Saturday, December 29, 2012

What do you call this lull time between festivities ~ Crimbo Limbo? New Year's Eve-Eve? Surely our ancestors knew a name for this cusp between solstice fires and emergent new light which could touch the heart more than Sales start now... It's been a good time, though, for missed catch-ups, squelchy walks in flooded fields, and screen-slouching. Life of Pi is perfect: fabulous visuals and stupendous technical effects. If you've read the book you'll know the resolution is more enigmatic & the role of God(s) more complex, but the movie doesn't entirely smooth out the multilayered allegories or over-glamorise the central truth that, as TS Eliot said, Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

Time for another year now... go well, and may your tigers go with you.
As TS Eliot also said:
"For last year's words belong to last year's language, and next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning."

Monday, December 24, 2012

As Mayan fables grabbed headlines from the usual Messianic one, festive celebrations here in Frome featured a swinging End of the World Christmas Party at the Cheese&Grain with much mesmeric music and as an added bonus the 'close-up magic' of Kieron Johnson.
Meanwhile in Bristol, Five Jars theatre company decided Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without any ghoulish horror so Danann McAleer performed A Thin Ghost at the Alma Tavern Theatre, a selection of macabre tales by MR James which ~ especially disturbingly ~ all featured boys' boarding schools...  Bedtime appears particularly dangerous at this time of year, according to the festive shows in Bristol, what with undead boys flying into your room accompanied by vicious fairies, hungry Norwegian stepmothers pushing you out into the night forest, and paranoid nursery rhyme characters dragging you into a trunk with a wolf... Sleep well, children!

Recycled Stockings 2 by Show of Strength at the Southville Centre, however, achieved family fun without any shadows as three excellent actors (Angie Belcher, Oliver Millingham and Kim Hicks) delighted the children and entertained the adults with six simple but very funny scenarios. I especially enjoyed Santa's personal trainer, the boy stuck in going-to-granny's traffic, and the geriatric artificial tree yearning to be topped by a Lady GaGa fairy doll...

 And now the run-up to 25th is all over bar the flooding, I hope you're safe & dry and wish you everything you'd wish yourself for the end of this year and all of the next.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sound Mind, neatly-named cabaret night for mental-health charity Mind at the Alma Tavern, pulled in some great acts including delicious acapella from Eirlys Rhiannon and gorgeous accompanied songs from Rebecca Cant. Highlight for me was a superb set from performance poet Sally Jenkinson ~ I would give you a sliver of her witty & lucent words but I dropped my bag down a gap at the back of the auditorium at the start of the show so wasn't able to make my usual sneaky notes. Trust me, she's awesome.

Also awesome, and with an even bigger audience: the all-male production of Twelfth Night at Apollo London in which Mark Rylance (Olivia) and Stephen Fry (Malvolio) have been gathering daisy-chains of rave reviews. Tim Carroll's stylish direction clarifies both the beautiful and the brutal, ranging from homo-erotic tenderness to South Park levels of comic violence. Mark Rylance is brilliant as a lustful and teetering Olivia, especially in an unforgettable manic Jerusalem moment of pike-wielding, and Stephen Fry brings human frailty to her beleaguered steward. Even from 'restricted' seating in the crows nest - sorry, balcony - an experience to treasure, and as part of the Stepping Out Theatre Company charabanc outing I had the bonus attraction of a photo-call with Mark, who is their patron, afterwards.
And then to the Queens Head for a festive supper before heading home through seasonal illuminations... Happy Christmas, everyone.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Frome Scriptwriters' brief: write a play featuring a candle. The outcome: Flaming Crackers, 'seven short scripts with a festive twist, performed as rehearsed readings last week at The Cornerhouse Frome and the Alma Tavern Theatre Bristol to capacity - and very appreciative - audiences. This was another Nevertheless / Stepping Out Theatre Company collaboration, following our successful Festival venture last summer, and Rosie & I are delighted to have this professional input to our projects. Our writers ~ that's Morgan, Eddie, Tighe, Brenda, Paul, Rosie, and me ~ were able to follow the production process from director's first comments to public performance with costume & props, and finally with full lighting effects onstage.
Big thanks to Livi, Duncan, Danaan, Gerard, and Jasmine for bringing our characters to life, to director Chris, props & technician team Ann & Ali, and to Steve for suggesting a festive reprise for this pairing of writers and actors ~ full names for credit are listed under "Shows 2010-2012" on the Stepping Out website.
And the candle... was variously a symbol of rebellion, a scientific experiment, a song by Elton John, a moment of solace, the cause of a row, a glimmer of hope, and a gag for a failing showman, in plays equally varying in mood and style. "Light and dark, funny and touching, strange and surprising" the flyer promised, and I think we delivered.

Finally, something completely different: no account of local entertainment would be complete without a big-up for Frome's CobbleWobble, surely the only uphill cycle race held over several hours in which the winning time is 22.96 seconds. That was BMX pro rider Michal Prokop, who flashed past far too fast for me to photograph, but I did get snaps of some brave locals who managed a respectable half-minute for the slippery sprint up Catherine Hill. A brilliant event, typical of so much that happens in fabulous Frome: egalitarian, innovative, inclusive, creative, and slightly crackers.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hunting Raven, Frome's popular independent bookshop took an enterprising leaf out of Bath's bookshops on Sunday, with a reading by art historian, poet & novelist Sue Hubbard from her latest book The Girl in White. This fictionalised biography tells the fascinating story of Paula Modersohn-Becker, late 19th Century German expressionist painter and intimate of Rilke who wrote Requiem for a Friend after her early death after childbirth.
 Don’t be afraid if I understand now, ah, 
it climbs in me: I can do no other,
 I must understand, even if I die of it.
Part of the fascination around Paula's life is the nonconformist spirit she showed in both her painting and her lifestyle ~ she joined a bohemian artists' colony and after her death was officially labelled a degenerate. Sue researched so exhaustively she claims she "sometimes felt like the puppy in the Andrex ad, all this stuff unwinding, how do you get to the end and find a form?"  Her answer was to write from the later perspective of her daughter Mathilde who, since she never knew her mother, is also researching Paula's story.
Hunting Raven will be open every Sunday till Christmas ~ an ideal opportunity to browse and buy without supporting grand-scale tax evasion. And while I'm beating the drum for local independents, Raves from the Grave is rated "music heaven" and Ellenbray Press has toys to make you giddy ~ you could restructure the town centre in Lego.

Moving randomly on, today's date is my chance to share a wonderful Erich Fromm quote I found posted on facebook (thanks Charty): “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence”.  The Ancient Mayan calendar apparently regards 12-12-12 as the beginning of a new cycle of evolution for humanity and the cosmos, heralding a momentous shift in the collective consciousness of the planet. I look forward to it wistfully.  Eric Fromm's words reminded me of that sensational Auden line "We must love one another or die" which I've now discovered (thanks Steve) the poet himself later rued as shamefully sentimental. He withdrew the poem from his collections and refused further permission to use it, but I'm far from alone in feeling huge resonance in the elegant magnificence of this laconic line: E M Forster in his political essays wrote of Auden "Because he once wrote 'We must love one another or die' he can command me to follow him", and the injunction remains in popular culture as an aspiration even if not a truth universally acknowledged. Auden is possibly my favourite poet so I'm baffled he recoiled so violently, and wonder if it was precisely that ~ recoil, like the kickback from a powerful gun connecting with irrevocable impact. So that's my message at 12am on 12/12/12: numbers come & go, but never underestimate the power of words. Happy New Cosmic Shift!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Hey Diddle Diddle at Bristol Old Vic is billed for ages 3-6 and delivers exactly what it says on the tin: nursery-rhyme-based entertainment to delight children up to first year at school, though probably not far beyond. A lively trio of performers ~ Isabelle Cressy especially awesome ~ used music and physical theatricality to create a story blending naughtiness with magic. It’s a timeless formula for success with this age group, and the adoring row of tiny watchers was a show in itself. There’s useful tips for parents in the replicability of aspects like simple shadow play, instruments created from trays and plates and tubes, with dressing-up-box costumes & homemade-looking military hats, but the undoubted highlight is the don’t-try-this-at-home-kids! sequence of Incey Wincey Spider’s balletic web-climb to dizzy heights. My only reservation about this simple and lovely show was the book-ending sections establishing roles and relationships for the three ‘children’ which seemed unnecessary wordage for such inventive performers.

Over the other side of the river Tobacco Factory has collaborated with NIE with a new production of Hansel and Gretel. Typically for this amazing company there’s inventive musicality and huge gusto as they tackle a particularly grim Grimm’s fairytale summed up by director Alex Byrne as "cruel and delicious ~ a tale of famine and cannibalism, bravery and to some extent redemption.” To a limited extent I'd add ~ as acknowledged by the children when their journey is near completion with witch slain and jewels claimed: “Hansel, does that mean we are now at peace?” “Do you mean as well as murderers?” responds her brother...  Mindful of the 'nasty and scary' aspects, the company uses puppets and humour in their storytelling, with helpful reminders like “This was a long time ago, please don’t be too concerned, this might not happen to you.” But worse than the roly-poly witch who gloats I just really like eating children. Is it so wrong? is the domestic abuse in the family Hansel and Gretel leave behind, with a mother introduced as “a kind of Jungian archetype.” After succumbing to another vicious tirade and agreeing to abandon his children in the forest, Father appeals for audience support, and the ensuing shocked silence makes us all culpable witnesses.  And that early hint might also invite reflection that Jung's interpretation of this story as an essential journey to adulthood includes too the notion that the terrible taboo of child-eating represents persecution of minorities, with the symbol of the oven especially gruesome in this Germanic tale. Dark material indeed, but the music is uplifting, the playfulness with puppets is beautiful, and the multi-cultural cast all terrific. And there's a magical ending as snow slowly descends all around.

 Third Christmas production this weekend in family-show terms is the Goldilocks planet: Pinocchio at Frome's Merlin was a hit right across the age-range, from tinies to grannies. Directed by Philip de Glanville for Merlin Theatre Company, this warm-hearted slightly wacky story was full of delights and surprises, notably the superb puppet-show scene. I specially loved Laurie Parnell's Puppet Master, Ryan Hughes as the Singing Cricket and Tina Waller in the title role, but there were lots of great cameos and ensemble moments in this hugely successful community production.

Finally... Do you trust this government ~ or any future government ~ never to use legislation based on the Leveson report beyond its intended aim of curbing press intrusion? 86% of those surveyed for English PEN don't, and frankly nor do I. As PEN campaigns coordinator Robert Sharp points out, Leveson's considerations focused on larger publishers such as national and regional press and magazines... and given the way news is now disseminated with bloggers and citizen journalists, it is important to consider the position of individuals and small publishers in any legal or regulatory regimes. PEN is the Amnesty of writers across the world, so when this organisation joins forces with Liberty to oppose compulsory statutory regulation in the interests of free speech, I think we should listen to their views. While we still can.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

I'm preempting my next scheduled post with a Drop-the-Dead-Donkey item: Peter Pan at Bristol Old Vic. Based on JM Barrie's story and devised by the company, this is the most beautiful, funny, and deeply moving show you'll see this Christmas. Tristan Sturrock is simply incredible as the timeless child of our cultural fantasy, and the entire cast can move you to tears of mirth or sorrow at a plangent chord from the ~ excellent ~ live musicians. Peter and Wendy poignantly apart, the rest of the cast morphed thinly disguised (except fatly Tootles) and delightfully from Lost Boys to pirates to mermaids, the lagoon scene a high point of glam cross-dressing and bubbles with superb crescendo to that famous To die would be an awfully big adventure line. Act two returns us gradually to reality, with a scene of extraordinary beauty as Wendy decides to grow up and Peter is left falling slowly, agonisingly, back into his pram. But that's not the end, of course, as there's redemption and reconciliation and more music, and Wendy's daughter flies once more into the magic world of Peter Pan... a fabulous show, and a must-see for anyone who can get to Bristol before 19 January.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Hip Yak Poetry Shack put on a fantastic show at the Merlin on Friday when the usual Yakkers ~ Liv Torc, Jonny Fluffypunk and Chris Redmond all in fine form ~ were headlined for this Take Art benefit night by Matt Harvey. Jonny shared a recollection of childhood in Little Kingshill, the only village to win awards in both Britain in Bloom and Middle England in a Coma, and a passionate love poem to coffee, while Liv offered a similarly hilarious eulogy to The Wet Patch, and a touching new poem about her unborn, unconceived, child, you who may never be more than a nudge, a thought, a fear... Beautiful. Matt's speciality is brilliant links dryly delivered and he's wickedly funny about his home town Totnes where, he claims, a Holistic Hooliganism Workshop to deal with rowdy Torquay lads resulted in chants of You're going home with your chakras realigned... All great stuff, and a worthy cause: Take Art supports a big range of creative projects across Somerset to help sustain rural communities and encourage participation in the Arts, and long may they do so.

And in other news... Frome's roaming protegee Niamh Ferguson showed some of the exotic images from her book Love from India in Paul Street Pop-up Gallery, and The Parlour launched Marian Bruce's exhibition Shelter inspired by squatter camps in South Africa ~ woven refuges and hides made from "elements readily available, reference to Zulu huts in the bush, Cape Town camps, even the nests of weaver birds." These unadorned, unrobust, shelters provoke salutary reflection on this most basic human need.

Frome's streets were thronged throughout the weekend for the famous Extravaganza ~ it's been rebranded for some obscure civic reason but we still call it that because the ritual is the same: solstice celebrations in the streets, reindeer in the precinct, mulled wine in the reclaimed precinct toilets, masses of stalls and all things festive from carols to roasted chestnuts. Highlight is traditional lights-switching-on event in the market square: loud 5-4-3-2-1 countdown from the crowd followed by equally loud burst of mirth as nothing occurs for 40 seconds, loud cheer as the tree illuminates and half the street lights follow suit. A popular ritual followed faithfully on Saturday, with this year a fantastic pop-up market throughout the town centre on Sunday. Eat your heart out Bath!

Final footnote: fans of satiric animation featuring Jack Hersey, reddest-necked cop ever, will be delighted to know there's a new one on the way: You can read about The Patsy in Scriptwriting in the UK and even better, you can click on Kickstarter and make it happen! So don't worry if you missed out on supporting rural arts, here's another opportunity to show solidarity with struggling artists and get big warm glow inside as well as a hugely entertaining outcome.