Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lives of quiet desperation... existential angst in Yorkshire 1980s

 Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, first broadcast nearly 30 years ago, is the current production at Theatre Royal Bath.  Radio seems self-evidently the most appropriate medium for narrative monologue, so any such transfer is a challenge, especially as the writer himself observed "the more still and even static the speaker is, the better the monologue works". Visuals, in his view, beg the question 'who are you talking to?' as the intimacy in these confidences is different for public viewing than as private musings.
Siobhan Redmond (Miss Ruddock in Lady of Letters), Karl Theobald (Graham in A Chip in the Sugar) and Stephanie Cole (Doris in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee) are superb choices for these tales of loneliness and suppressed desperation. I can't imagine these characters better performed, though Siobhan Redmond is so charismatic she couldn't help making Miss Ruddock delightful despite being a vicious troll. (This is the most upbeat of the trio, ending with her happily incarcerated and learning to swear.)
Direction compromises Bennett's views on staging with quite a lot of business involving teacups & clothing accompanied by music and lighting changes. A surreal set (Francis O'Connor) evokes the lonely minds of these three characters all mulling over the big issues of existence through detailing painful trivia. At the end of each section the curtains close from top as well as sides, effectively shutting down our window on their lives.

This is a production that will undoubtedly be well received and the performances, especially of the first two, deserve admiration, but I have a problem with the lionising of Alan Bennett. It’s clearly an outrage of Lord Sewell-style proportions to question this writer's mastery, but I do. There can be quirky charm in his humour but, unlike Peter Kaye’s ‘overheard-up-north’ observational comedy, it often teeters gratingly into the patronising. There is pathos beyond the banal, true, but it takes a long time coming.  There's insight in his perception of relationships & religion as props, but his take on mothering borders on misogynistic. And there's something intrinsically uncomfortable about the way his Helen-Mirren-aged women have false teeth, partial dementia and snobbish obsessions. I believe Alan Bennett was a very kind man but last night it seemed he'd probably agree with Katy Hopkins there are just far too many old people around. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

mostly about costume...

Illyria touring theatre company is a regular and very popular visitor at Merlin's ECOS amphitheatre, and Shakespeare's plays are among their staple offerings - always performed uncut and with 5 actors.  To use the full script with original pronunciation must inspire admiration, but it's the creation of 21 characters by quick changes of attire, voice, & mannerism that's the main entertainment (I think with the comedy rozzer this version had 22). Top-hats in rainbow colours were useful, and overall design could be loosely described as Mad Hatter Tea-party costumed by Boden.  Some of the character shifts work incredibly well: sweet Bianca also plays cocky servant Tranio and Petruchio, the outrageous 'tamer' of Kate, changing personality superbly including once in a single scene. The Duke whose cruel joke sets the comedy in motion (in a longwinded opening more generally omitted) becomes an ASBO Kate as well as a dithering suitor for her sister.  There were wigs, there were fart jokes, comic props, occasional impro, and rapid-fire script delivery including a variety of accents...  there were lots of laughs, in short, finishing with a flourish and a rock gospel song. A bit disappointing that rain meant a transfer into the theatre, as this panto-style production is designed for outdoor performance and that's where it's best viewed.

On a theme of flamboyant apparel, I've long intended to visit the historic fashion collection at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, and as there's currently a Jane Austen exhibition this seemed a good opportunity for enhanced self-indulgence. The exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery is mainly prints of Bath around the time (1801-1805) Jane lived there, with a few John Nixon caricatures, but with quotes from novels and letters as captions. Jane didn't think much of place apparently, rejecting several residences as too small (New King Street), too gloomy (Seymour Street) and putrefying (Green Park): she wrote little while there, and viewed the city's fashionable venues as superficial gatherings for marriage-hunters and the 'nouveau riche' - like Mrs Elton in Emma.
Next stop the Fashion Museum where, as well as these superb examples of Janite attire, there's examples of marvellous frocks and jackets through the ages, and visitors are not only allowed but encouraged to photograph them. That's a definition of bliss for me.  So much to drool over, including a long array of fashion icons I actually remember. Many strange designs but only one awful one: the 'Dress of the Year' last year looked like a massive seagull atrociously entangled in plastic bags and salvaged by Greenpeace.
Despite wearing the same green jeans for years, I have an alter-ego fascinated by frocks.  As a teen I drew and painted imagionary 'dress designs': my 'Emma' collection involved high bodices and lots of tiny buttons on the sleeves. My mother actually made me one, in purple and exactly as drawn. I've still got the old sketch books and it's surprising to see how much they pre-empted street fashions of the later sixties. Zeitgeist. I guess.

So this post ends with a picture of me and a 50-years-later interview by Dan Biggane of Frome Standard, all about my very different life now. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Peddling performances, one-night stands, & theatre on the move

"A movie under the stars in Victoria Park, powered by bicycles, to raise money for Frome's Missing Link" ~ what's not to like? The Sustrans Crowdfunder page to bring Peddle-powered cinema to Frome filled up quickly, and on Friday there were two showings of Ghostbusters, early evening for the youngsters and late-night for the rest of us. And if you tired of 30-year old iconic imagery of paranormal activity in New York, you could watch the bike wheels making chinese dragons in the night... big congratulations to Sustrans supporters for this great initiative, and to all the stoic peddlers of all ages who kept the spirits spooking and the parapsychologists exterminating.

Leaping a decade forward, on the other side of town Merlin Theatre was rocking the 90s musical RENT in an amazing 24-hour production, like the open-air movie also a fundraiser.  Lack of cash for refurbishment led to this innovative idea by Ryan Hughes, co-directing with Claudia Pepler, but there's never any shortage of talent among the young performers and the entire team well deserved their standing ovation. The story is based on Puccini's opera La Bohème with tuberculosis in Paris replaced by the 'gay plague' AIDS in New York's bohemian artistic quarter but the struggles with drugs, debt and death are timeless in any city. Fantastic performances all round, with Ryan Hughes unforgettable as the tragic Angel.  This show too was on for one night only so it's lucky Frome is a such a small town I could scamper between productions and enjoy large chunks of both.

All of which enthusiasm leads neatly to the Tobacco Factory Autumn Season launch on Tuesday. In a party atmosphere director Ali Robertson promised us their best programme ever, and there are certainly some great-looking shows coming up ~ including the biennial Bristol Festival of Puppetry: 12 days of performances, films, and workshops. And the SATTF double-bill for Shakespeare's 400th anniversary was also revealed: it's Hamlet and All's Well That Ends Well, with tours planned in the UK and beyond.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

as the glitter-dust settles

So how do you avoid that post-production comedown? A trip to London's Globe, of course! I've had the groundling tickets for months, and on Tuesday Rosie and I headed off to see Richard II with Charles Edwards as the fatally flawed hero-king. This play was a dangerous one for Shakespeare, as it raised the notion that monarchy has no 'divine right' and an unpopular ruler can be deposed without the wrath of God ~ a radical idea that his patron Elizabeth detested even more than our current leaders dislike any opposition to imposed austerity: it was easier to grab power from abusers in those days.
Richard II has long been my favourite play: as an emo teen I related totally to the rejected king's self-pitying speeches ~ I still have my tear-stained 1955 Penguin edition ~  and I've seen some brilliant productions. This one was the best. From the marvellous opening, when the child king is promised unimpeachable power amid showers of golden glitter, to the fantastic ending of ultimate betrayal (a bold decision to change his murderer to the one he most loved) the performance was superb. Every line seemed thought in that moment, and the traumatic meltdown as the king realises his delusion is unforgettably shocking in its quiet understatement.
So when Rosie & I noticed, while sharing a veggie platter & bottle of wine after the show, that the cast were in the same bar similarly refreshing themselves, I accosted the mufti king with camera and stammering groupie speech, and this snap is the result. Taken I think by the Earl of Mowbray. And I can report the actors are as lovely as their characters are duplicitous. Awesome day all round.

Back home, the review is out for Midsummer Dusk ~ you can read it on our Nevertheless Theatre webpage or the Frome Standard website. Thanks John Payne for your appreciative words (brilliantly crafted... magical... unexpected gem of the festival...) and thanks to official photographer David Chedgy for yours too ~  and for sharing the 'Last Letter Home' as your personal favourite picture of the festival.
Photographer Alan Denison sent me this picture of the Short Story Competition winners, with organisers Brenda Bannister and Alison Clink, to supplement my images on the Words at Frome Festival page. There will be details of their names & winning stories, eventually, on their Festival Short Story page here.

And over in Bath there's a Canaletto exhibition at Holburne Museum: a small but fascinating & informatively displayed collection of the 18th century Venetian landscape artist's perception of London ~ including the promenade in Vauxhall Gardens with its 'supper booths' and public entertainment, showing that pop-up bars & open-air theatre have long been part of our culture.
Canaletto was in London on a commission to promote Waterloo Bridge, newly opened in 1750. His images were used for guidebooks, although the manipulated perspective, with buildings shifted to enhance views, gave an idealised version of reality. But then I suppose so did Wordsworth, with his eulogy to Westminster Bridge... which brings me nicely back to London bridges, and crossing the new Millennium Bridge to come home after our big Day Out.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Audiences in Frome are wonderful

Sumptuous sunshine returns to the southwest, happily in time for a glintingly gloaming opening night for Midsummer Dusk, the Dissenters Cemetery glittering with tiny candles and the audience filling our hay-bale- auditorium.  And happily too, expectations raised by our show's 'hot ticket of the festival' tag were fulfilled. The atmosphere was amazing and all three performances massively well received. Here's our fabulous cast with director Rosie, and there's a great review on our Nevertheless page. Feedback has been fantastic, with some extraordinary synchronicities and moving connections that are a story in themselves.

And a really lovely audience too for the Time Walk around Rodden Meadow on Saturday as Annabelle and I gave our version of earth's story over 4.6 billion years before bacteria evolved, as Bill in Midsummer Dusk put it, from primeval slime into the intelligent beings we are today - all based on scientific theory but aiming not so much to instruct as to amaze and entertain. Which we were happy that we did.
Annabelle had yet another role at the Childrens Festival on Sunday, as explorer Dora led groups of small seekers on a quest to find the mysterious bower bird in Victoria Park. Little princesses and tiny superheroes posed in the dressing-up area and marquees offering activities from painting to pool were busy all afternoon despite occasional downpours. Downtown in the Market Yard the Art Car Boot was enlivened by a demonstration of how to make molten iron, and workshops for writers were on in the Library all day culminating with the announcement of the Festival Short Story Competition results by novelist Samantha Harvey, who commended the "extremely strong collection" of shortlisted stories. Winners and photos will be posted on the Words at Frome Festival page, as will the results of the Writers in Residence.

All of which left hardly time to see many of the lovely Hidden Gardens open during the last weekend of the festival, but I did manage to scamper round town to find some gorgeous ones with lush ponds vivid with water-lilies and swirlings of iridescent fish. Brandishing the map of gardens is a good way to locate the most impressive, as others similarly armed will share tips as they pass. Similar recommendation led me back to the Open Studio trail too, to see Kate Dixon's amazing exhibition at Venue 8, an exotic Alhambra alchemised into a riverside house on Willow Vale.

My festival ends with more music ~ dancing to brilliant early evening blues from the fantastic Pete Gage band at the Cornerhouse (pic shows the vibe but omits the fab tenor sax & guitar) and then the final party at the festival Green Room in the Granary with Geniology jazzing the night away and a really fabulous support set from Coralie Hyde. It's been an amazing week. Let's do it all again in 2016!

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Midweek report: the persistence of glitter

With 'Angry' Sam Berkson as guest, I knew Monday's Festival Poetry Cafe would be good, and it was superlative.  After a stellar line-up for the open mic, with readers from Bristol and Bath joining local poets, Stephen Payne was awarded the title 2015 Festival Poet Laureate, and Sam had time for an extended second set from his new collection.
 Settled Wanderers is the result of Sam's stay in the refugee camps of the nomadic tribes of Western Sahara, working with an interpreter to translate their poetry. Sam's own poems are included too, and read us the one explaining Why you should never do translation in the house of your Saharawi translator, where hospitality and ritual rule supreme and it takes many greetings and cups of tea below the crescent-moon-lit, opal blue desert sky to achieve the first rough sketch of the first ever English translation of one of the great Badi's fifty years' worth of poems. It's impossible to convey this amazing book in snatches, I do recommend you buy it.

The usual festival clashes prevented me from watching Brenda Bannister win the title 2015 Bard of Frome at the short play competition in the Three Swans but she met me afterwards for a personal handover of the winner's cup, and we went up to the Magical Folk Garden at the Archangel to celebrate. Fairies at the door added literal glitter and I listened to lovely Beth Porter and the Availables feeling like Peaseblossom.

Miracle Theatre are always popular with Merlin audiences, who bedeck the amphitheatre in clusters with rugs, cushions, picnic baskets and, when required, mackintoshes and umbrellas. These were required on Tuesday: grey clouds, although enlivened by an interval rainbow, promised & twice delivered downpours. But cacti among the ECOS stones, a saloon bar set, and Ben Dyson mopping imagined sweat from the noon-day heat, all helped to transport us to the parched outback of the Wild West for the tale of The Magnificent Three. The cast are all immensely entertaining, though to be honest this piece is more a showcase for their varied talents than a story and despite their charm & skills it seems more an idea for a script than a fully developed production. No-one is complaining though, and there are some brilliant highlights, like the fake filmic slow-motion fights. And for those who like that sort of thing, there's a lot of toe-tapping and song.

From desert to forest to wild west, where next? Frome Stop the War Campaign took us to the harsh reality of international war-mongering from the build-up to Iraq in 2002 to the coast of Tunisia last week ("the perfect opportunity to bomb Syria."). Where are those WMDs? was horribly funny, in the sense that the satiric sketches while hilariously witty were almost too true to be funny at all. TV journalists Dan Glazebrook and Neil Clark gave us a series of glimpses into top level meetings between the US military and UK government: frank and cynical exchanges based on their shared objective of a permanent war-zone in the middle east. Musical interludes were brilliantly provided by Clayton Blizzard, a rapper from Bristol who claims to 'mash folk and hiphop like the long-lost cousins they are' but he's actually much better, and more political, than that.
There were so many superb events I missed during these last three days... but the fairy glitter from Monday night still faintly twinkles. Magic sparkle V Neals Yard cleanser, a win to the festival sprites.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Festival weekend: Sizzling Saturday & Stormy Sunday

The best thing about festival is the sheer number of amazing events, and the worst is that most inevitably clash, so my best aim can only be to give a taste. Frome Open Studios offer an amazing diversity as artists combine at each venue, with pens, pots, and photographs alongside paintings like Kate Cochrane's landscapes, and coastlines by Amanda Bee neighbouring Feverleaf's 'festivalesque finery and pixy clothing' at Silk Mill studios.

Saturday's sunshine held all day and into a balmy late night at Silk Mill cantina.  Frome Street Bandits led the parade through town to the Market Yard for the ever-popular food feast in early evening, followed by on-stage sessions from the Frome Jazz Club and Three Corners. Sunday's flash storm at the end of the Independent 'Wonderland' Market didn't daunt the wandering minstrels under the awning outside Lungi Baba or Jazz in the Afternoon at the Victoria Park bandstand.  More jazz at The Cornerhouse evening jam session, after a stonking session from the amazing Captain Cactus: "Rootin'-tootin'.... sort of like hula-swamp with bits of bluegrass and acoustic country rock avec les Screaming Harlots wailing like African Queens." (That's another Griff quote, I suspect)

And there are lots of excellent word-y things, or 'Literary Events' as the brochure highlights call them. Frome Writers Collective revived the 'Writers in Residence' event, with ten writers settled in cafes pubs & shops around town, scribing throughout Saturday on a set theme. Paul Newman was at Hunting Raven talking about his book Netted in a Silver Mist, which combines his drawings from the natural environment with words from Jill Harris to bring a deeper narrative to these superb evocations of wood, water, and stone.
With similar ekphrastic intention, our Words at the Black Swan workshop, led by David Davies, explored the Home In Frome exhibition to find personal recollections evoked by Mell Day's exquisite Postcards from an Ordinary Childhood and the amazing quilt of memories. Mell calls these glimpses of a past ~ all probably enhanced, possibly misremembered ~ "clear bright little moments... where our personality becomes our version of history, not snapshots but embodiments."

Sad to miss Al O'Kane's Magical Folk Garden acoustic music evening at the Archangel, my clash this time a rehearsal for Midsummer Dusk, our Nevertheless site-specific outdoor production for this festival. Director Rosie has made the Dissenters Cemetery look fantastic and our 'Star Players' are looking & sounding terrific... only 3 sleeps now till our opening night... 

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Frome Festival 2015 officially off ~ to a spanking start

Silk Mill always has a lively presence, this year leading off with an exhibition of paintings by Romi Behrens and a sizzling opening night party. Here's gallery owner Kate Moore with 'master plaster caster' & raconteur extraordinaire Peter Hone (& Basil the dog). Romi's oeuvre is here hailed as 'a magnificent and star-strewn reality' though the artist herself disclaims echoes of the masters to whom she's likened ~ understandably since Picasso believed paintings should 'bristle with razorblades'.
On to Wheatsheaf New Venue for Polaris Experience: projected visuals and live voice by Gene Serene, unforgettable singing 'hold me, touch me' to the swirling cosmos.  Add a mind-shifting AV created by Andrew Shackleton and a dance set from Johnny Normal and that's an extraordinary evening.

Several arty open nights on Friday: Frome Open Studios this year features 67 local artists at 21 venues. Welshmill Artists are at The Hub with paintings of townscapes & landscapes, and music from Tim Manning's hammered dulcimer, while  Black Swan Arts has  exhibitions in both Round Tower and Gallery. Mell Day's postcards from an ordinary childhood are displayed together with the extraordinary and very touching Home In Frome memory quilt,  created from collage patches & poems. Music provided by John Law and Nick Sorensen.

Then ~ segueing neatly via beds & memories ~  back to Silk Mill to weave through the thronged yard of the pop-up cantena for Frome Drama Club's performance of Mrs Shakespeare, a tale inspired by that famous codicil by the bard bequeathing Anne Hathaway his second-best bed.  In a monologue enlivened by romps we learn how Mr Shakespeare gets lucky in his marriage, despite his passion for Henry Wriothesley, when he discovers young Anne absolutely adores his erotic fantasies. She thrills to role-playing the crazy girl in the river, the sleep-walking Scottish queen (whose name she can never remember), the shrewish wench who needs a spanking, and adores being Queen of the Fairies ravished by a donkey...  Tina Waller's young Anne is a glitter-bomb of sexiness, and Stephen Scammell's Will leaps to the challenge in these entertaining sections. Although the script betrays too much of its radio origins, for lively effrontery alone FDC deserves the praise this show is receiving. The bed is amazing too, and mandolin playing & roundels to greet the audience are a charming touch.

The Valley are about to start their second half by the time I finally arrive at the Cornerhouse. "It's going to be a good week," Griff says, "I've booked myself into rehab for Wednesday - you've got to think ahead."