Thursday, November 25, 2010

I may have mentioned this before but Frome for a small town has extraordinarily enormous creative energy - so many events on each week I've had to miss some great music (like 3Corners) through date clashes. Luckily, I managed to get to Frome Drama Club's Dorian Gray at the Merlin, a stunning adaptation by Geoff Hunt which turns Oscar Wilde's dark novel into a powerful gothic drama with shadows of greek tragedy. Dorian's downward spiral into depravity and ultimate destruction is triggered, almost innocently, from his 'fatal flaw' moment as he gazes at the portrait of himself and impulsively wishes it could grow old and he could stay young forever. Geoff Hunt, who also directed, narrates the story through five 'voices of Oscar', a dark flock of watchers, prophets and voyeurs, while many of the more famous Wildean phrases were allocated to the sophisticated and corrupt Lord Henry Wotton. Movingly plangent with Wilde's own sad self-loathing, this ambitious experimental production featured terrific visuals and music by Mike Witt and Luke Stuart respectively and an overall strong cast in which Laurie Parnell as Lord Henry excelled.
Meanwhile, down by the river the Library has been celebrated its 10th birthday, with a Saturday morning of cakes and face-painting - here's Robin, with an assortment of superheroes and princesses - and an evening of readings for National Short Story Week.
Alison and I had no idea what would transpire when we gaily launched Short Stories Please! but we knew in Frome there would be an interested, articulate, enthusiastic, participative audience. Our 5-minute "taster" readings ranged from classic to contemporary and spanned the world: as Gordon Graft (who read a Steinbeck) said: "The thing about short stories is, a bit like poetry, they can take an incident that shows you the wider picture." From David Lodge's boob obsession to M.R.James's midnight graveyard, short story writers as we discovered can transport you anywhere in moments.
I first saw Midsummer, a play with songs at Soho Theatre last January and was utterly captivated by this gem of a production, now touring and at the Ustinov in Bath last week. It's lost nothing of its freshness and exuberence. The script still feels sharp and contemporary, the story is just as moving and funny and anarchic and deliciously subtly erotic, and the actors - Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon - still utterly captivating.
So instead of rewriting my review I'll just add some of the audience feedback scribbled on the whiteboard in the foyer: Brilliant - clever - touching. VASTLY ENTERTAINING! engaging, humorous. Wicked. Fantastic!!!!! Superbly acted, great script + wonderful design. FIVE STARS!!! It's heading for London next so if you want an evening of contagious midsummer madness that sends you out into the winter night with a luminous smile make a trip to the Tricycle Theatre your midwinter treat.

Movie spot: Mike Leigh is back in Abigail's Party land of social expectations and personal desperation, adding this time loneliness, growing old, and death: Another Year pairs the wonderful Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a well-adjusted couple (almost complacently so) with needy friends who cling around them. It's sometimes nearly too excruciatingly embarrassing to watch, but there's humour and humanity there too. "You never have a script, you're always refining" says Ruth Sheen, which is perhaps why this film, despite its length and lack of any message or conclusion, is such compelling viewing.

And finally: Compulsory reading tests for 6-year-olds are on the way, I read in the New (mini) Independent, with children "tested on their ability to read simple words beginning in 2012."
Good thing there aren't many words around beginning like that, then...

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Never try not to be nervous" says Niamh, at our 'Stage Write' group session with a focus on performing. Niamh's tips were aimed towards our Merlin Dressing Up Box monologues event, but were agreed by participants to be extremely useful for work and life too, in any situation where confidence ebbs and we find ourselves needing to 'do it the way you would do it if you could do it...'

Still at the Merlin, enterprising new director Claudia Berry is launching a New Writing Competition for one-act plays, with winners to be produced as a rehearsed script-in-hand performance on stage next March. It's free to enter, and there's special encouragement to younger writers with an under 25 category. Deadline is end January, and I'm looking forward to seeing some of the scripts as I'll be co-judging along with Mark McGann. First Nevertheless Productions launch Somerset's only Pub Theatre, now this - Frome Ferment is definitely fizzing.

1967 has a special place in my nostalgia files. It's the year I left university and got married in the same week, went off travelling and discovered the allure of Greek islands. It was the summer of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band, the one they called the Summer of Love. Skirts were high and so were we - not so much on drugs (most of us couldn't afford to get any closer than song lyrics and Timothy O'Leary paperbacks) but on hope. Music and fashion were no longer dictatated by the providers but led by us from the street: we believed times really were a'changing, that year just before the providers labelled the bandwagon Flower Power and jumped on it. So when I read that Mike Bartlett's new play Love Love Love tracks a couple who met in '67 for forty years to see what kind of sexegenarians they became, and that the production had rave reviews in the posh papers, and was coming to Bath's Ustinov Theatre, I was agog.
Better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
Love Love Love (retitled by a local reviewer Long Long Long) runs for 3 hours with 2 intervals and I escaped after the laboriously 'establishing' opening act. Except in right-wing ranting tabloids we never met anyone like those ghastly students but we'd have considered them not idealistic free-spirits but arrogant pain-in-the-arses, if we had. Did anyone outside a Norman Tebbit dinner party anecdote actually complain about being sacked for smoking pot instead of serving customers? And what was with the mad-aunt costume, all lime green with pearls and platform sandals, for Sandra? If Mr Bartlett wants to raid precious times for drama again, here's what we looked like. The picture's faded but the dress was purple with tiny buttons. And the shoes - it's a shame you can't see them - were gorgeous.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Every time I visit, the Isle of Wight is in a mood of relentless monochrome: sea and sky mottling together in forty shades of grey, so the comfort and warmth of The Grange was especially welcome at last weekend’s writing course. Twelve participants convened in the opulent lounge after supper on Friday for introductions and a thumbnail sketch of their aspirations - well, more of a fingernail clipping actually as with such a big group I was brutal about succinctness. On this, and everything else, everyone was wonderfully responsive. After a full Saturday and late-night writerly revelry too, even our final gathering in the lounge produced some seriously impressive pieces. A delightful and dedicated group, so take note of these faces: you could see them next on a paperback jacket...

Saturday afternoon was our chance to experience the out-of-season charm of Shanklin, a townscape which resides resolutely in the 1950s - though not the stiff-petticoat-and-nipped-waist style, more the grey Dannimac mode.
It's endearing up to a point, but there seems something wilful about this degree of drabness: enough, surely, to eschew Macdonalds, with declaring the entire town a cappuccino-free zone. A great place for those nostalgic for the days when cauliflower soup was thickened with cornflour (creating the 42nd tone of grey, incidentally, if anyone's counting), or for a High Street with hardware store, haberdashers, and a Conservative Club. But times may change: the charming man in bottle-lined sweetshop is planning something new for next year - smoothies! I look forward to trying this radical innovation when I go back in April.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Nevertheless Productions returned in style Upstairs at the Lamb following our sell-out debut in Frome Festival in July. In a collaborative venture with Salisbury's Bootleg Theatre Company, SNAPSHOTS was a set of short dialogues. Four highly personable actors delighted the first night audience with these bite-size dramas from contemporary relationships and modern mores. Perhaps I'm partisan but for me the most successful in theatrical terms was Back to Back by Nevertheless founder Rosie Finnegan which uses dark absurdist humour to create biting political satire. Great to hear people enthusing "That was marvellous” - “Really good – really enjoyed it, really good actors”, and responses on feedback forms ranging from 'Very entertaining' to 'Fantasticle!' and 'Brrrrilliant'! Here's Stewart Taylor and Kerry Stockwell, under draconian future legislation rueing the day they failed to report a grey squirrel... "The homely aesthetic of the venue lent itself kindly to the plays" reported Bootleg's Salisbury reviewer, commending Rosie's "surreal political dialogue".

Meanwhile over in Bristol's Alma Tavern there's nothing homely about Venus at Broadmoor, the fourth, and arguably the best, of Steve Hennessy’s plays lifting the lid off psychiatric care in the Lullabies of Broadmoor quartet.
The cure for insanity is love, pronounces Doctor Orange – an enlightened stance for a Medical Superintendent in 1872 – but he’s baffled by the perverse version of love practised by Christina Edmunds, who calls herself Venus and distributes poisoned chocolates around Brighton randomly and remorselessly. Asylum attendant John Coleman, obsessed with this enigmatic beauty, asks a more pertinent question: what’s the cure for love? Neither man recognises there is no cure for the secret childhood abuse which has left Christina unable to grasp the horror with which infant death is greeted by those around her, or appreciate her culpability.
Dark material, but vividly written with luminous imagery and emotional fireworks from pathos to hilarity, creating authentic evocation of Victorian mores as well as probing deeply into this true-life tragedy. Here are no real villains, though all the men are flawed by selfishness, vanity, obtuseness, and just plain weakness. Christina, the mad murderess, is paradoxically guilty only of living in a society where sexual initiative in a woman is a shockingly ‘lewd act’ while for a man it’s a pardonable lapse. But the tragedy at the heart of the story is that a little boy died: the play is heavily dedicated to that child – indeed the weight of that small ghost, especially at the end, is my only reservation about a superbly written play.
Rebecca Sellors' set wittily creates a mood of seaside vaudeville and the actors are onstage from the start – the doctor restless at his desk, Coleman brooding, Christina dancing delicately in her lace-trimmed underwear – so that even as you take your seat you sense that when the penny rolls to start this end-of-pier show, it will be something special. And it is. Sensitive and cleverly-paced direction from Chris Loveless, superb acting by the men - Alan Coveney and Matthew Ward – and a superlative performance from Violet Ryder as the Chocolate Cream Poisoner... no wonder audiences loved it, with sell-out shows every night and feedback any writer would give several fingers, if not an arm, for. So much to enjoy and to reflect on in this complex play and polished production, I’m only sorry I didn’t get a chance to go back and watch it again.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A couple of final idyllic images from the Bay of Bliss... looking both ways from the beach right by the house just before dusk, sun gentle on the horizon, fierce on the cliff face. I have over 500 shots of this coast and it seems to seethe with different shades in every one.

Final idyllic days and evenings too - one of which was the Spoken Word night at Dave Minton's home, where the 'Best in the West' writing group encouraged guests to read original and favourite poems and pieces while enjoying an excellent Pot-luck party. California must be the Pot-luck Party capital of the world - it's like, why bring just a bottle, when we could have more fun with a pot of chili and a plate of choc-fudge too...
And on the subject of yummy nosh, suppers with Mo and Anja are amazing: last night we had artichoke soup then Tilapia fish tacos with avocado and pico de gallo, which is a Mexican fresh salsa with lots of coriander... mm, at least I'll have something to do on the long-haul flight home, listing everything about California I'll miss...

Meanwhile back in Blighty I find as I prepare to head home that the town & county I left are rapidly being folded up to be put in a box for dumping. 100% axing of Arts funding across Somerset, libraries under threat, Cheese&Grain losing its funding for community events, and even the town Post Office closing. I can't blame SCC or FTC for that one but it's an added irony we won't even be able to stand in snake-like queues waiting for a soupy voice to murmur the number of the only operative cashier please and gripe to each other about these massive assaults on community life.
If ever there was a reason to go on Facebook, this is it and I urge you all, if you haven't, to sign up now and join one or more of the protesting campaigns to find out what's going on.
(And if you want to see where political tyranny and absurdity can lead, go see Rosie Finnegan's clever satirical play Back to Back Upstairs at the Lamb, November 10th & 11th. In fact, support Frome's pub theatre anyway - at this rate it may soon be the only theatre we've got...)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

As temperatures soar through the 20s (or 70s, in local-speak) I've been doing a lot more sea-gazing from beaches and cliffs than writing. The waves have been awesome all week - I tried to photograph them and took so many shots I was out of battery by the time I reached Pillar Point where wet sand reflected the turquoise & pearl-pink of the sky in exactly matching luminosity. None of my pictures convey the impact of these long rolls of marbled water, barging into each other like rogue elephants, cresting erratically then detonating, sending shock-spumes of white spray spirally high - it's the ferocity and erratic rhythms that make this unending turmoil such compulsive viewing.
Equally constant, high and vast, is that unutterably blue Californian sky, cut with vapour trails like shimmering fireworks.
When the tide's out, practicing press-ups in preparation for later bombardment, you can play a game with the sea along the four miles of sand from Half Moon Bay to El Granada: the aim is to walk the line reached by the previous wave - identified by a rim of sparkling foam - adjusting to each oncoming deluge without getting wet jeans. Mostly the sea wins. On this beach I feel like Woman Thursday, I saw only one other person though plenty of plovers, sandpipers, and gulls, and one seal.
Later that evening, with freshly charged camera, I caught the most splendid sunset I've seen anywhere in the world.

With mid-term election results now in, I'm particularly lucky to be staying in California - and in a household where there's no discussion of politics, apart from the noncommital comment "We shoot Republicans on sight."
In The New Republic, Democratic journalist Jonathan Chait prophesies there'll be a move to impeach Obama. Not yet, but sometime, maybe soon. In a piece ominously entitled Scandal TBD he expands: " You can always find something... A poll found that 35% of Republicans already favor impeaching Obama, with just 48% opposed and the balance undecided. Wait, you say, what will they impeach him over? You're not thinking like a Republican. This is the Conservative view of Obama - a left-wing radical who seized power in an economic crisis, smuggled radical views into the White House, and used unfair tactics to force an unpopular transformative left-wing agenda upon a conservative country. Why would Republicans impeach Obama? The better question is, why wouldn't they?" So that's the news Stateside. And glum news it is.