Thursday, June 30, 2016

Summer storms & classic drama

The Tempest is tale of turmoil caused by power struggles among the old, redeemed through love by the young. How wonderfully calming then, to sit in Frome's splendid amphitheatre, a circle of twelve massive stones created to celebrate the European Union, and watch a quartet of talented young actors perform this story in the evening sunshine of the day an imposed, unnecessary, vote threw our country into disarray. (This blog is about arts in & around Frome, not politics, but as one of the bard's least attractive characters said, if you prick me do I not bleed?)
So I can't thank you enough, Quantum Theatre, for this totally delightful production. High-energy performances combining physical comedy with impassioned storytelling ensured clear narrative and movingly convincing relationships. Harry Boyd was compelling as Prospero and Pippa Lewis & Charlie Russell were enchanting lovers, with Lewis Newman a poignant Caliban - all also quick-changing into nobles, sailors, servants, and (one of my favourites) a quirky street-band trio of Ariels.  Their website has tour dates ~ catch it if you can.

King Lear by contrast is a drama of storms and divisions with no such happy ending. True, the conspirators all die, but so too does nearly everyone else in a relentless trail of machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders. Bristol Old Vic in collaboration with their Theatre School is offering what director Tom Morris describes as a 'unique exploration' of this massive tragedy: students and professionals working alongside each other in every area from set-making to choreography as well as on stage.
The outcome is truly impressive.
Three big names support the large cast of student actors: Timothy West is the king, shifting convincingly from scary volatile to piteous as his outmanoeuvered rage turns to terrible regret. Stephanie Coles is the surprising but very successful choice as his cryptic fool, and David Hargreaves is a strong Gloucester. The rest of the cast ~ Lear's children and their lovers, his friends and enemies, soldiers, servants and followers ~  all deserve distinctions especially Poppy Pedder as Cordelia, Jessica Temple and Michelle Fox (Goneril and Regan), Joey Akubeze as sly servant Oswald and Tom Byrne as wretched Edgar feigning madness to deal with crazy times, with the overall award for stand-out performance going to Danann McAleer as loyal Kent returning from banishment to serve his master in disguise. There's a lot of disguise and duplicity in this disturbingly prescient story: bad people pretending to be good, sane pretending to be crazy, and wise pretending to be fools. And from the opening moments when a map of this kingdom is physically split,  uncomfortable relevance palpably resonates, especially when gentle Cordelia is rejected for refusing to enhance her status by false hyperbole. Top marks too for sound and visuals, with set, effects and costumes all supportive rather than intrusive, as appropriate for this intense and timeless tale. On until 10 July, and has already collected its first 5 star review so do go if you can. (Booking link above)

If it's all getting too stormy for you right now, there's respite on offer at Theatre Royal Bath where Noel Coward's Present Laughter sets the clock back to an era when a chauffeur called Frobisher awaiting in one's car can be called at a moment's notice to ferry a young lady home, and a milieu where she has just spent the night with one's husband.
This frothy tale of egotism, lust and guile all revolves around Garry Essendine, an actor with a penchant for witty repartee and women, who find him irresistible. Yes, a pattern is emerging: Noel Coward did play the part himself in the 1942 tour. The action follows the complexities of Essendine's life and personality, as he engages with women who either adore him or scold him or both (the exception being his housekeeper, a Mrs-Overall figure who seemed to have come from a different comedy.) It's a thin plot but it does enable much shenanigans and some genuinely funny moments, especially in the second act. Part of the reason this production works is Stephen Unwin's confident direction, a bigger part is eye-candy effect ~ sumptuous set, luscious lighting & lovely ladies in gorgeous frocks ~ and major credit should go to Samuel West in the lead role. His Garry Essendine is totally convincing as a charmer of fluctuating egotism, concealing insecurity under banter, afraid of losing what he values most although he still doesn't know what that is... If you like froth that leaves you pondering on what fools these mortals be, you should go see.

Frome enjoyed a festival foretaste from local singer/songwriters Al O'Kane and Emma Shoesmith at Archangel on Sunday afternoon ~ you can hear them both in the Magical Folk Garden on Wednesday (if you haven't got a ticket for Billy Bragg, hashtag festivalclash!) And even before Frome Open Studios art trail has opened there's a vibrant exhibition at the Round Tower in the North Hill House end-of-year students exhibition. And now the town is garlanded with bunting as Frome Festival is underway - ten days of even-more-than-usual music, extra drama, open-access artists' studios, and a cornucopia of talks, readings, workshops, tours, trips, and teatime treats in open gardens.
On a personal note I'm excitedly anticipating a great night at the Poetry Cafe on Monday, and another two great nights on Thursday and Friday as Time Slides has now reached the costume-and-music stage of rehearsal, doing what pub theatre does best ~ a make-you-laugh, leave-you-thinking, affordable show.
Don't worry if you didn't get hold of a programme ~ they have nearly as many inaccuracies as a Brexit leaflet (though without the ruthless planning) ~ either look online or just come along, any day between 1st & 10th of July you should find something somewhere that you'll love...

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The week with an important date... summer solstice!

Yes, summer solstice brought us a full moon ~ first time since 1967 for this coincidence and there won't be another until 20162, apparently ~  so now the days will begin to get shorter and lets hope the rain starts to ease before Worthy Farm is completely under water. Glastonbury is not the only celebration on the horizon of course - here we're gearing up for a fabulous Frome Festival, whatever the weather. On Sunday afternoon the Grain Bar offered a taster from the box of delights that is this year's festival.
I was there to wave flyers for Nevertheless Fringe Theatre and the Poetry Cafe, and to enjoy samples of some of the performers ~ like composer/pianist Stephen Marquiss, spooky ghost-hunter Georgiana Hay and Martin Dimery with a tempting slice of his one-man show Shakespeare Rattle & Roll, showing how Buddy Holly would sing Sigh no more.. hey nonny nonny!
Also among the amazing range of productions there's an immersive theatrical journey entitled Legends of Frome, devised by the creative Edventure apprentices. I've had a peek of this in development and it looks fantastic, but everything ~ even the location ~ is under wraps so you'll have to just book & trust me.
And even though there's so much bubbling under for festival week ~ Friday 1st July to Sunday 10th, if you're not from round these parts ~ the usual art-y life goes on: a superb Roots Grain Bar night on Wednsday from a trio who could hardly get more international: Hiroki Okano from Japan joined by Canadian Domenic DeCicco and and UK's Nigel Shaw, between them sharing more instruments than I could count or name. Stunning session.
Friday night saw the opening of Black Swan Arts 30th Anniversary event, 1000 POSTCARDS, possibly the gallery's most ambitious project ever, and certainly the one causing most curating problems: to display one thousand postcards selected from the deluge submitted for this fundraising event. Launch night on Friday was so crowded the queue to view snaked all around the downstairs cafe as it seemed every entrant & their families wanted to check out the Wall of Fame poster - and view the postcards, of course, all of which are delightful or striking or both, and most of which are brilliant. The exhibition is on till 28th June with all postcards then for sale, including the 'big name' donations.
The market yard had more than stalls on Saturday as a bevy of richly-robed worthies from around the shires arrived to ring their handbells and O-Yea the features of their home in the annual Town Crier contest. They all looked marvellous in their feathered caps and braided robes - I didn't get a snap of the full troop but here's the Frome hosts in their own regalia.

What would life look like if we abandoned our 'civilised' industrial economy? And what other options are there, anyway? We The Uncivilised, an amateur film about a quest for these answers, was screened at Frome's Hubnub Centre on Saturday afternoon. Created by a young couple disillusioned with modern life who set off with a film camera to explore alternatives, this very personal story has some pithy interviews and finds some fascinating locations while ultimately highlighting very recognisable dilemmas. I'd have liked more interviews within the communities but there's excellent support on the website to help these valuable views gain wider awareness.
All of which new old-fashioned ways segueways neatly into my visit to the Earthhouse at the Ancient Technology Centre in Cranborne,  a 200-seater theatre under an earth roof held up by oak tree trunks, lit only by firelight as the sky darkens. Here you can gather around that fire to hear stories from around the world presented with sensational skill by Crick Crack Club. Their theme on Saturday was Bawdy! and there was much of that but other human longings & fears too in tales from Papua New Guinea to South America at this unforgettable event. Nothing like the kind of story-telling that makes you long for a fast-forward button, these were superb performers: immensely endearing quirky styled Nell Phoenix, rhythmic strength TUUT, and Tim Ralphs whose folk-ballad deploring the redundancy of porn-movie fluffers in these Viagaran days was my highlight of the night.
And now as England steadies itself for whatever lies ahead after the big vote, I'll end with a snap of the ECOS amphitheatre, built to celebrate England's joining the European Union. I'm really really hoping I won't have to tag this image with an adapted Wilfred Owen quote:
Oh what made fatuous Fromies toil
To build ECOS at all....

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A funny thing happened on the way to the Fringe...

Bath streets in sunshine are magic, all bubbles & buskers and strollers & singers & silver statues - you could make a massively long alliterative poem about its abounding delights and I was thinking of doing that on Friday when I visited, but instead here’s a haiku: sunshine i love you  / my personal Tramadol / hashtag smiley face.
I was back for the final day of Fringe Arts Bath, to see another Onset production at Burdall's Yard: Fear of God, with a strong central performance from Tiff Burr whose talents will be seen in Frome in Time Slides (about which more below). On then to to see Tinned Pizza Company take on As You Like it in a cleverly adapted & abridged version upstairs at Molloys, a friendly Irish (where Pinot Grigiot is £2.20 a glass, some local emporiums might note...)

Frome, never outdone in revelry,  enjoyed a republican God Save the Queens' Birthday celebration on Catherine Hill on Saturday, graced by her Maj with Young Pretender Chas in tow, Liz flinging aside her handbag and twerking vigorously to Dr Hook's disco sounds. Ciara Nolan & the traders on the hill throw a mean street party so other queens abounded ~ here's me being a queen cat...

Unless you follow the comedy scene closely you may not have heard of Gareth Richards, Naz Osmanoglu, Adam Hess, or Steve Bugeja, but they all want that to change as they head for the Fringe determined to win acclaim, fame, and TV fortune. Frome's Merlin theatre has been hosting three nights of Edinburgh Comedy Previews: the first two events, on Monday & Tuesday, shared the same style of blokeish self-observational humour, but the third night had Annie McGrath so was probably different. Monday was the best I saw, as the stage was set bistro style with club lighting rather than the school assembly look chosen by Tuesday's duo - and it didn't go on so long. All four comedians had their hilarious moments ~ Adam's critique of the Isis flag was one ~ but for me the highlight was Naz ending his set with an evocation of his boarding school as a child - too harrowing to be funny, but unforgettable. (Image: Gareth singing his stupid-white-guy blues)

And finally: with Frome Festival only just over two weeks away, our Nevertheless pub theatre production is coming together and looking great... Patrick Dunn, our wonderful musical director and live-on-stage musician, is recovering from his broken hand (kept that quiet, didn't we) and our talented & energetic cast Tiffany Burr, Gabrielle Finnegan & Matt Harrison, have now all graduated from Bath Spa University theatre course and are devoting their talents & energies into Time Slides, a 'contemporary comedy with an intriguing twist, blending fact, fiction and fantasy' for anyone who likes literature, love, laughter, or life.  Booking through Cheese & Grain, events 712 (Thursday) and 813 (Friday), upstairs at the Cornerhouse 8pm - can you believe we're still only £5?
"Best hour you'll ever have still with a glass in your hand" - audiences to all our previous shows.

Monday, June 06, 2016

They say it's your birthday...

It's been a bumper week for birthdays. First off, Bristol Old Vic at 250 the oldest working theatre in the English-speaking world, celebrating last Monday with an all-day party in King Street where circus performers, dancers, and musicians entertained the crowds enjoying sunshine & festival-style feasting  - viz, vans of international cuisine and fluffy icecream. Inside the actual theatre there were free shows on stage all day. I joined the queues to see Yesterday's Island Revisited, a script-in-hand explanation, with film sequences, about a community drama project in the 1980s.  It was all terrific fun, let's do it again in 2266 for the 500th!

Also part of the BOV celebrations, and also revisiting a previous success: Kneehigh's revival of their 20-year old show about Marc Chagall with the enticing title The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. The romance between first-sight lovers Marc and Bella has fantastic dramatic potential ~ a young Jewish artist struggling to present his surrealist view of the beauty of life in an era of Nazi oppression and world wars. The uxorious couple (Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson) are absolutely delightful but the downside of a show with only two actors is a huge reliance on scripted exposition, mostly in speeches direct to audience. In this long string of information, the moments of interaction, dance and song all shine like lustrous pearls. Lighting design (Malcolm Rippeth) beautifully supports these cameos, and I liked the set (though not everyone did) which for me evoked a half-ruined playground, its angled props like a broken star of David. Live music from Ian Ross and James Gow was great too but how much more magical this would all have been with more show and less tell.

Meanwhile in Bath, Holburne Museum celebrated its 100th anniversary in appropriately elegant style: a soiree on the terrace of the rather beautiful glass-walled new extension and the launch of a book of 'ekphrastic' poems inspired by art in the museum's collection. From Palette to Pen  comprises twenty poems from an impressive list of local poets including Rosie Jackson, Dawn Gorman, Philip Grosse, Claire Williamson, Carrie Etter, and George Szirtes. Prime mover in this project was Frances-Anne King who was aided by Sue Boyle, Linda Saunders & Lesley Saunders in editing this prestigious publication. On a sunny Friday evening, it was delightful to catch up with poet friends there to read or support, including our own current Festival Poet Laureate Steven Payne - who will hand on this annual nomination at Frome's Poetry Cafe on July 4th, so bring your own poem and come along..

Elsewhere in Bath there's a Fringe Arts Festival continuing till 12 June with plenty of art to inspire in the galleries especially in Walcot Street which features exhibitions of work illustrating the utopia/dystopia continuum: Walcot Chapel is brimming with colour & dangling flowers & beautiful pieces like this glass mask, while down the road you're warned to 'be aware the drawings beyond this sign would disturb some people' in a setting like a student flat after a trainspotting-style party. There's much else on too, including daily performances at Burdall's Yard from Onset Productions. It's a fantastic space for theatre - I watched Inward Ripples which features Matt Harrison who will be showing his talents again in Frome in our Nevertheless pub theatre production Time Slides - another pre-festival hint here, as tickets are now bookable...

And in a week positively pulsing with celebrations for anniversaries and birthdays, Frome had a couple too: The Artisan marked their first year in business with fantastic rock cover-band Hammervilles, and writer Alison Clink chose Absolutely Bowie at the Cheese & Grain for her own celebrations. Much dancing occurred at both events. Saturday saw a Carnival party in Victoria Park, and Sunday - blimey is it that time again? - yes, we had another Independent Market day...