Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bristol-based Stepping Out Theatre Company's current production opened in London at the White Bear Theatre Kennington. Five Kinds of Silence has won two awards for writer Shelagh Stephenson and it's easy to see why: the story is heinous but the script glitters, lyrical and laconic by turn, and with startling dark humour from the opening moment when Susan and Janet shoot their father while their mother whimpers 'I should have done that.'  From this point we follow the fall-out as years of normalised abuse are peeled back to show what happens when two traumatised children grow up and meet and marry, and then there are two more children... 'We're just a case history' says Janet, learning the vocabulary of 'feeling' that will pacify baffled professionals, but to both girls words like vulnerable are useless. 'You just survive,' says Susan, 'You don’t tell anyone. Because it’s private.' These curt interviews are interspersed with richer imagery in their personal monologues ~ especially Billy, who recalls the night he met Mary: 'The world is black and cold but I’m taking her with me. She smiles. It’s better than killing the cat. Though somehow that’s muddled in too.' Billy is an immensely complex man as well as the savage dog of his dreams, and his daughters loved him ~ though as Janet says, it's sad he wasn't nicer so they wouldn't have to kill him.
This is a play that could be too harrowing to watch easily, but director Chris Loveless and a stunning cast have created a totally gripping piece of theatre which, while deeply moving, allows us to engage with compassion and even with hope. The relationship between the two daughters, superbly played with sensitive restraint by Violet Ryder and Olivia Dennis, is tender and truthful, and Zach Lee as Billy can change from beautiful to monstrous in a moment and is always charismatic. This extraordinary production runs to February 17th ~ it had pin-drop attention and passionate applause from the full-house first-night audience so if you're anywhere near London, book while you can.

A city break is a chance for theatre both on- and off- West End, and Privates on Parade is on, at the Noel Coward Theatre.  Filthy innuendo, men in frocks frolicking, what's not to like? I thought, and the show is indeed mostly hilarious froth & camp bubble but with with a rock of hard reality there below: the blundering folly of our 1940s conflict in Malaya ~ and war generally ~ and the crass racism & homophobia of the ruling classes who decreed & directed it. Hugely entertaining, with great performances from Simon Russell Beale as an endearing poof and Angus Wright as an obtuse god-bothering Major General.

Then to Southwark to the delightful little Chocolate Factory to see Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, another musical revival of a zesty show with a spike at the heart:  no deaths in this but a personal tragedy of wasted talent as musician Franklin Shepard ~ Mark Umbers is mesmeric in the role ~ looks back over a supernova-success story that's destroyed every relationship he valued. What's most poignant about this salutary fable of the relationship between art and money is that the timeline is in reverse, so we see with dreadful hindsight how every misjudgment and weak-willed trade-off has led irrevocably to the burnout of his real happiness. The production won Critics Circle Theatre Award and now even the extended run has sold out.

And finally before I leave London ~ though we have now actually, on the noisy late train from Paddington ~  a big-up to The Refinery where we had a fabulous supper presented all posh in a restaurant so lovely even the loo deserves special mention.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Back in Frome after Steptoe & Son for another retro tale of social misfits as Miracle Theatre bring Frankenstein! to Merlin theatre. This version is set in 1947 and ostensibly devised and performed by the Ffitch Repertory Players, allowing Ben Dyson to entertain us with his droll, clipped, absurd-chap voice as well as spoof BBC newsreel film about cryogenics and Housewives Choice theme music during monster-making. Frank(enstein) in this tale is a nerdy boffin who arrives at the Eternal Life Cryogenic Institute in time to hear its director announce he's "made an awful bish of things" and the bankrupt business is literally in meltdown with all its famous frozen clients rapidly defrosting. When Dr Schwindler lives up to his name and dashes off with the filched cash, his daughter Elizabeth helps Frank snatch a selection of prime parts ~ the brain of Noel Coward is one ~ to create a composite of assets and, using a very sharp knife, to split an atom and toaster-jumpstart their creation into life. Alas, prejudice against stitched-up monsters who talk like Noel Coward blights his new life. Like Steptoe he longs for a mate but the frozen hearts are now all thawed, though Elizabeth has a nice one... and thus only one human character survives for the final showdown in Patagonia, a struggle of worthy of Holmes and Moriarty which is appropriately ended by an avalanche. Flash forward to the future, and three deep-frozen bodies have been discovered and are about to be revived...
Miracle offer reliably accessible entertainment and are always popular with audiences, but this one for me is overlong and relies too much on the confidence of a clever cast. I've followed this company for years and seen them ignite classic scripts with insight & compassion as well as their trademark humour ~ their outrageous Shrew and passionate Romeo and Juliet were to me what Miracle did best ~ and I'd love to see a revival of their vintage style.

How did you celebrate the 200th birthday of Pride and Prejudice on Monday? You probably merely mused aloud on universal truths about single man with good fortunes. The Jane Austen Centre in Bath marked this epic bicentenary with a reading of the entire novel, streamed online throughout the day. "We're up to chapter 39 - we've just gone live to Arizona" said Readathon organiser David Lassman when Rosie and I arrived with Muriel Lavender in the evening for our designated chapters. Our bit was around the fallout from flighty Lydia running off with Wickham so it was more like Folly and Furore, with emotions running high and great dialogue. We mingled with the other actors and watched Bath University Media Productions student team sorting the technicals as David heroically held the event together for over fifteen hours ~ I tuned into the live link at 3am and there was still one chapter to go, with the social stream still feeding in appreciative comments from around the world. A great idea and fabulous fun to participate: big appreciation to the whole team, including Wendy and Lenca who kept the Green Room supplied with coffee and sandwiches while we played with the period costumes and waited our turns. When's the next bicentenary?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Steptoe and Son, generated in West Yorkshire, has been touring since last summer and arrived this week at Bristol Old Vic, continuing their long association with Kneehigh Theatre Company ~ “Good to be home” was the company’s Facebook message. Did you know Galton and Simpson dreamed up the idea for the TV series lying on their backs on a carpet? Me neither. Apparently a habit they’d used since they first met in a sanitorium as young men both with tuberculosis and began a collaboration that virtually invented the genre sit-com. Artistic Director Emma Rice adapted four episodes using the original scripts embellished them with trademark Kneehigh physicality ~ abrupt, energetic, and often macabre ~ each story demonstrating that Satrean hell combined with Godot-waiting loneliness made famous by two rag-and-bone man in a relationship that turns Forster’s famous epigram on its head. Only disconnect would be the mantra for Harold and Albert. Doesn’t sound much like a comedy put like that, and it isn’t really, it’s a tale full of fury and pathos that ultimately lacks variety, with Harold and Albert as trapped as Rimmer and Lister in their Red Dwarf space capsule but in a repetitive scenario. There are some lighter sequences, many provided by The Woman, an emblem of era and epitome of lost joy in all their longing dreams (brilliantly played by Kirsty Woodward.) Others come from a cleverly evocative soundtrack and dainty capering. But it takes a while not to miss those distinctive original voices, veering from sly triumph to bleak dejection ~ Dean Nolan's Harold, in particular, finds the belligerance but not the existential angst and delusions of glamour that Harry H Corbett embodied so well. The set is marvellous, an extreme version of the imagery of early episodes and there were tender moments of real poignancy but ultimately there's a mismatch: the dark physicality that Kneehigh does so well doesn’t really connect with scripts which expressed tenderly, terrifyingly, but also platitudinously, the dysfunction of ordinary life.

Monday, January 21, 2013

"Nobody is who they're supposed to be" says the actor who is not Nassim Soleimanpour (tonight he's Simon Shepherd) reading from Nassim's script, taken from a sealed envelope moments before.
This is White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, the most curious and fascinating performance I've yet seen among many experimental productions in Bristol Old Vic studio. It's a multi-layered parable involving a different reader each performance and audience members called up by their number to become rabbits in a circus with where cheetahs act like ostriches and showing your ears is a punishable offence ~ this plot detail is particularly vivid to me as I was that rabbit. Other rabbit roles are required as fantasy and anecdote mingle, ending with the actor supplanted by an audience member who reads the final pages, becoming by that choice the new, and endangered, red rabbit... Nassim will never see these unrehearsed readings of his play as his dissident status means he's forbidden to leave Iran: "You are my taste of freedom" he tells us, "I know neither the year nor day you are in. I don’t even know if I’ll be alive.” A salutary thought, though happily three years on he's still active on facebook ~ in fact now a virtual friend.

Jo Caulfield, 'wonderfully sharp and bitchy' star of TV & Radio 4 comedy shows, is touring her new show Better the Devil You Know to 33 venues over 5 months. Frome's Merlin theatre was the second date so Jo was quite fresh last Saturday though I bet she's sick of Premier Inns by June. It's not cutting-edge but Jo's mix of fairly traditional observational comedy, faintly potty-mouthed feistiness, and skilful audience interaction made for entertaining evening. Sitting rashly in row B, I did get picked on a bit but at least I didn't have to be a rabbit.

And now, as a blog is a kind of timeline, here's the long-awaited snow...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

First BlahBlahBlah of the year ~ that's Bristol Old Vic's idea of an efficacious name for poetry performance ~ featured demurely lyrical Welsh bard Rhian Edwards and brilliant boisterous Scots political wit Elvis Mcgonagall. With definition-defying Byron Vincent topping & tailing the event, this event was one I wouldn't miss however dire the weather forecast (the Beast from the East still hasn't arrived southwest yet as I write, btw). Elvis laces his high-energy poems and polemics together with irresistibly funny comments on cultural icons like Kirstie Allsopp, Sarah Linden's jumpers, and Masterchef judging techniques.  I specially liked the Queen's Christmas Speech presented gangsta-rap stylee.

Speaking of poetry... next Frome Poetry Cafe is the Valentine special,on the theme of love in any of its guises ~ rhapsodic or cynical. How do I love thee? let's all count the ways... warily, scarily, wholeheartedly, departedly ~ come and share your style at the open-mic on February 13th. Deft & dazzling wordsmith Robbie Vane, who won the popular-vote prize in last year's love-in, is guest poet.
And speaking of writing generally... Chateau Ventenac, the superb-looking location in Languedoc where I'll be leading a session in October, invited my thoughts on creative holidays. Since I credit a writing course on Skyros for changing my life, I was happy to expound my theories for their blog. It's all true, too, so if your New Year Resolutions list is looking a bit spindly or samey (detox, tidy desk...) why not add Writing Holiday ~ somewhere gorgeous?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

McCullin directed by Jacqui Morris ~ the only non-victim female featured in this candid retrospective ~ is on limited release so I was really glad it came to Bristol Watershed. Here's the whole story in pictures, from the 60s London teenage gangs that fast-laned him to big commissions to the revelations about Christian Phalangist atrocities in Palestine that got him banned from covering UK action in the Faulklands. "War is madness, mostly insanity and the rest is schizophrenia" says McCullin looking back on his three decades of photojournalism, "I became totally mad, running round like a tortured animal." Even as a self-confessed war-junkie he loathed the implicit voyeurism of his role and resisted both sentimentality and glorification in his war images. Howard Evans, his Sunday Times editor, says simply "He was conscience with a camera. He used his sensitivity to make people wake up." Courage and compassion aside, his photographs show extraordinary artistry. He speaks of intuiting a Gaudi moment of grief, of the Hogarthian imagery he found on Skid Row, and reveals moments of bizarre beauty as well as inconceivable brutality. In this chronological documentary we saw film footage from every major war-zone of the last fifty years but, painfully evocative though these moving images are, it's Don McCullin's stills which grab the soul of the experience ~ the horror, poignancy, bravery, and futility of armed conflict.
"Do you ever have nightmares?"
"Only in the day, remembering."
Way back before alleged 'compassion fatigue' decimated this genre, magazine images from Magnum photographers literally papered the walls of my first home and a 1982 assignment for Camera gave me a chance to interview Chris Steele-Perkins, whose sensational pictures of El Salvador were making ripples across Sunday morning breakfast-tables. He lived in Brixton, quite near where I grew up. Like McCullin, he seemed unconvinced of the value of photojournalism in conflict but in one hesitant moment he spoke of an 'illusion' that his witness might stop the fighting as something he carried around with him 'in a thimble'. Even more exciting than meeting Chris was the letter he sent me afterwards: "I just wanted to let you know I thought you managed to make a more articulate statement of my turgid ramblings than I had expected. So thanks, it's nice not to be hyped or turned into an equipment freak or a bullshitter or whatever fate often lies after an interview." That letter's in the scrapbook of things I'd save from a burning building.

To end on a different beat, it's time for Hatchet Job of the Year, the award that brings a deep breath of relief to every published writer unnamed and a bit of a giggle to all unpublished too. Perhaps the most scathing of the winning reviews is by Ron Charles in The Washington Post, finding  Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis a "ham-fisted novel" that "quickly falls apart.. as Amis's class mockery curdles and we’re left with a misanthropic vision of human suffering...  The problem is really one of initiative, even effort. Amis seems unwilling to exert more effort than it would take to change channel... serving up blanched stereotypes on the silver platter of his prose. “You go numb,” Lionel tells his nephew.  Halfway through, persistent readers will feel the same way."
The best of bad reviews, of course, rise sublimely above their source. Who now remembers that Dorothy Parker's sassy put-down This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly ~ it should be thrown with great force was inspired by Mussolini’s The Cardinal's Mistress?  And though it's amusing to see our own prejudices supported, no writer can evade the candour of subjectivity: Samuel Pepys found Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." Still, I'd take fairies over class snobbery any night.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

One week into 2013, I seem to be still catching up on last year's cultural highlights. I finally got to see Skyfall, which I'm surprised no-one's yet noticed is a kind of remake of Cat Ballou as a Nintendo-graphics spy thriller with Daniel Craig taking the Lee Marvin role of the flaky hitman pulled out of drunken retirement by a beleaguered damsel - Dame Judy standing in for Jane Fonda here, though not quite so prettily. Entertaining though overlong.
And still online though perhaps not for long: Simon Amstell's show Numb which is genuine genius.  Starting from the familiar existential angst of Granma's House Simon builds gradually from shrill nerd to bold visionary, staying with his stand-up persona through some excellent strategies for world peace ~ "if you're going to have a flag, have a flag of a vagina, so then you can meet people and say "Hi, where're you from? Oh! Same as me, let's be friends!" ~ to undisguised profundity: "We need to feel as human beings, otherwise we will just consume and consume. Why have we nearly destroyed the earth? Because we felt alone, and it was there. But we're not alone, we're profoundly connected to each other."
Which is also the premise of Cosmic!, the show that Annabelle and I are currently devising for First Cut Theatre, inspired initially by our Cosmic Walk last summer. As Brian Swimme says, we're living in a chasm between the stories of the past and the new story from what we now know about the universe but haven't yet learnt to live. Let's hope this is the year we all begin to find a way.