Sunday, February 16, 2020

Realism and lyricism and rain

Writer Will Eno has called all his characters 'Jones' which might seems to suggest they’re ordinary folks, just like you & me - but who else in the world could be like these couples - needy, evasive, self-contradictory, incoherent then exquisitely lucid? Well, perhaps all of us in our different ways. The Realistic Joneses, at Theatre Royal Bath's Ustinov Studio takes under two hours to remind us that everyone has secret sorrows and joys and if this sounds like a long play about nothing, you should know that it’s a superb script, beautifully written and acted - an absolute delight of a production, laugh-aloud one moment, poignant the next.  Bob Jones (Corey Johnson) is recuperating though it’s unclear from what (he won't say, except that his syndrome's name sounded like a jazz quartet) with support from his wife Jennifer (Sharon Small): their neighbours, John Jones (Jack Laskey) and Pony (Clare Foster), have problems too, though the owner/holder relationship here is less clear.  There is no incisive moment of conflict and no carnage, only the story of something unknowable, and it seems over too soon when it ends. Great direction by Simon Evans intensifies the sense of quest for connection of both couples, and designer Peter McKintosh has created an evocative set, with glass doors enhancing and sometimes mirroring the precarious vulnerability of all the characters, neutral removal boxes as seating, an astral void above and emptiness beyond. Written in 2012, timeless in a modern world and will probably remain my 'best drama' for 2020 right to the end of the year: it's simply superb on till 7th March, see it if you can. Images: Simon Annand.

A delightful Frome Poetry Cafe too, with Deborah Harvey and Dominic Fisher, two of the Bristol-based IsamBard poets, guesting at our spring session. 'Green Shoots & New Beginnings' was our theme, selected hopefully although in current global conditions it might have seemed sardonic. However we had a really lovely evening: as well as some even more recent work, Deborah read from her new collection The Shadow Factory and Dominic shared from Ladies and Gentlemen of the Dead. Both poets have the ability to distill the extraordinary from the commonplace, combining visceral imagery with tender memory, with form stripped down to its essence. Fourteen 'Open Mic' poets shared impressive and entertaining words too - some moving, some funny, and all much enjoyed. Here's Jo Butts, current Frome Festival Poet Laureate, reading her witty history of Saint Valentine. 

Words with music now, starting with Roots Session at the Grain Bar on Wednesday.   Jon Amor denies that he has the longest fingers in the world but it's hard to believe him: they must certainly be among the fastest strumming ones. He leads the Jon Amor Blues Group as well as performing solo with his mainly-original songs - the scorching 'Stitch in her party dress' was my ear-worm all week. A brilliant session: great rock-bluesy music and sharp lyrics.

Paul Kirtley, indefatigable organiser of local music gigs, excelled himself this week with not only a late night charity event but an afternoon acoustic session next day. The White Hart at Corsley was the venue for Saturday evening and as storm Dennis kicked off outside, the small friendly group in the bar proffered song requests and shots and turned this event into something of a party.
Next day's session in The Three Swans,  by contrast, was completely full, with most of the audience also performing. Lovely informal atmosphere and great range of styles and instruments, plus performers of every age, all crammed into the baroque-style decor of the upper room there. These three images may give some idea of the range of performers: Paul's house band (not all, just as many as fitted in to one frame) playing rock classics - probably Wagon Wheel, the Callums, (Sarah, Vin, and Annie) with Dakota by Stereophonics, and me doing some semi-scurrilous wordage of my own. (thanks David for the snap) A rich event indeed.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Tyrants, storms, poetry, drama, bees and murmurations

There's been quite a lot of everything this week, weather included, so let's start with the fun side of drama: the Merlin One Act Play writing Competition Winners Evening when the six chosen scripts were performed on stage: costumed, with set & lighting, and fully rehearsed by director & senior judge Claudia Pepler-White, on the Merlin main stage - a prize to make any writer drool if they're serious about creating plays for stage. Sadly one of the winning writers, Jonathan Skinner, was defeated by the storm from coming to see the show, but Vivian Oldaker, Clare Reddaway, Alexandra Ricou and Alison Clink were all in the audience to enjoy the applause and the discussion & feedback in the bar. From Romeo's Juliet on Jeremy Kyle to a daughter confronting her jailed child-killer mother, from thought-provoking issues like a transplant causing personality change, and life-trading in a dystopian near-future, to a role-reversal comedy and a bizarre farce, the mood zig-zagged between each short play, creating a hugely varied evening of well-performed drama. You can see more about the plays and masses of pictures on the link above.

Now to Bath, where Sophocles' Antigone, the ruler whose tyranical abuse of power destroyed everything he valued and drove those around him to despise him, is a good choice currently for dramatic production, and the Bath Theatre Academy students at The Egg last week created a strong sense of the issues and the inevitable ending of the conflict. Antigone's challenge to the tyrant about her right to bury her brother enhances the relevance, as she is responding to a more powerful law than the cruel king can comprehend.  There's not much scope for a wide range of mood in a narrative trajectory from deadlock to mass self-slaughter but Issie Sallows found dark humour in her role of the soldier. All this young team had commendable stage presence, and director/facilitator Kate Pasco encouraged them to reinvent the ancient roles and 'breathe new life' into the characters. Impressive.

And still with words: Frome Writers Collective monthly meeting on Monday featured a short talk on the Golden Egg Academy given by Abigail Kohlhoff and Nicki Marshall, both of whom contribute to the mentoring programme for children's authors, with advice relevant advice also to writers in any genre looking for professional publication. A quirky addition to the event, held as always at the Three Swans, was provided by the formal presentation to landlady Lucy Cooper by FWC member John Walton of a Remington typewriter circa 1920, to join the medley of unusual memorabilia in the upper room where we meet.
There was a spate of public writing on Saturday as Extinction Rebellion Frome collected love-thoughts to nature from passers-by to create a message of positive praise for the earth which will be published in the upcoming issue of Frome Times. I was invited to help at the final stage, and with XR's Pippa Clarke had the delicious task of compiling these heart-shaped fragments into a cascade of word-imagery, creating a moving valentine poem to our planet.

A brief mention here for the Proof Pudding Club, where Tina Gaisford-Waller, Hunting Raven Books manager & initiator of this inform-then-indulge monthly meeting, was dispensing chocolate sponge and gathering our opinions.  Overall winner in our group was The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christuana Figueres. Yuval Noah Harari - he wrote SAPIENS - calls it 'inspiring' so definitely one to go for when it's officially released on 25.2.20.

Bees now - Fifty of them, in fact, all realistically crafted from fabric by artist and textile worker Lydia Needle who became concerned at the loss of our butterflies and concluded that 'something is missing from our ecosystem' and that the bees could disappear too. Lydia, here talking to bee-keeper James Bartholomew, produced lifelike versions of each different type of bee - they have a surprising range of size and structure - and invited other artists to research and respond in their own medium. The result is FIFTY BEES, an unmissable exhibition at Black Swan Arts, which has created a real buzz (sorry) with each bee accompanied by the art work it had inspired - here's the Squat Furrow Bee, and wildlife artist Hazel Mountford's accompanying imagining of secret life in the field margins that are its habitat.

The related ekphrastic poetry group Words at the Black Swan drew 15 writers for an excellent session led Claire Crowther - some of the poems in response to the artwork will be on the group's page very soon, and the exhibition is showing in the Long Gallery until March 14th.

All of which brings us nicely back via words to performance, still on theme as Frome Poetry Cafe had invited thoughts of 'green shoots' as guests Deborah Harvey and Dominic Fisher are 'IsamBards' with an interest in poetry walks - this picture is from a piece in the Guardian about them. Deborah's visceral and visual imagination and Dominic's thoughtful, personal words proved a great combination, and 14 'open mic' readers treated us wonderful range of ideas.
There are images of all the readers here courtesy of David Goodman, who also took this pic of me enjoying listening to Jo Butts, Frome Festival Poet Laureate, on top form with her Valentine ditty.

Concluding this lively and varied week with music: Nunney Acoustic Cafe defied storm Ciara with a cram-full audience for an afternoon of classy bands, duos, and soloists. Main guests were The MellowTones, Jane Langley's new band playing songs composed by Jane herself. Also exciting, and new (to me), Quiet Man, wonderful Mountain Speaks Fire, the well-named Don't Scare Easy Tribe, Decades, and other combinations & soloists. Here's Jane's band and Mountain/Fire duo Vin Callen & Helen Robertson performing their encore, In the Pines, and a link for more pix here.

Ending with the magic of murmuration... This is the moment the swirling clouds of starlings abruptly began to drop into the reeds of Shapwick Heath wetland.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Mormons, monsters, music... and the end of an era.

It's been going for nearly ten years now, opening in Broadway collecting nine Tonys and four Olivier best-musical awards and now it's in Bristol at the Hippodrome - the outrageous, hilarious, scurrilous, high-energy musical The Book Of Mormon. Armed with row A seats (a birthday present) and appropriate treats, my theatrical co-director Rosie Finnegan & I settled down to a couple of hours of hysterical laughter at the lines, admiration at the dance moves, and general joy at the absurdity of this tale of a couple of mismatched young missionaries setting out to convince a tribe in a remote area of Uganda that the resurrected victim of a Roman crucifixion was magically revived and returned to America to found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and that the solution to their problems of poverty, AIDS, and local warfare is to be baptised. Luckily, as the Book of Mormon didn't sound very interesting to Elder Cunningham (the Billy Bunter in a chorus line of lush blond 'elders') he has spiced up the story with bits of Lord of the Rings & Star Wars, and the tribe fall in happily with his preaching, until... well, you get the gist, if you haven't seen it yet this production is showing until 22 February.

Next night's theatrical experience could not have been more of a contrast: Return to Heaven at  Frome's Merlin Theatre is a dance drama from the highly-acclaimed Mark Bruce Company, performing internationally but developed in Frome. This extraordinary performance achieves sensational production qualities, emerging from blackness into dramatic lighting, creating tension and emotion through strange creatures and symbolism as well as amazing movement and the powerful soundtrack. Mark has suggested the story is about a jungle expedition, and the programme clarifies that this journey is non-linear and open to interpretation: there's a taster of the hypnotic mood, strange symbolism and dark beauty of the performance in the trailer hereImage Nicole Guarino

A group of the audience remained at the Merlin afterwards and were joined by many others for a vigil on the ECOS stones until nearly midnight - where better to mourn the passing of our national integrity than standing within these great monoliths, each donated by the founding countries of the EU back in 1989 to create our unique amphitheatre and celebrate union with the concepts and ideals of shared identity. Chris Watson of Magic Eye videod the event, which unexpectedly hit the Guardian front page. This was my eye-view as the singing of Ode for Joy, in German, which marked the saddest moment.

We might want to stop the world and get off, but at least there's still music... a strong double-act entertained the Grain Bar Root Session audience on Wednesday as singer-songwriter Ben Hardy-Philips, performing with William Tate, followed by a set from Fly Yeti Fly. This delightful duo live on a barge in Wiltshire with a dog who goes wild at the full moon: they watch otters, and fireflies, and these & other shared glimpses of their life combine with their excellent songs and stories to enhance their performance - a great role-model for all guests, and a really lovely event.

The usual Saturday evening clash of great music in several pubs means, sadly, I can offer no report of the ever-excellent Valley at the Cornerhouse, but the HooDoos lit up the night at the Sun Inn with their quirky style, classy singing & playing, and superb audience rapport - despite cramped space and a large pillar, which explains why this image doesn't include all six brilliant band members.

Ending this bulletin with a timeless image: Roddenbury Hillfort, with sunshine splashing the thick carpet of beech leaves on Sunday. This relic from the iron age, part of the original Selwood forest, seems to have a strange quality of silence and peace.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Romance, carnage, stillness & sounds

If you adored Amélie and love chocolate, you will be completely besotted by Wise Children and Plush Theatricals' Romantics Anonymous, the delightful musical love story of a shy chocolate creator and her gauche chocolatier boss, now playing to enraptured audiences at Bristol Old Vic. It's an Emma Rice production so there's copious electric lighting to designate scene changes throughout this sweet story, wittily narrated by a brilliant ensemble cast featuring Carly Bawden and Marc Antolin. Highly recommended if you can get a ticket before February1st - there was a full house standing ovation when I saw it, so you may have to kill. Image: Steve Tanner

Marital discord and middle-class mores have always been considered fair targets for drama, and Yasmina Reza goes for the jugular in The God of Carnage, a play about the savage antagonisms simmering below the civilised veneer of two married couples who meet to discuss a playground fight between their respective sons. If that doesn't sound much like a comedy, it's because it isn't really one, although we are invited to laugh at the bourgeois-style assaults: Christopher Hampton, who translated the script from French for this production at Theatre Royal Bath, reports that the playwright fears humour will make her work too entertaining to be taken seriously. Yet there is humour, of a very bitter kind, in this tale of escalating friction as both mismatched couples are confronted with their own unresolved differences as well as the antagonism of their opponents. It's very well acted, especially by the men, Nigel Lindsay and Alan Paisley Day, whose roles give them more light and shade to work with than do the women's (Elizabeth McGovern and Samantha Spiro, who's impressive at projectile vomiting). Lindsay Posner directed and the set, featuring a symbolic spear-ball above blank walls, was designed by Peter McKintosh. Image: Nobby Clark

Moving on to art: Hauser & Wirth do openings in style, on Thursday celebrating Don McCullin's superb exhibition in a party atmosphere with live music and fires in their lavish garden. The stillness of life comprises mainly Somerset scenes: the photographer himself, who lives locally, was at the gallery with friends. He was known at one time for  images conflict, and these stark landscapes seem to me to have a resonance of restless energy, even when unpeopled. His work is brilliant.

Keith James at this week's Grain Bar Roots Session brought a small team of guitars to supplement his solo performance, playing profound songs for deep winter days: existential reflection from Leonard Cohn, protest from Bob Dylan, poignancy from Joan Baez some of Lorca's dark poetic words and, more than ever a song for our times, Joni Mitchell's 1970 anthem for Woodstock: We are stardust - we are golden - and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden...
Frome's lavish habit of providing an embarrassment of riches most weekends sadly meant passing on the The MellowTones, a new band already with a hot reputation, to join in with the dancing at the Cornerhouse where Tempting Providence provided a lively selection of classic rock, including a fabulous mash-up of Wicked Game with White Wedding and a breath-taking version of Wagon Wheel that raised cheers. Here's the team: Paul Kirtley, David Goodman, and Colin Ashley, with Peter Barnes and Nicki Mascall- icing on the cake provided by popular bar managers Tom and Amy's classy jive!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

In contrast to last week's rather quieter report, this bulletin seems to be obsessed mainly with music - live, local, and exhilarating!
Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar on Wednesday featured solo singer-songwriter Leander Morales, and six-piece band The Hoodoos, with both acts enjoying appreciation for their intimate audience interaction as well as splendid performances. Hoodoos do a particular good version of the 1973 hit 'Long Train Running' which really suits their hi-energy impact style.

Friday evening brought another exciting double-bill to a crowded house, this time the Bennett Centre where Chesterblade Hills featured The Pagan Gospel Groove Machine aka Ed Green's band, followed by Jaz Delorean with cabaret-style songs on piano. The 4-piece band has a mellow mood reminiscent (for me) of the seventies: I loved the repeated chant ... at the end of the night, the moon fades away and the sun comes up in the sky..... In contrast, Jaz is best known as front man for Tankus the Henge, which is a popular festival dance band.

Another mood change on Saturday for the Frome Punk Festival, an eight-hour fiesta, for anyone staying throughout, of punk bands classic and contemporary on the main stage of the Cheese and Grain.
The main attraction for me was The Raggedy Men who always deliver a brilliant performance and get people up and dancing too. Also very good, though earplugs recommended, were The Lonely Goats who perform their own songs -you can check out Elvis on Mars here.

Saturday's stirring music continued till late not only in Frome but also down the road in Bruton where mutant new wave / post-punk trio Invisible Eyes were featured guest at the Bruton Castle open mic night - you can listen to a sample here.
Sunday also provided an afternoon of excellent live music at The Three Swans as Paul Kirtley's acoustic club provided its usual mix of folk, rock & jazzy pop, though sadly there are no images for this as your reporter had to default due to another winter ailment.. sigh.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Chaos, with some music and a moon

And yes, this bulletin should have been posted before double-figure dates made saying 'Happy New Year' distinctly passé but seasonal celebrations and seasonal ailments all conspired to delay it.
So let's launch off with the cultural stuff. Books! Frome's indefatigable Hunting Raven bookshop-wiz Tina Waller has initiated a book club with a difference: when you join the Proof Pudding Club, everybody gets a different book in a brown-paper wrap, no title visible (they are all pre-publication 'proof' copies) and once a month the club meets upstairs at the Cornerhouse for a feed-back sharing session, which also informs Tina as to which books to stock post-publication. And the pudding bit? After the reviews are discussed, we all have a pudding. (It was sticky toffee, with custard, this month, if you're interested - with a gluten-free, dairy-free, low-sugar alternative, obviously, we're not savages.) Thanks Denise Hunt for this snap of our group as Andy talked about his enjoyment of Losing Eden by Lucy Jones - sounds like one to look out for. This was my first session and I'm now hooked. At another wordy group meeting, Frome Writers Collective celebrated the new year with a game session at The Three Swans - no image for this, scrabble requires concentration.
Black Swan Arts first exhibition of the year is χάος - Chaos -created by Barry Cooper and curated by Hans Borgonjon, whose vision and input the painter insists is a crucial element: 'It is his concept and vision for my work which has produced something which is truly 4 Dimensional,' he says. The six major canvases each represent a violin sonata written by Eugène Ysaÿe, with other paintings exploring aspects, and the artist aims to 'reach beyond the visible to an imagined fourth dimension: length, breadth, width, and time.' Barry works often in 3-D with stone and wooden carvings and has strong connections with the Greek island of Paros: 'The way that I work is through internal conversation,' he says, and all these elements seem to join the music in this creative converse. Our regular writing workshop in the Long Gallery was ably led by Dawn Gorman with a focus on chaos of life - an appropriate topic for 2020, I feel. 

Less music than usual to report in this bulletin as this has been a time of mostly private (and fabulous) parties, but Nunney Acoustic Cafe led off the year with feature guests The Marianas, 'synth-drenched alt pop', a band whose total ages combined probably barely reach mine. We also had other excellent musical sets and a soupçon of saucy words from me - thanks David Goodman for the image.

So now as storm Brendan batters the UK and media news is daily more dire, take heart from the words of Bob Dylan: Everything passes and everything changes, just do what you think you should do. I'll leave you with an image of the Wolf Moon rising over Frome, as seen on return from snowdrop hunting in Nunney.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Ladies dancing and a happy new year

The eighth day in the carol is ladies dancing though I never remember where you start counting from, but the highlight of an absolutely brilliant gig at the Old Bath Arms from Back of the Bus was The Eighth Day The link here is to Hazel O'Connor's version, but it gives some idea of the impact from this amazing hi-impact septet. All of us in Frome are so lucky to move into the difficult year ahead in an egalitarian town that bubbles with live music!

And now after a week of those traditional seasonal celebrations of eating, drinking, walking, dancing, quizzing, and sneezing, it's time to start on another year, still box-fresh and unsullied - let's see if we can keep it that way. To finish the old one and start the new, here's a story and a poem.

Growing up post-war, Little Women was staple re-reading for me, along with my absolute favourites The Secret Garden (unloved little girl turns out to be adorable) and A Little Princess (unloved little girl turns out to be adorable).  Of the four sisters in Louisa M Alcott's tale, tomboyish Jo seems most favoured, with practical Meg in second place while Beth is clearly far too angelic to survive and Amy is selfish and vain - but as the reader is invited to disapprove of her, she's the closest to an unloved little girl so I preferred her to Jo who was too much like Worrals (the female version of Biggles). Jo in the movie doesn't come across like that although she does literally rewrite the book, and it's all visually entertaining with some excellent acting (especially Meryl Streep) and a charming Laurie, although the girls all seem a bit hefty for their ages & era and the time-jumps are a bit confusing. It's been criticised for focusing on the lives of white characters but that's what most girls' books in the 19th century were like, and at least we had the eye-candy of all those pastel puffed-up skirts at the parties like massed macaroons. Nostalgia encouraged me to revisit my mother's copy of the story dated 1917 and published by the Religious Tract Society of London who appear to have economised on their cloth covers as the binding is in shreds: the colour plates by Harold Copping are still glowing though so here's Amy from this book, being vain, and Timothée Chalamet as Laurie in the movie, being the fairest of them all.

So here's hoping your 2020 will impossibly good, and some helpful words from Brendan Kennelly.
Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing though with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.