Monday, October 29, 2012

A reading in Camden of a new play by my friend Diane Samuels is enough of a reason for a trip to London: The Arrest of Rosa Gold had a sell-out showing at the Jewish Museum, which contains among other treasures a record, both actual and virtual, of the popularity of Yiddish theatre in Britain. Diane’s play begins in 1969 when Rosa, already under surveillance for spying for 20 years, meets the woman who will revitalise her revolutionary spirit; the story traces the following 30 years and the consequences of this encounter for her family, with revelations about this idealistic, perhaps naïve, heroine’s passions continuing right to the end. A wonderfully sensitive team of actors vibrantly brought alive a fascinating story and an era that still casts a long shadow.
A Life by Hugh Leonard, on at that smashing little theatre in Earls Court The Finborough, was sold-out too, and also covered a full span from youthful hopes to the painful realism of old age.  This version of twentieth-century mores is more modest in scope though beautifully precise in detail as Drumm, an acidly-witty civil servant, confronts his past and mourns What I called principles was vanity, what I called friendship was malice in a superb script splendidly acted by the eight-strong cast headed by Hugh Ross who so reminded me of my father I wanted to wait by the stage door for him after.
Then, for as much contrast as another twentieth-century drama could offer, an evening at the Cockpit Theatre off Edgware Road for Rent, a rock musical with lashings of burlesque, queer-Glee set-pieces, and New York street tragedy. Jonathan Larson based his story of impoverished-artist life for the AIDS generation on La Bohème, and the student cast of Interval Productions brought heartfelt emotion to their triumphs and their tragedies, though a couple did look way off starving. Here's my favourites, Carlton Connell-Collins with his Angel, John McCrea.
 Back in Bristol after a weekend so packed with theatrical action even the clocks took an hour off, and now it's officially winter.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Writing drama isn't like writing fiction or poetry which have a kind of formal self-sufficiency that means, like those grownup kids the Guardian keeps doing features about, they never really leave you. They linger in books, magazines and anthologies, occasionally asserting their existence in an unexpected reference or a PLR payment. A play is brutally finite: there's the thrill of the production, climaxing in performance, and then people either see it or they don't, and then it's all over. How did it go? Great, thanks. Well, you can't say, like watching your tiny child through the school gates for a week and then never seeing it again. A nice review is comforting at such times, so thankyou WhatsOnStage for this one for Park and Ride at the Alma Tavern Theatre: "The evening begins with a short warm-hearted piece by Crysse Morrison about two strangers who form an instant emotional bond after meeting at a park and ride on the edge of the city. The two-hander follows Jack (Dan Maxwell) who dwells on the outskirts of society and who feels no sense of belonging having been brought up in various care homes. Jack is at the park and ride harbouring thoughts of suicide - after witnessing a particularly traumatic event - when into his world steps Fran (Dee Sadler) an unhappily married woman looking for more from life. This brief vignette about two lost souls is beautifully played by the two actors and has a script which is both natural and believable."
Back in Frome, the students of Michael Harper organised a Musical Soiree at East Woodlands Village Hall featuring pieces ranging from personalised Rumi to Madame Butterfly, all exquisitely and movingly sung. One of those precious evenings when there's a palpable sense of privilege to be present. Frome Poetry Cafe had that quality this time too ~ an all Open Mic event, since the last few sessions have featured guests so contributions from the floor have been constrained, but this time unusually few of the audience arrived rustling pages and it seemed at the break that like the double-ended candle we might not last the night. Luckily, true to the spirit of Edna St. Vincent Millay, words from all the poets did give a lovely light, with excellent debut performances by Rick Ryecroft and Karen Eberhardt-Shelton as well as wonderful sets from some of our favourite regular contributors - I found Rose Flint's prose-poem, inspired by caskets for the dead seen in Crete, especially thought-provoking at this time around Samhain when the veil between the lived and living worlds is thin and we move towards the darkest time of year. Stirring end to the evening at the Olive Tree with a brilliant set from Mark Abis Band.
And then to Bath, for a revival at Theatre Royal of The Judas Kiss, David Hare's 1998 play about the flawed heroism of Oscar Wilde. Rupert Everett, while not as beautiful as those iconic photographs of the playwright, is awesome in the central role in a fictional bio-pic that centres on two key evenings showing Wilde at his most passionately selfdestructive. Act 1 is the famous scene in the Cadogan hotel where, while all around him try to argue him into action before arrest, Wilde eulogises the 'hideous glamour and romance of destruction' and decides “I’m trapped in a narrative that has a life of its own” as he tucks into lobster. Act 2, after his years of penal servitude, shows the final evening with Bosie in Naples when once again Wilde submits to betrayal by the man he mysteriously loves ~ indeed if the script has a flaw it's the ongoing challenge to credibility of Wilde's devotion to so obnoxious and transparently self-seeking a character without even charm to redeem him. More credible is Wilde's assertion that "the governing principle of my life has been love," and director Neil Armfield commendably resisted overplaying the many Christ-like analogies of this figure so beloved by the poor and persecuted by the mighty.
     While this play is classic tragedy ~ the hero's hamartia his downfall ~ as with Wilde's own writing, the script is laced with witty aphorisms, firing on all syllables with quotable quotes and social commentary. Both acts open with terrifically erotic scenes and the nudity warning is seriously necessary in the second half - and I mean that in a good way. All the cast are superb (top tip: look out for Ben Hardy, possibly in the next Bond movie) and evocation of era is superb: set and costumes creating a muted tonal range mostly mahogany and bleach-white apart from the luminous glow of a Naples sunset. Lighting is fantastic, especially in the second half as Bosie's threatening shadow overwhelms the shrunken figure of his erstwhile lover.
     Attitudes and laws have changed since 1895 but truly great plays, however historical, chime in some way with contemporary life (Elizabeth I thought that too, which was why she kept a wary eye on Shakespeare). Here it's the recurrent theme of witness ~ the need to be heard and to be believed. It's shockingly plangent as Bosie insists to Oscar he could easily deny his conquests as unreliable witness: “These boys are just renters!" David Hare in interview as asked if he saw it as his duty to reflect issues of the day and answered firmly “No. Playwrights should write about whatever they like.” And on social attitudes to sexuality, he points to suicide figures. "Some things never change."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Very pleased with feedback so far for my short play Park and Ride, wonderfully brought to life by director Alison Comley with Dee Sadler and Dan Winter as the couple who meet in a location randomly decreed from the Bristol A-Z for my contribution to Theatre West's autumn season of new writing. "Big themes of loss, redemption, love and loneliness all satisfyingly embedded in flawed human lives. Very touching, poetic and neatly done." ~ "Vitality and humour... a chunk of unusual life"~ "really enjoyed, performances and direction were great. A powerful piece with a lot of layers to it." Trips to Alma Tavern Theatre for this and David Lane's longer play Rush (both nicely reviewed by Remote Goat) are preoccupying me this week, but my Nevertheless co-producer Rosie Finnegan has been even further afield: her short play The Chamber is in production with Goat Theatre Company for Halloween Night at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre in East London! What's next for the blazing aspirations of Frome's scriptwriters? you ask. I'll tell you: Flaming Crackers, our festive production at the Cornerhouse on December 13th. Put it in your diaries now!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Big news in theatreland southwest is the reopened, refurbished, Bristol Old Vic main house, returned to Georgian splendour in tones of ochre, olive & old gold, with a raised floor in the pit so audience eye-level is raised to that of 18th Century groundlings. The first show to celebrate this 18-month, £12 million, makeover is a revival by Mark Rosenblatt of John O’Keefe’s Wild Oats, first performed here in 1792 and chosen, says the programme, 'for exactly the playful interactivity this theatre was built for.’ Here's director Tom Morris in trademark Rupert Bear scarf looking pleased, and if you think £12,000,000 sounds like the kind of number that might have funded quite a lot of productions elsewhere in the region you might like to know the total bill will be £20 million... Finances aside, Wild Oats is wonderfully playful: a vigorous cast dashing through a set nearly as lively, clever props rushed on & off for each scene change. Costumes support the wild sense of enchantment too: combining last century modes with Shakespearian attire allows for multiple reference points, from filmic chase scenes and a steamy Brief Encounterish railway station (Keynsham) to Wildean comedic moments in the second act. There's swashbuckling comedy from all eleven players, especially Hugh Skinner as Harry Thunder, the rich drop-out whose life becomes entangled with Jack Rover (Sam Alexander) “a forlorn stroller with an abominable habit of quotation, his life a rapid stream of extravagant whim" ~ in fact everyone at heart is fond of each other, with the exception of Ephraim Smooth, a Quaker with the morality of a Jimmy Savile. I can only find rehearsal pictures but they give a general idea of the animated mayhem. It's impossible to summarise the plot which relies on complexity of mistaken identities until increasing confusion escalates to a hilarious fight scene, moving quickly on to resolution as bad-tempered Sir George mellows and is reunited in the end with everyone he ever cared for, Jack finds out who he is and gets his girl – transformed of course from a plain Jane when she throws off her Quakerish constraints, and the two friends each gain a brother as well as a bride. It's a warm-hearted revisiting of that sour theme in The Welsh Boy ~ that a single man in want of a wife must be in search of a fortune ~ and a charming revival.

  Alongside this polished high-energy production, as a contrast in every way, there's Does My Society Look Big In This? introduced as ‘flung together', 'relevant’(does my heart sink a bit at this?) and experimental. Devised by Tom Morris with writer Stephen Brown and performed by the Wild Oats team, it's billed as all about bang-up-to-date issues like the Bristol mayoral election. And over an hour of the 2½ running time was indeed devoted to voting a 'Mayor of Bristol Old Vic Theatre For The Night' from a random line-up of men (and one woman) on the basis of how to spend an equally randomly-materialising £200 of funding. By extraordinary coincidence ~ and I hope I don’t sound skeptical ~ someone spotted among the audience Simon Cook, an ex-mayor and current Leader of the Council in Clifton, whose landslide victory made my vote for singing traffic wardens a wasted one. His platform was free pantomime tickets for Poor Children, a jolly worthy plan which I imagine & hope happens anyway. Other than this time-consuming activity, there were some entertaining sketches and songs, the concept of local community was explained via audience interaction in a dog-related neighbourhood dispute and, more mysteriously, through eyes-closed visualization, but the overall impression was a bit like what you’d expect from an enthusiastic tutor group tackling social studies through role-play. Nothing like this has happened in theatre before, Tom Morris said in his introduction, and that may be true but a lot like this has happened before in end-of-session cabarets on courses, camps and holidays, and with tighter production values.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Theatre Royal Bath opened their 'Transformation Season' of productions adapted from literary text to dramatic script with Julian Mitchell's reworking of an 18th Century autobiography The Welsh Boy. These 'transformed' pieces, as the programme notes point out, are not traditional plays but a new form with actors as story-tellers as well as characters within the action. "Three hundred years on, here I am in a book" is Jem Parry's opening announcement, and that book holds the tale he now reveals, demanding our sympathy and taunting our voyeurism, as the real 'Welsh boy' did when he published his passionate affair with upper-class Mary Powell. A strong cast is led by Sion Daniel Young as the importunate young music teacher with Peta Cornish as his besotted student and Geraldine Alexander, Ed Birch and Rhiannon Oliver taking on nine support roles. Dalliance and intrigue, more bawdy than erotic, builds to a powerful climax in the moment when the lovers are discovered in flagrante, and farce turns abruptly to tragedy. It's a great show, beautifully dressed and lit, which goes beyond Jem's dubious memoirs to engage with a significant historical reality ~ the lack of protection for women, both financially and physically, whatever their social status. The end brings us back to the start: they are gone, aye ages long ago, not like Keats' lovers into timeless romance but the fading squalour of scandal and out-of-print oblivion. Was this love? As with every reality show, the last call is to the audience: you decide. (image © Jane Hobson)

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Having ridden down Highway 1 on the back of a 1200 BMW I was keen to see Take Me With You at the Brewery when I read this "poignant, funny and heartbreaking story of three dreamers adrift" is located around the Pacific Coast highway. Writer Godfrey Hamilton creates a passionate, sometimes lyrical, evocation of the fragility of the American dream. Happiness is going home to a dog, declares the 'big old queen' after participating in a bizarre freeway canine rescue. It certainly isn't going home to a God for the disenchanted evangelist preacher who recalls with unhappy irony trying to drive the devil out of a gay man in his congregation. Actors Mark Pinkosh and Ross Bautsch deliver their stories in separate monologues, intensifying the aura of loneliness around these solitary lives. At 70 minutes it's slightly overlong but the bit about the dog is very funny.
I can't find an image on either Starving Artists Theatre Company or Tobacco Factory site that looks like the show so I've posted the bike I rode on instead. Nice memory!

Bath's Mission, originally a chapel and recently rescued from dilapidated decline by the enthusiasm and enterprise of Next Stage Theatre Company, hosts a medley of dramatic events including this week Shakespeare Rattle & Roll, devised & performed by musician/actor Martin Dimery. Martin's better known as the John in Sgt Pepper's Only Dart Board Band and as director of Frome Festival but he was in another incarnation a teacher, and this performance uses the conceit that the audience is a class in detention and required to study the musical influences of the plays and sonnets ~ an effective introduction to an hour that does indeed inform as well as entertaining. With references ranging from Spenserian iambic pentameter and Schubert to rap and vaudeville, Martin re-envisaged songs, speeches, and sonnets in musical styles including Elvis, Marley, Johnny Rotten, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and George Fornby ~ with a few famous speeches in the manner of Olivier and Frankie Howard... Witty parody combined with fascinating insights into the bard's life & work from a performer impressive in his own right, and the audience stamped mosh pit style in approval.

Here's a 10-second challenge for all you writers ~ complete this sentence: "The world is ______, _____, and _______." That's Duncan (Monster) Macmillan's opener to an excellent playwriting workshop at Bristol Old Vic on Saturday aimed at encouraging and supporting entrants to the Bruntwood competition. In two-and-a-half hours Duncan fed us a smörgåsbord of structural information on narrative arcs, hero's journeys and disrupted rituals, lavishly garnished with fascinating quotes: "Tell a story and the themes will take care of themselves" ~ Anthony Neilson, and my favourite from Brian Friel, "Writing a play is like stalking an invisible animal."
  Rosie Finnegan and I took copious notes and then dashed off to the Alma Tavern where my short play Park & Ride has now gone into rehearsal. I'm thrilled that Alison Comley of Theatre West will be directing, and delighted too with my cast, a reunion from Consulting with Chekhov in 2010 ~ Dee Sadler and Dan Maxwell, already luminously lifting my script off the page.

Back home it's Apple Day, the kind of event Frome loves to celebrate with live music & dance ~ circle dance, in fact ~ stalls of home-made bags and tubs of bubbles, cups of tea and plates of cakes. And apples, rows of them, with wonderful names like Golden Spire, Cornish Aromatic, Barnack Orange, and Wolf River.
Great names too ~ Gyrate, Gesture, Gymnastic ~ in Marian Bruce's contemporary art gallery The Parlour, where Alex Relph is exhibiting some amazing pieces of steel sculpture.
And finally... did you do the sentence? Your instinctive response is actually about your own writing. I chose The world is precarious, dangerous, and irresistible... point proven!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Theatre West's new season at the Alma Tavern Theatre based on locations in the Bristol A-Z is off to a cracking start with Steve Hennessy's Sleep Lane ~ already awarded a 5 star review from Remotegoat. A taxi driver takes a mysterious Greek businessman home late and becomes involved an extraordinary triangle of love, sex and money, played out at the gates of an affluent house in a leafy lane on the edge of town. Is anything in Sleep Lane real, or is it all just a dream where money grows on the trees?
This tightly-written play is stimulatingly thought-provoking on the economic crisis spreading out from Greece, but each character has a journey too and their stories are all fascinating and empathetically engaging. Alan Coveney is compelling as flawed dream-maker Yannis, Joe Shire as cabbie Jason brilliantly evokes poignancy as well as comedy, and Violet Ryder is simply stunning as Helen, half human half goddess... 5 stars? That's a Yes from me too.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Despite the fluster over apparent mouth-mutilation on the poster, Loose Tongues was well received by audiences Upstairs at the Cornerhouse. The project was a co-venture between Nevertheless Productions with Inklings who provided this intriguing collection of related monologues set in the same funeral parlour at the same time - it would have been interesting too to see how these could have combined in dramatic interaction as dark secrets were slowly revealed as the hour passed in real-time. Audience feedback was encouraging: 'thoroughly enjoyed it!' - 'interesting, ambitious with some very good acting' - 'intrigued by the unravelling of the story and the characters' - 'different to anything I have ever seen before'.

There's been a lot of poetry around this week too, what with Bristol Poetry festival ~ which I sadly missed ~ and 100,000 Poets for Change in Bath on Saturday with Frome's class-act bards Rosie Jackson and Rose Flint among poets at a 'concert of readings' at the BRLSI with a focus on our endangered earth.
Danger of a different kind featured in an extraordinary production by Irish company Gare St Lazare of Moby Dick at Bristol's Tobacco Factory. Conor Lovett, who with his director adapted Herman Melville's classic novel, narrated in traditional story-telling style, solitary on a dark stage with only the haunting fiddle of Caoimhin O'Raghallaigh to enhance the intense and eerie mood.
My illusion that this would be a plot-led adventure dispersed instantly and from that famous opening line Call me Ishmael to the incredible climax of the whale-hunter's destructive obsession like the rest of the full-house I sat spell-bound, fascinated by Melville's lyrical & complex language and transfixed by the quiet intimacy of interaction between actor and audience. Descriptions are vivid but the overwhelming imagery is larger even than this epic journey ~ mythic, cosmic... a timeless universal life struggle against elements and gods and the dark destructive energy within us all.

First posting of October starts with a fretful footnote: without option, Blogger has updated my template to a tidy new style which has swept away my collection of fascinating writers' blogs, along with my cherished poem and quote of-the-month spot. I'm annoyed about this as anyone using a free service is entitled to be, viz, to frustratingly little avail. If you were wondering, I was going to quote Apollinaire's wonderful words which I was movingly reminded of (thankyou Tristram) at the Writers' Soiree on the terrace of Atsista ten days ago:
       Come to the edge, he said.
       They said: We are afraid.
       Come to the edge, he said.
       They came.  He pushed them
       and they flew.”