Monday, September 24, 2018

Arrivals, departures, and renovations

Zooming to Bristol right after a 17 hour journey home from a remote Greek island (via the dentist) probably wasn't the best way to bring appropriate focus to a theatrical production, but I didn't want to miss the sneak preview of newly- refurbished Bristol Old Vic before press night of Touching the Void, their current blockbuster which is collecting streams of stars from reviewers. I'll start with the tour. BOV's iconic frontage has been boarded up since work began so entry has been round the side, just off Welsh Back, through a temporary bar area. In future you will enjoy this lustrous reception area in a building so radically revamped as to be tagged REBORN in the screen presentation that met our awed group. Tom Morris, artistic director, and chief executive Emma Stedding talked us through the 252 years that had left BOV isolated from city life and in need of desperate measures to survive.
Or, as Tom put it 'Bristol Old Vic is the Stradivarius of theatres, but it had become a complete mess.' With an eye-watering £26m grant, architects Haworth Tomkins took on the brief of making the theatre contemporary & commercial while preserving and restoring all key historical features. Steve, the architect for this bit, explained the aim was to take away certainties and leave 'ponderable clues... we're taking existing fabric and making it more informal and accessible. That's what we all feel theatre should be about.'  So, with the theatre poised to renew its 'passionate love affair with the city' to quote Tom Morris again, on to the current show - which is also about taking drastic measures to survive. Touching the Void was a book & a film so anyone with an interest in real-life adventure probably knows the story: In 1985 Joe Simpson & Simon Yates decide to climb the west face of one of the most difficult peaks in the Peruvian Andes and both nearly lost their lives. Compounding the peril of their descent, Simpson fell and as he dangled over an abyss and his friend, realising he had no strength to pull him up, cut the rope between them to save himself. Yates survived, and extraordinarily so did Simpson, who wrote the best-selling book. This is another of those stories like A Monster Calls (probably the best show this year for me) which makes you initially wonder why it's being adapted for stage when it seems to require so much that only film effects or the internal imagination of reading can provide. Set, lighting, and music are all impressive, and so is the physical agility of Edward Hayter and Josh Williams as Simon and Joe - I liked Patrick McNamee too, as the dorky backpacker who helps them recount their tale to Simon's sister, whose angry bewilderment slowly succumbs to the lure of the rock.  David Greig who wrote this stage version - (I loved his play Midsummer so much I saw it twice) - makes the sister, played by Fiona Hampton, a leading character, which does sometimes divert attention from the extraordinary intensity of the men's experience though it's a useful device to explain things that, like her, we might not know about... the way in extremis the brain turns on the body, consuming muscle to feed itself, and personalities change, and inner voices become manifest. I thought there was too much sisterly intrusion and that it would all have packed more punch in one act, but I may be a lone voice here. Anyway, if you're stirred by thoughts of adventures beyond mortality, as was Shakespeare's Claudio, and also Peter Pan, this is the play to see. Director Tom Morris.

Now for something completely different. As a consequence of Frome Unzipped, I've been asked to help in a quest to find the house where Joni Mitchell wrote four of her songs. Muir MacKean, who uncovered this gem in Reckless Daughter, a biography of Joni by David Yaffe. Suggestions in an email please! If we find the place, a small celebration can be initiated, probably on a 7th of November which was her birthday - it would be great if the first could be this year, when she will be 75.

Art spot now: Cheese & Grain is currently hosting an exhibition of works submitted for the Green Art competition, judged by David Chandler, who chose Emma Tuck's series of which imagines the house-martin's migratory route to Africa, and this impression of wind turbines by Richard Whitehouse.
On a musical note again, an excellent Sunday session of Jazz at the Cornerhouse featured Martin Kolarides and the Graham Dent Trio. I intended also to go along to Magic Tractor's Granary session but my psyche was still in the radiance of Greece and couldn't face the ferocity of storm Ali, which Frome caught the rim of after it battered Ireland. I watched the trees whirling like dervishes and wondered why we personalise storms: apparently its because meteorologists believe it raises awareness of potential to damage. You'd think we'd notice winds of 100 mph tearing up streets and scattering road-repair barriers like a toddler in a tantrum, wouldn't you. Apparently the new storm is called Bronagh, and I hope she doesn't delay flights to Malaga from Bristol tonight... which is where I'm off, hopefully to grab one last week of sunshine and warmth, before winter enfolds us.  I'll be back, obviously, for Poetry Platter at the Merlin - don't forget to book in advance if you want the buffet, as well as the tasty show!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Flatpack community

Frome - as you probably know if you follow this blog - is famous for its independent council: visitors arrive literally from across the planet to interrogate the IiF (Independents for Frome) about how the town became engaged with the concept of local autonomy. Founding father Peter Macfadyen wrote a book about it - Flatpack Democracy - and the reason I'm talking about it now is because I've realised there's a huge connection between Frome and Skyros Holistic Holidays on the Greek island of Skyros. There too, they do things differently. There, as in Frome, there's a commitment to creating a sense of community. Frome has the structure of a town council whereas Atsitsa is a hut-village on the west coast of the island, home to temporary communities. Daytime activities include windsurfing, abseiling, yoga, singing, art, writing - which is why I go there (here's my fantastic morning group) - and impro drama, with evening activities like starry walks, dancing, pub quiz, and on the final night a glorious cabaret. It's all a mix of esoteric, creative, and plain wild. Food is terrific, accommodation isn't, and participants - often from high-powered jobs unused to latrine ablutions - come year after year, loving the ethos every time as each group creates its own identity: a precious community in which every individual is cared for and valued. Like Frome, Atsitsa's creates its community identity by attention to diverse individual needs and a lot of meetings. There's morning demos daily for the whole group, then œkos (small group sharing) and paired co-listening to go deeper... and there's interest group meetings which all come together on the last night in a cabaret so glorious you can hardly believe that five days ago these people were still trying to remember each others' names.
To illustrate that lovely Appollinaire quote, here's lovely Lilla who believe-it-or-not had never before danced suspended from a pine tree in a silk sling...
"Come to the edge," he said.

"We can't, we're afraid!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, We will fall!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.
But if our happy band sounds more like 1950s Butlins than a Greek idyll, there are in fact many options  to evade cabin-fever. You can walk down the pine road to Cook Nara where there's ambient music and wifi at the taverna and exquisite soft sand, shallow turquoise sea and loungers...and you can walk right across the island to the old town where tiny white houses - to hide from pirates - pile like sugar-lumps behind the massive rock. There you'll find cobbled streets so old and narrow that even the local taxis stop below the Plateia in the centre, music bars & shops staying open till late - that's because they take the longest siesta in the world and only reopen around 7pm - and the long sandy 'town beach'. Near the top of the rock, overlooking the cerulean-and-golden glamour of the bay, is the most amazing museum I've ever visited: the Manos Faltaits Museum has an extraordinary range of treasures and its gentle-voiced curator, who is also called Manos, can tell you fascinating facts about anything that takes your interest because he knows every item.  Here's pictures of our first glimpse of the town from the 9 mile walk, and Manos with some of the art works. (Thanks for the me-pix, Berny)
And now I'm home but still waking on the island, my mind finding it hard to grasp there will be no dash to yoga, no lavish breakfast on the trestle tables under the bougainvillea, no morning meetings...  no local wine at 2€ a brimming glass, no singing on the terrace and no more sunsets spilling across the Aegean sea...
But Frome has a way of re-asserting itself, as evidenced by a large sticker on the post at the corner of my road when I arrived :-)
And from another Greek island - Skiathos - a picture of Vicki Burke's holiday reading... (Thanks Mark Brookes!) I've had really great feedback on Frome Unzipped, and came home to this particularly lovely email from Bob Ashford, ex-Mayor & now Chair of Fair Frome: ...Absolutely brilliant. So much I had forgotten about and so much more I have remembered. Written with warmth, humour and passion and found myself smiling throughout. Genuinely the best account of Frome I have read and does justice to all those over the years who have made this such a great place to live. Good on you!
Makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it... 

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Postcard from Skyros

Regular readers will know that this primarily-Frome-focussed arts blog goes off, geographically speaking, annually to an island in the Aegean where Greek heroes hid, where Cretan pirates roamed, where the quintessentially English Rupert Brooke has his grave, and where now Skyros Holistic Holidays offers creative 'alternative' activities both in the main town and on the wild west coast, at Atsitsa Bay.
That's where I am at this moment, in a beach bar with wifi and exquisite soft-sandy beach and warm azure water, to which I shall shortly adjourn. I'm now midway between two sessions: here's last week's supergroup, posed in dappled light which unfortunately makes them look as though they're mid-way being beamed up to another planet, and my other awesome group, the 'Sunset Writers'... and here's our sunset view as we wrote. We did other things too: there's a wide range of options throughout day and evening - including aerial dance - and the food here is fantastic, all created by superchef Taki. And now these amazing groups have both gone, and new people have arrived, for another week of mornings immersed in creativity and afternoons immersed in water...

Avid Frome-followers keen to catch up on culture-goss, therefore, will find this post disappointing - I can tell you nothing about the Fat Boy Slim gig at  Cheese & Grain, which I would have give my eye-teeth to be at if I knew what these dentures are - though in compensation, here last week we had ecstatic dance, bopping in the bar, and a late-night hut-rave. And singing in the cabaret, and harmonising on the beach... The only home news I can add is that legendary music producer & singer/songwriter Ethan Jones shared his songs in the unlikely venue of Sagebury Cheese Deli the night before I left (next-door Raves from the Grave is so cram full of recordings in every format there's no room for a guitar to be unstrapped, never mind played to a rapt audience) and he was terrific. Leonardo's Bicycle at Three Swans afterwards gave us a fun tour through the 60s in song, and after that I know nothing.... I console myself with the extraordinary beauty of this island, the amazing people who come to Atsitsa, and the awesome, entertaining, sensational, & sometimes magical experiences it provides.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Mostly music, with a bit about oak trees

Trees. They were among our earliest deities and most of us probably still have that reverence in our psyche, expressed often as a passion to visit woods and a sense of awe at the ancient giants still surviving. As part of the Arborealist event at Black Swan this summer, Frome's tree expert Julian Hight gave a talk on Friday, showing some of the photographs he's taken around the world to illustrate his fabulous World Tree Story published in 2015. It's fascinating to see them compared with earlier records - here he shows an 1840 lithograph by dendrophile artist JD Strutt of the Great Oak at Fredville in Kent.
Oaks are Julian's particular passion: they shrink and gnarl as they age, often almost grotesquely, and they hollow into caverns so their age can't be assessed by counting the rings with an increment borer - but from folk tales and drawings, it seems they can live thousands of years.This is the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, made famous by the Robin Hood legend. It's fenced off now - the Stonehenge of ancient trees, Julian says in his book on Britain's Tree Story. Oaks are home to more wild life than any other tree, probably at least 500 species, as some things can only thrive in rotting oakwood, which means these trees as they age are 'hotspots for biodiversity' as Julian puts it.
And to finish this arboreal meander, here's a tree I saw providing shade to an entire flock of sheep on an afternoon cycle this week.

'If trees are not our teachers, we are at least their pupils. They have given us shelter, medicine, shade, food and fuel. It is a mere two hundred and fifty years since wood was superseded by iron as the fundamental material on which the great human experiment was founded and for almost all of our cultural history trees and woods have played the role of provider and teacher.' - Max Adams

Julian was one of the people who gave generously of their time & expertise when I was researching for Frome Unzipped, which segues nicely into my most recent mini-launch on Saturday, at the library.  It's really interesting to see which aspect of this wide-ranging story from prehistory to post-punk is picked up in post-talk chat: at the bookshop it seemed to be mainly buildings, at the coffee-house it tended to politics: this time it was the problems facing Frome in the future as economic rifts widen. It would be wonderful to think Unzipped could actually contribute to raising the awareness essential to find solution.
Music now, and a sampling of a typical week in the town that loves to strum, drum, and sing: here's Geoff Younger with Colin Ashley at the Cornerhouse on Saturday with classic favourites, while Frome Jazz next day at the same venue gave us the Graham Dent Trio with John Plaxton and Howard Vause (vocals) - while Tuesday saw Paul Kirtley's Blues Jam at the Artisan, and Wednesday is always Roots Session at the Grain Bar: this week with Snakesnakesnake from Glastonbury, a highly entertaining trio with big visual appeal. 
And to end the week musically, the Cornerhouse was now also in reptilian mood with Rattlesnake Voodoo rocking in energetic style - there's a link to their recent VRA session here. Note the venue transformation! - still tricky for photographs, but excellent for atmosphere. 

Even in a great week for music, the most sensationally exciting performance was at the Merlin, from Tri.Art Theatre summer Dance and Drama course participants, and achieved incredibly by these young performers -18 is tops, many were younger - after only two weeks rehearsal. In the Heights is a good choice for a young cast, with its themes of community and struggle for a better future, but a demanding one too in terms of accent subtleties and the amount of on-stage narration needed to follow the story, and the entire team was simply superb. Impressive direction, brilliant choreography, great live band, terrific dance skills, and strong acting in key roles, this never flagged for a moment and I honestly felt, as I joined the standing ovation at the end, that I could happily have sat down and watched it all again...  Here's Dillon Berry, who was rightly mobbed by applause, with some other characters who also gave unforgettable performances.  This production has been entered for the Somerset Fellowship of Drama awards, so fingers crossed you'll hear more of it. 

 Leaving Frome again now, briefly, to end this post with Lift Off! in Salisbury, a weekend celebration of creativity across the city, linking the Arts Centre, Playhouse, and Festival. There's  live music, visual art trails, performances, and on Friday night there were fireworks... My brother Pete & I were enjoying the hospitality of Wiltshire Creative, the new umbrella organisation for Salisbury's art scene: Pete was an active campaigner for the continued use of  deconsecrated St Edmunds Church during the 1990s threat to close it, so it was especially good to see the impressive exhibition there now, as well as enjoying a bop in the Cathedral Close as dusk fell.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Three dramas and a funky band

American author Patricia Highsmith was by all accounts a weird woman: rude and racist, she self-identified with her most well-known character, psychopathic killer Tom Ripley, and believed that murder, by gaining for a moment the absolute attention of the victim, was a way of making love. She spent her final years in Switzerland. A foul-mouthed alcoholic misanthropist can be savagely funny in small doses, as Father Jack proved, but the unrelenting tirade of vitriolic abuse is almost monotonous in Joanna Murray-Smith's 2014 play Switzerland, currently revived at Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio. What saves the story from being merely unpleasant is the increasing suspense as her visitor's persona subtly, mysteriously, shifts, and what makes the production impressive is the superlative acting of Phyllis Logan as the rancid writer and Calum Finlay as the young man who arrives to plead for one more Ripley story, and to bring her a knife... Chekhov famously said if you show a gun in the first act someone has to fire it before the end: there's a huge armoury on this set from the start, but it's the hunting knife with its ‘polished mirror steel & thin tapered edge’ which is significant from the moment of reveal...  I can't say more without spoilers, except that designer William Dudley and director Lucy Bailey have combined to create an impressive production of a thought-provoking play. On till 1st September.
From Switzerland to Donegal: Aristocrats at the Donmar in Covent Garden, the highlight in a reunion with my friend & Derry flat-mate for two years shortly before the last troubles. Brian Friel's play charts the final days in the big house of a once-wealthy family, their grandeur now all gone, all with troubled lives, social conflicts, and secret griefs… Yes, it did feel pretty much like the secret love-child of The Cherry Orchard and it's not Friel at his best - there’s some over-egged speeches and the late-arriving motif of a hidden child is unnecessary as well as unresolved - but it’s brilliantly acted: David Dawson is mesmeric as Casimir, the fey, fantasising, brother, and Emmet Kirwan is strong as Eamon, the village lad who managed to marry one of the daughters of the ‘big house’ and now seems unsure why… Also excellent is patient Willie (David Ganly) - the Lopakhin in this infertile orchard - and there’s a brief but unforgettable glimpse of the once-powerful father. What distances us from the intimacy of these lives is the meta-theatrical approach that director Lyndsey Turner has chosen, with stage directions intoned to introduce each section and characters miming briefly before settling down still in view to wait their cue like subs on a bench. The non-naturalistic approach goes to extreme in Es Devlin’s design which I found distracting, particularly when the emotional final act was literally upstaged by the scenery - a massive faux-19th Century rural backdrop symbolising past splendour - and lugging a dolls house around the bleak stage to illustrate items mentioned in the script was overly contrived and a bit naff. But apart from that, an entertaining show.

The Price in Arthur Miller's play of that name might appear to relate to the $11,000 that old Mr Solomon offers Victor for the hoarded contents of his father's house, but of course it's more than that - it's the cost of a family trauma which grew from the 'Great Depression' - and obliquely the ongoing effect of that on the entire American nation. Onstage action follows the meeting of two brothers after long separation, both returning to their childhood home now scheduled for demolition to pick over memories and grievances: the current revival at Theatre Royal Bath, directed by Jonathan Church, benefits a lot from David Suchet as the old dealer, who brings a jaunty spark to this otherwise downbeat story.  Both the brothers - Brendan Coyle and Adrian Lukis - are impressive as defensive, damaged, men vying with each other as to who paid the higher price for their father's hoarding, although glamorous Esther is less convincing as Victor's wife and seems sometimes to have wandered in from another show.  Simon Higlett's massive set literally looms over the action, graphically depicting the claustrophobic clutter of the past still overshadowing these lives. Victor when alone interacts in moments of moving tenderness with the props of his past - his fencing kit, a harp, his brother's oar, but for me the dominating symbolism of furniture cluttering their lives detracts from the development and the reveal of other, subtler, aspects. On till 25 August.

Ending this post now in Bruton, where Hauser & Wirth host free summer parties in their Radić Pavilion throughout August: last Sunday's featured Frome's amazing Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots, irresistible whatever the song - I think this one is Kirsty MacColl's tale of the guy down the chip shop who swears he's Elvis... but it could be any from their 'whirlwind of folk blues & Americana-groove with harmonies and tales of whiskey, woe, zombies, and love.'

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Street life with castle, beach, murder-mystery & more...

Nunney Street Fayre on Saturday, as you'd expect from the spelling, is an extravaganza of stalls selling cakes and summer-festival style attire, interrupted at intervals by cider & prosecco bars and ice-cream vans - but with a magnificent USP: ruined Nunney Castle, in the centre of the village and surrounded by a moat. Here the awesome Acoustic Cafe team gave us a day-long stream of live music, on two stages so no set-up breaks, and you could lounge on the grass listening to fabulous folk, blues, and punk classics for hours... I was there for five, fortified by fizz, leaving then for a theatre date. Here's the punky Raggedy Men but I also really enjoyed the other bands and individual artists, especially Splat the Rat ranging from In Hell I'll Be In Good Company to gentle Bees Wing... (thanks Stephen for the snap)
So a swift bike-ride home got me back in time to de-hippify for the rather posher environs of Corsley Manor, to join friends for the Illyria production of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Oliver Gray, who designs and directs the summer season, warns in programme notes that four actors on a tiny stage in a complex tale involving multiple characters is 'ridiculous' but of course it's the ridiculousness of this clever quartet we love. Liv Spencer's haughty Holmes, Nick Taylor's broad-Yorkshire Watson, Rachel O-Hare and Lee Peck in multiple roles were all hilarious, even in the scariest moments as the unlikely story unravelled. With the villain finally triumphantly identified, Dr Watson - not unreasonably - asks what the motive could conceivably have been. 'That is of no concern to me,' the great detective huffs, 'I am only interested in problems of the present and the past, not those of the future.' Not just a riotous romp, a sly critique of genre detective stories too...

Next day was the first Sunday in August so Frome had its monthly Independent Market - the seaside one, with a beach and donkey rides in the marketplace, and Mojo Moves from Rare Species street theatre leading a startling-energetic aerobics session - think human-glitter-ball in shocking-pink lycra romping like a baby hippo on speed.
For calmer enjoyment, there was the Busking Stage - here's Kevin Brown and Duncan Kingston playing blues.
Sunday early evening jazz is back at Cornerhouse: Simon Sax and friends gave a great jam session, with songs from Nicki Maskell & Graham Dent on piano. Midweek highlight was Lazy Daze, a charismatic trio - great rapport & fabulous original songs superbly played.

Ending this busy post with an update from Frome Unzipped, with my first serious, with-a-reading style, launch on Tuesday at Hunting Raven Books where lovely Tina set the bar high in her introduction but audience response was brilliant:  questions good and comments fabulous. (Thanks Tina for the sneaky shot of me holding forth.) I've been delighted by all the feedback, on facebook ('a cracking read'- thanks Mike Grenville) and from people I meet around - like, 'I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I am!'... I do hope everyone who buys it feels that way...
And Pete Lawrence has just posted a chat we had for the Campfire Convention: you can listen to the 'Firecast' here: