Sunday, October 30, 2016

Ghosts & monsters as halloween hovers...

Another week, another theatrical tale of a mutilated victim, as Salisbury Playhouse commissioned comedy duo Living Spit to recreate Mary Shelley's tragic monster Frankenstein.  Howard Coggins and Stu McCloughlin are brilliant at creating a somehow-recognisable storyline from their chaotic double-act so it's reassuring when, stepping out through the plush red curtains in immaculate evening dress, they explain all they've added for this big-stage, bigger-budget, production is a four-piece backing band. The programme suggests other parts are played by ‘members of the cast’ but happily that's just Stu as usual, capering around in various costumes when not in his underpants (and sometimes out of them) being a monster. The extra musicality is great, and there are puppets too, including a hamster called Greg, but basically it's the mixture as before: Howard and Stu hogging the action and upstaging each other, banter and faux-rivalry, absurdity and vulgarity, a thin thread of authenticity, and a little bit of genuine pathos.
There’s always a moment in a Living Spit show when you realise this is actually like life and not really funny at all (this time it’s when Victor Frankenstein abuses his creation for his ugliness and shows us all how easily a mob can be enticed to jeer).  Apparently this story when first published in 1817 was described as ‘a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdities’. “We’re expecting similar reviews for this show” the programme notes conclude. On till November 5th, well worth seeing.
Tobacco Factory Theatres has combined with Sherman Theatre for a revival of Connor McPherson’s award-winning 1997 play The Weir in which reminiscences flow like lager (the Guiness is off) in a rural Irish pub where superstition is still part of life and there’s 'no dark like a winter night in the country'. This is a play about being haunted by losses and regrets, about tedium and drinking, a play about Auld Oirland, represented by the dingiest pub imaginable and motley crew of lonely drop-ins swapping mordbid tales in Oirish as they sup their way through a dismal evening. Think Father Ted without the bawdy mirth, think a pitch-dark version of Wendy’s stories to comfort the lost boys in the Never-Never Land. “We’ll all be ghosts soon enough” says one of the men. It’s the sense of place and atmosphere, according to the writer himself, that made this play special: he saw it as like eavesdropping for an evening - ‘a little snow-globe, a perfectly contained world of its own.' Tobacco Factory is usually brilliant at creating such a world of imagination in the round, but for this production there's a massive set of detailed structure which the characters roam around, rather than creating any sense of intimacy. Orla Fitzgerald is impressive as the woman whose arrival sets the competitive story-telling rolling, and the four men are strong on roguish charm though the barman in particular doesn't seem comfortable with the accent. There’s an exchange early on that sums up the play: ‘You’re making very heavy weather of this story,’ says Finbar, and Jack replies unphazed ‘You have to relish the details.’ Showing till 5th November.

Death is a brave topic for stand-up, but Drift Snowbarger, the new Storytelling Bard of Somerset, pulled it off in the suitably gothic upstairs room of the Three Swans on Friday. As well as laughing, quite a lot, I learned some interesting mordant facts, like false knees can't be made of magnetic material, and that I - and you - can be buried anywhere we want as long as we don't contaminate the water. There was genuine personal feeling at the heart of this monologue, too. George Bernard Shaw, who famously opined 'Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh,' would have approved.

Staying with dark laughter: Austentatious promised a uniquely improvised Jane Austen novel, on a theme provided by the audience, at the Merlin Theatre on Saturday. The title allegedly picked at random was The Curse of Candlestick Manor ~ appropriate for an evening when Frome townsfolk were already anticipating Halloween in ghoulish costumes (and even the bakeries are full of horror...)
Six cast members, plus violinist, all look gorgeously Regency-stylish for this parody of the melodramatic gothic genre, but the narrative felt a bit flaccid and lacking in authentic edge. These actors are clearly all talented entertainers, so it would have been great to see genuine audience involvement, suggestions audible, and with the addition of roles played 'in the manner of...'   Instead it was pleasant and often amusing but all rather mono-toned.

Finally this week:  the current exhibition at Frome's Black Swan gallery is the Arts Open Exhibition, a prestigious event with prizes of materials, framing and masses of cash in various categories for the judges' favourites - and, still up for grabs, £250 for the 'public choice', so pop along and vote!  You'll also see a fabulously varied array of amazing artworks, impressively curated.  On until 19th November.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Anarchic drama, music, dancing ~ and a bit of poetry

Highlight of this week is Bristol Old Vic's stunning new production The Grinning Man. Based on a story by Victor Hugo, re-written by Carl Grose of Dead Dog in a Suitcase (about which I also raved), this 'macabre musical' is immensely effective and affecting. I left the theatre feeling I’d spent three hours at a freaky Tim Burtonesque carnival inside a Terry Gilliam head with Pete Townsend's Tommy ~ but you need to see this for yourself, there are so many strands in this re-envisioning of the original tale and so much topical relevance in the re-conceiving of Bristol as the setting for this extraordinary story of a lost and damaged child who takes on a Messianic role for a lost and damaged society ~ “A story so terrible it could only be true”
Music and lyrics (by Tim Phillips & Mark Teitler) are amazing, not only giving heart to individual characters but also creating a crazy world that darkly mirrors our own ("If you think a change of king -will change the mess you’re living in - learn the rules - you stupid fools")
The cast are all fantastic ~ I was especially impressed with Julian Bleach as the jester and Sean Kingsley as Ursus, the children's adoptive father. And there's more to relish: the skilfully-animated puppets of the children and the wolf, the extraordinary set with its leering grins and snare-like cavities, the wonderland-world costumes, that terrifying grin finally revealed, and the glorious moment when these two beautiful disfigured lovers finally run from the stage, stepping over the heads of the audience as though we were only a part of their dream. Director Tom Morris has made something really great happen here. On till 13 November, drop everything and book right now.

Back in the real world where suffering children don't have such a happy ending, if The Sun newspaper has anything to do with it, RAISE (Refugee Action In Somerset East) put on a gig at Frome's Silk Mill to raise money for refugees in Calais. Popular local band Back Wood Redeemers gave us a great set of their 'songs of misery, debauchery, and religious fervour' and ~ despite demise of Flounder's banjo ~ they did, as promised, get the joint jumping.

Wells Festival of Literature  was on throughout last week and though autumn sunshine made it hard to abandon the Bishops Palace Gardens I did make it to the marquee for Write Up Speak Up. This participatory event was organised by Bee Brook and compered by gorgeous Liv Torc whose brilliant opening set lifted the bar to the roof.
Also unforgettable was near-nonagenarian Jane Williams with a spirited rap 'Getting old is shit' which practically brought the house down, bar and all. I would say I was proud to be in their company, but actually it was a bit humbling. Here's a photo of the full moon that night, anyway.

Terribly sad news in Frome this week was the death of Griff Daniels, initiator of the Roots Grain Bar Sessions and many other events, guitarist and singer with iconic bands like The Critters, The Valley, Dempseys, as well as the popular duo Nicki & Griff. He was a friend to everyone and an all-round wonderful man.

Finally: Take a look at this short (3.59 mins) movie of the amazing Frome Street Bandits created from the darkly anarchic mind of & genius skills of Howard Vause: it's called The Wood The Brass And The Funky and it's brilliant. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Art, music, theatre ~ usual mix, with 3 new treats!

Starting with art: Art Squared is the title and presentation concept of the Frome Art Society exhibition showing at Black Swan's Round Tower until 6 November ~ an intriguing range of subjects and painting styles, and a chance to credit your favourite in the 'public vote' .

Every 2nd-Sunday of the month I aim to make the three-mile trip from Frome to Nunney for Acoustic Cafe, always good performers & great refreshments, and sometimes I actually get there... this time I did, to hear Ba Pardhy with her band and other excellent acts including Carl Sutterby playing Clash & his daughter Gwen commendably following his punk footsteps by playing Green Day.
Another regular local get-together deserving credit, though I rarely get to it, is Griffin Open Mic which this week had a varied lineup with some strong acts ~ here's Nick Balura, organiser and guitarist.
The session I never miss if in town is Roots at the Grain Bar, this week extra special with wildly popular local band Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots and their 'whirlwind of swampy folk blues' with harmonies ~ a romping chaos of must-dance music.

Theatre update now ~ and, as last week, another adaptation of a period novel about love between social unequals. The Woodlanders, from touring company Hammerpuzzle, was written only 20 years before Room with a View (reviewed in previous post) and deals with similar social barriers.  But because EM Forster’s mantra was ‘Only Connect’ and Thomas Hardy’s appears to have been ‘Life’s a Bitch and Then you Die’, instead of a feel-good ending with love conquering all, the only glimmer in the gloom of Hardy’s story is a posy of snowdrops on a snowy grave…
The mundane misery of this saga is interrupted only by melodrama, especially in the second act, which poor Grace, (sundered from her lover by, well, cruel fate is the simplest summary) spends in well-modulated rants while her brute of a husband repeatedly concusses himself falling off a horse called Darling. (Remember when Tess of the d’Urbervilles had a baby called Sorrow, and it died?). These characters don’t have personalities, they are figures in a hopeless continuum of loyalty and fickleness, morality and immorality; the set is composed largely of crates and a step ladder, and the performance features both those potentially cringe-making elements: singing and mime.
Yet somehow this is a terrific production. I really can’t imagine a better adaptation, and by the time Grace’s last vestige of social propriety is clearly going to cause the death of her beloved Giles, it was a struggle not to weep. The cast of five were all fantastic, with Adam Fuller as low-born Giles and Katy Sobey as posh Felice Charmond both outstanding. Parchment and sepia tones of lighting and costume enhanced the surreal sense of a written story coming to life. I’m not a fan of Hardy, as you can tell, but this co-production with Cheltenham Everyman, directed by Bryn Holding, is totally engrossing theatre. Sadly the tour finishes on 16 October - look out for their next.

Fun footnote this week:
I don't usually include social get-togethers in my blog but this splendid birthday bash at the Cheese & Grain was a party-plus-performance with a starry line-up including Martin Dimery's Unravelling Wilburys and a fabulous flame-juggling fire-eater too..

Friday, October 07, 2016

Six shows, two openings and a market

From April till December, rain or shine, the first Sunday of the month is Independent Market day in Frome, so it was specially delightful that October's market enjoyed glittering sunshine on a balmy day. As always, roads are closed to traffic and the streets filled with a medley of stalls offering everything imaginable from retro frocks & elfin caps to tastings of cheese & chutney & chocolate (lots of chocolate). There's cider & churros, bicycle-tube earrings & candelabra made from plumbing, vintage cutlery & Victorian mementos, hippy Barbie dolls & crème caramel tartlets filled with fresh raspberries (I can vouch for those) and great live music too: local acts on the busking stage, and the Archangel hosting a lively ceilidh band in their courtyard. Frome Writers always have their stall out, and this Sunday there was also a Nude Commute signing at Hunting Raven Books, despite their current brief closure for refurbishment.
And David Lassman, creator of the Regency Detective series featuring Mr.Whicher-ish Jack Swann, led a series of short walks around the town to identify historic features  in his books, as impressively researched for his latest mystery The Circle of Sappho.  Fascinating to imagine ghosts from the past striding these cobbles as wool bales are loaded onto the London wagon outside the coaching inn on Gentle Street, to find the old lock-up (1798) at the end of Christchurch graveyard, see where Frome's own poet, Elizabeth Singer Rowe lived - and the two columns that stand as monument to the ambitions of Thomas Bunn who longed for Frome to vie with Bath in architectural style...

The Edinburgh-acclaimed Nottingham Playhouse production Tony's Last Tape came to Frome's Merlin Theatre on Sunday.  Written by Andy Barrett, this is performed by Philip Bretherton who is surprisingly effective as he doesn’t actually sound, look or move like Tony Benn or even any octagenarian. As evoked by the title, the piece starts as Samuel Beckett’s play did: an old man among his recording devices, with fumbling in pockets, peering and muttering, and even - as Krapp’s stage directions require -  takes out a banana, peers at it, strokes it, peels it, … meditatively eats banana.   But unlike Krapp, Tony Benn listens to few of his tapes as he contemplates his next speech ~ apparently an obituary for a colleague ~ and tries to avoid retelling old jokes, repeatedly sidetracked by nostalgia or distracted by gadget, remembering moments both glorious and tender, angrily mourning ‘the Blair terror’ and the market-branding of his party that strangled even the word socialism… (image Robert Day)
Not just homage to a hero, this piece is also extraordinarily relevant and everyone in the audience must have had goosebumps to hear that sneer ‘if you carry on we’ll be completely sidelined and unelectable’….   From ‘the most dangerous man in politics’ to ‘national treasure’, these real recollections from Tony Benn’s diaries show a man of huge integrity, who loved his wife and family (though he does seem to have doubted whether Hillary was suited to politics), who never forgot his brother’s death, who enjoyed Ealing comedies, and tea, and his pipe, and always believed Parliament is utterly useless as an agent of change - on the ground, in the streets is where it starts.  You have to be hopeful. Because there is no final victory, just the same battles that happen over and over... And here he is for real, at a Frome Labour Party party in 1989,  that's me looking dazzled next to him. It was my room at Frome College too. O the pride!

Monday was Autumn Poetry Cafe night in Frome with guest Hannah Teesdale whose new collection Laid Bare is out now, published by Burning Eye Books.  Hailed by reviewers as 'eloquently and endearingly brutal', 'vivid and visceral', Hannah's poems have quirky humour too and she's one of our most popular visitors at the cafe. A great open-mic session included pieces on seasonal subjects from the joy of toast to the savagery of grouse-shooting: good to welcome back regular favourites, like Dawn Gorman, John Christopher Wood, and Bee Brooks, and to hear new voices too (hello young Molly Turner, whose 'Dad can't cook'...)
Over to Bath now, for more theatre:
“All we ask is to remain being the writers of our own story, to retain the freedom to shape our lives in ways consistent with our characters” wrote Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, his 2014 bestseller on ‘illness, medicine, and what matters in the end’.  Canadian John Mighton is a philosopher and mathematician as well as an award-winning playwright, and his 2003 play (set in 1999) Half Life, at Ustinov Studio Theatre offers case-study drama on a crucial contemporary problem: how do elderly parents deal with being infantilised by their children and carers? This is a play about the duties of care, and loitering in institution corridors, and the importance, or not, of memory. The cast of eight are excellent ~ Helen Ryan as the early-stage-dementia mother is so sweet you want to take her home as a pet, though she would probably rather be released into the wild. Timescale charts her late-flowering lust, action is crafted from existential dilemmas about morality and mortality. 'What is the point of growing old?' demands her life-jaundiced son: answers he gets are all about the need for some kind of remembering, but perhaps God will do that for us as the farcical Reverend believes, or perhaps it ultimately doesn't matter who tucks you up at the end of the day as long as your pillows are soft (and there’s still money in your bedside drawer.) Director Nancy Meckler emphasises realism in this zen-like world of wilted colours and wet-playground games and waiting, the set designed by Janet Bird adds surreal chairs on every plane.  On till 5 November.
Also at the Theatre Royal Bath: another dramatic study of social mores but in a different era: EM Forster's turn-of-the-20th-Century novel A Room With A View. Most of the promotion features Felicity Kendal as silly spinster Charlotte Bartlett  ~ she is superb in this role ~ but the heroine of the tale, naive Lucy Honeychurch, is delightfully played by Lauren Coe. In fact, as always at this theatre, it's a strong team, with Charlie Anson's obnoxious Cecil Vyse outstanding among the men, and the cream-and-honey costumes are lip-lickingly gorgeous.
Simon Reade, who adapted the novel, is sensitive to EM Forster's radical feminist views and the social critique at the heart of this story, but the difficulty in a staged version of a great book is that authorial voice matters as much as plot or dialogue. Or more. What I love about this novelist is his underlying compassion and the subtlety of his social anger. Even the most sympathetic and creative adaptation ~ and this is both ~ can suffer from too much overt parody, and the first act certainly did. The scenes in Florence were over-egged, with awkward little street scenarios and an unimpressive slideshow of the sights. In Act Two the action settles much more satisfyingly in the Home Counties, and the skinny-dipping scene (inevitably a challenge since the 1985 movie), is absolutely brilliant ~ no wonder the matrons of Bath were audibly cheering. Director Adrian Noble, on the main stage till 8th October then touring.

A miscellany of launches to conclude this post: New Frome eatery From Perú To You celebrated in international style on Friday night with pisco cocktails and the delicious tones of Bonne Nouvelle, while although Cheese & Grain bar refurbishment was actually completed some time ago, this was the week of the grand launch on Roots Session night with bubbly and music from DLM.
And there were no less than three art exhibition openings: Adam Birtwistle's launch party night at the Silk Mill for The Gathering, his paintings on a theme of Punch & Judy on till 20th October  ~ here's Adam posed with his favourites, the judges ~ and Friday evening was also the official preview of Colour in the Landscape at Stourhead's First-View Gallery, on till 19th October. Frome Artist Kate Cochrane with Annette Burkitt and Geraldine McLoughlin have combined to create an impressive display of glass and gorgeous paintings, including personal responses to the poetry of Rosie Jackson, here with Kate. The third opening was at the Black Swan, but what with walking round Stourhead lake and the pisco sours, that has to wait till next week's bulletin.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Brilliant bonkers ~ from blue to purple

Over to Bristol first, where Tobacco Factory Theatres have combined with Orange Tree Theatre for the first revival of Blue Heart, Carol Churchill's duo originally produced in 1997.  It's a bit of a Marmite play. It could be said to explore the essential incoherence of human interaction or it could be called simply bonkers. Either way, for anyone with an interest in theatre, this is one to see: it's the first revival of a key work by a major playwright, and the superlative cast combine great comic timing with sharp emotional impact.
In Heart’s Desire the action moves stutteringly towards a daughter's return from Australia, in Blue Kettle a man deludes needy women into believing he is their son, but both plays put sharp focus on the challenges of communication. In the first, none of the waiting family can explain their thoughts, and the action constantly repeats, often with comical truncation, as if to give them another chance. In the second play, irrelevant words increasingly intrude making unacknowledged nonsense of everyone’s attempts to explain their feelings. As audience we become voyeurs unable to help these floundering people in situations sometimes moving and sometimes very funny.
Director David Mercatali uses the challenge of the in-the-round venue, where faces are always unreadable from some angles, to enhance this mood, and the lighting design (Chris Swain) is literally brilliant, giving brittle edge to the action. The ten actors are all great, extreme and absurd but somehow creating inherent realism from these perversely unreal situations. In Bristol until 1st October, then at Orange Tree Theatre from 13th until November 11th.
Images The Other Richard. 

Somerset Open Studios is now ending its second & final week ~ 210 venues across the county, offering free access to an amazing range of contemporary artists' work. I'd like to say I viewed at least half, but in fact I only got to see 1/26th... a fascinating range, even in this sample. My personal picks would be Amanda Bee and Sarah Hitchens in Frome, Paul Newman in Castle Cary, and Richard Pomeroy in Bruton, who creates wall-sized acrylic paintings using his own body-print.
This fantastic one, foetal but somehow fearful, was made on White Sheet Hill, the Klimt-like flowering surroundings created later in his studio. "Shockingly, I paint them all individually."  Of everything I saw, and I saw some skilled and exciting work, these massive enigmatic paintings are the most impressive - it would be fantastic if they could come to Frome... They've already been to Russia, so why not?

Also in Bruton, the quirkily bohemian Art Factory celebrated the last weekend of Open Studios with an Open Mic event ~ poems, readings, and story-telling, with sultry sax 'to give it a beatnik flavour'. Carl Sutterby from Frome's Wochynskis played punk classics on the ukulele, and flying the flag for Frome performance poets were brilliant rapper Jake Hight, and me...  Congratulations organiser Bee Brooks ~ a fun event with a party feeling, hope there are more.

And now for something completely different: an author's talk at Spike Island from debut novelist Nadim Safdar with readings from his book Akram's War. It's based on his own experience of growing up in the 'Black Country' and although the radicalisation of disaffected muslims is a key theme, Nadim says 'I didn't set out to write a story about a suicide bomber - it was about love, I thought.' Interesting insights, well steered by director Helen Legg.
Back to Frome to conclude this post with that familiar comment: it's been a great week for music... Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar featured Mark Abis and his Three Pilgrims, an amazing blues trio with a particularly excellent version of St James Infirmary Blues.
And fabulous Purple Fish ~ 'the ultimate classic rock band' came back to the Cornerhouse! And there was dancing...