Thursday, February 25, 2016

Right here, 'Right Now' - February fusion of art, music, and drama.

It was the Frome Tattoo Convention last weekend and Cheese & Grain was filled with ink artists and their human canvasses, all demonstrating the dedication and skill as well as the creativity of their craft. Here's Ghis Melou at work, and Dean Oatley showing the developing work of tattoo artist Jerry Burchill from True Gent Tattoos. Fascinating to watch, and a great group of friendly people.

Hunting Raven Books opened its doors on Monday night for the Frome launch of Debby Holt's 'wickedly funny' new novel The Soulmate.  Debby is always a class act at these events ~ theatrical experience as well as seven novels now ~ and we were entertained by quotes from JB Priestley and Shakespeare as well as wit, anecdotes, and a short reading. I look forward to a longer one now.

Right Now is the first of a French-Canadian season at the Ustinov Studio theatre in Bath, a surreal dark comedy from Catherine-Anne Toupin translated by Chris Campbell. By turns hilarious, erotic, macabre, scary, and sad, it's the tale of a couple who find they've got neighbours like some flats get mice. After an opening glimpse of their struggling relationship, this bizarre trio bursts into their lives led by Juliette - Maureen Beattie awesome in a role that makes TV's predatory Dorien seem a girl guide. Together with her seductively genial partner Gilles (Guy Williams) and their enigmatic son Francoise (Dyfan Dwfor, shape-shifting from gauche to dominating) they upend the lives of Ben and Alice - Sean Biggerstaff and Lindsey Campbell hugely empathetic as the hapless couple hooked into psychological games. An outrageous play directed with dazzling precision by Michael Boyd, with great set & lighting from designers Madelaine Girling and Oliver Fenwick enhancing the capriciously changeable moods. Highly recommended, on till 19th March. (Oh, and you'll never, ever, guess what happens right at the end....)

Every week is live music week in Frome: on Sunday we had bluesy duo Nobody's Business at the Archangel in the afternoon, and the vibrantly funky Flash Harry at the Cornerhouse in the evening.
Roots Grain Bar on Wednesday had two great acts - Irish rock-bluesy solos for  Ian O'Regan and 'darkly sensuous' duo Bonne Nouvelle. And River House Cafe offered something a little different from their usual cocktails on Thursday - an entire supper based on vodka. How did that turn out then? Under the care of 'Tender Loving Kitchen's Jo Harrington, the Vodka Infusions pop-up supper club was a great success: superb food and great ambience, and vodka shots between every course.

I'm off to the Isle of Wight now for a weekend talking about writing at Skyros Holistic Holidays close-to-home retreat The Grange.  The programme notes for that excellent play Right Now identified the perfect situation for a writer as resentment and resilience, defensiveness and defiance but sometimes a break is good too. Weather forecast promises sun..

Thursday, February 18, 2016

What a piece of work....

It's been quite a week for the written word.  Monday's Love Night at the Frome Poetry Cafe smouldered & sizzled as Stephen Payne was supported by 17 open mic poets and by an attentive audience who squatted on steps and stood in the doorway when we ran out of chairs. Stephen was sharing from his new collection Pattern Beyond Chance, small poems full of tender visual glimpses. Other readings ranged in mood from the sensual delicacy of Rosie Jackson to the wicked wit of John Christopher Wood, with a sublime evocation to universal connection from Lynne Christine Ridden. Josephine Corcoran was awarded the anthology donated by Hunting Raven for her wry honeymoon recollections, and Stina Falle chronicled the poets in deft sketches. (Pencil sketches, but with word jottings too...)

Over in Bristol, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory has begun their new season with the big one, and a better production of Hamlet I have not yet seen. In a starkly simple setting ~ SATTF productions are designed to be performed 'in the round' ~ with the absolute minimum of props, the familiar story comes to life in an extraordinarily dynamic way: no portentous showcasing or defamiliarising tricks with well-known speeches, this drama of family conflict becomes a totally comprehensible story. Great direction from Andrew Hilton and a strong performance by Alan Mahon in the title role are both crucial for this. The prince here is no self-dramatising emo but a young man recently bereaved and now confronted by a supernatural visitation he finds not only traumatic but also untrustworthy ~ perhaps a devil in disguise, a common interpretation of ghosts at that time. No wonder he delays and, as friends turn into spies, no wonder he becomes desperate as to who to trust. The outcome is a totally gripping production with huge energy, especially from the younger characters ~ Fortinbras (Laurence Varda) Rosencranz & Guildenstern (Joel Macey & Craig Fuller) and Ophelia (Isabella Marshall). Costumes are sumptuous and the climatic fight scene, directed by John Sandeman from the stylistic conventions of the era, is absolutely fantastic. On till 30th April.

The other major Bristol production is PINK MIST at Bristol Old Vic, first staged last year and revived for the BOV 250th anniversary celebrations. Owen Sheers wrote this tale of three soldiers coming home to Bristol from Afghanistan after interviewing returned servicemen and if you know anyone still trusting the value of war, this is one to take them to. Owen Sheers is a poet and this is not really a play, more a long poem with movement, or maybe a dance with words, set in the city of Banksy and dockland clubs but also that timeless world of young men ardent for some desperate glory. There are no plot surprises, the only 'reveal' is how, and the lyrical narration & lithe movements create poignant contrast to the graphic details.  And it  wasn't 'the old lie' of patriotism that inspired this trio: what's most striking is the soldiers' total disconnection with any sense of purpose in their conflict. As ringleader Arthur says at the start, they were 'hungry for change' and this was not about where they were going but what they were leaving; as Taff says, he loved the basic training ~ 'everything we were meant to hate - the PT, drill sergeant shouting in your face, being woken at three to go on guard, the route march, the beastings - I loved it, I did. The writer's programme notes pose the question: How might we satisfy these hungers at home, within our societies, rather than away from them engaged in violence? Perhaps we can't, but that's no reason not to try, telling their stories not via the anonymising narratives of politics and the media but through the nuance and human detail of theatre. On till March 5, also recommended.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

'To Lyme they were to go..'

Like Captain Wentworth's party of pals in Persuasion, Rosie and I were 'wild to see Lyme' on our writing trip last weekend, and Lyme was wild to see us, too. We arrived as storm Imogen was dancing like a tiger along the Cobb, rattling the pebbles and slapping the sand into a new beach. We watched entranced from our sea-front window, then I set off to get provisions from the shop at the top of the hill, agreeing with Jane Austen that 'A very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.'  That was when the sky join the sea in a combined assault. Rain instantly made the road a waterfall, indeed rain was making the air a waterfall, soaking me literally to the skin in moments, my boots transformed into rain-barrells. It was wildly exciting though red wine & chocolate were required for full recovery.
Next morning all was calm in blue-skied sunshine. The Cobb looked distinctly hungover but must have yielded great beach-combing for the fossilists - as Lyme's superb museum calls its collectors. Fossils are to Lyme Regis as books are to Hay-on-Wye, I discovered, and as much a feature as its Jane Austen and French Lieutenant's Woman connections. The museum has everything you could want to know about all these aspects of the town's story, plus other artistic connections like Beatrix Potter and the painter Whistler, and a fascinating chronicle of the town's rebellious history. One of the few anti-royalist southern towns in the Civil War, they resisted Prince Maurice's contemptuous boast that taking Lyme would be 'a breakfast time job' and survived their long siege successfully ~ with women playing a significant role in all the action.
And as we were there to research Lyme Regis now, as well as then, a visit to the gorgeous Alexandra Hotel gardens for coffee in the conservatory was essential. So now we've found the settings and the inspiration all we have to do is create the play! Simples...

Back in Frome, it's been another great week for music. Grain Bar Roots Session featured the The Spoonful, 'from toe-tappin' rootsy blues to mellow' - I loved their creamy name-song - and on Saturday the marvellous Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots played a superb session in the Artisan. No pig-head this time but still charmingly random and highly energetic, with audience participation of yogic chants and dancing...

And on sunny, chilly, Sunday it was great to walk to Nunney for the monthly Acoustic Cafe ~ this one featuring the awesome talent of Darren Hodge. Darren was just 15 when he gigged with the legendary Tommy Emmanuel, and four years on he still looks 15, but his self-taught skill on the guitar is phenomenal: take a listen to Cannonball Rag which he played in his set today.

Black Swan Arts had two new exhibitions this week so I should be reminding writers about Words at the Black Swan on the first Sunday of the month, but sadly the Independent Market on March 6th is cancelled which means the gallery won't be open either for the poetry workshop.  Hopefully we'll be running again in April, and in the meantime there's the Poetry Cafe Love Night at the Garden Cafe and Maggie Sawkins at the Merlin with  Zones of Avoidance which won the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry. Yup, Frome still rocks.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Imbolc... a boondoggle of a holiday

Imbolc is the pagan term for these very early days of spring, and its goddess Brigid is associated with poetry, fire, and fertility: she's also been adopted by the catholic church, which may be why I found when I googled Imbolc I found that  for many reasons, Imbolc is a boondoggle of a holiday.  I took that to mean a bit of a mishmash, like the last meal at the end of a camping trip, but further googling yielded: boondoggle: an unnecessary, wasteful, or fraudulent project.  Which really doesn't seem appropriate for last week in Frome.
Saturday saw a few hundred people making their way to the Silk Mill for 'One day to make a difference' ~ for the refugees in Calais ~ to donate warm clothes and cash, shop at the stalls, bring and buy cakes, and listen to the stonking songs of the Wochynskis. At the end of the event, the 'Bruton, Frome & Glastonbury group of Aid & Solidarity with Refugees' reported that the total raised topped £1366, and the cash and clothes are now already on their way out to Calais and to Syria.

Another great week for music in Frome ~  maybe we should change our motto from the vaguely aspirational 'It's a wonderful place' to 'The town where free gigs abound'?  After Bonne Nouvelle rocking the Archangel on Sunday afternoon, we had Ben Cipolla at the always-excellent Roots Grain Bar session on Wednesday.

Moving to things literary: Frome Writers Collective monthly meeting on Monday featured a book quiz from demon question-setter Brenda Bannister, here on the right looking innocent as the winner beams and rest of us hide our sheets of shame. All good fun, though. And novelist Debbie Holt, who is a proxy Frome writer because she's been in one of our (smaller) writing group for twelve years, has a new book out on Thursday. The Soulmate is published by Accent Press and Debbie will be talking about it in Hunting Raven Books on February 22.

The amazing Mark Bruce Company premiered their epic (literally) new production at Frome's Merlin Theatre: The Odyssey is a dance-drama retelling of that legendary ten-year journey by the Greek hero Odysseu after ten years of war returning home to his loyal wife Penelope.
The details of Homer's story are all there ~ Medusa's snakes, Circe's swine, the lotus eaters, the unravelled weaving that keeps Penelope's suitors at bay, and much more ~ but Mark as choreographer & director is interested more in 'what it means to us individually.' Myths, he says 'hold a mirror to us all at different times in our lives.'  With barely a word throughout (none from the cast but a few from Frank Sinatra) this is terrific story-telling, Odysseus on his 'hero's journey' sometimes a timeless icon of masculinity and sometimes, as he lit another cigarette or embarked on another romance, more like James Bond. The dancing is stunningly good: I loved all the characters, especially the cheeky Immortal Man and twerking Circe, and the way the team enacted every role from the sacrificial lamb to the ship's figurehead. And no-one can have left without exclaiming over the set (is it a boat? a wooden horse? a portal to Hades?) the lighting, the costumes, and the music. Absorbing, entrancing, and exhilarating, all of it. Mark Bruce is a long-time Associate Artist of the Merlin Theatre, which makes me extremely chuffed to be one too. 

There's very little I can reveal about the comedy-thriller Death Trap at Salisbury Playhouse because it's got more twists than a corkscrew so almost any comment would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that if you know the theatrical theory of Chekhov's gun ~ that if a weapon is shown in the opening act, it must be used before the end of the play ~ then you'll be quivering at the armoury on the walls of blocked playwright Sidney Bruhl, and you'll be right to tremble. Ira Levin, who was also responsible for sinister films like Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, wrote this as a stage play in 1978: the current Salisbury Playhouse production is sharp, stylish, superbly set & lit, and brilliantly acted ~ especially by the thriller writers (Kim Wall and Sam Phillips) and their uncannily psychic neighbour Beverley Klein. On till 27th February, much more fun than murder on the telly.

That's it for this week. Rosie and I are off to Lyme Regis now, for a writerly weekend planning our next Nevertheless production so - watch this space! Well you do, anyway, don't you...?