Friday, September 30, 2011

Sometimes a community event comes together exactly as you hoped, to create a special & extraordinary shared experience. That's what happened at the Merlin on Thursday night. Hyperbole? Maybe, but that sentiment was buzzing among the audience at our Poetry Platter special, where Elvis McGonagall entertained for over an hour on a stage atmospherically transformed into a bistro.
Elvis was on top form, ricocheting from political passion to outrageous comedy in a single stanza. Cameron, Clegg and Jeremy Clarkson were popular targets with the audience, but the bitingly funny, and biting, assaults are on policies as well as personalities - economic and social injustices, and international war. Operation Undying Conflict, very different in tone from the parodies that had us helpless with laughter, is packed with shocking fact and imagery right through to the angry end.
And now Elvis has left the building.... big thanks to all the marvellous Merlin people, and Nicki for the delicious suppers, and Noah for fantastic lighting effects; to Liv Torc and Chris Redmond for a superb support act, to the King himself of course and to YOU, if you came, for doubling our intended sell-out capacity and having a rip-roaring time.

Writers of Frome have been meeting on Wednesday mornings at Alison's house since the ending of the summer 'Bootcamp'at Frances' house. Now these sessions too are ending, with a closing party of cake and readings in the garden. Happily, plans are already afoot for solstice rendezvous.

So as the promised Indian summer arrives and the southwest sizzles in high-20s temperatures, what better place to be than at the seaside? Coasting at the Bristol Old Vic, set at the end of a pier somewhere in the 80s, is a new play by Natalie McGrath developed over the last two years with support from two producers and a dramaturg/director. It's a tense and turbulent piece set in a dark and sulphurous place more like Hades than Hove, with three damaged characters who dialogue together in a kind of dysfunctional Dada style, as though their thoughts have been chopped up and scattered on the beach before utterance. There's Ocean, who is vulnerable, brutal, and beautifully-played by Tom Wainwright; troubled gay policewoman Falcon, and Pearl who looks great for her hoodie-urchin role and speaks in curious sub-Shakespearean dialect, referring to herself in the third person like Lady Gaga. There was much to enjoy on press night - the foyer tattoo parlour, interval fish'n'chips, & stairway acapella performance of Perfect Day - and it's great to see experimental work being developed, but I found this piece overlong and inaccessible. Others were more appreciative, claiming recognition of both location and dialect (it's apparently a mix of 1950s gay slang, hip-hop & 80's pop): The Guardian' reviewer Lynn Gardner echoes some of my reservations but values the "distinctive timbre of McGrath's voice and a real ability to capture the dead-fly desolation and bruised end-of-season melancholy of a place where survival requires the growth of a disguising skin." It's on till October 15th.

I hadn't heard of Israeli singer Tally Koren until she decided to celebrate her album 72 Names with a competition for poems of 72 words and selected my submission for second prize and a mention in her Youtube - it's quite a long speech, she misquotes my name rather charmingly around 10 minutes in. If you want to read my 72 words, scroll to October's 'poem of the month' on the right hand side.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Salisbury's Bootleg Theatre brought their current touring production 15 Minutes of Fame to Frome's Cornerhouse this week. Excellent performances from Stewart Taylor as a small-time pusher moonlighting as a therapist in the Glastonbury healing field, and from producer Colin Burdon as a self-deluded ex-footballer, but my personal highlight was Rosie Finnegan's authentic account of her meeting with Arthur Miller in The Last Night Party.

Britain's Tree Story is a beautifully produced compilation of pictures and tales from around the country by Julian Hight (aka Bugs from popular local band Bugs and the Collaborators) elegantly published by National Trust.
Julian was at Hunting Raven bookshop on Saturday morning signing copies for an avid queue of admiring buyers, and the book is already collecting 5-star reviews on amazon... well ok, one of them is mine but it is genuine and completely unsolicited.

Saturday was carnival night, always a spectacular display of community creativity, flamboyant costumes, time-trecking music tracks, and floats with historical tableaux like the little-known dinosaur spear-war era...
Inevitably there'll be protest letters in the local paper (wattage waste, child exploitation, ladies purporting to poo on loos) but you'd have to be a real curmudgeon not to enjoy this wonderful parade, the whole town celebrating with liquid light wands and wigglers and pints in hand as dusk darkens on a balmy night. Best entry for me this year: Big Heads, led in style by Frome Street Bandits.

Carnivals like this are exclusively a south-west phenomena, but the Cobble Wobble is specific to Frome: more than 200 cyclists of all ages & attire sprinting up a long hill of steep cobbles. On Sunday afternoon Catherine Hill was completely lined with cheering crowds as costumed characters competed with sound-barrier-breaking speed freaks who stormed the 164 metres from a standing start in little over 20 seconds.
Here's mayor Nick, whose chain of office was - like several bike chains - a casualty of the struggle,

one of the leader group and a duck
and some random entrants awaiting their turn.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Frome TV is not just a top-class media outfit, they know how to throw a party too... Jade, Ed and the crew took over the Garden Cafe on a fortuitously mild Sunday night, and crammed it with people having a good time while entertaining us with projected programmes about other good times. Here's the scene at dusk, just before all the twinkly lights came on, and Nigel with Matt Graham, creator of Life on Mars and thus inspiration for that louche and loudmouthed pin-up Gene Hunt... sigh...
(best quote of the series:
Sam Tyler: You're an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.
Gene: You make that sound like a bad thing.)

This week Bath, ever mindful of its Georgian heritage, has been wearing its pokes and bonnets (literally) with especial flamboyance: it's the annual Jane Austen Festival, with opportunities to dine and dance like a Regency belle, to Rummage through the Reticule, or even make your own (it's a small drawstring bag, in case you were wondering). Drawingroom Theatricals at the Mission Theatre featured the special Austen powers of of Pride and Prejudice, opening with Rosie Finnegan’s witty contemporary take on this famous tale with a thoroughly modern Lizzie at the ironing-board musing on her rocky road to romance. Arsey-Darcy, as she reminds herself she should no longer call him, made his first wooing overture by waylaying her tumbling tin of tomatoes outside Waitrose. Lizzie remained underwhelmed until her visit to Centreparcs with her aunt and uncle, where they coincide in the Subtropical Paradise. “Darcy and I went down the outdoor rapids a few times” she confides. Cleverly - even though social references are transposed to an era of predictive text - Lizzie’s personality, the sisterly relations and motherly vulgarity, all remain delightfully recognisable.

Aardvark Productions. followed with their own novel interpretation: two actors undertook to play all the key P&P characters aided only by gesture, expression, movement, and a slightly scary puppet. Oh, and the audience. We were required to play the weather (often exceptionally stormy), to flutter our programmes bashfully at the balls, and to urge Elizabeth into refusal or acceptance of her suitors. Naturally the opportunity to radically rewrite this seminal text inspired a certain amount of over-excitement, causing Lizzie to scold exasperatedly ‘Have you not read the book?’. The script was funny (Mr Darcy’s stilted proposal:”Thought I’d run it up the flagpole, see if anyone salutes”) and the adlibs funnier. Aardvark apparently specialise in children’s history shows, I wish we’d had that sort of teaching when I was at school.

Also in Bath this week: The Poetry Business celebrated its 25th anniversary upstairs at the BLSI with the Bath Poetry Cafe in an evening of readings from 15 local poets and two special guests: Poetry Business promoter Allison McVety and indefatigable event organiser & pamphlet competition winner Sue Boyle.
In a tightly organised first half we heard work of an impressively high standard, with Allison picking four 'winners', for their performance and poems: Rosie Jackson, Dawn Gorman, Rose Flint, and Jay Arr - all friends of mine so I'm especially delighted.
Sue read from her stunning new collection Wintering in Rome, a city she finds reminds her of mortality and the brevity of life. An inspirational evening.

Final footnote: Apologies are funny things. They can be a bit like trying to wipe up splashed ketchup, every attempt seems to spread the damage, and while it's easy to say sorry to someone who's stepped on your shoe it can be tricky when you have a real reason. Which is why I quite admire the personal apology from Johann Hari last week, to his bosses, his enemies, his friends, and a lot of total strangers. He's also returned his George Orwell Prize and signed up to learn how to be a proper responsible journalist who doesn't make up quotes and stories. No quips about facing a lonely future there, please. He gives some useful writing tips while tugging on his hair shirt too. It's not all forgive-and-forget yet, though, as you'll find if you google David Rose (his mendacious pen-name) - The Telegraph finds his dishonesty is 'magnificently strange' while their readers take the view he's 'a pompous, sanctimonious, self-serving, thieving, duplicitious, little prick', but 'all left wing people are stark staring mad. And most are crooks as well.' And so the debate rumbles on...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Thirty years before One Day stormed the book world with its a missed-opportunities love story spanning fifty years, A R Gurney had done just that - poignancy, nostalgia, empathy and all, in a slimmer and more elegant package. Love Letters tells its tale through the correspondence of an American couple at college in 1937 who continue to chart their dreams and disappointments until the late 1980s. New Yorker Albert Ramsdell G was born in 1930 himself so ideally placed for the dry social observation which is the strength of this simple concept, ensuring characters engage and the ending is moving without being sentimental. Admirably uncluttered direction by Derek Fowlds and excellent performances – especially Alison Farina’s luminous Melissa - in a Butterfly Psyche production of great charm, sadly only on for two nights at the Rondo or I'd urge you all to go.
(Derek btw was one of the mainstays of Yes Minister in his role as private secretary Bernard and hosted the best New Year party I ever went to...)

Back in Frome, urging is appropriate: the new exhibition at Rook Lane Chapel Blue II has a fascinating collection of multi-media art until the end of the month. Coordinator Carolyn Griffiths was inspired by an 18th Century 'dye recipe' book from old Wallbridge Mill (also on display): 'it's the trade secrets of these craftsmen' she says, 'part of the cultural and creative heritage of Frome.'
My favourite pieces are the porcelain poetry books by Pauline Watson, some even with pages you can turn.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Esme Ellis hosted the launch of her latest book Dreaming Worlds Awake at her Combe Down home on Sunday, providing warm hospitality as well as a fascinating insight into the creative journey of this reflection on synchronicity in our lives. For me it was also a chance to catch up with some Bath & Bristol writer friends & hear some great poetry - here's Skip reading a piece inspired by Brian Patten. A sculpture student in the crucible 1950s, Esme remembers furore over Epstein's 'obscene, brutish' works: Jacob, assaulted by an angel in this 1940 alabaster piece, is one of the voices in her book and Esme also includes a poem I wrote at the same time, without knowing about her reflections.
Jacob meets the angel
I didn’t know what to expect – well, would you?
An angel descending suddenly, heavily,
wings like tombstones, dishevelled hair, staring eyes.
A gargoyle on acid he looked, this heavenly apparition.
He swung like a wrecking ball towards me,
clung to me, clouting my thigh. I almost fell, and he held me,
his stony arms grasping, his huge legs buckled under me.
I should have felt pain, but I didn’t. I felt sustained.
It was what I had always wanted. Maimed, and claimed.

Poetry & a Pint at St James' Vault on Monday night found itself in scheduling conflict with the opening of Bristol Poetry Festival, but Stroud poet Adam Horovitz validated my channel choice with readings from his new book Turning. His poems are both tender and shrewd: they delicately normalise the raw painfulness of life and loss, Carol Ann Duffy, who puts things better than me, reviewed this collection as 'physical language of scrupulous integrity'.

Back in Frome, for crouching theatre, hidden talent... Nevertheless Productions pounces once again in November with a performance with the working title Agony Ecstasy and Gin Sling - ok that will change - which will introduce Lady Philadelphia de Courcey to an unsuspecting audience. Let's hope everyone's ready...

Finally: Art with attitude at the Silk Mill gallery: ecological attitudes and sexual politics tersely challenged in a surprisingly alluring exhibition, on till 25th September. Recommended.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Last week was officially the end of military repatriations to ceremonial applause from thousands who have flocked to watch 167 bodies pass through the streets of Wootton Bassett since 2007. Bristol Old Vic's Young Company has collaborated with the National Theatre to examine the part this ceremony plays in our national psyche, as observed by the town's teenagers. Writer James Graham and director Anthony Banks talked to local pupils about how the situation impacted on a generation barely school age at the time of 9/11, which celebrates its tenth birthday on Sunday.

Creating a performance from this project has two main challenges: to create credible differentiation between thirteen Year-11(ish) pupils without 2-dimensionalising, and even more importantly, to distill discussion into essential theatricality. For me Bassett succeeded brilliantly. The young performers held the stage from the start, overcame some slightly Vicky-Pollardy lines to create a passionate scenario which smoldered to a shocking climax in its own (theatrical) way authentic.

Locked into detention by an exasperated supply teacher, the 'Citizen Skills' class is already registering on Lord-of-the-Flies scale when we meet them, with only autistic Spencer obeying her last command not to move. They're furious and indignant about missing "the Re-pat", especially since today's coffin belongs to ex-schoolmate Charlie, a hero in their eyes. Their debate about the role of their town as grief-centre of the war digs into a range of issues, with Leo - the most knowledgeable and also the most militant - increasingly frustrated by dissent from less dogmatic classmates. Tensions escalate relentlessly and when memories of the real Charlie intrude, this volatile situation explodes: the patriot cracks to release the terrorist within.

Last word goes to Spencer, who has been reading the teacher's notes on history: "If it wasn’t for us the world would be worse than it is. So I think we’ll be alright in the long run.” But Spencer is still obediently facing the other way: he didn't see what really happened at all.

Anyone agreeing with Cameron, Obama, and Leo that the Wootton Bassett ritual represents 'the best of British' will be glad to know the tradition continues seamlessly at Carterton, near Brize Norton: the first of the new arrivals, Royal Marine Sgt Barry Weston, was escorted through on the same day I watched this play.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

I should have learnt by now. Every bland production I've seen at Bath Theatre Royal has been memorable only because enough money for a brace of bankers' bonuses has been thrown at it, and that was certainly the case with The Syndicate opening there last night. Wonderful set, atmospheric lighting, and immaculate costumes effectively evoked 1960s Naples despite the theatre's fussily refurbished surroundings, and the stella cast all shone - we even had Cherie Lunghi in a bit part (literally - she bares her chest after being savaged by a dog, so actually she has a tit-bit part, as my companion quipped). But none of this could disguise the weakness of Eduardo de Fillipo's play in both structure and dialogue - and I had issues with the concept too.
Ian McKellen is Don Antonio, a transparently-disguised mafia figure who self-glamourises himself as a Mister Naughty-But-Nice, overlording his squabbling community. In fact he revels in brutal domination, abuses friendship and relates more to his savage dogs than to his wife, yet his self-indulgent ramblings combined with a quasi-religious 'last supper' scene appear intended to encourage sentimental affection for the bullying old thug. Perhaps the Just-one-cornetto! accents affected by the cast were meant to enhance the charm of this synthetic story. Sean Mathias over-directed to distraction: characters striding around with props, moving chairs, shadow-boxing, polishing their shoes... ceaseless stage business which could not redeem a play that delivered a few sparse laughs but remains basically flawed. "Eduardo de Filippo was one of the great figures of European theatre. But this-" as The Guardian's Michael Billington tactfully puts it, "strikes me as one of his lesser pieces."

Bath is currently gearing up for the annual Jane Austen Festival featuring, among other Regency fancies, two short performance pieces written by my friend and Nevertheless Productions colleague Rosie Finnegan. This represents triple success for Rosie this month, as her monologue The Last Night Party is one of a quartet about to begin an autumn tour with Bootleg Theatre Company - maybe at a venue near you!

And still on things theatrical, I'm delighted to see our choice for Nevertheless Productions' in Frome Festival, Lullabies of Broadmoor, harvested a sheaf of 4-star reviews in Edinburgh before heading to London where Sam Marlow in The Times enthuses: "Steve Hennessy’s quartet of plays ooze violence (but) are thoughtful, compassionate and fascinating, too; superbly acted by a role-swapping, four-strong cast. Hennessy’s writing is playful and profound... four hours of drama that is disturbing, distressing, and richly absorbing."

Logophiles' corner: commentators are indignant about the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, bemoaning the loss of charabanc to make room for various johnny-come-lately terms. I don't think they need worry. Personally if I need to refer to such a vehicle I won't avoid that charming piece of franglais any more than I'll use the clumsy trendyism helicopter parenting to sneer at over-solicitous mums, and I guess most people will continue conversing to communicate rather than to be à la mode Oxford-stylee. But explosions of spleen against 'invasion of our language' are a frequent journalistic theme, interlopers generally being accused of transatlantic origin even when as Old English as gotten. Googling Americanisms raises a dust-storm of protest, petulance, carping and bickering. Zounds, I say. We can always use new words - and I'd like to propose one much needed, as an alternative to the hideous term fuck-buddy: a fwab - Friend With Added Benefits. All those in favour say aye or yeah according to preference.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Farncombe Estate in Worcestershire covers about 300 acres with stunning views across the Cotswolds, but my previous writers' groups there have been in winter so I've never appreciated this splendid setting to the full. I hadn't seen the lovely silver birch glade in full leaf or followed the nature trail through woods and wild flower fields. August Bank Holiday revealed more of the glorious surroundings to Conference Centre, now a buzzing hive for curious and creative course-goers.
Actually we were unusually un-buzzy this time: our twelve writers were the only participants, giving a curiously Miss Marple-like atmosphere to the big dining hall, a sense of being almost outnumbered by the attentive staff... However, undistracted by murder mystery possibilities, my group energetically engaged with an intensive 3-day programme of writing styles and techniques to adapt to their own themes and projects, producing some wonderful ideas and impressive pieces of writing. Diversity and mutual support are the key strengths for this kind of workshop, and this group was great at providing both.

And now it's September, officially autumn: we can no longer grumble at the ochre tinge on trees and verges or be surprised each day by chilly air. Instead we can enjoy being more pleasantly surprised by occasional mellow days with evenings warm enough to sit in the garden till midges call dusk curfew, as on my visit to my friend Diana in Bath. Diana is a writer & editor, and manages to find journalistic opportunities even in these difficult times when, as she puts it, many of us are 'time-rich' when we'd rather be 'time-poor'. "I don't want to be comfortable," she says "- I want to be resourceful." I agree. The risky edge is the place for writers.

Back in the day, photography was a big part of my life, both images and journalism....everything passes and everything changes, but I still keep a digi-snapper alongside notebook & pen in my bag at all times, and love the new exhibition of prints by Ed Thomas from at Divas - impact narrative in every shot.

Footling footnote of the week: always on the lookout for snappy reviews, was tickled the Radio1 verdict on Madonna’s directorial take on the Wallis Simpson story in her movie W.E: “It’s nice to have a hobby but if you bake cakes and they turn out terrible you should just eat them yourself - don’t press them on unsuspecting strangers”