Thursday, December 31, 2015

seasonal pickings, a personal take

"Writers do other things" said Marsha Hunt, and my end-of-year week had little connection with things writerly since most of the daylight hours not spent drinking americanos in River House I spent walking, and mostly in high winds ~ scarily thrilling on the Dorset coast with family, exhilarating with friends on Cley Hill, although of course the national situation is always hard to forget. As is the international situation.  Frome is the most mindful and caring town I've ever known, but also knows how to party so evenings have been buzzing... lovely get-togethers & brilliant music nights at Cornerhouse with the Pete Gage Band and Griff's latest lineup The Dempseys.

Back at home I found a couple of gems on the telly:
We're doomed for one, John Sessions unbelievably credible as Capt. Mainwaring in this true story of the making of Dad's Army which as the review points out doesn't only charmingly evoke a lost era ~ two lost eras, actually, if you count the days of great sitcoms ~ but also reminds us how the Beeb still functions: "there are so many compromises to be made and egos to be kept happy, it’s a wonder that anything of any worth or integrity comes out of the place at all."

And of course, the Aidan Turner show: three hours of indulgence wrapped up in an Agatha Christie rigmarole called And Then There Were None. There was a plot to account for more slaughter than Midsomer could muster in a month, a posse of cliche characters like generals & spinsters and a tray-shaking Mrs Overall-alike, and lots of Beeb-special slow closeups, but the main event of each episode was clearly caddish Philip Lombard, mesmerising whether in dicky bow or d├ęshabille. My friend Carla reckons The Towel should get a nomination as Best Support.
Charlie Brooker does the best end-of-year summaries, seriously scathing on a massive scale with scatterings of trivia, like the solution to that 2015 blue&black/white& gold dress debate ("according to the boffins it depends on how your brain works ~ if it works, you don't give a shit what colour the dress is.") And I've had fun looking back on far-too-many photographs from a snap-happy year, courtesy of Nikon for agreeing to replace my faulty J1 Nikkor wide-angle lens which packed up exactly a year ago, exactly two days out of warranty, and for making a super lightweight telephoto lens which comes with me to every music night now. I considered posting highlights of the year in pictures but there are far too many so I'll just do a random selection of bests-of-year, which like every 'bests' list will shift like desert island sand, revealing much I've overlooked...
Best book: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, informative, compassionate, important.
Best movie: apart from on DVD, probably Star Wars: The Force Awakens which aside from all the conquest & killing was sharply scripted, often very funny, and had a genuinely shocking moment...
Best theatre moments from Nevertheless Fringe Theatre: it's been a fantastic year for us with both our shows sold out for every performance, but for ambition & atmosphere I'd pick Midsummer Dusk  ~ our first site-specific production, in a cemetery at dusk... fantastic to work with Rosie Finnegan's great directing.
Best theatre elsewhere:  Some really fabulous shows around in Bristol, Salisbury, Bath and of course Frome's Merlin Theatre,  but the play that meant most to me was Richard II at the Globe, a breathtakingly good production made even more special by meeting the deposed king in the bar afterwards, and having our photo taken by the Earl of Mowbray too.
Best exhibition: The Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille was fascinating, Ai Weiwei's exhibition in London's Royal Academy was powerful, Banksy's Dismaland was incredible (or should that be in theatre?) but I'll never forget seeing all those iconic Don McCullin photographs together in Bruton's Hauser & Wirth gallery.
Best poetry night: Luke Wright at the Cheese&Grain was brilliant, and so was Rob Gee at the Merlin, but what I enjoy most of all are the wonderful egalitarian Poetry Cafe nights at the Garden Cafe.
Best music night: this one's near impossible... I loved Sunny Afternoon at London's Harold Pinter theatre (it won 4 Oliver awards & John Dalgleish as Ray Davies was brilliant) but once again the award has to stay in Frome. We've had so many great visiting bands (Tom Robinson was fantastic) and a cornucopia of fabulous local bands ~ I've so much enjoyed Dexters Extra Breakfast, the Dempseys, Bonne NouvelleFat Stanley, Al O'Kane, and more...  but I'm going to pick the amazing and endlessly danceable Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots.

Best Frome event: We had a sizzling summer Festival, a glittering winter Snow Ball, an innovative Shop Local day, but there's no doubt about this one: The Magnificent 17 Independents for Frome took every seat on the council in the election just a couple of days after the political blues elsewhere deepened, lifting all our spirits and confirming our town's status as officially awesome. And among the many great eco-warriors and sustainable campaigners, a virtual medal to Annabelle Macfadyen who cycled to Paris to join the protesters at the Climate Change Conference last month. With a cold!

I'll end with a Doris Lessing quote for the new year and every year (thank you David Goodman)
"Whatever you're meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible."
~ and with Mary Oliver's poem Wild Geese. Like the view of Stourhead across the lake, it's beautiful if you haven't seen it before and even more beautiful when you know it well...

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Who knew there was so much in it...

... Frome, of course, where else could you see an indie feature film, original live theatre, and a nightly array of brilliant musicians and bands?
The live theatre, inevitably, was the big event for me: Toxic Cocktails at the Cornerhouse played on Wednesday to a full house and on Thursday to an overfull one ~ massive thanks to those who stood throughout, and all of you who melted in the heat of the upstairs room at The Cornerhouse (who knew it would be 13 degrees still at 9.30 on a December night?) And thanks too for your wonderful feedback ~ here's a taster, and there's loads more on our Nevertheless facebook page. 
Awesome! I really enjoyed all 3 ~ perfect combinations of interesting & thought-provoking as well as entertaining & funny 
 * Very talented writers – always provide a really good event    
 * Fantastic – all 3! Complemented each other really well. 
 * Hugely enjoyable. Beautiful writing as always from Nevertheless. 
 * They get better and better. Interesting subjects, thought-provoking  
 * Excellent. Best ever night.
 * Top class writing, thought-provoking, entertaining 
 * Absolutely loved it! 
 * Never experienced pub theatre but I’ll definitely come again
The show then went on to Alma Tavern in Bristol for two nights ~ we're indebted to our co-Producers Stepping Out Theatre Company for arranging this. An awesome project brought to excellent outcome, thanks Joanna Smith & Anneliese Paul our lovely actors.

The movie was Metatron, a debut feature from Frome Independent Film Makers premiering at the Westway on Sunday night. Film-makers Simon and Adam Bargus in collaboration with scriptwriter Nikki Lloyd to create a Pinteresque tale of a four people headed towards a menacing rendezvous, each with their own personal goals & conflicts.  Menacing and darkly comical by turns, this reminded me of Short Cuts ~ the film version of linked Raymond Carver short stories ~ slickly scripted & beautifully filmed with extended shots and superb locations.

And I can't end, as usual, without appreciating the amazing musical talent of Frome, offered for free at our great bars and venues ~ sadly, I didn't get to see everything but here's a glimpse of the marvellous Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots who drove us wild at the Silk Mill as well as at the Cornerhouse, Stephen Sax and the Jazz Jam gang who also set the Cornerhouse ablaze, and gorgeously cool Bonne Nouvelle at the River House, where incidentally Ellen makes cocktails like no-one else...  Happy seasonal festivities, everyone...

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Bah humbug, magic snow and capering crabs. Its that time again...

It's that time again, isn't it, and as I generally avoid the topical C-word with euphemisms like 'winter solstice' and 'festive season', the show currently at the Brewery in Bristol suits me fine: A Christmas Carol is as we all know the story of Scrooge, who although admittedly a capitalist with appalling business practice & a repugnant personality nevertheless had a point in his lack of sympathy with ritual celebrations.  Scrooge of course finally found sympathy for the ill & undernourished however which makes him a better man than George Osborne will ever be.
There’s no doubt about it, Living Spit have a special kind of magic. With farcically few props and only a chair for a set, this duo of ill-costumed & apparently graceless men completely control the stage whatever tale they decide to create or, as with A Christmas Carol, to inappropriately embellish. Admittedly the magic dust comes primarily from Stu Mcloughlin, who can raise an audience to its feet to sing a funeral hymn with the refrain He’s Satan’s Bum-boy Now, rouse them to hysteria with a Ghost of Christmas Past manifesting as an irritable Irish fairy called Sharon, and reduce them to tears as Bob Cratchett mourns at the grave of his lost child Tiny Tim. That’s what I call a wide range.  Howard Coggins is very good too and has a great voice especially in the song that replaces an interval, called the Interval Song, after which the story shifts to Bob Cratchett’s house where Howard is Bob's wife, the children are soft toys, and the christmas meal is a dead spider in a pile of hoover-dust. Hard to say which looked most unsuitable for purpose. As always there’s a mix of colloquial contemporary references and rehearsed ad libs in an performance that relies largely on audience affection, but the story is unexpectedly true to Dicken’s narrative from start to finish. And rather more expectedly, it’s very funny. (image Paul Blakemore)

For a more magical take on the season, head for the Rondo in Bath where Butterfly Psyche is telling the story of The Snow Child. Written and directed by Alison Farina, this endearing fantasy based on a Russian fairytale is vividly created by a strong cast - I especially enjoyed Piers Wehner as Father Frost and Charlotte Ellis as a vegetarian bear called Carl, while Beth Caudle is enchanting as the Snow Child. There's a great deal of emphasis on inclusive performance, both in special shows and by signing throughout the show which brings a kind of grace to all the interactions and becomes, like the falling snow, another of the magical elements in this lovely piece of theatre. On till December 20th.

The fairy tale of choice for Frome's Merlin was The Little Mermaid in a new version written by the theatre's artistic director Claudia Pepler, supported in this 'symbiotic' venture by a large creative team. Claudia was especially fascinated by the embittered Sea Witch who in this version has her own Miss-Haversham-style backstory ~ and her own redemptive resolution too. No authentic version of the Hans Anderson story can of course allow mer-Juliet to wed her land-Romeo (though they did perform a lift-filled dance that would've ensured their place in the Strictly final), but as Saturday was the last night it's not a spoiler to say there's a happy ending for the wilful little mermaid. Maisie Fogg was superb in this central role ~ in fact, the whole production was sumptuous, with an amazing set and lighting, great live music, glamorous costumes and fantastic fishes ~ the Moray Eel guarding the cave was amazing (Robin Ainslie-King created this illuminated monster, along with the dancing fish-heads.)  And Ryan Hughes & Aynsley Minty as clowning crabs provided a comedy double-act that very nearly eclipsed everything else. A well-deserved standing ovation from the full house ended this all-too-short run.

Elsewhere in Frome.... Poetry came to the Cheese & Grain in the guises of John Cooper Clarke, Clare Ferguson Walker and ~ my personal favourite ~ Luke Wright, looking more boy-bandish than ever. No gags about pictures in attics, please.  Luke is always amazing, and I especially enjoyed his epic abuse of Ian Duncan Smith in lipogram form using only the vowel I (because it's too easy to just call him a cunt) and a wonderful evocation of why he refused his invitation to the Palace last year to attend the 'Poetry Industry' awards: Have a Gong!
On a musical note, there are more than a few event clashes as the festive seasons starts properly rolling, but I did get to Al O'Kane's refugee fundraiser BOOM at Wheatsheaves where he was joined by Fat Stanley with disco from Banco de Gaia.  Is it only in Frome the dancing starts as soon as the music does, everywhere, both genders & several generations...? Mind you we did have Patrick Dunn's weird projections to encourage us (I noticed Nigel Farage pogoing alongside at one point)
I'll conclude with the reminder there's a fantastic lot of seasonal art in Frome right now, from the Winter Show at Black Swan Arts, beautifully curated with lights and shadow, to the Festival of Colour at Welshmill Hub where you can buy Amy Yates' views of the town as cards (and sample some of Stina's deadly-sin chocolate.)
Next week, of course, you can sample our Nevertheless Fringe Theatre winter production TOXIC COCKTAILS.... here's a rehearsal taster...

Friday, December 04, 2015

fairytales under gathering storms

It was a wild and stormy night for Frome's winter Poetry Cafe on Monday but the Garden Cafe nevertheless filled to extra-chair-added maximum for a brilliant night of heart-&-hearth warming poetry. Our two guests are both impressive performers: David Johnson taking us graphically from the steps and shadows of Bristol to a fantasy of the Romantics on tour ("Bob Browning leads off with Oh to be in Frome...") and Hannah Teasdale sharing beautifully crafted personal pieces. The 'open mic' was split between general and mermaid- related poems ~ John Christopher Wood wickedly straddling both ~ and from  seven impressive readings, the tickets for Little Mermaid at the Merlin Theatre went to Sara Morris.

It's show-time all around now. Bristol Old Vic launched their festive offering Sleeping Beauty in party style & with a charming curtain-raiser from Little Bulb Theatre: The Night that Autumn turned to Winter features three lively young performers using stringed instruments, costumes & cajoling to create a woodland of likely and unlikely creatures, including a unicorn. 
Inventive and often very funny, this successfully appealed to adults as well as littlies, and anyone who remembers Hi-di-Hi's Peggy with affection will delight in Fairy Pat and her funky Mr Fox. After seasonal refreshments BOV artistic director Tom Morris shared a foretaste of next year's events to celebrate 250 years of the venue Peter O'Toole acclaimed as "the most beautiful theatre in the world." Some of the best plays from those intervening years are on the 2016 programme, from Sheridan's The Rivals to O'Neill's Long Day's journey into night, with a mega-party open to all at the end of May.
And on to the main event: Director Sally Cookson has a lot to live up to ~ that unforgettable Peter Pan in 2013, last year's inspired 101 Dalmatians ~ and this year's creation is a gender reversal tale in which the denouement-rescue-kiss comes at half-time and is unintentional, as the rescuer is on her own quest for self-awakening... though at the end he rescues her right back, so it's like Pretty Woman but without the glamour. This is a make-your-own-magic story, with jumble-sale costumes and cardboard-looking crowns and some of the capers, like the long conference-call on old-style phones to introduce the fairies, seem somewhat beyond the grasp of a young audience, but the live music is great.
Festive refreshments at the Tobacco Factory too, where the curtain-raiser was a party piece created by the youth theatre featuring pre-teen angst & sugar-rush, and the production is also a royal fantasy ~ a new version of a 19th century princess-story, devised & produced in association with Peepolykus.  The Light Princess is absolutely enchanting.  John Nicholson, who directed & with Thomas Eccleshare adapted George MacDonald's original tale, suggested that like quantum physics the logic of the story is beyond understanding but actually it's refreshingly comprehensible, and the six performers bring a surprising range of dimensions to the narrative. There are quite a few surprises in the staging too, most of them down to the very clever set.  The prince (Richard Holt) and princess (Suzanne Ahmet) are adorable, the performances from Rew Lowe & Amalia Vitale are hilarious, the music is awesome, and the costumes are gorgeous. It's on till 10 January, highly recommended.  images Farrows Creative

Back in Frome but still on things theatrical, Nevertheless Fringe Theatre had a nice little write-up in the Frome Standard for our upcoming production ~ diaries out now, please! TOXIC COCKTAILS comprises "three short plays to turn your world upsidedown" ~ dark comedies about the state of the world which will leave you stirred if not shaken, so contact The Cornerhouse to guarantee your seats for Wednesday 16 or Thursday 17 December.
And finally, if you've been surprised to find Gentle Street full of lobster pots and currently off limits to pedestrians then you're one of the few not agog with the news that Poldark is filming there this week and Aidan Turner is in town. As I don't have a picture of him pacing the cobbles, and I wouldn't post it if I did as apparently Frome is standing in for Truro as there was too much rubber-necking in the last place they filmed, here's a googled shot to cheer us all up on these dark days. (That's ironic. But not totally.)