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.

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