Friday, July 30, 2010

SHERLOCK is my official new favourite TV show. These don't come along often - the last was Being Human - so I'm always elated to discover a pacey UK drama that's well acted and brilliantly scripted. Watson is a war vet wounded out of Afghanistan, Holmes is a psychopath (sorry, a functioning sociopath,) and a compulsive detector of data and detail. First episode shows him detecting that Martin Freeman's limping Watson is addicted to danger and will become his ally, flat-mate, and fellow fun-seeker. Watson himself is a bit slower on the uptake:
"Fun! There's a woman lying here dead!"
"Perfectly sound analysis, but I was hoping you'd go deeper."
All the mystery, glamour, and chases of a Bond movie, and a lot more texting, but I'm guessing the real allure of this new series will be the Odd Couple friendship.

The Brewery in Bristol has been offering a run of pre-Edinburgh shows, and the one I picked was 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, adapted from the 1633 John Ford script by UWW Independent Theatre Company with 'an experimental, multi-media theatrical perspective' which turned out to be slightly distracting intermittent slide projection. I'm not sure exactly what part of 'Revenge Tragedy' I managed to misunderstand, but I wasn't really prepared for the extent of gruesomeness, culminating in incestuous murderer Giovanni dashing around with his sister's heart on a dagger like a particularly unappetizing toffee-apple. It was as if Mr Ford had mused on the death scene in Romeo & Juliet and decided that Mr Shakespeare had spoiled a good idea by rushing it. This grimfest rectified all that. Gender politics and licentiousness versus repression, as the programmed noted, are still facets of our society, but this stolid production with didn't deliver any thought-provoking insights.

And now I'm zipping up the suitcase and clipping on the sunshine label that says

and heading off for a week in beautiful Andalusia, with another group of writers.
So there will now be a short intermission.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Theatre West has revived their successful production last year of Moira Buffini's black comedy Blavatsky's Tower. In the penthouse of a monstrous tower block, its blind, disillusioned, architect keeps a tyrannical grip on his dysfunctional family: Audrey who won't use the lift to go out, and Roland and Ingrid who won't go out at all. Bound together by ties of terror and tenderness, they exist in their own secret world until the day Audrey brings a chair into their minimalist surroundings, carried upstairs for her by a passing stranger - a doctor, who takes one look around and prescribes official intervention. "We're a perfectly ordinary family" protests Audrey, but the chink of his visit begins a rift and events move swiftly with Dada's death by patricide, and neither angels nor cremation can help them hold to their isolation now. What illuminates this savagely sad story is the dark lyricism of the writing, and the skill of the cast in illuminating the moments of comedy. Dee Sadler as Audrey is particularly masterly, finding nuances of expression and tone to enhance lines like "Despair, Dr Dunn, is Dada's daily diet", and Dan Maxwell's Dr Dunn was more than just the straight guy in a household of crazies: initially a breath of normality, by the end it seems perhaps he too is needy and self-deluded. It's this subtle development that makes the play not just the story of one misfit family but about the codependency inherent in human nature, the tyranny of desires and the loneliness of life. Alison Comley directed this outstanding production.

Final Words@ Frome Festival event is prize giving for the 'Writers in Residence' event on the opening Saturday. 14 writers stepped up to the challenge: to create a story or poem in 4 hours, inspired by a previously unknown line, working in full view of curious passers-by in a Frome town centre shops or café. The must-include line was “I wondered if the magic was still there”, and the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’ when results were revealed at the Garden Café on Tuesday. Most of the entrants attended, with friends and family, to hear all the entries read aloud and watch prizes awarded. Judge Tracy Wall enthused about all the entries and selected:
Highly commended: Joan Saunders’ short radio play featuring three chickens
3rd Annette Shwalbe’s beautiful and evocative story of the book worm, inspired by her place at Hunting Raven.
2nd Val Hewitt’s villanelle based on her observations of Frome Wholefoods.
1st Jackie Eliot, whose location of Marmalade Yarns inspired a gripping story showing knitting ‘in a new light.’

And the final-final event is the Words@ debrief, traditionally hosted by Alison Clink in her lovely garden at Great Elm. No real problems reported, and events have been hugely well received, with record audiences and vocal appreciation. A good festival to go out on: I'm standing down, after 10 years in the group, several of them as coordinator. Festival has become a big part of the creative life of Frome and its been a real privilege to have been involved since the start, but a decade I think is long enough. I'll look forward to picking up my brochure next year purely as a punter...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Final weekend of Frome's festival gave me a chance to catch up on some of the fantastic art, music, and community events... like the Silk Mill exhibition of quirky paintings, full of intriguing private narrative, by Kay Lewis-Bell who took as her starting point four lines from Wordsworth's prelude:
How oft, among those overflowing streets
Have I gone forward with the crowd and said
Unto myself, "The face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery."
A very different mood at the exhibition entitled simply "LOOK" - contemporary art by Samuel Lee, Mutalib Man, and Alex Relf in promoted by Marian Bruce, the installation artist who I collaborated with some years ago on a Fallen Angels project - the scarlet angel, I found, still sits somewhat dejectedly in Marian's garden, succumbing now to woodworm.
Then on, via the Bastion Gardens where Jill Miller was singing her own jazzy songs, to the Moving Home community project at the Key Centre, where I got a chance to join the all-age instant artists carving chalk pebbles to send down the river Frome in flotilla at sunset.
A crowd gathered around the bridge to cheer the launch, our intrepid Mayor with gold chain and life jacket in the lead punt, with help from the canoe club to whoosh our crafts along the sluggish river. "Even by Frome standards this is a somewhat bizarre event" murmured John Payne as Maitre Chives the cabaret captain gave running commentary and the crowd sang impromptu harmonies of Row Your Boat.
My boat with its carving reclaimed, time for jazz from Salutemus in Divas courtyard garden till darkness fell.

Event 178, Nunney Rocks, was a must-go for music fans: a 9-hour fest-within-a-fest, featuring all the best in local musicians including Frogbelly (pictured) and Richard Kennedy.
As well as beer and refreshments there were art tents and story circles to keep the children happy, and the sun shone gracefully throughout.

I'd like to have stayed for Bugs and the Collaborators and Three Corners, but Jill and I were walking the three miles there and back to the fields of Castle Quarry in Nunney, and we had to get back for the theatre.

Miracle Theatre always delivers, and I hope the company feels the same about Frome's ECOS amphitheatre, where on Sunday night over 300 people nestled beneath the circle of stones under a frail moon in fabulous summer warmth to enjoy the tragedy of Romeo & Juliet performed by six versatile and talented actors in a mix of Shakespearean text and 20th century vernacular.

Like most outdoor theatre companies, Miracle usually goes for laughs, and the opening act played up every possible comic element in a show that began like a house-party Charades romp set early last century. After the death of Tybalt it seemed this concept wouldn't be able to hold the necessary depth, but the second act was brilliant: the bullying simmering in the Capulet household erupted as a potent energy to push wild-child Juliet into recklessness, and she and Romeo both found powerful emotional connection with the core of the tragedy - great acting from Catherine Lake and Wesley Griffith as hauntingly sensuous lovers in both life and death.
Some bits didn't work: the usually excellent Ben Dyson as a Widow Twankeyesque Nurse for one, Lady Capulet with her dress stuffed down trousers as a mockney Mercutio for several more. And the slightly Bertie-Wooster feel to the inserted language didn't always gel (Juliet's mum: "I would the fool were married to her grave" - Juliet's dad: "Steady on!") Overall, however, a powerful interpretation that made timeless passions seem as contemporary as this year's sensational headlines, entertained all ages, and was so gripping I didn't even notice that due to illness two key roles were played by stand-in with lines sometimes in hand. It was all so good it didn't really matter.

And finally: My writer friend Christine Coleman, who became a proxy 'local' for the Desert Island Reads, give a visitor's view in her blog - and there are regular review updates on the pages of the Festival website.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Poetry Cafe Special, the famous Frome Festival Slam, was totally crammed, with 16 competitors and an enthusiastic audience. Our guest for the night was Peter Wyton, self-dubbed 'Bin Bag Bard', whose act looked in his promo like a rhyming version of Paul Merton's impro but turned out to be a cunning way to avoid planning a set. Random order didn't affect the humour of the verses and Peter's drollery was hailed as "the funniest thing to come to the region since Wells hosted Hot Fuzz!"
Then on to the Open Mic, with our brave and brilliant poets this time submitting themselves to the judgement of their peers. Subjects ranged from tales of Tin Tin to the gratuitousness of gout, with several first time performers among regular favourites and high scores reflecting the stunning quality of the performances. But there was no doubt about our new Festival Poet Laureate: Dianne Penny scored a perfect 6 with all three judges for her poem 'God in a hoodie' and took home the title and the bubbly. What I didn't reveal to our already-nervous poets was that an Apples & Snakes talent-scout was among the audience, and two of our regular poets may get a call....

Desert Island Reads on Thursday afternoon, was featured in the 'Festival Eclectic' listing and filled Trinity Hall, requiring extra chairs and extra interval time to dispense tea and cake to all. Extracts chosen by our 8 castaways ranged from the harrowing - the letter of a 16th Century pirate victim - to the sublime - Yeats' Wandering Aengus, from the sensuality of Under Milk Wood to the childlike wisdom of The Little Prince. Reasons for choice were as fascinating and moving as the readings themselves. Keely Beresford spoke of her passion for theatre -'that make-believe room blazing with light' and used a powerful speech from Bluebird to illustrate her belief that 'Actors owe the writer everything'. Poet Sue Boyle recalled her first encounters with 'words that speak to me and have shaped my life' while Kevan Manwaring brought his current reading: the surreal afterlives of SUM and Christine Coleman shared her fascination with lives glimpsed through letters. Full list of choices, for those who've asked me, will be on the website soon.
Now my organisey bits are done with just write-ups to finish and tired-but-happy mutual congratulations to share, it's time to appreciate other aspects of the festival: the tranquility of the Blue House sculpture garden, the eccentric energy of Cabaret sans Frontieres, this year offering its macabre and madcap medley from a ship bound for 'the edge of the edge of possibilities, and beyond.'
Kundalini energy required...
Mega-congratulations to Annabelle & Howard and the whole team for this brilliant show - no wonder both nights sold out.

More about our events here, or go to Frome Festival NEWS page and scroll down to TENTH ANNIVERSARY TAKES OFF.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's been a week of dark magic at Rook Lane, with an exhibition of Angela Carter illustrations and other celebrations. Rose Flint, Annette Schwalbe, and I had great fun as subversive Surprise Fairy poets at the showing of Company of Wolves, that iconic classic movie shot in traumavision leaving no cliché of sexual awakening unturned. Angela Landsbury seemed welcome respite in hope of a Murder to Wrote about, but she too succumbed to repetitive special effects and dreadful soundtrack. Never trust a man who treads on a hedgehog, or a movie about dreams within dreams.
Diversity is the spice of festival, and a more cheerful enchantment was on offer in Life Coach Annie Lionnet’s workshop on how to Create Your Ideal Life. "You'll come away with sky-high confidence" was the brochure promise, and the session certainly delivered. Reasons for coming – “stuck”, “lost impetus” and “wanting change” were typical – after two hours had shifted dramatically to expressions of self-belief and positivity. An inspirational workshop, as promised, giving tips and exercises to do again and become your own ‘life coach’. Maybe I'll see you in Barcelona, Kate....

Reviews are gathering on the Frome Festival NEWS page as the week rolls splendidly on, with a splendid fanfare for Somerset's first Pub Theatre, launched by Rosie Finnegan and me.
"The newest addition to Frome Festival - pub-theatre - started brilliantly with a dark and shocking tale of vampires, literary critics and the battle between good and evil. Upstairs at The Lamb provided am intimate venue for 'St Nicholas' by Conor McPherson, brilliantly performed by Matt Ward who held the audience in the absolute stillness of shock and suspense even through the distraction of a very hot night. Great night out - felt like a bit of Edinburgh Fringe fallen in from the North, all gritty and sparkly with velocity. Big thanks to Nevertheless Productions for guiding this meteor into Frome."
And thanks to Rose Flint for blowing our trumpet, and to the audience for their enthusiastic feedback: "brilliant... spellbinding... gripping... captivating... compelling... stunning... wicked!... I felt completely involved with every word - a truly memorable evening."

Monday, July 12, 2010

In a blur of Street Bandits, dance bands, and street poetry, the 10th Frome Festival has stage-dived into town and is scorching its way through the week, with the sunshine as support act. On Saturday, Gordon's Soap-Box Poets event offered timely words on every hour to entertain the passers-by on Cheap Street (thanks Roger Hyman for the pic) while Writers In Residence penned their competition entries in shop windows.
Then on Sunday the excellent Writers and Publishers Day, organised by Bev Jones - who also organised our souvenir bags which I suppose makes her a kind of literary bag-lady - also included the Short Story Contest Results event for which my friend Kate Harrison was senior judge. Kate seems an unlikely senior but she gave a very good talk crammed with useful tips like "The shelf life of a new book is longer than milk but shorter than yoghurt – but hey, you can wear your negligee to work!” and I was delighted for the chance of a catch-up to hear about her new life in Barcelona.... lucky Kate, and if that's not enough she has a new contract too for a trilogy of YA books which sound like they'll march right off the shelves. Alison Clink, the driving force behind the Short Story Competition, gave an entertaining breakdown of the principle topics in this year's record (555) entry: "Violent murders – a lot of simmering bitterness ending in graphic decapitation. Ghosts and Care Homes were definitely in, this year, too, sometimes combined.”
And then we all had lunch in the Black Swan garden.
It was impossible to get to all the talks, but I made it into Life Coach Annie Lionnet's inspirational talk on writing a self-development book.
Sunday evening was the long-awaited opening of Frome's new Pub Theatre, Upstairs at the Lamb, with a production of St Nicholas by Conor McPherson, performed by Matt Ward, and brought to Frome by Nevertheless Productions - the inspired instinct of Rosie Finnegan, Frome's own Supergirl, who I am thrilled to be working with on this project. Phew. Exhausted and it's only Monday...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

July is Lion month for me, as I'm a Leo, so I was pleased to find lots of lions in Bath - or rather, the same lion differently adorned. Best I saw was the Lion the Watch and the Wardrobe near Pulteney Bridge; worst, the Peter Blake graffiti lion, scrawled with dreary doodles, in the Victoria Art Gallery.

Here in Frome it's been a week for thinking about the future - twice. At the Merlin, we decided there's a lot that's positive despite the slightly dire state of arts funding. New director Claudia has plenty of plans for programming and ensuring a vibrant community role. Lots of out-of-the-box-office ideas, including Poetry Platter night in October, a one-act play-writing competition with winning scripts given performance, comedy nights, post-play suppers and free tickets for reviewers. So get those reporters notebooks out ready for the new season brochure!
On to the next Focus group, at the Library, where a jury of good men and women considered the case of the missing funding. Proceedings opened with a Vision Statement for Somerset Libraries so visionary it made Xanadu seem under-resourced. We glowed at this picture of busy social spaces promoting happier more fulfilled lives. The vision dimmed as we were chivvied to choose what to delete from the facilities which might enable this paradise. We dug our heels in at replacing staff by volunteers, which seemed to be what the exercise was largely about.
In the Black Swan the festival has already started, with a wonderful Ralph Steadman exhibition full of things that wiggle and wave when you push a button, some cute some rude and some, like the crucified puppy, strangely sad.
And now we're on the Frome Festival countdown - 190 events in streets, pubs, theatres, parks, halls, gardens, and even in the tunnels under the town. Hope to see you at one of them....

Saturday, July 03, 2010

My Name Is Sue at Tobacco Factory starts off in an almost Hinge & Bracket style of genteel cross-dressing melodic entertainment. By the end you feel you've been trapped in a House of Horrors by a psychotic Cheshire Cat with frenzied glitterball eyes and a zombie yelling Armageddon death threats. In fact you've done quite a lot of yelling yourself, leaping to your feet and joining the chant 'We're all going to die!' as Sue conducts, capering herself into a final frenzy.
The show is an extraordinary life journey, from an unfortunate start - mother choked to death on a bourbon biscuit - to a nightmare finish, a downward spiral from vulnerability to insanity. There's a backing band of three smaller Sues too, also in wigs with sinister fringes and frumpy twinsets, all as grim-faced as big Sue is scarily smiley. The songs may start cheery, but the dark side soon hurtles in: “Sue on the bus wherever it goes – what does she see?” begins as a kind of Postman Pat singalong, until the list includes a baby with no head and a screaming mother covered in blood. Eventually institutionalised, Sue gets along fine with the nodding, bleating, waving inmates - all parts played by the audience in a very funny, increasingly manic, song, till the sudden ending: ‘And then they shut the place down and sent us all home.’
We're getting used to Sue's demands for participation while she abandons her piano for a burst of River-dance-on-acid capering, so it's quite shocking when in the final song she collapses, leaving it to the band to indicate her demise and the end of the show. Still standing, our football-tribute waving arms faltering, we giggle nervously until Sue rises briefly to dismiss us. It was a brave end but not a particularly good one. London reviews reproached Dafydd James – aka Sue – for dealing with the tragedy of mental illness after 'the joyfully surreal lyrics of the earlier songs' but to me the show was a seamless story, sad and terrifying for all the uncomfortable laughter. It might be significant that as well as jingles of shingles and Pringles and the black comic bounciness of At half past five we all come alive but we're tied to our beds till ten , Sue movingly sings a straight cover of "No Surprises". The Radiohead video shows Thom Yorke's head inside a glass helmet which is slowly filling with water until he can't sing and struggles to breathe. Maybe the Guardian reviewer could have reflected on this image before summing up the show as 'Pleasingly daft, inconsequential and brilliant' - though I suppose one out of three ain't bad.

Frome Festival newsflash: Festus Foss the brochure cover cat, bursting like an uncorked genie from the medieval houses on Catherine Hill, now features on souvenir festival bags, all on ecofriendly fabric and on sale for a fiver. This was the brainwave of Writers & Publishers Day organiser, Bev Jones, here modeling how to wear a bag for a press shot. Many thanks to Stephen Tate for the promo.