Friday, June 27, 2014

"Beyond the touchline there is nothing" & war

A sunny day plus England's role in the current World Cup now abject history combined to ensure the audience at Bristol Old Vic barely outnumbered the 11 actors for the Thursday matinee of World Cup Final 1966, but the onstage team maintained lively energy throughout this romp through footie fact & frolics relating to Alf Ramsey's famous triumph. The story starts in a church where the congregation gradually morph into the iconic roles of the manager and his team: Glyn Grimstead is impressive as Alf, and Tom Wainwright & Oliver Llewellyen-Jenkins as Alan Ball & Bobby Moore look very credible footballers to me, but the comedy from this ensemble mostly relies on what you could call counter-intuitive casting: Stewart Wright as a kind of Kung-Fu-Panda Jimmy Greaves,  Karla Shacklock a balletic Martin Peters, and Les Bubb an ingenious Hungarian manager.  I liked the device of explaining techniques direct to audience, but coaxing members onstage to model formations seemed overly pantomimey and slowed the pace to an unwieldy 2 hours 15 minutes (including interval). But this is a show of two halves, and if you’d left at half-time disappointed by time-wasting you’d miss a wonderfully inventive second act, nail-bitingly exciting despite the spoiler of historical familiarity.  This is another revival from writer/director Tom Morris who first staged it in 2004. Not over till July 12th.

Across the river at Tobacco Factory that same night there's another ten-year-on script once again now topical, similarly inspired by historical national conflict. Private Peaceful, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s story by director Simon Reade, is closer to my area of interest if not my experience. One of the shocking statistics about the First World War is that over 3000 soldiers were sentenced to death for desertion, mostly youngsters traumatised by trench warfare. Shell-shock was a known condition and officers were treated for it in psychiatric hospitals, but their men were shot by firing squad. The programme notes are drama in themselves as Morpurgo records finding a telegram sent to a mother to inform her that her son had been shot at dawn for cowardice. Private Peaceful's mother must have had such a memento. Not one of Owen's 'children ardent for some desperate glory' when he joins up, he's only a naive fifteen-year-old caught in the the double whammy of a Sergeant Major's propeganda pitch and a woman's taunts of 'chicken' ~ probably closer to many men's reasons than the retrospective tag of patriotism. A simple, skilfully visual, script relates predictable horrors but William Troughton as young Tommo, quintessential country boy, brings passionate conviction to his journey from quiet shires to the Paul Nash nightmare landscape of trench warfare. Minimal props and atmospheric sound & lighting all enhance this profound performance: 100 minutes melts away, as the last night of his life does for loving, loyal, honest Private Peaceful.  Recommended viewing for any age, this is also on till 12th July. (image: Farrows Creative)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fromesbury groups

Frome Station is one of those timber buildings that look like they've come from a Hornby set. It was opened in 1850 and as one of the oldest stations still in operation it's now Grade 2 Listed. Frome is only a branch line, which if you remember your Tank Engine stories means it loops off the main line, and it's only single track now, but it has a literary claim to fame: In 1912 Leonard Woolf, who was staying in Great Elm, took the train to Paddington specifically to propose to Virginia Stephen.  He must have travelled hopefully, for according to the to-be bride's younger brother Adrian she had been visibly "a little forward" with him for some months: "Her method of wooing is to talk of fucking" he wrote to post-impressionist painter Duncan Grant, "and I dare say she will be successful."  She was, of course, or he was, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf continued as core members of the Bloomsbury set.  And now there's a move to put up a plaque on our little railway station identifying its role in shaping literary history. Not quite Adlestrop, but a small significance surely worth celebrating.
The Bloomsbury Group had much to commend it: members were anti militarism & bourgeois values and pro women's suffrage & pleasure in relationships, but its cliqueyness was criticised even at the time ~ which gives me a branch line loop back to Frome because one of the things I've always loved about living here is the way the creative groups consciously & deliberately avoid exclusivity. This is one of the reasons the Town Council was able to go politically independent, and it's reflected in the huge range of events in  Frome Arts Festival. Now a new group Frome Writers Collective has formed to bring more connectedness to the diversity of small groups working in different genres and literary forms.  Here they are on their launch day, with the Mayor in his capacity as author of Flatpack Democracy beside David Lassman who has taken over leadership of Frome Scripwriters. Rosie and I started this group in 2012 and have enjoyed working on some great productions but we're both focussing on personal work at the moment. We've stepped back not away, and at a good time, with our final Scriptwriters project War Zones in Frome Festival: six 10-minute scripts from Alison Clink, Brenda Bannister, Nikki Lloyd, Sian Williams, Rosie Finnegan and me.  If you've seen previous Nevertheless Production shows you'll be thrilled that dream team Olivia Dennis and Danann McAleer are coming back to perform these very different pieces. Only a fiver, so do book and come along to the Cornerhouse 8pm on Tuesday 8th & Wednesday 9th July.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Midsummer sun, wild orchids and blackbird song

As this is mostly an Artsy & Frome-fanclub blog I don't generally comment on the weather but this solstice as been so celestially sumptuous it amounts to an event in itself. Frome quirkiness  shone at the annual Town Cryer competition in the park, each contestant picking a historical news item ~ my favourite was the Peacehaven announcement of the death of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning with an opening yell How Do I - Love Thee - Let Me Count - The Ways.
Sunshine and late dusk means parties in gardens and long walks: Cley Hill in June is smothered with wild orchids including the rare ophrys apifera, bee orchid, which lures its pollinator by pretending to have a bee on it ~ literally a honey-trap.  I haven't yet been swimming at Tellisford weir, but poet Edward Thomas did in 1913, according to his journal. He never survived the first world war but he gave us a name ~ an Adlestrop moment ~ for that sudden private recognition of the extraordinary in the ordinary. The Poetry Society had the charming notion of honouring the precise centenary of this epiphany by asking people to tweet in the sounds they hear at 12.45 on 23rd June. I was outside the Sicilian coffeehouse on Catherine Hill and heard: feet on cobbles, chatter & clatter & Lamb playing in the cafe, aeroplane overhead. If you don't know the poem Adlestrop, or even if you do, you can read it here.
I'll end this entry with a picture of the beautiful walled garden at Mells which has an amazing waterlily pond and luxuriant rose arches, and a pizza oven as well.  And for anyone struggling with a funding application / exhibition / brochure / website, here's a helpful self-promotion tool: the artybollocks generator. Here's my Artist's Statement:
My work explores the relationship between Jungian archetypes and midlife subcultures. With influences as diverse as Kafka and Roy Lichtenstein, new tensions are generated from both simple and complex structures. Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of the zeitgeist. What starts out as hope soon becomes finessed into a hegemony of defeat, leaving only a sense of dread and the unlikelihood of a new order. As shifting phenomena become distorted through diligent and diverse practice, the viewer is left with a testament to the darkness of our future.  You're welcome!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Whales, cows, and polar bears

Whales can hear and respond to each other thousands of miles apart, singing so loudly the sound would shatter you. I didn't know that, and I didn't know there's only one whale in the world calling higher than all the others, at 52-hertz. Dumbstruck, the new show from young Bristol company Fine Chisel, takes this starting point for a story about a marine mammal biologist whose life is equally isolated. Robin McLoughlin is totally charismatic from the opening moments to the dramatic end as Ted the lonely whale-specialist who talks to the lonely-whale, addressing it affectionately as "52".  The life-story fragments he reveals vary from moving (George Williams brilliant as the troubled reverend who explains death to four-year old Ted) to raucous as pirate radio takes over the airwaves, and takes too his hopes of a companion on his marine studies. The live music is superb, especially when atmospherically enhancing the story ~ we stray overlong from the engrossing central story after the interval with a sixties on-air pastiche ~ and the energy of this talented team never flags. The production won an award at Edinburgh and audience cheers at Bristol's Brewery and comes to Frome's Merlin next week ~ if you enjoy innovative theatre and dynamic live music, don't miss it.

Brilliant Bristol comedy duo Living Spit have been touring their new production around the pubs of Somerset: Rosie and I caught it at The Rose & Crown in Huish Episcopi, a friendly pub with no bar so you stand by the pumps to pick your tipple. The show is called One Man and his Cow, which sounds bucolic and childishly whimsical but actually has more in common with one of the Grimm's dark narratives, except it's so funny the audience's howls of mirth drowned out the England match in the adjoining room. Stu McLoughlin and Howard Coggins are impressive musicians too, so a medley of instruments accompanied their rapid-fire rhyming story of Trevor the farmer and his beloved cow Judy whose special talents are speech and hidden malevolence.  Trev is dying ~ that's the cheerful opener ~ and to choose which of his three children gets the farm he hits on a test that King Lear could have told him was doomed to dramatic failure. Howard is the obtuse farmer and Stu plays each of his children, sometimes simultaneously, plus the duplicitous cow. Rhyming become increasingly outrageous and there are more synonyms for bovine than I ever imagined as this increasingly hysterical history progresses to a satisfying end that Jeanette Winterson would appreciate. (She took vengeance on the rabbit that ate her parsley, if you didn't see the news item) The lads are moving eastwards now the Take Art rural tour is over, but will be back in Bristol at Tobacco Factory in the theatre bar in July - well worth going along.

Music and merriment too at Wallace Real's Ministry of Madness, the new community production from Stepping Out which opened at the Rondo in Bath and moves on to Bristol’s Brewery next week.  This company always delivers high-energy and hugely entertaining stories that include, along with the fun & frolics, thought-provoking comments on the perception and treatment of mental health service users. "We don't change the world here," scoffs the Mental Analysis Diagnostics supervisor, "we colour-code it." But this isn't polemic: there's an exciting adventure too, albeit somewhat baffling, as Lucy embarks with her quintuplet personality into an underground movement of meta-theatrical therapy, meeting among others the Ladyboys of Bedlam and the mechanicals from Midsummer Night's Dream until, true to Oscar Wilde's decree, the good end happily and the bad unhappily ~ with a final full-cast song and dance.  This is a real feel-good show, with some terrific individual performances, great musicality, and a sense of integrity and commitment from the whole company throughout. But I have to admit my high point was Danann McAleer dancing like a bovver-boy fighting in an alley while wearing white high heels... 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Brass Works and Woolworths

Brass Works Theatre arrived on the scene last year, introducing itself as 'South Gloucestershire's first professional theatre venue', a tag which must please South Gloucestershire Council who support them but may confuse anyone unaware it's actually in Bristol (on the Keynsham side.  I'm adding this detail for benefit of Fromies, as it's only about a 40 minute drive since you miss out the Brislington snarl-up.)  Anyway, the unprepossessing exterior now contains a 90 seater venue nominated for The Stage 'Fringe Theatre of the year' award, run by Adrian Harris who also wrote, directed and acts in, their current production Flat Packed.  Rosie and I as founders of Nevertheless Productions (tag: 'Somerset's first and only pub theatre') naturally approve of all initiatives to support new writing and bring professional performances to obscure venues, so we went along. The story is played out in three scenes, each operating as a snapshot in time for three friends who thought they knew themselves and each other but who find their lives, as so often, are happening while they're making plans.... Setting the play in 2008 supports the wider social theme of the drama: the increasingly dire economic situation and immoral military invasions all began with a fatal lack of transparency.  It's a thought-provoking concept but the three actors, Dan Gaisford, Amanda Madison and Adrian, find warmth and heart in the story too ~ and quite a few laughs.  It's on till Saturday 21st June (including matinee that date) so if you too mourn the demise of Woolworths, you can book online.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Happenings in Frome, now and soon

Flames licked the artwork at an unusual preview at Black Swan Arts on Friday as Jenny Purrett set fire to a trail of gunpowder to burn through a piece of paper ~ those columns behind the onlookers that look a bit like silver birches are actually rolls of paper that have been shot with a rifle. Other artists in the dRAW exhibition use tracing, grinding, and programming techniques. It's intriguingly provocative and on until 28th June.

Frome Festival is now less than a month away with several events already sold out, so if you've got special favourites, get booking! I'm going to do a Lyn Gardner and offer my own top tips:
Nevertheless Pub Theatre is first pick (I didn't say I wouldn't be partisan) as Rosie and I are thrilled with the six 10-minute scripts we'll be producing at Cornerhouse on Tuesday 8th & Wednesday 9th July.  Here we are at a production meeting, being thrilled, and here's the flyer! Lovely Livi Dennis, who shone in our last Frome Scriptwriters show Festive Stockings, is joined by rising star Alex Poole, and ticket price is as always a startlingly mere £5. I'm also looking forward to Miracle Theatre's Tempest, on at the Merlin's amazing amphitheatre on Sunday 6th ~ their Waiting for Godot last summer was brilliant.
Moving from plays to poetry, it should be a great night at the Garden Cafe on Monday 7th as 
Hilda Sheehan is guest at the Festival Poetry Cafe and one open-mic poet will be chosen for the year-long title Festival Poet Laureate.  More excellent writerly events are featured on Words at Frome Festival  but I'm also looking forward to the Open Studios, the Hidden Gardens, and big dance nights with the Levellers at the Cheese&Grain and Seize the Day at the United Reform Church Hall, as well as great local bands like the Critters and Pete Gage Band playing FREE in the pubs every night.  Frome's speciality is accessible and egalitarian, so there's a range of events for every age and taste ~ where else would you find free-to-view events like a vintage-costumed bike ride in the park, fairy cakes in the children's library, and an international food feast followed by dancing in the market yard, alongside concerts & recitals and philosophical discussions about... er, the Moomintrolls...

To demonstrate I'm not so obsessed with Frome that I actually tether myself to the town boundaries, here's a couple of shots from my stay last week with friends in Urchfont, where one of our rural walks took us through Wedhampton, a kind of open-air house museum, with a legend on the village noticeboard to indicate the special exhibits so you can walk from end to end marvelling at their thatches, beams, manicured lawns, and guard-duty hedges. More accessible are the curios at Avebury Manor, refurbished entirely as it would have been in the early 20th Century, where you can browse through drawers and cupboards, leaf through magazines, and even play records on the His-Master's-Voice gramophone. Fascinating stuff, I wish all museums were so observer-friendly.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Intimate Apparel: corsets and other historic constraints

Lynn Nottage was inspired to write Intimate Apparel by uncovering a picture of her great grandmother and that’s where this production at Ustinov Studio begins, with a projected photo of a 'Negro seamstress' dominating the set: the room of a New York seamstress in 1905. Here Esther sews lingerie for rich whites and prostitutes alike and longs for love with quiet desperation. When George, a Panama canal workman, begins to write to her to ease his own loneliness, an inevitable tale unrolls like fabric in Mr Mark’s drapery store...
As well as evoking moving glimpses of a history largely unwritten, from a writerly point of view this play is fascinating: Lynn Nottage blends poetic monologues and political one-liners with narrative dialogue as Esther talks with the key people who define her identity. Woman is the nigger of the world, John Lennon sang, but humanity has devised a cruel perversity of oppressions and no-one in this story is unaffected. George's letters, which are a highlight for the audience as well as Esther, convey his life of labour on the canal with passionate eloquence ~ "this great fissure across the land, chaos a jackhammer away. When the oceans meet, will we coloured men be given glasses to raise?” ~ and even rich white Mrs Van Buren reveals private anguish. Performances are all superb, with Tanya Moodie superlative in the central role. The versatile set and moody sound design are great, especially the silent-movie-style piano accentuating both era and poignant moments of non-communication. Lawrence Boswell's direction is typically attentive to every detail though the reiterative fabric-inspired sensuality doesn't completely work for me, but that's a small point in a stunning production. It's on till 28th June but best get booking: this one is bound to fill the house when the starry reviews all come out. 

Sunday, June 01, 2014


Le Navet BĂȘte has been a must-see company for me since I saw their reinvention of the story of Napoleon in slapstick. I've since watched their ludicrous reinvention of the story of America's Wild West, and now their current Extravaganza, and always left the theatre aching with laughter and in absolute awe of their acrobatic skills and comic genius. This time they haven't bothered with a story, they simply fill the stage and spill into the auditorium with extraordinary antics ranging from surreal to brutal, incredibly physical to inexplicably hysterical. The conceit of the show is that we have come to watch a presentation by 'Hans' who is from an unpronounceable country and is aided by three uncontrollable performers. That's all we know, and all we need to know, as this Exeter-based company embarks on a sublime journey of mayhem. It's difficult to say what is most impressive: the sheer energy and exuberance of this charismatic team, the effortless timing that keeps threatened chaos at bay by milliseconds, or the extraordinary inventiveness of their physical feats. There's much meta-comedic play with gags like the swinging ladder, the custard pie and the banana, and that gasp-making classic: the slap-on-the-head ~ but these boys go beyond even Vivien in The Young Ones, Basil Faulty with Manuel, and Blackadder with Baldrick: to assault and revival by extreme puppetry... oh, you’d have to see it. And if you've missed it, don’t miss the next.

Extravaganzas are trending this weekend, with Frome Steampunk Extravaganza II bringing markets, exhibitions, bands, burlesque, and a Bohemian Ball to the town this weekend. Cheese & Grain on Saturday thronged with fabulously attired vampiric-looking vendors and visitors, corsets on women and moustaches on men and hats on everyone. I was one of the few Muggles, wandering round in jeans admiring the retro-galia ~ like Steampunk Engineering 'purveyors of finely crafted artefacts' from bits of old watches 'found and re-purposed.'

I'll end with a few glimpses from the super-market-spectacular we celebrate in Frome on the first Sunday of every month as the streets are closed to traffic for an explosion of independent stalls featuring arts & crafts, vintage clothes & curiosities, food & cider, with live music and lots of free tastings. Especially cheese. Here's the fantastic Swervy World street band and Anna Casserley showing how she creates her beautiful hand-carved spoons. I also recommend, after conscientious sampling, the award-winning halloumi from Homewood, White Lake goats cheese, and Wraxhall Vineyard's Pinot Noir rosĂ©... as you see, an appropriately extravagant amount of research has gone into this week's post.