Sunday, December 29, 2013

Festivus & my big fat end-of-year

According to Seinfeldt, or at least to George's father, what non-christians need is Festivus, the festival for the rest of us, to be celebrated on 23rd December. So having already enjoyed my family gift-giving two days early, my boxing-day walk fell naturally on christmas eve, leaving plenty of time for more walks, socialising with friends & wider family, great live music nights and some good viewing too. This included on DVD Ruby Sparksa rom-com with satisfying streaks of profundity as complicated young novelist Calvin writes his ideal girlfriend into existence. Echoing that familiar syndrome summed up in the Broadway musical I love you, you're perfect, now change! Calvin sets about tweaking his creation only to discover, as so many men do, that his control only causes either disturbing dependency or angry resistance.  Zoe Kazan is captivating in the title role of this movie she scripted herself, Paul Dano seems less comfortable as a nerdy young genius than as a dysfunctional teen in Little Miss Sunshine, also directed by Jonathan Dayton (one of my favourite movies) but it's still all very enjoyable.
Most interesting TV viewing was a documentary: Sex Lies and a Very British Scapegoat despite being narrated by Andrew Lloyd-Webber had some interesting footage from 1963 when the establishment ~ conniving with the press ~ made Stephen Ward fall-guy for John Profumo's affair with Christine Keeler by skewing his contemporary hedonism into a kind of seedy bear-pit into which the philandering War Secretary helplessly fell. Mandy Rice Davis, challenged to defend her youthful insouciance, nailed the era superbly:
"I felt I was part of the vanguard movement to the more liberal future."  Good to see you're still up there with the best in feisty ripostes, Ms Rice "he-would-wouldn't-he?" Davis ~ and if that means nothing, google it without her name... Now THAT's fame.

Which segues neatly to my play in the Media Monsters double bill with Rosie Finnegan at the Alma Tavern Theatre next month (January 28th to February 8th).  Fixing It looks at what happens to an idealistic couple who chose their life values in the 1960s, now that a cynical sensationalist media has begun to search for monsters and portray the relationships of that era as either naïve or evil. Maybe we should remember Nietzsche's words:  He who fights monsters should take care lest he thereby become a monster. If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.  If we focus on the terrible world the monster inhabits, does this inevitably become our viewpoint too?

Alma Tavern Theatre is already taking bookings so you can buy tickets online here ~ or if you're reading this you count as a friend, so contact me for seats with a small discount! Smiley face.

 So farewell 2013, the year that pushed fracking and twerking into our faces, verbally speaking, made Dickensian poverty the norm, and bought another nuclear reactor for Somerset even as Fukushima radioactive debris washes Californian shores. Afghanistan while officially 'not perfect' is near enough to stop bombing by the end of next year, and £50million will see our own war centenary a celebration 'like the diamond jubilee.'  Nevertheless, let's welcome 2014 and try to take good care of it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Festivities sans Frontier in Frome

Festivities are bursting out all over as tinseltide approaches fast. Festive Stockings opened at Cornerhouse Pub Theatre for two nights ~ audience feedback was terrific: Absolutely fantastic! ~ Very funny & well written ~ Really enjoyed it. Good laugh & also thought provoking ~ Excellent! Laughed a lot. Very well written and performed.~ Brilliant ~ Hilarious and creative.  ~ Excellent. Really impressed with the standard of writing, each piece was thoroughly enjoyable and great actors too. ~ Very entertaining.
Here's some rehearsal pictures from Ackroyd's Christmas Stocking by Alison Clink, one of the four short plays written for this Nevertheless/Stepping Out co-production, with Danann McAleer in the title role about to utter the crucial line "Who the fuck is Minky?"

And as the production team set off to the Alma Tavern Theatre in Clifton for another two nights performance and further acclaim, the rest of us dashed down to the Cheese & Grain for the Acoustic Street Party, promoted as "the largest indoor street party Frome (and possibly the world) has ever seen", hosted by the extraordinary Cabaret Sans Frontières (described by one participant as Pontins on acid). Local lad Sam Evans topped the musical bill, with much wild dancing in the (virtual) street.

Dancing again on Sunday, at Pete Gage Band's Blues'n'Boogie Christmas ~ five fantastic musicians who totally rocked the crowded Cornerhouse. Jiggling (and even jiving) to faster numbers irresistible despite lack of floor space ~ several girls enterprisingly used their seats ~ and host Martin Earley added the crimbo factor with I'm dreaming of a White Christmas.... we must be nearly there!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Festive stalkings and Bluebird magic

December is a month that melts, slowly at first then like an avalanche as the big Two-Five slides unstoppably towards you. In Frome the upside of this is a glitzy plethora of festivities and music: Ian Ballamy played at the Griffin on Friday, and Saturday was party night at Cheese&Grain as the fabulous Sgt Pepper's Only Dartboard Band rocked out an amazing Beatlemanic medley ranging from early chart hits to Abbey Road, and including Revolver in entirety.  Dancing compulsory.
Cheese&Grain swapped retro for fantasy on Sunday with a SteamPunk market selling everything from punk styles inspired by Victorian modes to... er, Victorian styles garnished with futuristic punk.  I specially liked the adventurers' hats, with goggles & map, ideal for discovering the source of the Amazon, offered by RP Outfitters, purveyors of Steampunk attire, accoutrements & artillery, including fripperies and exterminators for the most intrepid of explorers. A festival for fans is planned for summer 2014.

Meanwhile over in Bath, a magical version of The Bluebird by Butterfly Psyche is on at Rondo Theatre, delighting audiences and garnering as many stars in review as on stage. Maeterlinck may not seem an obvious choice for a festive production: the bluebird of this mythic quest represents attainable happiness, true, but the writer himself believed man to be powerless against the forces of fate.  He wanted his actors to be like marionettes, expressing not human emotions but external forces. Alison Farina, who directed as well as scripting this version, evokes Maeterlinck's 'static drama' theory in a musical introduction as dancers from Bath Dance College pirouette like musical box figurines and toy soldiers, but there's a strong change of mood as the story starts with young Tyltyl in a strop with his mother, his life, and especially his babysitter looney Mrs Lune, aka Fairy Berylune, who will send him on a journey into Other Worlds to find the Bluebird of Happiness and change his life. The dialogue is sharp, often moving but never sentimental, retaining contemporary edge as well as classic fairy-tale morals: "It's only when you release your sorrows that you can see the bluebird" Tyltyl learns, braving perils while Fairy Berylune watches Downton Abbey. An excellent cast of five brought every character vividly to life, with some fabulous set pieces ~ the Duke & Duchess of Luxury's crazy feast which wouldn't have been out of place in Tim Burton's Alice, and the Oak King's impressive tirade against man's assaults on the environment, among other marvellous scenes.
And there's magic for children from start to finish, with a great set and an onstage welcome at the 'magic market' where they can trade their christmas wishes for sugar snowflakes and fairy dust, and a bluebird finger puppet to take home.  Add in lighting effects, onstage music, and a very funny dog puppet who becomes real and even funnier, and this show should be unmissable festive viewing for everyone ~ sadly, it's only on till Saturday. So if you live near Bath, that's 4 more chances.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Midwinter Magic... and Monsters on the move!

Moominland Midwinter is the seasonal show at the egg in Bath, though Moominland isn’t a place of sparkling lights and jollity in winter. There’s solitude and scary trolls and a fearful Grope seeking solace she will never find, there’s slippery snow and breaking ice and people who eat all your jam. There’s loneliness and anxiety and danger and even death. Hattie Naylor’s brilliant adaptation baulks at none of Tove Janssen’s Nordic existentialist melancholy, creating quirky dialogue that can range from absurdity to despair without losing the rapt attention of the watching children. Pace of dramatic storytelling ~ aided by magical lighting effects and funky music ~ never flags, despite set pieces swooping on and off stage and characters changing size as they race from close range to mid-distance. The puppets themselves, made and manipulated by  Horse+Bamboo, are magical creatures full of personality and pathos, and effortlessly became the focus of our watching and listening; Little Mi, though clearly held on to a tea-tray by a jerseyed young woman, was as much in peril in the thaw as if she were a real child skating cracking ice. 
 I loved the show, and the four children I brought all loved it too: although three are considerably younger than the recommended age of 6, they remaining engrossed and fascinated throughout ~  even dashing out of the foyer Wendy House as soon as they heard the bell ring for Act 2 ~ now that’s an impressive indicator. Congratulations to all the creative team.

As snow falls on the egg stage, my mobile is silently bringing me the news that Media Monsters is now fully cast. Marc Geoffrey our director has a Yes from a fantastic trio from last week's auditions: Vincent Enderby, Robert Myer, and Paddy Navin are joining Olivia Dennis. Rehearsals start 6th January, preview in Frome 24th & 25th and then two weeks at Alma Tavern Theatre in Bristol from 28th January... It's all fantastically exciting, not least because becoming involved in production process is the best way to learn the craft of script-writing ~ I can already see some exchanges the actor doesn't need verbalised, so my red pen will come with me to first rehearsal... can't wait.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Mainly about performance..

Frome Poetry Cafe is always a sparkling way to start the week, like having champagne for breakfast, and this Monday night was a very special cuvée. Mell Oliver, our 'festival poet laureate' was on fizzing form, and Daisy Behagg, slightly startled herself to discover she was our 'surprise guest', showed exactly why she's this year's Bridport prize-winner. As this was our annual tie-in with the Merlin Theatre Christmas show, open-mic poems were on a theme of Alice's travel into the wonderland of imagination, and nine poets shared journeys lyrical, cynical, dramatic, witty, and full of rich imagery. Ali Campbell, actress and Merlin marketing officer, came to pick her personal favourite for 2 free tickets to the show, choosing Rick Ryman for his beautiful dreamlike Sonnet with rain. (I didn't get a good picture of that, so here's me with Mell, taken by Skip.) It was great to see new faces among the full-house at the Garden Cafe, and hear poetic voices both local and travelling specially to join us. The evening ended with Mell's unforgettable poem Learning the language of the sky: "basically about connection and learning to be together as one - the only thing I really know how to write about." Thanks to all who came, performed, and listened. 

Meanwhile at Merlin Theatre, Alice's journeys have begun. Tiny animals and playing cards are performed by different teams on alternate nights: I saw Team Hearts, all delightful especially the dormouse and the enchanting little Alice. The set is charming, enhanced by great lighting and effects, and the Cheshire Cat unforgettable: a vast Tenniel-style grin combined intermittently with enormous eyes and a tail, manipulated with feline slinkiness by a sextet of young puppeteers. Add a lugubrious Mock Turtle song, flamingo croquet dance and other fantasies from the imagination of Lewis Carroll, this added up to another show that producer Claudia Pepler and the whole creative team can be proud of.

Over in Bristol it's family-show time too, with The Little Mermaid at Bristol Old Vic, based on the Hans Anderson story but without the sombre ending. This version is billed as a tale of adventure, courage, and the pursuit of true love.  It’s also a tale of family dynamics psychologically explained as Mer-dad and Queen-mum analyse their interactions to us, and it's a Richard-Curtis-style hero’s journey with the shy Hugh-Grant-ish Prince questing a bride, and there's a bit of a trad panto as we hiss the witch and clap the mermaid back to life from her disintegration into bubbles (don't have nightmares on bath-night, kids!) with a nod to X-factor in the singing competition and a Jackanory thing going on too as the action is explained in voice-over...  So there's a lot in it, and despite fabulous sets, exquisite lighting, and some good comedic moments, it doesn't really flow.  Katie Moore is simply dazzling in the title role: she looks, sounds, and moves superbly ~ which makes it all the more of a mystery why she wasn’t allowed to move her own tail like her sisters instead of being carted around like a rolled-up rug delivered by two bell-hops. The nine actors were all faultless, but the adaptation and script didn’t do them justice and the production, at 2 hours 20 minutes, felt too often laboured and long.

Media Monsters update: Rosie & I spent Saturday at the Hen & Chickens in Bristol with director Marc Geoffrey at auditions, with the people who might become our characters in January when our double-bill goes onstage (24th & 25 in Frome then two weeks at the Alma Tavern Theatre, for those of you with next year's diary to hand). It's a strange experience, encountering different incarnations of people conceived in our heads, wondering which one will birth into our dramas. Olivia Dennis is already cast for both my play Fixing It and Rosie's, My Big Fat TV Bitch, so she had the surreal experience of flirting with seven Ricks and challenging three Glens. Marc was mega-impressive, running the day like a military operation from a corner-table smothered with CVs and printouts of selected scenes, while Rosie and I sat like kids at a panto, all big-eyed with excitement.  A fantastic shortlist, some awesome performances ~ final decision to be announced on Wednesday.... 

Monday, December 02, 2013

Extravaganza: a spectacular entertainment or production.

Other towns do Switching-on-the-Christmas-Lights. Frome has an Extravaganza. On a cold but fine night literally thousands lined the main road cheering as Jenson scorched up and down in his Formula 1 car doing donuts, and also more sedately in the Santander open-top, waving and sometimes dismounting to give a hug or an autograph. Oh, and he switched on some lights too ~ not that we cared, most of them were on already but we'd saved him a tree: a suitable pagan emblem for a demigod. "Frome is just a dot on the map but he's shown you can go out and conquer the world" declaimed the emotional compère introducing our most illustrious export, as the Youth Town Band played. I didn't get a close-up so nicked one from the BBC (who also made a great video for Points West) showing the switching-on moment with the Frome Mayor on the left, because I really like mentioning that Dicken is the youngest, tallest, Mayor in the country. Warm-up acts included bands, choirs, Muriel Lavender in a viridian corset, and the three sweet little winners of the Christmas card competition.

 In fact having a street party was such fun we did it all again next day, though without Jenson, but with street music and an amazing Food Fair at the Silk Mill where the yard was filled with stalls of amazing scoff ~ lush fish soup from La Paimpolaise ~ with a noon-till-late all-age party with blues & reggae disco. Frome Library edged in on the festivities discreetly by ensuring their evening talk on historical fiction had a focus on Christmas celebrations through the ages, with four local writers on the panel (Jenny Barden, David Lassman, Kylie Fitzpatrick and Tricia Wastvedt) all entertaining as well as interestingly informative. Eras ranged from Elizabethan 'Lords of Misrule' to Nazi suppression, and saw the first emergence of media-message impact: the picture of Prince Albert's decorated tree that changed England's festive focus from burning yule log to dressed pine forever...

And then we did it again, the street celebrations thing I mean not the library talk, as Sunday was Frome Super Market day with roads closed to traffic and open to stalls selling everything you could imagine to wear, give, eat, drink, or put on your bike. Mayor Dicken was out in a different role hawking ties ~ yes, if you're inspired by tales of the independent state of Frome, you can buy the tie: colours still available are bright blue, bright red, bright green & bright orange... bright yellow has sold out. Lots of tastings of local products, and the busking stage extra good this month with Tell-Tale Signs poguing out Fairy Tales of New York and world songs from massed voices of Jackdaws choir. And as the disco lights in the Silk Mill go out and the glittering street lights in town come on, we settle down on facebook with greenie grumblings about Buttonmania versus consumerism....
So to end this Frome-obsessive posting: photo-journalist Edward Johnson has created A Story of Frome on his gallery website. It's told entirely in portraits of locals who work creatively here, and I'm delighted to be included (penultimate picture) and to see some good friends there. I can think of several more who deserve a place, so hopefully there'll be a second gallery soon.

Friday, November 29, 2013

An elegant Betrayal...

Harold Pinter's Betrayal begins at the end, with the 'adulterous' couple Emma and Jerry meeting after their affair is over and her marriage has ended. Their brittle exchanges linger with an unease so infectious a woman behind me in the Merlin auditorium murmured "I think a prompter's needed." Sequential scenes told the story of their seven-year affair in reverse, showing the impact on Emma's husband Robert who is also Jerry's best friend.  Rebecca Pownall and Steven Clarke as the wayward duo and Pete Collis as the colluding husband all gave brilliant performances in this classy LCT touring production directed with razor-sharp precision by Michael Cabot.  The play looks terrific throughout, set against non-specific ruins and debris with characters hard-lit like Hockney couples, and with the same sense of emotional distance ~ I've used one of Hockney's paintings here, as the flyer image throbs with red-hot suggestiveness totally absent from the play. The love affair itself is a grey shadow of the past like the rubble around them: as audience-voyeurs we are granted no glimpses of exquisite intimacy, just key moments of destructive duplicity. The affair ends, choked with its own deceit, with not a bang but a bicker, as the story continues in retrospect, taking us on the journey of insight about which the protagonists themselves still seem oblivious. If the plot sounds dreary, the production is not: it sparkles with social-observational wit, and the absence of musical sound-track keeps a focus tightly on words ~ the said and the unsaid, the secrets, silences and lies that are Laing's knots binding these three together.

The script for Betrayal is notoriously based on Pinter's own affair with Joan Bakewell, and Jerry voices the playwright's anger at her husband's unvoiced knowledge which he saw as another, perhaps more profound, betrayal. It's inevitable to wonder in the final scene, when Emma allows Jerry to seduce her, whether his cosmic passion is expressed with lines the playwright used himself back in 1962 when everything in his world disintegrated and falling in love was "the only thing that has ever happened..." No-one who's been there would judge either the character or his creator, however forseeable the future. Superb revival, timeless masterpiece.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Nevertheless ventures and adventures

"Women have been taught that for us the earth is flat, and if we venture out we will fall off the edge. Some of us have ventured out nevertheless, and so far we have not fallen off."
I don't often quote Andrea Dworkin,  anarchist, feminist & anti-war activist, but it seems appropriate for this posting which is all about Nevertheless Productions.  It's only three years since my amazingly dynamic, entrepreneurial and all-round gorgeous friend Rosie Finnegan asked me to join her in bringing pub theatre to Frome...  we had no funding, no production company, and no idea how this would work but nevertheless we went ahead using an upstairs room at the Lamb, now The Cornerhouse and probably the most popular venue in town.  Rosie and I made countless theatre trips to find shows with the kind of edgy writing and professional production values we wanted, and last year founded our own group, the brilliant Frome Scriptwriters, and also linked up with Bristol's inspirational Stepping Out Theatre Company.  We've now given Frome 12 productions, mostly sold out and all receiving enthusiastic audience feedback, and there's another show simmering: On Thursday & Friday December 19th & 20th you can enjoy an hour's original entertainment comprising short plays written by Frome Scriptwriters ~ and this one is definitely the best yet.  Festive Stockings features four 15 minute plays chosen by director Chris Loveless: Kate's Story by Eddie Young, Who is Santa? by Tim Addams, and Letter Home by Emma Stadon will be performed as rehearsed script-in-hand, and Ackroyd's Christmas Stocking by Alison Clink fully produced.  And we have a dream-team of actors: Olivia Dennis, Danann McAleer, Gerard Cooke, and Kim Hicks ~ so get your name on the list for a seat now!

And even before the tinsel is down Rosie and I will be deeply involved in another drama, which will be be premiered at The Cornerhouse before its 2-week run at Bristol's Alma Tavern Theatre 28th January to 8th February.  Rosie and I were commissioned by Stepping Out Theatre Company to write a double-bill, and Media Monsters is the result.  Director Marc Geoffrey is holding auditions on December 6th and rehearsals start early in the new year! Is there anything as exciting as seeing your play in a Casting Call in Theatre Bristol 'Jobs' section? Talk about Christmas coming early...


Salary: £300 per week Application Deadline: 30.11.13 17:00
A double bill of new writing
Directed by Marc Geoffrey

MY BIG FAT TV BITCH by Rosie Finnegan
An original and comic satire on Reality Television 
FIXING IT by Crysse Morrison
A complex, subtle and fascinating look at the erosion of personal ideals and the changing face of sexual mores over the last 40 years set against the background of the Jimmy Saville scandal.
Rehearsals begin 6th January 2014 

Performance dates : 
Fri 24th & Sat 25th January 2014 at The Corner House, Frome. 
Tue 28th January to Sat 8th February 2014 at The Alma Tavern Theatre, Clifton.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Trending this week: Deadly females

Frome faced the first frost of winter flamboyantly with a plethora of varied creative enterprises this weekend: Friday's brilliant Acoustic Plus night at the Cheese & Grain featured the legendary Bugs as well as Frome Afrobeat Project ~ a town-sponsored scheme for young musicians led by Lekan Babalola. Saturday was the 5th birthday of Deadly is the Female ~ internationally famed since Nigella Lawson's twitter endorsement~ celebrated in quirky baroque style with tequila cocktails and live mannequins in the window... great fun ~

~ and strangely surreal to go direct to Marian Bruce's exhibition a few doors away... "Studio Collection" is what the title suggests: an assembly of random items from the artist's working area, in various media. I've worked with Marian on several projects and it's almost impossible to find words to express the life-vision her work embodies or the dark energy that emanates.  The small pieces cramming The Parlour stir memories, evoke myths, and dig deep into feelings of human endurance and frailty. They are provocative, disturbing and inspirational. Picasso said art should 'bristle with razors' and these disempowered, dismembered, silent heads and small sewn-up bodies have that power.

Another woman artist's exhibition opening too: Charlotte Moore, taking classic paintings 'Off the Wall' at the Black Swan, presenting familiar images from art ~ mostly naked women ~ recreated as daubed figures on wire mesh, cut and layered to offer spaces for the intruding viewer. Words at the Black Swan group found much to discuss and debate in this challenging re-making of cultural iconography. Our responses when shaped into poetic form will displayed with the exhibition, which runs until 24th December.

And, loosely connected with surreal journeys through time & place, a quick plug for the next Frome Poetry Cafe on Monday December 2nd, themed to tie in with the Merlin Theatre winter show,  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  By then Frome will be all a-glitter with festive lights switched on by local hero Jenson Button, Nevertheless Productions will have moved into top gear with our seasonal Pub Theatre production Festive Stockings, and it won't be long before the mayhem begins...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Just when you thought it was safe to leave Transylvania, another irresistible beast...

What do you get when a born freak, a former beauty queen and an award-winning director tell the true story of Beauty and the Beast? asks the promo for this ONEOFUS/Improbable touring co-production visiting Bristol en route to London. The answer is a full house in BOV studio and a stunning show, impressive as much for its honesty, humour & humanity as for its startlingly erotic interpretation of this classic fairytale. Mat Fraser, probably UK’s best-known disabled actor, uses his deformity to become a beautiful beast to Julie Atlas Muz, burlesque artiste from Detroit, his feisty fairy-tale captive and real-life wife.
 “What better way to make a fairy tale than to fall in love?” Julie asks the audience at the start as the couple introduce themselves to us with an intimacy that becomes integrated with the performance as personal anecdotes and private moments in their own story are spliced into the legend. Silently assisting these two extraordinary performers, puppeteers Jonny Dixon and Jess Jones dexterously manipulate props and contribute much to the wit as well as the glamour of this amazing study of human emotions: fear, lust, loss, loneliness, tenderness, and finally redemption through love.
There’s a lot to laugh at too: from complicit looks to the audience at dramatic moments to a raunchy banquet scene which would make Tom Jones look like taking tea with Philip Larkin. The final scene strips any last vestige of vanilla from the traditional fantasy as bridal Beauty stares at her newly-transformed Prince Charming, yells “Where’s my beast?” and tears off both their clothes again ~ most of the story has been performed naked ~ to create a fittingly explicit finale with the puppeteers as rose-strewing cherubs to their erotic romance.  Mat and Julie are supernova stars, but it clearly took teamwork to devise this unforgettable show, with special credit to Philip Eddols for the atmospheric set, Kevin Pollard for exquisite costumes, and director Phelim McDermott.

Frome saw a small surge of sensuousness too, when the Lip Smacking Chocolate Festival arrived on Sunday to fill the Cheese & Grain with all things chocolatey, syropy, and luscious. Sacchariferous consumables are currently off limits for me but the aroma was ambrosial, and entrants in the lip-smacking limerick competition were olfactorarily inspired, according to judge Muriel Lavender. (I only made up one of those words, btw.) Here's my entry, declared by Mlle Lavender as quintessentially about her and thus winning a place in the runners-up:
If I was a champagne truffle
I'd lie round all day on a ruffle,
     Dance with Viennese Whirls,
     Flirt with Caramel Swirls ~
I bet that would cause a kerfuffle.
First prize went to Jackie Cornish aka Miss Marshmellow. I think it was a big box of chocolates...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Black metal, black magic, autumn sunshine

I had no plans to watch Andrew O'Neill is Distracted  at the Merlin until I saw him on Stuart Lee Presents, when attendance became irresistible - not a general response unfortunately, as Andrew had a sparse sample of Fromies to analyse in his what-kind-of-audience-are-you routine. 'Offensive, yes, but also politically acute,' he commented, pointedly, after a paedo gag didn't get us rollicking. His 1980s heavy metal references were a bit over our heads, too, but by the interval howls of mirth were rocking the empty-ish aisles. The first half of his act had delivered everything you could want from standup: sharp observational comedy combined with surrealism, delivered in a noisy, unpredictable way and very very funny.  The real impact came in the equally hilarious second half, when Andrew talked about being a transvestite, how he's dealt with stigma, and about his ADHD. He's come to enjoy both, he says, and encourages everyone to accept and welcome their own distractions ~ for their mental health's sake.  For a black-metal occultist comedian, Andrew O'Neill has big humanity and talks much sense.

Henry Walker and the Wheel of Death was adapted for theatre by director Shane Morgan from the novel Mr Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace. The author apparently agreed a title change was a good idea. Roughhouse Theatre took on this ambitious project, which was performed at Bath’s charming Rondo theatre. The story opens with profound and beautiful words taken from Carl Sagan's 'vision of the human future': Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark, to introduce this tale of a man first white then black, and his struggle to become a magician. Another fitting quote might be Tolstoy’s observation that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Specifically, Henry is unhappy: his mother is dying, his father is drinking, and his sister is besotted by a dog. Henry, well played at this stage by Dan Gaisford, unwittingly enters a Faustian pact with mysterious Mr Sebastian and discovers that by acquiring magical skills he has traded his beloved sister Hannah (excellently played by Madelaine Ryan.)  Much of the twisting plot offers metaphors for human life ~ as commented on, perhaps overmuch, by external narrators including a greek chorus on microphones side stage. Vast red curtains create a circus-like environment for the story as Henry changes persona, goes from riches to rags, and finally disappears but this "dark fairytale” is also an allegory of human life. Cue Sagan again: In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. Or, as the narrator puts it: "You need to let go of the past when the things you have to remember are sad."
Interestingly, the original story is set in a Southern US town in the 1950s and starts with the disappearance, focussing on the search for the real Henry by three outsider-status circus friends. Possibly this, rather than featuring the change in Henry's pigmentation, might have offered more dramatic scope ~ but new approaches and bold ideas should always be applauded.

Fictional footnote: Enterprising Clare Reddaway, doyen of Bath's spoken-word Story Fridays, has branched into audio and I’m delighted one of my stories has been selected for recording. Sisterly Love will be on the Word in Your Ear website soon.
And before winter closes in on us like Andrew's menacing claw-hand descending on the guy in front row on Friday night, here's how Stourhead does autumn... 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Meanwhile in Transylvania...

Theatrical sensation of this autumn season was Dracula from Mark Bruce Company, which ended its highly-acclaimed tour in Merlin Theatre Frome this weekend. If you didn't 'kill for a ticket' as recommended by the Observer critic, you have missed a marvel. Erotic, beautiful, and violent, this adaptation arouses the all emotions evoked by Bram Stoker’s haunting classic before vampire tales became Twilighted. Without a word spoken, every dramatic element combines to tell the story: the music, atmospheric and eclectic, ranges from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata to 'Down at the Old Bull & Bush', and the visual effects are sensational ~ set, lighting, costumes, masks, and props all superbly support the shifts of mood from Victorian propriety to the terrible allure of the dark forest beyond. But it's the dance which defines the characters and weaves the narrative threads, exploring the monstrous side of being human as well as the human side of being a monster. All the dancers are amazing but Jonathan Goddard in the title role is simply unforgettable: whether your Dracula is metaphorical or mythic, terrifying or irresistible, you'll find him here.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Frome goes everywhere...

Frome's Queen of burlesque Muriel Lavender last week went to Leinfelden-Echterdingen to compete at the World Beard and Moustache Championship and came home with a runner-up trophy. Her Whiskerina triumph is featured by Frome Standard with the venue located obliquely in 'Germany' but with some comely shots of our Muriel, whose lippy talents are now turning to chocolate as she'll be judging succulent limericks at the Chocolate Festival  on Sunday 17th November at the Cheese & Grain. Only a quid, have a go!

Travelling metaphorically even further afield, the exquisite mandalas on exhibition at La Strada this week have all been inspired by Tibetan art, all meticulously hand-painted by Frome musician Pete Gage. Like Muriel's beard, they're more complex than a mere copy: Pete introduces Celtic themes, graphic design skills learned at St Martin's Art College in the sixties, and striking colour combinations to create enigmatic pieces with depths and even movement below the surface of their immaculate precision. You can buy, and commission, through Pete's website.

Moving my virtual sat-nav to Bristol for this post's footnote (sorry about these appalling segueways, I'm finally feeling better so probably all part of the detox process) Nevertheless Pub Theatre prepares for our next production: Festive Stockings, an evening of short seasonal plays which will be premiered in The Cornerhouse and then professionally performed onstage at the Alma Tavern Theatre in Clifton.  Frome Scriptwriters have been fine-tuning their dramas at our last few workshops and Rosie & I now have ten script submissions to send to our director for his verdict on the final choice... more details soon!

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Hi, November...

I've been avid to see Philomena since I first read about the true story that inspired it ~ the lost little boy and his mother's journey of atonement ~ so the first showing at the Westway on release day saw me seated in style in one of the much-coveted half-circle 'boxes' at the back (I mention this because Frome's wonderful independent cinema deserves a plug at every opportunity.) I've not read Martin Sixsmith's book, but Stephen Frears' film superbly told this moving personal tale. Judy Dench and Steve Coogan are both utterly brilliant ~ Martin Sixsmith writes he hopes his 'snootiness and self-absorbtion' are both exaggerated in the portrayal, but both the mother and the journalist are shown with sympathy not sentimentality, and their relationship is moving but never mawkish.  Rotten Tomatoes is succulent with critical acclaim ~ I specially like the Financial Times verdict: "This is a doleful, radiant, understated comedy of hope and faith. That's almost a definition of good British cinema". Tears and laughter is the general verdict, though one squashed tomato was chucked on grounds of anti-catholicism, which seems strange for a film that despite the harrowing, angry-making, truth about Church practice in the past is delicately assertive that things have improved... and so they bloody well should, since this was a baby-farm business model run on cruelty and hypocrisy (not my summary, the Guardian's.) Only occasionally does the journalist fail to swallow his atheism ~ as when exasperated by Philomena's unshakeable insistence on her 'sin' he demands "Why did God bestow on us a sexual desire that he wants us to resist - was it just to alleviate the extreme boredom of omnipotence?"

Nunney Acoustic Café on Sunday afternoon always provides great live music ~ with newspapers and scrummy food on the side ~ but this month was especially sensational, featuring among others David WaddingtonJulian (Bugs) Hight, and the fabulous combo of Richard Kennedy and Pete Gage with a sumptuous & totally stunning blues set.   And rain doesn't stop outside play in Frome either: the streets were as crowded with witches, zombies, and vampires on Halloween as they were with shoppers for Sunday's lively stall-holders' Super Market. So I'll end this post with a Samhain scream and a morning rainbow.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

That's the way to do it...

Winston on the Run, touring nationally to well-deserved starry acclaim, came to Frome's Merlin this week. This one-man show written & performed by Freddie Machin is set in 1899 when Winnie is an escaped prisoner-of-war "in a fiendish spot of bother, lost in the African savannah, wanted Dead or Alive." Addressing the audience as rats in his hide-out, he tells his story with dramatic use of lighting and sound design (Martin Thomas and Harri Chambers, congratulations - some posher companies could take notes) and incredibly, even though it sounds like a Boys Big Book of Brave Adventures, it's all taken from Winston Churchill's autobiography of his first 26 years. The yarns of daring-do are outrageous but this is no 2-dimensional hero: he's haunted by fears of his own futility and memories of his father's contempt, and there's enough parody of upper-class belligerent arrogance  to satisfy even a leftie pacifist like me.  "Dammit, I'm the son of a Lord," whimpers Winnie in frustration when thwarted in wild schemes or failing to impress as best-paid war-correspondent. It's a gripping play, acted with panache, energy and conviction, but I'm using this image of Freddie because he looks more like WC in life than in his fluffy orange wig. The post-show presentation was fascinating too, especially for any stage writer as it included an account of the Fol Espoir development process:  Freddie and co-creator John Walton used a Scratch performances all the way to Edinburgh as "you make more discoveries on stage ~ a relationship with audience is what moves a show on."

Still on the subject of top tips from practitioners, a new series on Frome FM entitled Best Job in the World  launched with Matthew Life-on-Mars Graham about his scriptwriting career. Matt's experience is with screens small and large, but much of what he said is sage for stage too.  To wit, the need for re-drafting several times, and then letting the director tweak too... "Is there a good way to get started?" asked interviewer Phil Moakes. "Yes. Write. If you're not writing, you're not passionate about it. I don't see writing as a career choice, it's something you have to do." Great words... and a good excuse for another glimpse of overweight, nicotine-stained, bordering-alcoholic Gene Hunt.  

Sunday, October 27, 2013

News from the Western front...

Dawn Gorman runs Bradford-on-Avon's successful and friendly Words & Ears poetry cafe with a visiting guest poet each month, but on Monday it was her turn to feature at the UK launch Mend and Hone.  US publishers toadlily press selected four entrants from their annual competition for this anthology, and Dawn is the first English poet to feature in what one reviewer has called "an astonishing chord of poetic voices." Dawn sees her pieces as 'journeys through an emotional landscape' and spoke of the importance of finding 'sacred space' as well as her New York launch party at the Poet's House in Soho Manhattan, which certainly sounded a long and possibly emotional journey from the coach-house at the Swan Inn. Ten more poets then stepped up to the virtual mic to share a range of readings on topics from apple trees to Temple Meads, including an amazing personal response to a cancer diagnosis from Andy Fawthrop ~ do take a look at his blog and scroll down to "Green".

Exeter's unique clowning-theatre group Navet Bete is touring with Once Upon a Time In the West, the current chaotic & hilarious show devised by this highly original, hi-energy team.  Using gymnastic physicality and extreme facial acting, with plot twists as unexpected and deadly as Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, the lads deliver everything you could want from a Wild West parody and more: a hero’s journey, gunfights, baddies, corruption, jeopardy,  marshmallows, a banjo-playing cactus… Unbounded by their quartet status, they take on multiple roles in absurd ensemble scenes, while successfully maintaining a just-about coherent storyline for their younger viewers ("He's not a very good Mayor" a small girl announced audibly and accurately as one cowboy dangled another upside-down by his heels) ~ indeed, audience participation provided some of the comic highlights and the actors are often at their funniest adlibbing and upstaging each other. There's a bit too much pooping for my taste but I guess if you pulled away any individual thread the extraordinary energy might unravel entirely, so best to just enjoy it all, and a full house at The Egg in Bath on Saturday vociferously did just that. Next up, A Christmas Carol at the Barbican throughout December ~ I'm already contemplating a winter trip to Plymouth...

Flimsiest of links for my final footnote this week: as a visual masterclass in establishing genre and raising expectations, the opening sequence of Ambassadors is neat, effective, and very funny.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Great Expectations...

Great Expectations is one of Dicken's gloomiest stories, the tale of a poor orphan whose journey is not to riches but mistakes and misplaced hopes, humiliation, debt, and loss of all those he loves. Quite a challenge, then, to create an evening's entertainment from such a theme, so it's not surprising the Bristol Old Vic current production has met some reservations from audiences.
The main problem is that Neil Bartlett’s adaptation couldn’t seem to decide whether this was story-telling or theatre. Some scenes are theatrical, like the entertaining lesson in etiquette Pip receives from Herbert Pocket on arrival in London, and the unforgettable conflagration of Miss Haversham, but mostly it's left to Pip ~ taller and paler than everyone else which makes him seem lost in an Alice-in-Wonderlandesque revererie of the past ~ to relate long sections explaining plot and describing feelings.
There is much to appreciate though, like the evocation of those classic illustrations by Seymour in the monochrome costumes, and some excellent performances: Adjoah Andoh deserves her accolades for a superbly scary Miss Haversham, Martin Bassindale is a delight as Herbert Pocket, and Tom Canton an impressive Pip.  But there are other problems: the overwhelming sound design, the awkward use of entries and exits (nipping in and out of peony-pink Narnia-like wardrobe doors as the alternative to a long walk across a bleak set)  and the lack of any glamour, however gothic or perverse, to contrast with Pip’s austere childhood. And Estella seemed more like the sour little girl from The Secret Garden than an object of aspiration. This was a show with a lot of darkness and a lot of sadness and quite a lot of buckets of water. We end as we began, with adult Pip washing his hands, possibly biblically, until Estella's return activates a loud sawing sound which, if it was the file that cut Magwitch’s chain and set this bleak story in motion, was a fittingly cerebral end to a story full of fine detail and narrative but ultimately skimpy on visceral feeling.