Friday, July 29, 2011

Summertime in England means touring outdoor theatre, traditionally camp as panto and inevitably vulnerable to the vagaries of, well, summertime in England. The last three open-air shows I saw were all victims of rain from heaven dropping upon the place beneath with no likeness whatsoever to mercy: Oddsocks struggled on with the Scottish play while Miracle's Sherlock Holmes and Illyria's Mr Fox both took shelter, losing along with the umbrellas and damp picnics some of the dynamic energy of these larger-than-stage productions.
Wonderful, then, that for the return of Illyria to Frome with Twelfth Night, the evening was warm and dry and the ECOS amphitheatre happily crammed with a family audience and a party atmosphere. Director Oliver Gray takes his responsibility to Shakespeare's text seriously, going back to the First Folio editions to seek out and expose innuendo wherever it may hide. He follows the Elizabethan tradition of using a multi-tasking team of five players, with a brilliant quintet: Alastair Chisholm, Martin Clark, Lawrence Kemp, Emmeline Prior and Miriam Jay Allwright doubled up in unlikely ways to create a score of characters, most of whom are unrequitedly in love. This is quick-change, quick-fire comedy, every line played for laughs and lots of witty adlibs, yet the poignancy is there too in moments of menace and magic, as if longing for love can bewitch the eyes as powerfully as Puck's fairy juice - this production is more than an al-fresco romp, it touches a real Shakespearean nerve of human frailty and how little we understand our own impulses or our universe.

Monday, July 25, 2011

You might think a double dose of murderous madness in Broadmoor would be enough for one month, but - like several others after Venus and The Demon Box played in Frome - I couldn't resist a trip to Bristol to see the final two Lullabies of Broadmoor in the Stepping Out Theatre quartet.
The Murder Club and Wilderness again feature John Coleman as Principal Attendant at the hospital, still fighting his own demons and trying to find a way to heal his tragic charges. Immensely powerful emotionally, both plays deal with childhood abuse and the effect of unacknowledged trauma: in Murder Club it's the murdered prostitute narrator (brilliantly played by Violet Ryder) who deserves our sympathy while her psychotic killer remorselessly manipulates all around him; in Wilderness it's the murderer himself, self-destructively penitent, who carries that terrible legacy through the American Civil War across the world until on a foggy night in London it catches up with him. Key roles in these dramas were strongly played by Chris Bianchi and Chris Courtney, while Chris Donnelly's Coleman holds every play together with warmth and sensitivity. Set, costumes, and lighting all work really well and direction by Chris Loveless is excellent, bringing out the gothic elements with menace but not melodrama. But undoubtedly the most memorable aspect of all four plays is the scripts, crafted with insight, anger, sadness, and compassion by Steve Hennessy. It's hard to explain how such dark material can be both funny and moving as well as shocking and disturbing - best you go see for yourself: the Lullabies quartet is heading for London's Finborough in September after a month at C Venue in Edinburgh, so lots chances before the end of September!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Monday at the Garden Cafe was the finale for festival Writers penning their pieces in Residence at shops & cafes, with organisers Gordon and Mike hosting and Tricia Wastvedt picking her favourites for prizes. A real treat to hear all these little gems, several of them evoking their venues, like Jenny Gilling's sweetshop reflection: Nostalgia comes in many forms - this time it's in a jar. Popular winners were (in photo-order) Caroline Smailes' lyrical beach reverie, Rosie Finnegan's sassy & brilliantly- read monologue, and Jenny Woodhouse's well-crafted coming-of-age story.

Now life is settling down after the festival flurry and I've had time to transcribe my jottings from this summer's events, here's a mezze of quotes I found inspiring, wise, or just head-noddingly true.
• Exercise is brilliant for creativity. - Debby Holt, novelist
• Humour is vital. It deflates tension, increases desperation, underlines deep sadness. When in deep trouble and sorrow, laughter is all you can do. - Barry Cunningham, publisher
• Lines should not explain the image. We think about sex while we wash up. Line and image should be at variance. - Patrick Sandford, theatre producer.
• The process of poetry is like sculpting an elephant, just chip away everything that isn’t an elephant. - Rosemary Dun, performance poet
• What you leave out is as important as what you put in. - Geoff Holt, writer
• Every sentence must be there for a reason. If it’s not, take it out. - Lorella Belli, agent
• Be fearless. You can terrify yourself with a plan, so just plough on and get to the end. - Matt Graham, screenwriter
• 'There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.' - W.Somerset Maugham, quoted by Steve Voake, author

Laurence Parnell, luthier extraordinaire, gave a brilliant solo concert in the chapel of Wells Cathedral which demonstrated his craftsmanship as well as performance skill - his fretless classical is a thing of moorish beauty as well as sounding fabulous. One especially lovely melancholic melody, Dance, for those who'd rather not, I remember well from Liquid Jam days, when Laurie joined Hazel Stewart and I at poetry performances and we would end our set with a plus-words version, jointly composed. I wanted to embed the Dance tune here but don't know how - any ideas, please? - so will link instead to Laurie's interpretation of Writing with a Knife. Our trio disbanded naturally when Hazel left Frome some years ago, but I can't resist including an image from our promo in those fresh(er)-faced days. Ahh...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Final festival bulletin from Frome, where our revels here are ended... there's been fantastic free music all week, from the Boot Hill All Stars at the food feast and the Critters at the Olive Tree to Emma Harris and fabulous friends at The Cornerhouse.
Nunney Rocks on Sunday duly rocked, especially the amazing voice of Simon Allen. Jill and I walked the three miles there and back, dodging showers, in time for the The Death of Sherlock Holmes scheduled for the Merlin amphitheatre.
Miracle Theatre is one of my favourite touring companies, but sadly the drizzle relocated their performance inside, never a good alternative in my view as without the delightful absurdity of creating an interior world in open space, expansive gestures and voices become charade-style exaggerations. Indoors, shrill is not funny, it's just... shrill. But there was much to enjoy as the cast of five - including brilliant Ben Dyson as Dr Watson - with a variety of props, wigs and jokes about spiritualism, created thirteen characters to evoke the 19th century world of the great detective. In their best moments they achieved this with glorious hilarity but these moments were mostly in the second half, which was faster, smarter, and more inventive. Conan Doyle famously later revoked the death of his hero, and this adaptation uses the clever conceit of introducing the author into the story, outwitted like Moriarty by the craftiness of his own creation. Al Munden's versatile set not only looked good but allowed for full costume changes and some of the best theatrical gags - like the moving train that foils Moriarty and a frenzied puppet fight. And now at least the mystery of why Sherlock Holmes was revived is satisfactorily solved.

So ends probably my best Frome Festival yet, mostly because I got to see so much more of it. I'll conclude with an image from the start of the week, that opening night when the market square was absolutely full of people celebrating summer sunshine and the creativity of our town.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

ABC Day brought eleven Authors of Books for Children for a series of events around the town, including a Library session of Teatime Treats: that popular ABC of activities, books, and cakes. Rachel Ward and Kate Maryon both have new novels out to complete their respective trilogies, and plans for more stories to keep their avid 9-13 year-old readers happy.

Edward Albee's one-act play The Zoo Story is the festival choice of Frome Drama Club, with performances in various venues including, appropriately for a story set on a bench in Central Park, Frome's Victoria Park. Written in the late fifties, this brilliant script, like the best of Raymond Carver's stories, both evokes its era and reaches beyond to existential humanity. Intriguingly, Albee later put a ban on all professional productions of this play and it's now available only to students and amateur companies. Actors Aynsley Minty and Dan Gaisford deserve full marks for engagingly illuminating the loneliness of the human heart.

Scene change to a rainy night in the garden auditorium of Blaise Castle: Oddsocks Productions version of Macbeth promises "something funny this way comes", grabbing gags and giggles from the audience at every available moment - a latecomer greeted by friends is cue for all five actors to dash over demanding a group hug; the obligatory unsilenced mobile and even the persistent downpour become opportunities to heckle the audience in scots accents. The actors dredge the bard's words for humour too, finding knockabout farce in the famous tragedy by fair means or foul. Devices like giving Duncan a lisp and Lady Macbeth arriving apparently via The Only Way Is Essex got the kids laughing but did little for the characters' emotional depth, leaving the show reliant on charisma and clowning through a long, wet, two hours. Luckily the players have plenty of both qualities: Oddsocks Macbeth - like their version of the witches' cauldron - is a trifle, but an honest trifle.

Back now to Frome Festival and the art trail - twentyone venues, more if you include the fringe, as Open Studios. All were differently fascinating, so I'll mention just three for their connection with words: Box Art by Robert Lee on the theme of Novel Images was intriguing - this one's called Tangos Telegrams and Tolstoy ,inspired by The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson. Then a wonderful collection of work in different media at Inside Out where our new local laureate David Davies has been writing alongside the artists ...we are getting smaller / somewhere drifting, somewhere / long, into ever-reaching forward. Beautiful.

Amazing work too at the studio of Ellen Tovey whose 'artist statement' concludes: Inspired by the innumerable elements of the self, my paintings become an exploration of and surrender to the unknown. What better summary of creativity, including writing, could there be?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Festival Poetry Cafe was born on a balmy night in Frome with readings under the stars... and we've had to move indoors ever since, so it was delightful to be once again in the tranquil garden of Garden Cafe for the tenth anniversary of this special occasion: the only Poetry Cafe of the year here which uses words like 'judging' and 'winner'- but, since this is Frome, the 'slam' element is laidback and the atmosphere supportive. This year's laureate, voted from the audience, was David Davies who has been working alongside visual artists in the Open Studios festival trail. Elegantly hosted by this year's organiser, the luscious Muriel Lavender, with a superb guest spot from Gordon Graft whose personal, political, passionate poems go straight to parts others cannot reach.

The big event of the week for me was Lullabies of Broadmoor Upstairs at the Cornerhouse. There's been a huge buzz around these two Stepping Out Theatre productions which Rosie and I booked for a Nevertheless festival special - a pre-Edinburgh premiere Upstairs at the Cornerhouse. Venus at Broadmoor was sold out in advance, and so many of the audience returned for a double-dose of murderous madness that we were completely full for The Demon Box too, with huge applause on both nights for the immensely talented cast, impressive direction, and insightful and incisive scripts.
Both plays travel deep into psychosis, showing effects and suggesting causes, not flinching from the horror but with compassion as well as superb theatricality and surprising humour. Is there a cure for madness? There are no easy answers, either now or in 19th Century Broadmoor, but these stories make a powerful case, and subliminal plea, for love.
Fantastic, brilliant, and amazing were the most frequently used words on the feedback forms: also wonderfully moving and highly emotional... funny and erotic... poetic at times and at times very funny.. Superb script, acting and décor! ... Gloriously theatrical and inventive – lovely set & costumes and VERY well acted... Captivating from the outset, I can’t believe I just got to watch such quality drama for £5!... We will come back again. Frome Rocks!
Congratulations and appreciations to the splendid Chris quartet - Bianchi, Courtenay, Donnelly and director Loveless, to exquisitely ruthless Violet Ryder, to Ann Stiddard for working tardis-magic with the set, and to the imaginative skill of writer-producer Steve Hennessy.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Frome Festival 2011 was officially launched on Thursday night at Rook Lane Chapel, with a chance to enjoy Muriel Lavender performing with her usual panache, the evocative hippy vibe of Morales Watts, and much chatting about the week ahead. Here's Rosie, showing the posters for Lullabies of Broadmoor to theatre-pub landlord Martin Earley and Katy Duke before we set off on a late-night fly-posting expedition.

Saturday morning sees the double invasion from gnomes intent on fishing in Cheap Street's famous leat, and poets declaiming from a Witness Box to random passers-by, while shops and cafés are hosting Writers-in-residence competing to produce a story in a day. Afternoon events include garden tours, art trails, and the delightful Summer Fair in Victoria Park, all blending timewise into the World Food Feast in the market square.

Frome Street Bandits led us into a fabulous evening of free music, and Festival Creative Director Martin Dimery welcomed the Mayor, decked in formal chain, to address to the happy hords congregated in the late evening sunshine. Don't get the impression our lovely mayor always cavorts in public cross-dressed, by the way - his street theatre group SATCO were excessively bearded and in full climbing kit earlier in the day, struggling to ascend Catherine Hill despite avalanches.

Sunday is Writers' and Publishers' day, offering talks, workshops, and one-to-ones with an eye on commercial markets. It's also the day when the Frome Short Story Competition results are revealed, organised by Alison Clink and this year judged by Emma Darwin and Jonathon Lee.
Jonathan, whose book immediately scooped reviewers' accolades and award nominations, feels short stories get a hard time, disagreeing with JG Ballard who suggested they represent "the loose change in the treasury of fiction... an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit." Far from being easier than novels to write, a good short story needs greater skill in order to create a universe in miniature. The winning story, a Belfast teenager's experience of life in a riot-torn city, was movingly read by Gail Thornton-Mason.

Emma Darwin was back at the library in the afternoon, along with fellow novelist Debby Holt, script-writer Matt Graham, and performance poet Rosemary Dun for a writers' Q&A session impeccably hosted by children's author Steve Voake. Questions ranged through planning and editing, grabbing attention, maintaining it through that 'middle dip', and successful pitching, concluding appropriately with the Pros and Cons of being a writer: For Debby: You're never bored - but you're never off duty. Matt suggested 'I have a million stories in my head all the time' in both categories, Rosemary weighed the magic of creating against writer's bum, while Emma finds writing a godlike responsibility - "whether you believe in Him or not, God is a creator."
Fascinating insights, valid advice, and a thoroughly entertaining afternoon.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Memo to self: if ever again going to the Winchester Writers' Conference, avoid staying in the halls of residence. How could I have forgetten the stained beige carpets, scratched tan veneer, mattress like knotted coat-hangers, tiny shared bathrooms with illustrated instructions on disposal of used condoms and sanitory towels blutacked to the door - and this year my basin is clogged with matted hair and what looks like cooked spaghetti, presumably predigested...
And yet, soothed by the benign presence of organiser Barbara Large and supported by her amazing energy, the conference always works a certain magic. Four hundred delegates manage to find their way to their personal choices among the 60 talks and 21 workshops on offer, to pitch their work to their targeted agents and editors, to swap website and facebook details, and to have a stonkingly good time. From directors like Patrick Sandford of Southampton's Nuffield Theatre to student entrepreneurs like Jeffrey Sallkild, everyone shares a passion for words. By Sunday noon there's a distinctly after-the-party atmosphere, empty glasses covering the promotions table and festive balloons faltering in doorways, and a benign feeling of let's-do-it-all-again-next-year prevailing. Among many stimulating and talented people I met I'm delighted to include agent Kate Nash, authors Sophie King and Jane Wenham-Jones - and my great workshop group who decisively confirmed that 'Small is Smart'.
Saturday's full-on day began with 'an electric mix': Geoff Holt whose hugely-praised book Walking on Water tells the story of his solo round-Britain voyage, and publisher Barry Cunningham who will forever, despite the success of Chicken House, be introduced as "the man who discovered JK Rowling." Both men spoke of the importance of valour, and humour, in writing as in life. Setbacks and rejections are 'part of the process'. Inspiring words, and a great insight from Barry on the special skill required in publisher's marketing departments: it's fear of the unknown.

Meanwhile Frome is limbering up for festival, and for the first time in eleven years I'm not on the organising team so I'm really looking forward to participating as a punter. There's a terrific programme of music as well as all the Words events - and Nevertheless Productions has teamed up with Bristol's Stepping Out Theatre to bring Lullabies of Broadmoor Upstairs at the Cornerhouse (or the Lamb to those who keep forgetting about the name-change) for a pre-Edinburgh premiere showing.
It's a revival of a double bill The Independent acclaimed as "powerfully performed... a piquant mix of witty Gothic ghoulishness and serious questioning.. absorbing and atmospheric... plays that remind you why intimate fringe venues can touch parts other theatres can’t. Steve Hennessy’s entertaining script revels in macabre surrealism tempered by shrewd psychology and historical research”
All this for just a fiver, starting at 8pm so plenty of time for a drink too. Booking is through the Cheese&Grain (01373 455420, and highly recommended - Rosie and I are delighted to see the first night's nearly sold out already!