Saturday, October 24, 2015

1215 - 2015... plus ça change?

It's exactly 800 years since the fundamental principles of this realm were signed and sealed, allegedly adhered to ever since.  The two directors of Salisbury Playhouse came up with the brave & brilliant idea of celebrating this historic anniversary with The Magna Carta Plays: four short interpretations of the political resonance of that famous, largely unknown, deal between the barons and the king on behalf of the people of England. "Bold, funny, and provoking" warns the programme, and they're also by turns acerbic, absurd, puzzling, profound and sad. It's an impressive achievement: four very different takes on the impact of this ancient legislation, with some terrific political polemic ~ most strikingly in Kingmakers by writer & activist Anders Lustgarten ~ and salutary future-imaging, most chillingly in We Sell Right by Timberlake Wertenbaker. These two were my favourites but in this production the whole is greater than the sum of the quarters.  Director Gareth Machin, designer Ellan Parry, and the entire creative team deserve praise, and the multi-roleing cast are all superb.
Kingmakers uses a mix of Shakespearean verse, contemporary terms, & street slang to create a Mad-Hatters' mediaeval teapartyful of ruthless barons conniving with young Henry, King John's successor, to subdue those annoyingly restless peasants who complain "we take men's tithes and nothing give the nation." Their solution is to distract them, using a very English device still in vogue today (I've avoided a spoiler here, but 'tis true although there were some sharp intakes of breath in the stalls and 5 people quit from my row at the interval) leaving the everyman narrator to lament "Why do we do it when we know full well the rich are turds? They laugh at us from their yachts."
Sally Woodcock, writer of the second play, set Pink Gin in Africa using the analogy of Clause 47, relating to the return of appropriated land to the people, to create a story about a Disney-style forestry development. And there's another take on the continuing relevance of the charter in Ransomed by Howard Brenton: an entertaining sleuthing parody with a Sarah Lund lookalike detective, a Russian spy and a self-flagelating canon, set in the fictional city of Melchester. Below the patterned-jumper spoof there's a darker thread: who are the barons nowadays? and who will write our next charter...
We Sell Right time-travels us more than 800 years forward from the original charter into a dystopian future, creating an uneasy atmosphere of fractured communication from the start. No spoilers for this moving piece about why, in the writer's words, 'this ancient document is still very, very alive today.'
On till November 7th, recommended (by me that is, the content will make it controversial to some reviewers)

images Richard Davenport

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Urban myths and rural idylls: Bedminster Bigfoot & Last Tree Dreaming

After the legendary Bedminster crocodile, another urban myth arises from Bristol’s river and woodland: a wild and powerful goddess to give the city’s dispossessed what their human leaders deny them – humanity, and care.  Mark Breckon’s new play The Bedminster Bigfoot is a magical fantasy told with fast-paced humour and reality-based anger, a Charlie-Brooker-sharp political parody and an absolute must-see show. The twilight world of the countless ‘have-nots' in peril of hunger and homelessness (‘life’s natural victims, weaker stock who deserve oppression’ to the ‘haves’ in control) – is vividly evoked with verbatim quotes, media clips, & politician face-masks, but there’s never a drab moment in this kaleidoscope of dramatic cameos moving swiftly between savagely funny satire and powerfully moving drama. 
Director Marc Geoffrey has a terrific team – set, lighting, and sound brilliantly enhance the show – and all four actors are superb: Paul Currier as the callous Job Centre manager  ('It’s about reaching targets and the target that matters now is sanctions'),  Joanna Smith as the tenant penalised by her kindness, Ben Crispin fantastic as the ex-soldier at war with the entire system ('No decent country runs a forced labour scheme!') and Adam Lloyd-James as the boy who sets off on this very modern hero’s journey.  It’s on at the Alma Tavern until the end of the month – go if you can, tell your friends to go if you can’t. 

Mythical creatures with magical powers must be the zeitgeist this autumn: Kingdom of the Icebear, from the Theatre West season of plays by local writers, was on at  Bath's nice little Rondo theatre. Adam Cridland plays the boy who longs for this beast and there are evocative poetic monologue moments in this saga of a Somerset family failing to put aside their differences on Carnival night. Moving to the Hen & Chicken in Bristol after the weekend till the end of the month.

Now back to Frome for a quintessentially Fromie celebration as two new benches arrived in Rodden Meadow last week inscribed with thoughtful adages: cider & sausage rolls for all and brief speeches from Charlie Oldham the generous bench-carver and wordsmiths John Payne & Tim O'Connor.  Epigrams on benches, as Tim reminded us, are often about loss so it's nice to have one encouraging a look around at what's happening now.
On then to Vallis Vale woods for the Last Tree Dreaming Community Day, an idyllic event with  Helen Moore of Shared Earth Learning introducing us to a range of forestry activities from spoon carving to storytelling & poetry, with soup on the campfire and marshmallows for the children to toast.  Julian Hight was there to show his fabulous new book World Tree Story with amazing tales from 39  countries - Julian rates himself as a cottage industry now as publication was entirely crowd-funded through the Heritage Lottery.  His official Frome launch will be 11.30 next Independent Market Sunday, at Hunting Raven Books.

Musical finale this week comes from The Griffin, where Blue Midnight shared their 'space-folk-dub-brass-fiesta' sound, showing why they regard themselves as a"musical Monty Python" ~ a fabulous set from a band we should hear more often: buy their album White Moon to see why.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry - lechery 19thC France & 17thC US

Lust is endlessly malleable in theatre, as in life. Monsieur Popular at Ustinov Studio theatre in Bath offers an absolutely delightful production, a confection of delicious frolicking from the dancing intro to the pantomime finale. As the red velvet curtains part to tinkling piano they reveal a set like a painting by Albert Guillaume, whose 19th Century cartoon characters were as absurd as the plot of Eugène Marin Labiche's farce, directed by Jeremy Sans in his own new translation: fast-moving and very funny, picking out innuendo & polishing up simile ~ I particularly enjoyed the loyal friends sticking to our hero like snot on suede. The plot, such as it is, is an outrageous confession to audience of emotional exploitation for sexual gratification... but no-one seems to mind, so why be picky? The sets are superb (there's a Monet lily pond in their country garden) and every member of this cast deserves praise, but I'll pick out Stephen Matthews' savvy manservant, Gregory Gudgeon and Howard Ward as the two cuckolded husbands longing to bromance their appalling friend, and M Popular himself: Raymond Coulthard, who discovers after taking extraordinary liberties with his friends' wives that the only way to break a friendship is to ask for money... On till 7 November, recommended. image from website

A bit of a leap, then, to Arthur Miller's long tragedy The Crucible the following night. I attempted a matinee of the NFT screened London Old Vic production last summer & left at the interval, blear-eyed from peering at cuffs & candles through gloom and exhausted from all the linen-folding, chopping, sweeping and bread-cutting, so I sent myself along to Bristol Old Vic as a kind of penance. Instead, this was three and a half hours of superb and thrilling entertainment: director Tom Morris's best production at this theatre by far, and - as this would be the playwright's 100th birthday, a powerful reminder of the timelessness of great drama.
Everyone knows Arthur Miller used the near-incredible events of Salem as a metaphor for McCarthyism and the hysteria at the heart of every outbreak of prejudice, but there's a human story here too: the 'lechery' of John Proctor - triggering the whole crazy revenge story - that his wife can't forgive, and the passion both he and she share for the 'name' of goodness which is to be prized above life itself. It's harrowing to watch, certainly, as audience presence onstage and raised lighting in the auditorium for the trial both enhance awareness of our own complicit voyeurism while that tsunami of accusation rolls on in... but this is sheer enjoyment: an absolutely fabulous production, impressively staged, lit, costumed, and directed, with some unforgettable performances: Daniel Weyman as the Reverend Hale, cracking up unevenly as events unfold, Rona Morison as terrible Abigail, Neve McIntosh as stony Elizabeth, and above all Dean Lennox Kelly as John Proctor, all stood out from a brilliant cast.
A week of salutary reminders of how women historically have been both trivialised & demonised ~
distractions in sophisticated Paris, harlots in the more rigid community of Massachusetts. And if you'd like a crib before going to see this amazing production (you must - before 7 November) you could check out shmoop for the lowdown on Miller's personnel: Parris, for example, is such a snake he should live in Slytherin, a snivelling parasite, there is nothing we like about this dude. If only Deputy Governor Danforth had known before he hanged those 20 women... image Geraint Lewis.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mostly art, includes some puppetry

We have to be proactive with our culture and support each other or it risks disappearing - not my words tho I wish they were, spoken by drummer Miles Pereira & quoted in the editorial introduction to Encompass, the new arts magazine devised and created by a talented local team comprising Hennessy Slick, Sean Powell, Tchad Findlay & Charlie Jones-West.  The first issue is out, available in all good coffee houses around Frome, looking fabulous and crammed with interviews and photos from all areas of the arts. I'm glad to see 'words' features poetrix Muriel Lavender offering haiku and reflections on male beards: I like them big, long and thick.

Somerset Art Weeks is a massive project, with 116 Open Arts studios and galleries across the county including, despite Frome being virtually a Peoples' Republic with our own arts trail in the festival, three galleries in our town.  The wonderful Step in Stone 'multi-stranded artscape' at the Black Swan is part of this, also with walks, talks & workshops at the quarries involved.  Rook Lane has photographs of empty buildings entitled Forsaken by Kirsten Cooke plus Creation, lines in dream time by painter Andrew Palmer. At Silk Mill there's a stunning diversity of media in Songs from the Land, including paintings, installation, stained-glass, pots and artisan clothes ~ a wonderfully joyful collection so do go, you have till Saturday...

If you like your political parody surreal and cartoonishly bizarre, Green Ginger has just the show for you: Outpost, co-produced with Tobacco Factory Theatres & Nordland Visual Theatre, has returned from their European tour and is on at the Brewery until 24th October.  Clever puppetry by three actors and a dreamlike set tell the tale of two border guards propelled by fallout from an exploded television into an underworld where the cruel absurdity of boundaries is starkly revealed... A fable of the folly of borders, shopping channels, and loyalty to an evil psychotic leader with a stiff hairdo & a handbag. A bit late for the last, sadly, but a clever piece of theatre reminding us, if you ever need reminding, that the hills were here before us.  image Adam DJ Laity

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Biking & farming & writing that makes you go Wow

BIKE was on my must-see list for several reasons: a new play by southwest writer Katherine Mitchell, developed under the Original Drama programme at Salisbury Playhouse, staged in the exciting theatre space of the Salburg studio. If I watched more telly I'd have known to add that it's performed by Lucy Thackeray, who is simply marvellous as the girl: she can show every age from child to middle-age wearing the same teeshirt & leggings and convey a three-sided conversation with no more than a nanosecond to change from angry woman to wounded husband to irritatingly empathetic therapist. Her comic timing ~ this is definitely a comedy despite dark themes ~ is superb, and so is the synchronised sound and mood-enhancing lighting. She has some strong material in this tautly scripted monologue, which uses 'bike' as an image of independent travel, a slang sneer, and a symbol for structure in life. Like Fanny Hill, this girl narrates her chaotic life with a mix of joy, defiance, and pathos: left emotionally adrift by her family she discovers what anyone could have told her (well I could, anyway) that "Having sex feels a lot like being loved" and relationships are more difficult. Ultimately this is a morality tale, but the telling is fast and funny. It's on till 17th October, recommended.
Also on till 17th October, and top tip from The Guardian, Bristol Old Vic studio theatre is showing And Then Come The Nightjars 'The bloodbath of the foot-and-mouth crisis' (also the funeral pyre of ten million cows) didn't sound an appealing theme, but the play was developed through Bristol Old Vic Ferment and written by southwest writer Bea Roberts and according to the buzz on the dramatic street this is also a don't-miss, so I went, and the buzz is right. It's immensely moving to see that mass slaughter from the intimate perspective of this story of a friendship and a farm that survives against all odds. David Fielder is utterly convincing as Michael the solitary farmer, with Nigel Hastings as Jeff the vet who helps him with calving and comes again to kill the herd in a scene that evokes not only England 2001 but also scenarios the world over where powerless individuals face state control. "They're not sick." - "It doesn't matter. They just put rings on the map." - "But this is my farm!" - "They've called out the army, you'll be arrested and they'll come in anyway." Tight powerful writing, in places very funny as times change and the barn becomes a potential asset. "It's a cow-house, not a spa!" Michael spits, but Jeff is right about land being 'real estate' now (Babbington House cowshed 'Cowgroom' treatments start at £80 for an eyebrow tidy) and the play ends with rapport between the two men, even an awkward though warm bromance. Strong acting, atmospheric set and lighting, highly recommended.  (image Jack Sain) 
And great to see two talented women writers supported by local initiatives to develop their scripts to this standard ~ big thumbs up to Bristol Old Vic and Salisbury Playhouse.

Finally this week, Jon Amor at the Grain Bar Roots session, with a fabulous double set. Here's a sample: 
The Rules  and Just Another Stitch In Your Party Dress, dedicated to tiger-girls and cougar-women everywhere. 

Monday, October 05, 2015

'An age when we treat art as autobiography' and blog our diaries...

To live is the greatest thing in the world ~ most people merely exist.
Oscar Wilde is probably the most quoted playwright after Shakespeare, though not many know his passionate plea for reform in an England he saw as repressive of individualism and morally hypocritical: The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
Many of his best known maxims and bonne mots are found in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. bringing both an opportunity & a problem to any stage adaptation: how to string these pearls of familiar wit together without sounding more like a parlour game than a dramatic relationship.  European Arts Company brought their highly-praised version of The Picture of Dorian Gray to Merlin Theatre, with some cast changes, in the final month of their long tour.  It's a terrible story: a young man possessed of everything superficially valued ~ youth, beauty, & wealth ~ looks at a painting of himself and impulsively wishes he could be always perceived that way, thus accidentally initiating a Faustian pact he can never reverse. Under the influence of a jaded aristocrat he falls into increasing decadence, but the ravages caused by his corruption and crimes are all held secretly by the painting in the attic until the dramatic climax.  (A slightly bizarre set came into its own for that haunting moment.)
Lord Henry of course has the best lines, expressing Wilde's own view that We are in the native land of the hypocrite as well as cynical maxims: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."  There's humour too in the staging, with four actors taking on eighteen roles ~ Ben Higgins particularly entertaining as a dowager duchess and sleazy theatre manager. Guy Warren-Thomas is the motherless youth doomed by a moment of vanity, Helen Keeley plays Sybil, first step on his downfall. Adaptation by Merlin Holland and John O'Connor, directed by Peter Craze.
Back at Merlin Theatreand still in the 19th Century, on Saturday for very different saga from Angel Exit TheatreThe Ballad of Martha Brown, the story of the last woman hanged in Dorset, is quite simply the most enthralling show I've seen for a while. Immensely slick physical theatre, great live music, superb lighting, amazing set, props & costumes, imaginative direction, tight script without a syllable of unnecessary exposition, and five actors who swung the mood from furiously funny to shocking savagery in seconds. That's quite a list, and to that you can add great foyer dressing creating a macabre fairground atmosphere from the start. The public hanging of Martha Brown made headlines in 1867 and attracted a huge audience, including 16 year old Thomas Hardy who later wrote I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back. Like all good plays, when the entertainment is over it leaves you reflecting on the extraordinary human capacities for cruelty, and love.

The new exhibition at Black Swan, in the gallery and Round Tower, is Step in Stone, part of a six month project with the old & disused quarries surrounding Frome.  As succinctly put by Mayor Kate Bielby opening the show on Friday: "Quarries are part of our heritage and this project brings together the industrial history, natural landscape, and immense creative talent of this town." Immense in scope too: massive credit to Fiona Campbell and all the artists and musicians ~ it's a fantastic project involving art inspired by every aspect of quarry history from rock strata to wild life.  And on Sunday the resultant show inspired writing too: after the Independent Market (as usual a feast of artisan goodies with some great busking) the much-respected poet Stephen Boyce joined Words at the Black Swan group to lead an excellent session ~ results will be on our group webpage soon.
With events layering up like the fillings in Flora's signature bakes, I missed Leander Morales' concert on Saturday but did get to hear some great music this week, including the new Music Club on Tuesday in the Grain Bar (what do you mean, Frome doesn't need another music night? of course we do) ~ then back after the theatre on Wednesday for marvellous Feral Beryl at the Grain Roots Session. I arrived in time to hear their memorable a cappella version of your children are not your children, and Gemma White's stonking fiddle in Take Me To My Wake Before I Die. 
Then on Thursday ~ this is beginning to sound like an old Craig David song ~ Sara Vian launched her EP at the Three Swans, and the week ended at Cooper Hall (a fine concert hall & striking sculpture garden) with fantastic Frome band Dexter's Extra Breakfast supporting O'Hooley & Tidow, a terrific duo and 'one of British folk's mightiest combinations' according to Mojo, Radio 2, and even Billy Bragg.  They deserve their 5 star reviews and every accolade for their 'sublime musicality and cheeky northern banter' and for dedicating their song Like Horses to Tony Benn with the quote "If we can spend money to go to war then we can spend money to help people." Which neatly bring me back to Oscar Wilde's plea for socialism as a way to free every individual to personal fulfillment, so I'll end with SaraVian's echo of his belief we can all look to the stars: "Everyone has a gift within, we have to find it and go for it."