Saturday, July 27, 2013

Chippenham Drama Fest last week featured Rosie Finnegan's short play The Girl with Blue Hair, revived by Bootleg Theatre Company for this inaugural event at the Neeld Hall with the original cast: Sara Taylor and Joe Bossano, here with Rosie. Also that night, a performance of The Decision, the monologue double-bill which earned writer/performer Annie Cooper a nomination as Best Female Actor in the recent Solo Festival in London.  Annie's deeply-felt depiction of two very different women wrestling with a life-change scenario certainly deserved the accolade: her performance is riveting, though perhaps less emotive detail in the storylines might have allowed a more subtle poignancy. But a great evening with two very moving productions, and a credit to the initiative of this new festival. As organiser Duncan Ellis says, Watch it grow!
Myrtle Theatre Company 'creates ambitious original performances' and 'articulates voices often unheard': a play about Bristol's Balloon Fiesta using verbatim script taken from interviews with participants and onlookers ~sung in chorus~ fulfills both aims, but is a dim-lit ex-factory the right venue to inspire that it's just fabulous! air-born feeling?  I was wondering that as I sat in the Tobacco Factory waiting for the start of Hot Air, but by  the end I was longing to take a balloon trip myself, to experience the sensations and emotions so effectively evoked by this show.
It doesn’t feel like rising, it’s as if the earth drops away below and you simply drift into space...
Eight versatile actors in varied roles as personnel and punters provide the main focus, a storyline constructed from a series of cameo moments ~ touching, troubled, optimistic, often very funny, while the atmosphere both on- and off- the ground is created through music, lighting, dance, models, mime, puppets, community opera, and above all the authentic voices of Bristolians. Kieran Buckeridge takes lines like ‘One thing that drives us mad is the Health and Safety stuff’ and combines them musically with the dreamy notion Once you have flown, you will forever walk the earth with eyes turned skywards
We become flaneurs at the Fiesta from first light to 'Nightglow', with the cast in one witty sequence miming all the attractions from the Red Arrows to the portaloo queue,  and sequences are linked by a kind of Milk-Wood 'first voice'.  There's no hero's journey, dramatic crisis, twist ending ~ this is a celebration of the ordinary possibility of transcending the humdrum through the magic of ballooning. It's charming without being sentimental, and though just a bit overlong deserves to be seen by everyone who believes theatre belongs to the community. And it really is collaborative, as I know because I met a guy from Bailey Balloons having breakfast by the docks next day and he said: ‘Did they say the balloons look like a string of pearls across the sky? That’s my line. I told them that.’ (Hot Air images by Graham Burke)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fables and Farquhar

Don't be put off by the Janet-and-John-ish flyer for The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the summer show at Bristol Old Vic ~ it's stylish and clever, and funny enough to delight all ages. Aesop compiled over 600 morality tales and director Sally Cookson has selected eight of Michael Morpurgo's versions, succinctly scripted for the company by Adam Peck. A great family summer show with a street-party atmosphere, as King Street has been transformed into an open-air theatre with tiered seating, bandstand, and a play-park garden stage that fills with wittily inventive props and a diversity of characters created by the talented team.
Chris Bianchi brings irresistible rococo humour to every role but his star turn is a Gangnam-style hyperactive Hare competing against Lucy Tuck's lettuce-eating tortoise; Tom Wainwright is fabulously funny, especially as the Wolf-cryer of the title story ~ a stroppy teenager enlivening boredom by varied ruthless tactics. There's a brilliant sequence after the interval when he dons a Velcro hat and urges bleating audience members to throw woolly lamb-balls at it... you probably need to see that but trust me, it's hilarious ~ and like all the audience interaction, superbly well- judged. Funky live music from Will and Benji Bower enhances each mood and maintains the narrative pace. And the moral of the story is:  If you set out to please everyone... you may actually succeed.

At Bath's Mission Theatre, Next Stage production of Our Country's Good met enthusiastic applause at the end of its last performance before heading to the legendary Cornish coastal Minack Theatre in a double bill with Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, its inspiration and contrastive counterpart. Writer Timberlake Wertenbaker developed this piece in 1988 from diaries and research from the penal colony in Botany Bay 200 years earlier, and the passion and pathos of this authenticity gives the story its impact. The bare bones are real: a motley collection of maltreated young prisoners did give a performance of Farquhar's play a year after their transportation, at the instigation of the Governor and despite fierce resistance from many of his officers. An excellent cast directed by Ann Garner movingly recreates the brutality of the prisoners' lives under the shadow of the gallows as well as powerfully showing the transcendent and redemptive power of theatre. The officers' arguments about the role of drama are especially strong moments, as when the Governor quotes Socrates views on slavery to his flagging director.  As social history this is salutary, and the irony expressive in the play's title is subtly evident throughout in the contrast of emotional empathy among the lower class and belligerence between their betters. Cleverly set and dressed, this production has some fine acting ~ I especially liked Joshua Ward's sadistic officer (clearly an ancestor of Mackay from Porridge) and young Tom Ash-Miles as Sideway ~ for the record, he was transported for life for stealing 'property' worth 28 shillings but, once bitten by the acting bug, went on to open a theatre in Sydney.

Also this week in Bath, The World's End at the Odeon, a story about a man so hell-bent on re-enacting the most epic pub-crawl of his life that the only thing that could stop him would be the end of the world as we know it. Possibly this comedy sci-fi will be hilarious only to massive Simon-Pegg-&-Nick-Frost fans but luckily I am! Loved it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pastoral thoughts

 It's exactly a hundred years since the poet Edward Thomas embarked on a cycle ride from south London to the Quantock hills, stopping near Frome to visit friends with whom he used to go wild swimming in the river at Tellisford Weir, and travel writer & poet John Payne suggested a centenary anniversary visit to the spot.
The last time I swam here, seventeen years ago in similar glorious heat, became the central experience of my first novel Frozen Summer so this felt like something of an anniversary for me too.  John, who's written about Edward Thomas's journey in his cultural history of the West Country, poet Helen Moore, and I were joined by Claire Crowther and her writer husband Keith Barnham and three other enthusiasts for a loose recreation of that Seine at Asnières scenario on the grassy river bank as we picknicked and read poems after swimming under the willows by the weir. An amazing afternoon.
Illyria Open Air Theatre Company brought As You Like It to the Merlin amphitheatre that night. Illyria is now a company so confident of its prestige they offered no programmes to enable those less familiar with Shakespeare's later plays to have any idea where, or why, we were supposed to be, and much as I dislike harping on a detail extraneous to performance, with five players dashing through 16 characters not to mention three sheep, it really would have helped. The cast are undoubtedly skilled at leaping from robe to robe in seconds and some ~ the wrestler/King/Jaques ~ managed to change character too. There were undoubtedly sequences the audience adored, but most of those ~ viz the sheep-shearing & de-bollocking and the rock&roll finale ~ were not in Shakespeare's script and the show would have been perhaps better (and certainly less arduously long) with judicious pruning to this complex pastoral piece. Attention to historic enunciation is fine, up to a point, but when actors shriek rapid-fire into an uncomprehending but benign audience, it begins to feel unfair.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Festival finale...

The thin night darkens. A breeze from the creased water sighs the streets... I don't know if the river Frome is exactly creased but it's a bit wrinkled, and this week looked like Seurat's Seine at Asnières with so many people lounging on the bank in sunshine, but since my Festival ended with Under Milk Wood, those final words from the poet's town saga seemed appropriate. This community version from Frome Drama Club was scheduled for the amphitheatre but bizarrely the weather was too good, and it had to be relocated inside Merlin Theatre as two people had passed out during the Saturday matinee. With 65 speaking parts plus six children & an 18-strong production team, this involved in the words of director Philip de Glanville 'an exceptional amount of goodwill on the part of an extraordinary number of people': an awesome achievement with many highlights including a tour-de-force performance by Laurie Parnell as first voice.
The Granary offered late night theatre from Fine Chisel, so Rosie and I went along to Midnight at the Boars Head, a roistering patchwork of Shakespearean clips from bawdy bits of his comedies and rowdy bits of his tragedies requiring water-squirting, balloons, angel string, party poppers and an awful lot of audience indulgence. A young cast bounded around strumming and shouting with exuberant self-confidence and trays of ale  ~ that's Rosie joining in their Edinburgh-stylee street promo.
Tales of the Tunnels, which was written by Frome Scriptwriters as a collaboration (compiled by Bath Rondo's David Lassman, who is a member of our group), was sold out online before the Festival began. I've yet to see it, as the filming performance has been postponed, but the Somerset Standard reviewer was impressed with both story impact and effective delivery of a site-specific piece which succeeded in creating an intimate vibe that you rarely get with modern works: a must-see for anyone who likes their theatre original and earthy.
The main theatrical event for Rosie and I, of course, was our Nevertheless Pub Theatre festival special What's the Time, Mr Wolf.  We were really proud to host a production of this quality at The Cornerhouse, and delighted that our audiences, despite its difficult storyline and challenging script, appreciated that what's shocking is not social inadequacy but the social prejudice which sees a lonely misfit as a Lone Wolf to be hunted down.  We had only 3 walk-outs in over 100, and feedback slips gave high praise to both script (Vincent Cassar) and acting (Ben Tinniswood). All the feedback for this show is on our website, and we've had lots of appreciation for Nevertheless Productions in principle as well, with repeated comments like 'We're very lucky to have this pub theatre'... Frome audiences, Nevertheless is very lucky to have you! Local reviewers loved it too: here's The FTR and Somerset Standard reviews.

Glorious weather day after day and a party atmosphere each hot evening made this possibly the best Frome festival ever.  There was an unusual, and very special, early evening event on Thursday when 'Five Award-Winning Poets from Cities Far & Wide' shared their words at the Archangel. Organiser Claire Crowther was a bonus reader, and Tamar Yoseloff introduced the rest of her A-list team: Anne Berkeley, Carrie Etter, Jenny Lewis, and Sue Rose. Tamar and I were both tutors at a writers' retreat in Crete in 2005 so it was great to meet up again, as well as to hear such awesomely excellent poems from all the readers.

And there was of course much more all week than theatre and poetry.  Scores of studios and exhibitions spaces were open all around the town, and with free music in pubs and gardens and free events for children in the parks and at the Library, it's easy to see why this week in July rates as one of the best community festivals in the country. So here, to end this effusive eulogy, is Teatime Treats at the Library, Circus Skills at Welshmill, Geneology playing jazz at Through the Blue Door, one of Fiona Campbell's copper wire creatures in The Limes garden, and me with friends at Silk Mill tapas bar. Cheers!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Midweek at Frome Festival: poems and performances...

Summer spits guts and blood and rage like sunshine.
The days are slick-slipping away
at the melting ice cream edges. 
You know those days
whenthe sight of the sun setting over Pizza Hut
is enough to make you cry?
Those days when you could just 
pluck out your own eye
to feel something else.
Sally Jenkinson came to our Poetry Cafe on Monday, hottest night of the year, and shared her 'sensuous, surreal, bold and beautiful' words with us in the sultry garden as dusk fell.  'Weaving the lyrical with the everyday' is another comment on her fabulous collection Sweat-borne Secrets and Sally showed how true in her facebook posting earlier in the day:
"Frome! Its hot as hell, I've slept for a grand total of around 4 hours all weekend, and I've got a nice frock on.
TONIGHT, The Garden Cafe, 7.30pm. I'M COMING TO DO POEMS AT YOU."

~ though she nearly didn't, finding Frome harder to reach than Mordor and losing her way tearfully in the wolds and orcs of rural Somerset for an hour, but her performance set was no less fantastic for the ordeal. A full-garden audience used the interim to enjoy a splendid Open-Mic event featuring fourteen local poets competing for the title of Frome Festival Poet Laureate. 
We used a demure version of slam scoring: numbers are held aloft, but quietly, and nobody takes much notice of them, and enjoyed some marvellous poems: powerful, profound, witty, reflective ~ with Norman Andrews, Anna Groves, and Mell Oliver equal on the (discrete) leader-board until an exciting recall round gave Mell Oliver a stonking triple 9 (now it can be known) to take the title. 
A wonderful poetic evening at the Garden Cafe ~ Andrew Hardy, reviewer
Great poetry and a wonderful atmosphere - Ann Harrison-Broninski, poet 
Frome is indeed a magnificent poetry place... John Seagrave, poet

Poetry was featured too among the workshops at the Writeathon event on Wednesday, with Rose Flint leading a session inspired by Edwina Bridgeman's exhibition The Place Beyond at  Black Swan Arts.  Art touches the heart, Rose tells us, our own emotions matter more than aesthetic value so work with the boundaries of yourself to find your own 'place beyond'.  Some of the responses evoked will be on display with the exhibition and posted on the Words at the Black Swan facebook page soon.

And Wednesday was the long-awaited, by Rosie and me anyway, opening night of WHAT'S THE TIME MR WOLF? ~ a co-production between our Nevertheless Pub Theatre with Doggett & Ephgrave, peformed by Ben Tinniswood.(Thanks Ian Drake for the image of Rosie with Ben, in role, before the show.)  'A darkly comic one-man play exploring a society where justice must be seen to be done, whatever the price' warn the flyers, not deterring around forty people from braving the Death Valley temperatures of our Cornerhouse venue for an extraordinary hour of unforgettable theatre.Writer Vincent Cassar was there to watch his award-winning script performed in an intimate room where sweat evaporated before it hit the carpet ~ oh no that's Death Valley again but we were, as one feedback form put it, 'Very Cosy.'
So what did the audience make of it? Here's a quick sample ~ full feedback on Nevertheless facebook page, and it's all BRILLIANT!!!!!
~ It was an amazingly powerful‘tour-de-force’. Brilliant actor. For one man to be able to explore such strong emotions was incredible. The wit balanced the dark energy. It should make us all think on how we judge each other. Thank you so much. 
 ~ Funny, brave, clever, well-written 
~ Fantastic. Provocative and compelling and just so real
And there's three more chances to see it, so don your thinnest garb and hurry along! Bottles of iced water will be thoughtfully provided free of charge by Cornerhouse host Martin Earley for the rest of the run.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Frome Festival: phew, it'll be a scorcher...

Frome Festival opened officially on Saturday with Frome Street Bandits parading through the town and a welcome speech by our Mayor, the youngest and possibly tallest in the country, who dressed for the occasion as Lady Penelope's chauffeur. Our town's has always had a punk ethic, my friend Gordon Graft says. This was at the Festival Feast, a massive street party in the market square with stalls of international food and local ale, and dancing to amazing Zora and the Tatsmiths.  Events had started before then, though, with Critters rocking the Cornerhouse and two fantastic opening parties ~ Loop de Loop, the only gallery in a converted public toilet in the world, and Silk Mill where there's an intriguing film/installation (Otter) as well as tapas and open studios. There's art all over the place, including the Archangel and the Garden House which both have great exhibitions, but as with all good festivals, far more than any one person can possibly cover...

Theatrical highlights for the week as featured in Somerset Standard, include Frome Scriptwriters' site-specific performance in the tunnels under the town, now sold out!
And Cornwall's Miracle Theatre brought their open-air summer touring show Waiting for Godot to Merlin ECOS amphitheatre on Sunday evening to the absolute delight of the crowds settled on the grassy steps for a midsummer theatrical picnic. Director Bill Scott says his approach was simply to choose the right actors and read the script with an open mind, and the result is simply brilliant: simultaneously funny & tragic, physical & emotive, combining superb timing with that profound sense of timelessness that makes this play the masterpiece it is. Steve Jacobs & Angus Brown were utterly brilliant as the tramps, and Ben Dyson's anarchic energy brought a manic sorrow to bullying Pozzo while Ciaran Clarke's youthfulness gave the enigmatic Lucky a strangely profound edge. And while the Miracle playfulness with cleverly rehearsed physicality was here, what made this production so excellent was its sense of immediacy, as if every word we heard was being spoken for the first time at that moment. Unforgettable.

ECOS amphitheatre was also in the spotlight ~ literally ~ for the 21st birthday celebrations of this extraordinary circle of monoliths from twelve countries, a European Community Of Stones conceived as a symbol of peace and created by visionaries and volunteers ~ a tribute to 'bravery and madness' and to Frome's unique mix of imagination and bloody-mindedness.  All this and much more was said in a long look back at the history of ECOS and the 'Famous Five' who steered Barry Cooper's idea into actuality, ending with a sublime performance of Imagine by Martin Dimery followed by champagne and birthday cake as the Street Bandits played.
And if you're wondering how Troupers got on when they took A Day in the Death of Joe Egg to Derry for the British Amateur Dramatic One Act Play finals ~ they won!!!

 Our Words At the Frome Festival programme kicked off at Rook Lane on Sunday with Writers & Publishers day at Rook Lane Arts, with talks & events in the elegant chapel hall and one-to-ones with agents under smart little marquees in the garden. Michele Roberts, as senior judge of the Short Story Competition organised annually by Alison Clink, confessed "The greatest reliable pleasure of my life is reading" in her short inspirational address before presenting the winners' cheques. This year's innovation was mini competitions on the day for Flash Fiction and Haiku, both inspiring excellent entries and creating an entertaining lunchtime interlude with cash prizes for two lucky writers: Hannah Teasdale from Bath was voted fiction winner by a trio of judges (thanks Kate Maryon, David Lassman, and Alex Wilson) and poet Claire Crowther selected Emily Gerrard's entry as 'perfect haiku'.    
                                  Frome to Templemeads.
                                  Wild roses pink the hedgerows
                                   ~ a kind of calling.
So now we're on page 10 of your brochures, with sunshine promised as the festival rolls on...

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Of roof gardens and other things

Nine years ago I led a writing workshop in Kythira which was where I met poet & now novelist Christine Coleman, and story-writer & now biographer, Roger Jinkinson. I can't claim to have launched them on their subsequent careers because they did that themselves, but the other great outcome is that ever since we've met annually in London for a catchup and supper with stop-over. Chris and I walk along the riverside at South Bank where there's always something on ~ it was a Festival of Neighbourhood this week, with window-box allotments under the plane trees.  Inspired by this bucolic idyll, we embarked on an exploration of city roof-gardens, discovering beds of mauve and cream flowers in Queen Elizabeth Hall and amazing views for miles across the city at Coq d'Argent. We wandered alone around the seven-storey high lawn, which looks a bit like something Tim Burton might landscape, supervised at discreet distance by one of the staff who admitted his role was suicide watch. 'It is surprising, in this beautiful city,' he said, 'but yes, they do it.' The skyline glimmered silver in the dusk as we sipped prosecco. So touching in its majesty, Wordsworth called this river view back in 1802. Still true today. Then on to meet Roger, who has a new book out: More Tales from a Greek Island is the second collection of vivid slices of real life in his adoptive home of Karpathos. As the review promises, a wonderful collection, written in easy style with honesty and love.

Amateur Dramatics, a phrase generally intoned with fastidious dread, doesn't inspire high expectations of performance, or even choice of play: Frome's am-dram Troupers under the direction of Philip de Glanville totally confound all prejudice. Their current production ~ Act 1 of Peter Nichol's 1967 classic A Day in the Death of Joe Egg ~
is so good it's off to Derry to represent England in the finals of the Amateur One-Act Play Contest. The company beat literally hundreds of other groups throughout the heats, and opened up their final dress rehearsal as a free performance at the Merlin. It was fantastic: outrageously funny, searingly sad, brilliantly acted. Super Troupers, the local paper bragged, and they were right. Can't wait to hear how they get on in Derry.

And now as we quiver on the brink of Frome Festival, I'm taking a quick look ahead to autumn as Chateau Ventenac is offering £100 off all writing courses to early bird bookers ~ read more here!