Monday, June 29, 2009

“Could we get any more British?” asks Duke Theseus, emerging as the umbrellas go up in Ashton Court Manor Gardens just before the start of A Midsummer Night's Dream on Sunday.
Open-air theatre is not like theatre and I don’t just mean the drizzle; it brings out the territorial imperative in the cultural classes as they impose their own auditoriums on the lawn rather like Libyan forces invading Chad. Nearly all the grass was covered with predatory blankets laid out by a stentorian-voiced man urging his party to “maintain the line”. Children trail soft toys, parents eat paella from plastic plates, pies from wrappers, salads from Tuppaware, crisps, cakes, scotch eggs… waiting for curtain up is one long munch-fest. Corks pop, babies cry, mobile link-ups are arranged: “you’ll see us at the front, it’s not Glastonbury!”
Shakespeare's Globe on Tour has responded to the challenge by doing the whole play as a flapper-era end-of-pier show, with something for all the family: teddy-bears & percussion for the kiddies, Puck dressed as a pole-dancer for the Dads, and for us girls there was Chris McGill as Lysander/Quince/Moth, somehow managing to be equally irresistible whether a bold lover, rude mechanic, or gigolo elf.
The 8 actors in Raz Shaw's production play every part, morphing deftly from aristocrats to clowns to fairies, so there’s plenty of opportunity for inventive displays of versatility though less for costume change: adding aprons worked well for status downsizing but tailcoats and cigarette-holders for Peaseblossom’s posse didn’t do it for me. The production worked best when it stuck to the stage, creating a magic box that had everyone, even passersby peering over the railings, wide-eyed; the de-rigueur racing around the grass seemed like a slightly desperate, and unnecessary, crowd-pleasing tactic.
It’s a long play, made all the longer by William Mannering’s extemporising Bottom - I can see why the bard fell out with Will Kempe who first took the role – but at the end, despite the weather, numb bums, and no interval refreshments, the enthusiastic applause was rightly raucous. The Tour continues till 31st August: Fiona Moorhead's photo courtesy of the Globe.

Plinth preparations continue: declaiming practice on Cley Hill, and lovely Mandie Stone from Love Arts is kitting me out in retro prom frock with custom-made headdress (purple red & green) for my hour at Trafalgar Square on July 18th. I'm almost starting to look forward to it...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Two nights after Moonshadow, I'm back in Bristol at the Tobacco factory for another play on social repression based on a true life incident, showing that just because you're not sectioned doesn't mean you're not trapped.
In 1928 Ruth Snyder was executed in New York for the murder of her wealthy husband. Journalist Sophie Treadwell followed the trial & wrote a play based on the case. Machinal was on stage within a year and still has impact today as a feminist statement. Helen, intelligently interpreted by Polly Barsby as naïve and mentally frail, is caught relentlessly in a loveless machine, unable to relate to her mother, husband, or even daughter. Her emotional dysfunction is triggered by - and powerfully expresses - the materialistic society and social expectations that combine to entrap her. Mechanist patterns are vividly created in both soundtrack and visuals, with a series of memorably brilliant Hopper-inspired tableaux at the speakeasy bar where Helen meets Dirk and her first taste of freedom. Director Sue Wilson wanted to show the skills of the graduating students from Old Vic Theatre School- 'not just actors but designers too ' and this provocative play showcased an impressively talented ensemble. I can't find any images from the show so here's a Hopper which evokes something of the sense of loneliness & oppression created by the set, lighting, and tonal range - oppressive monochrome, with seductive slashes of scarlet and elusive glimpses of purple night air. Credit to all the cast too, especially Piers Wehner as Helen's lover and John McGrellis as her victim husband.

Plinth update: by post, a large, card-reinforced, envelope containing an A5 booklet with 24 pages of information for us plinthers including a map of Trafalgar Square and helpful tips like "Before you leave home do take a look out of the window or consult the weather forecast. This is Britain after all!" and "London is well connected to the rest of the UK - you can get there by plane, train, bus or car." There's a whole section on how to avoid sinking into debt over travel costs too: "Hold a car boot sale - you'll be amazed what people will buy!... do odd jobs in return for small sums. You could wash cars, walk dogs, baby-sit, mow lawns, or deliver leaflets... or bake some cakes, and ask for donations when it's time for tea-break!"
So, be thrifty, dress warm, and bring an umbrella if it looks like rain. Who ever said Arts Funding pays people to sit around devising patronising twaddle?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Despite the delights of Frome, I do sometimes find myself yearning for the busy, fizzy, Bristol buzz. Totterdown was busy, fizzy, & frankly sozzledy, on Sunday with a mini-festival at the Shakespeare, where I was one of the performing poets. The Plastic Rocket also featured popular Bristolian Rosemary Dunn, who often makes passes at men who wears glasses...

Ten years ago the big topic of the summer was how to get down to Cornwall for August 11th. Rumours were rife: roads would be jammed, trains crammed… my solution was to cycle from Frome with my son Sam as companion, tent-bearer, and map-reader. I watched the milky silence of that strange defining moment of solar eclipse from a games field temporarily converted into a campsite by its enterprising fooball club.
A decade on, Steve Hennessy’s play Moonshadow is being revived at The White Bear in Kennington, and is still – disturbingly – relevant in its potent critique of psychiatric practices.
John wants to see the eclipse and feel the touch of the moon’s shadow but in the Catch-22 craziness of his sectioned existence, the more he wants to go, the more he’s seen as proving he can’t be allowed. Dr Brown diagnoses paranoid psychotic delusions and refuses leave, so the only way John will see the eclipse is by astral projection. A minimalist set enhanced the impact of celestial lighting effects as John sails over Taunton, defying his dead, but still monstrous, stepfather to swallow the sun. “If you’re ever going to come out into the light you need to go into the darkness.”
As with most of Steve Hennessy’s plays, the central theme is that psychiatry dehumanises, and creates a system in which the only differences between carers and cared-for are the labels and the salaries. Four lonely people wrestle with the pain of living and the damage of their pasts, but only John has the astral motorbike. He may be prone and drooling, but when the ECT has worn off, he’ll be riding high…
Brilliant performances by Michael Dylan and Annabel Bates as the endearing patients and Oliver Hume and Beverley Longhurst as their equally ‘sexually disinhibited’ but better paid (and without files & labels) authority figures. Insightful direction by Chris Loveless brings out the bleak realism as well as highlighting moments of wry humour in this powerful play.

Theme for this solstice week was sunshine, and about time too. While up in London I took the opportunity to check out the Fourth Plinth, since I'll be up there next month. My co-plinthers in the other corners are King George IV, a Major, and a General... there's the Admiral too, but he's about a mile high. Here's my plinth, under the scaffolding, and here's me wondering what to do if I don't get a portable PA. Hurrah for Patrick Dunn and Nick Waterhouse, who stepped in to supply the goods!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

"There's something about theatre in a confined space that's quite special" Niamh says "- anyone jaundiced with lavish traditional productions should try this - five quid for a seat on the sofa and great entertainment." We were at the double bill of one-act plays UPSTAIRS at the LANSDOWN, a tiny pub theatre in Clifton, more like voyeurs than audience. Both pieces were energetically acted and directed by students from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School - yuppy humour in About a girl who... by Stephen Vagg and anarchic hilarity in 1% Inspiration.
Written and directed by Lars Harald Gathe, this is a brilliant & absurd 'deconstruction and reinvention' of Ibsen's Ghosts, the famously "dirty deed done in public" that shocked the 19th century theatre-going world. Especial praise to Jack Holden as Osvald and Nick Blakeley as assistant Harry, chronically confused, who had hoped "this was going to be something real." But Al the manic Director is changing the concept. A talking badger, a buffet, a song and dance routine with no actors – they’re out to lunch, literally until it chokes them. Al sees his role, apart from sitting on the red sofa staring at the wall, as a calming influence: he counters Mrs Alving's script complaints ( "When you look at life, everything is a bad translation") and consoles baffled Harry: “My grandmother told me this on her deathbed: It’s all useless. It’s all a waste of time.” Not this though- a thoroughly enjoyable night of new writing and emerging talent.

Eclecticism means never having to say you're copying... Last year Alison and I went down to Brighton to check out their (hugely funded) Small Wonder lit-fest event and came back fired with enthusiasm to recreate the event, better, unfunded, ourselves. Hence was born Frome FLASH FICTION Friday, story-telling crossed with slam, agreed by all who crowded into the Merlin foyer last night as fabulous fun. The lucky-dip format kept tension high but no-one overran their allotted 4 minutes so we had time for everyone who wanted to read.
Our judges – publisher Barry Cunningham, novelist Debby Holt, and lyricist Brian Madigan – had the tough task of on-the-spot marking so many excellent pieces to a nail-biting finale with two writers recalled to the mic: Jeremy Gibson and Gordon Graft, both best-known for their poetry. A swift secret ballot resulted in FFFF logo teeshirts for both and the £40 prize to Jeremy for his wicked black comedy Happy Endings. Congratulations to all 21 writers brave enough to stand up and be voted, and to create such a fantastic evening of entertainment.

Monday, June 15, 2009


A couple of months back I posted a pic of me messing about in Stourhead posing as a statue in one of the follies. Kevin's comment - seconded by haiku poet Alan Summers - suggested I apply the Anthony Gormley One&Other project in London, so I did. One hour on top of a column in Trafalgar Square, doing anything you like. Some of me pomes, I offered brashly. And oops, I got a place. So that's me on a plinth along with the admirals & pigeons on July 18th, 4-5pm, strutting my irreverent stuff.
Anthony Gormley created the Angel of the North, and now his vision is to reclaim Trafalgar Square from the old order and make a living sculpture of “people expressing our hopes and fears, for what is possible.”

Boris Johnson is somehow involved and there’ll be a 24 hour streaming website, Sky TV, and 2400 of us during the 100 days of the project, but “it really doesn’t matter in the end who gets up there, it’s more this process of asking ourselves, what do we care about? how would we express that? What would we do, if we had this hour in the most public place in the whole of the land? to make a project that is a portrait of the UK now?”
Well I know for a fact there'll be bagpipe-players & balloon-twisters, and I'll probably do my lipstick one... O brave new world, that has such people in't!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

As the bunting comes out for another Frome Festival, I sometimes wonder if I edge into sycophantic hyperbole when enthusing about my adopted home-town, with its 2 theatres, independent cinema, bookshop, music store, radio station, acoustic nights, band nights, and café & party culture – a place so small you could hoover the entire town centre from one powerpoint given a reasonable length extension flex, yet there’s more creative clubs, circles, & happenings here than flying eggs at a BNP protest rally. And then I read The Furball, and I know I’m not exaggerating. In what other free town mag can you find, as well as local listings, music & arts reviews, parkour promotion and poetry, a reasoned argument against school prayers: “You wouldn’t want teachers telling your children Thor exists..." Artsy, energetic, and a little bit anarchic: like the editors say,It’s a Frome thing.

Not that I'm averse the charms of bourgeois Bath & bustling Bristol too. On Thursday, when the sun realised abruptly that it should be flattering the mountain-tops with sovereign eye, kissing with golden face the meadows green and gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy since it's damn-near midsummer, I spent a lovely day in Bath, having lunch and talking poetry with Esme Ellis amid her garden lupins, then meeting Diana Cambridge for a delicious sunset session at the Spa discussing her new project: a Travel Writing Taster week in Crete.

Over in Bristol, Writers' Room Coordinator Sharon Clark is busy making the Old Vic the hub of southwest theatreland with an awesome programme of projects including on Friday a scratch night for performers. 10x3, introduced bouncily by Howard Coggins as 'a bold new experiment, a cauldron, a smorgasbord...' Sharon's concept is that 3 minutes is long enough to create a character, and actors can use this as a chance to take a risk. Niamh and I went with our own drama project in mind so what interested me most was the self-written pieces: David Bailey's menacing Security Man, poems by Gillie Harris and Shagufta K Iqbal. Possibly the actors would have liked more specific audience feedback, but the general response was positive: these disparate pieces combined successfully and "The Old Vic is now a place to try things out."

Back in Bath again on Saturday, for Acumen in the Georgian elegance of the Bath Poetry Cafe's new home in Queen Square, with editor Patricia Oxley talking about how she whittles down the 5000 poems submitted each month to the 50 published, and poet William Oxley reading some of his work. In his pre-poetic life, William confides, he was an accountant, which is why he likes the line "no accounting for Paradise."
There are other readers too, among them Frome poet Rose Flint, and the shortlisted entrants from the Acumen Poetry Competition. I entered this, and was extremely chuffed to be among the 7 shortlisted poets & thus find myself reading at short notice my poem Charity Shop Shuffle, so here I am looking chuffed with Rose. Winner was sonneteer Judith Young, with Yu Yan Chen runner-up.

We all met up again for brunch organised by Poetry Cafe choreographer Sue Boyle on Sunday, lingering in her sunny garden and then strolling nearby Alexandra Park to watch the city sunning itself under a Simpsons sky.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

"I don't think the writers work as hard as they used to, because the writing isn't as good" John Cleese reportedly told an interviewer recently. He was talking about television, not the state of stage in the southwest.
It's not often a play makes you laugh till your ribs ache then cry till your face hurts so that after the final curtain you stumble out silenced, feeling like you've been through an emotional tumble-dryer. 'You' of course means me, and the play is Ray Collins Dies on Stage at the Alma Tavern. Written by Mark Breckon and featuring the stunning talents of Oliver Millingham, Kirsty Cox, and Neil Jennings, directed with devastating insight and astounding pace by Chris Loveless - superlatives are essential to convey how moving and extraordinary this piece of theatre is. Picture a writer who's painfully and chronically allergic to every scrap of the fabric of his own life - the clothes he wears, room he lives in, computer he tries to work on. On the literal brink of suicide he's saved by love but dies anyway, killed not by despair but by clumsy experimentation from the medical profession... doesn't sound like a laugh a minute, does it? Believe me, it was. Mark knows the scenario well, he lived it - and unlike Ray Collins survived it. His account of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and its treatment is hilarious and tragic and very, very, moving. Huge credit to Stepping Out Theatre Company for bringing this brave & brilliant play to Bristol: you can read audience responses here, and go if you can, it's on till 13th June.

At the Ustinov in Bath, there's The Adventures of Wound Man & Shirley - 'the best show I've seen, it's awesome' one barman is telling the other as I arrive.
Like Ray Collins, Shirley Gadanken is a social misfit on a macabre journey of pain and loneliness. And what do you need most, when you're a nerdy boy with knobbly knees, a sick brother, and a hopeless crush on a cross-country runner?
Why, a superhero of course, to make you his sidekick. Enter, clanking, Wound Man, looking "like Bill Murray crossed with a swiss army knife... weapons sticking out like cocktail sticks through cheese&pineapple at a party", whose special power is to calm those in extreme grief and pain by simply looking like they feel. Wound Man shows Shirley how to touch those he loves and can't because they're either dying (his brother) or despise him as a bender (his beloved). Lyrical and tender, gently humorous rather than hilarious, Chris Goode's highly original rites-of-passage story is performed by the writer as an intimate third person monologue, and deserves the barman's accolade.

John Cleese says the people who run TV these days are fearful of new, imaginative, ideas. John, you should get out more.


Friday, June 05, 2009

This week we're talking shoes... their stories, the characters they create and convey. It's the first "7 AGES OF SHOES" drama workshop, held at the Merlin foyer. Writer-friend Niamh Ferguson has teamed up with me for this project, conceived while watching the Show of Strength 5-minute pieces in shops in Bedminster earlier this year & thinking: we could do stuff like that in Frome. The shoes stimulus was Niamh's idea, and proved a wonderful starting point for great writing. Several of these pieces were polished up with help from the Writers' Circle at Rosie's on Wednesday so we're on the way to an evening of monologues.. a season of short plays... .

We're expecting a full house for the Flash Fiction event Alison and I are running on June 19th - another stolen idea, freely adapted from Brighton's Small Wonder contest. We've got some excellent judges: publisher Barry Cunningham - he first picked Harry Potter from the slush pile - with effervescent novelist Debby Holt and Brian Madigan, lyric-writer extraordinaire. Fun and frolics for all, and forty quid for the winner - come along. There's a teeshirt with our logo on too, how Fromeishly cool is that.