Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Chocolate, words, melodies and memories

Birthday celebrations last week for the Chocolate Festival, ten years old and ready for grown-up shoes - chocolate ones, of course, created by Chocolate Arthouse, along with selection boxes of artistry that tastes as good as it looks...
and most of the goodies in this extravaganza of exotic taste sensation are ethical and even healthy - raw chocolate featured strongly, with individual makers keen to show their processes. Solkiki's stall drew a big crowd avid to hear how ethical trading and purity of produce has won them masses of awards, and the emphasis overall was on high quality and hand-made.  Huge credit to Frome's Jo Harrington for inventing and organising this party-atmosphere market - and luckily the weather was fine for queues of literally hundreds of tasters & festive-gift buyers snaking across Cheese & Grain car park all day.

Music now, and several excellent gigs: On Wednesday we enjoyed an evening with The Valley, billed on the Grain Bar's Roots Sessions menu as 'string-driven drive-thru Americana, nifty blue-grass wiz, jazzy arrangements, good ol'country, and a dash of blue-eyed Trojanish/melodian early reggae stuff.' I'm suspecting Steve Loudoun's hand in this thoughtful diagnosis, which sounds a fine summary - and Nikki's singing of the band's version of The Way It Goes is heart-melting.


Friday at the Cornerhouse gave us the We Don't Scare Tribe plus one, as customer Philip White noticed as he quaffed his pint that the guys were missing their bassist so dashed home to return with various instruments, and join the jamming. Result: a really great night, with much dancing.

Frome's Hoodoos topped an impressive bill at Rye Bakery on Saturday, with superb wordsmiths Liv Torc & Chris Redmond on awesome form too - a fantastic 'Inspire' event curated by Daniel Dobbie: three superb performances inevitably creating a fantastic event.


In a sad but important footnote to this post, this was the week of Jill Miller's funeral, after she finally submitted to the cancer that she wrote about so much, in prose and in drama for her Little Gift theatre company production of Time Bomb (shown up and down the country as a learning piece for the medical profession) which also inspired her to found the charity Positive Action on Cancer, now renamed WHY but still active. I first met Jill through the Labour Party party when Tony Benn came to Frome in 1999, discovered she had written the 1980s feminist best-seller Happy As A Dead Cat, and was privileged to be her friend from then onward. We wrote much together, and always planned to do more, so I'm ending with this image from my birthday last July. Jill was the kind of amazing person who is everyone's best friend: this is her being mine.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Autumn leaves, historic memories, and goblins

A historical thread runs through this post as last week ended with a splendid tour of the town's trees, historically spanning over 300 years from ancient oaks to self-renewing saplings in recovery from elm disease, as arborist & enthusiast Julian Hight led a Heritage Tree Walk during the weekend of walks organised by the Town Council. A sizeable troop of dendrophiles enjoyed the romp through Rodden Meadow's ancient Selwood Forest veterans, and into the heart of town where Thomas Bunn's Cedar of Lebanon is still thriving despite his grumpy diary entry in 1843 "Today I observed that this beautiful tree was despoiled of several of its spreading branches – my mortifications of this kind are so numerous that I will not attempt to recount them."
Unfortunately this was another of those weekends when Frome offers an exuberance of options, like a mast of trees shedding nuts to excess, and the Heritage Tree and the Awful Killing of Sarah Watts walks both ran concurrently with Frome Multicultural Day so I can't report on this - last year's one was wonderful.
Still on a historical theme, last Monday was the launch of a plaque sponsored by the Frome Society for Local Study in honour of John Webb Singer, the foundry manager who oversaw the making of many of the world's iconic sculptures, statues and monuments: it's said if you stand on the Embankment in London you're surrounded on all sides by works forged in Frome.  Historical researcher Sue Bucklow, who was aided by hundreds of photographs on glass slides rescued in the 1970s, is the driving force behind a long-delayed placement of J.W. in Frome's public history, with trails around town and displays at the museum: 'You can't overestimate his importance' she says, and certainly he's more deserving of a plaque than the actress playing James Bond's Miss Moneypenny who was thus honoured in 2017.

Moving on to words:  A writing-group trip to Novel Nights in Bath on Wednesday revealed the Three Pillars of Writing Bliss according to author Tim ClareBurdall's Yard is a delightful venue, combining boho atmosphere, great stage lighting, and student bar prices - the perfect combo for a night out - and Grace Palmer & Colette Hill, who organise these writer-support events, have a good formula: three short readings from local writers, plus a feature talk. Tim offered us GUTACHE: his 'Grand Unified Theory of Achieving Creative Happiness Easily' - far more stimulating than HYGGE. Lots of his tips were ways to simply free up, outrun your self-critic, and find your characters with Proust's Questionnaire.

Another focus on writing on Saturday, this time for a session with a group who met each other nine years ago, in The Grange on the Isle of Wight, and  have continued to meet for a writing session twice a year ever since. It's always enjoyable joining this group for a catch-up and this time discussions ranged from Extinction Rebellion (Chris & Mike have both been involved) to classic TV comedies and why they're timeless, with writing exercises  and much coffee courtesy of the Abbey Hotel in Cheltenham.


So what with one thing and another, this week's report is light on music though I did get to the Three Horseshoes in Bradford-on-Avon on Sunday to hear the fabulous Backwood Redeemers - great energy and dark humour. The lighting was also energetic and dark - not image-friendly but evocative for mood and dancing...
Let's end with goblins, courtesy of Mutartis Boswell and Ann Harrison-Broninski's Goblin Shop at Three Swans on Friday, all kinds of sensual goblinalia - painting,  badges, books, weird sucky sweets, and a handy pocket guide to Goblins illustrated in full colour, with useful insights: The goblin kingdom is ruled harshly. It is not a democratic world - and yet the goblin, as an individual, is an anarchist. They also love poetry...
Have a good week, and may your goblin go with you.
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Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Autumnal delights, before days under canvas begin

Samhain passed fairly quietly Frome this year: blustering storms cancelled the town fireworks and hallowe'en tricks and treats seemed muted, almost as if the punctured national build-up to October 31st left us unsure whether to celebrate or shudder. The week started extremely well however, with a superb Poetry Cafe at the Garden Cafe featuring delightful Stephen Payne as guest and Jo Butts, 2019 Festival Poet Laureate, re-sharing her winning poem.
Stephen's set featured quirky elegiac poems, arriving gently but with hi-impact afterglow -I especially loved the conga rhythm in the poem about eight siblings whose non-survival matched their order of arrival... Our nineteen (yes, 19!) superb open-mic poets offered an entertaining & engrossing variety of themes and styles, from John Christopher Woods' satiric ode to the Bullington Boys (to the tune of Cambeltown Loch) to Kat Jones' Tempest-ic life-story-style poem.  I was too enthralled to take any photos, but here's a picture of Stephen Payne somewhere else, and the flyer for our next event: the Festive Poetry Cafe (on December 9th will be an all-Open Mic event with lots of !!!presents!!!

Great music this week too: Root Sessions at the Grain Bar gave us Light Garden, billed as 'genre-defying' and mostly  sounding more funky than folksy, apart from the harmonic overtone singing which is a speciality they also teach. Peter Burns, supporting solo with an impressive loop system, included several of his own songs in his set, including a deeply personal one about his hometown, Belfast, called ironically The Riches of America - link here.

On Friday, an evening with the impossible-to-overpraise Pete Gage Band ensured The Cornerhouse was full, with dancing despite the crush. Pete's band set also included sway-slow numbers like their unforgettable of Motherless Child and - my favourite - Evening - the versions in those 2 links are recorded at other events, but give an idea of Pete's powerful versions of these classics.

Paul Kirtley brought another Bare to the Bones music event to the Artisan, featuring popular local country & blues band Hello Hopeville. His house band, the We Don't Scare Easy crew, focus on singalong enjoyment - Have You Ever Seen the Rain, and All Along the Watchtower are popular standards - with great impro jamming too.

Concluding the week's evening gigs, here's a glimpse of the lively Jazz Jam in the Cornerhouse, a relaxed atmosphere for musicians of any jazz-experience - and always with some great pro.s!

This Sunday being the first one of November, the streets of Frome were filled for the penultimate independent market of the year. 'More than a Market' is tagline of the Frome Independent and on a sunny winter's day it can seem more like party, as the queues for the street food and pop-up bars aren't as long as in summer yet it's mild enough for strolling and enjoying the bands and buskers. This view from the other side of the river shows the tip of the cross-town spread of an event that boasts over 80,000 visitors annually (I put all that in just because I like the autumny image) Here's a few of the music-makers this time - the band onstage is the Decades but I don't know the soloist and didn't ask either the busker on Stony Street corner or the DJ in Ramshack Barbers - let me know if you know and this will be amended! Have a happy November, all.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Sprightly Shakespeare, semi-soft satire, & some songs

Let's begin with Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and Much Ado About Nothing - actually much ado about quite a lot, as the plot centres on trickery from trivial to utterly evil, and the happy-ending bounce-back wouldn't convince most marriage guidance counsellors. But it's considered one of the bard's best comedies, and this is a terrific production with fabulous visuals, unflagging energy and brilliant actors. The young couples are both delightful, and the parents of sweet victimised Hero, Christopher Bianchi and Alice Barclay, are mesmeric throughout. Designer Jean Chan's costumes and set decoration are splendid - I loved the fancy-dress celebration where Benedick is spurned by Beatrice while dressed as a ninja turtle - and the modern setting allows for masses of fun trivia, as well as (mis)use of mobile phones. Elizabeth Freestone's direction is not only exciting but emphasises nuances in the plot which soften the brutality of Claudio's revenge as it seems his crush on Hero may have been fast-forwarded into wedlock by his controlling C.O, leaving him more vulnerable to Don Jon's faking her infidelity. My only reservation about the director's laudable decision to balance genders on-stage is that the least successful roles are the wicked sibling and the head constable who are both re-envisaged as women. It's partly the bard's fault that the scene when the Watch report their arrest to Leonato is a bit weak, as he often allocates lines of risible obtuseness to the 'mechanicals' in a way which while popular in his era tends to feel uncomfortable nowadays, but Dogberry's casting wasn't helpful here. But overall this is a terrific show and the three hours whizz by, so do go if you can make it to Bristol before 9th November.   Images (Mark Duet) show Beatrice falling for the happy trick that leads her to love, and Claudio facing the consequences of the unhappy trick that seems, for a while, to have destroyed his.

A different kind of stage comedy now, as Jonny and the Baptists brought their current touring show to Merlin Theatre on Friday - it's called, for one night only, Love Frome, Hate Bastards. The last time I saw this talented anarchistic duo was in Salisbury with Eat The Poor which was political agitation from start to finish, but this is a softer, more private-feelings-focussed product. There are a few minor assaults on church & state but the emphasis is now on their families and their own relationship. The Edinburgh reviewer gave this the thumbs-up on the grounds that "Men are not traditionally good at telling their best mates the affection they feel for them, so the emotional openness here is touching" but I like my satire razor-edged so although Jonny began and ended their set "You’re either against capitalism or you’re for the end of the world," for me it was disappointingly blunt in the middle.  I blame The Telegraph, which derided their 2014 anti-UKIP show for expressing concern that someone 'terrifying and dangerous' might end up in power. "Perhaps the country is sleepwalking towards Farage-o-geddon. I doubt it." wrote Dominic Cavendish disdainfully, a scepticism that apparently wounded Jonny as he quoted it on stage. I wish he'd found more resilience: there are enough songs already about babies and bromance.

Music now: Newly founded by Paul Kirtley, the monthly Acoustic Club at Three Swans on Monday comprised a small but talented troupe of musicians including, as well as Paul himself, several impressive new acts - here's sensational trio Mountain Speaks Fire, performing Vin Callan's fabulous song February Fields. Saturday's highlight was a sensational set from Back of the Bus at the Cornerhouse - their version of Gotta Have Faith is fearsome - further enhanced by the full Raggedy talent line-up... Here's how Teenage Kicks looked in the atmospheric lighting - congratulations all (and apologies to the hidden cajon player.)


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Autumn harvest: drama, art, music & woodland mystery

Merlin Theatre Productions always reach an extraordinarily high standard for amateur performances, especially those involving a wide age range, and My Fair Lady this week was not only a visually exciting all-singing-&-dancing delight but also offered an interesting & empathetic interpretation of key relationships. Daisy Mercedes' direction, with its focus on 'chemistry' in the relationships - and, crucially,  the shift of the ex-flower-girl's ecstatic song 'I could have danced all night' to relate to her breakthrough in elocution - creates an Eliza with two fathers, the feckless Doolittle (superbly played by Graeme Barry) and the fierce linguist professor, bringing a whole new dynamic and tension to their relationship.
This high-energy show never flagged, and Act 2 reached a brilliant crescendo in the emotional tension of script, plus also the best ensemble highlight in Doolittle's show-stopping lament 'I'm getting married in the morning' - congratulations to band and costumes too, here. A very strong cast led by Richard Pugh's dyspeptic Higgins and Daisy Weir's determined Eliza. Thanks Chris Bailey for making these great publicity pictures available.

Now to another fable - Cyrano do Bergerac.
It’s a story so extreme Mills & Boon would baulk: a man who loves so deeply that he sacrifices his own longing in order to unite his beloved with the man she prefers, wooing her with an articulate passion his rival could never possess, and carrying that secret until the day he dies. And the part is written nearly entirely in rhyming verse, which really does require the calibre of Tristan Sturrock, the actor who in a 2012 production of Peter Pan managed to make it charming and not-creepy-at-all that a middle-aged man should climb through a little girl’s bedroom window and abduct her - he is always mesmeric even with a false nose the size of a turnip.
Cyrano is Bristol Old Vic’s autumn production, directed by Tom Morris, with a cast of five men and two women in roles ranging from nuns to soldiers, and with their trademark live onstage music. There’s some initial jostling of within the auditorium and at one point we're urged to join them in song, but then the action settles into consistent narrative and becomes clearer. Programme notes explain the theme as quintessential theatre - a tale of pretending, and what happens when you ‘pretend your way into the most beautiful love story you can dream of.’ But these are boys, so it’s a war story too, and perhaps more interestingly, a story of low self-esteem, as despite his lyricism and swordsmanship - displayed superbly - Cyrano's sense of self-worth can't get past his nose. There are some touching moments, like the Black-Adder-finale-recalling war scene, and some amusing ones, like the Romeo-&-Juliet-balcony-evoking love scene when tongue-tied Christian parrots Cyrano’s lyrical words, but this kind of 'pure theatre' can seem at odds with the connection to its city's people that BOV has laudably pledged to prioritise, and it can seem a little bit whimsical and irrelevant. Unless you're a bearded nun, in which case you'll feel right at home. Images: Geraint Lewis
Also at Bristol Old Vic, up in Cooper's Loft, drama from a very different era: Everyone is Dead is set in a dystopian near-future where even the rain is toxic and Mad Max style gangs roam the land while non-specified enemies are bombing relentlessly.  Rosie Finnegan & I are interested in quirky small productions and this one further intrigued as it won the recent Theatre West competition for a play by a woman writer, with both actors also female. The drama itself is as feminine as  forest fire, though, with the two women taking refuge in a basement after a violent raid on the house. Intense hostility and emotional anguish is difficult to sustain for an hour but this is a thought-provoking play, well-interpreted by Florence Espeut-Nickless and Alison Fitzjohn as her father's one-night-stand, with impressive fight direction from Black Dog.

Back in Frome, Black Swan Arts have revealed the winners of their Open Arts Competition, always one of the most exciting exhibitions of the year as hundreds of entries are sifted to create the final exhibition - here's a glimpse of the opening night. Curated by Amanda Sheridon, this has been hailed as one of the best yet, and it's on till November 16.There's huge diversity of materials, forms, and concepts to appreciate but my 'public vote' goes to The New Ambassadors by Ros Whitehouse, as stuffed with symbolism as Holbein's original painting - and is it me or does that elongated skull (with a wisp of blond hair) look undeniably like Trump? I took a mirror along on my return visit, just to check....


Music now, and Wednesday's Roots Session at the Grain Bar came from exciting 'rock-infused folk' duo Crooked Weather, with strong support from Josh Beddis. Next night's event, aptly titled Inspired & organised by Daniel Dobbie at Rye Bakery, provided a complete contrast:  Tallulah Rendall, rock-singer-turned-sound-therapist, with a mesmeric voice and presence - you can experience a sample here - with Peter Bearder, aka Pete the Temp, performance poet and generally off-the-wall entertainer with words and sounds. Here he is, treating us to strange sonic experiences like rapping in Latin and random loop effects, clad in an elegant evening dress and Ascot style straw hat. Both acts were superb, and the bean soup beforehand was good too.

The rainy week ended dry and sporadically sunny for John Payne's Autumn Poetry Walk through the beech wood to Cranmore Tower, an extraordinarily lofty folly with amazing views across the Dorset hills. This was originally planned by John, with Martin Bax and myself, for last year, but illness interfered with that plan, so it was especially good to be all together again on Sunday. As well as leaves, and mushrooms, there were  masses of fallen nuts on our path, and one of our group was able to explain this crunchy carpet: 2019 has been a 'mast' year, when forest trees simultaneously flower excessively, leading to huge increase of fruit later. Mysterious, and fascinating! Thanks John for the picture of me & Martin at a reading stop.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Nostalgic for sun? Autumn's in with words & music

Breaking the Code could apply to defying the moral & social mores of the era, or it could mean cracking the famous Enigma Code through genius & ingenious brainwork. In Hugh Whitemore's play about Alan Turing, it's both. A play about a mathematician working in WWII era didn't initially sound very enticing, but this is a totally gripping story, intriguing, moving, and provocative, as his life is presented in shifting sequence to decode the mind of the man who wanted to make a machine that could think and feel. The Wiltshire Creative Production at Salisbury Playhouse is brilliantly directed by Christian Durham, creatively using James Button's in-the-round set and with a strong cast led superlatively by Edward Bennett as the eccentric homosexual genius. He's rarely off-stage as the key moments in his life unfold - pre-war, post-war, and as a wartime code-breaker - yet every thought he utters seems unplanned and newly thought, an outstanding talent for any actor. The rest of the cast are all excellent in their largely walk-on roles into his complex and isolated world, with rent boy Ron (Joey Phillips) and old-school cop Mick (Ian Redford) especially impressive.  On until 26th October - massively recommended.

Sizeable swathes of Frome folk have been in London this week, many wielding musical instruments and / or in costume performing in the serious street-theatre that involves us all.  Green Platter at the Merlin on Thursday aimed to create an affirmative & empathetic context for climate protest, with poetry and spoken word.  With Rose Flint launching her stunning prize-winning eco-poetry collection Mapping the Borders, plus readings from Deborah Harvey and Dawn Gorman who both also write powerfully about the beauty of natural landscape and its frailty, and with Liv Torc who is, to quote Deborah, a force of nature in herself, performing her internet-sensation poem The Human Emergency, the poetry we heard throughout was simply fabulous, and Julian Hight, Frome's specialist in woodland and all things arboreal, concluded the event with an illustrated insight into the ancient forests of our land. One of the best spoken word events I've ever hosted.  Thanks David Goodman for these the images of the event..
And then weekend was awash with live music. Saturday evening saw Back Before Breakfast at the Cornerhouse, and The Sun totally rammed from wall to bar counter with jigging fans of the fantastic Raggedy Men, who seem to exceed their own record for high-energy impact in every show.

Sunday was Nunney Acoustic Cafe, with a full afternoon of live music from bands, duets, and solo artists, with popular regular performers joined by talented guests, two from the Czech Repubic. The "almost-too-talented-to-be-real" Hoodoos - to quote the organisers - were headlining with eleven 3-song support spots, mostly with a folksy feel but lots of variety and originality.
Here's the nearly-unreal Hoodoos, and some more special moments: Francis Hayden singing - we hope auspiciously -Dylan's Times they are a'changing, Dave Clark's version of Tom Waits Tango Till They're Sore and, among the original songs, a welcome return by Emma Shoosmith, Paul Kirtley singing with David Goodman & Colin Ashley, and shamingly-English-fluent Czech Tom Oakland... I could go on commending but they're all on my facebook page.

And now autumn's properly here, berries are withering and nuts are falling into the lakelike puddles, time to get ready for whatever the oncoming months will bring... marching boots for many of us.