Monday, April 30, 2012

People Skills is the latest production by Bootleg Theatre and follows their popular formula of four short monologues on a similar theme - in this case, obsession. I went along to the Salisbury venue with Alison Clink, writer of two of the obsessions: one the entertaining tale of passion for a local builder, and other a dark story of baby-snatching which was for me the most successful piece of the night.

Still on a thespian theme, Frome Drama Club's version of The Graduate played to full houses at the Merlin this week.
This glamorous & erotically-charged production recreated the 1960s ethos superbly with a fabulous sound track, evocative costumes, set and back projections, and impressive lighting which turned set-pieces into glossy magazine tableaux. Excellent acting, too, especially from Ben & his two lovers - and his dad (Laurie Parnell), who delivered the best line in the show when he spat out “Don’t talk to me about disillusion.” Claudia Pepler brought gorgeous and fragile lustre to Mrs Robinson, and her offhand admission of once being an art student showed poignantly the personal cost of the conventions of the era.
There's much to find funny in the social & sexual unease of an earlier generation, and this production played very successfully for laughs. But from the comical wetsuit in the opening scene onwards we somehow lose track of Ben's integrity: he becomes a spoiled rich boy and his existential angst is reduced to farce. Admittedly a very funny farce, but a little disappointing with a lead actor (Dan Gaisford) well able to handle a more complex character. And while I'm quibbling... nine scene changes? Great to use a single set to show the uniform culture that Ben's trapped within, but couldn't the actors themselves have turned over the cushions/coverlets as they began the scene? - no less unreal than a shadow army marching on, and easier to retain the essential suspended disbelief of great theatre.

Award-winning ceramic artist Hans Borgonjon decided he was spending too long in his studio and needed come out of his shell to get face to face with other people. So now he makes shells of other peoples' faces, for an amazing project called, erm, Facebook Frome. Fifty of us Fromies will be facing the world, ceramically, at the Silk Mill during Frome Festival.
Having a face cast is a strange process, a mix of sensory deprivation and deep meditation, and Hans was great at explaining what he was doing while I was shrouded behind towels, sightless and motionless. The silicone he uses allows him only 2 minutes, once mixed, before it hardens, and then plaster moulding bandages, to hold the shell, need similar skilled rapidity. After a brief blast from a hairdryer, Hans peeled off each layer and I was freed to marvel at the strange, inverted, truthfulness of my mask, and to wonder what it'll look like in porcelain...

Finally... Sunday night in Frome means the place to be is The Cornerhouse, which happens to be my local, and also the venue for Nevertheless Pub Theatre, where my play Mascara is previewing later this month before its Bristol run... and where on Sunday nights there's great live music, free. This week, it was the fabulous Pete Gage band kicking up a bluesy storm. Fantastic.

Friday, April 27, 2012

This week was, allegedly, Shakespeare's 448th birthday and Frome joined the dramatic celebrations with a slightly off-the-wall party at the Library for World Book Night, organised by ever-enterprising Wendy Miller-Williams. Around sixty people, chortling gratifyingly, viewed the screen projection of text-talk versions of Shakespeare plays as conceived by me and Alison Clink, followed by a gruelling "Bard or Not Bard?" quiz on Shakespeare quotes in common usage. Brenda Bannister won with an impressive 39 out of 60 correct.

Over in Bristol, production of my play Mascara at the Alma Tavern is now taxiing on the runway...
I sat in on the auditions on Tuesday, and was literally awed - it means respect & wonder inspired by authority, sublimity, & might - by the interpretations brought to their readings by all 8 of the actors under consideration. I'm absolutely delighted that the final choice was Oliver Millingham and Olivia Dennis, and am now avidly looking forward to watching them at rehearsal...

Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Tolstoy famously said, and Common Wealth took this principle to heart for their new devised show Our Glass House, ‘based on interviews with real-life women and men who have experienced domestic violence’. This is a site-specific piece and the venue, in the St George area of Bristol, is an ordinary house adapted to convey the theme and to contain six disparate stories of abuse. In a similar formula to Beyond, it’s impossible to see all aspects of the action taking place simultaneously in different rooms, and we're invited to witness "your own version". This means it’s quite hard to connect emotionally with all the disparate case studies, though there are several set-pieces to show the parallels between these trapped situations. There are some scenes of touching poignancy – the little boy’s shadow puppet theatre in his bedroom – some moments of troubling despair, and an imaginary court case to challenge current social norms, all of which worked really well in this brave and truthful production, but the sense of looking through glass at zoo animals is as disturbing as the events they relive and reimagine.

And to end this mainly theatrical posting, a wonderful night at Hip Yak Shack in Frome, the Archangel's upstairs room transformed by the magic of fairy lights & a funky sound system into a great venue for performance poetry. Liv Torc, Chris Redmond, Jonny Fluffypunk, and Anna Freeman all on fantastic form, and a great slam rightly won by Robbie Vane. Robbie's guesting at Frome Poetry Cafe on June 13th, so if you haven't heard her yet, don't miss out. If you have, you'll be there anyway.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

If your idea of theatre is sitting comfortably in anonymous darkness watching the same kind of easy entertainment you’d see on telly but without the cup of tea – probably not or you wouldn’t be reading this blog – then you might feel a bit insecure at Beyond, a site-specific performance devised by Karla Shacklock and developed for Bristol Ferment. Karla and her team are energetically redefining theatre in dynamic terms: anarchic, intimate and unpredictable. At the showcase on Thursday we were escorted through wet streets to St Nicholas market where Karla, poised precariously on glass jars, welcomed us. Everything we see or hear, she explained, is real, and is stored in scores of glass jars. The experiences released to each audience will be chosen without preplanning by the five performers: "What you see will be right for you."
Karla, scattering garments, led us barefoot round the corner to an old pub now the venue for this 'symphony of experiences spilling from the nooks & crannies of the building and into your hearts & minds.' Like children excited by discovering a dressing-up box, the performers scramble for attention ~ "someone come in the Laughing Cupboard with me!" ~ "I'm going to do something in here, do you want to watch me?" and our taster of these brief, sometimes baffling, experiences included funny, touching, erotic, and violent. I especially liked the flower poem, and the 'breaking-fixing' dance in the strobe lighting room. We became part of the action as viewers, even when not drawn in to participate. It may not be always comfortable, but at a time when leaders in the field like Tim Crouch and Mark Rylance are working for a shift away from 'safe' scripts presented to audiences identically every night, Beyond offers an exploration of audience-led theatre that anyone with a real interest in theatre will find too exciting to miss. It's on 23rd-29th, try it.

Bristol Spring Poetry Festival is underway at the Arnolfini, with some of the best performance poets around. I went along to As Good As It Gets on Thursday because I knew the line-up – Rob Gee, Ben Mellor and Chris Redmond – would deliver what it said on the ticket. I’ve seen Rob several times – in fact he’s overspilled my non-giant-sized sofabed after a great gig in Frome some years ago – and was keen to see his current show Fruitcake but sadly Rob had to cancel due to illness. However, as organiser Colin Brown proudly pointed out, Bristol is a city that slews with supernova poets, and local slammer Anna Freeman stepped forward superbly. Ben Mellor specialises in wonderful innovative protest poetry: he fills the stage with dissenting voices in his response to ‘celebrations for the end of slavery’, and personifies Poetry itself (“he’s turned out to be a louche, Byronic, bisexual lush”) in his satiric objections to being used for corporate promotions. Chris Redmond has great, often hilarious, stage presence too, creating compelling rhythms and and coaxing roaring choruses from our sparse audience. Check out the poo in the eye incident, if you’re brave enough. Chris is coming to Frome’s Archangel on April 26th for Hip Yak Shack so be there or your Thursday night will be seriously depleted.

The last major Picasso exhibition at the Tate was in 1960 and I was one of over 500,000 entranced by the colour and energy of his painting as well as his immaculate draughtsmanship. In those days commentary focussed on challenge of cubism – it wasn’t that long since art critics wrote derisively of his work as “a collection of coloured geometrical figures gone mad.” But what struck me about the current Tate exhibition was how small a proportion of his work is controversial in any aesthetic way. What is plangent is the humanity ~ tenderness, wit, erotica, anger, all the real passions of life are here. What's interesting too is the inclusion of work by contemporaries inspired by either admiration (Duncan Grant, Graham Sutherland, David Hockney) or envy (Wynham Lewis) as well as social context from catalogues, cuttings, and photographs. My personal favourites, apart from revisiting the sheer beauty of his blue period, were the costumes & stage designs for Diaghilev’s production of The Three Cornered Hat. And realising the secret behind those doubled faces in his series Head of a Woman: the profile in his portraits of Marie-Thérèse is the artist himself, her clandestine lover, kissing her as he paints.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Where were you when you first heard Bob Marley? I was living in Edgware in 1977 when Jamming came on the charts show, and I stared at the radio on the worktop transfixed. I think that’s the only reason I remember that kitchen at all.
Marley, the powerful & moving new film from director Kevin Macdonald, picks on personal connections like that and enriches their colour & volume. It’s on general release next week but came to the Little Theatre (visited often by Haile Selassie in his exile years) on Sunday for a special premiere showing. There’s more than I needed about Bob Marley's final sad weeks, but most of the movie comprises convincing, compassionate, and appreciative tributes to his 36 years of vibrant living. We had a kind of bonus track too, a post-show discussion between Kevin, a journalist who remembered Bob from the '70s, and Benjamin Zephaniah who spoke passionately about the poetry of the songs. And the legacy of Bob Marley? All three knew their answer to that one: Roots reggae with a serious message has gone around the world, a unifying element to warring underclass communities. You don’t have to be a Rastafarian to connect with Marley ~ when the Tunisian greengrocer killed himself and started the Arab Spring, STAND UP FOR YOUR RIGHTS was the message on the wall next day. As producer Lee "Scratch" Perry said in the movie, people like his music because "he has a story to tell and him tell it in a way you have to believe it ~ him tell it pity-full.”

You know the way when you decide to move you suddenly see For Sale/Rent signs everywhere? It’s an acausal connecting principle, Jung said, something to do with the space-time continuum and indestructible energy. And archetypes & the unconscious, naturally. It’s happening to me around my play Mascara, as the start of rehearsals approaches. The main theme in my play is the fine line between love & collusion, and one key question is about early experiences. Received wisdom is that we need the smoothest possible slide from the slipstream of childhood into the turbulent waters of adult life, and certainly we’d all prefer that for our loved ones. But I keep seeing & hearing memories which cut across that assumption. One of the most moving sequences in Marley is when Bob, considered a half-breed in his black neighbourhood, goes to find his white father and is brusquely rejected. He goes home and writes Cornerstone
The stone the builder refused
will be the head cornerstone.

And in a book of essays by Adam Phillips lent to me by Emily there’s another example of extreme resilience: Paul Steinberg, writing about Auschwitz in Speak You Also, speculates as to whether his unhappy childhood prepared him for his survival, posing the question: can a ‘good’ childhood prepare one for life?
I’m not arguing that Goethe’s maxim ~ if it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you strong ~ should justify any & every kind of cruelty, obviously. But it does seem that some setbacks will feed creative determination. Mark Rylance, in a wonderful interview (on on BBC3), recalled being "the kid who didn’t speak”, unable to form consonants even with intervention from a speech therapist. It was a passion for private improvisation that got him through ~ he likes to think, he says, that being Captain Kirk and Spock was how he found his voice.
And that’s another synchronicity of thought, too, because Mark Rylance is patron of Stepping Out Theatre Company, whose director Mark has gone on record to call “one of the most inspirational theatre artists I have encountered in the last ten years… (he) does not shy away from the possibility that theatre is a transformative and healing activity which brings joy into people’s lives… “ And where the synchronicity comes in again is that ~ excitingly and luckily for me ~ Stepping Out is producing Mascara.

Finally, in this long posting: Thanks to Richard Carder for an excellent Poetry & a Pint night last night, where Rose Flint and I were guest poets. I forgot to take a photo so here's a picture of St James Wine Vaults. A good venue for boho atmosphere.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Another stonking night ~ that's in its original meaning of agreed excellent by all ~ at Frome Poetry Café on Wednesday when the Garden Café went On The Road with balladeer and guitarist Mo Robinson as main guest. Mo's own journey has taken him from Ireland to California and his songs are vivid road-movies from a much-travelled life. Plenty of poetry was also promised & delivered, to an impressive standard, by Tauton poet Paul Tobin whose new collection Blessed by Magpies is published by Lapwing Press, and by 15 open-mic spots. Fantastic event, thanks all!
BOV Studio too was crammed for the Pinter / Beckett double bill, heightening the sense of intimacy to near intrusion during both these quietly intense short plays. I’ve long been convinced you can’t love theatre and not be a fan of Pinter, but in this combo A Kind of Alaska was a mere dry sherry to the extraordinary feast of Krapp’s Last Tape. Simon Godwin, whose uncluttered direction is brilliant at letting the script speak, feels these two playwrights share the belief "that human beings cannot bear much stark reality." There are parallels too in the sense of lost lives ~ Deborah has dreamed away 29 years "nowhere" while Krapp searches his thoughts of 30 years ago, both rejecting real connections as too painful. Richard Bremmer, who also features as doctor to Pinter's recovering coma patient, is mesmerising in Beckett's monologue role as he listens, mystified & contemptuous, to the life experiences of his younger self: he inhabits the stage in his silences and even his absences. Excellent set, lighting, and sound as well.

Like London buses, Pinter plays arrive in triplicate after a dearth: a touring double bill by European Arts Company came to one of my favourite venues, Bath's Rondo, this weekend. It was the 'summer of love' when I last saw The Dumb Waiter and since then, as programme notes point out, this tense two-hander has influenced every hit-man movie from Pulp Fiction to In Bruges. This version introduced reciprocal elements with humour derived from television comedies and, less successfully, a set apparently inspired by CBeebies. The Lover, a gentler and more playful piece, explores roles in relationship, and John O'Connor & Rebecca Robson were entertaining in an evening of classic Pinter themes which, as the director says, 'contain more in their short acts than most full length plays.'

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The annual Egg celebrations brought a flurry of fun events concluding with Daffodil Day in Mells. Mells is a picturesque village where war protest poet Siegfried Sassoon is buried, with grassy banks that host enough golden daffodils to scatter any Wordsworthian clouds. They're always wilted & rainsodden by Easter Monday but luckily there are other rural lures to entice the thronging crowds: stalls of homemade jewellery, cup-cakes, knitwear & knick-knacks line the route to the tents of ale and hog-burgers. It's a lovely walk from Frome through Vallis Vale, wild garlic thick between the burgeoning trees, so I braved the drizzle and squelched through two miles of mud which earlier that morning had been the riverside path and was rewarded by brilliant local band Centrefolds in the music tent.
A word about the recent Persectives on Shakespeare before it disappears from i-Player: Lenny Henry's theatrical epiphany is well-documented (Northern comic does Othello to rave reviews!) but this programme explores deeper, aided by The Wire's Dominic West, Barry Rutter of Northern Broadsides ("Iambic pentameter is based on the heartbeat, that's why the plays are so bloody muscular") and London rapper poet Akala, demonstrating that many lines in Macbeth are indistinguishable from gansta rap lyrics. "Everybody deserves some Shakespeare in their lives" concludes Lenny cheerily, and unarguably, from the corridors of a school in Norwood near where I went to school. Wish he'd been around then.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Now that winter is trending again, time to get back to thoughts writerly. Here in the world of prose we seem to be having a kind of Eurythmic Arab Spring of brothers & sisters doing it for themselves. "There is no longer any reason whatsoever to pay the slightest attention to the world of print" says writer Michael Allen, "Of course, you can if you want to. If you enjoy banging your head against brick walls, feel free. But you don't need to. You can just go straight to the reader yourself, without any agent, publisher, or bookseller making life difficult." Writing Events Bath, in support of such emancipation, is offering a workshop on self-promotion by social media. And it looks like there's no escape within the ancien regime either: "An agent will expect you to know about twitter, blogs and facebook, and to use them" claims Neil Blair - and he should know, he represents J K Rowling., written by Mark Breckon, is the latest show from feisty and effervescent Stepping Out Theatre Company, and like all their ensemble productions this combines high-energy comedic action and glorious visual set-pieces with thought-provoking social questioning. As you can surmise from the play's title, the allure and dangers of social networking are in the spotlight here - along with some marvelously cheesy disco scenes - and the plot thickens by the minute as fast as unstirred custard but a lot tastier. Much of what transpires is, to quote someone (I think the psychiatrist, or maybe the polar bear) "neither legal nor ethical, but it is exciting and it's on the internet so it's probably ok". This is a feel-good show with a great finale, and best of all is the contagious enjoyment & exuberance of the whole company ~ and with over 40 on stage, that's a lot of joy & exubing. If you want to know more about the complex plot, check the excellent review in Venue.
It's on at The Brewery in Bristol till Saturday 14th, so do go if you can.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The second play this season for Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory is in fact by Chekhov: as the programme notes aptly point out, both dramatists 'reach out to universal truths about the human condition.' The Cherry Orchard has similar themes to King Lear - times of turmoil and intrigue, a dynasty lost through tragic folly - but Chekhov saw his play as a comedy, and Andrew Hilton's wonderfully variedly-paced direction together with immaculate performances ensured plenty of laugh-aloud moments as well as full appreciation of the script's droll wit. I can't praise the acting enough, especially Simon Armstrong as upwardly mobile Lopakhin, Julia Hills as beautiful ruined Mme Ranevskaya, and Benjamin O'Mahony as the idealist Trofimov. Harriet de Winton's evocative costumes are delicious, and both set & lighting support every mood - never more so than at the end when every tragic inevitability comes together with the perfection of a Cartier-Bresson 'decisive moment' as dusk falls.
It's a fantastic script of course but a complex and multipeopled one, and this production superbly shows not just the light and shade of the story but the subtle and intense interactions between all these interdependent individuals... and thus between us all. There was a moment when Trofimov was holding forth on political change and the rapt attention from his own milieu extended into the auditorium in an extraordinary point of connection as we too processed his grand concepts through our own experiences and beliefs, his luminous words profoundly timeless as well as touchingly poignant. It was a transcendent moment in a dazzling production. If you only see one play this year, make it The Cherry Orchard at the Tobacco Factory.
image: Farrows Creative.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

A Curious Evening of Trance and Rap with the Ogden Sisters at Frome's Merlin recreated obsessions of Victorian spiritual delusion in an extraordinary entertainment of magic, mystery and morbidity. Some of the otherworldly trickery – psychic revelations of audience handbags – was mysterious enough to provoke interval analysis, some – the spare arm & other antics after limb-constraint by audience members to demonstrate authenticity of manifestations – were hilariously fake. Audience participation was non-optional: we were all blindfolded for a sensory 'astral' train journey - though it was worth peeping to catch one of the sisters having a quick man-break with a fag while the female siblings dashed around waving lavender scents and squirting mister sprays. The sisters were all compelling, especially the medium Electra struggling between Victorian docility and Victorian hysterical insanity.
But it's not all trickery and titters: the tale is rooted in social realities as well as historical data about such soirees. Unpalatable truths about treatment of children and women emerge, showing how fascination with the next world was inspired more by despair than scientific curiosity. This world, as the eldest sister reminds us, is a pig’s arse.
It’s a little bit overlong, especially the farting and the final manifestation, but as theatrical entertainment enjoyably inventive. As the man next to me in row B said, how often do you sit in the auditorium all holding hands while the audience tie up the actors?

Californian skies continue as our un-English spring moves into April, making this time seem more for getting out and about than for writing. Last weekend bloomed with arty stuff
- Sun Street Chapel exhibition concluded with a Saturday night dance, the Artisan Market thronged Frome's Catherine Hill on Sunday, and in the afternoon I cycled lanes glittering with blackthorn blossom down to Nunney for an excellent Acoustic Cafe headlined by the Daturas.

And finally: thanks to Plan B for stepping into the news this week to blame arts funding cuts for last year's riots in a great NME interview, giving me a chance to post his new release Ill Manors.