I had high hopes of the current Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery
, which I visited on Thursday, and it totally exceeded them. I realised she was more than a clever illustrator from the existential anguish and ever-present incomprehensible wildness that pervades her magical tales of Moominland, but I hadn't expected the richness of her candid & personal paintings - I love this one of her family, with Tove herself slightly caricatured, watching her brothers play chess just before the war. (Lars, the one who is not in uniform, became her business partner & collaborater later in life.)
Tove was a passionate pacifist, and her cover illustrations for the Finnish satirical magazine Garm
throughout the war years show her views. This 1944 one is filled with little Hitlers, robbing farms and households, torching barns, and trying on a crown. There's a tiny little creature clasping the M in this cover, and also on others, who later evolved into Moomintroll... The popularity of the Moomin characters and stories led to comic strips and merchandise but Tove accepted few commercial propositions - for Amnesty, UNICEF and the Red Cross she made an exception. She also seems to have had a filtering policy on her literary illustrations, apparently only taking The Hunting of the Snark, The Hobbit,
and Alice in Wonderland.
After a couple of hours at the gallery I wanted to buy up the gift shop, but calmed myself with a reminder of some of the permanent treasures of this extraordinary little gallery, the first dedicated art-gallery in England and home to treasures like Gainsborough's Linley Sisters
, Murillo's street urchins
, Rembrandt's Girl at a Window
, Reynold's portrait of Mrs Siddons
being tragic, and a mesmeric self-portrait by John Opie
Time then for a wander round the rest of Dulwich with my brother, who has a far better recolletion of this part of south London we both grew up in, me in the 1950s and he in the '60s. It's changed a lot, is all I can say, and all for the better. (Thanks Pete for the picture)
Still on a time-trekking theme, this time back to the days of Abigail's party, with the launch of
Return to Kirrin
at Hunting Raven Books
. Set in 1979, it's an affectionately-spoofy envisaging of the grown-up lives of Enid Blyton's renowned quintet ~ and that's as many clues as I'm allowed without getting sued. Co-authors Suzy & Neil Howlett shared their skills, Neil providing pace & plot while Suzy added detail and nostalgic enthusiasm for Blytonesque style of story-telling: 'like that baby fleece you cuddle up to, and then grow out of.'
There's uncertainty around the location of Kirrin, claimed by Dorset as based around Corfe but perhaps more plausibly an island off Cornwall seen by Enid on holiday. It seems appropriate that these origins are lost in the past. My own experience of the jolly japers is limited to the Comic Strip Presents version in 1982, but then I had an odd childhood. A retro-party at Three Swans led to interesting comparisons of era & values, and lashings of canapes. (Incidentally, the famous phrase "lashings of ginger beer" never appeared in any of the Famous Five books... oops, gone and used the FF words. Sosumi!)
Now a leap backwards of over 300 years, with a revival of a Restoration Comedy classic: The Provoked Wife
as produced by Stepping Out Theatre
is lavishly stylish and authentic in every Baroque detail ~ even the venue.
Kings Weston House
just north of Bristol is a long trek from Frome, but there's something quite magical about watching a play written by John Vanbrugh in the mansion he himself designed for the politician Edward Southey in the early 18th Century. In a room panelled with life-size Gainsborough-esque portraits, with lighting enhanced by chandeliers, an in-the-round performance allows the audience an intense connection with the shenanigans and improprieties of the characters. In these genteel surroundings, we sit quiet as the sylphs in Rape of the Lock
(Pope too is scathing of the affectations of this era), and find ourselves voyeurs of plots both predacious and mendacious. I won't go into details ~ there's a lot of story, and it moves fast ~ other than to say the wife in question, Lady Brute, decides to take revenge by an affair, and the knock-on effect is no end of lasciviousness and frivolity.
In the midst of this is a jealous neighbour and her french maid, who is really a bloke called Tom (Sam Dugmore) in frock, wig, and lippy. There's an abundance of frocks, wigs, and lippy actually: the provoking husband dons one when drunk, the magistrate he's hauled up before next day is clearly wearing a corset... Costumes are a huge part of this show, as is the amazing music (baroque with undertones of Benny Hill) created by Colin Smith and John Telfer.
The cast of eight are all strong, creating audience rapport in every scene: I was especially moved by Lady Brute and Belinda (Stephanie Manton) in a scene of rare intimacy without their wigs ~ a poignant reminder that behind the apparent licentiousness of these bored, intelligent, young women, their options were... well, nonexistent. Women, married or not, had no rights, however violent their husbands. This clever production is not only fabulous to look at and very funny, it manages to remind us of the kind of 'English' values best left behind. We're still working on some of them... Directed by Briony Waite, with the Stepping Out company support team in baroque finery to set the mood, and an after-show supper in the dining hall as extra excitement.
A half-hour Uber-ride, and three centuries, away in central Bristol, Luke Wright was performing The Toll
at the Wardrobe Theatre
. This photo isn't quite right hair-wise, but I can't find one closer: the Johnny Bevan
look is gone and it's boyish again ~ in fact Luke still complains he's I-Dd regularly when trying to do grown-up things. It's probably difficult to know how to follow a multi-award-winning show (for both acting and writing) and Luke has gone back to what he also does so well: intimate performance of powerful poems. His tour takes its name from his latest collection
, but it's the chat that makes these poems ones to hear as well as read. Luke is a master of traditional formats and wordplay and wit, but it's his narrative ballads, serious, satirical & often sad, that stay. And I really like that he opened with one inspired by coming to Frome and seeing Cley Hill.
Which brings me nicely back home to Frome, where Wednesday was an excellent night at the Grain Bar Roots Session
, an amazing blues band from Glastonbury, ably supported by Julian (Bugs) Hight.
As winter creeps in there's been much lantern-making, in free workshops
run by Mel Day and Aliss Vaas, where so many lanterns have been made I'm surprised there's not a national shortage of withies and tissue and sloppy white glue. It's all for a candlelit procession on December 1st, and this is Orion's creation in progress, being recorded by a Danish film crew who arrived in town last week to film the Doings of Frome ~ the sort of thing that often happens here.
Finally this week, Sunday's Chocolate Festival
, an annual jollity when Cheese & Grain hall is crammed with stalls dedicated to all things chocolatey, from a recreation of Willy Wonka's Factory garden to chocolate shoes and make-up, there's every colour, texture, and flavour imaginable & then some more (lime & chilli is delicious) and the smells are amazing. Here's a glimpse of the crowded hall, with Empress of Chocolate herself, Jo Harrington
, looking happy. As she should. Now I'm off to nibble on a slice of Kraken Rum & Raisin Cheesecake.