Sunday, May 31, 2015

Truth, lies, and fairy tales

The Freedom Theatre of Jenin is the 'cultural resistance' movement of a refugee camp in occupied Palestine, and they're currently touring the UK in just 10 venues & arousing outrage from the Daily Mail, both reasons for Frome to feel immensely proud to host their show.  The Siege tells, from research & interviews with the exiled fighters, the story of their 39 days in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002.  On the night before the show here's writer/director Nabil Al-Raee with actor Faisal Abu Alheja talking with Jim Laurenson at the welcome-to-Frome party hosted by Frome Friends of Palestine, whose "imagination and tenacity" brought them to Merlin Theatre, the only small town venue, and only one in the southwest.  Jim summed up our feelings of respect for the company: As actors we have an insecure life but compared to you, our insecurities are as nothing. They played on Saturday to a full house & prolonged standing ovation.
Inevitably intensely moving, The Seige is also brilliant theatre. Nabil Al-Raee has written a terrific play and the staging is terrific too. Projected exterior views, great set & sound design, and powerful acting all bring unforgettable impact to the violent storyline. "We are facing the Israeli propaganda machine that speaks every language. It turns the oppressed into the oppressor and the oppressor into the oppressed" says one of the fighters, and this was picked up by Ken Loach in the Q&A afterwards in identifying 'rage of injustice at the lies told and believed.'  The actors agreed. "The media do not tell the truth so we tell the truth. Through theatre we are fighting not just the occupation but the media." Including, to our national shame, the BBC.

Meanwhile in another part of the forest, Burn the Curtain has revived Angela Carter's dark fairy tale The Company of Wolves for a performance requiring around 80 extras otherwise known as the audience, and stretching the notion of 'promenade theatre' to a record limit with miles of Longleat estate to traverse. The cast and backup team enlivened our hilly trek with some great cameo moments using lights, sounds, masks, smoke and fire, and brilliant acting by the duke and his secret lover. Involvement was maintained by selective participation too, and I was amazed, after long walks in which it was hard to stay in role, at the emotional impact of the gripping finale.
I don't have any image of the theatrical highlights as we were told cameras would spoil the atmosphere, which was clearly true as demonstrated by the posse of Salisbury Festival photographers circling us constantly with lenses aloft. Little Red Ridinghood must have felt more like a starlet spotted at Cannes than a brave girl standing alone as wolves howled through the gloaming.  So here's a quick snap of the long leat that gives the park its name, where we rested briefly to hear more of the story unfold. And that quibble aside the team was great, the hot chocolate very welcome, and when it was over I wished I could do it all again and this time be one of the wolf girls running wild with the wonderful lupine duke.

Back in Frome the third Steampunk Extravaganza arrived at Cheese&Grain to present Victorian modes and memorabilia as a rich feast of eccentricity. Here's Steve Hillier, maker & purveyor of recycled jewellery, showing a treasure discovered literally in his attic. He's holding the list of reasons why the brother on the right challenged the brother on the left to a dual 26 times between 1853 and 1869. Reasons range from the trivial (Laughing at latest haircut ) to the frankly bizarre: Putting marmalade in slippers.  Frederick, the challenging sibling, lost every time and the ensuing grazing wounds are listed too, eventually with 'again' and exasperated exclamation marks. The story only ends with the mother confiscated their dualling pistols, as a good mother should.

Grain Bar Roots Session featured the fabulous sounds of Gravity Drive this week and a full house enjoyed great vocals from Ava and Elijah Wolf, all songs written & instrumentalised by Elijah. There's a sample of their music on the website, if you missed the gig.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Smother love

Playwright Florian Zeller ("young, blessed with the floppy-haired good looks of a rock star” to quote the programme biog) is the golden boy of French contemporary writing. An “overnight star” as a novelist at 22, he was coaxed into theatre by Françoise Sagan and at only 36 already has a drawerful of international awards.  As a dramatist he acknowledges the influence of Pinter and an aim to unsettle his audience, both dominantly clear in The Mother now at Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio until 20 June ~ a companion piece to The Father produced here last year with the same prestigious team of translator (Christopher Hampton) and director (Laurence Boswell).  Both plays represent an intense study of disturbed psychological mind-state, rather than the social role of the title: the father had dementia, and the mother is addicted to social drugs and suffering empty-nest syndrome.  In his professed intention to lead the audience into the character’s head and show reality through their eyes, Zeller is blessed to have Gina McKee in the title role.
She is simply superb, strangely empathetic even when irritating, cruel, obsessive and frankly deranged: her aura of exhausted beauty transforming a character who could seem, if were possible to whisper such a thought about a play by a giant, a tad clichéd.  The trio of family members she adores, loathes, needs, resents and suspects by turn are superbly well played too, but it’s this mesmeric performance that holds the story and the stage. Excellent design enhances the disturbing mood: a cold Hockneyesque set echoing the estranging couple's contact and disquieting music as the mother’s memory struggles into each new scenario. 
Quoting the programme again, Zeller has said his play was inspired by his own mother's sacrifices.  But it doesn't say what she thought about that.

As a confessional footnote, I wasn't one of those rapturously impressed by The Father last year, finding it ~ for the first time in my experience of the Ustinov ~ emotionally laboured and self-consciously 'prestigious'.  It went on to top the listings for Play of the Year. I mention this neither penitently nor defiantly but as the daughter of a theatre critic who wrote after the opening night of The Mousetrap in 1952, "I give it a week".  My father, I salute you.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Looking forward, looking back, and looking down...

This week several projects which were bubbling along nicely have started coming to the boil, which means I've now got various fabulous flyers and posters to distribute. Muffin Man is returning to the Cornerhouse for two nights in June with a sequel devised with impro from the cast: talented twosome Ross Scott and Fleur Hanby-Holmes. The show comprises a reprise of the original short play ~ which gave me the title Bard of Frome 2014 in the Frome Festival comedy play contest, a title I hand on in July to the next winning contestant ~  and an original song and stand-up comedy routine as well as the new play The Morning After.   
Looking ahead to the festival, as we do now the box office is open and tickets selling fast, our guest at the Poetry Café, hotfoot from Hackney's Hammer & Tongue, is 'Angry Sam' Berkson and a special open-mic on that Monday night will include selection of 'Festival Poet Laureate'. That's at the Garden Cafe and we're hoping, if it's a fine night, to be actually in the garden.

Midsummer Dusk is the festival offering from Nevertheless Productions ~ our first site-specific event, directed by Rosie Finnegan with my script and our newly-formed acting company. First read through last week confirmed this quintet of 'Star Players' are well-named: this promises to be a fantastic show and, since it's only on for two nights (Thursday & Friday) we expect to sell out early.

Black Swan is showing paintings by Dan Hampson inspired by the notion of exploration, and it's the most exciting exhibition I've seen for ages. Dan was at the launch and spoke tentatively and intriguingly about these cultural icons ~ Stanley, Livingstone, Captain Cook etc ~ as 'trying to be heroic but things are spiralling out of control because they're incomprehensible.' I can't wait to explore further myself at the Words at the Black Swan writers' workshop on Sunday 7th.

Reverberations of the Independents for Frome recent election success continue with a feature article in The Guardian on 'How Flatpack Democracy beat the old parties in the People's Republic of Frome', with a great picture of our joyful mob rulers and the story of their amazing triumph. And the week ended exuberantly with Frome Street Bandits and Orkestra del Sol in a dance-fest extraordinaire at the Cheese&Grain.

One of the quirks of writing a blog about what's on in and around Frome is the diversity sometimes leads to strange juxtapositions. Here's one of them: We Are Many directed by Amir Amirani ~ on general release from May 22nd  ~ had a special showing at 90 cinemas on Thursday, one of which was the Little Theatre in Bath. I had been one of the thousands who lost hope after that 2003 massive global protest when the largest mobilisation in the history of the world met with derisive dismissal from that reptilian pair of conspirators Bush & Blair. I went with Jill Miller on the march, and we went together a year later to see David Hare's play Stuff Happens expose the lies that were seeping out by now ~ the fait accompli timing, the dodgy dossier, the tricking of Blix. So now we all know this was an illegal war that needlessly killed millions and cost trillions, why does Jon Snow (who led the live Q&A) hail this movie as as 'a huge achievement which has exceeded all expectations"?
I've already seen querulous comments on facebook about the protest being worthless, but I still find it heartening to hear people like Tony Benn, Nelson Mandela, Ken Loach and Mark Rylance speaking so powerfully, and to see the Women for Peace calling out the war criminals and the Iraq veterans hurling their medals, and to know unequivocally that history shows 'the "deranged lefties" were absolutely right and the governments were wrong.'
But this movie offers more hope than Auden's lament Time will say nothing but I told you so.  There's been a seismic shift since the day 35 million people in 789 cities in 72 countries across the world said together 'Not In My Name.'  When Cameron in 2013 tried the same old rhetoric, his call to war was, for the first time ever in an English parliament, defeated. And in Egypt the seeds of the democracy movement that became know as the Arab Spring were sown.

A lighter end to this posting: I've yearned to go up in a balloon since watching Ashton Court fiesta, and my sons gave me a trip which for reasons mainly climatic was delayed until today. So at 7a.m. here I am floating over the fields beyond Bath on a champagne flight with Bristol Balloons.  A stunningly beautiful tapestry of sunny fields and dramatic shadows scrolls below a sky of searing blue as the Royal Crescent dwindles and for a delicious hour we watch field patterns unfold, deer running & cows meandering, ending after 14 miles at 2000 feet in a field in Nunney.  What can I say but Recommended.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The past is another country, but trespassers are welcome

Growing up in the 1960s on the edge of Brixton the notion of segregation completely passed me by, though over in America the Governor of Alabama was calling for continuation forever, Kennedy appealing for an end, and Florida was rioting.  Meanwhile in Baltimore, according to the 1988 musical rom-com Hairspray, a plump teenager named Tracy was doing her bit for racial harmony by bringing 'negro' dancing to a popular TV show. Reflecting era aspirations I do vividly remember, wannabe-worldsaver Tracy longs to escape post-1950s humdrum by rebelling at school and losing herself in yoof-empowering music. I had only Radio Luxembourg on a tranny to transport me, Tracy has 'The Corny Collins Show' on local network TV, and Corny needs a new dancer...  Can Tracy overcome puppy-fat and the producer's prejudice to bring everyone together for a grand finale? It takes a lot of angst and ensemble singing, but of course she can! The Broadway version of Hairspray won 8 Tony Awards, and the 2007 film remake was listed as one of 500 greatest movies of all time, and Frome Musical Theatre has been showing why.
An immense cast of incredibly talented singers were brilliantly choreographed & directed by Vicki Klein to bring out the comedy as well as the moves in this warm-hearted fairy tale ~ I especially loved the duet as Tracy's Dad (Norm Langley) reassures his weight-worrying wife (Jon O'Loughlin) 'You're timeless to me.'  A thoroughly feel-good show deservedly a sell-out ~ I'm glad I saw audience comments on facebook in time to catch a returned ticket on the final night. Now I'm looking forward to their Peter Pan in August.

In slightly tenuous connection via the 1960s, Alison Clink was at Frome Library this afternoon for another Q&A with me about her book The Man Who Didn't Go To NewcastleThe primary focus is the story of her brother's death in 2008 but some of the early sections of this moving memoir recall their shared childhood in South London. With several writers among the audience there was particular interest in how to retrieve distant memories that can seem lost in the past. "The more you go there, the more things come back to you," is Alison's experience and her advice.  And does writing heal?  "Yes - and no. But yes, it can."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

mostly about costumes

Tobacco Factory Theatres' main house this week is host to Kelvin Players, 'one of the leading and longest established amateur dramatic groups in the Bristol area', who have risen to the challenge of this prestigious in-the-round venue with a production of Molière's farce-cum-satire on religious hypocrisy Tartuffe. Written in 1664, it was performed at Versailles for Louis XIV who promptly banned it on the grounds that, although he personally found it ‘extremely diverting’, others might be ‘less capable of making a just discernment of it.’ (Interestingly this was also the theory used by Lord Longford in the 1960s when considering the corrupting effect of Soho strip clubs.) The original play was written entirely in rhyming couplets: this is the translation of Exeter professor Martin Sorrell and a strong cast made the most of it. Especially engaging performances from Nicky Rope as Elmire and Tom Colebrook's wily Tartuffe, and Fiona McClure as the mouthy maid. Director Ralf Togneri shifted the action to late 19th Century to 'reflect the continuing possibility of being taken in by hypocrites' which has also allowed designer Chrissy Fryers to create flamboyantly brocaded fashion couture.   On till Saturday May 16th.

Theatrical attire seem to have become the theme of the week, with two costume-related exhibitions in Frome' Black Swan Arts. As well as their gallery events, there's now work on display at the Round Tower and also in the workshops beside the cafe where Judy Simmons is currently showing her exquisite and extraordinary work which she delightfully describes as 'Sumptuous Gowns and Bespoke Fabric Design'. The results may be floating concoctions for a fairytale bride, but the process requires expertise in digital technology: from an initial photograph Judy uses photoshop to create a repeat design printed onto fabrics, then builds each garment uniquely step by step. The lace on that bodice, for example, was based on a photo of rose petals; like the organza roses, hand-curled with a naked flame.

Ten steps away, another extraordinary fashion parade as the Round Tower walls are filled down and up & along the stairway too with David Partner's photographs of mayoral regalia as worn by Peter Macfadyen, project instigator & this year's incumbent.  Local groups and firms as diverse as playgroups, art clubs, Sustrans, Protomax, and the community toilet scheme have all made decorative contributions ~ here's Rosie by the festive chain made by the Wessex MS Therapy Centre.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The P word

I can't really avoid it, since everything human is political, even shopping, and certainly arts: not in an overt sense necessarily, but by making the world we want to live in, entertaining & connective as well as socially aware. But this post is uniquely political, because on Saturday something almost incredible and totally fantastic occurred: Frome eliminated party politics from the town council. Independents for Frome consolidated four years of strong presence by taking every one of the 17 seats available, despite opposition from 32 party-line candidates ~ Conservatives, Lib-Dems, Ukip & Labour, not one got a single seat.
 So here's the start of a long night of partying as the news filtered through (fittingly starting at the Cornerhouse, where the dream first took shape) and here's me incredibly happy to be living in the Independent State of Frome. As Macauley might have writ:
And still their names will sound stirring
  Unto the men & women of Frome,
As the trumpet-blast that cries to them       
  To charge the politicians home;
And we will all still pray to Juno
  For boys & girls with hearts as bold
As these who kept the town so well
  In the brave days of old.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

when a green dream becomes a horror show

Friday was a good night to see Little Shop of Horrors in a monstrously funny new production at Salisbury Playhouse. The basic storyline of this 1982s American musical is familiar - up to a point: Boy-meets-girl-but-hides-yearning, Girl-finally-realises-this-is-true-love, Boy-sells-soul-for-fame-in-Faustian-pact-involving-Macbethian-murder-spree, Girl-eaten-by-giant-triffid.  So no chance of being bored by sentimental clichés.
Apologies for spoiler if you've only seen the film, in which a softer ending was imposed, but whether you know the outcome or not, this terrific show is well worth seeing: for the evocative Skid Row set, great 80s costumes, amazing puppetry with the terrorising tendrilled alien, marvellous musical numbers, and electric acting by everyone from the doo-wop  street urchins ~think Greek-chorus Crystals~ to the plant-crossed lovers (Ben Stott and Frances McNamee). A special mention has to go to Jez Unwin as the dastardly dentist.  Directed by Gareth Machin, this is at the Playhouse till May 16th then transferring to Colchester for another month: Definitely recommended!

Thursday, May 07, 2015

in which I manage not to mention the election

Not so much an embarrassment of riches as a frustration of lures this bank holiday weekend, with SAFE at the Merlin, an amazing dance performance based on the 1930 construction of the Empire State Building & sadly the final date in their acclaimed tour, Blah's Big Weekend in Bristol, and the Larkhall festival in Bath. Speakeasy for Lyricism in Larkhall won, as Rosie was a challenger for the home team: here she is causing mayhem and hysteria in the Rose & Crown back-room with Domestic Goddess, to quote the opposition team leader "a 6-word blow-out that will go down in history."

 Still with a spotlight still on poets, the Frome Writers Collective presented another eccentric chain to our regalia-collecting Mayor Peter, this one composed of verses, at an informal celebration at the Three Swans.
An unusual mayor once thought 
Formal chains could be fun, and he sought 
Various versions 
 To suit his excursions 
Could haiku work too? so we thought...
At a more serious event in Bath, Claire Crowther launched her intriguing new anthology On Narrowness, sharing the stage with Carrie Etter who read from her Ted-Hughes-shortlisted collection Imagined Sons. Great to be there with the Frome poetry posse and new friends too.

A new month, another Independent Market Sunday, with a poetry workshop for Words at the Black Swan led by Rosie Jackson. And street-stall strollers may have been surprised to find popular band Seize the Day on the buskers' stage. Theo Simon, songwriter & lead singer, is a candidate for Somerton and Frome: I won't name the party as all reference to the election was prohibited. Including opinions & issues. As Theo says, this is difficult as their songs are all political. He did try, with as much success as Basil Faulty not mentioning the war. But their set drew a massive crowd all either cheering or dancing or both by the end of their final number No Man's Slave.
Plenty more music & street entertainment and all the usual quirky paraphernalia & food sampling. Here's funky Honk Monster, and marvellous Simon's Jazz at the Cornerhouse to end the day.

Ending with a look ahead at pub drama, as Muffin Man returns to the Cornerhouse next month. The talented duo who took on the roles in my short play about a random meeting leading to unlikely liaison (which won me the glorious title Bard of Frome) were keen to bring a sequel to the world. Muffin Man 2, the Morning After is a similar bitter-sweet comedy, this time written collaboratively as a devised drama together with the actors, Fleur Hanby-Holmes and Ross Scott. It's hilarious. Expect dates very soon! Meanwhile, filming of Muffin Man (1) is going ahead in Bristol, here's a still from work in progress.