Saturday, May 29, 2010

"brilliant acting and brilliant writing"
"thoroughly enjoyable"
"clever to embrace a serious theme with humour - really worked"
"enjoyed the dialogue and its poetic quality"
"LOADS of food for thought - need to see it again"
"fabulous: funny, thoughtful,sad, encouraging and above all, entertaining"
"wonderful! So much in it!!"
"so enjoyed - would love to see the script so I can absorb it more deeply"
"innovative.. atmospheric...biting, courageous and hopeful"
"really original idea well written and acted"
Yes, it's the end of the week-long run of Vampire Nights at the Alma Tavern, where Love Bites shared a double bill with Conor McPherson's monologue St Nicholas. I'm immensely appreciative of everyone who gave me such supportive feedback on my play - those are all from personal emails to me, there's more audience feedback on the whole event at Stepping Out Theatre Company website - wonderful comments like "Wow, what a performance! One of the very best shows I have seen at the Tavern" and much well-deserved praise for Matt's unforgettable and mesmeric monologue performance. So mega-thanks to cast and crew and everyone who came.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We were Number 3 on Venue's 'Recommended' list this week, but I didn't expect a virtually full house on the hottest evening of the year at the Alma Tavern for the opening of Vampire Nights, nor a tribe of (twelve) real vampires in the audience - real enough, anyway, to cause an exotic and glamorous stir.

I was going to wait till I had the official pix of Love Bites and ...whisper it... a review, but in response to enquiries here's an interim posting from the first night - with huge appreciation to vampiric victim Kirsty Cox, her multi-tasking angel & demon lover Matt Ward, Anne Stiddard for a fantastic car-crash setting, Paul Lewis for atmospheric lighting, Chris Loveless for inventive direction, and of course the ever-supportive Stepping Out producer Steve Hennessy. It's an amazing privilege to be the curtain raiser in this double-bill. Matt, when he finished playing seven parts in my play, stepped straight back on stage with a monologue performance nearly four times as long and a lot darker too - St Nicholas by Conor McPherson.... I'm in awe.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The back roads to Bristol are thick with luminous may blossom and cowparsley and vanilla-candled horse-chestnut trees so each journey is a delight in these gorgeous glittering dusks... When I think of some of the aggressive streets I've lived in - the redwhite&blue daubed belligerence of Belfast kerbs, the glue-bag litter and aircraft fuel stench of Hayes - I have to pinch myself to be sure I'm not dreaming I really live here now... (Not while driving, of course, only when it's safe and legal to do so.)
So, another trip, another Mayfest show: best yet, Everything Falls Apart from NiE at the Tobacco Factory.
I thought the title intentionally evoked that seminal novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, or the Yeats' line that inspired it, but perhaps it owes more to the lyrics by Fee “when everything falls apart your arms hold me together…you keep holding on." Whatever, this was an incredibly powerful piece of theatre. The storyline is simple: two boys from Slovakia smuggled into England – an unforgettably horrendous reconstruction which involved sealing them in a fridge – will die in a terrorist attack on the underground. We meet them busking on a Circle Line train created by the audience in this Promenade performance, and we're enticed around the different sets - the party, the bike-ride, the livingroom, the loo - to follow the journey of Roman and his 'idiot' brother Martin, who he cares for as George did Lennie in Mice and Men. These two enormously empathetic central characters are surrounded by macabre caricatures of fecklessness, cruelty, and avarice that Dickens would have coveted for his darkest tale yet. Yet there's a lot to laugh at too in this excitingly physical, musical, high-energy, intimate performance - an extraordinary show that makes victim-voyeurs of us all - for toasting their birthday, for watching their pain.
Final Mayfest trip, and everything fell apart: Edward Rapley opened Who Knows Where by saying he only decided what to do on Monday, a claim uncomfortably credible as his monologue proceeded. There was a moment of excitement when he sucked and then spat black paint, but that was about it. Narrative style was modelled on those audience-participation comedy acts with topics picked from a bucket, but we weren't allowed that involvement - although when he told us the show would continue 'even if I had only 24 hours to live' a girl did call out "Could we still tell you it's shit?"
Released early into a beautiful evening, Rosie and I debriefed at the historic King William.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

There's been a huge buzz around Love and War from The Mark Bruce Company, a highlight at Mayfest and sell-out at the Merlin Theatre. Mark lives in Frome and has developed this dance performance with support from the Merlin, so to theatreatti he's as much a local boy as Jenson Button. More importantly, the show has fabulous theatrical energy, brilliantly chosen music, and terrific dancers. The through-story, if there is one, is hard to follow but intensely evocative: in turns mythical, political, romantic, tragic, brutal, even baffling, always compellingly dramatic. There are street fights and love affairs, madness and mayhem, and each episode brings challenging imagery and shocking surprises. A bath is wheeled in, only to be made a deathtrap by an enormous spider. Dogs of war unleash, and a bubblegum-popping cheerleader lashes her pompoms to a Nirvana track. There's what seems to be a high school massacre, scarlet petals falling like splattered blood, but as many moments of intimate tenderness. Designer Marian Bruce's imagery is disturbing and unforgettable.
The Merlin stage was transformed into theatre-in-the-round for this production, with seating for over 100, so I'm hoping to see this more intimate, accessible option used more often in future. A more compact, studio-style, venue will make it easier to bring contemporary drama and spoken word events to the town, so three compact, studio-style cheers to director Mark Bruce and theatre director Claudia Berry.

Rehearsals have started for my play Love Bites, on at the Alma Tavern Theatre all next week with Conor McPherson's St Nicholas. It's a fantastic thrill to watch Matt Ward and Kirsty Cox, together with director Chris Loveless, bringing the story off the page: getting into the skin of the characters, pulling out the comedy as well as the conflict. We spent an entire day discussing the intentions and dramatic tensions of the first few pages - a rare and cherished privilege for any writer.

Over to Bath for the launch of Sarah Duncan's latest novel, Kissing Mr Wrong. Sarah's entertaining speech featured Things I've Learned From Writing, with number 10 on the list being: "Everyone wants to know how much you earn - they've heard of JK Rowling and don't realise the reason for that is because she's so unusual." How (often) true!

Brochures for Frome Festival are finally out, and the banners for the Writers and Publishers Day have arrived. Bookings are up, short story entries are up, and if the weather keeps this good everything looks set for the best fest yet.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Warminster Writers Circle celebrated the launch of its group anthology Circle Crop in style in the great hall at Longleat last week, a warm-hearted event beautifully hosted by group chair Sue Bacon and graced by His Grace himself, with entourage and lurcher.

Earlier that day... a return, with travel writer John Payne, to the bits of the Bath Skyline walk which ice & snow had put out of bounds on our previous trip. The classical buildings of the city were not universally admired in their early days, apparently: William Beckford, who wrote the gothic novel Vathek (in French, curiously) built himself a retreat on top of Lansdown to avoid the view, and Jane Austen includes in Northanger Abbey a character who speaks so disparagingly of the picturesque to Catherine Morland that 'when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.' (Quoted by John in his book on The West Country.)

Bristol is celebrating Mayfest - "A mix of work so tasty it makes you want to up sticks and move to Bristol permanently" the brochure brags. I'm an ardent Fromie but whenever I go to Bristol - about 3 times a week - I want to up sticks and move there, so this fortnight is a big box of drama-chox for me. Even the best selections have some toffees... Festival, Lone Twin's 'playfully proto-Brecht' final production in the Catastrophe Trilogy, had a script so minimalist it could have been retitled Learning English While Hopping. Guy Dartnell singing U2 was a welcome addition. But there's something to chew on for everyone, from the ensemble exuberance of Trilogy's fifty naked women whooping around BOV main stage like anarchy on a Dove photo-shoot, to No Idea down in the studio theatre, a devised two-hander exploring perceptions of disability. Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence used recorded responses to their question 'what do you think our show should be about?' as content as well as direction, a bit like 'Stupid Street' on Scott Mill's show. Public responses had tactfully skirted around Lisa's wheelchair, focussing instead on her 'cheeky face' but apart from naughty sketches - and a very funny Chas & Dave routine - the storylines were all for her 'normal' friend. "We started off hilarious, ended up serious, and a little bit didactic" Lisa sums up, but actually their performance didn't feel lecturing or hectoring and was enormously engaging.
Equally thought-provoking were Kings of England with Where We Live & What We Live For - a clunkily titled but delightful 'series of short narrations and little performances concerning Love, Loss, Happiness and the Passing of Time'. Simon Bowes, writer and curator of these precise personal fragments, introduced his dapper elderly father, who smiled, danced, and read to the audience with huge charm and style. This quiet inspection of a lifetime was all the more touching in the context of the programme notes: "After the fall he is increasingly forgetful, and the show is a modest attempt to give him something back, or to show him what he has left." Simon's mother also participated, but like the BSL signer in No Idea her name wasn't mentioned in the credits... small point but interesting.
Performance art time: into the Arnolfini on Sunday afternoon for The moment I saw you I knew I could love you - into a life raft, in fact, to watch as if from the belly of a dark ocean the varied fragments of performance, both live and projected, presented by Curious. Some were dreamy, some funny, and some a bit pretentious, but I was mostly fascinated, right up to the last waltz- which the audience did, in pairs, with an apple on our foreheads... somehow it seemed quite natural, by then.
Equally bizarre was Famous Last Words in a caravan beside the docks, the only gameshow that grooms each participant into a presenter in 15 minutes. In fact the audience is the show and vice versa, which is about as far as you can take audience-participation. Greg McLaren - that's him in the gold bomber jacket, I think - says it will change your life and maybe it will but it's great fun anyway and a really neat concept, which I won't spoiler-tell in case it comes to a festival near you this summer.
Back to the BOV basement for possibly my favourite of the weekend, Jon Haynes' brilliant one-man show The Poof Downstairs, the autobiographical play that never gets started but exists in smatterings and preview moments among a welter of intimate prevarications and confessions: like the best stand-up comedy it was clever, neurotic, and very, very, funny.


And now for something completely different: Hot Tub Time Machine- jokey, nostalgic, kind of Back to the Future meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with the odd spot of projectile vomiting and flagrant sex... what's not to like?

Friday, May 07, 2010

According to family folklore, my father - who hardcore readers of this blog may remember had thespian aspirations - was involved in the early days of The Loft Theatre in Leamington. I've never visited town or theatre before so Into the Woods at this venue was a double draw.
Sondheim's story spins every fairy-tale wish and quest into a fabulous confection of fun, song, and happy-endings... until the interval. We return to a ruthless deconstruction of the greed and cruelty that actually underpins these fantasy clich├ęs. Anarchy reigns in the woods once the narrator is pulled into the action: a minor character casually kills a Jack's mother, the baker's family is broken up and Cinderella and Rapunzel lose their princes to newer, more exciting, damsels. "I was raised to be charming, not sincere" explains Cinder's faithless lover, the enchantingly unctuous Kenny Robinson, who also directed. Every one of the cast delighted, the ensemble pieces were brilliant, and the lavish set and OTT lighting totally supported this stylish and inspiring production. (pic by Helen Ashbourne)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Hundreds of mobile phones flashed in the market place as Frome's favourite son stepped up to accept the freedom of the town on Tuesday. Cheers and flag-waving greeted Jenson Button as he told us he felt privileged, though no-one seems sure what the honour entails ("Driving his goats down the main street?" Rosie wondered). The PA system didn't work and the stage wasn't high enough, but we all know he's total eye-candy and what can you say in a speech except, Thankyou it's just what I wanted.

Meanwhile down in Dorset, local celebrations were more vigorous: pitched battle between Viking and Saxon armies at Corfe Castle, with a helpful historical commentary from the sidelines. "Alfred is getting pelted with rocks now - oops, that one's a loaf of bread." Warriors came in waves and bodies fell, remaining rather alarmingly on the field to be stumbled over by survivors with realistic looking weaponry. As neither side seemed to be flagging we asked a saxon child how long battle would rage. "A..a..ages" he replied, with a seen-it-all roll of his eyes, so we left history to look after itself and went off for a cream tea.

Rosie and I went to see Love Song by John Kolvenbach, one of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School productions at the Alma Tavern. As you'd expect from young professionals, the acting was immaculate: Nick Blakeley - who gave an unforgettable performance Upstairs at the Lansdown last summer - was outstanding in the role of Beane, socially inept and withdrawn but ultimately transformed by love. There was much that was enjoyable too in the slick bickering of his sister and brother-in-law, and their own journey, but ultimately the contrast of crisp banter and poignant rapport, both unrealistic in deeply different ways, wasn't really in balance and failed to seduce us.

Wild in the Country was the theme for Frome's May Poetry Cafe, with Rose Flint our guest of the night. Rose's exquisitely sensuous poems are a hard act to follow but sixteen poets maintained an extraordinarily high standard. My personal peaks were Dianne Penny's delicate, luminous, performance and the plangent words of William Blake set to music by Niall McDevitt, but everyone deserved commendation in a really enjoyable night.
And here's Alex, Arthur (Scafell), and Alicia, who led off the evening with a 'farewell tribute to Paula' who has quit as director of the Merlin Theatre - and thanks to Paula for joining in the joke with goodhumoured grace. Indeed, Paula tells us she will return at pantomime times to judge for us again!
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