Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shortly after the start of Napoleon - A Defence, the new production by Devon-based clown group Le Navet Bete at The Brewery, the man in the seat next to me murmured to his companion "I don't think we can rely on this for historical accuracy." The cast were at the time enacting a motley group of french supporters learning to march in a manic cancan, while Wellington despatched his 'master of disguise' Major Blunt to capture the Emperor disguised as a standard lamp. History's loss was audience gain:  fast-paced slapstick, impressive circus skills, hilarious costumes and cross-dressing, fireworks and french fancies. All fabulous fun ~ definitely a company I'll be watching again when they bring their next show to Bristol.

The Bristol Old Vic website has a charming trailer for Complicite's Lionboy which gives the impression of exquisite visuals to support a hero's journey of the imagination like Pi's travels with his tiger.  It's actually more bland than that and less fantastical: an adventure yarn with a good oldfashioned Wizard of Oz ending ~ home is where the heart is. Based on a trilology for children by Zizou Corder, the story of Charlie Ashanti's quest to find his kidnapped parents and save the world from the evil Corporacy is largely narrated direct to audience by the cast of six (four men and two women, and a male drummer. I mention this because there's quite a blokey feel overall despite the female writer and director.) Sometimes there's a spoofy James-Bond-meets-Dr.Doolittle charm ~ with a touch of Harry Hill in the fight!-fight! showdown between Charlie and the Corporacy ~ but apart from a genetically modified cat called Sergei there's little humour and the script tends to repetitive explanational simplicity. Best bit is a dazzling sequence in the first half when Lisa Kerr as a pirouette creates the glamour and glitz of the circus, and atmospheric shadows often enhance the action but I'd have liked a little more tension and verve... it's a family show of course and I had none of that target audience with me, but I did wonder if they might have agreed with the little boy in the audience who, when comments were encouraged from the stage, suggested 'boring.'

In Frome, Toolshed's intimate little gallery is featuring Our Turn, Georgie Manly's collection of little fluffy balls on a catlit base, while  the new exhibition at Black Swan Arts is Mark Karasick's intriguingly entitled show  if you could see what i see through your eyes. Words at the Black Swan poetry group will gather under the guidance of Rose Flint on Sunday at 3.30 for a one-and-a-half hour workshop ~ this session costs just £4 and is open to new members or interested droppers-in so do come if you're in Frome for the Cheap Street Fun Day.

Final footnote: my short story/poetry anthology are we nearly there yet? is now on kindle.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bristol's theatrical MAYFEST is over for another year, ending on a blue-sky high with champagne and balloons in Queens Square while sounds of Happy Mondays (live) float along the dockside. I didn't see many shows this time but did catch the Saturday matinee of utterly awesome Valentijn Dhaenens' monologue Bigmouth at BOV Studio, en route to Soho Theatre via Belgium, Finland and Edinburgh collecting awards and accolades all the way. The notion behind this SKaGen production is uniquely simple: extracts from public speeches made in situations of confrontation over two thousand years are combined in a dramatic medley of courage, bravado, optimism, resignation, inspiration and bigotry, with the only common element a passionate self-certainty.
From Socrates calmly defending love over might when sentenced to death in 399 BC, to George Bush promising vengeance for the Twin Towers (mingled with similar sentiments at the New Orleans disaster as if the hurricane too had been launched by muslim terrorists), this kaleidescope of historical fragments includes Malcolms X and Luther King,  bin Laden, Kennedy, Reagan, Goebbles and more including obscurely Pericles and Republican political commentator Anne Coulter, whose bigotry is so absurdly extreme I wouldn't be surprised if she claimed she could see Mecca from her bedroom window.  In what's rightly been acclaimed as a power-house performance, Valentijn uses only a long desk with a row of mics to recreate their words, sometimes with translation and always with extraordinarily convincing accent and tone. For coherence, there's a blackboard style projection list from which each name is erased when Valentijin moves to the next. Some speeches are given solemn gravitas, like Osama bin Laden's 1996 fatwah against America which is couched with unexpected dignity; some are darkly comic, like the contrast between Goebbles' quiet menace and General Patten's rowdy vulgarity. Some juxtapositions surprise, like the celebration of Congolese independence immediately following a sanctimonious abdication speech by the Belgian king. “We’re going to make the Congo the centre of the sun’s radiance” Lumumba promises, chillingly evoking Coleridge's ironic words in Ozymandias:"Look on my works ye mighty, and despair." Nothing beside remains...
There's electrifying musicality too, through sound design by Jeroen Wuyts (who also created the atmospheric lighting) and US presidents rattle off their histrionic pledges over a fastpaced dub version of I like to be in America...  How do you end a tour de force like this? Valentijn's choice is to descend to the audience and sing Nature Boy, acapella, following the words on his blackboard like a child at a panto, repeating the final lines: The greatest thing you will ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.  He left the full-house audience reeling but not too stunned to cheer throughout his three curtain calls. Five stars.

By contrast the Bristol Old Vic evening show by Clod Ensemble fills the stage with people and movement for their polished, self-assured, performance Zero, wordless apart from a specially-composed musical score performed live, and occasional topical soundbites. One of these was that gone-viral Youtube clip when the guy pushes his reluctantly-rope-swinging girlfriend off the cliff, though deprived of its famous “I just got dumped!” final line. Maybe they didn’t want specific outcomes for their 'Tragedy in 5 Acts' which seemed to be generally about frustrations and accumulative damage of relationships. Life's a bitch, and then you die, as Bertolt Brecht put it. I think you can buy that on a mug, too. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Fifty Words, written by Michael Weller and directed by Lawrence Boswell, is the final production in a trio of contemporary American plays at Bath's Ustinov Studio. It's actually, according to the playwright's notes, one of a triology of plays exploring the roles of marriage and infidelity, but stands alone powerfully as a dissection of the Icarus night of one high-flying couple. Rumi could have written the introduction:
A night full of talking that hurts, my worst held-back secrets: Everything has to do with loving and not-loving.
“Is this what couples talk about when their kid has a first sleepover?” Janine wonders to Adam as they reminisce about the blow-job in a taxi the night they met. Lust is only one word for love: Jan thinks we need more, fifty of them like Eskimos have for snow, but this couple can't seem to find the right lexicon as they explore bickering and blame, taunts and rants, recrimination and assault. Jan’s frustration has traditional roots ~ she gave up her career for his ~ but there are enough unpredictable elements to avoid cliche in this provocative insight into that familiar struggle of coupledom: to find intimacy while not stifling individuality.  
What gives this psychological case-study dramatic edge is the constant shadow of the unseen little boy at the sleepover, the final knot between them, like his parents trying and failing to hide from reality. It's a stunning show which will undoubtedly gather stars magnetically: an excellent set by Simon Kenny, superb lighting (Richard Howell) and atmospheric sound (Fergus O'Hare) all work evocatively to support heartbreakingly convincing performances from Richard Clothier and Claire Price, both mesmeric throughout. It's on till 15th June ~ recommended.

Another quick plug for Snapshots at IGNITE Theatre Festival Exeter, a Ripped Script production at The Globe Inn on June 7th of six short plays one of which is mine:
"The Human Angle is a comedy about the difficulty in using theatre as a platform for protest. It's a play with a serious intention but, as Shaw said, life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh. I hope you will laugh, but I hope you'll join the Stop The War Coalition too."

And I have neither excuse nor pretext for ending this post with a burst of UST, as Mills & Boon call their special ingredient of unresolved sexual tension, in this OTT wallow in Regency romance... Watch and weep. And probably eat several chocolates...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

 Shanklin town on the Isle of Wight, Yannis tells us in his welcome session on Friday night, has more sunshine than anywhere else in the UK. Shanklin clearly knows its holiday-destination USP, eschewing trivia like cappuccino and wifi to plump all its assets into long sun-gilded sandy strands topped by esplanades. The entire resort evokes one of those beach summer holidays of childhood you remember, or misremember, or maybe read about in a book published soon after the war... deck-chairs and beach games, icecream cornets and sandwiches, and sea that laps discretely against the shore as if loath to make a fuss. This entirely peaceful setting would be perfect for a Miss Marple murder mystery in fact, and I wonder if ITV has commissioned one as I'm walking the coast path to Sandown, which takes an hour including breaks to write, without seeing a single ipod or cellphone.
I haven't travelled here for the time-trekking however:  I'm at The Grange leading a Find Your Voice course that doesn’t give any of us much chance to slip into a slow-energy vibe as I've packed as many exercises as possible into the time available. Ten terrific writers all responded with great good humour and impressive skill, bonding as a group so well that by Saturday night we were all partying together like old friends. A great weekend and I hope to hear much more from these varied creative writing voices in future.

My litmus-paper exercise (I offer this freely to any writing group ~ I stole it from Mark Haddon) is a slimline description of location in perverse & inappropriate styles: this group without exception rose to the challenge brilliantly. I wish mine was as good (thanks Bryony for blogging yours) ~ I took the notion of a recipe:
Take one seaside postcard printed early 1970s (full colour). 
Enlarge to life-size. 
Animate promenaders, dogs, children ~ slowly. 
 Add sound of waves ~ low volume. 
Garnish with golden gorse and enjoy.

An inspirational weekend but a grim train journey home: hours of delay from a fatality on the line.  Sympathy for the driver  calmed the boistrous drunks in my carriage but they got off and were supplemented by equally drunk and less empathetic football supporters... I'm just glad Southampton drew (with Stoke, if you were wondering.)

Back home and Nathan Filer is launching his first novel The Shock of the New in Bath.  Media enthusiasm is high but Nathan seems stunned so many have turned up in Toppings to hear his reading and buy "one of 2013's most anticipated books, following an 11-publisher bidding war, a compelling study of grief, madness and loss."  Despite this dark theme summary there are flashes of Nathanesque wit in the story and in the lively Q&A ~ along with fascinating insights into his writing process, one of which is to read every word out loud to check the rhythm and beat... Trust a poet!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Nearly a week ago since I watched San Francisco receding into blue distance: touchdown in Frome has been hectic but pleasant, beginning with a meeting of Frome Scriptwriters whose latest scripts will be performed next month at the Cornerhouse. When She Imagines is a trio of monologues, directed by Nevertheless producer Rosie Finnegan, which was commissioned as 'fringe' to the Imagine events at Rook Lane. Are Frome Scriptwriters resting cosily on their laurels? No of course not: they're already deep into the next project, Tales of the Tunnels, for Frome Festival.
Apropos things dramatic, here seems a good place for the link to my newly launched theatre blog: for some reason that now eludes me, I thought a good title would be Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln...

And while I'm at the self-promotion, Frozen Summer is now out on Kindle ~ it costs a quid, but think of the postage saved! And the trees... I've been recommending this free-to-use form of self-publishing for ages so it seemed only reasonable to try it. Provided you have a correctly edited Word file (no page breaks except for essential separation like new chapters and acknowledgements etc) publication takes literally only a few minutes ~ I did it in the departure lounge at San Francisco. I know some writers fear the stigma of 'Vanity Publishing' but self-publishing these days is not only respectable, it's a valuable contribution to diversity. 'We are the Farmers' Markets in a supermarket world' I like to say, with suitable fervour, and there's now even a major award solely for 'indie' writers, as non-commercially published authors are now termed.  The Guardian Books Blog quotes wonderful Kate Tempest as good practice: she self-published her first collection and subsequently hit the headlines by winning the Ted Hughes Award for her poem-play Brand New AncientsKate is interviewed in ideas tap, and her philosophy is one I completely relate to: If I felt something, I’d write it down. I never knew what it was for but actually all that writing has enabled to me know my palate and my writing style. If you’re a writer, then write constantly. Not for anybody to judge it but so you’re more comfortable at the page than away from it.  

On Wednesday Writing Events Bath organised A Gathering Of Writers talking about their work in support of Dorothy House, a cause as popular as the six authors contributing so the BRLSI was crammed.   Debby Holt, Lindsay Hawdon, Andrew Miller, Lesley Pearse, Nathan Filer and Tania Hershman proved a very successful medley of different voices, each with an interesting take on their personal craft, and all picking fascinating extracts to share. I liked especially Debby's view that 'writing is a way of making sense of our lives', and Nathan's reading from his debut novel. I've been a fan of Nathan for nearly a decade, since he came to Frome to contribute to Urban Scrawl ~ a night of performance poetry I organised as the climax of my year as Writer in Residence at the Merlin Theatre ~ and it's no surprise that now he's turned his writing hand to prose there was an 11-way auction battle for The Shock of the Fall. HarperCollins won. It's out in hard-back - but you can get it on Kindle at half the price...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Blue sky days are over now. Long journey home began languorously in the posh lounge of San Francisco airport (courtesy of a musician friend who also works in the control tower) and ended with a bumpy landing direct into a war zone. Luckily however, World War II turns out to have been wildly funny and a little bit vulgar ~ at least in the slippery fingers of writer-performers Stu Mcloughlin and Howard Coggins. Adolf and Winston is the new show from Living Spit, the theatre company with a mission to "make poorly-researched historical comedy-drama about people that one of us vaguely looks like", on the grounds that Howard looks a bit like Churchill when wearing a bowler hat and a cigar. Even when that's all he does wear.
Because he's in the bath, following political events by phone, realistic crackle-on-the-line provided by a crisp packet. From 1939 to the outbreak of war there's insight into Hitler's invasion plan ~ Howard a camp Rudolf Hess as the Führer searches for ‘somewhere nobody gives a shit about’ (other than Wales) ~ and flashback with ukulele to his rejection by the Viennese Academy of Fine Art despite powerful self-expression in paintings entitled things like 'Jew with a knife in his skull.' We see Churchill haunted by the black dog of depression ~ Stu with a guitar and a fuzzy nose ~ rallying to England's call.  Insults between evil Hun and good Brit escalate into literal struggle for the spot-light until, abruptly time-aware, they decide to set a visible stop watch and tell ~ in a song ~ 'The story of the war in 15 minutes.' Ludicrous truncation brings success to the second: Howard as Mussolini, Stu with pan-brush moustache as Stalin, as Roosevelt, and in a splendid finale as 'the soon-to-be-dead dictator' in a bunker with Eva Braun, who looks remarkably like Howard, in a stomach-hurtingly funny suicide pact scene. The innovative comedy of Living Spit spills endlessly, but what's most impressive is their ability to create mercurial mood-change, terminating hilarity by producing Star of David armbands to share a genuinely moving moment of reflection on that unspeakable extermination. Clever set, witty props, great lighting, terrific musicality, no wonder the full house demanded three curtain calls, and I wish I could say still on at BOV basement, go see! but I was only just in time myself.

Is this the right time for a relaunch Strindberg's Miss Julie, a tragedy of stifled individualism from an era of rigid classism as harsh for the mistress as for the servants?  UK Touring Theatre think it is, and have spent a long time reworking the original script in a 'translation for the 21st century.' Unfortunately much of this accessibility comes across like a Carry On movie, an impression not erased by long sections of stage business with kitchen fittings. Reviewers have not been kind to the production, with one star from What's On Stage and mumblings of lack-lustre direction, clumsy translation, and some performances that wouldn't be out of place in an am-dram church hall production. He didn't think much of the sound, either. I'd agree about most of those, and throw in lighting design too, but I think good actors did the best they could with direction which, like the script, seemed over-forced into unreal realism. The result was a ponderous 'naturalism' swerving abruptly into mania, which is probably why the characters' fights were electric but their connection had no eroticism. It didn't help that Adam Redmayne was miscast as Jean, looking more Dick Van Dyke than Mellors. But, having said all that, it was a better way to spend the evening than anything on telly, and the Merlin audience were warm in their applause.

I was in America when Maria Miller made her debut speech as culture minister and, like the by-election results, found reports online depressing. "In an age of austerity, our focus must be on economic impact..." well, no. In any age the role of art for communities as for individuals is health not wealth ~ although of course by any standards other than capitalism, our health is our most valuable asset. I've started another blog (Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln...) specifically to write about theatre stuff, actually, so I'll post my further thoughts there...

... and end this posting with a last look at my Californian retreat. Lots of coastal walking ~ about two or three hours a day ~ and both my writing projects completed. And good news about two shorts reaching performance. My monologue In These Shoes is online here ~ thanks Clare Reddaway for that! ~ and The Human Angle will be in the IGNITE festival in Exeter on June 7th, produced by Jon Nash's excellent Ripped Script company from Salisbury. I hope to get to see this one!

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Another timeslip week of writing and ~ mostly ~ walking along the glorious coastline here, watching the birds: pelicans cruising overhead, curlew and teeny sanderlings paddling the rim of the sea, immigrant gulls that have travelled 190 miles from Lake Mono to this shore... The wild flowers are vividly indifferent to colour co-ordination in a way that  would exasperate an interior decorator ~ orange poppies, pink and golden iceplants, yellow daisies, blue iris, maroon scabeous, and big bushes of purple-blue echium where bee-sized humming birds buzz. And as well as seals sunbathing on Moss Beach, this week I had a distant glimpse of two Big Grey whales, jetting spray and breaching the water like dolphins.
On Wednesday Mo and I went to Ocean Beach where we found hundreds of sand-dollars littering the low-tide sand. These beautiful circular formations are not shells but skeletons of animals: they're  echinoderms like starfish and sea-urchins. Live ones would have a dark red fluffy covering, a bit like a 1970s Plumbs sofa-cover, but these are definitely collectors items.

As the temperature topped 23 degrees, and I'd finished my 'month of poems', I inaugurated a 'poem space' ~ simply staring at the taffeta tones of the sky without word-shaping. My last piece in the poem notebook was a Recipe for Miramar Beach cocktail:
 1    Beat some sea foam into firm peaks and set aside
     2    Sift white sand with enough saffron to tint to the colour cappuccino icecream
     3    Take a vat of Blue Curaçao and pour steadily on the base
     4    Slowly add Crème de Violette to deepen the tone at the top of the blue
     5    Spoon the beaten foam along the base
     6    Add a twist of birdsong, garnish with golden poppies, and enjoy!

Thursday night was a trip to the city for a meal in Original Joe's and to see Beach Blanket Babylon, the world's longest running musical review, served up old-fashioned music-hall style with red-curtained stage and drinks service to your seat. It's a unique-to-San-Francisco show, billed as 'hilarious spoofs of pop culture and political characters, spectacular costumes, outrageously gigantic hats...'  and that's all true. Fast moving, funny, with gloriously OTT costumes ~ the headgear gets crazier and crazier, culminating in a massive hat comprising the entire skyline of the city in the final number. My favourite sketch was Thriller with a brilliant Michael Jackson impersonator and the English royal family as the zombies....

My last full week here ended with a great music night at Mo and Anjas, fantastic food and five hours a fabulous playing & singing from seven guitarists and a fiddler ~ including, this being California, Dylan, Paul Simon, the Eagles... today we all feel a little frail.

Meanwhile, back in my real world, good reports of the Story Friday night which included my monologue, and I'm pleased I'll be back in time to see my short play The Human Angle produced by Ripped Script for the Exeter IGNITE festival ~ it's on at the Globe Inn on June 7th, bookable here.