Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Street riots and secret passion

The first play in Bristol Tobacco Factory’s SATTF season is always a high-expectation event. Their in-the-round staging is brilliant for Shakespeare, and this new production of Romeo and Juliet, unusual in the 16 year history of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, is directed by someone other than prime mover and founder Andrew Hilton. Polina Kalinina’s version is not so much a romance of star-struck lovers as a tale of social and generational struggle: the violent anarchy of Lyndsay Anderson’ If is her reference, and the story is set set in the post-world-war turbulence of the 1960s (terrific design by Emma Bailey, whose costumes bring glamour as well as era identification to this dark story).  Action revolves on a vast playground roundabout, a metaphor for the gamesmanship of dominant groups as well as ready source of metal rods for weapons in the street fights that are context and communication for the sparring tribes.
As always, the actors are all excellent, with a stand-out performance from Oliver Hoare as a charismatic Mercutio, whose shiveringly-well staged death sets in motion the inevitable tragedy. Some traditional elements have gone ~ no balcony musings for this bed-bouncing young Juliet, and with no role for a Nurse, this character becomes more of a sit-com whacky neighbour ~ but the transposition from Renaissance Verona to a more West Side Story cityscape successfully highlights those timeless central themes of love and freedom.  image Toby Farrow.
Paradoxically, the first production of Romeo & Juliet I saw was actually in this era, as a stage-struck teen, in the 2-shilling ‘standing seats’ of London's Old Vic. Franco Zefferelli directed, and what I most remember ~ apart from Judi Dench’s terrifying tantrum when her nurse tried to stop her eloping ~ was a sense that all these people shared history together, a long-term intimacy of kinship or enmity. That was the one element lacking for me in SATTF's otherwise thrilling production. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Happenings in Frome, including some 'Wow!'s.

The appeal of writing a blog for me is that, unlike articles, there's no need to target a market, keep to word-count, or even stay on theme.  Mine aims to commend and recommend events in and around Frome, but this doesn't preclude random musings on other stuff. Jottings about stage shows ~ tidied later for my bimonthly theatre magazine column ~ jostle with local entertainment and chat about trips and TV.  For a writer this form is fantastic, an opportunity to process experience to share with no constraint except awareness (thanks Blogger overview graph) that people do read them. So with appropriate humility, here's the latest patchwork of Things That Happened since last posting:
Local drama this week as TicTacToe returned to The Cornerhouse with their second Play in a Day which, in contrast to last autumn's surreal farce, dealt with serious issues. Inspiration came, sort of, from Frankenstein and Iain Heggie's black comedy about dementia Wiping My Mother's Arse, except the amnesiac (Mike Walker) isn't alzheimic but in denial about something revealed only in the final moment, and the monster may not really be a monster at all... And it's moving rather than black or comic, developing slowly to show the relationship struggle between the old man and his son-in-law (Ross Scott) as told in flashbacks to volunteer Archie (Calum Grant). Fleur Hanby Holmes is superb as the girl, evoking the crux of a horribly plausible dilemma with minimal words. Wow. An amazing achievement in just one day.

Speaking of time, that's what Greg Morter was doing, with some visual and human aids, at the Scout Hut last week. Greg has written a book about The Universe Story in Science and Myth and leads walks paced to scale, from the origin of the universe (not a big bang, more of a flaring forth, he says) to the present day. Annabelle and I went on one of these two day events; we reached the birth of our galaxy during the second day and man appeared in the last two centimeters. Greg had reduced his scale for this fascinating talk to one millimetre = one million years, but as I'm irredeemably earthcentric the bit I really like is when our world blasts into the story and starts to teem with life... Here's our earliest mammalian ancestor, helpfully posing with a paperclip to show how teeny he was. What is really great about Greg's talks, apart from his enthusiasm in sharing his scientific knowledge as a story, is the way he makes it possible to be positive about humanity despite our aggression, greed, and destructiveness. Those qualities, he says, were in the struggle for survival throughout the history of the universe ~  what we also have is a unique ability to care, not just for ourselves and our kin but for others unmet and for the planet itself. We have the ability to remember and to anticipate, which enhances our empathy and our effectiveness. And we can, with our new knowledge, replace 'human-scale chauvinism' with the understanding that we're living in an evolving situation and we too are elements from that fireball, 'We are the universe telling itself its own story.'  Wow.

And of course this being Frome there's been music... and a rendition of Happy Birthday for lovely Griff who runs the Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar each Wednesday, last week with Amelia Orgill and her band. Great vocals from guest Steve Loudoun and pedal steel from Gus Yorke.

February is also the month when our summer festival starts seriously brewing, with brochure entries due in at the end of next week. Nevertheless Productions is moving into new territory with a site-specific, outdoor, production in the Dissenters Cemetery... Midsummer Dusk will be performed, at dusk, by our newly formed company the Star Players. I forgot to take a photo of this amazingly talented trio when we met this morning so here's a picture of the venue... wow. Can you even wait????

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Poetry going right and panto gone wrong

Possibly lured by that raunchy poster, as well as Claire Crowther as guest poet, so many people arrived for the Frome Poetry Cafe "Love Night" on Monday that the Garden Cafe was totally crowded out, but a fabulous atmosphere and terrific readings hopefully made it all worth while for all those who stood, squatted, or nestled on the steps. Claire read from her upcoming collection On Narrowness, her combination of extraordinary imagination and delicate lyrical crafting finding love poems in unexpected places, like body fat and having a sore throat at a vinegar tasting.
And then we had a fantastic range of poems from 25, yes that's twentyfive, poets from the audience, including several who had written something specially for the event... we ran out of time or I'd have loved to hear more from Rose Flint, Rosie Jackson, Muriel Lavender, and everyone else with more to share. Luckily there's a chance: John Walton from Frome FM has started a new Friday show called Chapter & Verse and invites any local poet to contact him for focus on their words. Here's Claire with some of her avid audience, and me feeling happy at the end of the evening.

"To die would be an awfully big adventure..." Poignantly, the boy-who-never-grew-up flew into popular imagination from a writer whose own brother died while still young.  I loved Peter Pan when I was little (I had a battered 1911 edition) and it always made me cry, though not as much as I wept with laughter watching Peter Pan Goes Wrong at Theatre Royal Bath. Following their success with The Play that Goes Wrong, Mischief Theatre Company have turned their amazing theatrical skills to create the Cornley Drama Society, a company whose artistic and technical ineptitude exceeds even their appalling personality issues. Falling scenery, flailing flying, wardrobe malfunctions... everything that could go wrong does go wrong ~
it's so over-the-top it shouldn't work, but it does: the audience was near-hysterical by the time the off-stage traumas erupted on-stage as the circular set whirled out-of-control to reveal artistic & personal differences exposed in every segment like a manic mini-version of The Norman Conquests.  Clever genre parody and startling stunts from all the cast & technicians, with standout moments when Captain Hook (Laurence Pears) found his inner John Cleese, Alex Bartram's Lord-Flasheart-esque Pan, Naomi Sheldon multi-tasking as every woman who wasn't Wendy, and Robert Booth a scene-stealing hirsuite co-director. Absolutely brilliant, on till March 14.

Thursday, February 12, 2015


If grey is not your favourite shade for a pornographic fantasy and you live in reach of Bristol, head for the Old Vic for the colourful 18th Century decadence of the The Life and Times of Fanny Hill. Based on John Cleland's lurid account of the London sex industry (published in 1748 and swiftly banned, reprinted in full only since 1970) this story of one woman's repeated fall and rise is a kind of knickerbocker glory of lascivious simulations, wicked innuendo and lewdly lavish costumes, with a slim but steady trickle of hindsight cynicism. Sharp and witty adaptation by April de Angelis highlights the double standards of an era when whoring was the only reliably-available work for women ~ a list published in 1758 named 10 'gradations' between courtesan and beggar  ~ but the main thrust of the action is bawdy sensuality.
On a set rather like a CenterParks sauna room, Fanny is approached to write her memoirs and, deciding one whore's life is much like another's, rather than struggle to remember she pays two younger women to share their more salacious experiences for her to shape into her own journey. Swallow, the abused naif, and Louisa the tough prostitute, become alter-ego aspects of Fanny's life, showing the grim shadows just below the surface as she scribes and choreographs scenes of debauchery demonstrating every imaginable pose up to and including swinging from the chandelier. And when the book is finished... well, you'll have to go and find out for yourselves.
Caroline Quentin as Fanny is marvellous.  The rest of this six-strong cast are excellent and the graphic physicality is hilarious, but she is so marvellous I could happily watch her narrate the entire story herself with a selection of glove puppets. Direction is by Michael Oakley, and Andrew D Edwards designed the luscious costumes in tones of lavender and peach, a perfect blend of glamour and dishevelment. Just like Fanny Hill's imagined life and times.   (Images Helen Maybanks)

Monday, February 09, 2015

History in the making

How can you make a comic play from the true story of Stanley's meeting with Dr Livingstone? The answer is, you can’t. According to contemporary accounts, Morton Stanley was a man who shoots Africans like monkeys, and David Livingstone was a hopeless leader; neither seem to have acknowleged the support of their team or their womenfolk, and the famous greeting was probably apocryphal. Miracle Theatre therefore in devising their current show Dr Livingstone I Presume has abandoned history for a series of absurd and very funny sketches involving song and dance, a range of costumes and puppetry, and some farting. The conceit of the show is that events are recreated by a Victorian touring company in an atmosphere of sizzling backstage tension with an increasingly intoxicated MC ~ the marvellous Ben Dyson, always brilliant when apparently about to break leash and bound for the mad hills of non-sequitur and anarchy. The company aims to 'take a swipe at 19th Century imperialism, chauvinsim, and hypocrisy' but it's a small nod really and I wished this talented team had pushed the satire further. As Alexei Sayle immortally said, you can't change the world with a silly song ~ you have to do the silly dance too...

Which segues nicely into Change How?, a one-day event put on by Compass in Islington Metalworks, a venue with the charm and amenities you'd expect from a scrap storage area now a nightclub, but on Sunday for 6 hours it was filled with excitement and coloured balloons as 100 speakers & performers, simultaneously in 6 venues and with a gong at 15 minutes, gave their vision of how to change the world for the better. It was exhausting and brilliant.
Frome's independent mayor was there to talk about the Flatpack Democracy process, with Johannes Mueler, founder of the Frome-based Edventure project helping young people design their own apprenticeships to shape their chosen futures, and our local Guardian journalist John Harris. And I went there just to look and listen. My highlights included, unsurprisingly, poets like Anthony Anaxagorou, Yusra Warsama and Angry Sam (who I hope will come to Frome to feature in the festival) ~ and it was good to end with a blast of stand-up from Chris Coltrane.
As with Glastonbury festival it was sometimes easier to stay put than push through the crowds to another location, which resulted in some great surprises like Jon Alexander, an ex-adman, inspirational about the need for a new moral logic to replace consumerism, and Spiros Rapanakis, Greek documentary-maker and member of Syriza, massively applauded as he told us We are not afraid any more. We know everyone in the world is looking at Greece and that gives us courage. The question is, are you going to join the big revolution?

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Looking back... days of Popup-toasters and pen-friends

Alexei Sayle, ex-anarchic-standup comedian, sees himself as a writer now but doesn't mind being asked about the old days. At the Merlin last week he read extracts from his (very funny) autobiography Stalin Ate My Homework  and from his upcoming one Thatcher Stole My Trousers, and then allowed us to take him back to the glory days of angry young comedians. "My generation were all nice men pretending to be nasty, the conventional ones were fucking horrible... but we're all soldiers in the same war ~ comedians are the lone wolves of the tundra."
An extreme communist upbringing made for a difficult childhood as well as a rich seam for bizarre anecdotes, but Alexei Sayle still has respect for those values. "It doesn't work if you turn a blind eye to mass murder, but was an attempt to make the world a better place, and that impulse is still a valid one, I still think." He remembers the '60s as I do: halcyon days of hope. "Everything was inspiration, it was great to be young in that brief moment when the gates of El Dorado were opened. They’re slammed shut now, a wonderful period all gone." He capers at the memory of the Pop Up Toaster but is visibly moved when he says the last time he met the Young Ones team was at Rik Mayalls's funeral. "To make that show was the most profound experience, there's still a core connection between us all." The past is another country, but it's clearly one this gentle and immensely entertaining man spends a lot of time visiting.

84 Charing Cross Road, adapted by director James Roose-Evans from the correspondence between New Yorker Helen Hanff and the bookshop at this address, premiered 33 years ago at Salisbury Playhouse and won awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Fittingly, the current revival is at the same theatre with the same director, demonstrating that a good human-interest story is never out of fashion for theatre audiences.  Helen herself was apparently mystified at the success of this tale of nothing-much happening in the lives of some perfectly-nice people for 20 years ~ she wrote scripts for Ellery Queen which was more of a Midsomer Murders kind of show ~ and it's certainly hard to put a finger on plot development here. Nice Mr Doel learns to say 'OK' the yankee way, Helen discovers that 'Madame' is an acceptable form of address in England and learns to love Jane Austen... but it's what's unsaid that engages us: the sense of family in the apparently drab bookshop as the staff crowd around to share Helen's hampers, the suggestion that she thrives by proxy inclusion in that connection. (photos Helen Maybanks)
And of course, there's a poignancy in the passing of years, both in the time-scale of the play and since ~ though costumes could have been more evocative: fine for quirky Helen but the time-standing-still look at the bookshop seemed oddly unconvincing ~ younger staff working in WC2, even in an old-fashioned establishment, might have kept their retro look throughout the '50s but by 1969 we'd all been buying cheap ersatz Mary Quant from Top Shop for years. That's a small quibble which didn't detract from the sharp direction, effectively using set and lighting, and strong performances: Clive Frances as the gentle bookseller and Janie Dee as the New York bibliophile with Dorothy Parkeresque tendancies were both excellent. Like Waiting for Godot, this is play where nothing happens except life, but it's warm as a mug of cocoa and sent us all out into the winter air smiling. Recommended. (Images Helen Maybanks)

Final footnote: Fans of the cafe with a pool at The Lighthouse in Tytherington ~ a pleasant 2 mile stroll from Frome ~ will be happy to hear that although Love In a Cup is no more, Cafe Nouveau will be providing the same ambience and appetising snacks, but with optional caffeine in the hot drinks. Opening on February 14th, why not go along?

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Illuminati in Frome, on bicycles.. and other spectaculars

With the footsteps of Veterans for Peace UK barely receded after Ben Griffin's visit to Frome last week, conflict was still on the agenda as Black Swan upstairs gallery hosted Little Victory Ball's docu-drama of women's involvement in WWI.  I've now seen this caringly-researched story three times & never fail to sniffle as the bereaved wives and mothers lay their white-flowering wreaths before the cenotaph at the end. Over in the Round Tower gallery, students from Somerville School created six powerful Icons of Peace and Equality in a group project with guidance by Mark Karasick ~ here's Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai, and Martin Luther King.
Inspirational individuals yet conflict dominates our history still, at a cost that could feed the world ~ if Monsanto doesn't poison all the crops and Fukushima doesn't poison all the fish and fracking doesn't poison all the water ~ but this is not a political column, what's facebook for after all? so I'll add a quick plug for the more placid history of the Frome Society for Local Study which I discovered while researching our Nevertheless site-specific production for Frome Festival to be performed at twilight in the Dissenters Cemetery with our newly formed troupe, Star Players. Stay agog, more anon.

Frome's Missing Links, formed to improve the SUSTRANS cyclepath between Radstock and Bath, also knows how to celebrate: glittering festivities marked the 'Opening of Phase One' on Saturday at dusk launched by the Mayor and Frome Street Bandits, with Soo Wright's dancers, refreshment tents, and scores of illuminated bicycles arriving as darkness deepened and the party rocked on.
And as evidence, should any be needed, of Frome's cultural diversity, the Cheese&Grain this weekend hosted a tattoo convention: stalls of tattoophenalia, non-stop burlesque shows on stage, and craftspersons with their books of tatts to transform you from a mass of bland flesh into a portrait gallery of anything from ghouls to panthers.  I do quite fancy a tiger, actually... Jason Perry of Point Break, who won best black-and-grey does a nifty one, and so does Ghis Melou...

So now we're in February, month of ice moon and snowdrops and bonanza for card manufacturers. Forget your aversion to Valentine and come along to the Garden Cafe for our version of the Big Love-In on Monday 16th.
As Malala would say: Let us make our future now, and let us make our dreams tomorrow's reality.