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.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

words & music, words & art, words & lions

Moving around in the outside world after my prolonged demi-incarceration is wonderful, like having a house-arrest sentence lifted. I'm still cautious, replacing wild dancing at the Silk Milk with the newly-discovered joy of Strictly Come Dancing ~ don't judge me till you've slouched a mile in my slippers ~ but daytime activities are back on the menu. So on Saturday afternoon I was down at Crocker & Woods coffee shop in Catherine Hill to hear Pete Gage playing fabulous 12-bar blues, and on Sunday went along to a superb poetry workshop led by George Szirtes at the Holburne Museum in Bath. Interestingly, George's guidance resonated closely with Seamus Moran's words on Friday about the artist's entire life coming out in his work: The shape of a poem, George suggests, is "haunted" by the stuff around it - "all the stuff of our life which we bring to it." He used the analogy of a perfectly placed goal shot being described as sheer poetry and focussed on the 'playful' element of writing. "Don't be be burdened down ~ there's this impulse to be significant, to seek for admirable poetic qualities. Be playful!"
So we did - and I took this notion to my Words at the Black Swan workshop at Seamus' exhibition that evening. Nine imaginative writers shared responses to the imagery and 'played' with the notion of creating 'moulded' patterns in words, with some stunning responses which will all be posted on our facebook site and displayed in the Gallery while the exhibition lasts, so do take a look next time you're at the market or in Divas.

Luke Wright brought his latest show Essex Lion to Bristol last night: it had glow-stick reviews (I nicked that image from Anna Freeman, good one eh?) in Edinburgh but this Blahblahblah performance Luke reckoned as his best night yet.  Luke's lion is lifted from last year's news item about a spurious siting, and he takes as link theme to a diversity of character stories ~ hilariously satiric, angrily political, or unexpectedly compassionate ~ "the things we see because we want to see them." As well as rapid-fire rhyming, striking imagery, and sublime turns of phrase, Luke's observational comedy is never far from self-deprecating and it's this quality that makes his flamboyant style work so well. Whether he's pretending to strut in Cuban heels, parodying his penchant for posh plumbers or recalling teenage delusions, he reminds us that we all share the same conviction as the Essex lion spotter: how can a thing that makes you feel / be anything but fucking REAL?

Final footnote: congratulations & big virtual bouquet to my co-participant at the Holburne workshop Daisy Behagg who has won the Bridport Prize for best poem, viz: praise from judge Wendy Cope and a cheque for £5000. Wow.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Two openings and a wine tasting

Séamus Moran, currently exhibiting at Black Swan Arts, says most of his work is about capturing a non-representational presence, which is interesting as much of it is cast from wood-knots and some uses natural elements like feathers, and even an apple. It's the artistic process that shifts his imagery into fantasy ~ a word Séamus agrees resonates for him: “Fantasy is what's in your head ~ all the things that go into your life come out eventually.” So these constructions, each unrepeatable, created by mouldings from hundreds of casts, are distorted into patterns that evoke gothic armour, rituals from medieval religion, myths and fairytales. There's a feathered piece that looks like a charred Icarus, and ~ my favourite, pictured here ~ a tangled pattern that could be the thorn forest Sleeping Beauty's prince strode through on his rescue quest... it looks very like the Arthur Rackham illustrations in my 1920 copy, anyway.  This one's called Decade, because "it took ages ~ it started from a drawing and when I'd got all the mouldings in I put the brambles through it because I wanted that scribblyness back."

Then on to Rook Lane Chapel, where artist David Chandler is showing I came, I saw, i-Pad, a delightful collection of atmospheric images from wine-growing regions of France sponsored by Yapps. David's website has some thoughts about creativity as useful to the writer as to the visual artist: Art is not a hobby, it is a life skill... the artist with the treasures that the rest of humanity discards; reaches to the heart of the world and cherishes the experience of living.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The language of love

St James Vault in Bath was crowded on Monday night for Poetry & a Pint where Philip Gross read from his latest collections ~ with some gems on the open mic too, notably from Rose Flint, David Johnson and Stephen Payne. Philip's main theme was family routes, rather than roots, and his father's never-talked-of journey from Estonia to England and the poignancy of his father's final days deserted by all five languages he'd once known. The poems are about silence and absence, using extreme precision of language in so visceral a way that listening becomes more kinesthetic than aural. Philip's introductions are profound too, evoking his childhood realisation that 'silence is a language of its own, always quivering with something else like anger... my father passed on a silence the exact size and shape of what he was not saying.'  The passion in his quest to find words for what is unspoken evokes and then transcends the relationship he describes, reaching out to that universal sense of the tremendous / silent language we may some day speak /or be?

Still in Bath, the Ustinov new season features three plays from the Spanish Golden Age ~ the era of 'comedia nueva', a radical new form which allowed tragic & comic elements, kings & commoners, and varied verse forms all in the same play.  A Lady of Little Sense was written 400 years ago by Lope de Vega using this formula, and this dazzling new translation by David Johnston joyfully combines farce and social satire in a fast-paced romantic comedy as beautifully lit and dressed as if Velazquez had painted every scene. Imagine a version of The Taming of the Shrew in which both sisters need taming by suitors whose eyes are fixed solely on the dowry, with the added twist that while one is sour the other is totally bonkers. It's almost beyond belief that the power of love can transform an autistic simpleton into a woman of passionate eloquence and dignity, but this is the happy transformation that occurs during the interval ~ not that Finea gets any appreciation from her louche but luscious lover Laurencio, who panics that the suitor who previously spurned her may now reclaim her. "I was safe in your simplicity" he scolds her, "I am destroyed. Why on earth did you learn to speak?" The outrageously non-feminist attitudes of all the men would be  shocking if they weren't so absurd and frankly funny. A clever set, pageantry, duelling, dance and song all enhanced this brilliant production directed by Laurence Boswell: some of the clowning was a tad OTT but the high energy and superb acting of the entire cast made this antique comedy of manners a delight ~ and special praise to Frances McNamee so gorgeous as love-cured Finea it was almost possible to believe Laurencio's noble protestation:
Love makes us greater than we are.
What love touches, love transforms; 
where it plants desire its roots split stone. 
If we love well, then we live well. 
And once Finea begins to love,
love will begin to transform Finea. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Out of the tunnel...

By Saturday night I was just about recovered enough from my epic malaise to manage Front-of-House duties at the Cornerhouse for the Stepping Out production of Diary of a Madman which Nevertheless Pub Theatre hosted for two nights. Gogol's account of paranoia and the treatment of madness remains a classic dark comedy piece, and Anthony Hoskins held a full house gripped. Feedback forms enthused: Great acting and writing, very moving, disturbing, real... Absolutely convincing and powerful descent into madness ~ and we had facebook accolades too: Great pub theatre again. Love those evenings.... So cool to have quality pub theatre here in Frome! 
After the hectic clash of weekend productions life has quietened, though feedback is still coming through for both ~ my favourite Muffin Man email verdict read: "funny, astute, truthful, witty, beautifully structured, and a lovely playfulness about it that had the audience beaming with joy." 

Creative life in Frome never quietens, of course. Sunday night at the Westway cinema celebrated some of the work of local independent film makers, including Greenspin, a clever video-poem by Helen Moore animated by Howard Vause which recently won an award at the Liberated Words festival at the Arnolfini. This event, musically hosted by Sara Coffield, also included the official screening of Tales of the Tunnels which was filmed during Frome Festival under the tunnels of the town while watched by an audience paddled in by the Canoe Club.  Andrew Shackleton, of Recondite Spaces site-specific production company, had the concept of a mythical version of a medieval morality play about man's disconnection with nature and the option of return to harmony, and asked Frome Scriptwriters to create the dialogue. The result was one of the sell-out successes of the summer: a combination of unique setting, great musicality and fantastic costumes all adding to the lyrical, sometimes comical, thought-provoking symbolism of the script, and the movie captures it all.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

"Fantastic theatre.." ~ twitter has spoken!

 I made it to the one-day intensive rehearsal of my 'cheeky Short Trip' as Venue, Tom Phillips, and Theatre West et al have been tweeting Muffin Man, playing before Tom's second week of 100 Miles From Timbuktu. Seeing a director working with the actors to lift your play off the page is a gold-dust experience for any writer: Alison Farina's approach is to focus on the interplay between public and private personas at the heart of my play, interrogating Meghan Leslie and Andrew Kingston to find the subtext "which is how you get to the emotional truth". Fascinating.
This is week 2 of extreme convalescence, and I'm still judiciously jettisoning a lot of activities... frustrating but Virusgate has made this essential. Not, obviously, jettisoning my first night! It was great to have family & friends joining me at the Alma Tavern Theatre to watch both my play and the main feature:  100 Miles North of Timbuktu.

Tom's play is based on an intriguing premise:If you could sit at your laptop and change the weather anywhere in the world, what would you do? Create a little light mist to beautify Lake Windermere for a poetry conference? Arrange for a shower to spoil school sports day, or sunshine to glamorise a wedding? Genius nerd Zac is inundated with such requests when the world discovers he can make it rain in the Sahara, but his partner Pete knows the lucrative way to go: “Offensive weather, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction!” It's an offer the MOD can’t refuse, but as ‘Whatsisface who split the atom’ also found, such forces once unleashed can go unstoppably beyond control… this is the darker side of Tom Phillips’ chaotic, clever, farce set in a seedy office in Chapel Street, with Marc Geoffrey as Zac, Piers Wehner as social-media manipulator Pete and Kirsty Cox as Clare their MOD chum. Directed by Hannah Drake with lots of witty visual detail, the story builds up to a frenetic climax reminiscent of Young Ones anarchy combined with quite a bit of Walmington-on-Sea ‘don’t panic’ mania… a uniquely original concept ingeniously developed in a sharp script which is thought-provoking as well as very funny.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Closer each day... to my 'short trip' play

Tom Phillips' play has opened Theatre West’s autumn season to great acclaim with Venue's reviewer giving four-&-a-half stars and declaring "The bar has been set cloud-high.'  So I'm thrilled that next week my Muffin Man will be the "short trip" before Tom's comedy 100 Miles North of Timbuktu.  Director Alison Farina has cast my couple: Andrew Kingston and Meghan Leslie, both members of the team who create Closer Each Day, Bristol's "Improvised Soap Opera".  Intensive rehearsals this Sunday!

And suddenly production involvements are coming not in single spies but in battalions, as Claudius might have put it. Salisbury Fringe next weekend is featuring our Nevertheless Pub Theatre production of When She Imagines, written by Frome Scriptwriters and directed by Rosie Finnegan, plus a Bootleg performance of Girl with the Blue Hair written by Rosie as well as her new monologue Sons of War, written especially for this festival. And before Muffin Man finishes it's week-long run,  Diary of a Madman in a new touring production from Stepping Out is coming to The Cornerhouse, our pub theatre here in Frome. Wow.

Meanwhile, my convalescence teeters on like a unicyclist on a slackwire, determined but unsteady. I've had to cancel loads ~ like seeing the excellent-sounding production of Sweeney Todd here in Frome, as well as joining Rosie for her triple-triumph in Salisbury, and missed all celebrations for National Poetry day.

As a positive footnote: research reported in The Guardian suggests a healthy interest in plays among younger people, who are far more likely to go to the theatre than 45-55 year olds. (87% compared to 63%)  Ticketmaster, who carried out the survey, noticed a trend "towards a younger and less affluent customer base", and found that last year more people went to the theatre than to a music concert or a sporting events. Nevertheless Pub Theatre is proud to play its part in keeping ticket prices down and quality up, so if you're anywhere near Frome October 11th & 12th, come and see Gogol's "surreal, heartbreaking, hilarious" masterpiece at The Cornerhouse. Less than the cost of a couple of drinks... phone to save a seat or just turn up for 8pm.