Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A decade ago… which seems the agreed vista-point for personal overview at this cusp of the new year, I was a real Bah-humbug about Christmas. Wouldn’t even name it. The solstice season, I said, and went gathering kindling for midwinter bonfires muttering incantations against the big C – commercialism – and mourning the days when my children made potato-cut cards and marzipan petit-fours and sticky-glitter tree decorations.

And now the wheel is come full circle. Actually, I still don’t send cards, make mincepies, or mull wine, and I buy shockingly few presents, but I do love Christmas again. Tree lights, street lights, Pogues, parties, crap cracker jokes, TV spinoff merchandise…
I relish it all.

So in lieu of a sensible blog update with sensitive comments about the state of the world, I’ll lick the bowl of the old year with a personal list. Here, in no particular order, are my festive Best Bits:

Writers evening, the official start of Christmas ~ candlelit gingerbread house & festive lights everywhere ~ amazing movies (Cohen Brothers & Jane Austen) on big & little screens ~ pamper day with hot tub & champagne ~ parties & dancing ~ wonderful meals peaking with Michelin-starrable Christmas dinner ~ wintry walks & yoga ~ quizzes & scrabble ~ phone calls & emails with distant friends ~ real-time contact with friends & family.

Actually, that last one is best. Can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed & appreciated it, so like Jim Croce (nearly) said: I’ll have to say I love you in this blog.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Kim Noble wishes he was dead. His career's washed up and he's a depressive waste-of-space. His mother says so too, or at least some bloke with a bucket on his head, speaking as his mother, does. He has a convincing powerpoint-style CV to itemise and illustrate his futility and depravity. It's cutting-edge comedy - literally: there's a lot of blood as well as spunk in evidence - but is it theatre? And is it true?
After watching Kim Noble Will Die at Soho Theatre, I'd say Yes to the first. And I'm horribly afraid the second answer might be a Yes too.

So now with only 5 sleeps till Christmas, and party season in Frome seriously underway, I'll sign off wishing you all a wonderful week with an excess of everything you most enjoy, and Rage Against the Machine at Number One twinkling in the background of all our festivities.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Panto night at Poetry Café on Wednesday saw the Garden Café crammed for Paula Hammond's adjudication of the poetry and prose performances at the annual Merlin Pantomime Poetry Café night. Eighteen contestants for prizes - theatre tickets and panto merchandise – delighted the packed room with an amazing diversity of moods and memorable moments. “That’s not my name” was the theme, since this year’s Merlin show features Rumpelstiltskin, and stories and verses all celebrated identity. Everyone had their own personal favourites, but Paula’s final pick was popular: Phyllis Higgins and Linda Perry, both with a witty take on the theme, took runner-up prizes, with Dianne Penny and Gordon Graft joint First. Both these talented performance poets brought a personal angle to the seasonal spangle, thought-provoking as well as moving.

Over in Shepton Mallet, another pantomime night as the students of Musical Theatre School gave us a preview of the future with a zany but very sweet version of Cinderella. Nicholas Morrison, totally charismatic as the king, is the one to watch out for. Kookiest moment: ensemble rendition of 'That's why the Lady a Tramp' around Cinders' mother's grave...

Bath was abuzz on Saturday, pedestrianised streets as slow-moving as an easyjet check-in, though with more entertainment, stalls selling woolly hats & world's smallest kites, and a lovely girl giving "Free hugs - because it's Christmas!" I have an urban shopping policy: never buy more than 4 things, the first of which must be a large coffee. It works fine, allowing time for trying on unsuitable glamorous garb and general browsing, and today to watch Where The Wild Things Are.
Sendak's story was a family favourite in my bedtime-reading days so I couldn't resist seeing how even the genius of Spike Jonze would stretch a slim picture book to a 100 minute feature film. The answer is: surprisingly well as long as you don't expect a children's movie. It's all about a child - the beautiful, naughty, constantly endearing Max Records as Max - but that child, you quickly find, morphs into your deepest self and probably everyone you've ever known and loved. This is not cosy viewing. We're shown in painful detail why Max made mischief in his wolfsuit. His journey through the dark night of the soul lands him in a place he can understand because it's full of rage, rejection, and loneliness - each of these furry monsters is angst-filled as an RD Laing textbook. And Max, to avoid being eaten, has promised to be their king. All is well for about as long as it takes for a chronically insecure bunch of dysfunctionals to realise that a wild rumpus isn't much cop as a regal policy, and Max discovers all over again the hostility of strangers is nothing like as bad as upsetting those you love. He admits he's not a king, only a Max. "That's not much" scoffs his fiercest, darkest, alter ego - the one he most needs to reconcile with. And reconcile he finally does, with a long wordless howl across the sunset sea. As you'll all know Max gets safely home for his supper in the end, no spoilers here - just a warning: take tissues, not tots.
Emerging from an afternoon show in winter is eerie: people-packed streets have emptied and street-lights have inherited the kingdom of dark Bath, a solitary busker on the corner strumming a song of his own devising:
Shoppers are gone
It's too late, girl, too late...

Still on a festive season theme: Carol Ann Duffy's poetic-laureate version of The 12 Days of Christmas (read it here) caused raised eyebrows for its dark imprecations against politicians, bankers, celebrities, racism and war. Fellow poet Roger McGough comments "She's using her new post in the best way." And so say all of us.
Over at Nunney, during a great afternoon of live music - with bar, Sunday papers and the spanky Frome Street Bandits- this familiar carol was also caustically reinvented by Douglas Hamilton, with an internet twist and a message that would not display... All together now!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

One of our charming, if slightly bonkers, national traits is the impulse to celebrate each calendar highlight out of doors. Perhaps there really was a time when maypole ribbons whirled gaily at the start of summer and hogs roasted undoused by autumn storms and all was idyllic in the bucolic daze of yore. Climate's changed, but optimistic exuberance lingers on. Frome's Christmas Spectacular last Sunday had a full programme from noon till nightfall. On Catherine Hill rain sluiced steadily down the cobbles as stall holders crouched under cover and the chocolate soup stand did steady trade. Over in the market yard two small reindeer stood resignedly as small hands emerged from umbrellas to pet them, and pools of water were being swept out from the Teenage Kicks tent.
And now silver snowflakes are glowing along the main street, M&S is plying shoppers with port and mincepies, the Pogues are back on the radio... it's definitely that time of year again.
Which is, in theatre world, panto time.
Most pantomimes, whatever the title, follow a simple storyline: a couple of men in frocks & wigs being silly, and a goody-goody girl who ends up with the prince. The first part is the bit everyone likes best, so why not have three men in frocks & wigs, and the girl a bit of a Violet Elizabeth Bott who eventually chooses the dwarf instead of lovely Prince of the Golden Halls despite the prince's white tights and habit of loping through the forest like a Monty Python knight on the quest of the Holy Grail?
But don't think Miracle Theatre's winter show The Revenge of Rumpelstiltskin is all just transvestites and tantrums, despite the prominence of a menopausal forest fairy: this tale, based apparently on the writings of Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy, is embedded within a tale of an 1830s troup of travelling players, and the pantomime set is embedded in a stage set, with the actions of the actors off-stage as part of the on-stage action, if you see what I mean. It's a clever device, not only enhancing the humour but also giving us an extra chance to enjoy the dressing ups and downs, and in the Merlin performance bringing a local edge to the show by allowing a mini subplot featuring an intruding scallywag chased by a peeler, and some very sweet little girls dancing. With or without the interruptions, this is as charming and entertaining a show as you're likely to see anywhere this panto season. A wonderfully spirited cast: Ben Dyson as the effeminate prince/aka Mr Carter, and Tom Adams's Mr Ffitch singing his way through the roles of Queen and fierce fairy, are particularly splendid.

Footnote of the week: Has it come to this? another futile salvo in the gender war as Lily Allen complains she's been tagged 'the female version of The Streets.'
Lily lovey, that's because Mike Skinner came first. If you'd had a breakthrough hit in 2001, followed up with groundmaking material every year since, and he'd been the one to emerge in 2006 - with Smile - maybe people would refer to his band as 'the male version of Lily Allen'... Or maybe he'd still be hailed as "the most original, lyrical British rap in memory".
If I was you I'd wear the badge with respect.