Sunday, May 20, 2018

Mostly music and madness

Starting off with madness, and the Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland, the latest production by internationally renowned Ridiculusmus. It's an endlessly provocative, in the thinking sense, story and we get two takes on it, one on each side of a divide in time, or reality (or both) made literal by a semi-opaque wall. Half the audience sees each narrative, but disturbingly hears fragments of the other. Then we swap over, for the rest of the story, which like life has by now slightly changed, with some new bits and some bits lost and not in the order we (half)remembered it. In other words it's like life, disturbingly so. The psychiatrist, who has troubles of his own, is struggling to find answers in the works of RD Laing and there's an ongoing theme of the use & dangers of meds - 'They don't want to medicate meaning-making,' he explains to the fragile, angry, author who thinks he wrote Nabokov's books and may well be writing the play we are watching... It's an amazing, brilliant, unforgettable piece of theatre and I won't say, Go See, because it's sold out at Tobacco Factory in Bristol - and I only got to see it through an amazing gesture by Ridiculusmus when Stepping Out mental health theatre group failed to get tickets and wrote to tell them, and their response was to put on an extra show especially for the Stepping Out group, transporting their entire set to St Werburghs Community Centre on Saturday. As an associate of Stepping Out I was invited too, and after having our minds blown to Lapland and back by this amazing show, we all went off for lunch with the cast in Cafe Napolita.
Saturday evening, you may know if you were in Bath on this warm clear night was Party in the City with masses of bands in the parks, gardens, pubs, cafes, halls, so I hopped off the train and met up with some Frome friends for a saunter round the streets.
There were some good bands indoors but on a sultry night like this, the outside venues lured: Queens Square for wonderful atmosphere and great bands like Jupiter Owls and Agent Philby and the Funtans, and the Parade Gardens - free for this event - for The Blues Others with a magical crescent moon above the floodlit abbey... a glorious way to end an extraordinary day.
Back to Frome, and the week began with a very pleasant Frome Poetry Cafe. It's always a delight to hear the diversity of readings from the floor, and our guest Matt Duggan treated us to the first UK reading from his new collection A Season in Another World. Matt is only just back from a US tour with readings in New York and Boston, so Frome probably did seem like another world... Next Poetry Cafe will be in the Festival, which we're already gearing up for, with brochures out now and booking beginning!

Over in the Round Tower this week there's an unusual exhibition by Si Griffiths, 'pop surrealist' paintings: vivid contemporary iconography probing cultural icons from all walks of life - political, religious, cultural, evoking references to movies, music, comic books, even theatre, in a striking display on the old mill walls. Adventures in Reality? is on till 26th May - do take a look and have a chat with this fascinating explorer-artist.

A bit more music, Frome-style, to finish: Roots Session at the Grain Bar had the fabulous Fos Brothers from Belfast, plus drums and bass, bringing banter and traditional songs presented in a mostly-non-traditional way. And the weekend offered just to too much to see it all,  even if you ran from the Vine Tree to the Cornerhouse as I did, pausing only to admire the Boyle Cross in the marketplace foaming again. Sorry I missed The ShakeSpearOs following (2 of) the ever-vibrant Raggedy Men, but glad to have caught most of Rebel Heroes - a nice irony in ending one session with No More Heroes and the other with Heroes... just for one day...

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Buzzy week in Frome: bells, blossom, bands, books and boxes

A crowded week in Frome began for me with another Word Play, Visual Radio Arts' quarterly digression from music to poetry, and an excellent session from four Bristol poets: Paul Deaton, Pauline Seward, Elizabeth Parker, and Bob Walton all have new books out and their varied voices and thoughts combined to a create a great session - you can hear it live here. Thanks again to Phil and Mags, for this amazing facility, another of the specialnesses of Frome.
Mark Steel reckons he's finally perfected the Frome accent. He gave us a sample at the opening of his show at the Cheese & Grain: "Basically, when we bought it, it was just a farm," intoned in deepest North London merchant-banker-ese. He got a roar of appreciation for what was probably the funniest gag of the night (the ones that hurt usually are). Mark's political satire is always snigger-worthy but his attempt to stir up local small-town rivalry with Trowbridge met an uncomfortable silence. It seemed a bit like asking a swan if it was bothered by a beetle. And there far was too much about his recent divorce, so I took advantage of the interval to head for 23 Bath Street and bop along with Subgiant at the official warm-up party for Once Upon a Time In the West festival.

Other music this week: Chris Jagger Trio at the Wednesday Grain Bar Roots Session, showing how different two brothers can be, and the indescribably marvellous Beef Unit turning the air punk at 23 Bath Street.
SickOnes, back from their debut tour of America's West Coast, gave Frome a raucous free taster of their at Gents Street Sneakers, and rock tribute band Purple Fish came back to Cornerhouse for landlord Martin's birthday bash.. I might've got a better image but was too busy dancing...

With the arrival of May bringing sizzling sunshine just about everywhere in the UK  ~ we topped 27° here ~ our monthly Independent Market had a seasonally floral theme, as masses of sprigs of fresh blossom were entwined into hundreds of crowns and headdresses in workshops provided by a team from Somerset Garden Day ~ one of the best features the ever-inventive Marketeers have yet provided. Popular Boss Morris from Stroud brought a nice pagan touch and bright lime green socks too.

The Frome Book Fair at the Silk Mill returned for another successful event, attracting bibliophiles from far and wide with collectibles from children's illustrated fables to rare military histories. And as a footnote to the RAISE (Refugee action in Somerset East) art auction in February, the exquisite composite artwork representing 'Home' which was created by visitors' contributions during that event has found a permanent home at Black Swan Arts. Here's us celebrating this with Kate Cochrane whose guiding hand completed the compilation.

In a bulletin already too hectic (this is Frome-related, though, as the Merlin provided rehearsal space) I'm including in this post an impressive one-man show at Bath's Rondo: Too Pretty to Punch is the concept of Edward/Edalia Day whose 80 minutes of analysis and rhetoric on being trans is engrossing and seriously entertaining. Edalia is a superb performer: narration is mainly dialogue ~ with himself/herself, with imaginary others, and with the audience ~ blended seamlessly with poignant poetry, and the focus explorative rather than political, finding new ways to share old understandings: "We play at being adults until we’ve learned it off by heart… we’ve farmed ourselves into the shapes we are now." For Edalia, trans is not a dysmorphia that leads to surgery, it's about whatever you need to do to cope, and everyone who finds themselves boxed in by a rigid conformity should get out of that box and make their own. Basically it's about being human. The graphics (by B. Mure) are brilliant - there's a taster here.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Whale song and other music...

Sometimes, very occasionally, I get to see a production so overwhelming I don’t know where to begin, even in my own feelings never mind reviewing. Wednesday night at Bath’s Ustinov Studio was one of those. It didn't sound promising: a morbidly obese man stuck in a room with his unforgiving memories and a heart condition. But The Whale, by Samuel D Hunter, superbly directed by Lawrence Boswell, was two hours of mesmeric theatre - deceptively complex and breath-takingly moving. Shuler Hensley was simply awesome, utterly convincing as man-mountain Charlie, and well supported by the rest of the cast especially Rosie Sheehy as belligerant Ellie and Ruth Gemmell as collusive friend Liz. Charlie is a pedantic online literature tutor, hiding his self-loathing reality from his students, and throughout the traumatic week of the play's action he has to confront not only his own mortality and his ever-present demons but his hostile daughter, spiky ex-wife, and a Mormon preacher with a message from God. (Charlie's painful journey does make him a better teacher incidentally, but the American assignment system isn't yet ready for integrity...) As in Herman Melville's whale tale, and in Walt Whitman's Song of Myself which is also a crucial reference, there’s more enigmatic symbolism than you could cram in a bucket of popcorn (and also bonus irony after the furore of indignation over Bob Dylan's alleged plagiarism of Sparknotes in his analysis of Moby Dick for the Nobel Prize lecture.) Some of the structural detail in the writing is slightly overcontrived, but the combination of direction, stage design, and cast has created an unforgettable production.  'That’s the best show I’ve ever seen here,’ murmured the man behind me as applause finally died down at the end. ‘Speechless’ was the word in the loos, which says it all really, it’s normally full of chatter there. If you want to see how live theatre can be more epic than any movie, I urge you to go. On till June 2nd.
Music now:
The Dead South coming to Bristol on their European tour caused quite a sensation - I booked as soon as I saw them on the Colston Hall date list, and so many others were equally excited that Saturday's event had to be moved to the more capacious Anson Room of the Student Union. A great gig, with the highlight their 60,000,000-times-now-viewed dirt-rock tale In Hell I'll Be In Good Company - blends elements of folk, bluegrass, and rock which results in a unique, modern, and authentic blend of boot-stompin' acoustic music.' I couldn't put it better, except maybe with 'gritty' somewhere. Do click the track link, but be warned, it'll stay with you all day...
Recently I've  been largely out of Frome's music scene, but made a point of not-missing two excellent jazz sessions at the Cornerhouse: we are incredibly lucky to have these regular gigs from musicians of the calibre of John Law and Keith Harrison-Broninski, working with other superb musicians, often on demanding esoteric pieces and always with fabulous impro solos... and Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar always have something good: last week it was Phil Cooper on his Thoughts and Observations tour, sharing the session with Jamie R Hawkins. Phil's thoughtful and observant songs are always engagingly delivered, with a high audience-connection factor.
And on Friday at the Cornehouse, Azhaar with her Global Wave band created a fabulous South American vibe at the launch of her debut album Original Love.

A preview now: I'm sometimes asked why I don't share the incredible stuff that goes on in Frome before, rather than after, the event - which would be a reasonable point if this were a listing service, but it it's only a blog, so I'm afraid you get to see mostly what's been and gone (apart from this time The Whale in Bath - so BOOK NOW!) but I'll end this cursory post with a plug for the next Poetry Cafe, because we have Matt Duggan fresh from his US tour and it will be a goodie...  enjoy Bank Holiday y'all, I will be nose to the metaphorical grindstone editing The Book... not long now...

Thursday, April 26, 2018

'Hero's journey' across the bridge of cultural divide

A View From The Bridge, the second in Tobacco Factory's spring season, like their first production Macbeth is a tale of tragic downfall - a weak man falling to temptation. Arthur Miller used a challenge close to his own experience when he was called on by the Committee of UnAmerican Activities to name suspected communists in 1957 (he refused, earning himself a conviction for contempt of court) and set his story in Brooklyn docks where a close-knit community of largely Italian immigrants shelters and protects the 'illegals' working with them - mainly their own relations. Director Mark Tweddle chose the play for its Bristol dockland connection, but there's a wider relevance too in these Windrush days. In this setting, the story focuses on Eddie (Mark Letheren), housing his wife's illegal cousins (Aaron Anthony as Marco and Joseph Tweedale as Rudolpho) and increasingly jealous of the relationship of Rudolpho with his neice Catherine (Laura Waldren). All three of these young people are superbly played - the brothers both creating highlight solo moments - and Katy Stephens as Eddie's wife is massively impressive: every word she says seems newly thought and uttered, each reaction viscerally heartfelt. Simon Armstron's lawyer has powerful quiet presence in his Tiresias role, perceiving and foretelling, and if there's any aspect less than excellent to me it's the evenness of Eddie's descent: not the tragedy of a hero misunderstanding his challenge, Eddie was frankly creepy from the start.  But the two-and-a-half hours never dragged for a moment: this is a production with energy and impact, a brilliant show, sensationally performed, with every aspect of design effective - the standing ovation at the end on Tuesday night was well deserved. Definitely recommended.  

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Pleasure, passion, purpose - and sunshine

Let's start with the good news. Our national treasure of a health service is 100 this year, and Dr Phil is touring with a new one-man stand-up show to say Happy Birthday NHS! His first stop was Frome last week, to a packed and approving audience at the Merlin Theatre. As an anecdotal comedian Dr Phil is scatological and politically scathing, and as a medical adviser he's intelligent and humane. It's a good combo. He gives a potted history of the centegenarian institution, from its birthing by Nye Bevan to falling into the clutches of Jeremy Hunt. ('I have a mate who went to school with him and he says he wasn't very bright'.) But Dr Phil remains confident of the future - as long as we avoid privatisation and don't go down the other US route of 'incentified' prescribing, which results in a culture of unnecessary drugs, vaccinations, and operations.  The secret of health, he confides, is pleasure, passion, and purpose. Thirty minutes of walking - or any activity - every day is better than any drug. And other such adages which are even more encouraging when a fit-looking doctor insists on them.

Black Swan Arts has a new exhibition: Cicatrix, a wonderful word which sounds like a Greek siren but actually means the scar of a healed wound. Three Wiltshire artists have been commissioned to study and visually report on Salisbury Plain, for the last 120 years a battlefield with no enemy. One early casualty of this destruction rehearsal was Imber, the evacuated village. It's also been target practice for battles in Northern Ireland and test ground for unnamed substances fatal to the juniper trees. Tiny things there, however, are thriving: rare wild flowers and butterflies are rampant. Dawn Gorman led an excellent poetry workshop around the show for Words at the Black Swan on Monday.
There's also a new exhibition at the HUBnub Centre: Fragmental, paintings by Georgina Towler, combining to create vivid presence in a diffuse and expansive space that can be difficult to dominate.

Another author event at Hunting Raven Books - unusual only in that Tyler Keevil's connection with Frome is tenuous though charming: A Canadian now living in Wales, he won the very first Frome Festival Short Story Contest back in 2004 when his talent spotted by Alison Clink who inaugurated this event and it was this success - he claims, and we believe - which emboldened him to find his voice in writing. Tyler now makes his living through fiction and is on tour with his current novel No Good Brother, with his brother Jonathan who contributed a music element to the readings. An unusual launch event - but that's Frome isn't it...
Music information is sparse again this week - I intended to see that irresistibly-named Goat-Ropers Rodeo Band at 23 Bath Street on Saturday but the skies over Frome decided to put on a strobe light show all evening, accompanied by biblical proportions of torrential rain, so I stayed in and watched Dave worked, I mean. Pete Gage in fine form last Saturday created a dance party in Sam's Kitchen, (there was a Prince dance party afterwards too) and Velvet and Stone brought their haunting melodies and songs again to Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar.

And we had four days of summer! which is not strictly relevant to an arts blog, but when temperatures more than double overnight ~ we reached 29° (that's 84° to you, Mo) ~ it becomes essential to channel one's inner Nietzsche and stride out into the birdsong and blossom... especially when the medieval fields and ancient lanes around Frome may not be there to stride in future days...

We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the building we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.
           - Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness.

Friday, April 13, 2018

work evasions and play enthusings

It's been quite a week for schedule suspension and magical moments...
I'm going to come back to this image of the new fountain in Frome promptly hijacked by the Frome-illuminati for human sacrifice, because the excitement disrupting my working week began last Friday when a busload from Frome, driven by daring Dave, headed to Bristol's Thunderbolt to hear fabulous Captain Cactus band and his amazing and gorgeous Screaming Harlots. Good support too - awesome steel guitar from Luke Philbrick and a great atmosphere at the venue.
Next night was David Goodman's party at the 23 Bath Street, which has become such a terrific venue since Lark and Toby have taken in over. Lovely to see so very many friends and the Raggedy Men punk set was a memorable highlight... I think their version of No More Heroes - with what seemed like a hundred of the partygoers joining in - is likely to be the defining moment of this year for me...

Nunney Acoustic Cafe on Sunday afternoon always has a great range of performers: this time featured band Sloe Jam and others including a wonderful gypsy duo, the superb Splat the Rat from Swindon and some talented younger musicians like Maia Fry and ever-impressive Archie Ttwheam. (Sorry Archie, I see you are Otto Wilde now but as that comes up on google as a steak grill manufacturer, I'm sticking to the name I first knew...)

Tuesday was the Frome Writers Collective social evening, this time with an engrossing talk from Lisa Kenrick who runs Mr Rook's Speak Easy story-telling sessions in Frome. Lisa demonstrated how to grip an audience with a vivid and visceral version of the tale Frome's medieval rake Edward Leversage, and then gave advice on constructing and telling such tales, and also how to find inspiration and where to go for further guidance.

And then with no Roots session this week I really really should have dedicated the rest of my time to the project.... about which you patient blog readers have heard so much & seen so little. Instead I was lured by the witchery & wizardry of Rare Species to follow them around Frome on a tour of secret signs of the Fecund Coming...
Starting at the spring below the church steps and prowling the area nearby, Virginia Faggus and Gerald Terd held forth on much historical detail we might not know - how the young blades used the well to spread fecundity, how merchants sailed back and forth along the leat, and the fact that the Three Swans name came from the Leda legend in a little-known love-triangle version... at the church door Virginia expounded an alternative-and-weirdly-true-sounding tale of Vicar Bennett's activities in Frome, invited here by the Fromenati to create a hotbed of hedonism. It was at this point Virginia began to show somewhat alarming symptoms of some kind of demonic invasion. Gerald ploughed on, taking us up Poldark's Passage ('Aiden would suckle on my unctuous paps' Virginia reminisced, a bit of a non sequitor as Gerald was talking about unsolved murders at the time.)
We headed across Bath Street as the running commentaries continued, with Gerald now on the look-out for tell-tale evidence of the secret society of the Fromenati. He found a tunnel opening they may have used to burrow to their base in Babblington (the smaller ones, anyway) and a SIX-SIX-6 sign and it wasn't till we reached Catherine Hill that things went totally bonkers.  'The epicentre' shouted Geraldine and strode on ahead waving a car away so effectively the driver actually reversed all the way down the hill as she advanced chanting 'Juicy and Divine'.  Meanwhile something had gone wrong with Gerald's divining rod. By the time he had staggered and we had straggled to the bottom of the hill, Geraldine had turned into a one-eyed demon. She lassoed Gerald and made me hold him (I tried to resist honest but she had manic power) and made us all...
I can recount no more of the shameful night I joined the illuminati-Fromenati and poor Gerald ended up on Boyle's Cross, only say: Eat your heart out Hot Fuzz, you may have exorcised Wells but the wild energy loosed by Bennett’s burrowings below the pagan spring will empower the Fromenati forever! It was indeed the Fecund Coming.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Rites of spring... and some older wrongs

April 1st meant only one thing in Frome: forget fool tricks and mystic elevations, the market is back! Frome Independent had to cancel its original spring return due to the slush-fest that heralded March, but on Sunday the sun shone, the crowds came to enjoy the stalls and the snacks and the musicality that makes Frome so special, in streets in the morning and in bars during the afternoon and evening.

Next day we were promised thunderstorms but luckily, since the river was already spilling, they didn't arrive. I usually go to Mells for the daffodil festival, but this time went on an Edward Thomas walk based around Tellesford village and weir, with exceedingly good refreshments at the mill. This old flocking mill has been superbly renovated by  Rachel Feilden and Anthony Battersby, and now generates enough electricity for 80 houses, yet the location still looks exactly as described by Edward Thomas from his journey In Pursuit of Spring. John Payne read some of the relevant prose sections of this book, with related poems interspersed by me & Martin Bax. This Easter Monday is 101 years to the day since Edward Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras, so it was especially poignant to read his 4-line poem: In Memoriam:  
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood 
this Eastertide call into mind the men,
now far from home, who with their sweethearts should
have gathered them, and will never do again.

Hunting Raven Books on Tuesday had a big audience for David Lassman's Frome launch of The Awful Killing of Sarah Watts (written with Mick Davis) - a richly researched and thrilling account of the days when Frome was seething with pickpockets, cheese-rustlers, and ruffian gangs with names Dickens would envy (was Magwitch, in Great Expectations written 1861, inspired by the Maggs gang terrorising Frome in the 1850s?.... just a thought!)  'Crime capital of the kingdom' may be a tad hyperbolic, but certainly Frome was in a desperate state after the cloth trade collapsed, with around 97% unemployed workers and no professional support for the duo of citizen constables, as Somerset inexplicably ignored the County Police Act of 1839 for seventeen years. This fascinating tale will rank with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher as a vivid and informative show-reel from the past - interestingly, Mr Smith, the London inspector sent to solve the crime, was a friend of Mr Whicher, preceding his colleague's legendary visit by nine years.

Apart from these outings, if you've turned to my blog for a roll-call of the never-ending stream of Frome's events you'll be disappointed: I'm still on short-time for another month. I couldn't resist Al O'Kane and Rivers of England at 23 Bath Street, but other than that I've been self-exiled from the temptations of the town, so have missed most of the excellent music acts around last week.

Instead here's a picture of what spring appears to be doing, from one of my thinking-plods. Nietzche said all great thoughts are conceived by walking, and I bet he kept to his deadlines... mind you Douglas Adams claimed to love deadlines because of the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. I may have to learn to love that sound too.