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.

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