Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mirad the Boy from Bosnia, written 20 years ago but timeless in its aching insight on casualties of conflict, has been revived by Theatre Orchard and came to The Egg in Bath last week. Mirad is a catalyst and unseen hero, a victim in the Bosnia-Hertzegovena hostilities like so many others. His story is brought to us haltingly, apologetically, precisely, and with terrible lucidity by his uncle Djuka and aunt Fazila, who become dragged into the widening gyre of Serb-Croat conflict. Directed by John Retallack ~ also director of The Last Days of Mankind, another production with a powerful anti-war theme ~ this is acted with moving conviction by Dean Rehman and Gehane Strehler against a minimal set used sparingly to maximum effect. Script is by Dutch playwright Ad de Bont and based on actual events and Amnesty reports. The refugee couple end their harrowing story in Holland on a 'Selected Refugee' scheme, but there is no happy ending for those who are have lost livelihood, loved ones, families and homeland: they are, as Djuka told us diffidently at the start, not refugees but people blown by the wind all over the world... This is one of those experiences that makes you look afresh at the world outside when you leave the theatre, its railings and routes and signs, and at the casual confidence of people moving freely around.

And Emily and I are both back in Bath again on Sunday morning for a circular stroll recreating the streets the Regency Detective would have known. After coffee & croissants at wonderful Toppings Bookshop, authors David Lassman and Terence James escort our thirty-strong group around the territory of their hero Jack Swann, blending fascinating social history with tantalising plot-snippets from their crime novel. The story comes to life excitingly literally at several points as we spy as characters from the book sauntering past ~ and on one occasion dashing after a pickpocket down Avon street, in those days a red-light district rife with crime.  Interestingly, those affluent areas named after the rich and the royal look much as they did when Jane Austen tripped these pavements, but the grim homes of the dispossessed sadly have been merely replaced by an ugly soulless area which was mourned by John Betjeman: Goodbye to old Bath. We who loved you are sorry, they've carted you off by developer's lorry.
Our tour ends by the abbey as the clock chimes noon ("Dead on Twelve" says David cheerily, and some of the group look around worriedly in case this heralds another vivid reconstruction) and we troop back to Toppings for more coffee and to avidly claim our signed copies of The Regency Detective.  "Swann will do for Bath what Morse did for Oxford" predicts the Bath Chronicle confidently. Let's hope so ~ it will make a great TV series.

And now as Glastonbury is probably gathering up the last few thousand black bags of debris ~ are many campers going hang around for Mumford and Sons? ~ there's only five more sleeps before Frome bursts into the festival arena. Somerset Standard has done us proud again, with a big round-up of poetry nights ~ that's lovely Sally Jenkinson, Monday's guest at the Garden Cafe, looming large ~ and a nice push for Nevertheless Pub Theatre too. We're putting on an award-winning one-man play in a production that was Pick of Brighton Fringe and scooped 5 stars in Edinburgh from the Love Fringe review: "An excellent performance combined with Vincent Cassar's richly dark and comic script make this a rare treat." What's the Time Mr Wolf? is on from Wednesday to Saturday, quality theatre for just a fiver!
So you know what to do: pick up a brochure if you haven't got one and get booking everything you can ~ Tales from the Tunnels, the site-specific performance created by Frome Scriptwriters, is already fully booked!

Friday, June 28, 2013

"Comedies of Manners become obsolete when there are no more manners," opines Crestwell, the erudite and eloquant  butler in Relative Values, Noel Coward's 1951 play of that genre currently revived at Theatre Royal Bath to critical acclaim. Topicality is evident through viewing figures for Downton Abbey, a show I've never watched (and I doubt if Crestwell would either), but the charm for this audience is clearly nostalgia, with faux Pathé Newsreels recalling of those simple days when Queen Elizabeth and the post-war world were both young.  It's not just about class distinctions, however: there's a plot-line straight from soapland and quite a lots of witty one-liners as well as Stephen Brimson Lewis's totally exquisite set. Directed by Trevor Nunn, who ensures no cushion remains unturned as emotional turmoil hits the drawing room, this production features a starry cast including Rory Bremner's Wodehouse-style butler and Ben Mansfield appropriately irresistible as Hollywood star Don Lucas, but without a doubt the production was held together and raised aloft by Patricia Hodge as the Countess and Caroline Quentin as her maid. These two are simply brilliant, their comic timing and nuance transforming this slightly stately vehicle into a flying chariot. Overall, however, I'd say Crestwell's sagacity on the matter of Comedies of Manners is valid.

It's been over a week, at least, since I extolled the extreme amazingness of Frome so here's a snap from the Welshmill Pump Track, which on Saturday hosted a Bike Jam for all-comers, a brilliant event with participants aged from 4 (!) to 18+, and a fastest lap time of 13.9 seconds. That's less than fourteen seconds round a double loop bike track with no peddling allowed...  Think about it, and be massively impressed!

Over in Bristol's Brewery, there's a special brew of madness and mayhem on tap as Stepping Out community theatre company present Hermione Steel and the Island of Lost Minds.  This complex and often bizarre story begins with a bemused writer and the polar bear who eats his characters before he can find their story  (don't we all have one of those) and ends some time later with a happy outcome and a song, and an exuberant cast convey with palpable integrity the depth of their commitment to this tribute to a much-missed member of their group. Audience feedback has been impressive, reflecting appreciation of the humour as well as the poignancy of this high-spirited story of self-discovery and redemption. Costumes were superb too.

Final footnote: with Frome Scriptwriters already planning for our festive special, and Quantock Court poised for a new series on Frome FM, the tricky matter of timing is again a hot issue as fans of word-count argue font size with proponents of page-count, so I was delighted to discover (thanks Tighe) a way to slice the Gordian Knot with this excellent timing tool for all spoken word. Worth bookmarking!

Friday, June 21, 2013

 Vienna in 1913 was no place for a prophet, the programme asserts, and The Last Days of Mankind at Bristol Old Vic proves it. Written by political editor Karl Kraus as a satiric commentary using news footage and verbatim dialogue, the original version contained over a hundred characters and would have taken hours to perform, but this collaboration between BOV and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School explores the essence of the play with just 26 actors in a show of dazzling energy which blends absurdity and accuracy in scathing and unforgettable comi-tragedy.  Despite the cull, co-adapters Toby Hulse and John Retallack (who also directed) added two additional characters: the playwright's optimistic lover Sidi and Karl himself, to predict throughout and give the final verdict: Now we have no need of God, Mankind has the power to bring about its own destruction.  The device works really well ~ but I love a meta-theatrical play so I would think that wouldn't I ~  and holds together a variety of disparate scenes.  Alongside the Viennese waltzing cafe life of the socialites there's BlackAdderish comedy about the callous arrogance of the General, and an increasingly brutal press to prove the worst casualty of the war is truth.... Stage design, including backdrop, props and lighting too, is especially effective in scenes eerily evocative of Paul Nash WWI paintings. Most powerful sequence is the haunting nightmare of the catatonic last-living soldier, in a Guernica-like montage that culminates in Austria giving birth to a goosestepping soldier with a Hitler moustache while the Church hands out helmets and the blinkered socialites of Vienna gnaw on their pet pekinese.  The entire ensemble cast were all amazing but I have to pick out Darren Seed, simply superb in the largely silent role of the Simple Soldier who enlists as a clownish patriot and morphs into sombre visionary and victim.  It's on for another week, do see it if you can, if only to say you saw tomorrows' stars when they were tiny twinkles.

Maggie, written by Eleanor Blaney, is a tale of pre-wedding nerves mingling nostalgic memories with apprehension, and cake-size slices of existential angst. With echoes of Sliding Doors, Maggie wonders why we look for someone 'meant' to be our partner: "If they weren't ours they'd be someone else's!" An hour is a long time to sustain a reverie without interaction, especially when directed at points onstage rather than to audience, so director Emel Yilmaz has decorated each slice of the story in playful activity to recreate Maggie's emotional confusion. The solo role is endearingly acted by Daisy Dugmore with Debi Moore making a brief appearance as the mother, and the Changing-Rooms-inspired set by Sarah Warren is delightful - and weren't we all relieved when Maggie tugs off her Andrew-Aguecheek hairpiece to be herself and 'just do what I can.'  Her pragmatic decision brings resolution, but as living together before getting married statistically increases chances of divorce by 40%, I'd give it a year.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

This weekend saw the culmination of our spring project at Nevertheless Pub Theatre: When She Imagines... was written by Frome Scriptwriters, performed by Sara Taylor, and directed by Nevertheless Productions' founder Rosie Finnegan.  And every aspect - scripts, acting, and direction - was picked out for praise by enthusiastic audiences on both nights. Extraordinary, professional, engaging, enjoyable, brilliant, fantastic, impressive, thought-provoking, funny, accomplished, superbly acted, wonderful words beautifully interpreted, excellent production, amazing - worth the trip from Bristol... (You can read all the feedback is on Nevertheless facebook page.) Our venue at the Cornerhouse got thumbs-up for installing more comfortable seating, and we loved all the audience responses when asked why they would recommend Frome's pub theatre. Supporting local talent and enjoying good entertainment were often cited, and these three comments probably say it all:
  • The quality of performance and writing is superb, and gives the people of Frome the opportunity to experience live theatre for minimal outlay
  • It’s like no other theatre - intimate, warm, cosy, and perfect
  • Frome is bursting with talent and in the current economic climate Nevertheless has shown what you can do on a low budget
Here's Sara in her three roles as three very different women, age 25 in A Blue Line by Paul Ralston, 50 in Tighe O'Connor's play Hello five O, and 75 in A Long Wonderful Silence by Eddie Young. Frome Scriptwriters' competitions are always sent as anonymous submissions to an external judge, by the way, so some men, in Frome at least, can empathise with a women when she imagines....

Victoria Park on Saturday looks like a Peter Greenaway film as Frome hosts the national Town Cryer competition. I know nothing about crying, in the civic sense, and am intrigued to glean more about this tradition. Judging is on dress, voice, and cry content apparently: two cries each, separated by Morris dancing. "First cry is about the town, second cry is about a news item," explains one of the Axbridge team over tiffin. Everyone makes their own costumes but the Swindon entrant demurs when I ask if he chose his green jacket. "Some of them make it up to please themselves, but this is Great Western Railways!” I don't know who won but they all looked glorious ~ long may they cry for their towns!

It’s easy to spoof Shakespeare ineptly, baffling audience members who don’t know the plots and irritating ones who do. I approached Machamlear at Bath's nice little Rondo theatre with a trepidation which turned out to be totally needless: Dougie Blaxland’s paradic blending of three tragedies into a contemporary soap saga is a hilarious by any standards, and Live Wire community theatre company had terrific fun with it. The basic plots of each play are as recognisable as the Eastenders theme music that links the scenes, but all three are inextricably intertwined as action moves around the London suburb of Burnham Wood with plots are hatched by Mac and Beth and Claude Elsinore in the Kings' Head, the pub Ken Lear has unwisely handed over to his greedy elder daughters... “My mother’s married a total dickhead” moans Hamlet to Cordelia, the only one who understands since Ophelia dumped him, and they run away together followed by hoodies Rosie Krantz and Gill Denstone... The stories end in similarly cross-fertilised mass slaughter. “I’ve never seen so many corpses," declares the doctor ~ there’s always a doctor in a soap ~ "Things like this only happen in plays!” The cast's five youngsters add charming energy to the production and there's zestful acting all round with a superbly scene-stealing cameo as Banquo’s ghost from Jackie Eliot. Spanking script, lively direction, great night out.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I wasn't planning to blog again until after the next, rather busy, weekend, but Bluebeard finishes at Bristol Old Vic on Saturday, and everyone who cares about writing, or relationships, or ~ well, anything really ~ needs to go see it.
Writer Hattie Naylor developed this 60-minute monologue with support from Bristol Old Vic Ferment, who co-produced with Gallivant. As introduction to an extraordinary reworking of the Bluebeard fantasy I'll just quote the flyer: Will he excite you? Will he seduce you? Will he love you to death? but Hattie can tell you more here.  Her script is tautly shocking from the opening line, words chosen with knifelike precision and cuttingly delivered, poetic and visual ~ not so much filmic as a series of savagely erotic paintings. It's also a psychological study of violence ~ specifically on women but evoking the whole notion of control and complicity in human interaction. We are taken deep into the mind of predator with a chilling ability to self-justify ~ Nature doesn’t come with moral guidelines. Nature is tyranny. ~ but his insights into his victims are searing. She’ll go back there, he says of one corrupted naïf, She’ll want to attempt to understand it. Of another: She thought she could take it... she wants to know there's a worthless self deep within her, why else would she stay?' 
And there's an amazing dance half-way through, to The Night, which ferociously embodies his misogyny and rage and unacknowledged self-contempt. The ending fits perfectly this ouroboric tale but a spoiler would, in this case, spoil.
(I can't imagine anyone better for this role than Paul Mundell, which is why I've used his Spotlight picture here... so you can see exactly what I mean.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

  A 'family show' that really engages and entertains all ages is as rare as sunny afternoons in June this year.  Merlin's amphitheatre revelled in both on Sunday when Quantum Theatre brought Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, an unpretentious and delightful version of Beatrix Potter's classic tales adapted by Michael Wildmore and performed by four lively actor/musicians. The two stories combined to a running time of nearly 2 hours, ambitious for an audience compose largely of littlies, but the combination of energetic action and pantomime-style interaction kept everyone gripped and Scottish-reeling Mr McGregor had the children yelling themselves hoarse to direct him to the hidden rabbits. (Not sure if it was supposed to be the other way round, maybe Frome children disapprove of deviant rodents). The fact that all the props have a slightly here's-one-I-pulled-out-of-the-skip-earlier look detracts not at all from our enjoyment and confirms that you don't need to throw a bucket of money at a company to get a show that does what it says on the flyer: 'an enchanting experience for young and old alike.'

The Big Wedding, shown at Frome's independent Westway cinema on Sunday, has no particular connection with writing or theatre, or ~ since it's set in American Richlands ~ local culture but I'm going to include it here because I'm intrigued by the vitriolic mauling this movie met from the critics. Flippant and frankly farcical, it's a quirky take on the posh-facade-implodes-at-family-gathering cliché, well-acted and frequently very funny. Rotten Tomatoes website is near-unanimously incandescent with scorn, some of it quite inventive ( jokes squeezed from the ragged plot with the grace of an arthritic senior citizen trying to get milk out of a coconut) but mostly summed up as "the misery of watching actors you once respected demean themselves." This indignant thread runs through all the reviews, with snarling castigation of cast members because they have (Robbie Williams, Diane Keaton) or have not (Robert de Nero, Ben Barnes) played similar parts before. Robert de Nero is particularly berated. "With De Nero inexcusably using what is for many people the single most obscene swear word, this is well off target" was the final judgement from Birmingham Mail.  And I think this is the key, not the capricious and unlikely (or "chaotically disparate tones" in RotTom speak) storyline.  There's cunnilingus on the kitchen table, discussion of the length of orgasms, and a highly inappropriate one-night stand ~ all featuring the oldsters, which makes de Niro according to his anguished fans a 'sleazy old creep' and the film a 'potty-mouthed fiasco... just embarrassing'. De Nero is 69, Keaton 66, and neither is chastened in this movie for their regretlessly sexual appetites. "Sinks to new levels of horrid" as the Utah reviewer put it. Reader, you decide.

Back to proper culture, with BOV’s monthly BlahBlahBlah, a bitter-sweet occasion ~ I quote host Byron Vincent here in a rare moment of familiar imagery ~ as this is his final appearance here as a performance poet. He has no new poem for the occasion due to arm injury (not a stabbing, he clarifies, he's been stabbed five times in his life but this is not one of them) so he reads a brilliant one about teeshirt logos.  Main guests for the night are Andy Craven Griffiths and Caroline Bird.  Andy has been researching altruism and urges us all to do acts of kindness and tweet him about them. His poems, especially the first which is about snow, in childhood and in love, are brilliant. Caroline's surreal poems have won prizes and been published since she was 15  ~ she shared one about eating a parrot from her early teens. 'The early bird knows sod all about perseverance’ she suggests, strangely. It's a strange night, overall, and for Byron's many followers, a sad one.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Exeter was bubbling with performers last week for the IGNITE festival, where "Any space can be a theatre, anyone can tell a story." I took a trip down with writer-friend Jill Miller to see my short play The Human Angle at The Globe Inn in a production by dynamic young company Ripped Script as one of four Snapshots of life. Great fun to see my meta-theatrical anti-war comedy brought to life, and the other very different scripts, all provocatively engaging ~ I especially liked The River Lethe, contemporising an ancient Greek myth, written by Yannis Souris, a Theatre West stable-mate.

Frome FM Saturday afternoon chat show with Bo Bowman-Shaw and Sara Coffield featured the upcoming Frome Festival this week, with me and Gilly Waugh as guests. Gilly was there to plug Through the Blue Door, her open-house-and-garden event which sounds fantastic ~ sculptures, poetry, music, all free except the Pimms ~  and I was there to promote as many of the Words At Frome Festival events as I could cram into my half hour interview. Quite a few, as it happened, and a big puff for the Library promotion including our new flyers, and our facebook page.

And as teenyweeny Toolshed gallery closes on Georgie Manly's Our Turn exhibition (cat lit free to a good home), Gaynor O'Flynn opens up the vast Being Human exhibition space 'for one night only' to reveal an impressive array of work in various media. Within the warehouse there's projections and a creative draft game while outside ceramicist Hans Borgonjon is collecting fingerprints in clay within a bamboo circular structure and a dog wants to play frisby. It's the culmination of an residency from award-winning artists from Russia, USA, Greece, and Belgium as well as UK. Fascinating. And the festival hasn't even begun yet...

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Writers take heart from the history of The Seagull, a play so catastrophically badly received at its premier that Chekhov vowed he would never put another on stage if he lived for 700 years. Two years later, in 1896, the next production met with a response described by director Stanislavski as "colossal, like a second Easter. Many people, myself among them, danced a wild dance for joy and excitement."
The new adaption by John Donnelly directed by Blanche McIntyre for Headlong deserved similar rapture in the streets outside Theatre Royal Bath. The dialogue dazzles, pain and poetry mixing with precision, authentically personal without ever becoming prosaic or predictable, and is often spotlit suddenly by quirky humour. Cast ~ especially Alexander Cobb as conflicted playwright Konstantin and Abigail Cruttenden as his self-absorbed, insecure, mother ~ are individually riveting in their private passions and in the tableau scenes Chekhov loves to create. Intimate moments are offered directly to audience, houselights rising to remind us of our complicity in these dilemmas of life and art, a device that enhances the meta-theatrical theme at the heart of the play. You have to write what's inside, even if everyone says you're wrong, Konstantin declares, like everyone in this story fearing to 'sleepwalk through life': he alone keep to his pledge I'd rather have nothing than a lie. Laura Hopkins' set supports this integrity: no attempt at lakeside landscape but a strangely blank backdrop daubed with images and scrawl throughout the action, with a plank that morphs with striking simplicity from garden seesaw to supper table. It's all simply brilliant ~ 5 stars, read more here.

The Dug Out at the Tobacco Factory is a kind-of proxy site-specific performance combining two tales in one location: the 1970s 'Dug Out' nightclub, convincingly recreated by Halla Groves, also represents a refuge from rioting in 1944. The war story is a romantic encounter but 30 years on, city life is more complex. Black American soldiers stationed in Bristol during WW2 met no racism from local people but their white colleagues found it unacceptable to see them with English girls, so there's innocence as well as ignorance in the encounter between Rita and GI Curtis. By 1974 the clubbers have more conflicts and concerns than racism to cope with: there's drugs, pregnancy, transgenderism, prawn cocktails, Germaine Greer and the IRA to name a few. Writer Amanda Whittington has researched both eras in detail, as evidenced ~ perhaps too clearly ~ in her characters' dialogue. But there's much that's thought-provoking, some excellent individual performances and a soundtrack to totally relish. (image: Farrows Creative)

Still on the subject of exploring one's own locality, photographer Edward Johnson is creating a story in images about the artistic life of Frome, and I feel very pleased and privileged to have been invited to sit for his gallery. We went to the gardens of the Blue House, abundant with indigo aquilegia aptly, for the shoot. Edward kindly took a snap on my camera so I had a preview of his pose and here it is. Here too, just because I love this place, is an evening view over the lake at Stourhead...

Monday, June 03, 2013

Why is Frome such a hotbed of creativity? It's a frequent question now that Frome is officially on the Hot List of places to live in England, and local luminary Matthew Graham was asked his view by Dan Biggane in interview for the Somerset Standard. Other than being old and hidden and hence evolving without outside interference into a unique identity, he had no solution. "Why is ultimately a mystery. Best not to question it, just be grateful for it." Matthew himself is one of those at the hub of our precious mystery, and his latest contribution to creative-crucible spirit of the town is Makeshift Musical, the stage show he wrote specifically for Merlin Theatre Company as a fundraiser. His brief ~ combining songs from widely different musicals within a storyline for the exuberant young cast ~ must have been as challenging as scripting Life on Mars but the result was a delightfully engaging tale of the city with some stunning individual performances and wonderful ensemble work, and a standing ovation on Saturday night for the final performance at the Merlin.

Sunday saw the annual Cheap Street Fun Day, this year merging with Frome's Super Market so access roads closed and the streets filled with performers and balloons and stalls selling everything from fantasy clothes to foods exotic and local,  the whole town transformed into a summer festival but with extra cheese sampling. Fabulous free music all day ~ Frome Street Bandits and Leander Morales here ~ and evening too, as another fantastic Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse closes the first weekend of real summer...
Black Swan Arts new exhibition is a site-specific installation from Mark Karasick if you could see what i see through your eyes. Mark has created monolithic images of his parents through the ancient technique of encaustic painting of fragments carefully nailed together. Rose Flint's workshop for Words at the Black Swan focussed on the artist's theme of DNA streamed from parents making each child a new individual yet still linked to the past. We wrote relating this notion to ourselves and a fascinating range of responses emerged ~ they'll be posted on our facebook page. 

So, yes, why IS Frome such a hotbed of creative activity, filled with people of all ages ready to share their extraordinary talent with their community readily and usually with no or little remuneration...
Dan Biggane asked Rosie and me that too, in a great double-page spread about our Pub Theatre and current Nevertheless production from Frome Scriptwriters at The Cornerhouse: When She Imagines, on June 14th and 15th. We said... well you can read that on the paper's new website here!