Friday, December 30, 2011

Bristol Old Vic main stage is still off-limits while refurbishment trundles on and, having seen some cracking productions in their tiny studio this season, I wanted to see their main event too – Coram Boy, staged in 2000-capacity Colston Hall. This is a revival of a show that began life at the National six years ago then crossed to Broadway where it was mauled by the critics. Muddled, preposterous and not much fun are some of the kinder epithets among reviews including more specific objections like "You could call it Dickensian if Dickens wrote in clich├ęs and didn’t give a tuppence about characterisation” and, simpler if less literary, "It’s torture." Make your own mind up time, I thought, so I went along.
It's long - nearly three hours. During the interval the woman sitting next to me scoured her programme notes declaring 'we must have missed something, there's got to be a basic plot.' There was indeed a kind of central core within this vast flurry of duplicity, all double-cast to show the passage of years, which for me was defined in the words of Mrs Lynch, one of the minor villains: "All wealth is based on the suffering of others."
This is an era of opulence and degradation, the line between them thin as a hymen, or a noose. On the one side Thomas Coram, benefactor and child-saver: on the other wicked Otis who pretends to act for him but buries the babies and pockets the money. Even rescued children aren't safe really, as kind Mr Coram can't prevent them being kidnapped and shipped off to a Turkish harem. These are just some of the sub-plots - the basic plot, missus, is the double quest for a lost son, leading to a double reunion at the end. Hallelujah, Hallelujah, as Handel might say - and indeed did, appearing in a small cameo role to conduct the ending. All clear?
Coram Boy delivers a full orchestra, little choir boys, gorgeous Georgian costumes, high-energy action scenes, morally-aware social commentary, and birth-to-death dramatic scope: what’s not to enjoy? And I did enjoy, but on a very modest scale considering the vast casts and complexity of sets. It was partly the panto-style simplicity of the script, so every character stayed 2-dimensional, and partly an uncomfortable feeling that the real passion at the heart of this production was filling a large auditorium with paying punters. I couldn't imagine any one of these highly competent actors, directors, and technicians, actually aching to communicate this story to an audience, and to me that's what theatre should be. Personal and vulnerable beats slick and spectacular every time.
Within a couple of hours I was at the Watershed watching another intensely violent tale - Almodovar's monstrously beautiful The Skin I Live In , which to say anything about would be to spoil - except that this film showed the cruelty of obsession and the pain of loss in a way absolutely opposite to the play I'd just seen: frenzied and viscerally painful but deeply important to its creator.

So now would be a good time to do a review-of-the-year but I can't remember back that far so I'll just do a little list of things I've most enjoyed this Christmas:
~ the day itself, with my children and my children's children,
~ celebrations with friends - round solstice fire, at parties and in town,
~ prosecco with christmas stockings at Emily's,
~ crazy dressing-up day with Macfadyens,
~ how mild it's been!
~ unexpected discovery, on a Longleat walk, that the estate had been transformed into a winter wonderland with reindeer, and iceskating, and festive stalls and an amazing constantly-changing illuminated 'Singing Tree' sending the sound of carols through the woodlands.
~ Doctor Who Christmas Special!
~ fantastic live music at the Cornerhouse,
~ minced pies and mulled wine at the Garden Cafe...
~ Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows - fabulous cinematography, great acting, clever script.
~ decorations in streets and homes, lighting up midwinter like it always has been ever since there's been people and long before electricity or gospels since our galaxy is only one of millions and billions.....

Oh, and turkey of the holiday season: BBC's much hyped Great Expectations - aptly named for its intriguing indigo-toned previews but turning out to be an uninteresting and self-conscious adaptation disturbingly miscast, Estella more like the elder Miss Bingley and Pip looking in every shot like he'd rather be auditioning for a retro boy band. Luckily HIGNFY and the Ab Fab girls were on the other channel!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Among a plethora of pantomimes, The French Detective and the Blue Dog by Hattie Naylor is the delightfully-different seasonal production at The Egg in Bath, where the ovoid stage is transformed into a quaint street in pre-invasion Belgium. Enter the famous Parisian Inspector Charcuterie (brilliantly played with Jacques Cluseau hang-dog expression and ‘Allo ‘Allo accent by Chris Bianchi), off on holiday with his assistant mini-sleuth Minette, child genius and self-styled niece. The musical is full of jolly songs like "Let's solve the murder NOW!" but they don't get beyond the opening number before the first victim hits the stage, followed by most of the rest of this village where everyone is a secret circus performer. “There is no greater tragedy than not being able to do the thing you love, that’s why we’re all so hopeless at our jobs” says Fe-fe le Knife profoundly. Deeper than the clowning and comedy, the story touches movingly on human needs: Minette’s solo “I’ll be on my own again”, as her idiotic pseudo-uncle falls besottedly for Madame Spaniel and abandons his little charge, is real lump-in-the-throat time. 12-year old Flossie Ure, who took this key role on the performance I saw, was sensational in both her singing and her stage presence.
Billed as a family show for 6-and-upwards, younger children are unlikely to appreciate the Franglais Midsomer-Murders parodies but vibrant acting, superb script, and fabulous production values carry the show triumphantly through two hours with even the littlies (mostly) gripped. Rapid costume changes and clever props helped a marvellous trio (John Biddle, Paul Mundell, and Jessica Pidsley) create a medley of Belgian misfits and the nail-biting finale is sensational – it would be a spoiler to reveal how dazzling is the circus trick that ends the show.
The programme calls this a ‘world premiere’ which suggests it may travel – it certainly deserves to, but don’t chance it – go along to Bath before January 8th and be ready for much mirth and the odd sniffle.

So here we are, another Christmas. I hope you're having a good one as I write this, and have recycled all the bottles & gift wrappings and made-up all the rows by the time you read this. The year we called 2011 and messed up so thoroughly is nearly finished - time for a new one, box-fresh and shiny. Try and keep it clean this time...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Until a few weeks ago, my mental image of 'the Canary Islands' was rowdy bars and rows of loungers on black sand. I'd never heard of La Gomera, reached by ferry from western side of Tenerife. So if your geography is as shaky as mine, you might like to know the total population of this 2-million-year dormant volcano is slightly less than that of Frome, and most of this tiny circular island is covered with one of the oldest natural forests of the world.
You can walk deep into the laurel 'cloud forest' with moss thick as hoarfrost on every branch, you can climb literally out of the clouds into brilliant blue sky again at the top of the rocks, and an hour's walk will take you through eco-systems varying from dense pine forest to near-barren rocks polka-dotted with cactus and aloe vera.
Every turn in the hairpin-roads brings vistas to make you gasp, from the hikers' paradise of Garajonay National Park right down to the palm fringed bays 1450 metres below.
And then you drive back along the narrow mountain road past rural settlements painted moorish colours of cinamon and gold, a route that becomes daily more familiar - there's the goats, there's the bar with the bougainvillea - there's our house, in the middle of Chejelipes, as Madness might sing.

And the apartment was utterly astounding. A picky person might take issue with the broken cooker and paucity of light bulbs, but there's a coffee-machine and a fridge, and what I'll always remember is the panoramic window giving amazing views right down the valley, high above the reservoir where hawks circle slowly in sheer blue sky in the morning and at night the moon rose slowly above craggy distant hills.
Which brings me back to lounging beside black sand, which after 2 or 3 - or even 5 - hours of strenuous walking seems a grand idea, when beer comes in frosted glasses and all you can think is: it's December, and it's 23 degrees!
So I've just spent a week of my life without wifi or internet access, and mostly without mobile signal. But I've seen dolphins and exotic plants and primeval forests and incredible rock formations in sunshine and mist, in places I could never have imagined and places I'll never forget...

Back in the real world, there was a festive feel in the air at Words&Ears Poetry night in Bradford-on-Avon on Monday, so thanks to Frome posse - Rose, Alison, and Rosie - for so brilliantly supporting my guest spot. For an angelic footnote: click here then Programmes and scroll down to Dec 18th Seeing Things - A Week of Angels for David Chandler's programme on FromeFM featuring some of the great poets of Frome.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

So now it's December there's no holding back the encroaching of spangles and jingles and festive tingles. I joined the throng on Catherine Hill for Sunday's Artisan market, where Marian Bruce's studio was offering winter stabling for the SCRAPTORS horse while delicious fare and delectable fairings were selling like hot punch all along the cobbles.

On Monday night we went Into the Wardrobe for the final Frome Poetry Cafe of the year: our annual Merlin Christmas Show Special with theatre tickets for 'best' readings inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Making the selection was Mayor Nick White - appropriately an actor himself.
"Just fantastic - really brilliant" was his overall verdict on the fabulous range of performances, from sultry wintry magic from Rose Flint to festive sauciness with Muriel Lavender and Liv Torc, and some moving personal pieces as well as lashings of wicked wit around the theme. Nick's final pick went to Alison Clink's quirky musings on Narnia and Phyllis Higgins' cautionary tale of an impressionable child who would try it at home, although "I explained to her that household furniture/ Seldom conceals an other world aperture..."

And with two writing circles in one day, my writers' year ends in a plethora of chocolate, Prosecco, and fascinating readings and discussions. There'll be more celebrations of course, but I'll miss some of them as I'm away next week - but I'll be back for Words & Ears Poetry Cafe at Bradford on Avon. Be there, as they say, or be elsewhere...

Saturday, December 03, 2011

November 2011 was one of the warmest on record, according to BBC weather website, but for me it's always the month of what my friend Bob Paterson calls 'toxic nostalgia'. This year I followed Kenji Miyazawa's theory "we must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey": encouraged by a supportive writing circle I'm dipping, episodically, into the past, and with the help of a friend with a loft ladder I retrieved my boxes of attic-abilia for embrace and burning. And I've spent the last two days of the month in and around Newton Abbott, where my grandparents lived, revisiting the coast and moors that were such a big part of my childhood and adult life. Lovely dawns and dusks over the river Teign, watery sun and bleak wind for out-of-season Teignmouth, and howling King-Lear-mad-scene-meets-Ken-Russell's-Gothic storm on Haytor Down. I stood watching the rain blowing in jagged torrents, eating downpour with every gasp, with the past clinging to my skin closer than my saturated jeans, remembering the final words of AA Milne's last story about his son: So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his bear will always be playing.

Back in the present tense, Keep Frome Local celebrated its first birthday at the Granary with brilliant live music from, among others, Indigo Children (with a fabulous cover of Ed Sheeran's You need me but I don't need you), Al O'Kane, and ever-excellent Leander Morales. With typical Frome eccentricity, organiser Tim O'Connor decided a bit of poetry would go down well mid-evening and, as Rosie Jackson, Rose Flint and I discovered, it actually did. Tim in his MC role was mindful of venue Health-and-Safety regulations, opening the event with the reminder "If you see a fire: huddle round it, it gets chilly in the evenings..."

The Surprise of Love, written by Marivaux in 1722 and currently playing at the Ustinov, is a deceptive piece: an apparent confection of gorgeous costumes and witty mockery of aristocratic emotional self-indulgence in the Olivia/Orsino tradition – you can almost hear Shakespearean fairies muttering ‘Lord what fools these mortals be’ just off the exquisitely painted set. But in this masterly new translation by Mike Alfreds, an entertaining Harlequinade of multiple courtships becomes a set of knots worthy of RD Laing as the characters tie themselves into psychological insecurities that classic philosopher Hortensius is powerless to unravel. The Marquise is a young widow in love with her own romantic grief, until her bereaved neighbour the Chevalier arrives full of the importance of his own despair. I believe I have an obligation to you, to compensate you for the loss of my husband's friendship, she promptly decides, with glazed eyes an inch from his face.
It’s significant, perhaps, that the nobles are named only by their status: their servants, smart Lisette and honest Lubin, are the ones with emotional insight, though only ‘audience privilege’ gives the full picture. And as we wait for all to end predictably, the ‘twist’ isn't that the inevitable coupling fails to occur, it’s that the path to this outcome becomes not a rose-strewn comedy but a painfully dark passage of jealousy and rage with others hurt on the way. Perhaps the surprise of love is that we are never ready for its pain.

Strong direction by Laurence Boswell and a splendid cast make this a great finale to the autumn season trilogy of European classics – and Ustinov studio theatre is the perfect venue, the stage confined enough for side walls to become boundaries and props to fretful petulance, and all seats close enough for us to be mesmerised every expression of emotion transparently played by a marvellous cast, especially luminous Laura Rees as the Marquise.

There's a weird footnote to the attic clearance mentioned above - in fact so weird I still don't know how to write about it. Briefly, we discovered another box, a previous resident - a coffin-sized box containing a white lace wedding dress which, as if its presence alone wasn't Miss-Haversham enough, was stained with something dark red, mysteriously sticky at the centre. I blogged earlier in November about the poetry workshop reminding me of writing for Marian Bruce's fallen angels, and here now in my house was graphic debris that could have belonged to the Angel Bride, whose artless love poems contrasted with her whispered dreams as she lies alone and desolate in the forest.
I re-read the words I'd imagined for her dreams: Last night I dreamed I went to the place where I had hidden my wings. I had packed them carefully but as I began to unwrap them I found the coverings had been bleeding. I unwound and unwound for a long time, and the wrappings became like sodden bandages.
"One of those life-changing moments when we encounter ourselves, and know that we've moved on" suggested Pippa Howell, reviewing this staged installation in 2003. Let's hope so.