Saturday, November 28, 2015

mostly celebrations

Stepping Out Theatre, which has supported several Nevertheless shows over the last few years (and produced Media Monsters, the double bill show Rosie & I wrote for the Alma Tavern in Bristol) boasts as patron the marvellous Mark Rylance who has been winning awards since he stepped on the boards 35 years ago, so with Farinelli and the King ~ Mark's current 5-star performance ~ at the Duke of York's, a trip to London was clearly the the perfect seasonal celebration event for the entire company.
And as Stepping Out is co-producing our next Nevertheless show, Toxic Cocktails (at the Cornerhouse, 16&17 December if your diary is at hand) I was delighted to join the very jolly coach party on Saturday. An 'incident' on the motorway meant we only arrived in time to see the second half so I can't review but the theatre, all lit with candles, is beautiful, the costumes are gorgeous, and the music, if you like counter-tenor singing, is extraordinary. The story of the King of Spain and his beloved castrato movingly reflects on melancholy, madness, and the power of creativity to alleviate both, but I tend to agree with the online review from Culture-Whisper: It's not for everyone. There's nothing boundary-breaking or bold, and this is the kind of show that reinforces idea of theatre as for the middle-aged, middle-classes who know their Handel from their Hasse. But it's a warm and charming showcase of spectacular acting and musical talent.  And the festive supper afterwards was fabulous.

Back in Frome on Sunday, the Cheese & Grain seethed with sensuous smells and sumptuous samples as Frome celebrated its fifth Lip-Smacking Chocolate Festival, organised by Jo Harrington.
Stalls from all around the west country offered nibbles & tasters of lip-smacking experiences from raw chocolate bars to whisky-filled hand-painted chocolate creams. The River House team were there with Tom's marvellous cakes & Ellen's latest taste-experience brainwave: chocolate mulled wine. An event literally sensational!

Another architypically-Frome experience is the festive Extravaganza at the end of November to celebrate the switch-on of our christmas lights.  There's always a theme ~ the year before last it was Jenson Button scorching up & down the main road ~ and this year was a Snow Ball. In actuality it was more of a wildly windy rainswept evening but that didn't deter the hundreds who poured into the town centre to enjoy the fabulous story-telling projections on town buildings and the music & dancing in the street till late. Official 'switch-on' was due at 7.30 and a mere 15 minutes later the MC on the George balcony yelled out "Frome! Are you all ready for the big anti-climax of the evening?"  and we all yelled happily "Yeah!"
And the tree lights came on, bless, and a kind of shimmering golden shower ~ snow, obviously, but gilded by lighting ~ cascaded on the throng below. What a time to be alive, one might say.

Moving out of town again to end this post, to Bath this time, again for a theatre trip: I absolutely loved Monsieur Popular, the frothy French farce that opened the Ustinov autumn season, so was hoping for similar entertaining frivolities from director Laurence Boswell’s follow-up The One That Got Away. This one by George Feydeau is a different fish, longer and more laboured.  During the first act I was strongly reminded of a ditty attributed to Dorothy L Sayers but sounding more like Dorothy Parker: As years go in and years go out / I totter towards the tomb / caring less & less about / who goes to bed with whom.  Several more characters were still due to appear, some from the gendarmerie, so I was rather hoping there might be a more interesting twist in store. Like murder. Or a play within a play, in which the players of these clichéd roles had more interesting personae.  By the second interval I had given up hope for anything more exciting than the final curtain. The acting is all fine, the sets are lavish, but the only salacious sparkle came from  the countess-turned-concierge ruined by love of a lion-tamer (Victoria Wick). Lots of debagging and door-banging but a story so thin you could fold it up and lose it in a trouser pocket.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Lights , sound, action...

BBC's Country file last week was all about Frome, with chatty little snippets about our local incredible edibles, from Lungi Baba's bajees, sold from a refurbished loo in the market yard, to the town's Food Assembly creating customised variable veg boxes. The programme seems designed for viewers' taking tea breaks so there's a lot of data repetition but it's good to see the green side of 'one of Britain's coolest towns' extolled instead of the usual rhapsody about retro-chic bargains.
Bath writer Debby Holt is such a fan she's including our 'jewel of the southwest' in the launch tour for her new novel The Soulmate early next year, which segeways nicely to my next report:  Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath is according to the Guardian one of the 10 best bookshops in the world and though by non-zero probability there may be an equally fine bookshop somewhere in an infinite universe, it's certainly a great venue for the 2015 Bath Short Story Awards. Short fiction was my first passion as a writer and I still believe it's a great way to learn essential elements of the craft so I went with Frome writers Alison Clink & current 'Bard of Frome' Brenda Bannister to share in the party and listen to sparkling extracts from the winning stories of the new collection. Here's Mister Bee himself, as I couldn't pick a favourite from among the excellent reader-writers. 

There will now be a short break from my usual eulogising and a Man's-Inhumanity-To-Man interlude.  
The Age of Stupid, which in 2008 tracked the progress of destruction of life on earth & identified 2015 as the tipping point after which no recovery may be possible. So with the (now overshadowed) UN conference on climate change in Paris, plus renewed threats of local fracking, East Mendip Green Party and Frome Anti-Fracking organised a showing in Westway, Frome's brilliant little independent cinema. If you haven't seen the movie you either realise it's all horribly true and don't want to think about it, or just don't want to think about it, so I'll confine my comments to this question posed at the end: Why didn't we save ourselves? Is the answer, we weren't sure we were worth saving? We know how to profit but not how to protect. The final act of civilisation was suicide.
Still on the sombre theme of "every prospect pleases and only man is vile", Bruton's best known art gallery Hauser & Wirth has an exhibition of Don McCullin's photographs from the last fifty years, mostly recording horrific conflict or appalling poverty, with three Somerset landscapes which somehow look like war zones. This amazing, brave, compassionate photographer has long been a hero of mine but I wasn't allowed to take any pictures of the gallery so this is a googled iconic compilation-shot, but I did get to see the actual Nikon that caught the bullet that would have killed him. You'll probably recognise all these marvellous and tragic images but seeing them together is something else, sad but well worth doing.

To conclude this post on a lighter note, literally, the winter spectacular at Longleat is a Festival of Lights which David & I wandered into accidentally after an extended footpath walk, finding the dusk suddenly filled with fabulous constructions ~ mythical creatures, wild animals, palaces and pagodas and much more ~ all made out of silk lanterns.  Look out for the Chinese Dagon boat and the leaping dolphins...

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Life, plans, & 'only the now'

Eventide is billed as 'a love song, an elegy, a celebration' and this story of 'three people whose worlds are disappearing' is indeed all those, but also a kind of romping version of Waiting for Godot in which Vladimir self-scripts from a joke-book and Lucky has already found her freedom.  Despite the humour ~ there's plenty in Barney Norris's sharp script ~ and contemporary theme of erosion of traditional communities, a timeless existentialist depression is never much farther away than the next bottle of Stella in John's beer garden. Young Mark sums it up: "Isn't it funny how time happens to you? It's nothing you decide, you just go along with it."  And I'm still pondering Liz's theory that tarmac is what actually shapes our lives...
A really enjoyable show, funny & moving ~ mostly simultaneously ~ with empathetic direction and superbly acted by James Doherty, Ellie Piercy, and Hasan Dixon. Eventide opened in September in London and Bristol's Brewery is the last venue on this tour but look out for the next production from award-winning southwest touring company Up In Arms.

Time strums on, part 2:  Twenty-one years on from the Tom Robinson gig when I got my Love Over Rage album & teeshirt ~ both signed ~ his new CD Only the Now is out, featuring songs "as vibrant and edgy as any he’s ever written." Tom's first band tour this century finished in Frome on Thursday, and he says "I can’t think of a better place for the grand finale… the home of Raves from the Grave, one of the top independent record stores, legendary all over the country."
Tom's evening concert was sensational, a combo of revivals and new tracks, with a crowded Cheese & Grain singing along to that iconic gay anthem and applauding political rants like The Mighty Sword of Justice and Risky Business Some reviewers were bemused, Tom says, that a singer now 'of pensionable age' should still write passionate angry songs about oppression injustice inequality discrimination and the cynical dismantling of the welfare state, as though concern should ebb even though society worsens... but he sings gentle songs too which are simply beautiful, especially the tear-tugging title track: 'there's only the now, only the now, don't ever wish it away....'  

Paradoxically, or perversely, this post ends looking forward, to our Nevertheless Fringe Theatre winter production: TOXIC COCKTAILS comprises three short plays with a darkly comic twist.
We're delighted to have Anneliese Paul and Joanna Smith, two fabulous young professional actors from Bristol, in the roles of vampire bride, burlesque dancer, robot, and cold-cure-seeking Shirley in our new in-house production upstairs at the Cornerhouse on Wednesday 16 & Thursday 17 December, 8pm. "The best hour you'll ever get for a fiver" to quote previous feedback, and the booking list (01373 472042) is now open...

Monday, November 09, 2015

Shop Local, play local, dance exotic...

Focus entirely on Frome this week, with the Frome Shop Local day on Saturday ~ an exciting range of performances in nine different venues throughout the day. With puppetry, poetry, and fantastic music in shops and cafes throughout the town, totalling six hours of free entertainment for all. We had Pete Gage, Nikki & Griff, and Dexters' Extra Breakfast with our croissants and coffee, Vikki Burke's harp and Gina Allen singing up the hill, Eddie Martin rocked Raves from the Grave, Annie Aldam held the children rapt in Ellenbray, and here's Hannah Teasdale in Hunting Raven Books and Al O'Kane in Frome Wholefoods.  Big thanks to the town council, this was a great initiative which will hopefully be repeated next year even bigger and better!

Moving on to art: two exhibition openings The Binding Grid of Creative Connection from Bridport artist David Smith, promoted by Black Swan Arts, is featured at the Round Tower and represents for the artist 'a celebration of the affirming nature of my experience of Twitter' to collect work on the theme of 'black squares black lines and black magic.' Frome painter Amy Yates, in contrast, uses lucent & evocative colour for her images of Frome: her work is displayed in the Grain Bar throughout November, with cards for sale.

Local drama company Tic Tac Toe were at Frome's Merlin Theatre with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) ~ a lighthearted, often witty, sometimes very funny, deconstruction of the bard's themes & works that always entertains a young audience. For the more sophisticated, there was exotic dance at the Silk Mill with an amazing Bollywood routine.
Looking ahead theatrically, Nevertheless Fringe Theatre will be upstairs at the Cornerhouse with our new show Toxic Cocktails ~ 'contempory comedy with a toxic twist' on Dec 16 & 17. Hold the dates and watch, as they say, this space...

And finally, in international news:  one week after Frome Town Council won Council of the Year in the National Association of Local Councils’ Awards comes news that Frome, in its entirety, is now officially the greatest town in the country.  The Great Town Award 2016, identified by the Academy of Urbanism, looks for places with 'innovation and excellence in all aspects of urbanism' and Frome's list of achievements were recognised to include: progressive & caring work of the Town Council,  exceptional cultural & community opportunities, sympathetic blending of new with old (many listed)  buildings, lively events in the town centre (Frome Independent Market has been voted one of the best in the country by Observer Food Magazine), 'astonishing' commercial vitality & a vibrant independent retail sector, and 'impressive' response to environmental issues. No better way to end this post than in the words of Cllr Pippa Goldfinger, accepting on behalf of the town:
‘Many people in Frome have long felt that it is a great town but the secret is now out. This new award owes much to the spirit of community, innovation and enterprise in the town and I am certain that the people of Frome will be very proud that their efforts have received such national recognition.’

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Autumn abundance

An artistic cornucopia in Frome this week, overflowing on Halloween night with witching costumes & happenings in cafes & shops around the town, an amazingly theatrical Haunted House-party (thanks Russ Ellingham, who'll also bring dark glamour to Cheese&Grain on Friday 13th) and a fiendishly good session at the Griffin by Captain Cactus and the spell-binding Screaming Harlots.

Two more of my favourite bands were also playing last week: We Used To Make Things, a brilliant indie-pop band from London, usually 8-strong though totally rocking the Cricket Club with just five. I particularly enjoyed their protest song 'What are we fighting for?' echoing around the flags... And local heroes Dexter's Extra Breakfast took to the busking stage at the Frome Independent penultimate Sunday market of the year. As always, this was a massively busy event offering every kind & colour of craft, costume and comestible. Writers were represented by the enterprising Frome Writers Collective with a stall on the hill and by Julian Hight's book-signing of his World Tree Story at Hunting Raven.

'Words at the Black Swan' always meets in the gallery on the afternoon of the market to explore the current exhibition as poetic inspiration, and the diversity of the Arts Open offered engaging stimulus.
It's well worth a visit but don't expect razor-blade art like the work of Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy I saw last week ~ a treat from my amazing friend Hazel Carey ~ which sears unforgettably. Here's 'Straight' - comprising 150 tons of steel rebar taken from the site of the earthquake that killed 5,000 children, truth about which the artist believes has been covered up by the Chinese government. Ai Weiwei was arrested & imprisoned for 80 days: he's also made an extensive installation to record the experience, with models of his captors.

So, a week of creativity in town, but as the artistic glitterball of Frome is surrounded by glorious countryside ~ not waxing too lyrical, am I? ~ these mild sunny days brought opportunities to relish the awesome colours of autumn too, in forests parks and gardens. This is the iconic Stourhead view..
I'll end with a quick look ahead: Frome Shop Local next Saturday: nine free performances throughout the town in shops and cafés - cancel everything and come along!