Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hans Anderson, Artisik Ego, and happier tales

Blue skies and sunshine for the last Independent market of the year, with seasonal decor, music, and pop-up-party places.You probably all know by now what the tented carnival in Frome streets looks & sounds like ~  just add tinsel and collectors with buckets for Fair Frome Big Christmas Get-Together.  Yes, it's that time of year again, and having just seen The Man Who Invented Christmas at Frome's little independent Westway cinema, I'm feeling a lot less curmudgeonly than usual about the C word, an delighted to find confirmation that this delightful version of the writing of A Christmas Carol is essentially, mostly, true (apart from that odd & unsatisfactory change to the final ghostly visitation.) Overall this movie is a sentimental treat, in the original sense of touching emotions, and Dan Stevens is charismatic as Charles Dickens feverishingly penning his novella in six weeks.
There's a fascinating, though irrelevant, link between Dickens's story and the next item, which I found while checking Hans Anderson's dates: these two writers not only coincided time-wise, they also met. They also became, for a while, friends, with shared concerns over increasing social inequality and poverty, until the Danish writer overstayed a visit and was asked to leave and the relationship terminated. Which all goes to show you can make a mess of reality, but stories live forever, just like Yuval-Noah-Harari says.
So, returning now to the comfort of imagination: The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales at Bristol Old Vic originated last year at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. It's a blending of Hans Anderson's tales directed by Emma Rice, who has now parted company with the Globe after her neon-lit disco for a Hackney-located Midsummer Night’s Dream was not appreciated by the Board (well she did publicly opine ‘the only reason to do Shakespeare is to mess it up,' so they were warned.) This flamboyant production delivers what we've come to expect from their main shows: an ensemble piece with a big cast and on-stage music, a quirky take on an old tale, and a thoughtful strand of modern moralising ~ a formula designed to appeal to all ages. Making Stage Relevant to our Screen Generations is a problem for all theatres, and BOV are very aware of this - a pre-show talk by chief executive Emma Stenning emphasised a new role for the building after its £12million injection ‘ending the journey of trying to fix from the inside and thinking what it wants to be as part of this city.’  Which now includes being provider of brunch and private functions, as local firm Fosters take over the catering - well someone had to, it was dire: I used to linger in the taxi rank cafe at the station rather than take a chance on their coffee machine. Good luck to them all, and back to the play: As well as the poignant central story ~ a hungry child at risk in a big city ~ there's much fun with the Princess & the Pea and The Emperor's New Clothes, and long look at the more obscure tale of Thumbelina which seemed to be there largely to add another puppet. Perhaps it's the continuing legacy of the War Horse effect: a conviction that the one thing stage can do better than other media is puppetry. It’s not infallible ~ viz. their puppetised Midsummer Nights Dream in 2013 ~ but a child-size, silent, observer-participator can certainly play a powerful role as a kind of innocent flâneur. The match-girl story arc for me was more successful than the Thumbelina story, which made for unsettled focus between the actor and her miniature alter-ego. Puppets by talented duo Lyndie (designing) & Sarah (directing) Wright, and Vicki Mortimer brought the strands of narrative together with fantastic, and sometimes very funny, costumes.

Another, though different, diversity of narrative plus moralising next from Mik Artistik's Ego Trip, on tour and in Frome especially for a Momentum support event at 23 Bath Street (aka Wheatsheaf). With excellent, and essential, musical support from Jonny Flockton & Benson Walker on guitar & bass, Mik's Leeds-toned growl delivered a couple of hours of social observation combined with abuse to a packed and cheering audience. Mik knows his market: his material is pitched to an ageing generation, evoking the music and memes of more rebellious years. Most of it scoffingly. Your kids aren't bothered about the fucking Pixies and anarchy ~ yer wasting yer time... His audience loved it all, even Mik's jeering yells of "This is boring! BORING! and YOU PAID for it." A night to remember, as officially declared by the oddest rock god ever.

Black Swan Arts' current exhibition in the long gallery is From the FieldsCarry Akroyd's prints inspired by the poetry of John Clare, a series of vibrant anthems which both celebrate and mourn the changing face of our land. Think Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks, there's that kind of wandering energy in these beautiful precise accounts, layering past and present together. On Monday our ekphrastic writing group met, steered by Louise Green, to take words from the pictures in the way the artists took from the poems... You can see some of these on the Words at the Black Swan website.

Still with nature and its preservation: another of the many wonderful moments my current project research has given me: Asda has been in Frome for 12 years but I'd never realised that part of their 'rent' for this presence was the establishment of a wild life area on some of their land. Rodden Nature Reserve survived this pragmatic inception because of a sextet of committed locals, two of whom I met last week. There's much to tell about the wild life, and their work, but for here I just want to celebrate their passion and commitment. If in some future incarnation I find myself a Bonaparte's gull then I hope I hatch in Rodden reserve, where some really great people really care.

Some seasonal glimpses now: the tree at Frome Library adorned by the Blue House knitters inspired by Mary Henderson, and 12 Days at the Round Tower, a collection of wintry images from just some of the superb visual artists around Frome, collected and curated by Paul Newman. Missing images from this week's round-up include some terrific music ~ The Raggedy Men at the Griffin, and Blue Midnight at the Cornerhouse ~ as my pictures don't do them justice, and Hansel & Gretel at Merlin Theatre because I didn't get to use my ticket as the lurking lurgi caught up with me again. 
Ending this post with the reminder, if you're in or near Frome on Monday, it's Frome Festive Poetry Cafe night at the Garden Cafe!

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Savage families & cats, plus lucent celebrations

The new play at Ustinov Studio Theatre in Bath, The Open House by Will Eno, is a suitable tale for the season: a family reunion that absolutely no-one is enjoying - in fact the dog has outright legged it. Prepare for bullying aggression from father (Greg Hicks), passive-aggression from mother (Teresa Banham),  mute resentment from both grudge-bearing children (Ralph Davis & Lindsey Campbell), and an atmosphere of unmitigated wretchedness that even dark humour wouldn't sustain for 90 minutes... and happily it doesn't have to, though I can't tell you why not (or show in imagery) because it's so unexpected, and clever, and satisfying, you have to go & see for yourself. Please do, it's on till 23 December.  Michael Boyd directs, the costumes (Madeleine Girling) and set (Tom Piper) are both great ~ again, image-hints would spoil.  Forget story arc, or inciting incident, or any of the rules of drama you learnt, simply sit back and enjoy.

Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol is also offering alternative entertainment for the festive season, and after Rocky: A Horror Show (which was great) and Goldilock, Stock, and Three Smoking Bears (which was fantastic), I had high hopes of Reservoir Mogs, a girly re-envisaging of the macho-thug genre plus massacre of Lloyd-Webber cuteness. The audience clearly had similar expectations: there's a kind of party atmosphere in the non-ticketed seating ~ it's tiered like a proper theatre, but you're stamped to go in like a festival ~ and response was enthusiastic. For me the first half was a bit too much like St Trinians girls, immaculately costumed & face-painted, being wickedly naughty to entertain their teachers (or perhaps vice versa) but after the interval I was converted, when all pretence of narrative thread was abandoned in favour of audience abuse and an amazing multiple death scene... well cats do have nine lives so it takes some time to demolish them all... No apologies for spoilers, they can't stop you enjoying a show at this great little theatre.

Moving to things more sensible, Bath Short Story Award, a prestigious international writing contest for short fiction, put on their usual splendid event in Mr B's, a bookshop so compellingly wonderful it's hard to leave with just the book you came for: in this case the 2017 Winners Anthology. Short readings from winners and others included in this impressive collection gave a taster of the high standard from which literary agent Euan Thorneycroft of A M Heath, had to pick! Congratulations to organisers Jude Higgins, Anna Schlesinger & Jane Riekemann ~ and good to meet up with friends from Bath literary scene including Debby Holt.

Meanwhile Frome is gearing up for all things festive, which means many crafty-arty events with mulled wine and stollen, and even more music than usual. Here's Frome Street Bandits giving a lively performance on Friday after the big event of the week: on a clear night with a bright moon ~ and after removal of the screens around the market cross renovations ~ the Tree-Lights-Switch-On! This year the honour went to 10-year-old Ted Lewis-Clark who designed the santa-stamp for the Post Office (our own main box has been painted blue and starry in his honour). All fun and much enjoyed by the massive crowd, as was the singing and the stalls, but the real delight of the night was the lantern procession: hundreds of lanterns all made by their carriers, led by drumming bands from each end of the town to create an unforgettably magical scene ~ huge credit to Mel Day and Aliss Vaas for the long hours of many workshops, thanks to the town council for sponsoring, and total appreciation to the people of Frome and around, for joining in and making this amazing night happen.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Dramatic time-slips: 16C to1945, 18C revisited in 1963

A couple of theatrical re-envisagings for you this week: First, Shakespeare's sweet-bitter comedy Much Ado About Nothing from Rondo Theatre Company in Bath. Set in 1590s Sicily this story of soldiers returning from war to reconnect with the women missing them (and becoming more feisty, too) seemed to directors Lisa Thrower and Andrew Fletcher to have fascinating parallels to the end of World War II. This too was a time of conspicuous celebration, with undercurrents of unease as roles were clearly changing. Beatrice especially has a confidence in her opinions which chimes with the independence of those UK women who'd coped with amazing fortitude for six years, and now found they were expected to step back into subservience. The directors' theory works ~ impressively well in fact. On an unelaborate set with lots of union-jack bunting, the bard's script transfers with minimal tweaks to the volatile emotionalism of 1945, making it actually easier to forgive stupid Claudio and believe in everyone's gullibility. A terrific cast helps: Naomi Miller and Chris Constantine as Beatrice & Benedict were simply superb, bringing absolute authenticity to every moment, especially in the scene after Hero's collapse which still makes me shudder to recall. Among their elders, Jeremy Fowlds' Leonato, his friend Don Pedro (Matt Nation) and wicked Don John (Richard Chivers) were all excellent. I laughed, I cried, what else do you want from a comedy on a cold night? Big congratulations once again, Rondo Theatre.

Over to Merlin Theatre now, where Frome Drama Club chose a ready-made revival: Richard Bean's award-winning One Man Two Guvnors is a re-envisaging of The Servant of Two Masters, a commedia dell'arte piece by Carlo Goldoni written in 1746. It's the same central thread, as summarised in the title, but the 1963 version is set in the seedy side of Brighton, and the immensely successful National Theatre production, which transferred to Broadway, featured not only a TV superstar but a skiffle band live on stage. Calum Grant directs, with Andrew Morrison as James Corden ~ sorry, as Francis Henshall ~ who has to carry much of the comedy, including organised impro and binge-eating. There's nice contrast from Tracey Ashford and Giles de Rivaz as Rachel and Stanley, especially in their tender reunion, and laugh-of-the-night award goes to Laurie Parnell's Charlie for four words, perfectly pitched: So what's your point? An excellent review from Fine Times Recorder here gives more detail of this exuberant production: congratulations to all involved - and my personal special appreciation to Aaron Hooper's skittish geriatric waiter and his wayward wig.

As the misnomered 12th month creeps closer, Frome is already getting jiggy with crafty markets & multi-clash jollities... my Saturday night scamper round town concluded this week at the Sun Inn where the Raggedy Men showed why they're shooting to supernova status ~ especially when supported by a lively uke band and rapper XjX

Another mini time-trek on Sunday as Jazz at the Cornerhouse this week featured the sultry songs of Ella Fitzgerald, born a hundred years ago, recreated by the smouldering voice of Frome's Emma Harris, with the John Law trio ~ Billy Weir drums & this time Adrian Smith on bass.

To end this post: my appreciation to Ciara Nolan, for including me in her chronicle of Humans of Frome ~ big privilege to be interviewed for this, and a pleasure too as Ciara being from Dublin can relate to my Irish experiences...  Published in Frome Times this week.
And another, 'finally' moment: As a TV viewer generally only when the moon is blue, I'm loving Howards End on BBC on Sunday nights. EM Forster is one of my favourite novelists: he uncompromisingly nails Englishness in all its foibles & follies, and this tale of upper-class arrogance also reveals the inherent weakness of their 'liberal' middle-class challengers, and it's just brilliant. "I don't intend to correct him, or to reform him - only connect," says avant-garde Margaret with confident aplomb. A good meme but a difficult aim, as history shows us still. Great story-telling and great acting too. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Retrospective moments & Restoration drama

I had high hopes of the current Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which I visited on Thursday, and it totally exceeded them. I realised she was more than a clever illustrator from the existential anguish and ever-present incomprehensible wildness that pervades her magical tales of Moominland, but I hadn't expected the richness of her candid & personal paintings - I love this one of her family, with Tove herself slightly caricatured, watching her brothers play chess just before the war. (Lars, the one who is not in uniform, became her business partner & collaborater later in life.)
Tove was a passionate pacifist, and her cover illustrations for the Finnish satirical magazine Garm throughout the war years show her views. This 1944 one is filled with little Hitlers, robbing farms and households, torching barns, and trying on a crown. There's a tiny little creature clasping the M in this cover, and also on others, who later evolved into Moomintroll...  The popularity of the Moomin characters and stories led to comic strips and merchandise but Tove accepted few commercial propositions - for Amnesty, UNICEF and the Red Cross she made an exception. She also seems to have had a filtering policy on her literary illustrations, apparently only taking The Hunting of the Snark, The Hobbit, and Alice in Wonderland.  
After a couple of hours at the gallery I wanted to buy up the gift shop, but calmed myself with a reminder of some of the permanent treasures of this extraordinary little gallery, the first dedicated art-gallery in England and home to treasures like Gainsborough's Linley Sisters, Murillo's street urchins, Rembrandt's Girl at a Window, Reynold's portrait of Mrs Siddons being tragic, and a mesmeric self-portrait by John Opie.
Time then for a wander round the rest of Dulwich with my brother, who has a far better recolletion of this part of south London we both grew up in, me in the 1950s and he in the '60s. It's changed a lot, is all I can say, and all for the better. (Thanks Pete for the picture)

Still on a time-trekking theme, this time back to the days of Abigail's party, with the launch of Return to Kirrin at Hunting Raven Books. Set in 1979, it's an affectionately-spoofy envisaging of the grown-up lives of Enid Blyton's renowned quintet ~ and that's as many clues as I'm allowed without getting sued. Co-authors Suzy & Neil Howlett shared their skills, Neil providing pace & plot while Suzy added detail and nostalgic enthusiasm for Blytonesque style of story-telling: 'like that baby fleece you cuddle up to, and then grow out of.' There's uncertainty around the location of Kirrin, claimed by Dorset as based around Corfe but perhaps more plausibly an island off Cornwall seen by Enid on holiday. It seems appropriate that these origins are lost in the past.  My own experience of the jolly japers is limited to the Comic Strip Presents version in 1982, but then I had an odd childhood. A retro-party at Three Swans led to interesting comparisons of era & values, and lashings of canapes. (Incidentally, the famous phrase "lashings of ginger beer" never appeared in any of the Famous Five books... oops, gone and used the FF words. Sosumi!)
Now a leap backwards of over 300 years, with a revival of a Restoration Comedy classic: The Provoked Wife as produced by Stepping Out Theatre is lavishly stylish and authentic in every Baroque detail ~ even the venue.
Kings Weston House just north of Bristol is a long trek from Frome, but there's something quite magical about watching a play written by John Vanbrugh in the mansion he himself designed for the politician Edward Southey in the early 18th Century. In a room panelled with life-size Gainsborough-esque portraits, with lighting enhanced by chandeliers, an in-the-round performance allows the audience an intense connection with the shenanigans and improprieties of the characters. In these genteel surroundings, we sit quiet as the sylphs in Rape of the Lock (Pope too is scathing of the affectations of this era), and find ourselves voyeurs of plots both predacious and mendacious. I won't go into details ~ there's a lot of story, and it moves fast ~ other than to say the wife in question, Lady Brute, decides to take revenge by an affair, and the knock-on effect is no end of lasciviousness and frivolity. In the midst of this is a jealous neighbour and her french maid, who is really a bloke called Tom (Sam Dugmore) in frock, wig, and lippy. There's an abundance of frocks, wigs, and lippy actually: the provoking husband dons one when drunk, the magistrate he's hauled up before next day is clearly wearing a corset... Costumes are a huge part of this show, as is the amazing music (baroque with undertones of Benny Hill) created by Colin Smith and John Telfer.
The cast of eight are all strong, creating audience rapport in every scene: I was especially moved by Lady Brute and Belinda (Stephanie Manton) in a scene of rare intimacy without their wigs ~ a poignant reminder that behind the apparent licentiousness of these bored, intelligent, young women, their options were... well, nonexistent. Women, married or not, had no rights, however violent their husbands. This clever production is not only fabulous to look at and very funny, it manages to remind us of the kind of 'English' values best left behind. We're still working on some of them... Directed by Briony Waite, with the Stepping Out company support team in baroque finery to set the mood, and an after-show supper in the dining hall as extra excitement.

A half-hour Uber-ride, and three centuries, away in central Bristol, Luke Wright was performing The Toll at the Wardrobe Theatre. This photo isn't quite right hair-wise, but I can't find one closer: the Johnny Bevan look is gone and it's boyish again ~ in fact Luke still complains he's I-Dd regularly when trying to do grown-up things. It's probably difficult to know how to follow a multi-award-winning show (for both acting and writing) and Luke has gone back to what he also does so well: intimate performance of powerful poems. His tour takes its name from his latest collection, but it's the chat that makes these poems ones to hear as well as read. Luke is a master of traditional formats and wordplay and wit, but it's his narrative ballads, serious, satirical & often sad, that stay. And I really like that he opened with one inspired by coming to Frome and seeing Cley Hill.

Which brings me nicely back home to Frome, where Wednesday was an excellent night at the Grain Bar Roots Session with Swampgrass, an amazing blues band from Glastonbury, ably supported by Julian (Bugs) Hight.

As winter creeps in there's been much lantern-making, in free workshops run by Mel Day and Aliss Vaas, where so many lanterns have been made I'm surprised there's not a national shortage of withies and tissue and sloppy white glue. It's all for a candlelit procession on December 1st, and this is Orion's creation in progress, being recorded by a Danish film crew who arrived in town last week to film the Doings of Frome ~ the sort of thing that often happens here.

Finally this week, Sunday's Chocolate Festival, an annual jollity when Cheese & Grain hall is crammed with stalls dedicated to all things chocolatey, from a recreation of Willy Wonka's Factory garden to chocolate shoes and make-up, there's every colour, texture, and flavour imaginable & then some more (lime & chilli is delicious) and the smells are amazing. Here's a glimpse of the crowded hall, with Empress of Chocolate herself, Jo Harrington, looking happy. As she should.  Now I'm off to nibble on a slice of Kraken Rum & Raisin Cheesecake. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

History decides winners... you may not always agree

A visit to the Wardrobe Theatre is always a delight: proper pub theatre in the heart of Bristol, only a short walk from the station via the new Avon footbridge, and more importantly every show I've seen there has been fantastic. How to Win Against History didn't break that record. Based on the true story of Henry Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey, this musical is fascinatingly entertaining not only because the three performers have masses of talent & charm but because Seiriol Davies's witty, absurd, script is based on intense research: this is a character study of weirdness uncontrolled by the usual social limits of access to funding. Henry's status allowed him extraordinary excesses. To quote the annotated script that I couldn't resist buying: 'Born to inherit the empire, instead he burned brightly, briefly, and transvestitely through his family's vast wealth, charging round Europe dressed as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine or sometimes a butterfly, in a car with rose-scented exhaust fumes...'  Henry died in 1905 aged only thirty, and his family erased every trace they could of his existence. The Evening Express headed their obituary 'A Wasted Life', and wrote reproachfully of the man who became bankrupt on £100,000 a year and 'bought diamonds as an ordinary man buys cigarettes'.  Social familiarity with psychiatric definitions was limited at that time, but envy of wealth wasn't. These days, when abuse of personal power is increasingly under scrutiny, the colourful exploits and foibles of this gentle, generous, man seem almost innocent. How to Win Against History is a co-production with Tobacco Factory Theatres. Image: Mihaela Bodiovic

A quick blast of music now: Rebel Heroes at the Cornerhouse, best Bowie tribute band I've yet heard...  and The Raggedy Men on  the busking stage dazzling a large crowd with their 70s retro-punk at the Independent Market last Sunday.
Stallholders and strollers enjoyed a wintry sun for this ~ I  popped into the Magpie market hall too, to check in with Frome Writers Collective and to take a look at Matt Straker's art in the Grain Bar.   And now the glitter-arti opening at Black Swan Arts is over, there's an opportunity for a quiet look at the exhibition of winners from an Open Arts contest that attracted over 900 entries. Viewer responses to the winning choices have been mixed: some find the pieces inscrutable and the artists' notes obfuscating, but then as Picasso said art should not aim to please. It all made for an interesting writing workshop on Monday, impressively led by Louise Green who suggested subterfuge as an overall theme: the artists' meanings concealed, as poets also often do. There's a link to our writerly responses here, and as contrast to the elusiveness of those ~ mainly pale-toned ~ exhibits, here's Matt's vigorous portrait of Dave Grohl. Exhibition on till end November.

Frome Writers Collective social evening at the Three Swans this month featured readings from the nine 'writers in residence' in shops and cafes during the festival. To suit the festival theme, the writers' trigger was a Jane Austen line: passionate Darcy's plea to Lizzie "Surely, you must know it was all for you." Responses ranged from humorous to murderous, poignant to absurd. Writer Tim Bates was chosen as this year's winner ~ fittingly perhaps, as it was his original idea for a one-day "sweatshop" that we pinched off Bruton Festival of Arts and brought to Frome...

I'm not familiar with Günter Grass's picaresque tale of the Nazi regime through the eyes of a perpetual child, but 'the team that brought you Dead Dog in a Suitcase' was enough to entice me to Bristol Old Vic to see The Tin Drum. As always with Kneehigh, the on-stage musicality is fantastic, visuals amazing with great use of shadows and symbols,  and a terrific ensemble performance team but this time though there's the usual verve, the story-telling feels weak. The first act is mostly personal back-story and only after the interval does a real sense of allegory develop. But Oskar as a puppet (created by Lyndie Wright) is superb, with an expression both wise and naive: despite his drum he's not an initiator and his observation seems more like the incomprehension of the little man than the deaf-dumb-blind secret power of a Tommy; neither the Messiah nor a very naughty boy, perhaps only a delusion of innocence. And there's memorable moments: one is when nice kind Alfred arrives home sporting a red armband, innocently excited by the new group forming to empower the lives of folk like them… and another is the trail of tiny refugees across bodies on the stage as the cast sing sadly. The end will either comfort or disappoint you.
Artistic Director Mike Shepherd's company is legendary, and for this production he has Ali Roberts (Tobacco Factory's loss) as Executive Producer as well as Carl Dead-Dog Grose as writer, and Charles Hazlewood composing and ~ well, it's Kneehigh, 'one of our liveliest national treasures' as The Times has sententiously observed, so book before the company heads on off on tour.  On till November 18th. Images Steve Tanner

Back to the present now, and the regular retelling of WWI history. Siegfried Sassoon is buried near Frome in Mells churchyard, and his grave always has flowers on November 11th. Sassoon like Wilfred Owen was unequivocal in his opposition to the conflict:
"You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by, 
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go."
Meanwhile in town the Cheese & Grain was enjoying a day of electric dreams, showing off a range of vehicles including the Mark 1 Tesla Roadster, Renault Zoe, & various bikes. Frome Car Club has gone electric so the Zoe is available to hire, but the Tesla is more photogenic. David Bowie's movie Labyrinth was shown in the afternoon, powered by Electric Pedals.
A frivolous footnote to conclude this melange of past & future: when you lick your first-class stamp to send those belated reciprocal festive greetings, give a thought to the cheery santa steering through a sky Van Gogh would have appreciated: this image, picked from over 9,000 entries, is by a young Frome artist: well done Ted Lewis-Clark! May all your moons be golden.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Art, drama, poets, rebels & reprobates: a busy week...

A big week for art in Frome, as Black Swan hosted their Arts Open event with a launch night crammed by celebrity judges of the ilk of Mariella Frostrup and sponsors like Hauser & Wirth and Babington. Naturally, with big names handing out big cash prizes, the private view was too rammed to really see any of the art but there were plenty of smiling faces and I do know that first prize, plus a mentoring award, went to Katherine Fry for her video of a woman sucking a table leg.
Also pictured: the installation which judge Seamus Nicolson feels represents contemporary confusion, and Bea Haines' Nest, picked by Rachael & Gary of PostScript for the 3D prize. I'll go back for a proper look at Words at the Black Swan workshop.

Straight on then to Merlin Theatre for Lemn Sissay giving a dramatic reading of his one-man play Something Dark Until earlier this year Lemn was mostly known as a performance poet struggling with a difficult past, but in May he took the extraordinary step of revealing that past not only to the world but to himself, on stage at the Royal Court, shifting his persona from entertainer to something more profound and precious. Lemn ~ his name, he discovered aged 32,  means 'Why'  ~ has experienced many shifts in his life. Fostered as 'Norman', shunted through care homes, crossing the world to find his family and meeting serial rejection, he now works actively with the Forgiveness Project. He sees his search for identity as both unique and universal. From his days as Chalky ~ 'I was nobody, so I became everybody's nobody' ~ to his ultimate acceptance of isolation from his real kin ~ 'Now I have a fully dysfunctional family just like everyone else!' Lemn Sissay finds connection with all of humanity, and a purpose for his own work.
     I am the bull in the china shop
     & with all my strength & will
     As a storm smashed the teacups
     I stood still.
 “It’s about opening up all the dark places that have been closed,” Lemn says “That’s what we’re doing here. We’re digging up the bodies.” Gladys Paulus, whose Hinterland exhibition recently caused such a sensation at Black Swan Arts, would understand that scouring of the past for healing.

From art and life to stage dramas ~ three of them, making for a busy homecoming. Bristol first. Waiting for Godot is so well-known as 'the play where nothing happens’ that any director must feel challenged about what special thing to bring to a new production. Director Mark Rosenblatt at Tobacco Factory brings various bits of things, like pantomime-style audience interaction and bits of slapstick. Estragon (a strong performance from David Fielder) brought a bit of Northern Irish anguish and Colin Connor’s Vladimir brought a bit of gurning comedy, John Stahl’s Pozzo was a bit Wildean and Chris Bianchi while memorably impressive as Lucky also looked a bit like Marley’s ghost; the set was a bit evocative of an unpopular Turner Prize, the costumes were a bit like a post-festival clothes-swap, and the music was... just a bit baffling. It would be good to say that the whole made something fantastic of these disparate parts, but I didn’t feel it did, and the reduced audience for the second act suggested others felt the same. Despite this being a play where nothing happens, there is actually a lot already in it, much of it mysterious and lyrical, exploring themes in the way dreams do. Friendship and freedom, loss and longing, power and personal choice, remembering and forgetting, the search for meaning and guidelines… all in a random repetitious way with no answers. Just like life, you could say. Previously, after tTF productions I'd head for my friend Bob’s place nearby to talk over a nightcap of other things like his passion for the Scottish highlands, but now he's gone to live full-time in a wee bothy or whatever it is highlanders dwell in, so I plodded back to desolate Templemeads to catch the midnight train to Frome reflecting that weird and hopeless as Beckett's script may be, its poetic intensity works best without diversions and, even with fine actors, his staging instructions need to be observed. Also feeling very grateful for the oasis of Wetherspoons. (Production now touring)

Then to Salisbury Playhouse for a play where lots happens, most of it criminal and all absurdly funny: The Ladykillers, produced in conjunction with New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich & Queen's Theatre Hornchurch has been adapted from the 1955 film by Graham (Father Ted) Lineham. There was an endearing innocence about those Ealing comedies, their Laurel-and-Hardy-level violence and humour, simplistic plots and signalled denouements. Anyone who remembered this one from 1955 would delight in the nostalgia, and anyone who didn’t would surely be delighted by the silliness and gags both spoken and visual, the criminal gang's surreal ‘concert’ which bookmarked the interval, and absurdly satisfying final outcome. The complex set was amazing and deserves a permanent place in a museum or at least a branch-line of its own. On a circular stage, a virtually-life-sized station-house rotated to alternately reveal its exterior, sometimes adorned by fleeing criminals, and its 2-storey interior where the cunning-planning and most of the action took place. Mrs Wilberforce (Ann Penfold) was a delightful antithesis to Miss Marple and the five crooks created their OTT character-types superbly, with each gruesome death impressively slick (special credit to bannister-breaking Sam Lupton's Harry and Damian Williams as One-Round, slow-witted even when knifed.) Director Peter Rowe led the production team: Foxton, as well as creating the set, designed the costumes supporting the 1950s look, and presumably also the clever illuminated model of the crime scene. Multiple murder really shouldn’t be so... delightful, once again, is the word. On till 18 November.

Criminals' comic capers on stage are ok when bags of cash are  involved, but terrorism is serious, and so is Daniel Khelmann's play Christmas Eve at Bath's Ustinov Studio Theatre.
Directed by Laurence Boswell in a translation by Christopher Hampton and with an awesomely strong cast, this tense two-hander creates in real-time the hour of interrogation room faced by academic Judith (Niamh Cusack) from a man unknown to her, whose tactics vary from psychological manipulation to browbeating challenge. It's not without dark humour too, mainly from Patrick Baladi who plays Thomas a bit like Gene Hunt from Life on Mars with just a touch of David Brent. It's a great performance, bringing believable complexity to his character even in the least plausible sequences, when  the play seems to be trying too hard to be enigmatic.    Personally I found the discussion of ideology and the dynamics of protest fascinating, though some reviewers might not, and felt the weakness in the script was its unconvincing twists and turns. But definitely recommended, as an entertaining and thought-provoking hour ~ it's on till November 18. I'm now committed to further  research Frantz Fanon, who as well as supporting redistribution of wealth 'no matter how devastating the consequences' wrote Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.  Which sounds like something Lemn Sissay would understand... and also segues nicely to my final review:

The week's not yet over but this post is already brimming with rebellious struggles and you probably have more to do than sit around reading blogs so I'll end with Thursday night at the Wheatsheaves (the pub with four names, aka also The Wheatsheaf, Frome's new Venue and 23A Bath Street): a rabble-rousing evening of post-punk songs and protest poetry organised by Momentum Frome.
After a stonking set of gloriously dissatisfied & disappointed songs from Beef Unit (FB 'band interest': our dystopian present), the headline act to a packed room was Attila the Stockbroker: (FB 'genre': Surrealist performance poetry, energetic acoustic songs, punk rock with medieval tinges! )
Attila talks a lot about politics and the need for social change, but he talks also about his life, growing up in Southwick (one of the 5 'most normal' towns in the country) with a stepfather he resented ~ though he's written a moving poem about reconciling with this 'decent gentle man' ~ about experiencing bladder cancer, nursing his mother, saving his football club, and how it feels to be still actively performing political protest poetry in a post-grime world... His book, ARGUMENTS YARD, which I was delighted to win in the raffle, is 'a cultural activist's eyewitness journey through the great political battles and movements of recent times.' And he's a terrific performer, with unfaltering focus on timeless class struggle, from medieval punk-folk ballads played on thrash mandolin to fresh-today rants and raves ("He's not the Messiah or a naughty boy, he's the man Murdoch wants to destroy - that's how we know he's the real McCoy, the man they call JC..."). And above all, he says, his message is a simple one: "You don't need to be a celebrity to have a wonderful life earning your living doing what you love." He does however add, "You just have to have a way with words, the self-confidence and organizational ability of Napoleon and a skin thicker than the armour of a Chieftain tank." But that's performance poets for you...