Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Sex" announces Muriel, rehearsing randomly for her solo gig at The Bell in Buckland Dinham. The rehearsal was hilarious though I was in Bristol on Thursday so missed her much-acclaimed performance of poetry and wit burlesque-style, but there will be more... Muriel emerged from the Poetry Platter night at the Merlin, so I am of course claiming to be her chrysalis-unzipper, but - of course - Muriel Lavender is her own exclusively marvellous self and will continue to be so.

The reason I was in Bristol was Word of Mouth, BOV's monthly spoken word showcase, compered by Byron Vincent and therefore unmissable. There's only one thing funnier than the eccentricity of Byron Vincent's animated diatribes against social absurdities like X-factor and social network messaging, and that's his delivery. I start giggling as soon as he shambles onstage talking, only controlling my chortles so's not to miss some querulous gem like the atheist preacher who buggered belief and the maniac who married a hobnob with two kids eaten by ghosts, or his extended family alighting on facebook like a swarm of semantically challenged locusts... (any more and I'd be spoilering you...)
Byron's intros make a hard act to follow, but the main show, Tim Clare's Death Drive, lived up to the Edinburgh festival hype. The title links a suicidal impulse ruined by parental intervention ("like dancing, seeing your Dad attempt something you want to do is not cool") with Freud, and a moral emerging somewhere between a psychic horse and the stain on the ceiling from the dead man upstairs: time is longer than hope, and longer than sadness too. Tim Clare has an engaging confidence and a ukelele: his story is a funny, tragic, reflective, mix of interactive banter and breathtakingly lyrical poetry.

As a vigorous and vocal anti-royalist I had no more intention of seeing The King's Speech than watching William's forthcoming nuptials but a recent viewing of A Single Man on DVD changed my mind. Isherwood's tender, intimate, study of lonely grief, I felt, could not transfer to screen and especially not with Colin Darcy Firth playing the main character. How wrong I was, and this is now one of my favourite movies: script succinct, acting impeccable, and visuals, for tonal range alone, stunning. So to give my prejudices another dunking I joined the queues for this massively hyped docudrama.
I'm quite glad I did. Colin Firth apparently ached physically after his scenes as voice-throttled Prince Bertie, and it's not hard to see why - or to see why the O-word clings tight as a tic in all talk of his performance. But the most adamant republican need not fear filmic fawning: this cold, bullying, dysfunctional family is shown as unequivocally inadequate to be the crowning glory of any society with aspirations of humanity. Audiences seeking fairytale rapport between prince and commoner would be disappointed: far more cleverly, what we were shown was that the king's momentous speech about The War was nothing to do with Hitler ("I don't know what he's saying, but he's doing it jolly well" stutters the Bertie enviously) and everything to do with his own personal enemies - his unforgiving childhood and his stifling larynx. I give it a worthy 3 stars.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Another week in theatreland: a reading at the Ustinov of Kate Mitchell's new play about the impact of autism on parents (divisive, especially if the therapist is useless) followed by a meeting there of the SWNWN, the group that sounds like a long sneeze whatever way you say it. The need for a broad spectrum of ecology featured, with much talk about it and about, as Omar Khayam might say (the poet not the bomber); and as convener Frances Macadam pointed out, networking is the main point of a scriptwriters' meeting.

Bristol Ferment has simmered down, with the next show-case of local writing not till the summer. I caught another couple of these very varied presentations: the most polished was The Morpeth Carol produced by Sleepdogs,Timothy X Attack’s quirky, funny, moving, fairy story – unseasonal but would be fabulous on radio next Christmas. It’s the tale of a ten-year-old who meets santa which may sound whimsy it’s not, it’s tough talk from the first image of a crashlanded sledge and burning reindeer. This is not a jolly bearded gent, this is a fallen god of the tragic-greek variety. He doesn’t know where he’s landed, but he can empathise with a bullied child, and hotwire a Peugeot too. Nice one, as ten-year old Harry would say. “The universe is a terrible place, that’s a fact", don’t-call-me-Santa tells his new elfin guide as they hurtle from the carcases to deliver the presents, "but it’s not an important fact." Excellent audio effects, and the images created by a great script glowed a long time after.
And later the same night: Guy Dartnell hopes his work in progress Something or Nothing will be more of the former by the end, and having seen an earlier more polished version with lighting, I’m quite sure it will.

Exciting news of the week for me and Rosie Finnegan is that preparations for FOUR IN A BED are now underway! Nothing at all to do with naughty Tracey Emin's slutty artwork (but I'm sure she won't mind me nicking the image, until we get our own), this is a Nevertheless/Bootleg co-production of four short plays, two by Rosie and two by me, each of which feature - yes you got it. A bed. We haven't actually got one yet, but are hoping to borrow a sturdy single bed that will fit in the company's van, since after our launch Upstairs at the Lamb, the show will tour to Salsbury and beyond. If you live anywhere near Frome, put March 10th 11th and 12th in your diary, rustle up a posse of friends, and prepare to be tickled, touched, and generally highly entertained.

Finally... I don't usually buy newspapers, preferring to browse online find a café comp, but over the last few weeks I've been grabbing the wonderful on a near-daily basis. Content is slightly skewed to the twiterati, I grant you, but all the news opinion of the day, succinctly splayed, for twenty pee... I rest my case.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Before Rodgers & Hammerstein straddled the Hollywood musical world, there was another combo: Rodgers and Hart. I learnt that this week from a Salsbury Playhouse Production called With a Song In My Heart, a superbly smooth presentation of thirty songs from different shows, linked by succinct script by David Benedict which gave poignant insight into this creative but difficult partnership. Richard Rodgers was just 16 when he met young Larry Hart and recorded “I acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a permanent irritation.” The 'mismatch made in heaven' broke down after three years, but in that time they wrote prolifically and with enormous innovative energy. Salisbury's Salberg Studio, with its slightly clubby feel, made an ideal venue for this project and the audience were all clearly charmed by the songs and their performers: Gillian Bevan taking the feisty roles, Julie-Alanah Brighten the winsome one, Joel Karie the American smoothie, and Glyn Kerslake both singing and playing the piano with amazing verve throughout the entire show. A class act, though I've probably heard enough songs from musicals for 2011 now.

Bristol is in Ferment, theatrically speaking. Ferment is the artist-development strand of Bristol Old Vic, introduced by events organiser Sharon Clark as 'ideas in motion.' Audience response is part of the process, so we're there not to appraise as finished work but to envisage how these scripts could develop to full theatricality. It feels an exciting privilege, like being shown a baby-scan - ooh, there's the head, and it's got little legs....
Only, written and read by Adam Peck, is an autobiographical monologue in confessional style, filled with colourful characters and never far from either poignancy or humour. Adam touches on romantic rejections, parental desertion, mortality, and a grandad who smells of porridge and pee and prunes, all with the same delicate ruthlessness of authentic recollection, especially the moments with his nonexistent brother who is the only person this 'only' can confide in. Fine writing and an endearing performance, which interestingly explored both intimacy with the audience and movement in time. Interesting too that the aspect that worked least well for me - hauling chairs out of the crowded auditorium - was not directorial intrusion but an integral part of the initial concept. Perhaps this would have worked better if the BOV basement hadn't been totally crowded out, but that in itself is big credit to Adam, whose play Bonnie and Clyde put him in the spotlight last year and has now transferred to London.
Another autobiographical piece, Byron Vincent's JellyHead, was top of my must-see list but sadly this brilliantly anarchic performer had to cancel due to illness. Instead I went to see The Peace, a monologue by Natalie McGrath in the voice of Mo Mowlam. Petrol bombs light up the night sky. How does anyone get used to it? It's a long time since I left Northern Ireland and I had mixed feelings at the start but this wasn't ultimately really about politics, more about being a woman in a man's world, struggling ill-health as well as prejudices. The glimpse of Blair - "the ego has landed- and he wants a medal" - was satisfying thoug anachronistic for 1998 Peace Process days, but overall this was a strikingly lyrical script sensitively read by Sophie Stanton.

Thanks to the Big Arts Give,
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory has expanded this year for the new season which features Richard II and A Comedy of Errors. As director Andrew Hilton said at the media launch, these plays seem to have little in common but their connection is the theme of identity. Richard II is my all-time favourite play since I first saw it at the Old Vic in London as an emo teenager and the rages and lamentations of the rejected king plucked histrionic chords in my heart. I'm hugely looking forward to this new production with John Heffernan as Richard and from the enthusiasm at the Mint Hotel today, so are the rest of the cast.

It's been a dramatic week all round. Niamh led another successful performance workshop this week, with great participant feedback, as Stage Write Café presents Dressing Up Box at the Merlin is growing closer... book your tickets and tapas supper now!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Stay out of Somerset. They don't like writers there. That's the opening of the lead feature in Mslexia this month on SCC's ' institutional philistinism' - as writer Celia Brayford understatedly calls it - in axing the entire arts budget. How does it feel to live in a county nationally shamed for indifference to both culture and community? Not good. The irony is that as well as enormously enriching, creativity isn't even costly - as Celia points out, a toll booth on the road to Worthy Farm collecting a quid from every festival-goer would cover the entire budget. And then there's the onslaught on the Libraries: 24 out of 30 in Somerset to go. I was one of the team outside Sainsbury's this Saturday collecting signatures on the petition against the closures, and public support was heartening so maybe this at least is one battle we can win. If you live in Somerset, and haven't signed the petition yet, please do.

So with the future of books in continued jeopardy, where do you stand on the e-book? Not literally, of course, you'd break your Kindle. But this highly contentious issue isn't going away, as the editorial of the new issue of The Author - journal of Society of Authors, our trade union - acknowledges.
Will the boom in e-books lead to more people reading or simply siphon readers away from the print? is the anxious question. There's one note of encouragement on the letters page, from author Stewart Ross: Following the discussion on e-books at the Society's AGM, I asked children in several schools I visited, would you prefer to have all your books on one electronic reader or as lots of separate paper books? Answer overwhelmingly (with teaching staff alone in their dissent) was in favour of the former. Clearly the next generation do not share our sentimental attachment to crushed trees - or perhaps they don't share our mistrust of technology?

Also mistrusting the democracy of technology is newspaper columnist of the year (1995) Andrew Marr, who has been reflecting on citizen journalism. "A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting." (Not a big fan of writerly solidarity, then, Andrew?) This is the month I officially join the cauliflower-nosed tribe, as I'm continuing my blog but concluding my regular column in Writing Magazine. It was back in 1994 when I submitted, on spec, the first Good Practice piece - deconstructing a short extract of published prose to show why it works then suggesting a related writing exercise. 17 years is long enough for any formula, and now my personal passion has shifted from fiction to stage drama, I'm looking forward to being able to read for relaxation again, without any analytic agenda.

And as this has been a rather wordy posting, let's liven things with an image: Stourhead last Sunday - frost on the grass but a promise of better days ahead.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year. It's traditional, I know, but sometimes that's ok.
I'm still looking back on a 'festive break' - ok, let's call it Christmas - packed with good things with family and friends: feasts and fizz, games and quizzes, walks and dancing... and now the sudden thaw has become as familiar as the long freeze, here's hoping we all achieve those wishes sent into the midnight sky in blazing lanterns.