Sunday, June 25, 2017

All over the place like the barometer

This week has been a cluster of diversities, starting with Word Play, a new show from Visual Radio Arts: Four performance poets, Liv Torc, John Christopher Wood, Moira Andrews & me, gathered in the studio on Saturday to be interviewed by David Chandler and perform a set ~ it all went out live and now there's a classy remix version on the website here!

Words at the Black Swan, the poetry workshop linked to each new exhibition in the Long Gallery, reconvened after a long break with a strong stimulus in the work of Ricky Remain. Despite the temperature on Monday afternoon rising over 30° this was a really good session, with thoughtful discussion leading to some powerful pieces of writing.

And then for a complete change of focus, I was a time traveller for three days with Feet First, walking the story of the universe with Annabelle Macfadyen. We start 4.6 billion years ago and pace the earth's story from stardust to 2017 in 5-million-year steps, through catastrophes and the recoveries to the realisation that only in the last half-pace of our long journey does Sapiens appear. Every group of children ~ we did the walk for five groups, in three different Somerset venues ~ buzzed with fascinating questions afterwards, and their enthusiasm was awesome.

It's been a great week for parties and music. Here's Bonne Nouvelle performing at the Silk Mill, a venue which also proved superb for showing the paintings of David Moss in the exhibition which opened on Thursday ~ vibrant and visceral images inspired by nature, using landscapes, events and memories.

Our regular music events Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar and Jazz at the Cornerhouse both had something special this week: Howard Vause was guest singer for Graham Dent's jazz trio, bringing a cool sensuous ballad mood to a warm Sunday afternoon, and the folk/pop sounds of the Jupiter Owls were a definite hit on Wednesday night.
And as a Friday night bonus, the legendary Pete Gage Band rocked Sam's Kitchen ~ not one of my usual haunts as I'm not of a fan of their faux-industrial decor and inflated bar prices, but a fantastic quartet like this makes a visit compulsory. Pete's amazing voice creates uniquely vibrant shades of blue in the blues, and Paul Hartshorn's guitar playing is breathtaking.

My week ended as it began, with live poetry: this time to the audience of Words & Ears at Chippfest, organised by Dawn Gorman as a charity event (Hospice Care and Moving on from Homelessness) at a pub barn embellished in Byzantine splendour. Good to re-meet poets with whom I've performed before ~ Patrick Osada, Peter Wyton & Sue Boyle, as well as Frome's Moira Andrew and Dawn herself, and fabulous to discover the poetry of Maggie Harris, who I've persuaded, I think, to come to Frome soon.

And on this lyrical note, don't forget the Frome Poetry Festival Cafe this year has, as well as a marvellous guest in the person of Deborah Harvey, the usual contest to crown a new Festival Poet Laureate. This prestigious title, currently held by Bath bard John Christopher Wood (who took the role seriously enough to write an Ode for Mayor Toby on the occasion of his running in the Frome Half Marathon) provides the recipient not only with kudos but a certificate and a bottle of bubbly donated by Frome Wholefoods.  This year for the first time contestants have a theme: as there are several other events in the festival honouring the centenary of southwest essayist and war poet Edward Thomas, it's That Adlestrop Moment, and we want short poems of personal epiphany, those glimpses of ordinary life that somehow illuminate something beyond the ordinary...

Here's the Edward Thomas poem which inspired the theme, but your poem doesn't have to follow that form ~ haiku, limerick, freeform all acceptable ~ and will probably be a moment in time located somewhere other than a railway station! 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Dramatic anarchy, protest art, wild music & Word Play...

Julius Caesar is arguably the most political play ever written and there could hardly be a better time than now for Bristol Old Vic's production of Shakespeare's tale of ambition and chaos in ancient Rome. We're still in Italy, true, but in a symbolic cityscape of dark skies and towering columns, slogan-scrawled & more like struts on a mighty motorway than marble pillars, where excited crowds invade the auditorium. Julian Glover's Caesar enters like a cross between a scary Godfather boss and the charismatic older leader of a popular contemporary party, and the timelessness of conflict is plangent in every aspect of director Simon Dormandy's thrilling interpretation.
As with BOV's excellent King Lear last year, the performance showcases the talents of graduating students from the Theatre School alongside the expertise of a small group of more experienced practitioners, and like last year this combination results in an unforgettable theatre experience. Among the young performers Freddie Bowerman is strong as reluctant conspirator Brutus and Ross O'Donnellan is superb as Mark Anthony, somehow making those famous impassioned words sound dangerous and new. Design is also a team effort in a collaboration that works well: sharp costume and great lighting enhance overall visuals and there are some great touches ~ the glittering chandelier a symbolic crown over Caesar's head, Mark Anthony's suit-carrier, and the house lights coming on for his rallying speech making all the audience complicit... On till July 1, highly recommended.
Still in Bristol, Tobacco Factory Theatres has a double bill of short plays developed from Bristol Ferment. Bea Roberts, a Devon writer whose previous play And Then Come The Nightjars I really loved, is now touring with Infinity Pool. Her previous play was about the ravages of foot & mouth which sounds tedious and grim but was totally engaging: this one is 'a modern retelling of Madame Bovary' which sounds saucy and satiric but is more of a retelling of Bridget Jones. There's a pleasing irony about a theatre show constructed entirely from projected digital imagery so that we have to imagine the story rather than watch it and though there are more jokes than insights Bea is a skilful and popular performer who is winning praise throughout this tour.
Following Bea's silent story of faltering online romance, a complete contrast as Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutas approach their audience smiling and ask us all to hold hands, an icebreaker so unexpected it actually works. Eurohouse seems at first a playfully friendly piece of physical theatre, but the mood darkens into trickery and bullying which escalates up to a shock reveal that their real agenda is to expose how life in Greece has been damaged by the terms imposed after their economy collapsed. Fellswoop Theatre hatched this provocative & powerful show with support from Bristol's Mayfest and it won an award for experimentation and innovation at Edinburgh last year.

Barney Norris is another young playwright from the Southwest ~ he grew up in Wiltshire ~ and his work is massively acclaimed so I was sorry to miss Echo's End, a tale of young lovers, and keen to see his other new production While We're Here at Salisbury Playhouse. This tale of middle-aged not-lovers has been well received: one critic found a Chekhovian comic sadness in the exchanges, which translates as a bit like one of those banal conversations you overhear on a bus. The actors are both excellent. Tessa Peake-Jones, David Jacobs girlfriend from Only Fools & Horses, is the dim-but-cheery woman well and Andrew French the only black man in Havant, a town whose very name resonates a wistful sense of something absent. He wishes he was somewhere else, she doesn't know what to wish for apart from nice decor. Unacknowledged loneliness is a familiar theme, as is imagining the dreary lives of those older than us when we are young.  Norris says in his press release 'So much of England is made up of towns like Havant where people get by, and dream of more, and pass their lives in the leap between their realities and their aspirations.'  There are some good lines (“If the whole world exists and you’re living in Havant, that’s quite a life choice really" ) but like the sheep on Cumbrian hills to which the woman rather strangely likens herself, they don't go very far. Image: Mark Douet

Nunney Accoustic Cafe celebrated their 10th anniversary with a huge weekend party but I missed most if it (a very lovely wedding, so a much happier reason than the virus of which I have much spoken) though I did catch a couple of great acts on Saturday evening: Wychonsky's punk band belting out Babylon's Burning and the fantastic Al O'Kane with his band.

Sunday jazz continues at the Cornerhouse: Here's Kevin Figes quartet playing Nordic tunes in a Scandanavian themed jam session. And both my favourite bands were playing on the Silk Mill stage at Friday's Wild Whiskey Rebellion ~ at one point simultaneously, which was particularly impressive as there are six Back Wood Redeemers and Captain Cactus with his gorgeous Screaming Harlots are a 9-piece! A great night with much dancing.

Also on Friday, Black Swan Arts launched their new exhibition In the Absence of Truth. Dorset artist Ricky Romain is a Human Rights activist who uses art to reflect on political issues and themes of immigration, war crimes, torture and other injustices. Powerful and timely, this is also the show that will relaunch Words at the Black Swan drop-in workshops to respond to each new exhibition in writing ~ restarting Monday 19 June, 3-4.30 in the gallery. Here's Ricky, and there'll be a discussion & talk on June 29.

Ending with words, and I'm beyond pleased that the sunshine this week lured my voice back in time for a chat with Frome Fm's On-Air Book Group and a recording on Saturday at Visual Radio Arts. Phil Moakes, artistic director & main inspiration for this new venture, had the admirable idea of including poetry as well as music in his schedule. For this inaugural Word Play session I was joined by Liv Torc, Moira Andrew, and John Christopher Wood, David Chandler interviewed us and we each did a little set, and you can see it all HERE!

Thursday, June 08, 2017

O brave new world...

These are difficult days for an arts blogger to keep politics out of the local picture, and I realise my red slip does show from time to time. This may be another of those times. Starting with a visit to 
Salisbury's International Arts Festival to hear Mark Steel, not doing stand-up but confined to an armchair interview by an LBC presenter, sadly no James O'Brien. From the opening question ('How do you manage to swear on stage and be a dad?') to his finale ('Satire is dead' - a familiar quip but an odd way to end a chat with a satirist) the interrogation was heavy-handed though Mark was excellent, conveying conviction as well as wit and good humour, and admitting 'the terrible thing is this awful feeling of lingering hope.'
Back to neutral topics:
Frome's monthly Independent Market mustered the usual crowds despite desultory sunshine, with the usual cornucopia of edibles, quaffables, and esoteric buyables, with lots of activities for the children. Music is always a strong feature:
This month we had lively trad/folk from Lost Revellers on the busking stage, folk/rock ballads from Partners in Crime at the Archangel, and Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse to round off the day. That's how a market should sound!

Warminster Community Radio's grooving Monday afternoon host Kowalski invited me on to his show to talk about upcoming events in the writing world so I'll end this short post with a look ahead to the rest of this month for me: Words at the Black Swan writing workshops restarting on 19th with a free drop-in from 3.00-4.30, a guest spot at Chippfest on 24th, and three days of Time Walk shows in different locations for schools in Somerset. Fingers crossed I'm back to full-strength functioning for them all... smiley face!

And in the meantime, here's what Frome is doing tonight at the Silk Mill...

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Murder, mystery, pirates & a reborn reprobate

Last year, you may remember, was the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, but you may not know it was also for Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu. The Confucius Institute felt the coincidence deserved a play-writing contest, which Bath writer Clare Reddaway won: she and her cleverly entertaining play The Red Court, produced by Rapscallion Theatre, will go to Shanghai later this year after a couple of local previews. I caught it at Burdall's Yard as part of Bath's Fringe Festival. The plot blends the true story of a 5-year-old political murder involving corruption in the Chongqing province with Macbeth, using Shakespeare's twin themes of ambition and betrayal plus a few direct quotes to bind the two stories succinctly together. Four actors take on all the key roles: Mayur Bhatt is impressive as ruthlesss Wu, with Michelle Wen Lee the wife who, like Lady Macbeth, was wicked but not quite so ruthless... and despite the sinister theme there are moments of comedy, mostly from Sarah Curwen as a brutal Mongolian Police chief with a Yorkshire accent, also rapidly switching from oriental fortune teller to narrator. Ashley Green is strong as both the US Embassy official and the English fixer-victim. Simple and effective setting and tight directing from Carolyn Csonka ~ the Shanghainese are in for a treat.

Visiting Bath was also an opportunity to catch the Brueghel exhibition at the Holburne Museum.  Here I learned Brueghel was not a painter but a dynasty ~ a mini-factory almost, as many of their paintings are versions of Pieter the Elder’s most popular ones re-composed from ‘cartoons’ of stock characters merry-making at festivals or rubber-necking at bible stories, all re-envisaged in Flemish surroundings. Most fascinating was a Pieter the Younger painting of The Procession to Calgary, a massive landscape scene painted with minute detail and almost photographic depth of field. Legends next to the paintings are cursory but I learned a lot from an informative volunteer who pointed out the strange composition, with the central focus on a nun giving alms to a beggar, rather than the struggling christ deep in the festive procession. Other anachronistic figures representing simple charity are dotted about too, and there's a solitary observer who looks like the artist... This 1602 version of his father's painting forty years before might hide a big secret: with Flanders violently divided between Reformation and Counter-Reformation, perhaps this particular Brueghel was out of sympathy with the Catholicism of his wealthy patrons. The not-so-hidden clues point that way.

Another double-purpose trip on Wednesday, to Bristol, for a Treasure Island Story Walk around the docks in afternoon sunshine with a swashbuckling pirate in another production from Show of Strength. Our 18th Century guide entertained his group of mainly families with lots of arrrrghs and some terrible pirate jokes but the children following this charismatic Pied Piper all seemed to grasp the plot whether they'd read Robert Lewis Stevenson's yarn or not. I was one of the 'nots', having as a child little interest in doubloons, but it was fascinating see the connections with the taverns and caverns of Bristol Docks.

And then to Colston Hall, to see Russell Brand in his RE-BIRTH tour. I'd love to tell you about it but you can't describe a Russell Brand show, it's a sort of hurricane of hilarity, vulgarity, and social critique, with moving moments and inspirational moments and a massive amount of prancing. The difference between this tour, he says, and his last one is his daughter, born at the end of last year, whose arrival has changed his life. There's also the fact he's off drink, and drugs, and is now monogamous, all of which have impacted on his life ~ and also inspired some wildly funny stage routines. Russell Brand's outrage at media and consumerism is well-known but I didn't expect him to show clips of his campaigning interviews, freeze-framing to ridicule his words and antics and to marvel at his naivety in trying to bring about social revolution. So what does Russell Brand want to do now, apart from performing to wild applause? Ending on a serious note, he talks about love, loving his daughter, and using love to make the world a better place for her to live, reminding us that in a hundred years time we won't be alive but our ideas will have shaped the future... My friend Esther Nagle (we met at the Polers'n'Poets event earlier this year) managed to get a hug and a photo in the interval when she gave him her yoga book, and he mentioned that gift as he closed the show. Not a night anyone there will forget, especially not Esther.

Regular readers may notice there's no mention in this post of The Lurgy. That's because, though it's still holding my larynx hostage and kicking my energy level down to the basement, I have devised a cunning plan to co-exist with it: viz, alternating days between active and inert. So I've still missed whole days of things but it's now a plan, a bit  like the 5:2 diet you could say. And I'm posting this early because both the Brueghel exhibition and the Treasure Island Story walk are only running till Sunday so this weekend is your last chance!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

away-days and sunshine

Bath Festival has been urging us to JUMP IN their ten-day event this year, a compressed version of the usual music and literature festivals but still looking pretty jiggy with a wide range of lively events. Writer Alison Clink & I checked in to Miniature Marvels, billed as a look at 'the art of the short story' though more accurately at the art of the three writers on the panel, with some overall comments from the Bath Spa lecturer chairing.
More stimulating was the screening of Psycho, original black-and-white, with a live soundtrack from the Bath Philharmonic Orchestra, and never did that eek eek eek! as Janet Leigh wriggles under the shower sound more scary... Rosie Finnegan and I had front row seats in the art deco splendour of the Forum, originally built as a cinema though since a dance-school, bingo hall, and even a church. I found I'd forgotten much about this Hitchcock classic ~ like that the second half is a whole other story with a second victim, and also how incredible Anthony Perkins is in this role.

And I also went along with Alison to hear Fay Weldon talk about her latest novel, The Death of a She-Devil, in which she revisits her most infamous character 40 years later in a sequel that interviewer Alex Clark referred to cautiously as 'rather controversial' (for which read, widely slagged off). Ms Weldon's responses were also rather controversial, which made the interview highly entertaining. 'They are young, they'll grow up' she says of her feminist detractors, and suggests 'as soon as women stop seeing themselves as victims of a patriarchy, their lives will improve.' Alex response is a sharp intake of breath and spluttered references to violence & misogyny, concluding 'Where has that all come from?'  'It may have come from the fact that men feel so disregarded,' says Fay sweetly, continuing to smile as the silence lengthens. The topic then shifts to her backlist and working habits. I'm pleased to hear that Fay's writing policy coincides with mine: 'The minute you get dressed you've had it,' she says, 'so I just don't get up.' Applause at the end was long & loud, and rightly so.

Feet First, the outdoor theatre group Annabelle Macfadyen and I co-run, has three days of bookings in Somerset for our TIME WALK with school parties in June so we've been checking out routes in our new venues... this week we had a superbly sunny day in Ham Hill Country Park, a gorgeous area of grass and woodland with some fabulous ancient trees and, appropriately, a Time Stones sculpture.

Also relishing this burst of sunshine were the organisers of the Campfire Conversations event in Frome on Thursday evening. Annabelle and Peter Macfadyen introduced this project with a real campfire in the garden of the Hubnub Centre followed by real conversations, with supper, inside in the Rye Bakery. The aim is to engage positively and imaginatively with real alternatives to present conflictive theories. It was Einstein, Annabelle reminded us in her succinct introduction, who said "Imagination is more important than knowledge" and this radical approach has grown from a festival ethos, supported by Brian Eno and led by Pete Lawrence who recognised from his Big Chill organising experience the possibilities generated by small group discussions. Also present were Indra Adnam and Pat Kane who were inspired by the Danish Alternative Party (and by Frome's 'Flat-pack Democracy') to create The Alternative UK, not a party but a platform with the aim of 'reimagining politics'. They argue that the 'apathetic majority' is a misnomer: people are simply massively dissatisfied with party-politics as a concept. Conversations from the start revealed wide range of opinions among the fifty participants, but also a willingness to listen and discuss. (Probably it helped that the election was off-limits as a topic!) My personal thought-of-the-night came from Pete Lawrence when campfire conversation turned to how long we'll have to wait for a revolution. "The revolution has happened," he said, "it’s happened in an unexpected way with unexpected people, but it has happened.” Brexit and Trump as the volcanic rumblings before the cosmic social eruption... it's a good thought.
Poetry and music were, of course, part of the mix of the night: Folk trio Borrowed Light played as we arrived, and Vicki Burke's harp accompanied supper, after which Liv Torc read a funny & euphoric celebration of Life and Rose Flint shared her beautifully hopeful poem Because. Table conversations were clearly lively and fruitful but sadly (see moan below about my ongoing lurgy) I didn't stay long enough to hear Liv's summary, wondering: What if... We become constellations of culture / Get Google maps to chart us / like a new universe / and trip advisor to rate the satisfaction / of our hearths and hearts / A roaring conflagration of voices / Grassroots twitching between our toes. It's viewable on her facebook page and it's inspiring - do take a look.

So despite some real highlights this has been a sub-par kind of week, half-full of cancellations ~ The Island at Tobacco Factory and three music sessions (trad jazz at Three Swans, Pete Gage at Sam's Kitchen, and Reg Meuross at the Grain Bar, all of whom I was sorry to miss.)
My voice is now a steady rasp rather than mostly mouthing with the odd fox-bark sound, and days have been fabulously sunny so happily I was able to end the week without missing  John Law, Pete Maxfield and Billy Weir playing breathlessly exciting jazz with Nic Sorensen at the Cornerhouse.  I'll end with a picture of this, and one from the vibrant exhibition from Artists 303 currently in the Round Tower, and hopes of full recovery next week.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A week that wasn't, ending with drama and a Big Bash

I'll begin at the end of the week, because that was the best bit: The Merlin Short Play Competition had its superb finale on stage, with rehearsed readings by Frome Drama Club of the six winning plays. Here's the final line-up, chosen from seventy-seven submissions and a very strong long-list, and here's Claudia Pepler who initiated and master-minded this brilliant celebration of new drama, in role with Philip de Glanville in the gentle mystery Meet me at the Nightingale. 
Allison Herbert and Dan Gaisford here are in the dystopian satire Post Truth, and Tracy Ashford is looking askance at Nick White in Plan B, a comedy with an unexpected twist.
These versatile actors also took on Hot Tub Blues, a comedy of bickering with a happy ending, and Not Dead Yet, a very unusual vampire story. Mhairi Milligan's reading of Just of the Boat, a moving monologue of our times ended the performances, and a short Q&A afterwards confirmed audience appreciation of this varied & entertaining selection of winning plays. Congratulations to all the writers, who can list this success on their CV in future submissions, and hopefully the two able to come and see their scripts 'go live' found the experience a valuable part of the process of play-writing. Win-win all.
Friday night was also the Mayor's Charity Bash, an important night in Frome when the outgoing mayor organises a public entertainment with all proceeds to local organisations, and this year Mayor Toby Eliot had a new Town Hall to do it in.  So after the show at the Merlin we scooted across town to join the celebrations organised, too late to hear the excellent set by Deputy Mayor Al O'Kane but in time for the excellent set by Mayor Toby's fabulous band Back Wood Redeemers. As well as mandolin, those chains in no way impede his harmonica skills either!  We were in time too to see Des Harris win the hat competition, here he is with Stina Harris, and here's the one he took of me in my hat, looking like I think I'm still holding a glass of prosecco... After the band there was disco & dancing till midnight ~ a great way to finish a week that had up till then been pretty rubbish.

My persistent cold-&-throat thing had become unignorable, revealing its true colours (lurid) and literally silencing me. Most of this week has therefore been about cancelling: a meeting about a play, a meeting about a performance, a writers' group meeting, a theatre visit for review, the Last Tree Dreaming commemoration plaque unveiling, and an open-mic night of 'perilous reading' to celebrate Dracula's 120th publication-birth, and the Roots Session at the Grain Bar, where I really wanted to hear the Fos Brothers who grew up in Belfast in the troubled '70s not far from where I lived at the start of that era.
So here's two snippets from the week before - plans for future events - when my lurgy was gripping but my voice hadn't gone completely awol: I had a useful meeting with Phil Moakes, founder and organiser of Visual Radio Arts in his revamped home in the Old Fire Station, to discuss a future live on-air performance poetry session with four local poets.
And I was privileged to stand in for Stephanie Cole in a read-through of John Payne's script for the Life and Work of Edward Thomas event in Frome Festival, here's me with James Laurenson and Martin Bax.

Footnote to this ravaged week: I did manage a quick dip into the Museums at Night national project supported by Frome's Black Swan Arts, involving evening events at several galleries including The Good Gallery where Kate Cochrane is showing her splendid paintings of Tasmania. I'll leave you two images from the Cornerhouse, always a friend to live music: Graham Dent's new jazz line-up, and marvellous Blue Midnight, extraordinary ska/dub rhythms blended with a touch of scottish and turkish... Here's hoping for more happenings to report on next week.