Sunday, September 15, 2019

The 'Showtime' edition, mostly

Let's start with a costume drama: Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of) is a refreshingly hilarious version of Jane Austen's most performed story presented by Bristol Old Vic with Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh as a Trom Theatre Company & Blood of the Young production: Six energetic young women take on 21 key roles with entertaining indifference to plausibility, Lizzie's father being played with surprising conviction by an armchair, and there are frequent expletives and bursts of cheesey pop songs, with several nods to other classic productions, as when Darcy arrives home and his baffled servant comments 'You're very dry, sir...'  What's particularly good about this high-spirited, wickedly funny, version - apart from the costumes and the general absurdity - is the clear focus on the economic situation which was Jane Austen's real motivation in creating a household where the iniquitous laws of male inheritance would devastate the lives of six women, unless one of them at least could snare a man - but not silly Lydia's way, causing her mum to lament ‘who would touch any of you with a shitty stick now?'
There are so many moments of sheer delight created by this multi-roling cast it seems unfair to have a favourite, but Meghan Tyler's vulgar, outspoken, lovely Lizzie would be mine - here she is with wicked Wickham (Felixe Forde) at a moment of temptation. Isobel McArthur, also Mr Darcy, was the writer and Paul Brotherston directed. On in Bristol till 27 September before touring until spring 2020.

It takes a really special talent to range from witty impro chairing of  TV's HIGNFY to the sinister hitman in Pinter's The Birthday Party last year at the Harold Pinter Theatre  but Stephen Mangan can, which is why I was really keen to see The Man In The White Suit on stage at Theatre Royal Bath this week. So keen that I actually bought a ticket - press seats are unavailable before its West End premiere at Wyndhams - and called it my birthday present to myself. So this is not a review, merely a personal appreciation, and as there are no production photos available apart from the promotional one which makes it look truly terrible, here's an image from What's On Stage of Stephen Mangan as Sidney Stratton with Kara Tointon as the skirt interest.
Set in the optimistic 50s. when skiffle dominated the teen scene and the quest for durable, rather than disposable, products was still an industrial aim, the storyline is simple: an amiable young inventor aims to create an everlasting fabric to make life easier for everyone, but neither the profiteering manufacturers nor the salary-conscious workers actually want it... out of this slender cloth a hugely entertaining drama is fabricated, with major credit to the energetic cast, especially to wonderfully endearing Stephen Mangan whose escapes and confrontations must surely have given him some bruises in rehearsals... With a plot-line half-way between Professor Branestawm and the Big Bang boys, it's all mainly slapstick and fish-fights (don't ask) but there's a slender thread of seriousness: the inventor's appeal 'More and more clothes is not the answer -some day it will all catch up with us!' raised audience applause, and there were jeers at greedy capitalist's threat 'For the good of the country, laws can be circumvented, even Parliament prorogued!' At least I think they were jeers, you never can tell with Bath.
After two such dazzling and inventive parodies perhaps New Old Friends was inevitably disadvantaged in terms of creating dramatic impact with their production Crimes on the Coast which premiered at the Merlin on Friday. The concept seemed promising: a Poirot pastiche held by one narrator, with three lively actors playing every other role aided by stand-in costumes when necessary, but the script was long-winded and the narrative voice lacked impact. There were some entertaining moments - the intrusion of puppets, and false legs to create a small boy - but the overall storyline is slow-moving and incoherent. It might work better in a studio setting, with more audience connection, rather than on a large stage.

Part-performance, part-music event, Vicki Burke gathered quite a party on Sunday to film the chorus - with dance - for her upcoming video project Magic Money Tree (Crowdfunder link here.) Vicki has recorded some of the musicians and Sunday's sunshine was a great opportunity to film the song: here's Howard Vause describing his concept as we gather around the oak tree in Rodden Meadow. - sounds like this will be another great video from this innovative director.

Moving now to music performance, and a highlight at Wednesday's Roots Session at the Grain Bar as The Raggedy Men held a full-house audience rapt - though not too rapt for dancing between the tables... There were several new numbers in this high-energy 75minute set but nobody tires of their fabulously-revisited classics like Teenage Kicks, Guns of Brixton, and (always my favourite) No More Heroes...

And by popular demand, Splat the Rat were at the Cornerhouse on Saturday with their rapid-fire take on folk classics like the Irish Rover - sadly without amazing 'box-banger' Sultan Vinegar, but with a strong drummer stand-in. Jazz on a Sunday night at the Cornerhouse is always a great way to end the week, especially after an exceptionally sunny day: Grahm Dent's trio had as guest for this month's session guitarist Martin Kolarides for an evening of laid-back musicality - I especially enjoyed their version of Thelonious Monk's feisty number Well You Needn't.

A literary event to conclude this bulletin, with the Society of Authors lunch in Bath organised by Diana Cambridge: an excellent light meal at the Bath & County Club in Queens Parade followed by a well-pitched short talk by Nic Bottomly, aka Mister Bee from Mr B's Emporium, the bookshop with a difference.  Self-published books now outnumber conventionally-published ones, with active local promotion more important to authors than ever now amazon has pushed the trade into so precarious a state, but the good news is that this is the third consecutive year of growth for bookshops. Interestingly, the book trade was one of the first businesses to be hit by amazon, but the survivors of that blitz are successfully fighting back with 'extreme customer service and passionate bookselling' - Frome's Hunting Raven Books is another good example of this - and the trend to environmental awareness is helping stabilise high street trade too. A fascinating summary with an encouraging conclusion for writers of all genres.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Summer has come and passed...

A last look back at summer now, in an immaculately trimmed Home Counties garden, a long time ago : Alan Ayckbourn's first play Relatively Speaking has been revived at Salisbury Playhouse by Wiltshire Creative in a superb in-the-round production. It’s 1965, era of Dollyrocker dresses and The Temptations, London notoriously burgeoning with a new emerging cultural energy while the Home Counties strive to maintain middle class morals and values. When Relatively Speaking opened in London two years later, the evolving scene was reaching its peak in the ‘summer of love’ and this comedy was perfectly pitched, winning rave reviews and establishing Alan Ayckbourn’s reputation at a humorous dramatist.
Historic pieces are always interesting to see in revival, and this is a phenomenally good one: the set alone raised applause, especially when the bed morphed into a lily pond complete with fountain. Converting the main house to an in-the-round venue is masterly, allowing James Button's effective evocation, with Chris Davey's lighting, of both the London flat and the affluent Buckinghamshire garden. The cast are splendid: Hubert Burton as the naive younger man in love with Ginny (Louise Calf),  Tim McMullan as the man he asks for her hand in a misunderstanding only the audience is following, and Caroline Harker as Sheila, bemused but endlessly hospitable as her garden fills with people talking at cross purposes.
Directed by Jo Newman and showing till 28th September - worthing going for an evening of laughter especially if you feel this would be a good time to slip back fifty years a more optimistic past.

Frome Writers Collective recommenced the monthly get-together evening at the Three Swans with an event I sadly missed - my fingers are beginning to type that phrase on auto, sigh - which from reports was much enjoyed: the readings, by their authors, of the stories created by the Writers In Residence at Frome Festival, back in July. 
In case composing a tale 'in residence' sounds a leisurely sort of activity, these brave scribes are 'residing' for couple of hours in public, in a shop or cafe, responding to an unknown prompt delivered in sealed envelope at the start of their enterprise, and their efforts are seized on completion of the specified time... it's writing, Jim, but not as we know it.  Lots of enjoyment though, and all the results admired, with Sarah Deacon's piece chosen as winner of the Alan Somerville award, duly presented on Monday by his wife Jo. Here's Sarah back in June, busy spinning the web of words that won the judges' hearts.

Also on the theme of Frome's writers, Nikki Lloyd was selected as a reader at September's Novel Nights in Bath at Burdall's Yard. This prestigious event follows an effective formula: the first half is a 'writers' showcase' introduced by organiser Grace Palmer and, after a short networking break, Colette Hill introduces a talk, this one by The Bath Novel Awards - immenstely interesting to all fiction writers. Sadly I was already committed, but I look forward to hearing about this from my writing group. I don't know who took the picture of Nikki for their flyer (not me, though I wish it had been!)

Two new exhibitions opened at Black Swan Arts on Friday. The Long Gallery features work by Fiona Hingston: The English Woman's Flora consists of 3D floral sprigs made from wire, masking tape, and graphite, all based on the illustrations in the Observer Book of Wild Flowers. Each one takes an hour and a half to create, so the 200 exhibits here represent 300 hours of work.
The Round Tower also has a new exhibition, showing the work of the Black Swan Guild in response to the theme BODY:art. This varied and very impressive collection from ten guild members also includes pieces by 3 guest artists and represents a fascinating variety of amazing work, from a vivid study for a cobra tattoo to Dan Morley's delicate drawings of his partner's tiny earring. Kate Cochrane's series of scary images of the Skeleton Woman fascinated me too - a really interesting variety of interpretations on the theme - on till 6 October.
Frome hasn't yet settled into its autumnal rhythm of regular events music-wise, but on Thursday The Valley with Nicola Mascall and Steve Loudoun brought their funky country style with an edge of reggae rhythms to an appreciative audience at the Cornerhouse.

Nunney Acoustic Cafe returned after its summer break for an afternoon of varied musical acts. Frome duo Harding McCabe took the main guest spot with an all-original set including some experimental approaches and themes ranging from flâneuring in London to the voyages of Odysseus.  Strong support acts included Shane Fry with Charles Daniel, Paul Kirtley, and two talented youngsters: Ezra Herring on keyboard and Ben Remington on electric guitar,.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Outdoor activities in a mellow autumn week

Bank holiday Monday found the Bones music gang once again in Rode Mill, as friendly landlord John so enjoyed the previous event he invited the whole team back to do it all again. A great atmosphere, with several youngsters requesting favourite numbers or dancing along.

The LISTEN summer of sound art project, which began at the end of July and extended throughout August, has now drawn to a close after an amazing variety of events across Frome, including talks, concerts, installations, workshops, exhibitions and walks. The Poetry in Motion team, which has offered walks inspired by a wide range of local characters over the last few years, had a slightly different line-up for this event, partly for the sad reason of Martin Bax's ill-health, and partly because our subject was Emma Sheppard, the long-undervalued reforming Victorian who John Payne and I have been researching for over a year. Joining us for this walk were Emma-experts Nick Hersey and Liz Corfield, and soundman John Corfield to ensure the large group of walkers heard every word. Their response of was very encouraging, and an MP3 recording will follow, for those who missed the event. Here's me holding forth on Emma's work with prostitutes which, by defying the Victorian trope of female moral frailty and the impossibility of rehabilitation, places her firmly with the early pre-feminists. Thanks Mel Dsy for the 2 pix.

Still in Frome for this week's brief glimpse of local music, most of which I sadly missed, the annual All Roads Lead To Frome event at Cheese & Grain with 20 bands filled Saturday with sound from noon till 10pm, using both stages to avoid even momentary breaks. (These identified as the "Hey Didn't The Foo Fighters Play That Stage" Stage and the "I Knew Frank Turner Before He Was Famous" Stage) Popular reggae band Irie Fire headlined - here's Ghost of the Avalanche also on the Foo, aka Main, Stage.

Further afield now, in Ebbor Gorge. This amazing woodland site in the limestone Mendip hills has caves and streams - and forest sculpture - and fabulous views across to Glasonbury and beyond from the top of this National Trust Nature Reserve.  The option of short scrambles as well as long treks, and the luscious scenery and serene picnic pitches, makes this a perfect place for a family trip:

Ending with a couple of nice local footnotes in a dark week: nationally: Happy 80th birthday to Christine Goodman, mother to talented musicians Mike and David and ballet dancer Clare, and herself a creative contributor to Frome's Memorial theatre.

And celebrating a life rather than an anniversary: here's what the Boyles Cross in Frome has looked like since news of the death,  hours of her death, floral tributes to Lisa Wells, the inspirational young woman whi started 'Lisa's Army' to support sufferers of bowel cancer like herself, co-wrote a book for children coping with parental illness, - Only One of Me - and was involved with a wide range of supportive events. She died on August 17 and by the next weekend the fountain in the town centre was surrounded by flowers in bouquets and containers with moving personal tributes. They have been  renewed daily, with new balloons and personal messages.

Monday, August 26, 2019

A dab of history & lashings of Bank Holiday sunshine

First to Bristol, where South-West based physical theatre company Le Navet Bete has unleashed their current touring show The Three Musketeers in Bristol Old Vic, recreating rollicking tales of 17th Century intrigue in a re-envisaging of the daring deeds of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis - and of course d'Artagnan - with a cast of royalty, whores, conspirators, spies, monarchs, as well as the evil Cardinal Richelieu... it's all loosely grounded in Alexandre Dumas' fictional historical tales but with firmer affiliation to physical theatre capers and Young Ones style comedy.
Some of the best bits are sheer pantomime - as when action moves to England with a duck-shooting scene on the estate of the Duke of Buckingham, and the audience becomes energetically involved in providing a torrent of mortally wounded ducks... Programme notes don't differentiate between performers - Dan Bianchi, Nick Bunt, Al Dunn, and Matt Freeman - but the script is credited to director John Nicholson, and the actors too, so this truly is a team effort. The set was designed by Ti Green and is complex enough for high-energy antics though unfortunately with a focus on extreme right of the stage which means if you're seated in the Dress Circle 'on the site of the original 1766 Row box' you miss any glimpse some of the crucial scenes.  Still, only 15 quid for over two hours of absurd comedy, and touring till October, so worth catching if you can.

Back in Frome, as usual there's been much live music. Tuesday saw the inaugural meeting of a new Open Mic event at the Three Swans, a great sing-along event where Paul Kirtley & I did our occasional double-act comprising my satiric protest-poem Bungee Jumping Crumblies and his song in response, and several new voices joined Paul for this now-monthly venture. Thanks Steve for the pic.

An excellent Roots session on Wednesday featured Phil Cooper with his Slight Band, supported by Jamie H Hawkins, who joined Phil on stage for a couple of numbers, too.
Both these singer-songwriters write their own material: Jamie's song Walking Into Doors is an especially poignant and powerful example of his skill. Phil's performance is alsways gripping, and he has a great knack of getting the audience to sing-along - and even rattle-a-shaky-egg-along. The track Only a Song from Phil's CD Thoughts and Observations gives a good idea of his range and intimate personal style.

Pete Gage at the Cornerhouse on Friday launched a scorching hot Bank Holiday weekend in style with his legendary blues-rock band, and Paul Kirtley's Bones gang were back with their charity buckets on Monday with a new host: The Mill at Rode, an idyllic venue for a sunny afternoon, with an excellent barbecue too.  Paul's closing song, the Woodstock classic, summed up the mood of the whole event: We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden...
In fact everyone had such a good time that landlord John asked the band - and the barbecue - to do it all again on Bank Holiday Monday, so if you're reading this on posting date you can get along to the Rode and re-live the dream yourself.  And if not, have a great week anyway: simple pleasures are essential in troubled times. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

Back in the real world, Frome-style

Let's start with an argument- with William Boyd's The Argument at Theatre Royal Bath,  as part of their lively Summer Season. This is a stylish comedy of manners - a Restoration Comedy for the 21st Century, perhaps, as it has all the elements: amorousness, deceit, conflict, and satiric parody of social mannerisms. There's a cast of six and action spans ten scenes and several weeks in four domestic locations, all cunningly contrived in seconds by shifting backdrops and key props. This impressive stage design was by Simon Higlett and insured an energetic pace, as did imaginative direction by Christopher Luscome, enhancing a script which has vigour but not much variety within a very narrow social strata - upper-middle to upper class, all casually announcing their pedigree in dialogue as in some early radio plays.
Meredith’s marriage to Pip is on the blink - no surprise there as she’s a shrew who'd need a Petruchio to tame her, rather than nondescript Pip - and the premise strenuously maintained is that when any two people come together, they argue.
While the oldies bicker about the breakup, Pip’s friend Tony (who Pip grabbed by the throat in an argument) even manages to argue with Meredith’s friend Jane (who was thrown out by Meredith after an argument) simply because he, Tony, didn’t like the way she, Jane, ended her sentences on an upward note so they sounded, like, questions?  You get the impression that such contemporary trends, including the ubiquitous use of mobile phones, irritate the writer enough to shoehorn them in for conspiratorial audience mirth.
The scenes with Felicity Kendal, in a role more like the The Good Life’s Margot than Barbara yet still irresistibly alluring, with Rupert Vansittart  were the most satisfying as individual cameos, as some of the other scenes seem merely pieces of the jigsaw. It takes 80 minutes to finish the picture, and from the final applause it appeared the Bath audience had enjoyed them all.

Music now, and within nine hours of touchdown after 17 hours travel and a 16 degree temperature drop, I was at Hauser & Wirth's Radić Pavilion where Canadian veteran folk singer Old Man Luedecke was joined by the Hoodoos, self-tagged 'swampy, bluesy, folksy' and featuring the fabulous vocal harmonies of sister Yvonne and Mary. This is definitely one of the 'now' bands locally - watch out for them on Visual Radio Arts next month!
Paul Kirtley's mission to raise £5000 for Bone Cancer Research continues, with another house party at the Artisan on Friday. The Bones 'house band' performed in split incarnation, as guitarists Paul and David Goodman had a change of bass and cajon player for their second set. Most of the songs were familiar favourites but Paul also included a moving song of his own composed for a lost friend: There's a blue boat out in the harbour.'

Guests once again were The Decades with a lively set including a superb version of Dido's Thank you and a sparky rendition of that Fun Boy Three's 1981 classic The Lunatics have Taken Over The Asylum - great variety and energy from this popular foursome.

Sunday night's jazz at the Cornerhouse with Graham Dent's trio featured this month the gorgeous voice of Emma Harris with a varied repertoire including the hauntingly beautiful Gregory Porter song There will be no love that's dying here for me.

And I'm including this image from a party on Sunday afternoon because it shows an instrument I'd never heard of - the ronroco, a Venezualian version of the ukelele, similar to the charango but more baritone. So there you are, the blog that informs as well as bragging about the awesome creativity of Frome.

The Listen project at Black Swan Arts has been offering a range of events throughout the month,  and the Listening Hub at the Round Tower has continued its esoteric 'Playlists' available daily on headphones - on Saturday I caught some of composer Helen Ottaway's choice, a Peter Greenaway film about John Cage, who she has worked with and much admires.  This is project of fascinating diversity but it's difficult to illustrate the concept of listening as art, so instead here's a more visible display, from the current Hauser & Wirth exhibition of Unconscious Landscape - works by female contemporary artists.  Spider, a bronze piece by Louise Bourgeoise made in 1966, dominates the gallery, and apparently represents protective motherhood. I liked it.
And despite the systemic trauma of returning from sizzling sunshine to rain and unseasonal chilliness, it's lovely to be home in Frome, where blackberries are already hanging along the path across the Dippy and the purple blaze of rose-bay-willow-herb is becoming a white forest of feathery fans as the petals fall. Autumn is arriving, surprisingly early, but then autumn always does...

Monday, August 12, 2019

A detour of 1,500 miles to a small sun-soaked island...

Programme announcement: This post contains no Frome-related data so please go to social media for reports of the excellent events of the last couple of weeks - I shall have to, as I missed Independent Market at the seaside, Nunney Street Fayre bands at the castle, and The Hoodoos at the Cornerhouse - to name but three.
In replacement, here’s a brief bulletin about another creative community, on the Greek island of Skyros which hosts holidays with a difference, viz: an ethos of connection and contribution, and with personal development activities ranging from kayaking and abseiling to creative writing (my privilege to offer) and lashings of soul stuff like yoga and other bodywork, music and dancing. Within two-weeks, a community blossoms swiftly like one of those big Peruvian magnolias, nurtured by connections from co-listening one-to-ones, œkos group check-ins and a daily meeting of the full community. If this sounds an ambitious project for 100-or-so people, mostly strangers on arrival, all living in a hut camp, then remember the location is a pine-covered bay on the Aegean sea with sunshine from early morning till after 8pm when the clear cerulean sky began its nightly flooding of myriad pinks to mauve and gold  as the huge orb of sun drops like a blob of ketchup and the silver sea glimmers into darkness.
So this is a fabulous place to swim and walk, sing and talk, and to connect with others and yourself. About seventy of us, including twenty children of varying ages - running feral to varying degrees - were supported by a resilient team of ‘work scholars’ - mainly students on a break - and permanent staff. Add absence of internet and you have the complete concept: a re-imagining of society, no less. It is a fact, however, that even ardent supporters of this beautiful concept, like me, head daily to the Sunset Cafe on the cliff which has espresso coffee and (intermittent) wifi, and always a welcome from Marianna and her team. This is where my writing groups worked each morning, in what became a master-class. The 'sunset writing' session before supper was fabulous too, with work-scholars also 'dropping in' each evening, after the more strenuous sessions, to join the group in the terrace bar.

The mid-course weekend brings my highlight: a group walk to town, nine miles across the island from rural isolation into an alternative reality of surprising sophistication.  Skyros town, the chora of the island, though charmingly still called 'the village' by our organisers, is in fact a large & growing conurbation of city-style sophistication, visited extensively by Athenians and with every facility they would expect to enjoy. When I first arrived in the final decade of the last century, old men here still wore the traditional island garb of pantaloons and stockings, and front doors were proudly open to show displays of pottery and bronze plates - these are still features, though less obvious from the street.  The amazing hilltop Faltaits Museum has a complete cultural history of this feisty island, the only one in the Aegean Sea to confront the pirates on their ransacking routes, and neither defeat nor be defeated by them, but instead to barter for samples of their loot and then to copy these stolen crafts of weaving, woodwork, metalwork, and pottery - hence the rich tradition of Skyrian art today. Skyros town is surprisingly like Frome physically too, with its steep & cobbled ancient streets, and an amphitheatre getting ready for a band that night. There's one big difference: the long soft sandy shore, sunshine at near 30°C all week, and my stroll through town took me from an afternoon at funky Juicy beach-bar to an evening of sophisticated shopping opportunities, restaurants, and rooftop bars - we chose the one on top of the Bank of Greece, which seemed both ironic and appropriate.

Final footnote for this fortnight is an off-piste book recommendation: since deciding to conclude my happy career of deconstructing fiction, my reading in that genre has been virtually zilch but I picked from the shelf here Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England, and honestly have never read so convincing an account of how our nation degenerated so swiftly from a jolly country with a proud tradition of cricket, beer and irony into a an ignorant, racist snarling brawl, inspiring bewilderment and derision the world over.  Here you'll meet the genteel, ageing, middle classes whose resentment of PC-ness rumbled into racism, fuelled by inept leaders, lazy journalists and outright corrupt bankrollers, all spawned from inbuilt systems of snobbery and complacency… this would be dystopian if it wasn’t, tragically, simply an accurate tracking of the last decade. Buy, borrow, or beg your Book Group to read this novel - it may be to late to save us from chaos but it’s not too late to understand.

I'll end with a return to the raison d'etre for my sunshine sojourn: working & talking about writing, with some fabulously creative writers - thanks Alice, for the snap.