Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Rain, rudeness, and hasty packing.

There's a scene in Hay Fever which epitomizes the arrogant ill-manners of the ironically named Bliss family as they compel their four bewildered house guests to play a game of  'In the manner of ' after supper. (Incidentally Felicity Kendal's Judith Bliss offering a flower in a winsome manner was the highlight of the show.) Dysfunctional behaviour dressed up as bohemianism is as close to a storyline as you get from this script, revived by Theatre Royal Bath as a vehicle for Ms Kendal who is simply fantastic as in the central role ~ the rest of the cast, while probably good actors in other roles, couldn't do much to lift this farce about awkward pauses and rudeness which Noel Coward apparently wrote to lampoon some of his acquaintances. "I did the whole thing in three days and I didn't even rewrite" he claimed. A pity he didn't take a few more days and seek a dramaturge: someone with the succinct wit of Oscar Wilde or the good-humour of PG Wodehouse might have helped him create character and story to enhance the ridicule. But the two-tier set is great and so is the lighting and the deluging rain that traps them in a huis clos situation.  Director Lindsay Posner.

No more reports on the southwest scene  for three weeks now as I'm away, heading first to the magical island of Skyros to lead a writing group for two weeks. Here's an eagle's eye view of the little town because I love it so much, but I'll be staying in the bamboo hut camp on the far side ~ with fabulous sunsets but limited internet access. Compensations include sunshine, great meals, meeting old friends and making new ones, yoga, singing and dance, and my final week will be spent in another inspirational environment working with writers: Cortijo Romero in Spain is also without wifi but with added benefits, including gorgeous gardens and a pool, so I guess I'll cope...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Children and animals

Never mind Bill Sykes' irreppressibly friendly dog, any actor mindful of that famous theatrical adage about children and animals would be on a loser with Oliver! especially the energetically exuberant version at Merlin Frome put on by Tri.Art Theatre School after an unbelievably hasty ten days preparation. With a cast so young you'd expect to make concessions to inexperience but none are needed, this is high-quality performance and brilliant entertainment. A fabulous live orchestra helps, and Claudia Pepler's direction maintains thrilling pace as melodrama unfolds through dancing frolics and dark places to a happy ending for the hero. Hugo Fisher is enchanting as Oliver, mesmeric whenever onstage, and you can't imagine a more delightful Dodger than Dillon Berry. Of the slightly-older ones, Ryan Hughes gives camp charm to Fagin and Daisy Weir is impressive as Nancy the loyal lover of psychotic Sykes.  It's on for two more nights, if you're in or near Frome, worth booking.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Up and away... nearly.

In 10 days time I'm off to the fabulous Greek island of Skyros to lead a writing course, then direct to equally-fabulous Cortijo Romero in Spain on a similar mission & I'm unlikely to be online much during these sessions so this week has been pressured, but in a nice way... Rosie and I have been planning our next Nevertheless production: Muffin Man and Champagne Charlotte, a double-bill of our own plays which will premiere in Salisbury Fringe Festival and then come to Frome Cornerhouse for two more nights. Excitingly, my curtain-raiser Muffin Man was the winner  in this summer's Frome Festival comedy play competition, giving me the proud title "Bard of Frome" along with a goody-bag of spoils including honorary membership of Frome Writers' Collective,  and I'm even more thrilled that Ross Scott and Fleur Hanby Holmes are taking on this two-hander. They're both currently knee-deep in other productions  but made time for a run-through so promising I can hardly wait for October...

Also looking ahead, Annabelle and I are planning to take Time Walk, our promenade narration of the story of the earth in a thousand paces, to various venues around the region.  Our first booking has come from the American Museum which has a fantastic garden that will be great for a family-friendly version of our epic voyage. Here's Annabelle enthused by a Rackmanesquely magical wooded dell, and I'm lurking in the Kaffe Fasse exhibition which was put together by Kaffe himself with theatre designer Johan Engels, a marvellous mix of Klimt-like glitz and theatricality with masks and esoteric props.

So is that it? you ask ~ a couple of planning meetings with your bezzy mates & a run-through, a little light packing, and you're 'pressured'? Well no actually, there's a whole flotilla of other projects including my next 70-minute one-act play for Stepping Out Theatre Company, as well as finding time for personal stuff like the Gaza protest march in London and a balloon trip... which was sadly postponed because despite the glorious sunshine there's too much wind... luckily there's always something going on in Frome and this afternoon La Strada was hosting a soiree for Paul Newman's superb drawings, with songs from Sara Vian. Paul finds they 'mainline people to their own memories' ~ call in to see the exhibition upstairs, and you'll see why.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bad Jews and worse Bolsheviks

Stalin's Daughter at the Brewery in Bristol has received so much attention and acclaim the run was extended by three days this week so I thought I ought to go. David Lane imagines Svetlana Alliluyeva telling us the tale of her years of refuge in Clifton in the early 1990s.  Kirsty Cox in Faraway Tree socks & sandals & frock takes the role of the traumatised child of the tyrant, arriving with a caseful of terrible memories and an imaginary friend and addressing her past and present simultaneously. Kirsty's long solo performance is a praiseworthy tour-de-force especially with so many mad / bad /dead and pretend people all inhabiting her room, including a potato man representing her papa. There's a lot about fruit too and some unresolved sexual tension with a green grocer. I think. I was expecting more insight into the historic aspect of the era though.
A fantastic full moon, bloated and dazzling, hung brighter than all the street lights in an indigo sky as I drove home. Wonderful.
Bad Jews, the current production at Ustinov Studio in Bath, was inspired when New York writer Joshua Harmon attended a service for 'grandchildren of survivors' that he found 'full of sterile clichés and scarily lacking in genuine feeling.' His response is this moving family-conflict drama. It's a comedy, and exactly the kind of humour you’d expect from Jewish comedy: rapid-fire, acerbic, provocative - and very funny. In fact it's so self-consciously in-your-face Jewish it takes a while to realise that what is at the heart of the story is their ordinary human traits, not their convictions ~ their longings and losses, not their dead grandfather’s chai, a gold medallion with religious & personal significance and the focus of conflict for these three mourning grandchildren. The witty tirades keep you laughing, and sometimes wincing, but at the heart of the story are profoundly important issues about how to deal with, and learn from, the pain of the past ~ which, according to Daphna, is carried for us all by the jews. She's a buzz of vituperative rage with a tongue like a heat-seeking missile especially when she discovers the treasured chai is headed to adorn the gentile neck of her cousin Liam's girlfriend. Her exchanges with Melody are relentlessly biting: 'Where did your family come from?' Daphna asks, eyeing her like a puff-adder watching a frog, and when the artless girl answers 'Delaware', she lashes her with American history before rephrasing 'So, where did your family come from before they came to Delaware to perpetrate genocide?' Liam is Daphna's main challenger, returning fire with equal passion, enraging her with his 'Bad Jew' identity and his contempt for 'the Chosen People talk', but he finds her Nazi code of tribal purity indefensible and identifies the flaw: 'You sound like someone who’s never been in love.' And it's quiet Jonah, we discover at the end, who represents a more private and personal way to deal with the past.
I haven't a single quibble with this marvellous production. It's directed by Michael Longhurst, Ilan Goodman as Liam and Jenna Augen are riveting in the lead roles, with Joe Coen's  Jonah and Gina Bramhill as Melody giving strong support.  The set (Richard Kemp) is excellent, and lighting (Richard Howell) and sound (Adrienne Quartly) deserve a mention too. So that's it. Take five stars, everyone.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Full moon medley

 Frome Writers Collective, launched this summer to stimulate writers in every genre, held a Flash Fiction contest in the Merlin foyer on Sunday. We heard 14 short tales with a twist, and winners by public vote were local writers Alison Clink and Tim Luther. A well-organised and entertaining event from team FWC~ and thanks also to Mary Macarthur whose gentle interview with me as the 'Bard of Frome' is currently featured on their homepage. I'm never sure what to say when asked for advice to the unconfident, so I hope it doesn't sound perverse to suggest "Do it the way you would do it if you could do it..." 
Playwright David Greig was asked for advice for a BBC Writers Room feature: his response is great, and all the better for referencing PG Wodehouse's maxim to 'apply the seat of the trousers to the surface of the chair'.
"The main thing is to get to the end. Don’t worry about the quality moment by moment but regard what you are writing as placeholders until you find out what you are doing and then improve it later. The creative stuff happens with the improving, honing, cutting, observing and chipping away. The simple act of getting through it is a huge, huge thing. The second thing is to always remember that your subconscious mind knows better than your conscious mind. Trust a bit of writing because it came to you by surprise and follow the byways of your subconcious rather than sticking rigidly to the dictates of your boring, conscious mind. We pay to hear things that surprise us." 
David Greig's latest play The Events had rave reviews but I missed it in London so this picture is from Midsummer, his sweet, clever, funny play from four years ago. I saw it, bought the script and saw it again and ~ because it's not plagiarism it's craft ~ used one of his techniques in my own play Muffin Man which won me the title Bard of Frome, tying in nicely with the opening of this post.

Words at the Black Swan writing group reconvened to interrogate Tristan Steven's esoteric & fascinating exhibition FIFTHWALL ~ here's a sample of the installations, and an image from a very different summer exhibition in La Strada where Paul Newman is showing his exquistite pencil drawings. Tristan invites viewers to 'Come and play in the sacred sand pit of life!' while Paul's images evoke a sense of elemental connection the awe and mystery of nature that's also in its own way child-like.

To complete this disparate batch of points to ponder, how about this: Whatever you think about amazon they appear to be working in your interests in one thing. A long email they sent out to all Kindle publishers yesterday reminds us that paperback technology was initially rejected by bookshops and writers alike ~ including even George Orwell ~ as destroying literary culture. Subsequent history, they claim, is pertinent. "Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.  Just as paperbacks did not devalue or destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books."  They might undermine charity shop sales, though...

Friday, August 08, 2014

Pillow talk

There's no real scope for spoilers in Thérèse Raquin, adapted from Zola's novel by Helen Edmundson and showing now at Theatre Royal Bath: from the moment we meet petulant Camille we know he won't satisfy the smouldering stifled yearnings of his betrothed, and from the moment passionate Laurent steps into their lives we know that he will. We realise, too, that this will come to no good. And to no good it dramatically comes, with a second act as macabre as the first is torrid. "You have to make your own decisions about the way you tell the story and where you place emphasis" Helen Edmunson says, "I didn't want to be bound by the conventions of theatre at the time Zola was writing... I wanted to write an adaptation that was as wild, passionate and unfettered as the characters. I dramatise scenes that are only hinted at."  It works impressively well. This is a brilliant production, superbly directed by Jonathan Munby with movement, music and lighting combining to create a sequence of dreamlike, and nightmarish, scenes.  The cast are superb too, Hugh Skinner almost too charismatic as infantalised Camille but Kieran Bew has convincing chemistry and Pippa Nixon is flawless as flawed Thérèse.
Here's the lovers before they were overwhelmed with post-traumatic stress that made the Macbeths seem merely rueful, and here's Alison Steadman looking like Queen Victoria with the painting that makes her son look like Michael Gove. It's a terrific show, go see.

Murderous behaviour of a different sort in Frome as local theatre company Tic Tac Toe brought Martin McDonagh's award-winning black comedy The Pillowman to the Merlin.  From the opening scene there's a mix of Kafkaesque oppression with absurdly funny dialogue, as two secret policemen isolate and threaten to torture Katurian Katurian for horrific crimes which he has apparently written into being... It's a story about story-telling, and how fairy-tales and experience both shape our realities, which writhes with twists till the bitter end, and no-one is simply what they first seem.
So no spoilers for this one, I'll just say production values & performances are amazing: Ross Scott and Simon Joyce as the brothers in this grim tale-telling scenario are brilliant, with Laurence Parnell and Andrew Morrison terrific too as the good-cop/bad-cop duo. Sadly it's only on for one more night... if it's not past 7.45 pm on Saturday already as you read this, scamper down to the Merlin even if you 'don't usually go in for "-esque" stories'... this one will keep you thinking long after the shock and the laughter have subsided.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Can life still be funny when people die? Shaw thought so.

Much of the hilarity in Illyria's current touring production of The Pirates of Penzance comes from speedy dexterity of role-change by a small, highly-energetic, cast as well as Gilbert & Sullivan's absurd words and Goonish storyline.  Swashbuckling pirates, winsome daughters and lose-some police, everyone morphed and bounded into all of these characters and more ~ special credit to Thomas Heard for including a Modern Major General in his multi-tasking and speed-singing too.

Oliver Gray's direction ensures a fast-paced & very physical interpretation with surprises even for those who know the show better than I do ~ Queen Victoria herself pops in at one point.  James Dangerfield is strong as Frederick the piratical apprentice who values duty over love (and common sense) but wins the heart of Anna Brook Mitchell's marvellously shrill Major-General's daughter, and Christopher Barlow whether soft-hearted Pirate King or sprig-frocked girl is always magnetic.
But everyone was terrific, and so engagingly watchable I wanted to rewind and see it all again, a view that appeared shared by around 400 happy picnicking punters at Manor Farm Corsley on Friday night. A superbly well-run event ~ regular Elizabethan Evenings are run here & other venues could take notes from their organisation ~ this performance opened with a short curtain-raiser from local talent and closed with the sky still a deep Mediterranean blue... a perfect evening.

Nunney Street Fair, also on Saturday, featured a historical story too ~ this one authentic.
The Little Victory Ball is a short street performance devised by a Frome-based theatre group of the same name, using researched fragments from diaries, letters, poems, and newspapers to tell the real story of the public's response to Armistice Day and the loss of their sons, lovers, and fathers. Simply told and profoundly moving, illustrated with songs & spectacle and even humour, it's an ideal show for families with children of any age. I was especially struck to realise massive public grief started long before 'Diana-syndrome': when the Unknown Soldier was brought to London to commemorate the loss of those thousands never named, there was a 7-mile queue to place flowers on the Cenotaph and women waited for up to six hours, many sobbing, some shrieking & fainting. Fascinating too for anyone with an interest in women's history ~ did you know 400 of the girls working in the munitions factories died of TNT poisoning? They were told it wasn't dangerous, so when their skin went yellow they joked about being canaries.  As Frederick the reluctant pirate says, "I don't think much of our profession but compared to respectability, at least it's honest."
And on the subject of survivors, Frome's own lost soldier returned officially on Sunday with the dedication of the newly-instated statue of Charlie Robbins, a worker at Singers chosen to honour all the fallen of the town and mysteriously lost after Singer's factory closed. Frome has struggled over the right to retain the Memorial Hall itself so this was a particularly significant event, with poems from children exemplifying the prayer "May this be a place where the legion of the living salutes the legion of the dead."
George Bernard Shaw famously said "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh", and as well as poignancy there's relief, rather than disrespect, in such juxtapositions. While veterans in war medals were gathering at the Memorial Hall, most of the families of Frome were sauntering in the sunshine along traffic-free roads at the Independent Market, this month with added seaside as the Market Yard featured a vast sandpit with paddling pool, beach toys and even donkey rides... and a nearby Gaza protest crowded with supporters. Lovely Sara Vian played at the Archangel & the Cornerhouse Jazz Jam went on till late, but there's a candle-lit vigil at the Memorial Hall tonight, as Frome flamboyantly shows how true Shaw's maxim is.

Friday, August 01, 2014

... there grow flowers ...

When I was growing up my mother told me I was born in an air raid ~ I've checked date & location online and it's true, the bomb devastated nearby Vauxhall ~ but nothing more of that war was ever spoken of, either at school or at home. My father was a young man in the one before it, the Great War, but was deemed delicate so immune from service. The night before he died he broke a silence on the subject that had lasted all my life: "Before the war," he said, "I had three friends. By the end of the war I had none."  So these current WWI reflections, or 'celebrations' as our leaders like to call them, have a particular poignancy for me, as it was too late then to fill in the missing history of loss & grief or to console for his long years of quiet desperation. And after the political cynicism at the start of this centenary year I didn't expect to see anything as affecting as Anthem for Doomed Youth at the Imperial War Museum twelve years ago, but Frome On The Frontline at our town museum has come up with an exhibition that's informative, child-friendly, and deeply moving too. Especially touching is the case-study of local lad Harry Horwood, whose polite, affectionate, letters to his mother are displayed along with his photo and fags and other effects including the commemoration given his relatives in recognition of their sad bereavement...  This temporary exhibition is on throughout August, do go if you're around in Frome even if you think you're sick of 1914 ~ you can make your own medal and have your picture taken in a Red Cross Nurse's outfit too.
Words & Ears poetry cafe had a memorial event led by Peter Wyton whose poem Unmentioned in Despatches is in the new edition of the New Oxford Book of War Poetry. Not a funny night, as Peter warned us, but with some profoundly moving individual tributes as well as many shared personal favourites ~ my contribution was Roger McGough's On Picnics, which says so much so simply. Peter read a selection from the anthology in his idiosyncratic style a long way from hype & hyperbole: Wilfred Owen, he told us, 'had a particularly horrid time' before dying so close to the armistice that bells were tolling in celebration when the news reached his home village. Dawn Gorman, who runs and comperes this excellent Bradford-on-Avon event, read an extract from All Quiet on the Western Front still tragically topical:  “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”   Also especially touching was Richard Carder's sharing of Ivor Gurney's short reflection on mortality The Songs I Had and Alan Summer's lucent haiku: The grass grows dark / a lamentation of swans / shape my world. As Dawn says, we are the products of survival so this is not morbidity but a celebration of life.  
And so much to celebrate this summer! Like, a fabulous fortnight of festivities with family and friends for my Big Birthday celebrations (you can check how big from the opening line of this post if you don't know from facebook) and an exciting sequel to my winning the title Bard of Frome in a public stage-off during Frome Festival: Muffin Man will be performed again as curtain-raiser to the Nevertheless autumn production in October with hot-property actors Ross Scott and Fleur Hanby-Holmes ~ full details still under wraps but to be revealed soon...