Tuesday, March 28, 2017

And now for something completely different

Writing retreats, artists' dates, creative away-days ~ whatever we call them, these free-flow open-ended sessions are brilliant to re-energise and recalibrate the 'writers' voice' within, and great fun. Hazel Stewart, my writer friend (and one-time performance poetry partner) has joined me on these short adventures for the last few years, in venues from Barcelona to Manhatten, and this year for a change we each took a train to meet in Port Sunlight, on the Wirral.
It's not actually a port at all, it's a history lesson, and it really, really, needs the sunlight. Fortunately, last weekend the sun obliged and we wandered this model-village-in-aspic under cloudless greek-blue skies, marvelling at the Ladybird-book houses and the Lady Lever treasury of art. Also, eventually, wondering how to get something to eat that wasn't either super-posh-costly or Flamin' Grilled. There are no shops in Port Sunlight, not even the single Co-op built by its founder Lord Leverhulme, so after advice from locals we went out to the real world for a bus-ride to an Asda so we could snack in our room for our third night.
Lord Leverhulme might have been the tyrant some of his workers claimed but he was a reformer too, one of the few employers in 19th Century England who saw his workers as people not 'hands' and believed they deserved a better quality of life than the industrial slums. The idealist lord employed around 30 architects to design his workers' houses, each costing around £250 to build (four times as much as usual in those days) with bathrooms and gardens, and he provided education for the children and art for all.  He built them a church as well, designed to be multi-faith although his personal bible was Samuel Smiles' Self Help dogma. He wasn't pushy about temperance either, accepting the result of a ballot on the sale of ale at the inn although it went against his personal preference for abstinence.
The Bridge Inn, where we stayed, is still the only pub - and still sells a lot of ale.
Unlike Titus Salt's Saltaire Village in Yorkshire, workers' homes here are surrounded by greenery and blossom, with winding walks among trees and flowers, sculptures and fountains. And you can venture off-site to the 'River Park', a mound of industrial waste beyond the factories which gives amazing views all along the Mersey.
 But, magnolia and skylarks aside, Port Sunlight's USP is undoubtedly its soapy history, contained within, and expounded by, both the museum and the art gallery. The museum makes the most of its single theme, adding filmic reconstructions, interactive games, the recipe for scouse, and life-sized images of the Beatles (also visitors, back in their Love Me Do days.)
The art gallery is incredibly grand, with a main room large enough to include a concert hall, and over thirty more rooms crammed with paintings and sculptures. Bubbles is there of course, Millais' iconic image forever associated with the a soap advertisement (Pears soap, ironically, as Sunlight's big rival had the idea first) and pre-Raphaelites feature strongly, but Lord Leverhulme didn't stop there, continuing to add art from across the ages and around the world ~ the Chinese room is particularly impressive.
In short, a fascinating place, a mini-kingdom from another era with no need of roots in contemporary life, thriving as a miniature industry created by the industry of the past. And an ideal place to unhook from the present too. What with constant glorious sunshine in the 'model village' by day, and the curious lack of activity in the evenings, we both found Port Sunlight an excellent place for a writing retreat.

Friday, March 24, 2017

happy days.. with some sleet, sauvignon & Sh!t.

Monday was International Day of Happiness, apparently, and I'll resist comment about all the places where people may have responded with an ironically-raised eyebrow as it was also Spring Equinox ~ despite ferocious hail ~ so here's a happy picture of Frome in bloom. Tuesday was National Poetry Day, for which you get a verse from a poem WH Auden wrote just before the last world war:
      All I have is a voice
      To undo the folded lie, 
      The romantic lie in the brain 
      Of the sensual man-in-the-street,
      And the lie of Authority
      Whose buildings grope the sky:
      There is no such thing as the State
      And no one exists alone;
      Hunger allows no choice
      To the citizen or the police;
      We must love another or die.     .
And now to local news: The Merlin's 'Chair of the Board', Andrew Carpenter, has big plans which he expounded to the theatre's loyal battalion of volunteers at Orchardleigh Golf Club over wine. Quite a lot of wine actually: a wine-tasting session from Amathus with expert guidance on vineyards and terminology from southwest account manager and host Russ Prior (pictured here.) Andrew's vision is to maximise the business and realise the potential of the asset: he spoke passionately of partnerships & risk reviews, of the Chamber of Commerce & Survey Monkey, and audience analysis & how audience experience in the foyer was 'as important if not more important than what they see on the stage', and of course with zero Arts Funding it is vital to continue to keep solvent though it did feel a bit like being transported into a Martin Amis novel.
And finally, with a nod to the director (our lovely & superbly competent Claudia Pepler, whose imagination gave Frome the Spoken Word Platter nights among other innovative events) we were on to the main event: six sumptuous wines from around the world.  My personal favourites, since you ask, were the Viura, Finca Cerrada 2015 from La Mancha, a delicious dry white wine from the rioja grape though not from that region, and the Cabernet Sauvignon, Croix des Vents 2015, from Pays d'Oc.

Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol which always has a lively programme of its own is also part of the Tobacco Factories Beyond season, and under that banner is currently featuring an award-winning Sh!t Theatre show: Letters to Windsor House.  This is Windsor House N4, representing the worst aspects of housing in London: badly-maintained and illegally-sublet Council flats in an unsalubrious area about to be ruthlessly re-packaged for its proximity to the centre of the city. Sh!t duo Louise & Becca have a mission to 'explore the political, the personal, and the down-right perverted'; this show, presented mostly in direct-to-audience story-telling, has lots of the first two but the letters are sad rather than perverted, as the girls start opening previous tenants' mail and discovering more debts than peccadillos. It's billed as a 'heartbreaking howl of protest from a generation left behind by the property market' ~ I wouldn't go that far, but it makes the point & it's great theatre: funny, feisty and fast-moving, with clever use of projection and a smattering of live music.

There was trad jazz at the Three Swans on Thursday with Norman Leater's New Academic Footwarmers, and there's good stuff coming up this weekend too, with Purple Fish at the Cornerhouse on Saturday and Emma Harris at Frome Jazz Club in the Griffin on Sunday, but I'll miss both as I'm off with Hazel Stewart on one of our 'writers' date' weekends. It was going to be in Berlin but for logistical reasons we've ended up booking a room in Port Sunlight. Easier to focus on writing here, too, I imagine...

Friday, March 17, 2017

Future focus in art & drama, with music & poetry too

To kick of with music: this week we had Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots kicking up a tornedo in the Grain Bar, a Ceilidh on Paddy's night so wildly popular the Cornerhouse ran out of Guinness though they found some cans in time for the Sunday afternoon jazz session. The nine-strong Cactus gang always give a fantastic performance ~ costumed like they've beamed in from a saloon-bar in a movie, they have massive audience rapport and bring theatricality as well as great sound to every song.
 The Celtic night was an amazing hi-energy event too, with a dozen or so guitars & fiddles, and spoons everywhere. Here's a random visitor caught up in the party (glad you enjoyed your stay in Frome Darren Vader) and the same room looking calmer on Sunday with the Graham Dent Trio and guest Nick Sorensen.

You might think that was quite enough excitement for a small town with no Primark (according to a response to Sunday Times naming Frome as one of the 'top towns' in the UK, that's a significant omission for such a status) but adding to the buzz we had an exhibition opening at Black Swan gallery and performance poetry at Merlin Theatre on Thursday. Art first: The Future Can't Wait is the outcome of a collaboration with Bath Spa University, showing work from 30 MA postgraduates from Ceramics, Fine Art, Fashion & Textiles, and Visual Communication. The dust of the past hinders innovation, clogging up the windows with grime as it pollutes creativity penned one student in an submission which charmingly if somewhat ironically reminded me of a Victorian sampler.  There's an interesting diversity of styles, mostly personal rather than futuristic, and the theme will be explored in workshops and conceptual activities in town till April 15th.
The Poetry Platter event onstage at the Merlin was a personal highlight for me ~ not only, as the theatre's Spoken Word coordinator, to be bringing rock-star-status poets to our audience but to be doing a set myself...  home turf is always scary, but I knew the other five performers would deliver the totally-brilliant goods, and they did.  Rapper XJX, Hannah Teasdale, Chris Redmond, Liv Torc and Buddy Carson were a fantastic line-up, the tapas was tasty ~ thanks Jo's Tender Loving Kitchen ~ the team at the theatre superb and the audience was absolutely lovely. Feedback has been great, let's do it again next year! Here's XJX, thanks David Goodman... more pictures soon.

Over to Salisbury to end the week's roundup with Eat the Poor from Jonny & the Baptists. Edinburgh smash-hit... riotously funny musical comedy of our times - an epic tale of inequality and revolution in modern Britain promised the flyer, what's not to like?
Ensconced in the Salberg studio theatre, I had a Living Spittish deja vue moment when Jonny & Paddy strode out with guitars. Paddy is blond & gangly like a hippy version of Spit's Stu McCloughlin, and Jonny looks disconcertingly like Stu's oppo Howard Coggins especially when stripped to gold lamé underpants (although Howard’s never clambered on top of me while fleeing from a swan revolution, so that marks a difference.) Jonny is the main voice, which he uses for the first half hour to tease the audience who he assumes are all tories or neo-liberals, and make self-deprecating gags about performing in half-empty Arts venues. This, he explains, is all extra impro, like the free ice-cream you get with a tonsillectomy, ‘we’ll come back after the interval and do the play, and then later on bed, and then death.' He seems genuinely surprised when most of us return from the bar for the second half.
The material is sharp, relentlessly political, and very funny, seeming all the more off-the-cuff because of Paddy’s surprised-sounding sudden bursts of laughter. The sudden bursts of song however are clearly cleverly planned: Paddy is great on guitar and the lyrics are as wickedly witty and political as the banter ~ I specially liked the ballad Only the Queen can kill Donald Trump. The actual play, such as it is, comprises a glimpse into a future in which the friends' fortunes have divided as Jonny has sold out to collaborate with Andrew Lloyd-Webber (btw Spit fans, isn't that just the sort of thing Coggins would do?) while Paddy, despite talent and visual appeal that make this unlikely, is reduced to sleeping on the street. There's a purpose in the parable of course: this kind of social disparity, they explain, is inevitable since the legalising of loopholes allowing inheritance tax avoidance so the rich grow richer and the poor poorer.
Eat the Poor is an economics lecture plus political broadcast on behalf of that rare species, the genuine Left, but is it also a riotously funny musical comedy?  Reader, I bought the CD and signed up for the mailing list. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Art & nature: words, music, and meteorology

There are some fascinating examples of the scope of 'fine art' among the Society of Graphic Artists exhibition in Black Swan Arts Round Tower ~ this evocative view of 'Leyn Farm' by Pete Monaghan has elements of collage. I also really liked the story of the Large Blue butterfly integrated with Gary Cook's sketches. Showing till 25th ~ recommended.

Adam Norsworthy was featured guest for the Roots Session at the Grain Bar, with the promo promising in an age of reality ‘stars’ and ever-more manufactured singers, Adam is the real deal. This turned out no hype: Adam is one of those solo artists with enough diversity as well as skill to delight and transfix the audience all night. His songs have stories both within and around them, and Adam's range of rocking covers extends to popular nostalgia like Del Shannon's Runaway and Beatles' I saw her standing there ~ "It changed my life," he declares, and we all sing along: I'll never dance with another ~ whoo-ooo! Ah, happy days... remember them well.
Adam's story-telling style moves me neatly on to the following night's fantastic Tapas Soiree in Bath which featured, among other wonderful wordsmiths, the Bookshop Band. This awesomely talented duo has cornered the market in songs about books ~ I think they invented the market, actually. Ben Please and Beth Porter ('charming, clever and quite unfairly talented' said Patrick Gale) at the request of the Beeb have even composed a song from book first lines (Once Upon a Time on their album Curious & Curiouser).
The 'Soiree', at Chapel Arts Cafe, was a sell-out success offering not only platters of Mark's tasty tapas but poetry and song in an evening rich with evocations of Southwest heritage as well as literature. Paul (Yirdbard) Darby sang of ravens and of ghosts from the lost village of Imber, chiming with descriptions of Clattinger meadow from Peter Please. Lindsay Clarke's re-envisioning of 'the most immortal god of all' in his Dance with Hermes echoed as a time-line journey the long unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a novel featured by the Bookshop Band, who then ended our amazing night with a return to ghosts and ravens. So everything dovetailed and tied up beautifully, and I'm not sure how my 'crone' poems fitted in, maybe just something different like intermission ice-cream, but the audience was delightful and laughed in all the right places. A fantastic night, thanks everyone and especially Peter Please who dreamed up this rich diversity and made it happen.

And then to Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, to enjoy the company and words of seven very different writers on a weekend course at The Grange, which is a kind of annexe & taster for Skyros Holistic Holidays. It's also the home of Skyros founder Yannis Andricopoulis, filled with art & books as well as luxurious guest rooms, with lavish meals, open-access bar, and constant fresh coffee & treats. The coast is close too, so during breaks we usually stroll the cliff-top path or mooch on the beach but this weekend a dense screen of white mist hid the sea and gripped the land. Fog, however, is apparently an effective writing stimulus, evoking atmospheric imagery and generating a genuinely impressive range of themes & ideas during our short course. Alan, Claire, Jan, Louise, Sally, Sarah, and Tom, I hope you all enjoyed yourselves as much as I did. I didn't take a 'group shot', so here's the breakfast menu. (yes I know you can't read it, but just look at the length!)

Meanwhile in Frome, where extraordinariness waits for no man or woman, our epic independent record store Raves from the Grave celebrated their 20th birthday with a massive party featuring some local bands plus their biggest fan Tom Robinson (I'm chuffed to see Tom's official pics page includes 3 of mine from his last visit). Sad to miss that, but I was back home in time for Sunday's funky session at Frome Jazz Club with Andy Christie ~ The Griffin has great atmosphere but its stygian gloom is too dense for my camera so here's Anne Harrison-Broninski's rapid-response sketch of Keith and the band.

Final footnote for this week: a picture by Katy Bear Smith from last month's Polers' n' Poets event for the One Billion Rising event: me doing me pomes in Bath ~ which reminds me I haven't booked my complementary arial aerobics taster with Funky Monkey yet...

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Is it Art or junk... answers here

Whistler (according to Ruskin) flung a pot of paint in the public’s face, Duchamps offered it a urinal, so is slinging mud at a wall Art ~ as long as you’re wealthy enough to have a cleaner to wipe it off? You may find yourself musing on such deep questions after the new play at Bath's Ustinov Studio by  Marius von Mayenburg, which opens their highly-anticipated German season. The title PLASTIC, combined with a programme image of a splatter of spaghetti, didn't inspire high hopes though I was intrigued to see two fight directors required, but actually this is a stylish production brilliantly acted, with brittle humour and sometimes unexpectedly moving.
It’s a story about a girl who cleans but without the predictable Cinderella ending ~ in fact there's not much to say without risking spoilers ~ it's a cross between contemporary parable and outright parody: there's a relationship in jeopardy, an ongoing critique of conceptual art, and as much bleak humour as you can have with yellow rubber gloves on. Some of the details are great ~ like the silent arrival of pan-faced gallery visitors, who linger onstage equally impassively as voyeurs of the following private scene, and the music & visual props are nicely chosen.  I particularly enjoyed the clip of Big Bang Theory as Vincent struggles with maths homework, effortlessly explained by cleaner Jessica. Ria Zmitrowicz is superb as the laconic girl who becomes the focus of everyone's need for a confidant, comforter, or muse. Steve John Shepherd brings presence and energy to the 2-dimensional part of the artist, Charlotte Randle and Jonathan Slinger are terrific as the warring couple and Brenock O'Connor is their unfortunate son.
Jean Chan's set supports the artsy theme and is superbly lit by Richard Howell - in fact the visuals provide one of the main pleasures of a play which focuses so much on fakery that even the conflict has a custard-pie feel. Don't go expecting a satisfactory resolution but go anyway for superb acting and memorable visuals. I left feeling structural experimentation is good but, unlike that Banksy maxim‘art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’, this one may well leave 'the comfortable' feeling quite smug. On till 25 March.

The new production at Bristol Old Vic, in dramatic contrast, is a play that wears its golden heart on its sleeve: JUNKYARD, conceived and scripted by Jack Thorne, is a mostly-true story about Lockleaze Adventure Playground. It starts a bit like those conferences where a group of 'real service users' are asked to describe the initiative they’ve experienced, and in some ways this case-study undercurrent never completely goes, but Erin Doherty as narrator and heroine Fiz gives a totally gripping performance and is supported by an immensely talented team - Josef Davies as bovva-boy Ginger and Enyi Okoronkwo as gentle Talc are outstanding. The set designed by Chiara Stephenson is marvellously chaotic, allowing for dynamic physical action and impressive lighting (Jack Knowles), with Stephen Warbeck's upbeat soundtrack integrated with the dialogue by a lively trio of on-stage musicians.  Calum Callaghan is endearing as hippyish Rick, the idealistic teacher inspired by the current (this is late 1970s) Adventure Playground movement into coaxing cooperation from a motley crew of self-defined 'kids no-one knows what to do with'.  Kevin McMonagle is great too as the Head who would really rather have a Maths block than a wreck from random fantasies; in fact there's not a single weak performance, and no bad characters either and it would have been interesting to see ~ without turning it into Lord of the Flies obviously ~ more diversity among the teens' responses, especially in the slower-moving second half. That quibble apart, as someone who worked in London in the 1980s with teenage boys with severe behavioural difficulties (predating that definition we were simply called a 'last-chance' resource) I found this true-life feel-good story credible and moving as well as entertaining. Critics are loving it - in Bristol till March 18th, then moving to Theatre Clwyd.

Back in Frome there's been the usual fantastic Smörgåsbord of live music, with an extra sparkle on Friday for James Bartholomew's exhibition launch of photos of Frome at Night at the Cornerhouse (here's Glitter on the Mattress belting out Love Shack like you've never heard...) Also on Friday I wandered into the most extraordinary banquet since Alice fell down the rabbit hole: deli specialist Benoit Clavet filled his open house on every storey with glorious platters on tables that made the phrase 'groaning with food' seem puny ~ amazing conviviality and hospitality and a happy alternative to the sold-out Reggae event at Cheese & Grain.
The reggae theme continues on Saturday with another sell-out show and Frome Street Bandits' parade bringing ska to the streets. And as March decides to come in like a lion, sadly the first Independent Market of 2017 is postponed until April.