Thursday, March 31, 2011

A funny thing about The Comedy of Errors is that it's not the slightest bit amusing for any of the characters, who become progressively more irate, berated, and beleaguered: it's the privileged information of the audience alone that turns the action into hilarious farce. The premise is beyond absurd, combining extreme mistaken identity with bizarre coincidence, but this wonderful production energetically trounces any such nitpicking cavils.
Pay full attention to the opening speech though, because without this nothing makes sense: Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, explains he is seeking his son who, with his faithful manservant, is seeking his identical twin brother and his identical twin faithful manservant. Little does Egeon know that they're all now in Ephesus, busily mistaking each other’s identity all over town.
Andrew Hilton's inspired direction shows this early Shakespeare play is ideal for in-the-round production: minimal set details give plenty of space for physical action and the story cracks along at a spanking pace. 19th Century costumes (designed by Harriet de Winton) not only look fabulous but subtly underline the brutality below the surface of an elegant era. Comic timing throughout is superb - some moments so funny they sparked spontaneous applause. All the actors are terrific so it seems wrong to pick out individuals but I will: Antipholus of Ephesus and his passionate wife (Matthew Thomas and Dorothea Myer-Bennett), Angelo the baffled goldsmith (Alan Coveney), and the mistreated menservants (Richard Neale and Gareth Kennerley). Both sets of twins looked uncannily alike, which really helps too. Oh, and so does the live music. This is SATTF on five-star form and it's on till the end of April, then transferring to the Northcott Theatre Exeter, so GO SEE!

If you've ever sniggered salaciously while seasoning with cumin or discussing kundalini, you'd love Julie Mullen's erotic poetry. Julie is an actress as well as a zestful word juggler, and Bradford on Avon's poetry cafe positively thrilled to her raunchy off-the-wall style. I went with lovely Muriel Lavender, who though not in her best underpinnings nevertheless caused quite an erotic frisson herself.
Anyone seeking the full corset experience should come to Frome Poetry Cafe next week, when Muriel will be the star of our Burlesque night.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hull Truck Theatre brought their current touring production Lady Chatterley's Lover to an optimistic Merlin audience on Wednesday. Sadly, despite the dark glamour of the programme image, this was more of a plot recital than a drama. (Picture by Peter Byrne.)
Everyone knows the basic story and this could have worked in favour of the adaptation, but it didn’t. There was obvious intention to address issues of class and gender struggles between the wars but the steady pace and stagey delivery made for an insipid performance and, devoid of Lawrence's exultation in cunt as vital to life, the story became a depressing case-study of matrimonial difficulties. The lovers' discreet fondlings lacked any erotic energy and seemed inspired by that much-parodied potter’s wheel scene in Ghost.
The set really didn’t help: a dense circle of country-household clutter was presumably designed to show how Connie was fettered by her status, but allowed no sense of the freedom of the woods or the elemental thrill of the rainstorm. Here, as in the adaptation itself, there seemed too much reliance on explanations rather than physical or emotional impact.

By contrast, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell at Bath Theatre Royal featured classy acting, especially Robert Powell who brought charm and unexpected warmth to the title role of the misogynist alcoholic journalist whose column was famed for its frequent absence. Set in a superbly credible Soho pub early one morning, the play is a rambling monologue of reprehensible anecdotes and acid reflections. "Choked on his own vomit – what a disgusting phrase!" he muses, "when did you ever hear of anyone choking on someone else’s vomit?” Keith Waterhouse wrote his tribute in 1989, showing the cult of celebrity was obsessed with the degradation of idols long before Heat and circles of shame. There's contempt too for affluent county living, as 'Mr&Mrs Backbone-of-England' come in for hefty lampooning: cue prolonged laughter from all the Mr&Mrs Backbones-of-Bath massed in the stalls...

The first ever Merlin New Playwriting Competition reached a triumphant conclusion with the presentation of the winning plays as fully-directed rehearsed readings on stage last Thursday. Members of Frome Drama Club played all parts in the five winning plays and did full justice to styles and subjects ranging from a very-American modern tragedy to a very-English 19th Century comedy. Sets were minimal, but effective lighting and imaginative direction from Claudia Pepler combined with a varied programme of superb writing and strong acting to create a fantastic theatrical evening.
The quality of entries was clear from the start with Silent Columbine by Bristol student Hannah Williams-Walton, a brilliant script and a powerfully convincing psychological study of the two boys who massacred thirteen people in 1999. Patrice Gerrard, also in the younger category, evoked a ‘waiting-for-Godot’ atmosphere in One Long Interval as a restless teenager waits with his father in hospital for news of his younger brother. A clever and succinct script with compassionate insight into family dynamics as well as some very funny moments.
From the over-25 category, The Zapper by Frome writer Brenda Bannister took an initially realistic situation – a let’s-be-civil discussion about divorce – to create an admirably crisp and witty script with a satisfying conclusion. In a change of mood again, Heartsink by Geraldine Lindley from Bath dealt with the difficult topic of Munchausen’s syndrome. The final play of the night The Fearful Adventure of the Fishing Excursion was a diverting duologue set in a Victorian bedroom and involving extreme storytelling Lemony Snickett might envy. Playwright Jonathan Collings found his ideas in a collection of Victorian tall tales and wove them together with preposterous charm to create a highly individual finale.
After the performances, audience members joined writers and cast in the foyer for an informal feedback session and a chance to express their appreciation and enjoyment. Merlin director Claudia Pepler, who had the initial idea of a New Playwriting competition as well as overseeing the project and selecting the winners, intends to make this an annual event. “Next time we'll aim for full production,” she said “The whole process has been brilliant.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

"Thankyou for coming to this and not wandering around Bristol in a green felt hat, getting pissed in the name of St Patrick." This is Bristol Old Vic's Word of Mouth, about to prove once again that a poetry performance can move, amuse, and thrill every bit as dramatically as a play - and more succinctly & intimately too. Byron Vincent compèred with his usual enchanting dialectical dexterity, recalling a scary '80s childhood contending with waving gladioli, stranger-danger, and Mr Noseybonk.
First guest was World Slam Champ and BBC radio4 fave Elvis McGonagall who, having applauded our Paddy's day choice, metaphorically rolled up his tartan sleeves to give every aspect of modern culture a pasting - especially politics. Ferocity and wit in equal measure scythed through the coalition, banking, Cameron's Big Society ("how patronising is that? Enid Blyton meets George Orwell") and Operation Undying Conflict in Afghanistan.

Luke Wright has called his brilliant new show Cynical Ballads and performs his 'seven caustic tales from Broken Britain' as a powerpoint presentation with visuals ranging from Searle-like cartoons to quasi-lecture notes on the history of the ballad form. “Some poems work on the soul, some poems work on the funny bone” Luke says, but his do both: they're passionate and satirical, but every light jest has a dark shadow - as in his tale about The Luck of the Brungers which ends bleakly
If you’re wondering what the moral is, I’m afraid I’m wondering too.
Trolls like this will always win. And there’s nothing we can do.

Luke doesn't think Britain is really broken, he says, despite this collection of misfits and monsters, and he sees his show as a kind of angry nagging love-letter. And that's how it comes across, despite the yobs and the snobs and the drunks on the train - as a series of deeply felt and turbulent tales about the painful poignancy of human life.
Like Byron said at the start: “Everything’s ok really – well it isn’t, but it’s always been horrible, so that’s nearly the same.”

Four In A Bed has had its last outing - in Southsea, somewhat bizarrely, at The Cellars in Eastney. A great little pub venue, providing our actors for the first time with a stage & lighting to enhance their frolics. Performances peaked - great to end Nevertheless Productions short tour on such a high note.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Merlin One Act Play competition closed at the end of February, leaving us just three weeks for the tough task of deciding a shortlist from 55 submissions, and for director Claudia to pick five finalists and organise rehearsed readings of their winning plays. First read-through went really well: actors from Frome Drama Club animatedly discussing the plays, acknowledging 'great writing, great dialogue' and disagreeing over their favourites. Which is exactly what I hope will happen among the audience when the winners are staged. All seats free, 7.45 on Thursday 24th, so do come along if you can.

From drama to poetry: Bristol poet Tom Phillips was guesting at Poetry & a Pint in St James Wine Vaults on Monday. Tom is an editor at Venue, our local version of London's Time Out, recently threatened with closure and then last week dramatically 'saved'. Future issues will be Venue, Spock, but not as we know it. Our much-loved anarchic & informative weekly will amalgamate with a 'lifestyle' magazine and mutate into a monthly freebie. Tom referred to this trauma only once and obliquely, in his excellent set, when he introduced his poem Pyrrhic Victory: "The writer of this is on his knees before the emperor - I think it's about my present employment situation."

And a couple of previews:
Frome's April Follies Poetry Café on Wednesday 6th features brilliant burlesque poet Muriel Lavender, whose wicked wit and sensational attire are raising eyebrows and spirits across the southwest.

Looking further ahead, Westbury Festival is introducing poetry events this year -organisers Maggie and Helen visited Frome for ideas how.

Finally: Being Human has reached its last gory episode and Monday mornings won't be the same. (I'm generally out when it's screened so watch on Demand at first possible opportunity.) Facebook is crawling with mournings for Mitchell, the vampire who ironically managed to be human after all when he found self-loathing, surely the sole ability distinguishing us from other animals. Can the next series survive without its key players - or did Herrick lie when he said there was no way back... "He was flawed, he was adored, with him we were never bored": John Mitchell, here are your best bits.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Four in a Bed - drama quartet written by me and Rosie, co-produced with Bootleg Theatre Company - finished its Frome run on Saturday with sell-out audience and post-show party courtesy of Martin, new owner of Upstairs at the Lamb and big supporter of our pub theatre venture Nevertheless. Friday night was an unexpected sell-out too, and feedback has been amazing, from one-word responses (typical selection above) to emails texts & calls. "Thank you for a wonderful evening, innovative and enjoyable, Frome so needs this!" "Really good writing - absorbing, touching and funny!"

Massive thanks to Stew, Kerry, Sara and Joe for their strong acting and to Colin for bringing it all together. There's a final performance of this production on Wednesday at Eastney and then in festival the fun starts again when Bristol's Stepping Out company brings Lullabies of Broadmoor to Frome Festival.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Mark Thomas reckons he looks like he's just bagged a rambler in his promo image for Extreme Rambling - Walking the Wall, his one-man show about walking the Palestine border wall: a ramble, as he points out, requiring more than a bobble hat and boots - like an inside contact at UN. For over two hours Mark paces the stage in front of a map of the West Bank, recounting through facts and dramatic sketches the story of this epic journey with energy and passion that never flags. It's an amazing performance - a wildly funny show about shocking realities, deeply felt and inspirationally well-crafted.
Mark calls his trip a mixture of devilment, curiosity and rambling, though he's been warned to claim officially he's writing about birds and wild flowers. It's a journey full of learning. Like, although the border is 315 kilometers, the wall is more than twice as long, deviating wildly in order to include the illegal Israeli settlements. Like, the cruel absurdities of this route include a football pitch split in half, villagers separated from their shops, and children walking to school through a tunnel they share with sewerage when it rains.
There's much to grieve and rage over in his tale but it never becomes a lecture or a rant, as Mark peoples the stage with other characters too: his supporters, opposers, and random companions. We meet juggling Israeli anarchists who quote Monty Python, Palestinians queuing through the night at the border crossing, conscript soldiers, an orthodox Jew estate agent, the dapper Consulate General and the colonel who designed the wall - 'a man who doesn’t let the facts impinge on his life.' We recognise the voices of his hippy cameraman, his exasperated fuck-up sorter Nava, and Mark's inner Hugh Grant.
And the wall's final obscenity is to end at Beityatir, incomplete despite '723 kilometers of national self-delusion'. Mark's journey ends as it began, with an Israeli soldier shouting out a challenge. This time, fired by fury that 'this land so obsessed with identity robs everyone of his own', he yells back a summary of his experiences, concluding with lung-breaking belligerence ‘and I’m writing about birds and wild flowers.’ Brilliant entertainment with lasting impact.

Big contrast at the finale of the Bath Literature festival: Griff Rhys Jones discoursing on his trips to mountains and rivers, which turned out to be mainly a smugly superficial ramble through the peaks and streams of his ego. Thank Groupon for Royal Fizz champagne cocktails at The Lounge.

Saturday was World Book Night, with bedtime stories for children and free books for all at Frome Library. Over a dozen Fromies applied successfully to be donors, which means a total of more than 600 books supplied by the scheme. The big handout was followed by Books Please! - a chance for bibliophiles to share their most-loved reads. My own special favourite was Robyn still in her Where The Wild Things Are costume reading Kubla Khan.

And finally: Only 4 days now till Four in a Bed opens Upstairs at the Lamb. Rosie and I took Alison in to admire the framed poster in the downstairs bar...

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Probe, the dance company that extends performance into contemporary drama, is now an Associate Artist of Merlin Theatre and what a coup for Frome’s theatre to be linked with this exciting group. Currently they are touring with May, a stunning production featuring mesmeric words from Tim Crouch made excitingly visceral and vivid by dance sequences. (thanks Matthew Andrews for the pictures)
The story takes us to terrain that fascinated the writer in his previous award-winning plays My Right Arm and The Author : the relationship between mind and body, and the emotional connection between audience and actors. We seem initially to be in a non-demanding poetry reading, encouraged into comfortable laughter, until the reader’s subject becomes gradually graphically apparent. May, the girl he is writing about, is a self-harmer, and nothing in this gentle social worker’s experience has prepared him for her pain, expressed in struggle to find words and in passionate primal dance. He begins to understand her ‘ecstasy of agony’, how ‘each jab an endogenous spurt blocking out the pain.. a unifying simplicity.’ The poem becomes a love story, mingling empathy with the violence, until we are suddenly back in the drab hall of the readings with a call for the owner of a blue Mondeo to move it please…
Fantastic live music from Scott Smith, who was also the bemused compere, supported fabulous dance from Ben Duke and Antonia Grove, and a brilliantly disturbing script. I came out shaking, after the most extraordinary hour at the theatre for a long time. You can see a clip here, and see the show (or see it again, as I will) in Bristol’s Mayfest. Five stars.