Sunday, January 16, 2022

Fast dance, slow art, & Boxes - a week of permitted joys

We live in interesting times, don't we? This is allegedly a Chinese curse but 2022 is taking it literally. Parties and protests, operation Big Dog/ this is the background to January's blog, as Julie Andrews might not have trilled in 1965. However this is an arts blog, so ignoring protest marches & the bumper batch of bulletins about ludicrous misbehaviour in the corridors of power, let's go direct to Frome's Merlin Theatre for a double bill of talent and innovation on Saturday night. First aKa dance theatre presented a speechless solo show of brilliant parody, dance, mime, and mimicry all exquisitely synched to a clever topical soundtrack.  A Real Fiction (do check this link) had the circle of audience transfixed by stunning moves and surreal comedy, including an 'intermission' where we all got jellybabies and concluding with a short series of 'out-takes'.  Next, the fable of Pandora's box was given a new twist with puppetry and current context by Kerchief Theatre in their short performance Boxes - basically a simple piece of story-telling made enchanting by the rapport between the two women performers, Esme Patey-Ford and Maddy Herbert, emerge from boxes with different perspectives which are increasingly highlighted throughout their drama, ultimately resolved not by 'hope' as an  abstract injunction but by their playful Tiktok. There's more about this delightful production here.  

From hi-energy drama to silent art, as Black Swan Arts has re-opened the Long Gallery after its long break for Slow Time, a fascinating exhibition of pin-hole camera photographs taken in Somerset on long settings - a week, a month, or longer. This project began as a creative response to lockdown, inspired initially by Steve Poole & Jannette Kerr who provided neighbours and friends with pin-hole cameras created in cans, and a brief to leave them in any situation for long enough to register the changes of light over time. With support from John Gammans of Somerset Arts Work, this project developed into a fascinating collection of images that in their distorted stillness seem to chime with the strange life-reorientations of our community during these times of stillness imposed by the pandemic. Here's Steve showing me a typical pinhole camera, and one of the images created by months beside an immobilised concrete works when the passing of daylight was its only illumination. (workshops available - check Black Swan site.)

Other than that, my week has had a focus on written word: two live writers' group meetings, now that we're allowed indoors, a meeting of Hunting Raven's Proof Pudding Book Club at River House on Sunday, plus a zoom discussion with Hazel Stewart on the progress of our twin-twin poetry collection (two writers, two reading routes) now that our commissioned cover imagery* has been delivered to our publisher. What's it like for you? and Dance for Those Who'd Rather Not are both pamphlet-length collections jointly devised, exploring & expressing our personal themes as well as our long friendship: we're both beyond thrilled that this Caldew Press, who recently published John Hegley's collection A Scarcity Of Biscuit, has now added us to his stable of quirky poets. *images available soon!

Patchy sun this week has allowed for some very pleasant local walking too, so to conclude this chat on disparate topics, here's Nunney Church looking particularly lovely as the snowdrops in the graveyard start to flower.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Rainy with a chance of Blues

To begin at the end of the week, the undoubted highlight of the year so far was Sunday's gig at The Bell in Bath, with an incredible line-up of top class blues musicians: Jon Amor (guitar & vocals), Pete Gage (keyboard & vocals), Tom Gilkes (drum & percussion), Jerry Soffe (bass) and Eddie Martin (guitar, harp & vocals). 
These musicians are all top class creatives with huge audience-impact in their presentation - I haven't the skills for anything like a coherent review of their musical techniques but their performance together is sensational. The Bell is a great music pub too: raised stage and space for dancing, and an avid audience.

Also with the music, Eleanor Talbot, Frome's international broadcaster on wide-ranging topics, aired another of her popular  'Trash or Treasure' sessions. This was recorded in Ellie's living room last week, with her cats, fizz and cakes, and with Rosie Eliot & me as adjudicating guests. Great fun to participate, and fascinating to listen to such an esoteric mix, expertly guided by Ellie's extensive knowledge of the music world. My personal list would be less esoteric: current 'treasure' is Wet Leg, currently following their brilliant Chaise Longue song with Too Late Now and hopefully heralding a year when bonkers productions are in vogue, as this would be useful for me and Hazel when our double poetry collection What's it Like for You?/Dance for Those who'd Rather Not comes out with Caldew Press this spring. Our awesome cover design is still in progress with ON FIRE so instead here's Wet Leg in their current video 

No theatre shows this week, but the good news that Plays International has gone online, under the editorship of Jeremy Malies, which means my reviews will be immediately available, rather than in 3-monthly chunks which doesn't always help to promote the show. There's a historical archive too, where i'm pleased to see my piece about my father is currently resting...

Finally, an artsy tip for those still unsure of travel: The National Gallery is sharing short 'taster' films about their exhibitions paintings free online: this week's subject was Durer, who appears to have had a healthy respect for his own -undoubtedly magnificent - talent as both a print-maker and a painter. 

Other than these highlights, it was a quietly pleasant week for me: meeting friends and fellow writers, cat-sitting, a meal at Frome's excellent Italian restaurant Castello, and a lot of writing... the  promised snow didn't arrive but at least the bin-men did, clearing away the last of the festivities as rain settled in.  And Stephen Mangan won the House of Games weekly quiz challenge hosted by Richard Osman. 


Sunday, January 02, 2022

Here comes another year, just like the other year...

Bruce Munro's distinctive 'Field of Light' art installation has come to Frome! Well, to Marston Park, actually, the popular glamping site just a 30 minutes walk from Frome, past the threatened southern fields which - if we can't hold back development plans - will all become Frome anyway soon. Anyway, at present there's no residential light contamination around the beautiful big lake, one side of which is adorned for what seemed like (but probably isn't) about a mile of luminous spider-web adorned with thousands of bubbles, flowing in colour from blue to green to pink, purple, and gold. It was a mild night, and the free invitation to locals included a complementary drink (my pick was a negroni, for a touch of scarlet beside the lake) - a sensational enhancement of that tricky last day of the old year.

This 'tricky bit' has been more tricky than usual this year, with parties cancelled and continuing anxiety over every aspect of the news, now the dreaded 'big C' no longer means an overly-commercial event but an international plague. For me the unexpected option of a Boxing Day walk brilliantly illuminated this tween-time week, literally in fact as sunshine reddened the beech-leaf carpet of Roddenbury Hillfort, turning the hilltop into a stage-show of dramatic shadows. I've posted before about this amazing place, just on the edge of Longleat forest, where the contours of Iron Age settlement fortifications are still decipherable as you walk through the lofty trees, without foliage transformed into splendid columns. (Regular readers may notice this data also appears in last week's post: that's because it was a Sunday walk & therefore on the posting-cusp, plus this edition is a bit thin on items, what with the 'tween' lull & covid cancellations.)*

New Year's Eve brought a lovely non-crammed party with friends, chats & fizz - thanks Tracey for the selfie, with hostess Rosie Eliot. Social media has been awash with shared good wishes and positive images, and our Town Council site has posted - here - a wonderful round-up of last year in snaps of successful projects, celebrations, and policies in action.
Rodden Nature Reserve, on the Eastern edge of Frome, is an amazing wetland space which isn't always open to visitors, as the many wild species, some quite rare, need privacy in their breeding seasons. It needs stout boots, but lingering there always brings rewards of birdsong & tranquility, and photographs. My visit this Sunday gave more: a close encounter with an otter!
About ten feet in front of me, standing in shallow water, staring at me. I stood still, not daring to raise my camera, and after a few seconds he darted through the rushes to deeper water, the ripples to showing he was swiftly away. A memorable start to 2022.

Also a good omen, a live music gig: Pete Gage,
Frome's favourite keyboard/vocal star, was featured guest at the Southgate Inn in Devizes when John Amor's R&B trio (Innes Sibun, Jerry Soffe, and Tom Gilkes) played on Sunday afternoon. In the depth of winter, an afternoon gig feels very much like a late night session, and this one had all the energy of a party-night - with Ruzz Guitar joining in with a rocking number.

The more persistent of my readers will recall that the first blog of each new year generally begins with Brendan Kennelly's wonderful poem Begin Again, but for this year's reflection here is some poignant simplicity from Ezra Pound:
    'And the days are not full enough
    And the nights are not full enough
    And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.'

*You might also notice the font on this post is bigger than usual:comments on this, as in better/worse, will be appreciated - you can do this by clicking the 'comments' link at the end of the blog.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Winter dramas, walks, and a rapid retrospective

Once again the high season for family theatre has been spiked by anxiety about indoor gatherings, for all but our political leaders anyway, so a production of Hansel & Gretel in Bristol couldn't be more timely.  'Stories you know in places you don't' is this company's tagline, and for most of us, Arnos Vale Cemetery is certainly an unusual venue to stage a fairytale. At night - we arrived when this woodland gravesite was already in darkness - this extensive garden cemetery is quite something: Inspired by Parisian cemeteries and aiming to emulate Greek architecture, this extraordinary park for the dead was opened at the start of Victoria's reign and is now filled with a gravestones, towering pillars, and massive monuments like a ghost city - the perfect place for one of Grimm's terrible tales of unhappy children and wicked witches...  
Insane Root's version, taking small groups at a time on an hour's tour of both the tale and the woodland, had a wonderful energy that was accessible but still lyrical and fantastic: the journey through dark paths led separately by both children (we were in Hansel's group, he was brilliant) was the unforgettable highlight of a magical show. We were asked not to take photos, so these are downloaded, they don't convey the magic. Book by January 1st, it's like nothing else you'll see this year.

With online productions the only other theatrical option in times of plague, those clever Sharp Teeth people came up with another solve-it-at-home murder mystery: Sherlock Holmes III - Murder at the Games. It's a fully audience-participation created drama, with the script created by our detecting interrogations as inspired by plot prompts and steered by six artistically presented 'case files' which some of the audience in my 'discussion room' had clearly studied shrewdly. Personally I was just in awe of their slick expertise in people skills as well as dramatic intrigue. The final reveal is satisfyingly in line with classic whodunnit plotting & immorality, and the eight performers are all delightfully kitsch.  Joinable until 8 January - great fun.

So the big 3 days have trundled by, and I hope they were good for you: here's my favourite picture from today - sunny Roddenbury Hill on a family Boxing Day walk.
This beech-covered hillside is extraordinary in that it dramatically shows the contours of its history as an Iron-age fort, with several of the protective banks clearly in residual evidence. It's also just a beautiful place to roam in all seasons.

So as this is my official End Of Year post, even though we're not yet at the official start of 2022, here's some wind-up moments and personal awards. With Zoom-widened audiences, it's been a great year for performance of both drama and poetry, with impressive online initiatives early in the year as well as great live shows later on. My top pick of the former is Wardrobe's The Great Gatsby, for the latter,  in a hot contest it's Wuthering Heights, bursting onto Bristol Old Vic's stage in November. 
 Also in terms of live performance, massive credit to Martin Dimery and the team for a triumphant return of Frome Festival with a programme brimming with glittering highlights - especially the music sessions organised by Dave Smith, and the performances on the Merlin's ECOS amphitheatre: The Tempest from Folksy Theatre was my favourite, after - of course - the Poetry Cafe, an amazing finale to my 21 years of promoting spoken word in Frome, though this won't cause the finale of that genre. The HOT Poets  initiative has recently produced some impressive ecological poems, and the return of live bands to local venues brought special joy: Bar Lotte deserves a special mention for fabulous Wednesday night jazz sessions, but the Raggedy Men - post-punk punks - at The Sun in November stand out as unforgettable.

There have been several superb exhibitions of art, craft, and photography in Frome: September's display of responses to the pandemic curated by Active & In Touch was inspiring but my personal pick has to be David Moss at the Silk Mill, because this gave me the cover picture for my August publication of Deja Lu. with Hobnob Press. And credit goes also to writer Claire Reddaway who kept our spirits up with her Kilter Theatre collaboration of readings in Storyopathy, which encouraged me to compile this collection.   
This year was the first time for me in over 25 years with no trip abroad (these were mostly working trips, btw, leading writing courses) - but an away-weekend to Wales in May was a highlight - here's the impressive Dolgoch Falls, highlight of a camping trip to Tywyn. 

So after a quick flip through some of the highlights that illuminated my 2021 like that wonderful lantern parade in Frome, here's with a memory of that night: created by Frome people under guidance of Frome artists with support from Frome Town Council and our internationally-famous punk Mayor Andy...  I hope your own reflections on the year we're leaving have been - mostly - happy too.  

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Decisions and revisions which a ruling will reverse...

Sadly but inevitably, Nunney Acoustic Café - a major music venue just outside Frome -  cancelled their Christmas party this weekend, planned as a 2-day event to celebrate the ending of those months of disappointing restrictions.  Luckily however, although Stalbridge is a bit further away - in fact, over the border in Dorset - in this delightful
 little village the Guggleton Farm Arts centre has an outdoor concert-hall (ie large yard) with a covered stage. Here on Friday night, eight brilliant acts played and sang under the stars to an appreciative audience, sustained by a bar and fresh-made pizzas, until nearly midnight. Performers included Frome favourites The MellowTones (pictured) and Nunney's Francis Hayden, as well as six other solo acts, a mix of covers and original compositions. 
Of the former, I especially enjoyed the set from Nick Coleman which included a fabulously evocative version of Radiohead's Creep... A really wonderful party-night event, despite the cold. We may need more outdoor events like this as the weeks crawl past on their relentless way.
Meanwhile, Rosco Shakes at Bar Elle on Wednesday will probably be the last indoor gig of the year for me -  a brilliant finale, though, as the lads never fail to deliver fantastic rhythm&bluesy jazz. 

Words now, with the Frome Writers on Radio festive edition now available online from Frome FM: the opening interview with Tina Gaysford-Waller (at 4.45) on her recommendations features local authors published by Hobnob, including poetry from Pete Gage and David Thompson - and her 'high recommendation' of Deja Lu as a 'fantastic collection, the attention to detail is fabulous' had me purring. There's also an excellent interview with John Killah, seen here signing copies of his wild-fire success Struck Off outside Hunting Raven Bookshop. image: John Chandler

On Monday the Black Swan Arts writing group met in the Long Gallery, and with no art (yet) about which to wax lyrical, our leader Sara Morris enterprisingly encouraged us all to write limericks. Here's one from David Thompson:  
The Tory top brass in South Ken
Don't live all that far from Big Ben.
If they want to get canned
While parties are banned,
They drop by refurbed Number 10.

The last Rainbow Fish Speakeasy 
of the year was on Thursday: these zoomed poetry performance nights hosted by Frome's Liv Tork are inclusive and friendly open mic sessions with a main guest - this time Matt Harvey with a marvellous poem about whales from the recent Hot Poets project - you can click here to hear Matt recreating his wonderful description of the opulent flocculent fecal plumes of whale poo... There was a very different but also thought-provoking contribution too from Frome's David Thompson also on the theme of global awareness and human domination of earth and its creatures.
Also this week, a reminiscence meeting for my first ever local writing group, now in its 20s: the Fromesbury Set had a wonderfully refreshing catchup over wine spritzers at the Archangel in Frome. Our official photographer, Debs, took this selfie snap. Thursday's ongoing weekly writing group involved much sharing & analysis and a fair bit of feasting too (cranberry mince-pies a feature!) with that tang of this-may-be-the-last-time which is in the ether everywhere now... 
And my week concluded with a festive splash of theatre, as Bristol Old Vic has made their 2019 production of A Christmas Carol  free to view online for the rest of December - which, if you consider what other big theatres charge for their screenings, is a rather wonderful present to all their followers.
My blog review at the time enthused about every aspect of this immersive production which, despite the vast number of liberties taken with characters and dialogue, nevertheless stays powerfully true to the spirit of the story: the damage to community caused by money-hoarding and the indifference to others' suffering shown by the wealthy. John Hopkins in the central role of Scrooge is superb throughout, from rage to reconciliations, with a nice line in repartee during audience participation bits. 
Also delightful is the device to bring a child from the audience to remind Ebenezer of the vulnerable child he once was... here's a couple of screen shots to show the range of visuals. Recommended, click the link above!
So as this is my last bulletin before the traditional day of winter celebrations on our small island, I'll leave you with the wonderful musings of J Alfred Prufrock, by courtesy of TS Eliot: click here and enjoy the luxury of mere melancholy, which is something there's little place for in these times.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Drama in the wild: two forests, and a riverbank.

Most of my favourite stories throughout childhood involved small children made unhappy by rejection - The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and other such classics, all involving ultimate vindication and social acclaim. Bristol Old Vic has found a way to fit a tale of reckless robbers into this satisfying mould with Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest, stirring into their novel mixture various fairytale memes and popular songs, to the delight of both children and adults in the audience. When young JJ (played by the most mature member of the cast incidentally) is given a magic book to comfort him, he finds his way into the most unusual version of the traditional story imaginable... and of course, becomes a hero. This festive offering has been devised by the Wardrobe Ensemble so narrative anarchy is guaranteed, though channelling Bryan Adams was a surprise. And there are masses of oblique references to other whacky tales and memorable absurdities - Alice's Wonderland, The Blues Brothers wild quest, BlackAdder, Peter Pan, Boris... in other words, plenty for the adult children in the audience to pick up on and relish. 
 My favourite characters were yuppy Will Scarlet (Tom England) and the very very very wicked Sheriff of Nottingham (James Newton, who was the boxer's girlfriend in The Rocky Horror Show at the Wardrobe Theatre last time I saw him.)  There's a message of hope though, as Robin finally decides "The days of greed are over," and abandons his trip to the Costa Sol to stay and to "fight for an England that is fair, to make our children proud."  Wouldn't that be nice.  Directed by Tom Brennan and Helena Middleton, full cast & credits here, Images are screenshots of the promo.

A dramatic move next night from fantasy forest to rural riverside, for Frome's Merlin Theatre's musical version of Kenneth Graham's famous classic The Wind in the Willows. With three -football-teams-worth of interacting animals, singing/dancing woodland creatures, and a live band, the slick & professional-looking delivery of this production was a tribute to everyone involved, especially director Claudia Pepler. Credit for costumes must go to the 17 dedicated hat/glove/tail and ear constructors: all were delightful with road-hog Toad, resplendent in an amazing pond-weed-colour costume with hair to match, absolutely standout. Huge credit to the dedication and talent of this team.

From theatrical forests and woodlands to the real thing: a visit with my family to Westonbirt Arboretum to wander the paths of the illuminated trees, with occasional interruptions for mulled wine or churros and chocolate...  A balmy evening - and the limited group-number ensured by the organisers - ensured a really lovely experience.

No music to report in this week's edition, as all these theatricals & visuals clashed with Wednesday's jazz and also with Saturday night's double-band bonanza in Frome. But I was back in town by Sunday evening for the final Proof Pudding Club meeting of the year. This reading-group-with-a-difference, conceived and led by Hunting Raven Bookshop manager Tina Gaysford-Waller, reports over coffee & cake in River House Cafe on the proof copies arriving in the shop each month - this time we had mulled wine & mince pies in honour of the season, and a Secret Santa book gift for everyone. Here's Tina's pic of some of the gift-pile as I forgot to take a snap, and to finish this week's bulletin, a look back at Monday night in the Hydeaway, Frome's fabulous 'speakeasy' - cocktails in a converted print shop with fellow writer Nikki Lloyd.


Sunday, December 05, 2021

It starts earlier each year... a blogful of festive goodies...

Even in a week crammed with sparkly-season specials, Wednesday evening at Bar Lotte is always a highlight: this week the fabulous Rosco Shakes gave us jazzy blues with great bass from Josh, Ned's amazing drum/vocals combo, Tim sensational on keyboard and Steve on 'sax that gets you eating your knuckles', to quote my companion... unsurprisingly there was dancing before the evening was over. 
And live music ushered in a weekend of festive art markets - here's The Decades at Black Swan Arts' brilliant Makers Market on Friday night, with masses of brilliant craft stalls & a late night cafe too. 
How nice to have a funky festive market crammed with works by local artists, you may think - but this is Frome: in the same weekend we also enjoyed an amazing art fair at the Silk Mill, Midwinter Joyant in Keyford, a Christmas Gift Market at the Cheese & Grain, and a Makers Market in Lower Keyford with mulled wine under tiny glittering lights... and then it was Sunday, time for our nationally acclaimed Frome Independent - market, that is - selling absolutely everything edible, drinkable, wearable, displayable, and above all giveable... if you didn't solve all your present problems there then either you weren't trying or you found too much you wanted to keep yourself.
As there were far too many intriguing & beautiful items to decide which images to include here, this pic is from outside Hunting Raven Books, where Julian Hight was selling his fantastic books of trees around the world.  Which also leads me nicely on to the most unusual book launch I've ever attended: Frome legend Tony Bennett (we have a lot of local legends, you may have noticed) selling his illustrated life story at the Sun Inn, with queues extending outside the door to grab a signed copy of life as fully lived by this truly iconic Fromie - notorious as an award-winning florist as well as for leaping from a blazing bedroom after a bedtime cigarette set his house on fire. Here's Tony signing my copy of He Can When He Will - and he remembered my name. Now that IS fame.

And speaking of Frome's quirky creatives, we also have our own festive Dismaland-alike: Santa's Grotty, the inspired creation of artist and political satirist Kate Talbot, a grim experience of phoney good cheer amid dangling covid microbes, which is entered via Kate's notorious shop Hung Drawn Quoted.  Here's a glimpse of one of the exhibits, though sadly I'm not allowed to give away any of the outrageous lifesize caricatures...  The £5 entry price goes to Fair Frome.
Still with a festive focus, but more cheery and moving out of town now:   
I've been a devotee (which is the posh word for besotted fan) of Stephen Mangan since Episodes, in my view one of the cleverest TV comedy series ever - and he's now taking the lead role in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic so, since the window for safe travel before winter may soon narrow, this week seemed a good opportunity to scoot up to London and see it.  I haven't visited this venue since leaving London in my late teens - previously I went regularly with my father, dramatic critic HG Matthews, or else on my own, paying 2/- 'on spec' at the door for any seat still available - so it wasn't surprising to find the theatre much changed. Matthew Warchus, the current artistic director, has aimed for an atmosphere audiences will find "accessible, inclusive, and informal", which turns out to mean with friendly attentive staff, lots of loos, and - for this production anyway - a free mincepie on arrival. 
The performance area of my memory,  where I watched a young Judy Dench throwing a tantrum in Franco Zefferelli's unforgettable production of Romeo & Juliet, is now part of the auditorium, and actors used a kind of central corridor between the aisles to perform their high-energy, immersive version of Charles Dickens' tale of a skinflint visited by 'ghosts' that bring remorse and radical life change. 
A Christmas Carol has become as deeply identified with seasonal celebrations as carols themselves - there are 12 in this show - and this is the fifth winter that the Vic has featured this production.  Programme notes identify 'rage, determination and a fiery compassion' as Dickens' motivations, and these would have been inspired in part by his own painful childhood. This Scrooge is never too afraid of the ghosts to argue, but he is moved to tears by his memories. The nightmare aspects of the tale are vivid, but it's a feel-good show too, with a running thread of love and the possibility of new hope,
enhanced by the hundreds of tiny lanterns dangling above the storytelling, and the visual surprises.

Ending with exciting news - for me, anyway, and for my erstwhile 'Live & Lippy' performance-poetry partner Hazel Stewart, now living in Cumbria. We revived our lyrical connection during lockdown via zoom, and put together a package of old & new pieces which, to our delight, has now been taken by Caldew Press - here's editor Phil Hewitson zoom-chatting about options, and showing us his upcoming publication of John Hegley's poems about Keats.  So, in this illustrious company, our double-album-on-page of performance poetry pieces What's it Like for You? and Dance for Those Who'd Rather Not will be out early next year!