Friday, February 28, 2014

Stark, truthful and moving... what else do you want from a writer?

What a week for brave and startling writing. Tuesday was the launch date of Love's Gutter, a collection of poems by Thomas Glover published by Stepping Out with endorsements to die for from Philip Gross, Georges Szirtes, Rose Flint, Abegail Morley, Elvis McGonagall, and Luke Wright.  As Thomas's editor, I was thrilled that all these respected poets made time to read and to recognise the authenticity of these 'poems with punch and verve that linger behind the eyes for hours.'   It was a privilege to work with Thomas as well as a pleasure to introduce his words to the world - and specifically the launch party in Cooper's Loft. Thanks, Andrew, for catching all the assembled poets in a jolly moment after the readings.

And on Thursday night Nathan Filer came to the Merlin for an event initially billed as a Poetry Platter, a small and intimate on-stage soiree with supper and poetry. In the time between Nathan agreeing to do this and the actual event, his debut novel made headlines across the literary world by scooping the Costa Book of the Year award, so we sold five times the expected number of tickets and Nathan adapted his performance by general consent to focus on The Shock of the Fall. As my friend & fellow-novelist Debby Holt summarised, "The man is a star: a natural communicator, a born showman and a fascinating commentator about our weird world of writing." As well as being hugely entertaining, Nathan's presentation incorporated encouraging advice to aspirant novelists, and a frank and fascinating insight into his own journey.
Much has been made of Nathan's credentials as a psychiatric nurse in Bristol, but Nathan is quite clear that though his narrator is diagnosed as having schizophrenia, this is "not a story about mental illness, it's a story about Matthew and his family, and how they deal with loss and grief." He sees this first-person novel as in the lineage of Vernon Godlittle, Frank in The Wasp Factory, Christopher in Curious Incident, and JD Salinger's Holden Cauldfield. "There’s a lot of nonsense written about schizophrenia, some malicious and some misconception, and I don't want to propegate malicious myths," he says: "Matthew is brave, decent, and kind - he's also irascible, conflicted, and can be horrible. He has a pernicious illness but he does not let that define him.”
Even though we didn't have time to hear about his trip to the West Bank and subsequent deportation (you can read about that in his Palestine blog) we did manage a quick peek down memory lane as Nathan produced a cutting from the Frome Times about the first time he stepped onto the Merlin stage. This was ten years ago when as Writer in Residence I decided to bring slam-style poetry to Frome, and a couple of youngsters named Nathan Filer and Luke Wright were on the bill....   I had a rummage when I got home and found the same clip ~ and realised I still wear that top...

Seems a good moment to reflect on the joy of writing -  views about which The Guardian recently asked nine well-known authors. To save you wading through a welter of words like misery, discomfort, depression, boredom, anguish, dread, here's a breath of fresh sense from Will Self: "Frankly, if I didn't enjoy writing novels, I wouldn't do it - the world hardly needs any more... fiction is my way of thinking about and relating to the world." Julie Myerson broke the mould of melancholy angst too: "It is a joyous thing. I feel very lucky to be paid to do it.. but the person I'm really always writing for is me."  Well said, both.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Love loss chance sex and ambition

A new season from SATTF is always something to look forward to, and Tobacco Factory is the ideal venue for Shakespeare's mix of imaginary landscapes and magic realism in As You Like It.  It's a garrulous play, in fact an extended exercise in complex word-play for most of the speeches, and the wit needs careful signposting for a modern audience. Which is why it's even more remarkable that after three hours I really didn't want it to end. Director Andrew Hilton has assembled a stunning cast who all seem to live each moment for the first time, so even the longest exchanges feel immediate and engaging. Although this production makes the most of its women (Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Rosalind and Daisy May as Celia both mesmerising) inevitably the male energy predominates, but with an electric diversity through physical spectacle, music, visual gags, meta-theatricality (Touchstone and Jacques have more than a dab of Vladimir and Estragon about them) and dark psychological twists. Especially exciting are the moments when the forest glade of good Duke Senior, a kind of Occupy/voice-camp in Arden, abruptly morphs into evil Duke Frederick's court - brilliant mood-shifts by double-duke Chris Bianchi.  Harriet de Winton's vaguely 1940s costumes work superbly, and the minimal props are all that's needed.  It's on till 22 March and then touring till May, go see this magical tale the director defines as "about human experience - love, loss, chance, sex and ambition."

And that segueways into a quick film spot: Inside Llewyn Davis is a road-movie about a 1960s Greenwich Village folksinger and a ginger cat, so irresistible to me in at least 3 ways.  As it's written & directed by the Cohn brothers this is a mythic journey too ~ the cat is even called Ulysses ~ and shot in fabulous muted tones throughout. Oscar Isaac is in virtually every shot but as he's gorgeous that's no problem, and the soundtrack is movingly authentic, like the subfusc folksy venues. Even the long drive to Chicago doesn't flag thanks to John Goodman as an obnoxious fellow-passenger. There's no real surprises but beautifully-understated detail makes this melancholy story gripping from the start. It's a lesson too late for the learning, as Bob Dylan would sing.

Meanwhile in Frome, Pip Utton presents a double bill of warmongers at the Merlin: a revival of his renowned one-man show as Hitler, paired with Churchill.  Pip has an uncanny way of looking like all his one-man show subjects, and with bulky suit with white scarf, homburg, and stick, he shared a striking resemblance to the statue in Parliament Square which, in this conceit, steps down when the clock strikes thirteen to reminisce with whisky and cigars.  Much of this biographical material is entertaining ~ the caustic wit of Winston is renowned ~ and some, like his childhood abandonment, is moving. Of the war, he insists "There is no glory in death in battle" but there is glory in victory, and his unswerving policy 'to wage war' remains unregretted. The prime minister who was tagged after his death 'the most famous man in history' ends his tale and climbs on to his plinth again.

At Black Swan Arts, Print & Clay is the new exhibition from a group of ceramicists with a quirky indifference to the common perception  of clay objects as primarily functional ~ I especially liked 's huge manic moths making the wall a vast insect box. Due to gales floods and general elemental mayhem the opening night was unusually sparse but you've got till 8th March to see this delightful show. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Memories are made of this

The Full Monty, a Sheffield Theatres revival heading for the West End, exposed itself briefly at Theatre Royal Bath en route.  Like its stablemates Brassed Off and Billy Eliot, this heart-string-tugger is given heart only by its context: the economic plight of northern working classes in the 1980s. Trumpeting, dancing, stripping ~ just different ways to highlight the poignancy of the mens' emasculation when their jobs and entire way of life were axed by Thatcher.

Located among the abandoned steel-factories of Sheffield, with a fantastic set to evoke that mighty dereliction, the wider context of this structural dismantling is sketched in with Job Club banter and individual domestic crises as Gaz (Kenny Doughty) rounds up his recalcitrant Chippendales. The finale of this tale of a motley crew who “thought we could make a bob or two by taking us clothes off” is the literal 'reveal', the route via gags rather than dramatic tension. 
Directed at a somewhat stately pace by Daniel Evans, there's a strong male cast ~ standout performances from Roger Morlidge as fat Dave, Simon Rouse as dapper Gerald, and especially Craig Gazey as Lomper the thwarted suicide.  After the interval the pace hots, and the ladies of Bath went as wild as the Sheffield wives as the climax approached. Overall more sentimental than raunchy, but often very funny and the soundtrack is great.
And finally...  Like a genteel 19th Century dinner-party hostess I generally avoid reference to politics or the weather on my blog ~ facebook's the place for those tirades ~ but as England literally submerges here's a blog from campaigner Jane Young that sums it all up, and an image of the A361 across Somerset.  Lest we forget, though looks like we'll have till May to etch the memory of this winter,
When disabled people can’t get suitable housing, we have no money. 
When we need accessible public transport, we have no money. 
When poor families can’t afford both food and heating, we have no money. 
When people who appeal an incorrect “fit for work” decision need money to live on while their decision is “reconsidered”, we have no money. 
When those who care 24/7 for family members are penalised financially simply to remain in their homes, we have no money. 
When A & E departments are under severe strain and sick people are waiting hours even to get into the hospital, we have no money. 
BUT when homes in middle England are flooded, money’s no object and we’re suddenly a wealthy country.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Every end a new beginning

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” ~ Cesar A Cruz, poet & activist

Final compilation of feedback for Media Monsters, which had its last night at Alma Tavern Theatre on Saturday, showed thought provoking was the most frequently-used phrase on the forms (which will all be archived on the website of our production company Stepping Out Theatre.) Gratifyingly, this was often paired with comments like 'very funny' and 'great one-liners'. Our audiences drove through monsoon rain and lagoon-like roads to pack the theatre, clap and cheer our cast, and tell us their evening was amazing, terrific, and very entertaining: the performances fantastic and powerful, the direction inspired and imaginative, and the writing first-rate, intelligent, insightful, and truly talented.  
And now, suddenly, it's over. I'm going to quote our director's fb status again:
 "What a great farewell to MEDIA MONSTERS. It's been the best ride, EVER!! And onwards..... Xxx"
Ian McEwen talking about the stage adaptation of The Cement Garden said he found it strange to see someone else's imagining of the world he created, "but you realise you're just watching one of the infinite number of possibilities." Which is also true even when the story was written expressly for staging, and I've been inexpressibly privileged to watch the unique imaginings of this terrific team.  Paddy, Livi, Vincent, Bob, Marc... missing you already.

Martin Dimery brought his one-man show Shakespeare Rattle & Roll to Coopers Hall as a Frome Festival fund-raiser, en route to his next performances at Leicester Square Theatre Lounge.  Martin is a hugely talented singer/musician and wicked parodist as well as knowledgeable about the bard, so you can learn about Shakespeare's life, plays, and use of iambic pentameter as well as enjoying his songs and sonnets as sung by a range of performers from Elvis and Bob Marley to George Formby and Ray Winstone. Some ~ like the Sex Pistols version of the witches chant from Macbeth ~ are hilarious, some poignant, and the John Lennon version of Feste's song Hey, ho, the wind and the rain is simply beautiful.

Final footnote: a glimpse of Frome Library on Saturday for National Libraries Day. High winds meant the market outside was cancelled, but there was hot coffee & cake in the foyer with songs & stories in the childrens' section all morning.  

Friday, February 07, 2014

Topicality and timelessness

Just when you thought I'd never write about anything except Media Monsters (it's still going really well btw, see this stonking review from the Fine Times Recorder) here comes something completely different: Last week was the official premiere of the new animation from Evil Genius:  The Patsy, a clever, witty, and all-round-brilliant animated parody of classic film genres with the topical theme of political whistleblowers on the run.  Previous shorter tales from Grime City are already cult classics but at 22 minutes this story gives a chance for writers Sam Morrison (surname entirely non-coincidental) and Andrew Endersby to develop characters and sustain a complex storyline.  Credit too goes to Ian Hickman, responsible for much of the animation. Massive impact on The Cube's big screen but designed for small-screen too so if you don't get to many animation festivals, look out for it on C4 before long.

And I couldn't miss Chris Goode's Infinite Lives, a Tobacco Factory Theatre production, which opened this week. I saw and loved The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley by Chris, which was strange, lyrical, moving and funny, so I arrived at the Brewery with high expectations. I wasn't disappointed. If you wanted a 20 word summary I'd say this is a treatise on loneliness, erotica as love, and broadband as the only communication we now know, exquisitely written and brilliantly presented.  Narrated by 'John', an agoraphobic obsessed with a gay porn website (he's played mesmerically by Ray Scannell), this lucid and compassionate story is vividly animated by projections (Alex Wright) and sound (Timothy X Atack) and superbly directed by Nik Partridge. The script is moving, funny, and sometimes sublime ~ as when John plans his futuristic novel: "There's got to be an enemy.. or maybe not, maybe it's like porn: no one says no, and it's beautiful." I don't want to do spoilers as this fantastic piece is on till 15th February, but John may ultimately find that although connection which isn't through technology brings pain, it can bring redemption too.

Still other the topic of other topics, a quick shift to radio now as rehearsals begin for a Frome FM drama project: Quantock Close, an Everyday Story of Fromie Folk. Five local writers have produced 10 scripts for a pilot series following the Archeresque dilemmas of a group of rural townies, with incomers and locals bantering and bickering over beers ~ or rather Pinot Grigio now the alehouse is updating into a wine-bar.  Becky Baxter has on taken the directing role, full cast now assembled, and we have a month to run-through the scripts and tweak them to time for Frome FM producer Phil Moakes's alloted broadcasting slot.  Grayson Perry allegedly paints to the BBC prototype, so this could be good news for Frome's booming artist community.

Finally... two more chances to see Monsters if you book soon ~ the Alma Tavern Theatre has been increasingly crammed all week.  I'll be posting the final roundup of feedback next week and you'll be eating your fist with disappointment if you miss out. 

Saturday, February 01, 2014

So what do you think of it so far?

You know the first night went well when your director posts as facebook status: What a freakin awesome night. MEDIA MONSTERS is a smash. 
At the end of the first week we haven't seen the Alma feedback forms but if it's like the emails and texts we're getting, praise is trending. As in: "Thoroughly enjoyed the performances. Great fun, great writing and a quality production from a talented cast. Totally surpassed my expectations. A wet night in January well spent. :)"
Audiences are growing ~ Saturday was cusp of sell-out ~ but still one more week if you haven't yet booked.  Alma Tavern does pretty good pre-theatre meals too, I recommend the trout.

On the subject of feedback, which is audience reviewing really, Rosie and I went along to a Theatre Bristol Writers discussion posted by Richard Aslan as "about theatre and writing" before the show on Friday. We expected a focus on scripts when we joined a circle of about 20 in the stygian gloom of the Old Vic basement where Richard is a writer-in-residence, but the activity in question ~ in fact, under challenge ~ was writing about, not for, performance: viz, reviewing plays.  After a lot of unpacking, agendas became clearer: Tom Wainright, also a writer-in-residence, organises a network of reviewers to comment on Bristol shows on facebook ~ he wants them non-disparaging but Richard wants them non-existent. After all, bad reviews can kill a show, can’t they? That appeal was to Ali Robertson, Director of Tobacco Factory, who demurred. "We find reviews have no significance on sales. Twitter traffic will make more effect than Lyn Gardner."
So why do we need reviews at all? Answers were readily forthcoming: Archives for the company, reference for venues considering a booking, verbal snapshots for promotion.... nothing converted Richard from his aversion. “Critical writing doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. What do writers want in response to their work?”  “Praise,” replied Tom, reasonably.  Sharon Clark developed this: “It's a spread of response. Some will hit hard, and teach the writer a lot - others will love it... Twenty years ago we had 4 newspaper reviewers. Now it’s much more responsive and I think that’s fine, whether it’s Lynn Gardner or Joe Bloggs.”  Ali agreed: “The few voices on a pedestal have been replaced by a multiplicity of voices ~ and good on them. In future, theatre-makers will regard writing about theatre as part of their practice,” which is such a good point we could have ended the meeting on that note and all had a cup of coffee.
But we meandered on and finally came full circle with Richard reiterating "I don’t think a critic is an artist." And then on a personal note “It gets my gall - what right have they to judge my work?" to which Rina Vergano sensibly replied “Because you’ve put it out there for people to pay to see."
And there the debate ended, unsummarised.  Credit to BOV for getting a network of theatre makers and writers together, but quenching subjective opinions would be a Canute project even without internet. We all make judgements based on personal responses every day, and writing is a creative and positive way to process experience.  Lynn on her shaky pedestal and Joe Bloggs in the street can say what they think, and so can we all.