Sunday, February 27, 2011

Voices in the City is the collective name for spoken word in Bath Literature Festival, or as they put it: 'poetical events', since Bath is a city because it has a cathedral, rather than urban eclectic energy. The poetical event in the Central Library from 10am to 4.30pm last Friday, meticulously organised by Sue Boyle, provided readings ranging from Greek myths to Eliot's Wasteland, free to anyone with time to spare. I was a brief drop-in, but managed to catch a superb set by BlueGate Poets from Swindon. Travellers without Baggage is the name of an anthology they have been working from, and their presentation combined some of the original poems by Valerie Clarke with their own responses and was both lyrical and moving.

Paul - the new movie-genre spoof from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, if you've been distracted by Baftamania and the name doesn't ring a bell - is not getting many stars from broadsheet reviewers who find its sci-fi geekiness not as funny as zombies or rural cops. Over in the states there's a different concern: the miraculously-healed bible-belt babe, liberated into extreme expletives and intention to fornicate, apparently introduces 'a risque series of attacks on Christianity that will be unpopular.' (Paul: “My existence doesn’t necessarily disprove religion, just all Judaeo-Christian denominations.”) I loved it, although most of the sci-fi filmic in-jokes went over my head, because the story is rich in other gags too: it's a bonding-style love story, a thriller, a nerds-triumph story and most of all a road movie, with lashings of self-discovery along the way. Why it's Little Miss Sunshine but with a kindof benign supersmart skinny Gollum on board.

Back in the day when I strutted my performance poetry stuff about a bit, Hazel Stewart and I were Live & Lippy - and before that, with wonderful guitarist Laurie Parnell, we were Liquid Jam. In fact some of our words are still knocking around Youtube (onomatopoeia had 6260 hits last time I looked.) Hazel now lives in Cumbria so duets are off the menu, but when she journeys south we always meet up for walking and writing and talking of past times. This weekend we had another reminiscence-fest, looking back on our 'artist date' city-breaks in Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and New York.... must be time for another, Haz!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

“The nice thing about writing a book is you have to really think” says Debby Holt at the crammed launch of her totally engrossing new novel Friends Lies and Alibis at Toppings in Bath, a charmingly ingenuous comment from a writer who is actually extremely erudite, and crafts her domestic dramas with psychological insight as well as witty social observation. This story, she tells us, started out as the exploration of a toxic marriage, but ended up more about the relationship of the wife's two friends who made it their mission to release her by wrecking it. They have mixed motives in this but Debby points out breezily "I've never had an unmixed motive in my life." It's Debby at her best, with a storyline that never dips and characters you could recognise in the street - my favourite is Leah, feeling after a bad night: "Her future lay before her like the sea at Chesil Beach on a particularly gloomy day."

Just two weeks now to the opening night of FOUR IN A BED, Upstairs at the Lamb, Frome's first and only Pub Theatre. It's organised by Nevertheless Productions, the Theatre Company I coorganise with founder Rosie Finnegan (whose creative energy and vision was recognised in recent nominations for Frome's 'Person of the Year') and our first co-production with Salisbury's Bootleg Company. We're particularly excited because we each wrote two of these four short plays, all featuring a bed in very different ways - and director Colin Burdon tells us rehearsals are going really well. Tickets are just £5 for an hour of lively dramatic action, Thursday 10th, Friday 11th, and Saturday 12th March. So come along and find out 'How they did it', discover where 'the Girl with Blue Hair' has gone, see if Marie in finds the freedom she craves in 'A Single Bed', and learn Jake's secret in 'Mirror Image' ... Please!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

StageWrite Café presents... DRESSING UP BOX at the Merlin, last Thursday, was a more-than-sellout success, as our bistro-style seating onstage spilled into several rows of the auditorium - a fantastic tribute to the twelve wonderful writers who workshopped their creative imaginings and memories into a vivid and varied performance night. Huge appreciation to everyone involved, especially Howard for our visual effects as well as performing, and Niamh for the technique tips - ooh I feel a Bafta moment coming on... I'll condense it to a big THANKYOU to all who participated and all who supported, especially Flourish Homes who made this project possible. And thanks, Jill, for the photos.

A quick break in London with Christine Coleman finds us on South Bank where the skyline mists into glittering soft-focus as we pop into Tate Modern to prowl among the galleries admiring the way everyone is an installation and even the escalators become art when you stare at them. Supper with Roger Jinkinson, the only writer I know who chats on facebook with Greek fisherman. In Greek. His new collection of island tales will be out soon.

And finally: epic applause to Laurie Parnell, Tracey Ashford, and Philip de Glanville, who lifted an AmDram night to almost inconceivable heights while winning best actor, best actress and best production at the Somerset Fellowship of Drama awards tonight at the Merlin. A clean sweep for the Troupers, immensely well deserved.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Like Brian Friel, Harold Pinter was a master of unreliable narration. “The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend to remember,” he once said, and the characters in his short plays Landscape and Monologue in this sense inhabit Faith Healer terrain, though without the same empathy or lyrical elegance. In both these plays, though Landscape is notionally a duologue, there’s a sense of complete and bleak isolation, with speeches so enigmatic it seems superfluous to attempt interpretation in terms of what has actually happened. More significant is that the couple in the second play have no more connection than the unnamed man who talks to an empty chair in the first. The actors were all strong but what is most interesting is why these radio plays were revived at the Ustinov despite – or perhaps because of - the fact that theatre compels an attentive stillness which radio-listeners rarely attempt. Chris Goode's impressive direction brought theatricality to these static pieces, underlining their nonreality by featuring technical set changes, and using lighting to create shadows lurking at the sides of the stage like silent onlookers.

Oddsocks, the company that aims to make Shakespeare accessible, brought their current production Hamlet The Comedy! to Bristol’s QEH Theatre, promising a hologram of Paul Daniels as Hamlet’s father and zany family-friendly hilarity... And yet I went. I’m so glad I did, and I’d happily go to anything else this immensely talented troupe decides to tackle with similar absurd impropriety. Hugely entertaining with wonderful physical sequences, clever set and technical wizardry, yet five charismatic actors managed to convey the lyricism and emotional energy of Shakespeare's language despite the liberties they took with the script. Music by Jamiroquai's Rob Harris – including a rocking version of the famous soliloquy - was the icing on a scrumptious performance cake.

The ever-excellent SATTF team have begun their spring programme with Richard II, considered one of Shakespeare’s ‘histories’ but it could equally be seen as one of his finest tragedies. The fatal flaw of this Plantagenet tragic hero is a strangely innocent one: he believes in his Divine Right to rule, so the morality of his decisions is irrelevant as kings are above conscience. The conflict between Richard and Bullingbrooke goes beyond the justice of the disinherited cousin’s claims, with deep-seated certainties challenged by the volatile energy of opportunism. In this new order you can be who you choose, but what if you are vanquished and unthroned yet still believe you are king? In the current production at the Tobacco Factory, director Andrew Hilton highlights the poignancy of Richard’s struggle to find his identity in a rebellion he can scarcely comprehend, and John Heffernan plays the traumatised king with immense sensitivity and subtlety. In such a strong ensemble piece it’s hard to pick out any individual since all played their roles superbly, with menace, pathos, and humour all there and beautifully dressed.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Ever tried to borrow a bed? Rosie and I are on the hunt for the sole but vital prop/set for Four In A Bed, the next Nevertheless production Upstairs at the Lamb in Frome early next month. We found this eminently portable one in the local bed shop but sadly failed to negotiate custody. The quest continues as the plays go into rehearsal - two by me and two by Rosie, each written to feature this as-yet missing item. Watch this space - and lets hope audiences find it filled by March 10th, our opening night.

“In the guise of a smart comedy of manners, The Constant Wife is in fact ablaze with anger about the injustices of the married state,” begin the programme notes for this Salisbury Playhouse revival, so you might think this study of hypocrisy among the upper class is a kind of early stab at feminism but – as Somerset Maugham’s own wretched marriage could confirm - that would be an oversimplification. Written in 1926, set in the London of Bertie Wooster's aunts, this is a wealthy world where a woman who decides that living off her adulterous husband makes her feel like ‘a prostitute who doesn’t deliver’ can turn her hand to interior design and make her own fortune. Although the play is overlong, with too many speeches to represent attitudes rather than create three-dimensional character, this production delivers some notable highlights. In the first act these came mostly from Maggie Steed as Mrs Culver, mother of the pragmatic Constance, who brought Wildean aplomb to her one-liners, but by the third act (bizarrely crammed onto the second though set a year later) the pace began to liven overall. The final scene is a scorcher, with Constance in full revolt against the values of her age (“Men are meant by nature to be wicked and deceive their wives, women are meant to be forgiving” expostulates her mother vainly) and what seemed a brittle revenge plot becoming suddenly moving when Constance speaks of the lure of feeling loved. And it’s here her previously preposterous husband (David Michaels) steals the scene, creating a real sense of personal journey as well as the comedy of his come-uppance. Colin Falconer’s set design, all opulent creams and golds, is sumptuous.

When you're talking about plays, which I seem to do quite a lot these days, you stand on unshifting - albeit subjective - ground. Commenting on a television series is different, because scripts can vary week by week. I positively trilled about the first episode of Demons, and look what a load of old tosh that turned out to be. I'm reveling in How TV Ruined Your Life, but Charlie Booker's hyperbolic spleen is perilously close to rant overload. Nevertheless I'm going to take a deep breath and declare this series of Being Human, after a shaky second episode, is shaping up to be the best yet. This weeks's brilliant episode subtly explored dimensions of 'being human' - copy-cat killers and damaging mothers - which sadden even monsters, while providing some of the funniest lines yet.

And finally: there's a ditzy and delightful exhibition on at Frome's Black Swan gallery till March 20th: well worth a browse on a grey day.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Frank Hardy has a talent to heal. Or does he? Frank sometimes wonders, and Gracie almost dismisses the notion. But loyal promoter Teddy believes in Frank as an artist of healing, and stays with this fighting couple as they travel through a litany of the Celtic villages until one tumultuous night in Donegal which was, it seems, the last night of Frank’s life. We don’t know this for certain, but there’s much we don’t know about this man and his chaotic relationships with himself and those who love him: his woman, and his mystified, adoring, promoter.
Brian Friel's mesmeric and marvellous play Faith Healer, currently playing at the Bristol Old Vic, takes the form of separate speeches from these three key characters who never connect on stage, and whose long monologues each tell a dramatically different version of this story.
It may sound tough, but this production is luminous: a stunning script made unforgettable by brilliant acting especially from Finbar Lynch - totally charismatic as the flawed healer - and Richard Bremmer's loyal Teddy. The theme of faith, held and lost, is strong, but what emerges most forcefully and compassionately is the private and public struggle of the artist, and the quest for identity. Simon Godwin directed with wonderful simplicity and minimalist sets (Mike Britton) and shadowed lighting (Guy Hoare). Faith Healer is showing in the studio while the main house is refurbished, till 5th March - go if you can.

And now for something completely different. How would you direct Under Milk Wood if you believed spoken word inadequate to create imagery, mood, or story? Splice Productions decided to spice it up with slapdash comedy to distract the audience from the tedium of Dylan Thomas's words. How? Distractingly. I don't know about the rest of the tour, but at the Arc in Trowbridge a jovial audience readily took their cue to while away Captain Cat's reverie with noisy interruptions. Two excellent actors wasted their potential to entrance and the writer must have writhed in his grave.
"Think Dylan Thomas meets Round the Horne" the flyer suggests- that should have told me everything. Fern Hill and Fifties' Light Programme farce... not a good combo.

Better luck on Saturday: Miracle Theatre has been touring its winter show since November but there was no sign of flagging energy when Beauty and the Beast from Mars arrived in Frome. It’s the kind of show Miracle does best: a ramshackle contraption of simple ideas absurdly connected, strongly reliant for success on individual personalities and audience collusion. Such is their charm the last ingredient is readily forthcoming, so there was lots of interactive panto-style shouting and even mass singing of the Chin-Up song. The storyline, to use the term loosely, connects two 1960s phenomena: heart-throb male singing stars, and fears of alien invasion. Tom Adams as Bobby Beauty has hoola-hoop hips and a great voice, and the wonderful Ben Dyson is on best baleful form in an auburn wig as Major Bunty, in charge of the attack on Mars. When Beauty is abducted in retaliation by Martian Empress Bestiana (think Blackadder’s Queenie in Quant frock and green scales) the Major – who happens to be his mother - races after him on the Schadenfreude space probe, accompanied by number one fan Nurse Bumper… all ends happily of course, as the white heat of Bobby’s charisma can charm even the beastly empress, and the psycho-magnetically inserted pin number is retrieved in time to save the world. Lots of fun for everyone, nostalgia for oldies and double entendres about suction to delight the kids.