Sunday, May 21, 2017

A week that wasn't, ending with drama and a Big Bash

I'll begin at the end of the week, because that was the best bit: The Merlin Short Play Competition had its superb finale on stage, with rehearsed readings by Frome Drama Club of the six winning plays. Here's the final line-up, chosen from seventy-seven submissions and a very strong long-list, and here's Claudia Pepler who initiated and master-minded this brilliant celebration of new drama, in role with Philip de Glanville in the gentle mystery Meet me at the Nightingale. 
Allison Herbert and Dan Gaisford here are in the dystopian satire Post Truth, and Tracy Ashford is looking askance at Nick White in Plan B, a comedy with an unexpected twist.
These versatile actors also took on Hot Tub Blues, a comedy of bickering with a happy ending, and Not Dead Yet, a very unusual vampire story. Mhairi Milligan's reading of Just of the Boat, a moving monologue of our times ended the performances, and a short Q&A afterwards confirmed audience appreciation of this varied & entertaining selection of winning plays. Congratulations to all the writers, who can list this success on their CV in future submissions, and hopefully the two able to come and see their scripts 'go live' found the experience a valuable part of the process of play-writing. Win-win all.
Friday night was also the Mayor's Charity Bash, an important night in Frome when the outgoing mayor organises a public entertainment with all proceeds to local organisations, and this year Mayor Toby Eliot had a new Town Hall to do it in.  So after the show at the Merlin we scooted across town to join the celebrations organised, too late to hear the excellent set by Deputy Mayor Al O'Kane but in time for the excellent set by Mayor Toby's fabulous band Back Wood Redeemers. As well as mandolin, those chains in no way impede his harmonica skills either!  We were in time too to see Des Harris win the hat competition, here he is with Stina Harris, and here's the one he took of me in my hat, looking like I think I'm still holding a glass of prosecco... After the band there was disco & dancing till midnight ~ a great way to finish a week that had up till then been pretty rubbish.

My persistent cold-&-throat thing had become unignorable, revealing its true colours (lurid) and literally silencing me. Most of this week has therefore been about cancelling: a meeting about a play, a meeting about a performance, a writers' group meeting, a theatre visit for review, the Last Tree Dreaming commemoration plaque unveiling, and an open-mic night of 'perilous reading' to celebrate Dracula's 120th publication-birth, and the Roots Session at the Grain Bar, where I really wanted to hear the Fos Brothers who grew up in Belfast in the troubled '70s not far from where I lived at the start of that era.
So here's two snippets from the week before - plans for future events - when my lurgy was gripping but my voice hadn't gone completely awol: I had a useful meeting with Phil Moakes, founder and organiser of Visual Radio Arts in his revamped home in the Old Fire Station, to discuss a future live on-air performance poetry session with four local poets.
And I was privileged to stand in for Stephanie Cole in a read-through of John Payne's script for the Life and Work of Edward Thomas event in Frome Festival, here's me with James Laurenson and Martin Bax.

Footnote to this ravaged week: I did manage a quick dip into the Museums at Night national project supported by Frome's Black Swan Arts, involving evening events at several galleries including The Good Gallery where Kate Cochrane is showing her splendid paintings of Tasmania. I'll leave you two images from the Cornerhouse, always a friend to live music: Graham Dent's new jazz line-up, and marvellous Blue Midnight, extraordinary ska/dub rhythms blended with a touch of scottish and turkish... Here's hoping for more happenings to report on next week.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Of gods & mortals, killings & madness ~ and some art.

Salisbury Playhouse identifies 'high quality revivals of classic English comedy' as at the heart of its artistic vision, and their new production Before the Party is directed by Ryan McBryde who usually does their pantomimes so there's much to laugh at in this satirical drama, adapted by Rodney Ackland from a short story by Somerset Maugham. The original story was published in 1922  but the play is set just after WW2 and this quarter-century forward shift with the original social mores retained has created the kind of timeless absurdity of a PG Wodehouse story, though with a darker centre.  (Images: Robert Workman)
James Turner's design is great ~ tastelessly sumptuous surroundings and fashion-plate frocks ~ and there's laugh-aloud humour in hypocrisy and pretensions of this upper-middle-class family fawning to their ‘betters', bullying those below them, and sneering at the black marketeers they routinely rely on to keep them provided as post-war rationing continues. A strong cast keep just ahead of farce as an erratic doorknob threatens to imprison them all while Laura's secret unravels as relentlessly as her mother’s composure, with especially brilliant performances from Katherine Manners as Laura's vicious sister and Philip Bretherton as her ghastly father, both making the most of their obnoxiousness.
In days when children were sent to their room with Nanny while adults misbehaved, writers relished the addition of a young observer. Part sagacious-Greek-chorus, part uncomprehending-distorting-mirror, they could show another perspective on events with ruthless candour. Young Susan (Eleanor Bennett) has this role, questioning the integrity of her elders until banished from the room and banned dessert. Her bewilderment is understandable. Her parents are appalling snobs, her aunts hate each other, and even God can’t be trusted. "Is he the God of Love or is he the God of Hate?" Susan wails, "How can we tell?" How indeed.
Rodney Ackland had a massive reputation at one time, though he's largely unknown now: Harold Hobson lambasted his play The Pink Room, which pre-empted the fashion for realism, as ‘jaw-aching soul-obliterating boredom’ which may have done for him what the Mercury Review allegedly did for Keats. It's no bad thing that audience reviews online have taken over from acid-tongued tyrants like Hobson. Here's Laura's lush but slightly louche lover (Matthew Romain) because it would've been nice to see more of him on stage.

Another story re-envisaged for later eyes, this time far more complex: Medea is the new production at Bristol Old Vic.  Euripides' 640BC version is a story of revenge at its most extreme and hideous, and I'd previously assumed it was a dire warning against revenge (or possibly barbarians) rather than a rally-cry for revolutionary feminism. Perhaps it can be both: this seemed to be the premise of this production underlining that History is made by women just as much as men. The original tragedy has been elaborated by director George Mann and writer Chino Odimbo by taking Robin Robertson’s 2008 translation and interweaving a modern tale about a single mum with a grudge against her ex, these overlapping stories presented mostly in song by a superb six-women cast. Jessica Temple, as Medea's nurse and Maddy's friend, was particularly impressive in this musical delivery, and Akiya Henry both looked and sounded awesome in the title role. Atmospheric lighting and a stark set enhance the surreal and sombre aspects of these twin sagas, though I found the sliding portals distracting and costume concept seems undecided ~ Medea looks great but the others, who have to change sex as well as century, tend to look as if they're trying on stuff in search of a style that suits. Opinions may divide on this interpretation of Medea - they did in my row, where Maddy's belligerence was loudly applauded.  The classic story is grim and the contemporary one glum and tritely scripted, but with great singing and visceral high-impact delivery, there’s no doubt about the dramatic impact of this performance. (Images: facebook)

Did you know that May 11 is Celebrating Somerset Day? Me neither, until I went along to Bruton Art Factory to hear Richard Pomeroy talk about his paintings and found a party with cider, local cheese, and Worzels songs, all - I quote the CSD website here - "to honour the date of King Alfred the Great’s defeat of the Danes in the 878 Battle of Edington, which is also known as the Battle of Ethandun (although the exact date of this is unknown." Patron Michael Eavis says "Somerset is a county full of entrepreneurs and people who don’t take no for an answer", which seems a good enough reason for a party.  Here's the spread put on by the ever-generous Art Factory, and here's Richard talking about how he creates his massive 'body-prints' en plein air, covering the linen fabric with acrylic paint and lying on it, then working on the floral surround later - there will be a body-printing performance on Saturday 20 May at 2pm in the gallery, free to all interested.
Back in Frome there were two art exhibition previews on Friday: Black Swan Arts is welcoming back Steve Burden, who won last year's Black Swan Open with his unforgettable painting Abettoir and now returns with a sensational show he calls Utopian Myths. Steve grew up on the Pepys estate in Deptford, a 'showcase' 1960s estate designed in post-war brutalism which like others had descended from Utopean to anarchic. Deptford Docks, which Pepys described in his diary, were the most important royal dockyards from Tudor days for three hundred years, and the massive work behind Steve is based on Peter the Great at Deptford dock by Maclise in 1857. There's a lot of vigour in his painting process, Steve agrees:"My drawing is very detailed and technical, and I want the paint to take it to another level - to take control. My paintings are robust, they're not whimsical."
At the HUBnub Centre, an exhibition from print artists Pine Feroda celebrates the arrival of a new art space for Frome in the gallery above the Rye Bakery. These big, dramatic, woodblock landscapes are created collaboratively by five artists all from the southwest: there's also a film showing their team work is as impressive as their talents. All of the group, Ian PhilipsJulia Manning, Judith Westcott, Rod Nelson & Merlyn Chesterman have an extensive background of successful individual work too.

Ridiculusmus brought their current production Give Me Your Love to Frome's Merlin Theatre: a story about a war veteran struggling, with the help of what is possibly ecstasy, to cope with his post-traumatic stress. By being profoundly about what it is, the story becomes, like Waiting for Godot, about much more: by revealing nothing and no-one, it might be the quintessential howl of humanity to 'give me love' ...or just about a man in a box in a room with a chain on the door. Bizarre, disturbing, sometimes weirdly funny, always gripping.
Ending this week's culture-bundle with The Levelling, now at Frome's smashing (3-screen, £4-a-seat) independent Westway cinema. Set on a the Somerset levels after the 2014 floods with a strong rural heart-beat, there's also a plot, a suspense story that holds till the last moments, and Ellie Kendrick as the girl at the centre is incredible. So too are the long shots of murmurations around the tor, and hares slowly swimming through the flooded fields. The Guardian gives background and a good review, and I also liked the Financial Times critic's quote which chimes with other themes in this week's post: Not just a character piece with pain and poignancy, also a swirly, dystopian, ugly-beautiful landscape painting.  There's a stark moment when the father advises his daughter how to deal with the terrible levellings life brings to our lofty hopes: "You have to forget about it. Get out of bed, and bloody move on." You could say that challenge has been the theme of all this week's dramas.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

May: rough winds and other moving & shaking stuff

Frome writers had a strong presence at the Independent Market this month, with several signing events at Hunting Raven Books ~ here's Kate Maryon delighting young readers of My Sister is Bigger Than Me with cakes and a guinea-pig too ~ and the Frome Writers Collective had their usual stall in the Magpie Market, bulging with books by local authors. As always the market offered masses to see and sample, and this month there was extra to listen to, with buskers in the streets & in The Griffin, where an open mic session accompanied the Sunday lunches. Carl Sutterby's terrific ukulele punk sounds good everywhere but my poems are mostly scurrilous or cynical... lucky my set was before any children arrived. Thanks David for the picture!
The busking stage had great bands and a big audience all morning ~ here's The Heart Collectors ~ with mellow folk music in the Archangel courtyard in the afternoon, followed by Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse.
Thus ended a weekend of sunshine and sound, with two Saturday night birthday parties: a disco at the Cornerhouse and the amazing Back Wood Redeemers, at the bar now quirkily calling itself Frome's New Venue - Name TBC but still commonly referred as The Wheatsheaves.
Now for the culture: a film, a play, and a photo exhibition this week, all with a war theme.
Ever since Frome's independent cinema The Westway reopened I've been waiting for one of their three screens to show something I really wanted to see so I could go and support it. This week I compromised with Their Finest.  It's a film about making films about WW2, set in that era, and one of the running gags is that the female scriptwriter (think Stacey out of Gavin-and, but less cute) needs to cut her scripts and leave out the part we don't need, and I wish the editors had done that too. Main attraction of the movie is Bill Nighy playing, as always, Bill Nighy, but I can report the revamped cinema is really nice so that's good. There's a useful tip in the script for writers too: Don't confuse facts with truth, and for chrissake don't let either of them get in the way of the story.

Still on the subject of war, truth, and propaganda, Bath's Victoria Art Gallery has an impressive exhibition of iconic historical photographs showing until 10 May: THE INCITE PROJECT comprises 75 photos that changed public perception of world events, from a sepia shot of Lenin's inflammatory speech in Petrograd Square in 1919 to a full-colour high-resolution image from 2014 of a rescue boat crowded with refugees. This duo from Berlin in 1945, of a Russian soldier hoisting a Soviet flag on the Reichstag reveals how the documentary photograph (top) was altered into a dramatic smoke-filled scene ~ wristwatches, presumably looted, have also been deleted from the soldiers' arms in the published shot too.

Paul Mason is best known as a radical leftwing journalist but recently he's taken his convictions on stage, first with a dramatised version of his book Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere at the New Vic and now with Divine Chaos of Starry Things at the White Bear in Kennington. An in-depth study a woman revolutionary from another era sounded fascinating, maybe even pertinent in current troubled times, and an exciting way to round off my trip up-town.  Paul writes for The Guardian, which published a piece about the play that shows its complexity. Other journals have found it overly didactic and lacking in character differentiation, but there's a positive summary here in the New Statesman.

Irrelevant footnote for this post: Before it disappears from Bristol's streets, here's a picture of the promotion for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory this season.  Please note the two reviews quoted. Oh alright, you can't read it at that size, but trust me it's a massive poster, and the second reviewer is me...  what's the emoticon for a smirk?...

Monday, May 01, 2017

Beltane bulletin: summer ahead & the Greater Good

To begin in the middle: This week was the 10th anniversary of possibly the most momentous moment in the impressive history of Wells: the special premiere of Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz, with unmistakable town locations thinly disguised as the Sandford, the rural village that made murdering Midsomer look like sanitised Stepford.
So significant a date clearly required celebration, and what better way than hoisting a giant screen in the Bishop's Palace Garden and inviting a few hundred people to park their chairs on the billiard-table smooth & verdant lawn to enjoy a Hot Fuzz quiz, Hot Fuzz fancy-dress contest, and ~ of course ~ a late night screening of Hot Fuzz. The event sold out in days. It was all tremendous fun: the rain stayed off, organisation was amazingly smooth, speedy & good-humoured, and ticket price included barbecue, drink & goodie-bag. Now I want to go back for the Hot Fuzz walk...

Back in Frome, it's been another busy week.
Spoken word first: Frome Poetry Cafe enjoyed two terrific guests and an outstanding open mic session.  Matt Duggan read from his new chapbook Metropolis, evoking the moods of Bristol life through sounds and visual details: glass shards, city sirens, and no stars...  Lindsay Clarke, our other guest, reading from his recent collection A Dance with Hermes, imagining the trickster god still present in our world, timeless and deathless, reminding us the only remedy for life is love. Poems from the floor chimed with these powerful themes of time & place and life & death: there were moving memories and inspiring glimpses as well as delightful lighter moments. Huge thanks to all who came and all who read, including Rose Flint and Rosie Jackson who shared the her award-winning poem in the 2017 Hippocrates Competition.  (Thanks Matt for the picture)

Not one but two great bands at the Grain Bar this week: Wednesday's Roots Session featured fabulous blues trio The Spoonful, and on Sunday night we had a fantastic jazz special from John Law's Re-creations. This virtuoso quartet comprises John on (double) keyboard, James Agg on bass, Sam Crockatt on sax, and drummer Billy Weir, dynamically 'recreating' other composers' tunes like you've never heard them ~ just check out their Norwegian Wood...

Now here's the thing: we all know Frome is twinned virtually with the Eden and the national press bubbles with adulation for for its quaint cobbled streets, entrepreneurial market, entertainment options and general creativity, but the outcome of this,  combined with market profiteering, has pushed the cost of a house up by an average of £36,000 on last year's prices, scarily out of reach of most young local people wanting to buy or even rent.  Fair Housing for Frome, a community group run by volunteers with support from the Town Council, held a public meeting on Saturday afternoon to outline the problem. Solutions won't be easy, but there's clearly support for finding initiatives and answers.

Merlin Theatre 'Short Play Competition' performance of the winning submissions, fully-rehearsed script-in-hand, is coming up: the winning scripts have been picked from a strong long-list ~ in fact so strong, there was no short-list as such: these six very different scripts should create a fascinating evening of dramatic action.

Looking further ahead to July: an exciting but somewhat confusing headline appeared on Frome Festival website last week: FROME FESTIVAL RECEIVES EU AWARD. Nope, our town hasn't been exempted from Brexit doom, but our festival did pass the rigorous application procedure of the EFA, a prestigious organisation of arts festivals part-funded by the EU. The ECOS stone circle helped: built in 1992 to celebrate the European Union, this amphitheatre hosts summer productions, with two in the festival ~ check the brochure, out now, for these and other July delights.

So now it's May, and officially summer. Beltane is traditionally celebrated with bonfires but we celebrated it here with a dawn trip to Saxonvale, an unofficial park/wasteland hidden in the heart of the town, part public dump adorned by amazing creativity, part woodland waist-high with cow parsley and thick with the scent of wild garlic.

We sang a few songs, in old English and rather randomly in French, and listened to the birds, and then had an excellent picnic of home-made bread and marmalade, with coffee, all provided by members of the East Mendip Green Party. They public-spiritedly stayed on to do a big litter-picking blitz of some of the messy bits, and I went back home to bed.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A mixed bag ~ words, art, cool music and hot argument...

Let's start with a bit of social history. Tom Fort, author of The A303 and currently The Village News, came to Hunting Raven Books in Frome on Wednesday evening and gave a fascinating summary of the development of villages: firstly into settlements where people lived and worked the land, and latterly to a retirement status for the affluent middle-class. "The social space was never the village hall, it was the doorstep," he says, and claims the enemy of village survival is Conservation Status ~ "I'd like to burn all conservation documents - you can't preserve a village in a state of visual perfection, what matters is the heart." Tom has a delightful discursive style, apparently effortlessly intimate, and responds with endearing honesty to questions ~ as when, apropos his book on the A303 ("commissioned," he responds tersely, adding with feeling "I'll never write another book about a road,") he was asked his opinion on the prospective tunnel under Stonehenge: "It’s an utter waste of millions and a conspiracy by English Heritage to get people to their beastly centre."  Well said that man.

Next out from the mixed-bag, music: Masses of it this week as Saturday was Record Store Day, an opportunity for live music in the streets which Frome never ignores. Covers Vinyl Record Store on Catherine Hill offered moody melodic 'anthemic angst' from All That Glitters while our national treasure Raves from the Grave, the indie record store that makes people move home to live near, offered not only local legend Carl Sutterby with his punk-rock band The Wochynskis, but an international legend too: Chris Difford, musician-songwriter from The Squeeze.
Cheap Street was totally jammed with happy-memory smiles as a massed chorus sang Up the Junction along with him. Cool for Cats was even more evocative as Chris not only wrote this one (back in 1979) but sang it on the album too: he seemed pleased, and oddly surprised when we nostalgically crooned the chorus...
Record Store Day ended with dancing at The Artisan with Rebel Heroes ~ best Bowie tribute band I've heard ~ you can sample soundcloud tracks like Ashes to Ashes on their site. There were other days of free live music too ~ Thursday wasn't a one-off thing like take-your-dog-to-work-day. We had the usual open mic sessions and on Wednesday Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar offered self-written songs from musician Ben Morgan-Brown, and Circe's Diner.
Circe in Greek mythology was a minor goddess with a knack of necromancy and powers of transformation which she used to turn Odysseus's men into beasts, but it's unclear which of her witchy skills would be required in the catering trade so this was an intriguing name for a singing duo who certainly offered something very different.
And the Cornerhouse offered mellow Sunday afternoon music from Three Corners, somehow now morphed from triangle to octagon or at least octet, but still delightful.  Here's singer/songwriter Caroline with Tom, one of the new members.

Art now, and down to the Black Swan where Frome Art Society's Annual Spring Show opened with a prize-giving on Friday. It's a popular show as the exhibition has a self-selecting process so is widely representative and the paintings are all accessible. You can see the winners here.
Friday evening was also the opening at the Round Tower of a shared exhibition by Lizbeth Spurgeon and Suzanne Woodward, whose very different painting styles combine impressively and look great against the stone walls.

Now for something completely different. Regular readers (thankyou, much appreciated) will know this is an Arts Blog - a personal record compiled by me as a kind of self-appointed (self-important you may say) monitor of Frome's live arts scene and other things arty in the Southwest, so there's very little about family & friends and even less about politics.
But now is no time to be teetering on the fence and seething, so while Art is as important as life and death, this is more important: a debate in Bristol run by the Canary on the topic How did we get into this mess, and what can we do about it? If you're unfamiliar with the Canary's 'frank and fearless' journalism you might find it helpful to know the name is derived from the use of these birds in mines to warn of impending crisis... hence the expression 'sing like...' meaning tell of hidden wrong-doings. The panel on Thursday however was not all as left-wing as Canary's Editor-in-Chief Kerry-Anne Mendoza: next to her sat Steven Woolfe, an ex-UKIP independent MEP, persistently proving that if you scratch an ex-UKIP you find... a UKIP.
Talking more sense than Woolfe's self-laundering babble about the need for managed immigration and grammar schools, the star of the show for me was Adam Ramsey, editor of Open Democracy and, sadly for us, a Scot, who answered the question in the title succinctly thus: After the English lost their empire and could no longer go round the world killing people and taking their assets, they turned on their own, which is why housing has become primarily for investment not homes and London is the money-laundering capital of the world. Ask the Mafia. Fourth panel member was Dr Susan Newman, lecturer in politics, who explained that thanks to neo-liberal economic theory developed as an alternative to Keynesian liberalism, we have a broken economic system which promotes capitalism over equality and our main GDP comes from Finance, employing few and creating nothing. Brexit has compounded our problems: As Adam explains, withdrawal from EU agribusiness systems leaves us with a US-style system, we've ripped up the Good Friday agreement that safeguarded Ireland and Scotland may withdraw from the UK without radical constitutional change. Susan agrees: Corbyn's 10 Pledges are a good place to begin to save the future of next generations.
Kerry-Anne went further: Adam’s not kidding about how severe the Tory Brexit will be. This will be a bonfire of rights that took hundreds of years to achieve. Corporates will abuse you and your children in the way they do in places like China with no rights. Unexpectedly, we've been given a chance, but only because we're supposed to blow it... so the clearly-presented consensus of the panel led overwhelmingly to only one solution: get them out. Vote with your heart if you can, but do whatever you have to do to stop them.
Which is what I am am saying now. If you live in the UK, please make this dystopian horror end.
In the words of Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens ~ and as it's World Book Day today, that brings this back to being an Arts blog ~ "There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imaginations of human beings. People understand that 'primitives' cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits... The principal difference between modern business people and tribal shamans is that they tell stranger tales."