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.