Monday, July 28, 2014

Murder Most Foul, Criminals, and other capers

Not one of Shakespeare's frolicking fantasies but a gory history set mostly in granite castles, I thought Macbeth would be hard to stage effectively in the ECOS grassy amphitheatre space of Frome's Merlin Theatre, and Illyria had a balmy evening and the after-glow of the Children's Festival to contend with too. It's huge credit to the five actors that as well as clearly conveying a complex storyline that involves 20 characters, they also evoked the poignancy of this tragedy of a good man corrupted by ambition. William Finkenrath as Macbeth and Theresa Brockway, marvellous as his lady, were compelling in their passionate scenes together, egging each other on to reckless atrocities.
It was a good move to play the weird sisters for comedy ~ especially in act 2, when they appear as a kind of crusty trio from a minor music festival ~ and Matthew Rothwell's drunken porter made the most of his audience-interactive moments. But the highlight of the show has to be the fantastic swordfight when Macduff (Beau Jeavons White) ends Macbeth's murderous meteoric rise to power. 
Director Oliver Gray has a reputation for meticulous adaptations and (though for me he could have cut the long speech in the final act where Malcolm is being a bit of a prat) the energy & clarity of story-telling is remarkable in this fast-paced version.
And as dreadful histories were unfolding at the Merlin, downtown the Frome Children's Festival was drawing to a triumphant close with PeeWee Ellis and Huey Morgan funking it up at the Cheese&Grain to a family audience which may not remember the Fun Lovin' Criminals but knew how to dance.
A fit ending to a fantastic event offering fascinating activities under mini-marquees in the market yard and Welshmill playground, and along the woodland river path between. The focus was on curiosity and creativity, with drama workshops & dressing up, circus skills, young bands, canoeing & pump track action, for ages from tots to teens all thronged with enthusiastic takers. I especially enjoyed making leaf prints in Shared Earth Forest School with Frome's eco-enterprising Mayor resplendent in crisp-packet chain. Congratulations Rachel Griffin & all the organisers, brilliant day.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hamlet underground, Hare in Skylight.

If it's summer there must be Shakespeare... as ubiquitous as music festivals and Pimms, outdoor versions of the bards works emerge from the foliage of parks and gardens across the southwest. And not just outdoor venues: Bristol Shakespeare Festival includes, among an exciting programme throughout July, Butterfly theatre company's production of Hamlet in the Redcliffe Caves.
These caverns are low ceilinged, and labyrinthine, lit largely by candles, a fantastic setting for dark melodrama. As audience we hastened, shuffling rather than promenading, along tiny passages to voyeur each new strand in this murderous web of intrigue. Our torches flickered on the faces of the innocent and the guilty, shadows flickered on the walls, Ophelia's beautiful mad song echoed softly and the angry ghost's death-rattle haunted the rocks...  and there were two terrific set-pieces in a more open, clearly-lit, space: a comedy act by the players hired by Hamlet to 'catch the conscience of the king' effectively involving random audience members, and the final death-fest, a dramatic sword fight as all the still-surviving main characters slaughter each other.  Vigorously abridged and pacily acted ~ the kings, both living and dead, especially strong ~ there was only one faltering step in my book and that was the replacement of Shakespeare's marvellously sententious creation Polonius for a bustling Mrs Bennett who had to be bricked squeaking to death without benefit of arras. Other than that small quibble, an excellent show, atmospheric and gruesomely entertaining, and I would be urging you to go see, except it's now sold out for the rest of the run.

David Hare's 1995 play Skylight, now revived by the National Theatre at Wyndhams and on nt Live screening, also begins with an angry young man railing about his surviving parent. This tale however isn't about revenge but atonement, as businessman Tom reconnects with ex-lover teacher Keyra in a passionate clash of ideals.
"I wanted to write a love story" the playwright tells Emma Freud in an interval interview, "and I've never written a play set in a room." With so much of the dialogue polarised argument I'm not convinced on the first aim but the play is certainly set in a room, though the title feature was in a different room and created by Tom for his dying wife, apparently in guilt for his infidelity. This room is Keyra's, and it's easy to share Tom's feeling there's something wilful in a woman on an Inner London teacher's salary with no dependents, or even the cost of running a car, choosing anywhere quite so dismal and unheated. There's a lot of 'relevance' still in the couple's debates, and some very funny lines but, especially with filmic close-ups emphasising the age-difference, the relationship doesn't really convince. Nevertheless, big credit to Merlin Theatre for bringing these ntLive shows to an appreciative full-house audience ~ this one's getting sizzling 5-star reviews from live audience reviewers ~ and I'll be at the next screening, though probably still churlishly muttering I'd rather be there in the flesh... 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bootleggers and running shoes ~ it's all go in Frome

Makeshift Musicals are back at the Merlin! A year on from their first show, Daisy Graham directs another medley of highlights from musicals reconstructed in a new storyline with an exhuberant cast and live band. New York State of Mind, scripted by Lily Sweeney, is set in a speakeasy at the start of prohibition and this all-young company revels in the potential offered by the era. The Charleston dancers are a delight, the politician is suitably corrupt, and love prevails despite star-crossing. The mostly-teenage cast (Jack Brotherton as bootlegger Sam is the Bugsy Malone-style member of troupe at just 11) are all talented and watchable, with some outstanding performances ~ including a show-stopping version of You're just too good to be true by Ben Hardy-Phillips. A joyous & thoroughly enjoyable performance.

From tap-dance to foot-slog: this Sunday 750 runners took to the streets for the Frome Half Marathon. I'd really wanted to join them this year, so next best thing was to be a marshall. In my racing days I never realised what complex organisation went on behind the scenes ~ it was a military operation, though a good-humoured one. The senior marshalls do all the complex stuff with maps and Police liaise, I just turned up for a couple of briefings & got to wear a yellow jacket and put out cones which later may have to be justified to drivers who hadn't noticed the road closure notices around the town ~ I was lucky as 99% politely complied, only one bully opted for pavement driving and argument ~ and then you stand in the sunshine clapping as hundreds of runners steam, saunter, and struggle past. This takes over two hours so my reluctantly idle legs were envious of my energetic arms by the end.
 Here's some of the steamers, 183 is Tom Dudden from Bath, still turbo-charged near the end of the half-marathon which he won in a tidy 1.19  seven full minutes before second place, and 243 is Diane Hier, first female in 1hr.43 and one of the amazing Avon Valley contingency. Frome's Paul Ryman (790) romped to victory in the 10K - and the bear is a Frome Running Club member too... Most runners opted for the traditional vest and shorts: Superman, Wonderwoman, two fairies, and a monk, all well deserved their cheers for crowd entertainment.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Back to (sur)reality

Franz Kafka was so ambivalent about his work he begged friend & fellow-writer Max Brod to burn it all when he died. Max’s betrayal, paradoxically, became his own main claim to fame, while Kafka himself is now considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century. A thought to ponder, and Kafka's Dick at Theatre Royal Bath does just that. In fellow-Czech Milan Kundura’s novel Immortality,Hemingway and Goethe meet in heaven to discuss the downside of endless fame and Hemingway protests bitterly “Our books will probably soon stop being read, but people will never stop prying into your life, down to the smallest details.” Alan Bennett’s Kafka, metamorphosing into a suburban Yorkshire living-room via a tortoise, has similar concerns. Surreal fantasy combines with 1980s sit-com as Kafka faces both his fame and his father, imposingly played by Matthew Kelly as a kind of vicious version of Alfred Doolittle arriving to claim his own perks from his child’s unexpected new status. David Grinley’s direction has some great staging: notably Kafka’s ‘trial’, and physical comedy between Max Brod ~ who has materialised by pissing on the tortoise incarnation of Kafka, get it? ~ and Sydney the insurance man obsessed with Kafka ~ who was also an insurance man ~ I’m sure you get it… as they vigorously attempt to hide all the tell-tale biographies before Kafka can see them. 
But it’s not all post-modernist cleverness and social clichĂ©: in the second act the playwright gives the most telling lines to the ditzy housewife while her wannabe-famous- writer husband insists “Gossip about writers is what passes for culture.”  All the actors are superb, especially the double-act of Daniel Weyman’s Kafka and Elliot Levey’s Max Brod, who in the opening (pre-death) moments set the scene for dark absurdist comedy with Monty-Pythonesque half-looks to audience. Robert Innes Hopkins’ excellent set surprises till the end, and Jason Taylor’s lighting design deserves a mention too.
“Man doesn’t know how to be mortal,” was Goethe opinion in Kundura's heaven, “and when he dies he doesn’t even know how to be dead.”  A good thought to conclude another 'frivolous fantasy' on immortality, and whatever existentialist angst Kafka endured in life or dramatic reincarnation, his eventual exit was absolutely sublime ~ if that dance macabre was on Youtube, I’d play it on a loop. Showing in the Main House till July 26th.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Frome Festival finale...

A morning exploration of more of the magical 'hidden gardens' of Frome, where pools are definitely trending... my special favourites the tranquility of Dr Moxton's carp pool, and Alice Naish's wild-life-friendly garden welcoming newts, birds, and an evening hedgehog.
Then on to the Library where best-selling author Lesley Pearse, senior judge of the Frome Short Story competition, was handing out the winners' cheques.
Entries come from all over the world, so reaching the short-list is a real accolade for writers.  Lesley's top tip is "Persistence!" ~ and a healthy dose of longing too: "Don't be afraid to dream about it, because that's what will make it happen." Cheques handed to all the finalists, with Kerry Hood overall winner, and we adjourn to Divas for buffet & informal chat. Here's Lesley entertaining us in the library, and the top winners.

You'd think festival fatigue might have set in, but the Cornerhouse was crammed by 6 oclock for the Pete Gage Band, a sensational line-up of musicians fronted by charismatic Pete Gage himself. There wasn't really space to breathe, but we managed to, and to dance too.

So that's it, our revels now are ended, Frome Festival a receding memory... until October, when we start making plans for 2015...

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Penultimate day... mostly about magical gardens

The second weekend of festival is when Frome's 'hidden gardens' are on view to the public, if they have the map identifying their locations. This 30-venue trail spans the whole town and is always popular, especially in sunshine. I toured six, less than I intended but linger in each tantalisingly beautiful location. Mosaics and ponds featured in several, including a lovely swimming-pool-lily-pond filled entirely by rain water from the winter storms, and a smaller pool with damselflies ~locations 15 & 14 respectively, if you're seeking recommendations. Then back to my own pocket-sized patch crammed with pots and a bombastic fuchsia, for a cheeky bellini with Emily before tapas at the Cantina Bar in Silk Mill (manchego membrillo and salpicon marisco, since you ask, both delicious). Too many good things to get to all ~ sorry not to make the Griffin for Bad Detectives ~ but I couldn't resist another visit to Al O'Kane's brilliant Secret Magical Folk Garden at Cornerhouse.
Here's Lara Mary, one of a superb lineup. My penultimate festival night ended dancing at Samantha West's Party of Paintings. 
And as  daily life goes on around the festival, I'll end with the current local outrage over Somerset County Council's intention to charge Frome £325,000 for a rate-payer funded building they took from the town for £1 in 1974. To quote comedy club compere Tighe O'Connor, we don't mind paying double that, but that rate of inflation isn't funny. You can read more at  Give Frome Back Its Building & watch short summary of the public protest.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Festival Friday: One way of life, that's your own... in a range of flavours

A Literary Lunch with a difference at the Archangel as Daisy Behagg revisited Frome in her own special way, by train & Raleigh bicycle, to give a fabulous reading of her recent poems to a rapt room. Daisy writes about love and pain and ordinary life in a way that is both accessible & astonishing. This delightfully unstuffy event was organised as a fundraiser for the Wessex MS Therapy Centre by Rosie Finnegan, with Archangel donating our excellent 2-course meal. stayed for a mooch around before making her eco-friendly way back to Brighton, promising to return ~ hopefully when her winning Templar pamphlet Cockpit Syndrome is out.
Teatime Treats at the Library is a chance for all our local children's authors ~ there are quite a few ~ to meet their readers, with crayons & card & stick-ons for the kids and cake for everyone. It's always a delightful event, thanks to Wendy Miller-Williams and her team. Here's Anna Shuttleworth, writer/illustrator, also exhibiting in the Open Studios trail at the Bennett Centre.
Change of tempo next with The Levellers at Cheese & Grain, with 800+ enthustiastic loyal supporters punching the air as the band opened with It's a beautiful day, and by One Way of Life we were all pogoing through a fine mist of beer spray.  Another vintage band that sound as high-energy great as they did in the 1980s...And then a stroll up the moonlit streets for another change of style.
 Prohibition Night at the Archangel promised song and burlesque and gin. I'm not a spirit drinker so I joined Morgan & partner Tom and shared their champagne, enjoying the effervescent atmosphere, possibly down to the free cocktails, and great songs from Cherry Bomb. My highlight though was the burlesque fan dance from Chilli Martini, gorgeous and alluring and provocatively discreet... until the final dramatic reveal. A day of variety, you could say.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Day 7: musical interlude

Last night's war zone is transformed tonight for a pop-up event in Cornerhouse upstairs room as Al O'Kane hosts the Secret Magical Folk Garden: an evening of mesmeric songs from a series of amazingly talented performers. This year's festival has been brilliant musically but David Waddington's loop-frenzy version of his poignant song Icarus learns to fly will be one of my total highlights of the week. Al's putting on another Magical Folk Garden on Saturday night, not in the brochure but hopefully a more open secret ~ this quality certainly deserves a big audience!
Then on to catch the final set from Seize the Day at the United Reform Church Hall with the Friends of Palestine, a total change of mood to boran and bopping. I first heard this band last century, and I'm thrilled they're still doing Bigger better brighter bullshit and other protest classics.  The line-up was nine tonight, with saxophone and didgeridoo among their instruments, and with new songs too ~ Frack the Frackers was written after a recent visit to Barton Moss. This venue is in the heartland of Frome's radical past and as a rousing rendition of No-one's Slave rang out I imagined the glee of the ghosts in Dissenters' Cemetery half a mile away... A fabulous evening, still mild at midnight, with a nearly-full moon lighting my walk home.  The bike is just bccause I couldn't photograph the vintage cycle ride this afternoon as it was cancelled so I thought I'd show you this one by the Catherine Hill mural, parked by some lavender. Multi-sensual Frome.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

War is over now...

Day 6 of Frome Festival became a flurry of costumes and props as War Zones transferred to Warminster for an afternoon matinee at Wessex MS Therapy Centre ~ thanks for the welcome, the appreciation, and the cakes, guys ~ and then back for our final performance. Albare were having a run-through at Cheese&Grain when Rosie and I called in to check our ticket sales so we caught a bit of their set, paused for snaps in the sunny market yard, then up to the Cornerhouse for another total sell-out show. How did that go? you ask. Brilliant, thought-provoking, different, kaleidoscopic, true, emotional and incredible! ... All excellent. Stunning standard of writing and performance ... Brilliant – powerful writing, marvellous acting – what more could we ask for? ... Fantastic performances by the two totally convincing actors with enormously clever little plays packed with the horror of war ... Brilliant, moving, relevant – a terrific performance! – talented, sensitive writing! ... Thought-provoking, moving, entertaining,topical ... Very powerful – both text and performance. I appreciated the critical points of view often lost in the brain-washing media coverage ... Absolutely brilliant as ever! The best £5 worth anywhere... and more on our Nevertheless Productions page.   All the War Zones scriptwriters, that's Sian Williams, Alison Clink, Brenda Bannister and Nikki Lloyd as well as Rosie Finnegan and me, stayed afterwards in the bar for an informal debrief. We're all delighted with the comments on our writing, and I'm really glad the others are pleased with our direction, a first-time for me.  And now with Danann and Livi headed back to Bristol, life seems suddenly quiet... missing you already.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Festival day 5... in the War Zone

I should have realised the day would start early when I agreed to talk about War Zones on Frome FM Breakfast Show with Bo Bowman-Shaw and Sara Vian ~ the clue is in the name ~ but lots of black coffee was provided and it was great fun to chat about the doings of the day with Russ Ellingham, who's painting sensational decor for Archangel's big Prohibition Night, and with Paul Newman whose venue number 2 is a must-see stop on Open Studios trail. Then on to a day's intensive rehearsals, with Alan Campbell of Frome Film & Video Makers coming in to film the full dress rehearsal ~ looking forward to some some clips for Youtube!
The filming meant I couldn't take any production stills during the dress rehearsal, but here's Danann and Livi at the end of a long day, with a quick break before the first night performance. By 7 o'clock we were sold out and by the time the show started we'd had to turn away about a dozen walk-ups. The feedback forms tell the next bit: The performance was amazing, the acting and the writing... Superb plays and actors... Great stories... So so so so good!... Amazing. Very intense... Very engaging, very funny, strangely informative... Really good blend of drama, pathos, and emotion – light and shade... Fantastic, such talent... So thought-provoking, more people should see it. Wonderful... interesting – kept my attention... Very professional... Excellent – poignant, funny, thoughtful. And more.
Abandoning Rosie as soon as applause & cheers subsided, I scurried down to Dolly's Bar in the Old Bath Arms to catch the second half of the Bard of Frome comedy playwriting competition, results voted by audience ballot. Here's organiser Tim O'Connor announcing the winner and then I had to stop taking pictures because it was my play Muffin Man, a big surprise & delight, to me anyway. A quick dash back to the Cornerhouse where Dempseys were still playing, to end the night dancing, still shamelessly brandishing my trophy cup. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

Monday, July 07, 2014

Frome Festival Day 4... mostly words

First day of rehearsals for War Zones, the Nevertheless pub theatre's production for this year's festival: six scripts written by Frome Scriptwriters and directed by Rosie Finnegan and me. Olivia Dennis and Danann McAleer arrived on the first train and spent the day with us at the Cornerhouse getting the first feel of the three characters they will each be playing, all quite diverse requiring a range of emotions. We rummaged through costumes, mused about props, consulted with the writers, drank coffee, and overall had an exciting time.
Then on to MC Festival Poetry Cafe featuring Hilda Sheehan, an absolutely delightful guest who creates a seductively surreal world' where seals live next door and you can lick a man out of ice. One of the best Poetry Cafes we've had ~ I've never seen the Garden Cafe so crammed, and a cramful programme too, highlights including eco-poet Helen Moore who introduced the winners of the wildlife poetry competition organised by Simon Carpenter ~ special appreciation to 11year old Daniel Birch for his lovely reverie in the bluebell wood ~ and all our open-mic readers, who were so good that Jill Miller who had the task of deciding the '2014 Festival Poet Laureate' also gave commendations to Jinny Fisher, Peter Woodcock, Yvonne Brunton and Jim Henderson before awarding the title to Rebecca Brewin for a terrific poem entitled Night Walk.
Here's Hilda reading some new work, and Jill giving Rebecca Brewin her certificate and prize.

Off then with my new bezzy to join the bevy of poets (we weren't sure of the correct collective noun, but on this occasion bevy feels appropriate) at the Archangel!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Day 3... Sun in the streets, Tempest in the amphitheatre

On the first Sunday of the month Frome's main roads are closed to traffic for a super-independent-market so the town is always exuberantly crammed with a plethera of stalls and flâneurs. Little Victory Ball were offering samples of their First World War pop-up performance, as well as the usual musical entertainments, and the Upstairs Grace gallery with its superb exhibition Substances was a great vantage point to watch activity on Catherine Hill through the window where Marian Bruce's bramble sphere hangs. There's also a wicked magical house by Paul Boswel, inhabited by installations from Klumpox, which you really need to see (closed Mon/Tue but open the rest of festival week.)

Very differently impressive are Paul Newman's pencil drawings of landscapes, which he creates instinctively rather than with any conscious sense of their story. He finds he simply taps into something of the place 'In some ways they're self-portraits.'

Taking a detour through Victoria Park, where the Frome Youth Band were playing (in our real proper bandstand) my next stop was Cheese&Grain, where Rose Flint and I were running consecutive poetry workshops, hers on Women and War, and mine Poetry as Protest, both leading to fascinating discussions as well as some sharp pieces of writing.

 Then a quick scamper to the Merlin for the open air performance of Miracle's The Tempest. With a cast of just six and some judicious cutting, this inventive company nevertheless managed to keep the integrity of Shakespeare's story with all its magic and its themes of atonement, freedom, and passion, and to enhance the entertainment for a family audience too, with physical comedy, adlib, and puppets. There are interesting character interpretations and relationships: Hannah Stephens' wild-child Miranda and Simon Norbury's brooding Prospero have a dysfunctional but caring relationship. Caliban is something of a naughty puppy, while Ariel is a mesmerising and significant presence throughout, overlooking all and aching every moment for release.  Bill Scott's direction has a great sense of confidence, especially in playing lines like 'we are such stuff as dreams are made of' for laughs (I did) and not surprisingly the full-house at the ECOS amphitheatre applauded with cheers at the end.
And to conclude another great evening: wild dancing under the stars in the Archangel's courtyard to the 'red-hot faux-French gypsy Balkan Klezmer band... les amoureux du Fromage UNITE!'  So we did. It was great.