Sunday, November 29, 2009

Inua Ellams comes from a long line of trouble-makers: from the moose-meat-thieving grandaddy who ran 'so fast the earth gasped and forgot to take footprints', this poet-performer has skittered, scatter-brained, he says, from Nigeria to London, to Dublin and back to England, learning about life all the way. The after-show talk is one of the best I've ever heard, feelingful and generous of experience. His work is totally truthful but only 80 percent true, since "there is no such thing as autobiography - there is art, and lies." The most difficult thing to write about, he says, is ourselves, and his main influence in creating The 14th Tale was hip-hop: "a voice that pumped beauty into my ears, with rhythm, and narration." A beautiful, inspirational, voice. It was a total privilege to share a stage with Inua. My 'curtain raiser' recounted my experience of the 4th Plinth this summer - a great chance to wear The Frock again. Thanks, Howard & Chris, for doing such a great job on the visuals. (The hour is still online, if you click this link.)

The abuse of power is a perpetually relevant theme, says Simon Godwin, director of The Winters Tale concluding its national tour at the Tobacco Factory. This production is set in pre-fascist Italy, but Sicilian king Leontes - powerfully portrayed by Vince Leigh - is a paranoid tyrant whose incandescent jealousy has little to do with politics. It's been dubbed 'the difficult play', allegedly for the contiguity of brutality and buffoonery, but the repetitions of cruelty are the biggest problem. Even the 'solution' seems to owe more to psychological abuse than miracle.
For me, the men, and male emotions, were the main strength in both tragic and comic scenes of this production. The 16-years-later second act is structurally challenging, with its combination of new characters and continuing griefs; Polixines (James Buller) had convincingly hardened, but the shepherdess had morphed into Catherine Tate's granny, and Perdita was a disappointment, clad in charity shop frock and fun-run plimmies, and disturbingly hyperactive. But I did cry, a lot, and a winter's tale should be sad, as the little prince said. Before he died.

Maybe it's down to over-hype but the new series of Gavin & Stacey didn't do it for me. Barry has always been a bit of a Craggy Island, and its inhabitants several celery sticks short of a crudités medley, but writers James Corden and Ruth Jones have been insisting, on wall-to-wall radio interviews, that they want this story to be 'real'. A pity. There was a moment, as Uncle Bryn's voice soared in "Something Inside So Strong" at little Neil's christening, when I really thought the entire congregation would lift off, bouncing and bounding like in The Blues Brothers, and maybe we would have a moment of superb surreal comedy. But no, it was back to Abigail's-Party parody and low-key sentimentality. I'd so hoped to go on loving this series but ended up wanting to flick through my cellphone contacts like bad-girl Rudi "Just seeing if I can find someone who gives a shit".

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Back from a weekend at Cotswold Conference Centre, where views were sumptuous peachy autumnal colours despite November dankness. Nine writers, combining an abundance of good humour, generosity, enthusiasm and talent, produced a delightful diversity of work: lively discussions were frank and frequent. With better weather - and less demanding course commitment - it would be pleasant to walk for hours in this exquisitely landscaped estate, but the inventive range of writings shared was simply wonderful. Thanks all, especially for Saturday night's stories and poems - including a rewriting of Shakespeare's 18th sonnet as a lipogram minus the vowel 'e'.
As the bard himself would surely say, how cool is that?

Always enjoyable to visit the Rondo, Bath's smallest theatre, where their own local theatre company this week performed Jim (Little Voice) Cartright's first play, Road. It's Under Milk Wood, but set in an unspecified Northern town in 1987 with scally Scullery to take us into the hearths, hearts, and minds of those who live there. A brave, as well as largely entertaining & occasionally moving, production, which the 15 cast members clearly hugely enjoyed too.
Much of the speech is monologue, a dramatic technique I find fascinating as the audience is no longer voyeur but directly engaged and by inference implicated. Top moments for me were Tim Thornton's Skin Lad, and the strange, sad, savage dance to Otis Reading by Rob Dawson and Marc Delangri (I think, it's hard to decipher from the inscrutible grey programme). Oh, and the interval, with outrageous DJ Bisto (Tim Thorton again) calling the audience up to dance... how could we resist?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Pitmen Painters is Lee Hall's second look at the Billy Elliot fairytale: talented lad finds his creative wings and flies from Northern working class background to fulfillment and fame. Except that Oliver asks for less not more, and stays, whether from fear or loyalty, with his colliery clan. In Lee Hall's version of the Ashington Art Group history, the untutored artistry of the men doesn't appear to thrive from their contact with acknowledged masters; their paintings become generic and like the tenets of socialism lose significance except as glimpses of a pre-war era.
The play has been much admired, and the comic culture-shock between the tutor and the miners ("A Titian." - "Bless you!") certainly went down well with the Bath Theatre Royal audience. I liked the way the broad strokes of farce paralleled the men's initial crudity in artistic self-representation, evolving as did their paintings gradually into more complex and feelingful presentation of the integrity of their lives. But just as Oliver's work is ultimately critiqued by Mrs Sutherland, whose patronage he refused, as sentimental and conformist, in the second act the play too seems to lose its strength. The characters represent a range of attitudes to art and politics which like her ex-protegee's later painting is "perfectly fine, but undeveloped. No sexuality, or desire, or elemental hunger, no sensuality or yearning for the other." Mrs Sutherland admits to losing interest in painting, but she could make some salient points about playwriting.
It's a National Theatre production, obviously very well acted and stylishly put together, but it made me nostalgic not only for pre-1995 Labour and debates on the meaning of art but also for plays like Chicken Soup with Barley and The Corn is Green where characters grew from their class roots rather than representing them.

What do you do when you can't decide on a cover for your new novel? My friend Christine Coleman has an ingenious solution: put it to the vote. Chris has posted 7 options - what's your view? This was my favourite - pick yours & you could win a copy of this fascinating self-discovery novel.

And while I'm on the injunctions, will everyone in striking distance of Frome please come to see Inua Ellam's award-winning one man show The 14th Tale at the Merlin next Friday. I'm doing a curtain raiser in me posh Plinth frock so don't be late...

Finally, thanks to all those who emailed me after hearing my story Mrs Somerville's Garden on the beeb last week - I didn't even know they were repeating it, so your appreciative messages were a nice surprise.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Three Sisters, written in 1901 just 16 years before the Russian Revolution, was the ambitious production choice of Frome Drama Club – ambitious because Chekhov’s twin themes, of the decay of the privileged class and the search for meaning in the modern world, are easier to deconstruct than to witness. It’s about claustrophobia and ennui, the inability to find a meaningful work ethic when society is corrupt, the disappointments and casual brutality of relationships, and the loneliness of living with no way of understanding what life is about. ‘If only we knew...’ are the final words of the play, and the closest to comfort comes from the drunken doctor: ‘Nothing is real – it really doesn’t matter.’
Chekhov apparently took his initial inspiration from the life-story of the Bronte sisters - three creative woman whose life chances are betrayed by a weak brother. Here, Andrei represents the upper class submergence to cruder peasant energy, and his three sisters embody the main theme of the quest for life meaning: the woman who works, the wife, and the idealistic girl unlike her sisters not dragged down by duty. Yet…
Not a play to go head-to-head with Strictly in terms of easy entertainment, and with a cast of 15 some variability of performance is inevitable but there was a much to admire in this production. The set impressively created the Prozorovs affluent house and social standing, the costumes were immaculate, and director Robert O’Farrell brought out the sense of stifling tedium in this provincial town which only the glamour of military presence could ameliorate. The difficulty for a modern audience is not the subtext but the speeches, which are often not dialogue but monologue, addressed to the air or to the audience, with other characters simply moving away on some other business of card play or conversation. This struggle to find elusive connection works best when it allows characters to discover and disclose hidden feelings - Kulygin, (Paul Laville), the cuckolded husband of middle sister Masha, is particularly good at this. Jade Taylor’s Masha was exceptional too, as was Philip de Glanville's disillusioned doctor, but for me the star of the night was Naomi Parnell’s Irina, who not only looked duel-inspiringly beautiful but had mesmeric stage presence and inhabited her role emotionally throughout. Congratulations, FDC. Thanks, Harry, for the photo.

To the Lighthouse in Poole on Saturday, for another play about a class-conflicted culture in turmoil and shadowed by war - England, 2006 and we’re still sending Our Lads out to Iraq to slay monsters. What turns an ordinary binge-drinking boy into a brutal war criminal? could be seen as the central question of Days Of Significance but actually this scalding play, commissioned by RSC from writer Roy Williams, was originally produced in 2008 and has been ‘recently reworked’ for its recent tour to respond to 'the shift in mood since the withdrawal of troops' and presumably the atrocities scandal. Roy Williams says his intent was to show that “war matters to all of us, no matter who you are.” In that sense, this play is as contemporary as tomorrow’s news from Afghanistan and as timeless as caveman conflict – and perhaps didn’t need the intellectual moral problem of the veterans’ trial at the end.
The writer’s other inspiration, he says, was the Beatrice and Benedict banter in Much Ado, cleverly and almost-plausibly updated in the street scene outside the club on a typical weekend night. Other Shakespearean elements were strong too: routine feuding a la Montagues and Capulets, the fairy-tale wedding in the final act when Steve and Clare (Simon Harrison, delightfully crude to the last, and Sandy Foster) like Theseus and Hippolyta draw the cast around them for the ending of the evening’s revels. This self-referentialism worked well, bringing deeper undercurrents to a story of chaotic lives needing focus and longing for heroism. But the jokes about ‘Beatrice’ and quips direct from Little Britain become borderline intrusive, and despite the physical realism (one of the actors has invalided himself out of this run with a wrenched fist) I was left with a feeling the actors were translating, rather than inhabiting, the culture of their roles – possibly conscious of an audience more comfortable with conflicts on the streets of Verona than those of their own home town.
In a successful ensemble piece it's unfair pick anyone out, but I will: Dan Ben and Trish (Luke Norris, Toby Wharton, and Sarah Ridgeway). An amazing set created clubland and Bazra equally effectively – aided by a delapidated Coca Cola poster – but the directional tendency to ‘use the space’ of the huge stage left some of the intimate interactions looking oddly theatrical and made the script seem awkward. But having said all that, a brilliant performance overall, and despite the blood puke piss and casual violence, I'd happily watch it all again.

And finally: BBC guidelines.. not just there to feed quips for HIGNFU and fuel the fury of Moyles in the morning - these innane and patronising new directives have a more sinister role too. "It's difficult enough writing drama without being given rules devised by Kafkaesque committees" writes TV dramatist Stephen Poliakoff, "and it's completely unnecessary. Audiences are quite capable of realising that when real events are compressed for drama, certain liberties have to be taken. It's very important that writers in television tackle unfamiliar stories - they can't do that if they're artificially restricted." Good point well made.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A shadow from Remembrance Day inevitably lay across this month's Poetry and a Pint session in Bath (but not in my resolutely flippant guest spot, though I did wear a peace poppy.) Most impressive, for me, was Sue Boyle's beautiful cameo of a virgin great aunt bereaved by the Great War, and Jeremy Gibson's acid satire on George Bush: his manic aspirationalism and word botching too.

I wouldn’t generally enthuse about an hour spent in the company of a man whose idea of a good time was to wrench the head off a swan and drink its blood, but I’m making an exception for the current production of Normal at the Brewery. It’s sensational – in a good as well as a lurid way. Anthony Neilson based his play on the real-life story of Peter Kurten, a German serial killer executed just before WW2, and there’s a dreadful foretaste of Nazi atrocities in this electrifying production. As well as the grim realities of history and psychological harm, this is a gripping horror story where crazed toys come to life, props become murder tools, and no-one seems sane or ‘normal’ despite the courtroom verdict. The uneasy feeling of entrapment in a gothic fairground is enhanced by fantastic set & lighting (Frazer Riches), by virtuoso acting (Oliver Millingham, Michael Mitcham, and Kate Kordel), and by the truly inspired direction of Chris Loveless. Top of my theatrical unforgettable moments of 2009: the manic dance sequence between Peter and the young lawyer he relentlessly entraps in his gruesome world. There's an unsettling crosscurrent of normalcy too in the love lives of these damaged people, and perhaps what is most chilling about Millingham's psychopath is his hypnotic charm. A play that questions innocence and guilt, and resonates long after plangent music has ebbed from the stage.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Every writer once in a while should stop wrestling with words and spend an hour watching Pangottic. I came to that conclusion after watching Full Twist at The Brewery, Bristol's newest theatre venue, where two extraordinarily talented youngsters told a love story full of pathos and hilarity, crammed with insight as well as dazzling circus skills, breathtaking timing and irresistible audience rapport. Two love stories, in fact, as in a quirky subplot the cleaning staff find romance over rubber gloves. And the young lovers manage to juggle the hopes and insecurities of relationship along with the high-flying wine bottles, flowers, and ultimately babies. Without a single word. Show-don't-tell doesn't get any less, or more more-ish.

In all the shameful history slave ships, the story of Liverpool ship Zong must be most dreadful. Half their cargo of stolen lives was jettisoned for insurance. One survived, to carry the tale which became the stimulus and background story of Crossings by Julie McNamara, who also takes one of the 4 roles. The anger is plangent, and this piece might have become a history lesson in other hands, but Julie's passion is more wide-reaching: the central story is of 15-year old Shelley, pregnant and on the run - a beautiful wild-child powerfully portrayed by Nadine Wild Palmer - but the theme is man's inhumanity to man, and more especially to woman. Julie's aim is to confront disablement in all its forms; the BSL interpreter is not sidelined but takes a central role and the piece was originally written for a blind actor. Ironically, and very sadly, she wasn't able to appear at the Tobacco Factory and it's to the credit of both the script and her replacement Naomi Cortes that the use of script-in-hand enhanced rather than detracting from this theme of challenging social attitudes and expectations.

Mustn't end the week without sending congratulations to Josh Tyas, one of the talented young writers on the Villiers Park writing group I co-tutored with Rosie Jackson last year, for winning the Farrago Fireworks Poetry Slam! Go forth and sparkle, Josh.

And finally: I haven't read Giles Brandreth's just-published diaries, enticingly titled Something Sensational to read on the train, but reviews are discouraging. "He lacks the qualities looked for in a diarist" declared the Spectator: "he is minimally bitchy, shows a discretion that the reader applauds but does not rejoice in, and doesn't shag about." Blogger beware....

Monday, November 02, 2009

Don Paterson apologised throughout his reading at Toppings in Bath: he's dying with a cold, he'll be coughing a lot, his poems are all about death and divorce - is there nothing on television tonight? His new collection Rain is certainly dark but not depressing; even the renku for My Last 35 Deaths has moments of dry humour:
Here's your book back, world.
Good story. I underlined
a few things. Sorry.

A brilliant reading - and then questions, for which despite his cold, his cough, and his rainfilled silent skies, the poet finds fascinating answers. Self-consciousness, he says, is death to poetry: simple language enables the poem, but it will always be 'a bit twisted, naughty, beyond language.' Hence the joy of rhyme, which 'makes it weirder. Because English is a rhyme-poor language, so you have to forget what you wanted to say and that's a good thing.'

UP has been acclaimed the funniest Pixar film ever. There's more than a curmugeonly nod to The Wizard of Oz in this fabulous fable of a septuagenarian dream-chaser flying off in a house weighed down with the pain of the past and equipped with a superflous random tracker cub, and finding in the end that home is where the heart is.. ahh.

And so Halloween arrives, filling the mild evening streets with its entourage of mummies, vampires, and ghouls. La Strada staff leapt zestfully into the spirit of the day - but would you buy a raspberry ripple from this man?
And anyone who heard my monologue for Stage Write at the Merlin last month will realise how spooky it was for me to glimpse this hooded scream behind me on the hill...

Awen, I discovered this week, is a celtic word for poetic inspiration, and The Garden of Awen opening night featured a fascinating array of awenydds. Bath's Chapel Arts Centre was atmospherically transformed by rural backdrops, flower poems, candles and laser lights as Kevan Manwaring compered this 'showcase of Arcadian delights offering something different from the post-modern cul-de-sac.' Nikki Bennett launched her poetry collection Love Shines Beyond Grief, joined by poets from Stroud, a vampiric story teller, and several excellent musicians including 'guitar-shaman' James Hollingsworth. The theme tonight, in keeping with Samhein, was endings and new beginnings; the aim each month will be high quality diversity of spoken word and music. Great to see such an atmospheric venue join the local network of alternative entertainment.