Monday, November 12, 2018

Masses of music as autumn winds whirl...

Starting with music, superlatively good in Frome last week - and there were jazz session and Celtic sessions too...   The Cornerhouse had standing room only on Friday for a sensational blues session from Pete Gage Band, then on Saturday that venue transformed into a Bowey-inspired party night as Rebel Heroes gave a storming performance with atmospheric visual effects.
A walk down the road on sunny Sunday for Nunney Acoustic Cafe, where as well as great local artists we were treated to Swindon's fabulous folk band Splat the Rat and Danny McMahon from Bristol, currently topping the iTunes Country Chart.

When a musical duo takes the name Leonardo's bicycle you don't really know what to expect because it never existed. True, a bicycle sketch purportedly by the C15th Florentine artist inventor was allegedly found in Milan in 1974, but examination revealed that the paper had been folded & glued to hide a selection of penises not thought to be in the hand of the master, though whether that was due to poor craftsmanship or poor likeness hasn't been clarified. The new theory is that the bicycle was forged in the 1960s - (“It’s the sort of thing a bored monk might do,” says Nicholas Clayton, editor of The Boneshaker, the magazine of the British Veteran-Cycle Club) which brings me nicely to the Three Swans on Thursday, where the best of 1960s & '70s music was played live all evening by two amazing musicians who travel under the enigmatic banner of that non-existent vehicle.

Da Vinci musings bring us nicely into art, and the opening of a new show at the HUBnub of work by Susanna Lisle ;- paintings inspired by local landscape and Islamic tradition of geometric patterning, combining both elements in paintings big enough to look striking even in the massive proportions of the gallery in the old Whittox Lane Chapel.

Over now to Theatre Royal Bath, where Ruth Jones, famous for her role as louche, laconic Nessie on TV’s comedy series Gavin and Stacey, is the featured star in The Nightingales, a drama about a song group with aspirations of small-screen stardom. They seem a jolly, ordinary, bunch but nobody is quite what they first seem, and cracks in their cohesion are inevitable when wild-card Maggie persuades them to compete for Britain's Got Talent. William Gaminara's play is tightly interlaced with televisual references as the plot unrolls with several sections of narration direct to audience and bursts of song. The set, a village hall, is awesomely realistic (designer Jonathan Fensom) and this is a slick production which, as Miss Jean Brodie might say, will appeal to those who like that sort of thing.  My favourite character was Sarah Earnshaw's sassy Connie, spitting fury at Maggie's aspirations to be the next Susan Boyle. Now touring in London. Image: Geraint Lewis

So in the week when arguments about poppies replace arguments on fireworks, I'll leave you with an image of my local walk, and the good news that Nevertheless is returning:
Scratchings is our newly-formed combination with Frome Actors Network, with a production of four shorts already planned for the 2019 Festival... here's Becki, Lou and Mark somewhat shocked after our first read-through...

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Journeys literal, literary, musical & memorial

Leading with words this week, with two brilliant events both really well attended. Apologies for the image Fail on Monday for the Frome Poetry Cafe, where our two guest poets Shauna Robertson and Dawn Gorman treated us to a their two-hander of poems on a theme of 'restraint and release', intimate personal glimpses full of profound thought and wonderful imagery. The ten open-mic poets were all impressive, and included several readings composed especially for this autumnal celebration, as always with a range of styles and topics. A lovely event, followed next night by a double book launch at Hunting Raven Books organised by Frome Writers Collective imprint Silver Crow, where both local authors talked about, and read from, their own personal journey of discovery. Dizzy Greenfield wrote Strays and Relations about discovering her birth mother, and Ed Green had found a bag of letters from the front by his great-uncle and set out to research the full story:  It Leaves Me The Same (the poignant sign-off of many of these missives) represents part of a healing process for his family, and perhaps all of our community as we teeter on the brink of senseless separation from Europe. A fascinating evening sensitively managed by interviewer Gill Harry.
An impulse dash to Bruton on Wednesday, as the last days of October persisted in sunshine & blue sky with golden leaves still thick on our trees, to see the Stages and Tales exhibition by Berlinde de Bruyckere at Hauser & Wirth - massive pieces of weathered decomposing fabric, resinated & evocative of classic paintings strangely deteriorated - and also to enjoy an entertaining all-age matinee show from Mumblecrust Theatre. The Tale of the Cockatrice may or may not be based on an ancient traditional legend but it provides the two performers a terrific showcase for their talents and their puppets, with props and visual tricks that brought magic to the bland surroundings of the Union Club and delighted a large group of rapt children and their elders.

Another talented stage duo on Thursday as Living Spit returned to Bristol, to the new Weston Studio at BOV, with their current historical exposition Giants of Science. Stu Mcloughlin and Howard Coggins specialise in recreating half-remembered famous tales, from Henry VIII and his wives to Frankenstein's monster, and the basic gag is the same: it’s that Stu can effortlessly morph into any role, often in multiples (he was three people having in conversation at one point) and can bring unexpected poignancy to wild absurdity, and that Howard is always like a shouty Dad. Somehow the combo works, mostly, superbly and the end result is always funny and sometimes hilarious. I’d say this is one of the funny ones. The songs, accompanied on guitar, are witty, and their SCIENTRIFFIC history is more than merely preposterous.  From Ancient Greece the 'lecture' moved swiftly to Galileo, Newton (Coggins excelling here as an exasperated apple tree), and Mary Anning finding fossils on the beach at Lyme Regis. Then we had Ada Lovelace (did you know she invented the first computer programme? No, me neither), Charles Darwin and of course Einstein himself, now converted by relativity into a quarrelsome double personality, since all motion must be defined relative to a frame of reference and space and time are relative, rather than absolute concepts. Glad we got that sorted...
 Samhain celebrations at the Grain Bar Roots Session featured the Back Wood Redeemers, fresh from their triumph at Bradford on Avon last week, and the brilliant Raggedy Men were on scorching form in the halloween-party atmosphere of the Cornerhouse on Saturday - which was also firework night for most of the town.
Frome Town Council put on a highly-rated display at the Old Showground but the fireworks over the industrial estate viewed from my study window were thrilling too - though not as thrilling as the murmuration of starlings over Rodden Reserve on my family walk next day, swirling high across the landscape in gathering numbers then dropping suddenly en masse onto the wetland lakeside reeds.

Sunday being the first one of the month was also Frome Independent market day though I can't offer any image or report of highlights as I was stationed outside Hunting Raven Books with copies of Frome Unzipped - from Pre-History to Post Punk, selling all but one of my current stock, which pleasing (though smug) note concludes my week's meanderings in and around Frome.
This is a month of sombre rememberings so here's Tom & Amy with Carl to wish you happier times than the gloomy glimpses offered by Thomas Hood in his 1844 poem:
No sun - no moon!  No morn - no noon - no dawn
No earthly view – No distance looking blue  
No travelling at all – no locomotion 
No inkling of the way – no notion 
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease, 
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, November!

Monday, October 29, 2018

Candid Shakespeare, fine art, and spectacular music

Pip Utton, Frome's favourite one-man-showman, has re-presented himself in iconic roles from Hitler and Churchill to Charles Dickens and Charlie Chapman and is now offering another intimate insight in At Home With Shakespeare. In role as the Stratford theatre-manager/playwright, he makes masterly use of that you-do-but-dream  conceit much favoured by the bard himself: this is Shakespeare in 2018, as amused by our misconceptions as delighted by our awe at his words, dreaming his past loves and jealousies even as we dream his presence in our theatre. He teases the audience with quotes, some not even his own, and the intriguing suggestion that his plays were all workshopped with the cast and their impro words then combined, he takes us vividly into the noisy, bawdy, noisy, world of Elizabethan theatre. It's a hugely entertaining performance as well as intriguingly informative, although not all the theories propounded are incontestable, and, to be picky, Shakespeare's neologisms are nowhere near so numerous, and there were chiming clocks in Italy from 14th Century, so impatient Juliet could well have heard one strike nine... But hey, who's counting?

The Black Arts Open Exhibition is now in the Long Gallery, and this year the selection has been well received: it's varied and thought-provoking but every piece has some interest or appeal - in fact doing what a gallery for the community does best. From the precise beauty of small things meticulously painted by Dan Morley to Marian Bruce's dangling mobile of wild wailing faces, there's much to intrigue and ponder on, with several figurative pieces too, like this portrait of her daughter by Kay Lewis Bell.I'd seen this at Shave Farm during last year's Somerset Arts Week, and it was great see it again with the red 'winner' label -among other accessible choices by the judges, one of whom this year was Michael Eavis.
Our Words at the Black Swan workshop on Monday was led by Mike Grenville who encouraged us to consider the entire exhibition as if deciphering its messages from a time in the future... (you can see some of the outcomes here.)

As temperatures plummet and clocks are set to winter, Frome appeared to treat itself to a little music festival. We enjoyed several international visitors: South African Nibs Van Der Spuy at the Grain Bar Roots Session with an excellent set including a moving tribute to Nelson Mandela, and delightful duo Hope Country along with Luke Philbrick and Hannah Scott guested at the Sofar session (Hope is in Wisconsin, where they aren't big on geography, apparently, as the lads' tour was mapped on a tee-shirt image of the UK with Scotland shrivelled and N. Ireland vaporised, which might help Brexit negotiations but would pose issues for the 1.9 million population.) Our Sunday Jazz Club this week featured Bosonova rhythms with the gypsy violin and sultry voice of Azhaar Saffar. Paul Kirtley gathered a posse of local musicians together on Thursday as  'Bare to the Bones' charity event at The Artisan,for a lively jam session of folk/rock/ blues favourites plus some original songs - including Paul's Crones of Avalon with me performing the poem that inspired it. Popular Three Corners were the Saturday night band at The Cornerhouse, another big line-up with a large following, and next afternoon when two favourite Frome bands played at the Three Horseshoes in Bradford on Avon, most of Frome seemed to follow them. The awesome Raggedy Men gave us a stonking set of classic punk tracks, followed by The Back Wood Redeemers' dark revivalists songs of pioneering America, in the Stygian gloom of a cavern-like room where swirling dust glinted gold in the sunlight every time the door opened - wonderful atmosphere and terrific music. So that's four solo performers, a duo, a quartet, a sextet, an octet, and a jam session varying from three to a dozen - all in six days...  Keep it up, Frome, it's fabulous.

Monday, October 22, 2018

History, ecology, and music

A little over 200 years ago, Britain was at war with the French, then as we all know from school, Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo. He was given £750,000 thank-you from parliament at a time of massive poverty as grain was stored for profit by mill-owners despite bread shortage but most of us didn't learn that at school. The working classes also had no choice at all in government as 92% of the population had no vote at all, and anyway their allotted MPs had mostly never set foot in their own constituency. This was the background to the events in the true story of the massacre of unarmed men women and children gathered to listen to speeches in St Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819. 700 were severely injured and 18 slaughtered at what horrified newspaper reporters promptly dubbed Peterloo, and that's the title of Mike Leigh's latest film, in cinemas next month. The premier, followed by a Q&A session from Mike as part of the BFI film festival, was appropriately in Manchester: it was streamed live on Wednesday at selected cinemas one of which was Wells which is where I saw it. Critics have commented that some of the early dialogue is expositional (true, but how else would people understand why they were all hungry?) but the speeches are all authentically sourced: “When the powers in the hands of a number of persons whose interests are not that of the people, the destruction of our nation is inevitable and imminent” says young Radical Reformer John Baggerly.  Mike Leigh, in the Q&A also screened, was asked why he made this film. It’s soon going to be the bicentenary,  he replied, and many people still know nothing about what happened. "This is not a museum piece, it’s a visceral dramatisation, and I’m in the business of making films that ask questions. You don’t have to be very bright to see that it relates to things that are happening in our world now."

And it was that unassailable point which caused me to cancel my plans for Saturday (sorry, Common Salt) and book the early train to London, to join the other 700,000 - at least - people marching through the capital in support of democracy and a public vote not manipulated by lies deceit and fraudulent funding.

Historical contrast on Thursday at the newly refurbished Bristol Old Vic for a new production of Twelfth Night from the BOV company with Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. The concept is delightful: Shakespeare's title invites music, mirth, & general revelry and his plot involves much dressing-up, so director Wils Wilson and designer Ana InĂ©s Jabares-Pita turned for inspiration to the psychedelia of the '60s & '70s and a set that would evoke the idea of ‘a never-ending bohemian country house party’.
What could possibly go wrong? For many of the audience, clearly nothing: there was huge applause for the parodic songs, some of which were brilliant (Malvolio's Rocky Horror moment for one) but others, possibly missing the bard's firm hand, noticeably left at the interval. There were some strong performances -  I'd sit through it all again for Dylan Read's Feste - but some pairings lacked chemistry. The conceit that roles were taken almost randomly by the carousing 'house party' is funny up to a point, but, as with the over-milked fake-letter scene, exaggerations around gender-switching weakened and confused the dramatic impact of Shakespeare's story. Images Mihaela Bodlovic
Back in Frome, a Tree Conference networking day to encourage the reforestation of planet Earth met at Merlin Theatre on Sunday, and even with solid sunshine on the spectacular displays of autumn foliage outside and Apple Day celebrations in the new Community Orchard, the event was totally sold out and the auditorium remained crammed with passionate dendrologists and tree-huggers. Founder & director Suzy Martineau introduced a series of expert speakers all with a passion to change society's view of trees as commodities to an understanding of their vital role in planetary survival. Dr Martin Bidartondo has been exploring the effects of pollution on our fragile ecosystem, understanding of which seems hardly to have changed since Leonardo da Vinci wrote We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot: he delivered his somewhat-sombre findings with dark sardonic humour. More hopeful was the case-study of a failing chemically-saturated farm now transformed successfully into an amazing habitat, repopulated by birds, butterflies, animals, and 'thorny scrub', essential to protect tender saplings and enhance the process of natural regeneration. Isabella Tree's book Wilding is a true story with an inspiring solution: 'we have to take our hands of the steering wheel and give the driving seat to Nature' - that's if the human-centric guidelines of 'wild life' campaigns allow...
Reconvening after al fresco buffet lunch created by Keren Hayden, we heard about the importance of imagination - no argument there - and met four delightful teenagers using theirs to encourage tree planting. They were asked to suggest one thing could make a difference.' Changing the education system would be a wonderful place to start' said smart Hannah. No argument there, either. We heard, with visuals, from Andy Egan and Tersa Gitonga about reforesting projects in Kenya and Europe, and Frome's tree champion Julian Height just had time to share some of his amazing experiences and  fabulous images as Peter Macfadyen brought the expertise of Frome to the forum.

Frome's pubs gave us the usual diversity of live music: a Celtic jam at the Three Swans with Trevorr Mills, the Mark Smallman Band stirring up a blue storm at the Cornerhouse on Saturday, and Graham Dent's jazz session with Peter Jones cooling the tempo there on Sunday.

Finally for this week: All About Frome is a monthly programme on Frome FM  focusing on volunteering work in the town and this week I was invited to talk about my book Frome Unzipped in terms of the community spirit strong throughout our history ( link here.) Thanks to programme makers Rupert Kirkham and Julia Welland, and  appreciation to Richard Ackroyd for cycling from Lands End to John o'Groats for Sustrans Missing Links and to Stephen Dale, coordinator for Dorothy House.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

That strange and beautiful thing called love

'Do you know what le vice anglais really is? It's our refusal not to admit our own emotions.'  This bitterly self-deprecating acknowledgement from Sebastian, jaundiced literary critic in Ustinov Studio's In Praise of Love, is at the painful heart of the drama.  From an unpromising start of domestic trivia and mutual irritation, this deceptively multi-layered story builds up to a gripping and immensely moving tale of mutual deception and self-deception, all for love... To say more would be a spoiler if you don't know Terence Rattigan's 1973 play, though probably it wouldn't spoil your enjoyment of this production directed by Jonathan Church, carefully set in time and place by designer Tim Hatley and achingly well-acted by Robert Lindsay and Tara FitzGerald as the deceiving couple.  Robert Lindsay is awesome as the disillusioned ex-novelist who sneers at his son Joey - sympathetically played by Christopher Bonwell - and addresses his wife like Christopher Robin's Nanny,  but when he tells his friend Mark about her backstory in Estonia he could break your heart.  Social mores of the '70s are strongly established in the script, nostalgically for someone of my generation, and it's also a painful critique of the collapse of political optimism: Sebastian still claims Marxist purity in his left-wing rants, and despises Joey's Liberal idealism not so much for the puerile rebellion it probably is, but as 'crypto-fascist vote-splitting to let the Tories in'.  The story was famously largely inspired by the unhappy true story of Rex Harrison losing his wife Kay Kendall to leukemia, but the terrible legacy of national aggression, as evidenced in the history of Estonia, is a strong strand too.  Showing till 3 November -book now, you won't regret it. Image: Nobby Clark

Moving forward twenty years, in a housing estate somewhere in South East London where people shout a lot, Leah, Jamie and Ste are growing up in a world obsessed with sex, spliffs, and Sally from Coronation Street. Beautiful Thing at Tobacco Factory was written and set in 1993, when being 'queer' while no longer illegal after the age of 21 is still a taboo subject in schools - and a bruising insult on the streets. Jonathan Harvey's drama must have seemed mainly a gay coming-of-age story when first performed, but as times and teens change it's become a lens on a very different & less technically sophisticated world. Director Mike Tweddle's production boasts community involvement via a large local choir who add musical energy while also ensuring enthusiastic audience response, and the cast of five were excellent, especially Jamie (Ted Reilly) who compensated for limited utterance with hugely expressive eyes, and his mother (Phoebe Thomas) who managed to create genuine personality beyond the neighbourhood-loudmouth stereotype. On till 27th then touring.
Images Mark Dawson

Monday, October 15, 2018

Women in costume in love - with music, of course

Shakespeare in Love could be subtitled Shall I compare thee to a saucy rom-com, witty satire, or bardic farce? but whichever you choose it's a total delight. Based on the movie screenplay by Tom Stoppard & Marc Norman, this Lee Hall adaptation for stage at Theatre Royal Bath has a massive cast of superlative actors in terrific costumes in a high-energy romp which is also crammed with allusions to Shakespeare's plays, his life & times, and even to later legends (did Marlow really write all the best lines?) - but you don't need to pick up on any of the references to thoroughly enjoy the show. Designer Max Jones used the circular stage to terrific effect with a set comprising basically no more than a balcony to evoke Romeo's classic love scene, which somehow created pubs, castles, theatres, and even dockland - and the fights were fantastic. Pierro Niel-Mee as Will and Imogen Daines as Viola-aka-Juliet made a lovely couple, Edmund Kingsley was a marvellous Marlow and Geraldine Alexander's imperious Queen added a wicked touch of BlackAdder ("Tragedy is all very well but we very much like a dog") - and every role was well played under Philip Breen's well-paced direction. Highly recommended, on till 13 October then touring the UK ~  images Pete le May
It's easy to forget these days that a mere hundred years ago, the women who campaigned for voting rights were seen by most of the rest of the English population rather like the IRA were in the 70s: violent extremists causing havoc for no justifiable cause. ‘What we’re dealing with here is a lunatic fringe of frigid women’ declares one of the posse of Typical Men at the start of Her Naked Skin at Salisbury Playhouse, Rebecca Lenkiewicz's play set in - and largely about - the early days of the Suffragette Movement. Since their early days of polite propaganda, women had become tired of being ignored & disdained and had embarked on a more violent policy, attacking property & assaulting policemen, starting fires & storming parliament... and then there was the Derby death leap, a decisive moment in the history of women's suffrage which provides the opening of the play.
Lesbianism was the other frequent explanation for their behaviour, as women found genuine camaraderie and intimacy across social classes: that too is an aspect explored in this drama, but the most unforgettable scenes for me were the reconstructions of the treatment of imprisoned women. In one shocking scene we see what force-feeding actually involved, the horrifying brutality paradoxically presented in a strangely beautiful tableaux as a pyramid of men grip the girl so that one nurse, standing aloft like an angel, can pour egg-mix down the long tube forced through her nose all the way to her stomach. Direction is by Gareth Machin, with a strong team of professionals playing the key roles and excellent support from community actors as their protesting supporters.  The number of short scenes in different locations created difficulties in maintaining connection with the action which were not entirely solved by a swiftly revolving stage and quick-drop sets, but this excellent production is really worth seeing. Abigail Cruttenden takes the central role of Celia, but watch out too for naive Eve (Lorna Fitzgerald) defiant Florence (Jane How) and understandably frustrated William (Robert Hands) Showing till 20 October.
On to music now:  Friday night's treat was local blues band Nasty Habits playing in the City Arms in Wells as storm Callum lashed. It's a pleasant pub and their set had a great response, though last time I was in Wells was for the anniversary screening of Hot Fuzz and it was difficult not to feel the regulars were all part of the NWA plotting for the greater good in the smokers' garden outside...

Saturday saw the massively-anticipated return of the Back Wood Redeemers to Frome's Cornerhouse music pub for an evening of  flamboyant theatricality and much dancing. This awedome 8-piece band always dresses in unique style for their gigs, combining superb musical skills with high energy impact and a big splash of dark humour. Unmissable.
On Sunday the tempo at the pub changes for the early evening jazz session: Keith Harrison-Broninski trio performed with Rosanna Schura and Nathan Mansfield - a lovely melodic round-off to the week. Sunday should have also featured a trip to Cranmore Tower for our 'Poetry Walk' on the theme of autumn, organised by John Payne and Martin Bax, but Storm Callum kicked that one off the schedule by lashing up a mudbath on the paths we planned to use. So here instead is a picture from a walk on Saturday around Stourhead, which for some strange reason maintained serene sunshine the entire afternoon.