Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Dramatic confusion in Ephesus & America, music & art in Frome

I've long wanted to see a performance by the famous Lord Chamberlain's Men, so their touring production The Comedy of Errors in the Bishop's Palace Garden in Wells was irresistible. The company concept is based on Shakespeare's players of that name: all-male, in Elizabethan costume, performing outdoors with music & song ~ a refreshing alternative to the Emma Rice way of zazzing-up the bard with Bollywood and balloons.
As comedies go this is a brutal one, crammed with cruelty and only one gag: massively repeated mistaken identity ~ although the lack of similarity between any of these 'twins' is a good joke too. The palace garden venue at dusk is ideal, providing additional backing to Alan Bowles' minimalist set, the rain mostly stayed off, and the seven young actors are excellent - watch out in future for rubber-faced Barney Healey-Smith in comedy roles. Direction by Peter Stickney.

From ancient Ephesus to 1950s America for another comedy of mistaken identity: North by Northwest at Theatre Royal Bath is the UK premiere of a show originally conceived by Melbourne Theatre Company. If you're ever wondering how to translate a 'chase' movie involving trains, cars & planes to stage, and get the audience cheering, you need to see this. A big part of the success of the production is the shape-shifting set and the clever effects, taking us all into their visual jokes from the start, and the sharp direction of an ensemble cast in constant quick-change personae, creating ever-changing scenes of office, street, railway, and even Mount Rushmore in an indescribably nail-biting and hilarious climax.
From first glance at the programme it seemed this spoof thriller would be male-dominated with its hero, villains & henchmen, cops & bellhops, but in the event although Jonathan Watton is an endearing as well as suave lead, it's Olivia Fines who totally steals the show ~ though no spoilers about her role in case there's anyone else out there like me who've never seen the Hitchcock film.
Overall credit must go to director Simon Phillips who with lighting designer Nick Shlepper also designed the set, and to Esther Marie Hayes for costumes to enhance the cartoon-style story-telling. And whether you've seen the movie fifty times or too young to have heard of it, I can't imagine you won't love this fast-moving tongue-in-cheek show: definitely recommended. Images Nobby Clark.

Back in time & place to Frome last week, and after the visceral drama of Black Swan Arts' previous exhibition In the Absence of Truth, the new show SKETCH is quite a contrast: one hundred sketchbooks sit primly on shelves around the room, requiring the donning of white gloves to reveal their pages. At the Words at the Black Swan workshop on Monday they remained inscrutable to me but others in the group had more success, and our skilful leader Louise Green introduced us to the concept of 'specula' poems, the second verse reiterating the first in reverse lines.

Live music corner: Roots Session at the Grain bar this week featured Julian Dawson with excellent support from Francis Hayden who runs the Nunney Acoustic Cafe and is also a fine singer-songwriter.
Friday was an extraordinarily good evening for music even by Frome standards, with the brilliant Pete Gage Band at Sam's Kitchen and Loudon Wainwright at nearby Cheese & Grain, making it possible to enjoy a good hour of Pete before scampering down to appreciate folk giant Loudon III, joined onstage by Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield. Much of the set comprised what I'd call 'male crone' lyrics: ‘We have a lot of songs about death and decay in our set, because we know our demographic’ Loudon explained, plausibly. He didn't play my personal favourites (Can't fail me now and Daughter) but he did play The Swimming Song, voted one of the 'Best Summer Songs of All Time' by Rolling Stone.

My next post will be from Skyros, where Achilles played as a child and Rupert Brooke is buried, where the islanders built their chora up the side of the biggest rock on the coast to trick the pirates (and rob them too, copying the patterns of weaving and carving and engraving from these re-stolen hoards to create a rich local culture) and where in the 1970s an idealist couple had the dream notion of a centre for creative retreats that could translate into real life...
Skyros Holistic Holidays was born, and I'm delighted that once again I'll be working with writers at their centre each morning, walking to the beach in afternoons, watching the purple glow on the rocks in the evening, and maybe at least once seeing the sun rise over the Aegean from Brooke Square...

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Poetry walks, Smoking Bears, alien mystery & more...

Frome's annual celebrations lingered into this week, with a post-festival 6-mile walk around Adlestrop with led by the admirable Cotswold Voluntary Wardens, followed by 38 hikers all revelling in this 'Area of Outstanding Beauty' and compliant at the addition of an Edward Thomas element.
Here's Martin Bax reading As the Team's Head Brass Flashed, a poignant poem evoking the effect on the farms, as well as their families, of the deaths of so many young men. This was at Chastleton Barrow, the remains of an iron age settlement, a perfect circle 162 metres in diametre.
Adlestrop, while the focus of this route, was not the only interesting feature and leader Margaret Reid pointed out several other fascinating places like this as we passed, including Chastleton House which boasts not only originating croquet but also housing the bible used by Charles II on the scaffold. A lovely walk through fields filled with wild flowers and insects, and sometimes sheep, ending in the traditional way with tea and cake.


Another literary anniversary: 200 years on Tuesday since the death of Jane Austen, aged only 41 and in relative anonymity ~ her epitaph runs to 125 words without mentioning that she wrote books. Nowadays of course the Janeite industry almost vies with 'the man from Stratford' (with equally little data to go on, as Jane's sister Cassandra burned three-thousand-plus letters which would have chronicled her life) and there's now a ten pound note in Jane's honour. Bath, where Regency streets remain largely unchanged since Jane's eight year stay, naturally honoured the bicentenary with various events including a series of walks through the city to the Jane Austen Centre. There's also a massive floral plaque in the Parade Gardens which reads OH! WHO CAN EVER BE TIRED OF BATH? ~ a quotation which would have either entertained or exasperated Jane, who detested living there and attributed such fulsome sentiments to her most shallow characters. Ironically, the quote on the new tenner is also a parodic one: I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! is uttered by sly Caroline Bingley to lure Mr Darcy's interest away from Elizabeth Bennett, and we all know how that ended...

Still on the subject of witty novels with acute social observation, Debby Holt has a new one out: The Dangers of Family Secrets,"a gripping story about trust, love and the destructive effects secrets have on a family" according to the blurb. Debby lives in Bath but has strong writerly connections with Frome so her first launch was at Hunting Raven Books on Tuesday evening, where we were treated to a sparky talk on her chosen stimulus ('Every family has secrets, and the 'perfect' family has more than most...') and a couple of tantalising extracts... Naturally there was a long queue for signings, and then clutching our copies with tingling fingers, we made the most of the evening sunshine with a Writers' Group chat in the courtyard of a local pub.

Back to poetry now: Richard Carder who runs Poetry & a Pint at the delightfully bohemian St James Wine Vaults in Bath, invited me to guest at his final event of the summer, to share some of my Crumbs from a Spinning WorldSue Boyle, who also featured, shared her heartfelt 'Reading for a Disappearing World' and the theme of planetary destruction continued in several open mic readings so you could say this was overall quite a cosmic event.

On Saturday I was in Bristol for Wardrobe Theatre's revival of their notorious 'alternative comedy' Goldilock, stock, & three smoking bears. This anarchic company-devised 'madcap merging of the classic porridge-thieving tale with Guy Ritchie's cockney caper' sold out when it premiered 2 years ago, and when it was revived last year too. I'm not surprised. All four performers ~ Emma Keaveney-Roys, Lotte Allan, Andrew Kingston, and contortionistic Harry Humberstone ~ mesmerise from the start & escalate in absurdity. I don't think I've ever heard an audience laugh so much. The saga is set in that part of London where thugs & entrepreneurs mix & merge, some living in squalor, some eating money, all capitalists. This is where the three bears, dorky Paddington, classy twit Winnie, and psycho Rupert, head for the Artisan Oat-Stirrers for an over-priced breakfast... there's porridge-stirrer-slaughter, chair-theft, pill-popping, and when-Harry-met-Sally turning into bromance with Barry, and altogether far too much to explain. It's all brilliant.
As the production had transposed, in this incarnation, to Tobacco Factory, my walk from the station took me through the Harbour Festival a massive family-friendly celebration of dance, music, circus, funfair, poetry and play, crammed with stalls selling everything saleable from a stall including snacks from paella to Pimms, with a flotilla of boats going up and down alongside a steam-train and yet more stalls all along the waterfront. And so many people it seemed like someone had invented a happy-making human-flesh-attracting magnet to irresistibly pull in the entire population of Bristol. The sun emerged again, too, so a result all round. Here's me, sucked briefly into the festival atmosphere, with some very sweet people whose names I don't know but sharing two minutes of my life with them was fun.


An unusual new exhibition, SKETCH is now showing at Black Swan. Meryl Ainslie, founder and director of the Rabley Drawing Centre where this touring initiative began, spoke at the launch on Friday of the importance of the sketchbook in every artist's practice: ' undefined, incomplete, and investigative.'  Words at the Black Swan will have a workshop on Monday, 3-4.30, with poet Louise Green, exploring the 100 on exhibition as stimulus for writing.  

Also unusual, or perhaps not, there's another crop circle just below Cley Hill (technically Wiltshire but only four miles away.) The unfortunately thus-blessed farmer has appealed for UFO fans not to do the Theresa-May-thing and rush wildly through his crop but some have. I didn't, and hopefully the solemn group in the centre at sunrise on Sunday morning did either.

Ending this post with a last look at the festival with two pictures by Ben Mackay who came from Bristol to join the Frome walk, and a group photograph by David J Chedgy.  And a thank-you to the Frome Times for their supplement crammed with images of just about everything that went on!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Post festival posting

And the Festival is over, so Frome town can return to its usual status of chronic creativity without the mass overlaps which saw everyone rushing between venues and angsting over impossible choices every night. I'll skip the list of all that I missed, and skim you through some personal highlights:
A sublime evening on Monday ensured that, for only the second time since its inception in 2003, the Frome Festival Poetry Cafe was held outside, enabling around fifty poets and lovers of spoken word to enjoy the Garden Cafe at its best. Guest poet Deborah Harvey read from her new collection Breadcrumbs, delicately beautiful poems with an extraordinary emotional charge, and also had the near-impossible task of choosing the 'Festival Poet Laureate' from 25 open-mic readers all responding to the theme 'That Adlestrop Moment' in honour of poet Edward Thomas, killed in that iniquitous war 100 years ago.
The standard was superb and every poem was appreciated & enjoyed: three poets from Bath (Jinny Fisher, Rachel Clyne, and Jo Butts) nearly stole the title, several men (Mike Rogers, Alan Overton, Kieron Bacon) were strong contenders, but our new Festival Laureate,  with signed certificate and bottle of posh wine from Frome Wholefoods, is 'B' ~ B Anne Adriaens ~ with Liv Torc the popular choice for a 'special' prize from Hunting Raven Books.
Final gem in this glittering collection of readings came from Louise Green, who read her 'Glosa' based on Adlestrop which won the Torbay Festival of Poetry competition last year. An awesome evening - thanks David J Chedgy for the picture of me on that night with Martin Bax, inspirer of the Edward Thomas theme in the festival. Deborah has given us a great write-up in her blog, too.
This segues nicely into another really lovely event: the river walk In the footsteps of Edward Thomas, which must surely have convinced everyone taking part (there were about 40 of us) that there really is nothing nicer than strolling beside a river on a sunny afternoon, with a pause now and again to read poetry. Martin and John Payne had planned the poems to suit the 3 mile route: mostly idyllic rural observations of nature, especially the mill at Tellisford, where we stopped for tea, with a more sombre mood beside the church. Tellisford is a 'Thankful' village, one of the nine in Somerset which lost no men in the First World War. There are 53 villages identified for such gratitude but as there over 4,500 villages in England, it seems a dubious reason to rejoice. Edward Thomas would have thought so, had he survived. He wrote his own memorial two years before he was killed by a shell blast: In Memoriam (Easter, 1915) 
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood 
This Eastertide call into mind the men, 
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should 
Have gathered them, and will do never again.

Speaking of war,  Love, Bombs and Apples, written by Hassan Abdulrazzak & performed by Asif Khan, came to the Merlin on the initiative of Frome Friends of Palestine. This award-winning AIK production brilliantly demonstrates how politics without polemic can make fantastic theatre. The play comprises four short monologues from four very different young men: In Palestine, oppression is so normalised that 'the wall' can even be a stimulating support to a date with an English do-gooder ~ this one is graphic and hilarious ~ while a Bradford lad finds the mosque is a lot less impressive than the Apple Store. A young writer who longs to be 'East Acton's answer to Zadie Smith' is arrested under Section 41 of the Terror Act (there's some helpful critique from the officer in charge: "Characters should have inner life - this is not a story, it’s a shopping list. If ISIS ran Ikea, this would be their catalogue.")  The final play for me was the most powerfully thought-provoking, and inescapably relevant. Here the young man is virtually apolitical: he admires his pro-AIPAC father as a role-model, but his girlfriend is leader of an anti-Israeli boycott movement, and she's demanding he makes a choice...  Again, political potency is brilliantly crafted into a human drama, about a very real ongoing situation as AIPAC is active in US colleges 'educating students about Zionism' with the aggressive assertion 'anti-Israel is anti-semite.' It took me back to Belfast in the 1970s troubles when Loyalists targeted not only Catholics but 'sympathisers' ~ that meant anyone refusing to join their extreme enmity. Watching a play doesn't make anything go away, but for all of us who support Palestine, it does give more context of the complexity of the issue.

The festival Art Trail features studios and galleries all around Frome, twenty-nine venues in all, mostly with more than one artist exhibiting. Time, or rather lack of it, precluded a full exploration though I saw much that was unusual and intriguing and some classy pottery and paintings. Here's the Vicarage Street Gallery, and Raggedy's studio at Silk Mill. The 'Art Car Boot' event in the market yard was hugely popular too.

Music is always a big draw in the festival and though I missed some spectacular-sounding classical performances, I did catch most of the great bands performing in the pubs and bars. Roots Session at the Grain Bar featured Littlemen with support from Al O'Kane, and Wonderstuff came to the main hall, while Cornerhouse brought us two fantastic bands: popular favourites Flash Harry, and the amazing Pete Gage Band ~ Richie Blake bass, Eddie John drums, Craig Crofton sax, the legendary Paul Hartshorn on guitar with Pete's superb voice and keyboard. 'Awesome' barely scratches it.

Frome Writers Collective, having started the festival with their very successful Small Publishers Fair and Writers In (shop & cafe) Residence events, concluded on Sunday with the Short Story Contest prize-giving in the Library. Novelist Laura Wilkinson, who judged the short list, gave a lively talk and presented cheques to the winners: Mark Johnson and Jo Else came joint second with Rhiannon Lewis in first place. Rhiannon read her story to the audience, as did local winner Margaret Histed whose story The Button Game will have stirred memories for many of my generation. Here's the prizewinners with first judge Alison Clink (R) and Brenda Bannister who compered the event (second L) During the week FWC had organised other events for members ~ a book quiz, and a flash fiction contest requiring an imagined monologue from one of the characters in a Jane Austen novel: my interpretation of secret malice from Persuasion's goodie-goodie Anne was voted second in absentia (I was at the Merlin) but I got the prize as first-placed Brenda Bannister had also organised the event. (Pic taken at our next writing group, not at Three Swans where Gill Harry read for me.)

So that's it for another year. The bunting can come down, GWR can take our brochure image off their station posters, and Froomies can go off to other festivals ~ there's several good ones coming up locally.
My final event was a quirky one: Dudley Sutton, octogenarian actor of TV 90s fame who reinvented himself 14 years ago as a solo performer with a startlingly scurrilous show called Killing Kittens at Edinburgh. For Frome's Granary he toned down his material and gave us a whistle-stop tour of a life zestfully spent in Old Enough to Know BetterClever versifying combined with great audience rapport made for an impressive performance, and if Dudley could bottle his talent for word delivery, stand-ups would be queuing to buy. Here's a picture from 1964, when Dudley was cast in Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane after he 'found freedom' in London after arriving as a Daily-Mail indoctrinated 'anti-semetic homophobic racist'. With the lefty politics of Grace Petrie, the wicked wit of Frankie Boyle, and a manner all his own, Dudley's show made a perfect ending to a week of magical variety and ~ delightfully ~ near constant sunshine.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Do novels make great plays? What's unmissable at Frome Festival? and other imponderables...

A balmy evening on Friday, and the ECOS amphitheatre at the Merlin proved a perfect venue for the Miracle Theatre production of The Third Policeman, adapted from the novel by Flann O'Brien. The Miracle treatment involves physical hi-jinks, improv interaction with unguarded audiences (picnics invariably raided) and super-sized characters in silly costumes. This time they had supers-sized oirish accents too. This drama starts at a bar like any drably sentimental pub-based play by Conor McPherson and quickly becomes ~ to quote a friend at the interval ~ Alice in Wonderland meets Father Ted. On this dreamlike version of Craggy Island it's not clear whether the police are fruitcakes or time-lords but there's an uncanny logic in some of their arguments. Can you be executed if you are nameless and ergo never existed? And since skin is porous surely it will eventually absorb the molecules of anything in constant contact... so who's to say a person can't turn into a bicycle? Note to NASA: This would surely be a more useful line of research than string theory...
A compact cast of four takes on all roles. Ben Dyson looking a bit like Bart Simpson is on absolute top form as a policeman and Catherine Lake is hilarious in multiple roles, but while there's much mirth and playfulness there's a dark side to the narrative too: murder, mistrust, violence and punishment are constant themes.  Flann O'Brien's novel was initially rejected, and only published after his death. There was a note in the manuscript which read "It was again the beginning of the unfinished, the re-discovery of the familiar, the re-experience of the already suffered, the fresh-forgetting of the unremembered. Hell goes round and round." And because ECOS amphitheatre has a circular stage, so too did the bicycles. I like to think Brian O'Nolan would have found a droll irony in that. The show is touring the south-west till August 26, catch it if you can.
 
Sunday was an even balmier night, with an even bigger crowd on ECOS for a return tour of  Pride and Prejudice as dramatised by Oliver Gray for Illyria, also a compact & talented touring company but rather more well-behaved regarding picnic-raids. Audience interference would be inappropriate of course for Jane Austen's etiquette-conscious characters, as created by five actors and a fabulous wardrobe of costumes, all evoking both era and personality while simultaneously looking like the sort of dreams you'd have if you spent too long studying the Boden catalogue. Pat Farmer & Curlywilly Prod are credited with these delights, and the set design ~ a backdrop of fan shapes in Georgian blue with wickedly multi-purpose seating and laundry baskets ~ is by Jill 'Wigs' Wilson. The acting team all had wonderful energy and great stage presence, with Toby Webster outstanding as noble Darcy and caddish Wickham and annoyingly bookish Mary, while also filling in as a coachman when long distances required seated jiggling rather than the (also entertaining) on-the-spot pacing of their walks.
It's all fast-paced and with wonderful visual details like the flourishing of quill pens, a frequent requirement in a story where much is narrated by long emotional letters. The original novel of course is universally acknowledged to have possibly the most famous opening line of any novel, and probably the most misunderstood. Jane Austen was no early chicklit author (Northanger Abbey was written to parody the Gothic romance trend) and idea that a man of fortune 'must be in want of a wife' heralds one of the greatest, most complex, social satires ever written. Our heroine is one of five daughters of a man whose property must, by the laws of his time, be passed on to a male, so there is a real practical urgency in Mrs Bennett's desperation to marry off her daughters ~ any of them ~ to absolutely any man who can support her and the rest of her brood should she be widowed. This adaptation follows the plot, social mores & all, with conscientious detail Janites in the audience will appreciate, and P&P virgins can enjoy the frocks and the antics (and buy a programme for plot-watch). Highly recommended, and touring till 28 August.

So that's two terrific nights of drama, and we're only three days into the 2017 Frome Festival. I barely scratched the surface of the 55 events of last weekend: like all the best fests, Frome has constant clashes and every conversation seems to start You missed a fabulous event last night... So I can do no more than show a few slivers of the sensational vibrance throughout the streets and venues.
Saturday was a big day for our writers, with the Small Publishers Fair at Silk Mill, always a great venue and with the yard converted into a Cantina, it's tempting place to linger. Writers in Residence meanwhile were tackling the challenge of writing a short story in four hours while ensconced in designated shops and cafes in the town centre. And from late afternoon until midnight, we were hijacked by music:  Frome Street Bandits led a parade to the Food Feast in the central market, where they were followed by Jamma de Samba and a bizarre and wildly popular performance from SATCO street theatre, while within the Cheese & Grain itself there was brilliant folk-rock from Julian (Bugs) Hight and punk-uke from the marvellous Wochynskis.
After all of which it was time to scamper up the hill to the Cornerhouse for a truly amazing performance from Captain Cactus and his Screaming Harlots, whose 9-piece band was nearly as tightly squeezed in the space at the far end of the bar as their audience was in the rest of it, though that didn't stop us dancing.

Sunday daytime for me was mostly about jazz. Both of Frome's excellent jazz bands were playing at the Cornerhouse throughout the day supplemented by trad jazz from the New Academic Feetwarmers in the garden of the Blue House, perfect for picnicking on cherries and prosecco. My report on the Art Trail is therefore postponed....


And having missed the marvellous Edward Thomas commemoration at Rook Lane last night, I hope to make amends at the Poetry Cafe tonight where the theme for the open mic is That Adlestrop Moment, so I'll leave you with a quick preview of the  Garden Cafe, by day a favourite with ladies who lunch, by night hosting the mordant post-punk mutant fantasies of Beef Unit...