody of Jacobean genre. The cast are all simply fabulous: Philip Perry in the title role ranges compellingly from vengeful grief to northern comedy, Jonathan Charles as the Duke’s heir is charismatic, and everyone is mesmeric in their moments. Director Justin Palmer is genius.

Just as installation art can send you home seeing lampposts as sculptures, a great evening of site-specific drama makes walking through Bristol at night feel like being part of street theatre ~ especially in Queen's Square, this week a scene of tented splendour as champagne flows at the Pop Up Tapas Bar.

Finally, a quick look towards warmer days: Happiness was the theme of Skyros story competition with first prize a free holiday on this beautiful Greek island. I had the privilege of judging the entries, so well done to all who entered and congratulations to winner Peter Wakefield ~ and special appreciation for entitling his story Happiness Is A Wardrobe Slowly Rising In The Air, thus enabling me somewhat bizarrely to both open and end this posting with a sentence containing the word wardrobe.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Bristol-based theatre company Living Spit is fulfilling its mission statement 'to make poorly researched historical comedy-drama shows about people that at least one of us vaguely looks like' with The Six Wives of Henry VIII, at Bristol Old Vic till May 12th. Howard Coggins looks uncannily like Henry VIII. Stu Mcloughlin doesn’t look like any of his wives, or anybody’s wife for that matter... Believe me when I say it’s not a problem. This comic duo sustained meta-theatrical, quasi-historical, belly-achingly funny absurdity for a two-hour animated lecture which rarely flagged for a moment from the hilarious start as they introduce themselves via a duff review from their previous show. Much of the mirth comes from blatant irrelevancies featuring the allegedly fractious relationship between the two performers, and from anachronisms like the brilliant Catherine Howard-and-the-lie-detector sequence, and Henry's mobile phone calls: "Popey! ... need an annulment, mate..." Nice use of exposition too, as when Jane Seymour, docilely embroidering a cushion with Battersea Power Station, consoles her spouse for his various “rash decisions notably involving decapitation and inventing your own spin-off religion”. Like all really successful comedies there are plaintive notes too, as we see Henry's father disdain him in childhood and torment him in dreams... a wonderful show which, as Howard repeatedly and grumpily points out, deserves a wider showing than the BOV Basement - but do catch it there while you can.

This is the draft flyer for Mascara (doesn't matter if you can't read the performance dates, that's the bit that needs tweaking) which I think looks great. Press copy from the director reads: A young journalist researches the notorious Natashcha Kampusch Austrian kidnap case. As her obsession grows, it reveals a frightening web of connections with her own life. A darkly comic, tender and shocking love story.“A powerful and haunting story beautifully told” said Sarah Dickenson, Senior Reader at the Soho Theatre.
It's all getting terribly exciting. I sat in on the set design meeting with Ann Stiddard and met lighting engineer Luke Murray, both with nerve-tingling ideas for the visuals. Ann is taking the kidnap scrapbook as a starting point for her concept, moving away from a literal room to a living space that evokes the differences of perception at the heart of the story... sounds fabulous. And now the team has come together, rehearsals start next week!

Perhaps I should have taken a look at Paul Durcan's poems before blithely buying a ticket to hear him read at the final event of the Bristol Poetry Festival. I've made some great discoveries that way - Don Paterson, George Szirtes for instance - but this time, apart from one quite nice poem to Seamus Heaney and a few startling phrases like days of slapstick loneliness I sat through 50 minutes of undiverting, sometimes sneeringly judgmental, anecodotal trivia. If this guy in the custard-coloured jumper had been holding forth to strangers in a bar I would have edged away till out of earshot, and his enthusiastic reception at the Arnolfini baffled me. Blimey, the performance poets last week were ten times as lyrical, witty, and poignant too. Memo to self: avoid national treasures.