Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Look behind you... we're nearly there

"All the elements for a magical family pantomime" is the reviewers' concensus on Cinderella at Theatre Royal Bath. Packaged by UK Productions, this is a live show for a TV generation: flat-screen sets, celeb names, Strictly-style dance routines & X-factory song arrangements, and scripted with meta-televisual gags - some genuinely witty, though from response to Fairy Godmother Melanie Walter's omelette-obsession it's a while since anyone watched Gavin & Stacey.  Local references were popular with adults ~ Bath's poshness, parking problems, and proliferation of 'fairies' ~ with farts and bottom jokes for the children.  Funniest moments by far came unscripted: Jon Monie as Buttons is a master of impro and Ugly Sister David Ball's lapses were marvellous, especially when he corpsed after proffering a highly suggestive-looking false leg to Dandini for the slipper-trying-on sequence. Crazily flamboyant and absurdly costumed, the best drag act I've seen since San Francisco's Beach Blanket Babylon.
But Cinderella, of course, is more than a comedy, it's the best-loved rags-to-riches tale in the world, travelling from ancient Greece and reaching us today via Grimm brothers and Perrault. Dani Harmer as the quintessential 'persecuted heroine' is a cheery little thing who evokes no thoughts of actual abused children to spoil the fun ~ indeed Cinder's tale of woe is largely parody, as when as she sings 'I'm all alone' with the entire cast & crew assembled to sympathetically chorus 'except for us'...   Without its dark heart this is a different story from the magical myth that glimmered through the gloom of my postwar childhood, and the only acknowledgement to deprivation here is a gag about Big Issue sellers in the gallery.  But hey, it's that look-behind-you time of year, and the three little girls in princess dresses seated next to me were entranced from first glimpse of the glittery pink safety curtain to the happy-ever-after curtain-calls. Oh and there are real white horses to pull the coach. Well, trained ponies anyway.  Showing till January 12th.

Time now for a seasonal break from public to personal activities with family & friends, possibly till next year. Thank you for reading, go well and, as wonderful Dave Allan used to say, may your god go with you.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Midwinter Medley

The Midwinter Poetry Cafe was a particularly pleasant one with a great atmosphere and some terrific poems, from open mic readers as well as from our guests local wordsmiths Rick Rycroft and Muriel Lavender, and Karen Woollard & Jill Flanders from the Warminster Poetry People. Rick is a poet 'in love with the ordinary', creating lucent imagery from slugs and half-remembered dream phrase. Muriel showed her impressive versatility as a performer by following her entertaining cautionary santa-saga with some stunning haiku, including several so orally beautiful the full-house audience seemed stunned... Helen Moore read her account of an activist protest entitled #iceclimblive, now published in a collection of 'ambitious poems by women poets' entitled Her Wings Of Glass. And if you'd like to be a founding member of group of serious poets to meet monthly and focus on the craft of editing your work, contact Norman Andrews for full details. Sounds a great idea to me.
It's always good news when Three Corners has a new album, and to launch Singular the band gave a full performance of all ten gorgeous tracks at the Masonic, with a chance to dance during and after.
What more could anyone want? Maybe a portion of  Dexter's Extra Breakfast ~ and we had that as well.

A brilliant Roots Session at the Grain Bar on Wednesday, with Griff Daniels & Nicki Maskell plus guests including velvet-voiced Steve Loudoun, songs ranging from 1950s pop through folk-rock and reggae to soulful blues.  Saturday morning streets jingled to the splendid sounds of Honk Monster, with Pete Gage finishing of a mega-musical week at the Cornerhouse, atmospheric lighting great for dancing but not photo-friendly.
Fromesbury Writers takes our end-of-year meeting seriously, in terms of festivity, and as an additional reason to be merry, Debby Holt has just got a new book deal, so prosecco was essential ~ thanks Jill Miller for donating in absentia, we're toasting you in Spain and wishing you rich writing as well as sunshine.  Frome Writers Collective had their get-together in Divas, and I'll end back at the Cheese&Grain with an art-&-craft market featuring local practitioners: lively images of Frome streets from Fourmakers, quirky pendants by Pukka Jewels (love the vintage camera one) and amazing products from foraged berries & herbs by Wild Things"  ~ that's Kylie and Lauren-Olivia, who developed their business from scratch (or possibly from snatch) through the Edventure apprentice scheme. Who needs Lord Sugar? or any kind of sugar ~ their rosehip chocolate is sweetened entirely with honey.  As BBC Points West so nicely put it in their plug for our local shops "The chaos of Black Friday seems a world away from the streets of Frome.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

What's on in festive Bath? More than Christmas stalls!

Ever wished you could fly? Chris Hadfield says it's really easy: "you push off with your toes and up you go, it's so much fun." But you have to be living 220 miles above the 'oppression' of earth's gravity.  Chris is a spaceman, and a singer, photographer, raconteur and performer too as I discovered at his talk at the Forum on Thursday along with about 500 spellbound astro-fans. As Commander of the tight-bonded team living on the International Space Station for stints of six months at a time, he's been around the world 16 times every 24 hours, and finds 'it unifies the whole planet as one continuous connected place.'  Chris covered every aspect of his personal story from first inspiration through launch and return procedures and his constant feeling of 'being overwhelmed with the wondrousness of the world', which is pretty well how I felt about his entire talk. I never realised that living in weightlessness requires regular exercise to prevent your now-redundant spine from disintegrating ~ and music is essential too, for psychological health, which is how Chris ended up playing Bowie in space in a video that went viral last year.  Oh, and you can't see the Great Wall of China from space, that's a myth. But you can see the M25.

As we filed out still overawed, faint sunlight was sparkling on the tinselled chalets of the pop-up market but paper stars and reindeer mitts didn't seem so alluringly photogenic after watching lightning streaks above Indonesia like a huge fluorescent marker drawn across the surface of the globe. 
Shakespeare loved mistaken identity but how seriously can you take the notion of male and female twins so identical they baffle both their best friends and their lovers? Not very seriously in the current production of Twelfth Night at Bath's Rondo Theatre, in which diminutive Viola ~ delightfully played by Marie Hamilton ~  is mistaken for the robust figure of Michael Keene’s Sebastian on the basis of a similar false moustache and jolly jumper.  In a brave move director Ian McGlynn shared all the roles between six lively actors, extending the play’s theme of deception and duplicity in this festive female-dominated version of Shakespeare’s popular comedy.  Justin Palmer, shape-shifting from obsessively passionate Orsino to pompously absurd Malvolio, is particularly impressive. Showing till Saturday 20th.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Once upon a time... and a very good time it was.

Charles Dickens must be grinning in his grave every time Merlin Theatre Company puts on a play based on one of his books. Following their brilliant Oliver! last summer comes an ensemble musical version of A Christmas Carol directed by Claudia Pepler with a fabulous cast, marvellous set, great visual and sound effects, and some spectacular puppetry. I wish I had pictures of the spine-chilling ghost of Christmas future but here's Marley's ghost taking a final bow, and most of the cast with Simon Huggins superb as Ebenezer Scrooge, charismatic throughout whether ruthless, regretful, or repentant. Dickens never flinched from dark truths, social or psychological, and nor did Chris Blackwood in his script and songs, but from opening to finale this was a feel-good feast for all ages. As entertainment this pushes all the buttons: dewy-eyed moments with Bob Cratchett (Ryan Hughes excellent) and Tiny Tim, hilarity from the housekeepers (Tracey Ashford especially droll as aptly named Mrs Filch) and a still-topical theme in economic inequality.Your wife’s ill health is not my concern, sir ~ the twenty pounds you owe me is my concern, Scrooge tells a despondent debtor in the opening scene. Would that ghosts in chains and 15-foot high skeletons could visit every banker and politician in the land this Christmas.
Elsewhere in Frome, Feast Street is open now each weekend till Christmas, and there's a new coffee shop on the bridge: The River House opened on Saturday night and is already the place to be. "Coffee making is an alchemy, a fusion of science and performance" ~ Ollie Wright, manager.  Sunday saw the last Independent Market of the year, and Frome Writers Collective set up stall in Cheap Street ~ a wise choice as main roads and precinct were jammed and Stony Street was total gridlock.
Frome Independent Filmmakers Collective had a showing of three intriguing shorts from Bargus, including The Tenth Muse scripted by Nikki Lloyd, which won the Salisbury Arts Centre 'Shoot Out' 48-hour film-making challenge. And here's Paul Newman and Jill Harris talking to the writers' group which is invited by Black Swan Arts to respond to each current exhibition. The Open Arts show is on till 10th January.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

No more Christmas footie for you Johnny, and other (more cheerful) tales

Johnny Got His Gun was an anti-war novel written in 1938 by Dalton Trumbo, and like Private Peaceful uses the story of one naive young soldier to make an impassioned appeal to end forever the senseless horror of warfare. It's doubly harrowing now we all know that warfare, senselessness & horror enhanced, will continue to be an established pillar of politics as long as financiers rule the world. An adapted stage monologue version by Bradley Rand Smith for Metal Rabbit has been touring and came to Bristol's Brewery last week with replacement Kaffe Keating taking over the gruelling role of Joe, once soldier now sentient stump. I mention that because Jack Holden, acclaimed in War Horse, must have been a daunting act to follow and perhaps director David Mercatali upped the lighting and sound effects to compensate. The real impact of the play comes slowly and towards the end, as Joe pleads in head-bumping morse code, the only way left for him to communicate sans limbs and facial features, to be allowed to become an exhibit to warn the world. Before they start a war, let them look at this thing here... people wouldn’t learn much about anatomy but they’d learn an awful lot about war... What do the dead say? Any of them ever come back and say, 'I died for decency and that’s better than being alive'? You should say, I gotta know what Liberty is, and how much we’re gonna have when it’s over. Brave words, but liberty is not on the world table any more than peace. A poignant period piece as finale to the dramatic war-memorabilia of 2014.

Still on the subject of theatre, Tim Walker, ex-chief theatre critic for the Sunday Telegraph, compiled for the Guardian a round-up of the current cull of reviewers. His 'bloodbath' list of the vanished includes Libby Purves, Michael Portillo, Nicholas de Jong, and Charles Spencer, all voices with experience and insight. So who will tell you what to say about what you see now?  Well there's bloggers of course, but we don't claim conscientious deconstruction, we just give a subjective personal view ~ though on the plus side we don't have our travel expenses & hotels paid for so we don't have to deliver spurious 5-star hyperbole. But Tim Walker fears for the future: I just don’t see that conversation led so confidently by the newspaper critics being continued in any serious form online or anywhere else.... any Angry Young Men out there now preparing to make their entrances had better be quick about it, otherwise I wonder who on earth will still be around to recognise them... Or maybe people who are passionate about theatre will continue to make it happen, and audiences will continue to have their own opinions and discussions even without benefit of Sunday Telegraph views to quote.
Comforting, maybe, with so many big guns retreating from the field, to know the Guardian's own Lynn Gardner stands immovable. Here's her view on the role of drama. Actually it's more about marketing but she says a theatre which doesn't have some financial failures isn't taking enough risks, which is a sort of comfort in these challenging times.

Over to Bath next for a delightful soiree at Mr B's Emporium of Books for the launch of the Bath Short Story Award 2014 anthology. Here's Alison, founder of Frome Festival Short Story Contest, with Jane Reikemann who ~ with Jude Higgins and Anna Schlesinger ~ admininstrates the competition, and that's Elinor Nash whose story The Ghost Boy was picked by literary agent Lucy Luck as overall winner. The collection, which looks great, was produced locally by The Self-Publishing Partnership and you can buy from the award website or from Mr B himself. And the 2015 competition is now open!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

"for such the scenes the annual play brings on"

Walt Whitman was referring to 'the delicate miracles of earth' in his poem Soon shall the winter's foil be here but 'annual play' fits well for Frome's winter Extravaganza, when the town centre turns into a vast community party with dazzling entertainment all evening.
This year the theme was Edwardian Christmas, so a choice of socialite or suffragette for the ladies and big hats all round. Frome Street Bandits, sounding fantastic as always, were dressed to impress with VOTES FOR WOMEN sashes as well as toppers and bonnets. Traditional games and strolling performers like juggler Marky Jay proliferated along the cobbled streets and up the main road (those closed-to-traffic signs certainly get well used in our town.)  One highlight was Tall Will the big-bubble man, who could enfold a child in a glittering air-balloon the size of... well, a child, with one hand while squirting mini bubbles at squealing onlookers with the other.
Amazing too was slack-rope walker Kwabana Lyndsay, who stripped to his Edwardian sock-suspenders to juggle a firebrand and a machete and an apple, which he ate while the other items were still in motion. There was sizzling drama too from Flame Oz in a spectacular finale involving blazing hoops and firework-like torrents of silver rain.
Ironically, though no performers or audience were harmed in the making of this marvellous entertainment, there was a genuine fire scare when Boots started smoking ~ really funny to watch two ten-foot comedy policemen shooing people off the road so the fire-engine could arrive.  (Here's me and Mr Mayor looking unaccountably guilty, although we didn't know then about the simmering chemist shop behind us.)
And after the grand tree-light switch-on and the street entertainments, Silk Mill's glowing pop-up music bar was open till late, serving prosecco under the stars.  Mega congratulations to everyone who contributed, including shops offering nibbles and snowballs, and to Frome Town Council who well-deserved their resounding cheer from the crowds for devising such a brilliant event.

Frome Town Council must be dizzy with accolades this week: they have just won the cumbersomely-titled but prestigious 'Most Proactive Public Sector Body' award, for sustainable activities and projects including electric car share. Our Mr Mayor wore solar-powered flashing bling on that occasion. Praise from a different angle for Frome as "Village England" offers an Insider's Guide with focus on the gorgeous scenery, interesting shops, independent cafes, friendly people, and for 'best' experiences picks out the wiggle-dress couture of Deadly is the Female (not just for Nigella you know) and the local brew and Wurzel-talking customers at the Griffin ~ which also regularly runs excellent music sessions. The Garden Café comes in for honourable mention too, which reminds me: if you're in the vicinity on Monday 15th, our Midwinter Poetry Cafe there has a great guest line-up: Rick Rycroft, Karen Woollard with the Warminster Poetry People, and luminous-and-rather-lewd Muriel Lavender.  Open mic too, and festive nibbles.

As usual there's too much going on to cover everything, and this high-level adulation begins to feel like an inflight magazine, but I really should include The Lords of Thyme  folksy music event at Rook Lane with Sara Vian and marvellous local duo Feral Beryl as support.
And as there hasn't been much about writing in this posting I'll end with Walt Whitman again  ~ thanks Fiona Willis, for quoting on facebook this beautiful summary of the purpose of life. It's from the preface to Leaves of Grass, written 1855.
"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men - go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families - re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body."

Thursday, November 27, 2014

As November leaves drop like dandruff...

"Writing depends on the state of one's mind," said Eugene Ionesco, and his 1962 play Exit the King had as starting-point "a feeling of anguish. To learn to die seems to me the most importing thing we can do, since we're all of us dying..."  The Theatre Royal Bath production currently showing at Ustinov studio uses a new translation by Jeremy Sans 'winnowed' for a modern audience into an awesome script that impressively combines deep awareness of the anguish & absurdity of human aspirations with moments of comedy, colloquialism, and sheer poetry (the line above about leaves dropping like dandruff is his.)  It's a dazzling production of a bizarre play, a mix of psychological study and Tim Burton-esque fairytale.  In mildewed grey throne-room  ~ terrific set design ~ we watch in apparent real-time as the dying king rants, cajoles and refuses to 'go gently into that good night'.  He's surrounded by the only relics of his long reign: a guard, a servant, his doctor and his two queens: domineering dark-clad Marguerite and loving but shallow Marie.
Inspired costume design contributes to the total rabbit-hole reality experience: everyone is decked in self-parodying style like crazy tarot cards, both queens Disney-glamorous. All the cast are superb with Alun Armstrong as King Berenger and Siobhan Redmond as Queen Marguerite superlative. Lighting & sound also deserve praise, and Laurence Boswell's direction is brilliant.  This is an extraordinary production: go, prepare to be dazed and confused but mesmorised and moved too.  Images by Simon Annand ~ I'd have preferred one of fabulous Siobhan Redmond that didn't look so photoshopped actually, her face is rivetingly expressive.

~ back to the dropping November leaves, ending with an image from yesterday's walk around Tisbury, russet beeches against a misty skyline.  You're welcome. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Back in Frome, sweet landing...

Say what you like about grey clouds and drizzle ~ as I do ~ but Frome is spectacularly good at making the most of the stub of the year.  Even before the festive season is launched with our annual
Extravaganza, Silk Mill has a Flea Circus offering an amazing array of creations ranging from previously loved to uniquely inspired. Stalls of exquisitely crafted jewellery and lip-smacking comestibles cluster with vintage coats & curios and the brilliant graphic imagery of BoswellArt.
And as compensation for those evening strolls in Spanish plazas there's a murder-mystery at the Merlin. For a good old-fashioned who-dunnit it has to be Agatha Christie, the best-selling crime writer of all time.  Frome Drama Club chose Witness for the Prosecution for a 22-strong cast production and followed the vibe of the 1950s era to the buttonhole in this 3-Act investigation of a brutal murder and the trial of its principal suspect. FDC has a massive amount of talent among the company and the principle roles were particularly impressive, as Laurie Parnell & Alan Burgess struggle to save Aynsley Minty from the cunning of his cold-hearted wife, the ever-excellent Keely Beresford. Clever set designs enhance the performance, especially when Chambers morphs into Courtroom in the gloom of an Act 3 intermission. There's a double twist in the final scene which I didn't see coming although, having just read Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test, I probably should have...
Also scoring on the Bob Hare check-list for psychopathic behaviour would be Finn, highly trained in surveillance skills which he's using obsessively on his family. Philip Perry is mesmerising in solo, a new play by Samuel E Taylor for the Theatre West autumn season, and Bristol Old Vic Basement provides a non-comfortable proximity that works really well for this powerful monologue of pent-up emotions.  A gripping study in the dangers of invasive intimate knowledge, with two moments of reveal so startling I literally gasped aloud. Director Sita Calvert-Ennals and the performer are both also credited with co-devising, what a fantastic project that must have been for the writer.

Also interesting from a writerly perspective,  at Black Swan gallery Jim Whitty was talking about the process involved in his current exhibition Flux which explores the question 'when is a painting finished?' (Renoir, apparently, settled this as 'when my wife calls me for dinner.') Jim's two big canvases depict the old quarry in Vallis Vale, by night with fire and by day with detritus, and each one represents weeks of 'lost' paintings ~ previous versions, altered by persistence.  "I love complexity and texture" he says. Here's the daytime quarry, which is famous in geological circles as the 'De La Beche' unconformity, for its visibly different stone stratas.  Jim's fascinated too by 'particles moving in space ~ stars, swarms, snow.'

Then on Sunday the Chocolate Festival at Cheese&Grain celebrated everything lip-smacking from choccy tattoos for children to a Cocktail Bar ("ladylike but brutal"), with luscious-looking cakes, truffles and bars as well as chox camera-shaped and hurdy-gurdy-coloured. I reckon I nibbled nearly my body-weight in samples at this convivial event, and am now fully arrived back in Frome.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Flâneuring in Fuengirola

Spain in November was an impulse choice: a last burst of warmth before winter grips England, and a generously-offered apartment in this coastal town wedged between Malaga & Marbella. I expected the downside would be a touristic culture but we found Fuengirola totally delightful, and most people we met were locals who communicated exclusively in the language of their land.  And the weather obliged, always warm and mostly sumptuous blue-skies and dazzling sunshine.  Days began with cafe con leche, usually in the cafe by the children's park where green parrots squabble in the palms.
And then exploring, finding splendid squares with fountains and statues, ochre & golden buildings, tile-paved alleys lined with orange trees, or paddling sandy beaches beyond the long promenade... and fabulous drives up into the hills, destination almost irrelevant as every route revealed valleys rich in their moorish heritage of irrigated olive groves, and the amazing rocks of the 'natural parks' of the Montes de Malaga.
Ronda, renowned for its history and views, is intriguing but the most commercialised place I've ever visited with the possible exception of Californian gold-rush Truckee, but we loved the icing-white buildings and narrow streets of ancient Istan. Bohemian little Ojen was a great find too, and Caminito del Rey, walkway of the kings, across a narrow gorge high in the hills by El Chorro. We discovered some fascinating places by using an out-of-date SatNav as our map and navigating randomly, based loosely on the time-for-a-caña-and-tapas?-that-bar-looks-nice.... principle.
Another unexpected delight was Fuengirola BioPark, literally on our doorstep, which boasts so many species I scathingly anticipated plastic replicas or else uncomfortable confinement but actually all the (very real) animals seem content in their spacious authentic habitats: my favourites were the stunningly beautiful big cats, the exuberant chimps, the beautiful binturong (surprisingly lively for nocturnal creatures) and the antique-looking Nile crocs and Asian alligators... but every creature was worth lingering to observe as they flew, crawled, climbed, swam, rested or ~ like the baby talapoins ~ scrambled and swung around on an assault-course style playground.
I can't say much about the restaurants as neither David nor I are foodies so meals weren't a priority with so much to see & do, but we enjoyed the workers' lunch-time deal in El Ancla, a little bar near la Plaza de los Chinorros ~ a popular evening venue perfect for people-watching ~ and some sensational tapas at Bar la Placa called como me pica la chistorra which apparently translates as 'mince my sausage'...  Tapas usually arrived with the caña, which varied in size around roughly half-a-pint, and wine is poured unmeasured and with charming abandon. Best of all, you never need to eat indoors, with open-air cafes where you can get breakfast for 2.50€ and every bar has tables in the street.
Back home now, and it seems strange so short a journey divides grey England from this vibrant sunshine city with palm shadows patterning the pavements of  pedestrian-friendly, cleaned-daily, streets, public gardens and parks offering free exercise equipment and wifi, and every corner a photo opportunity... Frome is twinned with Eden of course, but right now I'm missing Fuengirola.