Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fringe-ing Frome's festival

While half of Frome disappears to Pilton to either work or perform, the rest of us are warming up for our town festival starting next week. As anyone in, or interested in, Frome will know there's so much creative stuff happening all the time that festival fringe activities aren't exactly oases in a cultural desert but this week the buzz is even more bombinatory than usual.  Or bombinatious, not sure which is the right adjective from this great verb. Where to begin?
Muffin Man 1 & 2 had two nights at The Cornerhouse, and my marvellous actors & co-writers, Ross Scott and Fleur Hanby-Holmes spent a full day in rehearsal with the relevant pastries before our opening on Thursday.  The show comprises a replay of my 'Bard of Frome' title-winning short from last year, followed by our devised sequel to the cliffhanging ending of this unlikely rom-com, The Morning After. The opener is a stand-up routine and there's a song between the two plays, both 'bonus tracks'  created by the characters to add depth to their roles. Lots of audience laughter and brilliant feedback forms, especially after the awesome Saturday night performance summed up Great entertainment - well told story - good fun! and even more succinctly Funny as f##k. (You can see them all here)
Midsummer Dusk is developing sensationally well and tickets for the extra Saturday performance selling briskly at the Festival box office. Sunday's evening rehearsal gave us a shivery sense of how atmospheric the Dissenters Cemetery will be...  our superb cast is already virtually word perfect.

And it's bang goes the neighbourhood affordability-wise, as once again Frome is in the national press:  our Share Shop is commended in Positive News, and we're now a 'Great Town' officially, as a winner in this category at the Urbanism Awards ceremony this month.

Moving briefly out of the cultural hub for two visits to Bath: on Tuesday to talk my poems, as they now say, at the Rose & Crown where lovely Speakeasy organizer Jo Butts entertained us with thoughts from Mark Thomas's People's Manifesto (Goats are to be released on to the floor of the House of Commons - no more than four) and local regular John Christopher Wood aired his views on Cheese (it is an urban myth / that Palestinians make cheeses of Nazareth)  so my chirpy appeal for provision of therapeutic gigolos in Homes for the Elderly fitted in nicely.

Also in Bath, Stepping Out have been performing The Square Wheel of Time at the Rondo. The 'big show' productions from this Bristol community theatre company are always zestful romps with dancing, song and magic tricks as well as wild comedy, bizarre characters, and a thought-provoking bite that lingers. Mark Breckon's script and an exuberant cast combine to tick all these boxes once again. Directed by Cheryl Douglas with lavish costumes and clever stage techniques to create filmic fights and atmospheric flashbacks, this show took and tweaked the company's usual play-within-a-play convention: among many highlights I'd have to pick out 'Tamas' dirty-dancing to Time of My Life (Black-Eyed Peas version of course), the urbane and unscrupulous Dr Charles Lavelle, and Cecilia the stolen daughter dancing secretly with the gipsies, but this was an ensemble piece and everyone deserves praise.  The plot, involving eco-warriors returning to the 19th Century to change history, is sublimely incredible but the intention, to prevent the dominance of chemical intervention in mental health treatment, raises a serious issue. Behind every character, laughable & lovable or outright pathetic, we begin to see a third dimension: the real person damaged by trauma, loss, emotional abuse, or even unresolved family history. More than mere diverting entertainment, these plays from Stepping Out invite audiences to take a realistic & critical look at the current 'medical model' of treatments. As the Square-Wheelers have learnt, chemical pills are not the only, or the best, way to return to health.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Life after Spain

It’s not easy taking over a course at short notice, and difficult too for participants who chose a specific facilitator, so big appreciation to the stoic souls who arrived at Cortijo Romero last week to seek their inner poet with me instead  ~ and did so with warmth & humour as well as honesty, integrity and sometimes a bite of raw sorrow. It was a delight to hear and a privilege to discuss these multi-textured, lucent, colourful pieces, whether free-flow or shaped into form, netted from experience or fly-fished from wild imagination. Cortijo Romero in June is exquisite and abundant: the gardens blossom-filled & tranquil, the cool dining room filled always with bowls bulging with local fruit ~ oranges, cherries, apricots, plums… On our day off I took the river walk to town, arriving after a long hot upward trail at a garden bar I remembered fondly. I stood at the gate, calling through “Are you open?"  "Not yet" said the barman courteously, "come in," and he gestured below shading orange trees and brought me a beer.  Spain, I love you.

Another consequence of my short-notice travel was anti-social flying hours, which meant I was at Malaga airport 12 hours early, which turned out to be a brilliant way to spend a final day in Spain: exploring old-town Malaga, revisiting the Picasso Museum, and remembering all over again why I love this perverse & puzzling painter. “You have to wake people up,” he said, “to force them to understand they're living in a very strange world that’s not what they think it is.” 
Picasso loved Malaga but he didn’t spend much time here: this collection, while beautifully curated & presented, doesn't reflect his best work. But there is one exquisite piece: a tiny, half-painted drawing of a young man watching his lover sleep. I can’t decide which is the most moving: the superb single-line drawing, sensuous fleshlike painting, the transcendental way both merge, or the inspiration of form, allegedly unfinished yet quintessentially perfect. I guess it’s all of these, and more.

Back home in Frome now and the week ahead is brimming over: Nevertheless Productions' Frome Festival production of Midsummer Dusk sold out completely on both nights and Rosie has enterprisingly organised an extra date on the final Saturday ~ get booking now if you were one of those missing out and clamouring! Rehearsals are in the cemetery, which in the summer solstice glow is more beautiful than ever. Principal gardener Gerald Shakespeare has trimmed branches and strimmed around the gravestones but there's still a sense of fecundity and wildness all around. The cast are so good they gave me goosebumps, I can't wait to see them in costume and fully off book...
In the meantime, Muffin Man (One & Two) is on at the Cornerhouse on Thursday and Saturday. This is a reprise of last year's 'Bard of Frome' comedy winner plus a sequel to the cliff-hanging ending, and with bonus tracks of song & comic standup from talented duo Ross Scott and Fleur Hanby Holmes.  A Festival Fringe event, we're calling it.

And on Wednesday I'm booked to do poems at Jo Butt's Speakeasy event in Bath, always a lot of fun and with a lively open mic so I'm hoping my theme of older women behaving badly will fit well... 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Siblings, stories, and other stuff

A bit of a medley this week. First off, a trip to Wells with Alison Clink to talk about her memoir The Man Who Didn't Go To Newcastle which was discussed on Clare Balding's show on Radio 2 for the start of National Carers' Week. A warm review commented on the insights into an extraordinary situation and Clare applauded the "humour as well as  humanity"~ essential in my view for any difficult writing.

Another sibling story - and other Clare: Clare Reddaway who runs A Word In Your Ear, a lively bi-monthly event in Bath where actors present the best of submitted short stories, has branched out into recordings. I've been lucky enough to be picked for the live performance a couple of times & am delighted my caustic tale Sisterly Love was selected for this new venture. Beautifully read - thanks Caroline Garland. Another Frome writer & blogger is featured too, with a flash and a mystery from Sally Gander. Do check us out - and if you're a writer, consider submitting to monthly performances. There's a different theme each time.

Still for writers: The Royal Literary Fund has set up a writing project in Bristol with, as well as more specific support, a series of talks at the Watershed. Monday's event featured writing for stage and radio, with an excellent contribution from Tina Pepler which was both inspirational and full of practical tips.  Refreshingly modest as well as helpful, Tina didn't even mention her award for radio drama and extensive script writing for films and television where her credits include Downton Abbey.   Thanks Trevor Day for the heads-up, and the lift.

Another great Roots Session at the Grain Bar: international performer Mara Simpson ("soulful, sincere, warm, rich and intimate" ) supported by a local favourite. To quote the organisers,"Mara has been captivating audiences around the world with a set which is eclectic as her background. PLUS the chocolate vocals and golden larynx of soulboy, Steve Loudoun...Gee Baby ain't we good to you" Couldn't put it better.

The Silk Mill, showing again what a great venue it is for paintings, hosted a fantastic exhibition of vibrantly coloured paintings by David Moss. A real party atmosphere at the preview on Friday, but even without the bubbly this is a show not to be missed: on till June 20th.

Next posting will be from Spain. I'm going back to lovely Cortijo Romero for a week ~ I'd intended to take a break from foreign courses this year, but am stepping in to cover a writing course as the leader had to pull out. I'll miss two exciting productions,  a solstice party, and Frome in all its mid-June glory, but this beautiful retreat is always a place of healing, creativity, warmth & joy.
Humour and humanity, in fact.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Flaming June: suddenly it's summer... again

Exeter-based comedy troupe Le Navet Bete returned to the Merlin with their new show Dick Tracy.
The square-jawed, hard-hitting, fast-shooting detective arrived in comic book form in the 1930s. In this version, clever Dick foils the baddies but has no intention of apprehending them as that would stop the crime wave ~ and Dick loves crime as much as his girlfriend loves Dick... As well as their trademark heroic parody, there's the ever-reliable flamboyant display of circus-skills including mime, songs, absurd masks & props, and general buffoonery. A talented performing quartet, supported by their inventive props man, contrive to create an extensive cast by supplementing  lightning role-changes with a mannequin and some cardboard cut-outs. You could almost see the plot-line of evil BigBoy Caprice's social manipulation as a metaphor for American society, but then again maybe it was all just an excuse for the DIY wrecking ball & throwing masses of sliced bread at the audience.  Hilarious, and full of unexpected moments of marvellous mayhem. Lovely to see the ECOS amphitheatres stones illuminated in the warm night too.
 And on the subject of theatre, a small self-trumpet here: it's always nice to know my review is appreciated by the company, especially when - as with the current production of School for Scandal - it's quoted alongside a soundbite from The Guardian as the show's online promo:
“Brilliant directing from Andrew Hilton is supported by terrific acting from all the cast…SATTF has become a must-see company for many theatre­-goers in the southwest and beyond”  - Plays International on Arcadia 
Celebrations till late on Saturday as The Artisan opened its doors with a great dance band - The Sparks -  giving Frome another music venue. Unlike the Wheatsheaves, now thriving but still 'Name TBC', the old Olive Tree has been transformed as well as renamed. Sunday's Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse with Vicki Burke was another goodie.
A new month means another Sunday Independent market filling the town with stalls, entertainment, crowds, and that feeling of universal benignity & bliss that sunshine brings. My visiting friends from Wiltshire were overawed with the range and splendour of the event and left after four hours of happy browsing with bags of artisan items, garden seeds, organic cheese and scotch eggs. The Words at the Black Swan group met too: you can see some of our previous art/writing collaborations in this archive gallery collected by Kim Woods.

Fascinating footnote this week of celebrating sunshine came from a trip to Wilton House, which I discovered has an extraordinary history and an art collection more superb than most city galleries, dripping with paintings by Rubens, Tintoretto, Raphael, Hogarth, Van Dyke, Frans Hals... a place where a Gibson neoclassical marble sculpture can be rediscovered abandoned in the grounds and a massive Murano glass chandelier found abandoned in the attic... it really is worth a visit, in other words.  Shakespeare apparently stayed there, but there's a more fascinating connection with the bard: Mary Sydney now recognised as the most important literary woman of her generation. She not only led the way for other women writers but may have written, or at least contributed to, some of the plays currently attributed to 'the Man From Stratford.'   
So to end a week of fabulous summeryness here's a quote from another determined & pioneering woman, Gertrude Jekyll: What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade.