Saturday, October 25, 2014

Forgetting & Remembering: 'My Father' at the Ustinov, Ken Loach at the Westway

Banksy said art should 'comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable' and Picasso wanted his paintings to 'bristle with razorblades' so maybe it's a credit to The Fatherconsidering how closely my own father resembled Kenneth Cranham, that I found it hard to enjoy Florian Zeller's Molière-award-winning play now in a new translation at Bath's UstinovLyn Gardner gave the production 5 stars: for me, there was no insightful imagination in this account of an old man with Alzheimer's. The basic premise of unreliable memories and perceptions is easily grasped but, while distressing for his Cordelia-loyal daughter, the misconceptions of André's confusion make for reiterative and sombre viewing.  A concertinaed timescale allows Lia Williams as his daughter little character development, though  Colin Tierney gives a fine performance as her exasperated husband. (image Simon Annand) Full marks too for the surreally diminishing set  ~ Miriam Buether ~ and lighting design by Guy Hoare.  I see from the programme that Christopher Hampton, translator, finds this work "very cleansing before you turn your attention to something else. It has a refreshing effect on other work." I hope viewing will prove similarly inspiring. Anyway, don't let me put you off: a visit to the Ustinov is always a valuable experience.

Frome's Westway Cinema, independent in style as well as status, was totally sold-out on Friday for the showing of Ken Loach's documentary Spirit of '45 followed by talk and Q&A with the director himself. The film is not polemical or sentimental, though it's hard not to rage and weep: Ken simply uses pre-and post-war footage from national and regional archives interspersed with interviews with octogenarians who remember the conditions of life for the working class and the joy when a Labour government began to construct a socialist society to care for them 'from the cradle to the grave.'
We had won the war together; together we could win the peace. The central idea was common ownership, where production and services were to benefit all. The few should not get rich to the detriment of everyone else. It was a noble idea, popular and acclaimed by the majority. It was the Spirit of 1945. Maybe it is time to remember it today.
An unforgettable event and a credit to the spirit of Frome 2014 that there's so much interest in those times and desire to fix what's gone wrong since. Several of the questioners had specific hopes and solutions but there's an inherent problem in the vision of those halcyon days: The 'five giant evils' standing in the way of social progress were identified as want, ignorance, squalor, disease, and idleness. They should have added, banks. As Ken Loach said, in answer to a questioner, "Voting on its own is not enough. You are right. The banks are the central factor. To take effective political control we have to take control of the banks."  Frome already has its own 'flat-pack' democracy, how great if we could step up the localism even more radically.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pinteresque (adj): characterised by silences and use of inaction

The script for The Dumb Waiter gives detailed instructions for minutiae of performance but leaves interpretation of the final moment open. Cross Cut Theatre chose the valid route that Ben didn't know he'd kill his partner  ~ sorry if this comes as a spoiler but I'm guessing if you didn't know the ending to Harold Pinter's 1960 script by now then you probably don't really care ~ and  Jonny Collis as Ben is superb, bringing controlled tension and convincing ownership of the character and evoking the hidden desperation of these dissatisfied, brutal, lives. This production puts a big emphasis on "finding the funny bone" of Pinter in a 'menacing, hilarious' play but for me the inherent humour is absurd and macabre: Gus's OCD quirks are fine but seeking out moments for hilarity slightly undermines the menace. Nevertheless a compelling production of a thought-provoking play which has been called "Pinter distilled - the very essence of a writer who tapped into our desire to seek out meaning, confront injustice, and assert our individuality." Good to see Merlin Theatre so well attended too.

This being Frome, drama wasn't the only option on Wednesday evening, and even after Q&A with the actors there was time to call in at Cheese&Grain for a blast of the weekly Roots Session: Phil Cooper (his ironic WWI song Home by Christmas here) and Blue Midnight, who describe themselves as 'loosely a spacey folk dub brass fiesta band but in fact unclassifiable" ~ they could have added wickedly danceable. And at Old Bath Arms there's lyrical late night jazz in the Retro bar from Keith Harrison-Broninski with alto-saxist Kevin Figes at Frome Jazz Club  ~ honestly, talk about a plethora of talent!  Why would anyone ever leave this town for a moment?
But I do of course, especially these sunny autumn days. This week's trip was to Lacock, to learn stuff I never knew about Fox Talbot and his family (did you know his youngest daughter took herself off to France to nurse lame soldiers & came back to co-found the Wrens?) and to see for myself, through the same lattice window, the first view ever photographed. I'll leave you with an existentialist question posed to me that day which I thought at first unanswerable, then realised with a bit of mind-awareness we can all find at least one reply every day: What was the last time you did something for the first time?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Kate's progress... and a bit about Elizabethan days, and recycling.

Toppings Booksellers is renowned for author events, usually held in their friendly bookshop at the top of Broad Street in Bath. But so many people booked to hear Kate Tempest read from her newly published poetry collection Hold Your Own on Wednesday, the event was transferred to Christ Church, where every pew was crammed. ‘You’re packed in like sardines!’ said the cheerful vicar. Kate, unchanged by fame (she sensationally scooped the 2013 Ted Hughes poetry award and is tipped to take the Mercury prize this year) is slightly worried about performing in a consecrated space. 'In my poems there’s a lot of language’ she confides.  ‘No problem’ yells the cheerful vicar from the back. Kate opens with her longest piece, the story of Tiresias. Her version is a mix of savagely authentic Greek myth and contemporary street wisdom, with resonance for everyone who's ever had to realise that all you've known / is now / no longer enough. That notion of stoic survival continues through poems of childhood, womanhood, manhood, and blind profit.  Right at the end, Kate goes off-script. “These are dark times" she says, "You can feel so powerless. The only thing that has any worth is how you treat other people." And for her last performance Kate mounts the pulpit to deliver a passionate rap against media-led society (take a look at Progress in your copy of Kate's must-buy book) and when she ends she seems slightly shocked that all of the four hundred people in front of her have risen to their feet to applaud.

Leaping back in time to 1558: the hopes of England are pinned on a young queen and Living Spit have run out of historical characters who look like Howard Coggins and raised their theatrical bar: characters who in no way look like either him or his partner-in-parody the marvellous Stu Mcloughlin who, let's face it, doesn't look like anyone. After their brilliant Henry VIII and Winston Churchill interpretations, the dynamic duo are back with a reconstruction of the Elizabethan era that delivers the usual mix of hilarious absurdity and surprising poignancy. Elizabeth I virgin on the ridiculous played to sell-out audiences in Bristol and came to Bath's nice little Rondo theatre this Friday. With a mix of history lesson ("dear diary, thanks for being such an excellent tool for barefaced exposition" drools Lizzie into her Barbie notebook), vulgar & anachronistic comedy, morose metatheatrical banter and brilliant guitar-accompanied songs, Stu and Howard create the intrigues and thrills of those extraordinary times when a virgin queen survived every external control to assert her right to reign. And when you're done laughing, that sad existential question still lingers: How can I be Queen of England and not actually get anything I want?

Back in Frome I've been learning about plastic ~ specifically, that our town is the home of Protomax, world leaders in recycling waste into plastic panels that can be made into whatever you want from stylish tables to commercial hoardings. If you're thinking you don't need any hoardings and you prefer wood for furniture thankyou, you might like to ponder on the fact that the 25 million boards currently used each year are currently chipboard and therefore, like all exterior wood, treated with toxic preservatives which mean they can't be recycled and have to go to landfill. A fascinating talk from managing director Mark Lloyd at the Old School House on the uses and potential of this machinery, including emergency housing in disaster areas. Every town should have one of these factories!
And congratulations to Frome film makers Bargus, winners of Salisbury's '48 hour challenge' Shoot Out  with The Tenth Muse, a psychological thriller written by Nikki Lloyd which will be shown at the Westway at November's Independent Film-makers night. Looks spooky, sounds scary and sensational!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"The future is there, looking back on us."

Frome Poetry Cafe on Monday: a dreich night illuminated by two fabulous guest poets and some delightful readings from the floor.
Stephen Boyce and Rosie Jackson both shared some newer poems as well as reading from their published work. Rosie's newly published collection what the ground holds is full of intimate observational moments ~ the indigo scar of coal dust lovingly caressed, the long one-breath kiss of airport reunion ~and paired beautifully with Stephen's anthologies: Desire Lines and The Sisyphus Dog, which also craft small personal moments, small and vivid as the dab of red his father pointed out to him in Constable's Haywain, to take us directly into the awesome landscape of private life. Appreciation to our open-mic readers, too, for a delightfully varied contributions, including Norman Andrews' moving memory of a childhood harvest in the blitz when a burning spitfire spiralled into the field and he saw that the pilot whose uniform still smouldered on the stubble/ wore a woollen jumper sent to him/ by one of the million women who knitted/ so that our boys would always die warmly. 

Bulgaria. It's that place that 'sounds like it's part of Russia, but it's bloody Paradise ~ the sun, the beach, and if you're not bollocksed by lunchtime you're not on proper holiday.' Or maybe it's the place where everyone is lazy and officials aren't supposed to make decisions, they're supposed to take bribes. Tom Philip's absorbing panoramic play Coastal Defences acknowledges both clichés, the Brit tourist and the jaundiced Bulgarian, and explores an aspect most of us know less about ~ the months of peaceful protests in 2013 and 2014 against a coalition government which allows poverty and corruption to keep everyone in 'a space that floats between East and West.' Tom is clearly fascinated by this land and its people, but there's enough distance from the issues to maintain the drama of the central stories of longing, hopes and fears, of the diverse characters we meet, all vividly evoked by Jill Rutland, Nic McQuillan, and Chris Bianchi. A superbly sparse set by Rosanna Vize sets the scene with roses and a dominant emblem of corporate power.  There's plenty of humour, but with a situation this close to reality inevitably pain and loss too, although ~ the writer suggests ~ maybe more understanding can bring respect for the natural beauty of the Black Sea coast and appreciation of the ancient culture of Sofia. On at the Brewery in Bristol till Saturday 18th as part of the autumn season of new writing from Theatre West, worth seeing.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Meeting of Minds and other ephemera

Black Swan Arts is currently hosting an Frome Art Society's annual exhibiton, aptly titled Diversity in acknowledgement of the range of talent, subject, and media ' from delicate watercolours to bold acrylic, detailed pencil drawings to impressionistic oils'. You can vote for your favourite, which gives my inner child great glee, and I chose Meeting of Minds by Jules Horn whose website describes her process: Albert Einstein said that there are two ways to live your life – as if nothing is a miracle or as if everything is a miracle. I see miracles, and for me, painting is a way to fully experience the miracle of consciousness.  For me, the act of painting is a meditation – a celebration of life. Every brushstroke is a distillation of the now – when I am painting I am intensely in the moment and the resulting work is the physical manifestation of that.  I really like that notion. The show's on till October 25th.

It was World Mental Health Day on Friday and Frome's Cheese & Grain was filled with stalls and events to raise awareness and events to promote feel-good activities from belly-dancing to acupressure treatments with free samples by Viv from Massage Theories. As well as information on specific issues like dementia or depression, groups like Fair Frome Food Bank and Mendip Community Credit Union were there to talk about local support available. All serious & important stuff, but the ukulele band and free soup & cakes gave the whole place a great party atmosphere.
A very valuable event, congratulations to all.

And I can't, obviously, omit to mention the big event of the weekend for me and Rosie: our autumn double-bill for Nevertheless Productions at Cornerhouse Frome, Crossed Wires.  The main play Champagne Charlotte is a bitter-sweet and intimate study of a mother-daughter relationship set in a home for the elderly and audiences found it emotionally affecting as well as deeply thought-provoking. Brilliant acting from Sara Taylor and Kerry Stockwell maintained a constantly shifting empathy in Rosie's absorbing, ultimately redemptive, script.  My curtain-raiser Muffin Man is slighter but fitted our theme as it's also an awkward encounter with a happy ending. Ross Scott and Fleur Hanby Holmes perfectly found the mixed vibe of banter and insecurity in their characters.  Here's some of the audience feedback ~ you can see it all on our Nevertheless page ~
It was fantastic! I could relate to the second performance as my granny is in the same predicament ... Great scripts, witty and poignant in equal measures, and lovely actors ... Well matched double-header, both entertaining, second thought-provoking ... Very well acted and perceptive, sharp scripts ... Very genuine and real ... The plays were both funny and touching. Very good, thought provoking  ... Fun – well written, poignant. Entertaining and innovative ... Though-provoking – well paced – audience aware ... FAB! ... Loved it – multilayered fun ... GREAT! Really enjoyed both ... Enjoyable and thought-provoking, sensitively acted ... Very clever and entertaining ... Enjoyed both plays ... Very thought-provoking ...THANK YOU ALL FOR A GREAT NIGHT!
~ and here's Frome's Comedy Czar Tim O'Connor handing over the trophy for best comic script submitted to the festival competition. (Yes I know I posted it before, but it's inscribed now.)

Friday, October 10, 2014


Listen up, because this is an interim blog. I'm interrupting normal service with an important announcement: if you have a chance to get to Bristol before 25th October I urge you to go see Dead Dog In The Suitcase at Bristol Old Vic. Why? because it's fabulously staged, imaginatively political, wittily evocative and darkly provocative, and you'll miss a real feast of physical & musical theatre if you don't go see this fabulous Kneehigh production. The Beggar's Opera is the accredited inspiration for this dramatic fantasy, but along with the ska & songs culled from the edge of existence you'll find vibrations & evocations from fairy stories and greek myths, Shakespearean tragedies and classic movies, and even a bit of Boyce & Marlene from Only Fools...  but as the cast warn us in their opening song, look closer and you might recognise, this world is no different from your own...  And by the climactic end, which I wouldn't dream of spoiler-ing, you'll be cheering this amazing cast and production team as wildly as we all did. Oh, the puppetry is great too.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Drama from Salisbury to Bath, via Uganda (and Frome)

Salisbury's version of Boston Tea Party coffee house is an amazing Grade-1 listed building dating back to the early 1300s and it was here in an upstairs room that Crossed Wires gave its premier performance for the Salisbury Fringe last weekend. An audience of more than sixty crammed between the medieval pillars to watch our twin tales of difficult relationships eventually resolved, and donated generously on their way out (thanks, guys!) After a quick celebratory glass in the astro-turfed garden of the delightful Kings Head (15th Century) Rosie and I scooted on to Castle Street Social Club to listen to the script-in-hand readings from Juno Theatre: five 'short plays inspired by famous women' ~ listening rather than watching, as the actresses were largely invisible from the back seats. Outstanding in this quintet was Glad Tidings by Lesley Bates, an encounter between a feminist angel and reluctant recipient of the annunciation ("If He wants to talk surrogacy, it'll cost..." "He doesn't DO money!" "Well then I don't DO pregnancy.") ~ enjoyably entertaining but also making subtle points about women's roles and male expectations. I also liked Martine Shackerley-Bennet's short witty piece Heady Days, a kind of dark Alice-in-Wonderland beheaded-foe croquet game between Queens Elizabeth and Mary.

In 2002 Joe Douglas, aged 18, went to Uganda for his gap year and began a relationship that cost him £20,000, much angst and many growing pains, and resulted in a show called Educating Ronnie which won an Edinburgh Fringe First award and came to Merlin Frome on Wednesday. Joe tells his own story direct to audience in disarmingly frank style: he's 30 now but it's difficult to gauge to what extent he's acquired a full grasp of the wider perspective in this not-unfamiliar tale of an emotional response to economic gulf.  Ronnie's emails appealing for a chance to thrive, or simply survive, veer from heart-rending to manipulative, and Joe's story is at its most affective & theatrically effective when he loses confidence in himself as selfless sponsor and feels the pain of anyone in a collusive, emotionally abusive, relationship.  There's a happy ending of sorts ~ Joe is back on even keel with Ronnie ~ but it's up to you whether you leave the theatre feeling he was a hero or a mug, or both, or maybe just angry shame at the massive inequality that defined the friendship between these two young men in such inevitably unequal terms. Michael John McCarthy's excellent sound design enhanced this macrobert production.
The Memory of Water is such a stunning script it would be impossible not to enjoy a production of this tragi-comedy by Shelagh Stephenson about three sisters re-meeting for their mother's funeral. Acerbic and succinct, the dialogue veers from laugh-out-loud to pin-drop poignant, and Bath Drama relished the opportunity to bring this superb piece to the Rondo. As the sisters bicker about their reminiscences, their memories dissolve and erode their chosen adult personas: the high-flyer faces hidden pain, the romancer hits realism, and the practical one downs a bottle of whisky and lets fly her lethal resentments. Memory, its power and its unreliability, is the theme that beautifully and thought-provokingly links these women to each other and to us: Can you feel nostalgia for something that never existed? Mary asks, and wonders if it's true that water can retain a memory of substances long after there's no discernible trace of them ~ the theory of homeopathy, her elder sister Teresa's business, which is also affected irrevocably by the deluge of events in this tumultuous night.  Congratulations to the whole team, especially Mike (Nic Proud) and Mary, played superbly Alexia Jones at short notice.  On till Saturday 11th.  

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Different strokes

 Frome's literati were off to Bath in droves, or maybe even murmurations, on Wednesday for the launch of a new pamphlet with Poetry Salzburg from Rosie JacksonWhat the Ground Holds. This very successful event was hosted by Knucklebone Poets and included a moving tribute from Lindsay Clarke, novelist and long-time friend, but the high point was Rosie's reading from her collection. Her poems are exquisite, delicate strength created through precise wording and profound feeling. Classic myths glimmer through contemporary experiences, and the ordinary becomes unfamiliar and scarred with legend. And the attention to detail, in lichen or wild rhubarb, reminds me of Blake's words: to see a world in a grain of sand.. hold infinity in the palm of your hand. Beautiful.

Told by an Idiot  arrived at Bristol's Tobacco Factory last week with their Young Vic production My Perfect Mind, "a comic tale of a man not doing King Lear." As you might guess from the tagline, it's about as meta-theatrical as a piece of theatre can get without dissolving into ~ in the words of Edward Petheridge ~ "slapdash and pretentious at the same time, like something at the Tate Modern." Using the actor's (true) experience of travelling to New Zealand to play King Lear but suffering a stroke instead, the action plays around with Shakespeare's lines and the notion of kingly folly and thespian ambition in an amiably absurd way. Much of the show is very funny ~ and Paul Hunter, playing everyone from Lear's psychiatrist to Laurence Olivier, is sublime ~ but a lot of the audience laughter is inevitably that half-smug, half-relieved mirth that comes from being able to recognise the reference and 'get' the gag. But if you know your Lear and enjoy in-jokes, it's a great show.

Looking ahead in Frome: Rosie Jackson is one of the guests at the next Poetry Cafe on Monday 13th, along with Stephen Boyce who recently featured in the Winchester Poetry Festival, while CROSSED WIRES ~ the double bill of play by Rosie Finnegan and me ~ will be at the Cornerhouse on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th. (Phone 01373 472042 to save your seat, the list is filling up fast!)
But before that, we're off to Salisbury tomorrow to open the show at the Fringe Festival... more laters.