Sunday, April 23, 2017

A mixed bag ~ words, art, cool music and hot argument...

Let's start with a bit of social history. Tom Fort, author of The A303 and currently The Village News, came to Hunting Raven Books in Frome on Wednesday evening and gave a fascinating summary of the development of villages: firstly into settlements where people lived and worked the land, and latterly to a retirement status for the affluent middle-class. "The social space was never the village hall, it was the doorstep," he says, and claims the enemy of village survival is Conservation Status ~ "I'd like to burn all conservation documents - you can't preserve a village in a state of visual perfection, what matters is the heart." Tom has a delightful discursive style, apparently effortlessly intimate, and responds with endearing honesty to questions ~ as when, apropos his book on the A303 ("commissioned," he responds tersely, adding with feeling "I'll never write another book about a road,") he was asked his opinion on the prospective tunnel under Stonehenge: "It’s an utter waste of millions and a conspiracy by English Heritage to get people to their beastly centre."  Well said that man.

Next out from the mixed-bag, music: Masses of it this week as Saturday was Record Store Day, an opportunity for live music in the streets which Frome never ignores. Covers Vinyl Record Store on Catherine Hill offered moody melodic 'anthemic angst' from All That Glitters while our national treasure Raves from the Grave, the indie record store that makes people move home to live near, offered not only local legend Carl Sutterby with his punk-rock band The Wochynskis, but an international legend too: Chris Difford, musician-songwriter from The Squeeze.
Cheap Street was totally jammed with happy-memory smiles as a massed chorus sang Up the Junction along with him. Cool for Cats was even more evocative as Chris not only wrote this one (back in 1979) but sang it on the album too: he seemed pleased, and oddly surprised when we nostalgically crooned the chorus...
Record Store Day ended with dancing at The Artisan with Rebel Heroes ~ best Bowie tribute band I've heard ~ you can sample soundcloud tracks like Ashes to Ashes on their site. There were other days of free live music too ~ Thursday wasn't a one-off thing like take-your-dog-to-work-day. We had the usual open mic sessions and on Wednesday Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar offered self-written songs from musician Ben Morgan-Brown, and Circe's Diner.
Circe in Greek mythology was a minor goddess with a knack of necromancy and powers of transformation which she used to turn Odysseus's men into beasts, but it's unclear which of her witchy skills would be required in the catering trade so this was an intriguing name for a singing duo who certainly offered something very different.
And the Cornerhouse offered mellow Sunday afternoon music from Three Corners, somehow now morphed from triangle to octagon or at least octet, but still delightful.  Here's singer/songwriter Caroline with Tom, one of the new members.

Art now, and down to the Black Swan where Frome Art Society's Annual Spring Show opened with a prize-giving on Friday. It's a popular show as the exhibition has a self-selecting process so is widely representative and the paintings are all accessible. You can see the winners here.
Friday evening was also the opening at the Round Tower of a shared exhibition by Lizbeth Spurgeon and Suzanne Woodward, whose very different painting styles combine impressively and look great against the stone walls.

Now for something completely different. Regular readers (thankyou, much appreciated) will know this is an Arts Blog - a personal record compiled by me as a kind of self-appointed (self-important you may say) monitor of Frome's live arts scene and other things arty in the Southwest, so there's very little about family & friends and even less about politics.
But now is no time to be teetering on the fence and seething, so while Art is as important as life and death, this is more important: a debate in Bristol run by the Canary on the topic How did we get into this mess, and what can we do about it? If you're unfamiliar with the Canary's 'frank and fearless' journalism you might find it helpful to know the name is derived from the use of these birds in mines to warn of impending crisis... hence the expression 'sing like...' meaning tell of hidden wrong-doings. The panel on Thursday however was not all as left-wing as Canary's Editor-in-Chief Kerry-Anne Mendoza: next to her sat Steven Woolfe, an ex-UKIP independent MEP, persistently proving that if you scratch an ex-UKIP you find... a UKIP.
Talking more sense than Woolfe's self-laundering babble about the need for managed immigration and grammar schools, the star of the show for me was Adam Ramsey, editor of Open Democracy and, sadly for us, a Scot, who answered the question in the title succinctly thus: After the English lost their empire and could no longer go round the world killing people and taking their assets, they turned on their own, which is why housing has become primarily for investment not homes and London is the money-laundering capital of the world. Ask the Mafia. Fourth panel member was Dr Susan Newman, lecturer in politics, who explained that thanks to neo-liberal economic theory developed as an alternative to Keynesian liberalism, we have a broken economic system which promotes capitalism over equality and our main GDP comes from Finance, employing few and creating nothing. Brexit has compounded our problems: As Adam explains, withdrawal from EU agribusiness systems leaves us with a US-style system, we've ripped up the Good Friday agreement that safeguarded Ireland and Scotland may withdraw from the UK without radical constitutional change. Susan agrees: Corbyn's 10 Pledges are a good place to begin to save the future of next generations.
Kerry-Anne went further: Adam’s not kidding about how severe the Tory Brexit will be. This will be a bonfire of rights that took hundreds of years to achieve. Corporates will abuse you and your children in the way they do in places like China with no rights. Unexpectedly, we've been given a chance, but only because we're supposed to blow it... so the clearly-presented consensus of the panel led overwhelmingly to only one solution: get them out. Vote with your heart if you can, but do whatever you have to do to stop them.
Which is what I am am saying now. If you live in the UK, please make this dystopian horror end.
In the words of Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens ~ and as it's World Book Day today, that brings this back to being an Arts blog ~ "There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imaginations of human beings. People understand that 'primitives' cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits... The principal difference between modern business people and tribal shamans is that they tell stranger tales." 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Spring! bonnets & budding, ducks & Daffodil Day

It's blossom time: pink & white floral canopies along streets and gardens, wild garlic tanging the air, and a fecundity of bluebells in the local woodlands. Wow! No wonder we go spring-crazy and remind ourselves we're rural folk and rush about doing rural folk things ~ a bonnet contest plus duck race in Nunney on Sunday, while bank holiday Monday is ~ with or without blooming compliance ~ Daffodil Day in Mells. This year there's an abundance of flowers, and the sun shone obligingly on the marquees & bouncy castles, and presumably on the street stalls too although, after walking all the way from Frome along the woodland river path, we didn't get far beyond Milk Street Brewery's beer tent in the field where the rocking revivalist repertoire of totally fantastic Back Wood Redeemers made religion almost worthwhile. The four mile walk was glorious too, both ways.
Back in Frome, the refurbished Whittox Lane chapel, beautifully restored by new owners Ed Roberts and Io Fox, was officially opened as the HUBnub Centre last week. Cutting the ribbon here is Mayor Toby ~ whose 'impressive moustache' gets an awed mention in the most recent Times piece discovering Frome with surprised approval. Our 'lovely old town' must feel a bit like one of those bands that keeps getting the award for promising newcomer, the number of times it's been featured as a 'less obvious' spot to visit and listed on Top 10 charts. Confirming the thumbs-up journalist John Bungey gives Frome's regeneration since Independents took over the council, last week saw two more openings: Jo Black's Black Inc tattoo shop in Cheap Street on Saturday night, and the new Bottle Shop, Cheese & Tap Bar in Palmer Street ~ locally sourced food and drink, either sit in & relax, take home, or both, suggests entrepreneur & 'helmsman' Simon Bowden.

Contrasting holiday-weekend sounds in town to round off this bulletin: mellow jazz from Graham Dent Trio with Caroline Radcliffe at the Cornerhouse on Sunday afternoon, and Dreadzone at Cheese & Grain with a wicked Saturday night of rock/reggae. Like I said, Wow...

Friday, April 14, 2017

Vaulting ambitions, dramatically o'erleaping

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory is ending its 18th year of spring seasons with a production of Tartuffe. It's a suitable tale for our times: a self-promoting groper whose fakery pushes him to a powerful position (no golf-course in Scotland but he does dabble in time-share), Tartuffe is a ruthless rogue with no redeeming features ~ not even kindness to kittens. In this present-day version of Moliere's satire, it's a sentimental Tory minister he deludes, using a fake autobiography and phoney tantra postures. This is a single-strand plot: will evil Tartuffe’s ludicrous lying be recognised by obtuse pin-striped Charles before he loses his family and his home? The predictable resolution is satisfyingly achieved by great performances, tight direction from Andrew Hilton, and a wildly entertaining script composed entirely of jingling verse, as Andrew Hilton and Dominic Power have recreated Moliere's rhyming couplets in modern idiom. This leads to some clever pairings like 'dressed in lycra' with 'a wretch in a Nissan Micra' and is very effective for full & frank exchanges: 'You’re just a frigid snob!' - 'And you’re a knob.'  Talking in ten-syllable pentameter does inevitably impose constraints on characterisation, but the cast all find distinctive personalites too. The politician’s mother Dame Pamela (Tina Gray) is fooled like her son, but she departs early leaving Charles to a barrage of complaints of his protege’s idleness, debauchery, duplicity, and lechery from his entire family and the stroppy Polish maid - Anna Elijasz is superb in this role, holding the stage whenever she enters. Daisy May and Joel Macey, Charles’ understandably indignant children, are both delightful and Saskia Portway gives a strong performance as his wife whenever her headaches allow her onstage, while Alan Coveney possibly found his finest hour in awful Des Loyal the tabloid hack. Christopher Bianchi plays the pinstripe Tory straight, or as straight as you can when speaking in rollicking rhyme, though since mis-lit as a genre is notoriously hoax-laden and met its backlash a decade ago, the mystery of how he fell under the spell of Mark Meadows' charmless charlatan remains unsolved.
Andrew Hilton is stepping down from his role as Artistic Director of STF so that’s another reason to go to see this great final show from the man who brought Shakespeare to the Tobacco Factory in 1999 and has enlivened every spring season since with two superb productions of classic plays.  STF will be back next year, but a new steerage, and in the autumn. images Craig Fuller  

Meanwhile in Bath there's a very different drama at the Ustinov Studio, though one also involving ego and ambition. The Mentor by Daniel Kehlemann, translated by Christopher Hampton, is the second German play in their European Season, and with an Academy Award winner in the title role plus direction by Laurence Boswell you'd expect this production to be a bit special. And you'd be right. It's 90 minutes of pure gold, never flagging for a moment and I wish I could say more about the action but I can't without spoilers so you really should go and see it. Writers are always fascinated by the topic of writing & as I'm currently mentoring that was another reason to appreciate the cleverly constructed script, and all of the five actors are outstanding. F Murray Abraham as Benjamin Rubin, the jaundiced mentor, is mesmeric ~ garrulous and wily one moment, witty and charming the next, then deeply moving as he recalls the 'savage melancholy' of his younger days. The three whose lives will never be the same after this seismic encounter are all superb: Daniel Weymann is the young literary lion, Gina Wegner his wife, and Erwin Rudicek the administrator at the venue of their sponsored encounter. Polly Sullivan's set is fabulous, with arty furniture and a tree whose falling blossom seems somehow to make more poignant the fragility of hope and reputation. Seriously, don't miss this one... images Simon Annand

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Classic drama plus a surge of sunshine (& music)

Over to Bath, where Theatre Royal is hosting a touring production of Shaw's Pygmalion in a collaboration between Headlong ~ tagline 'creates exhilarating contemporary theatre' ~ with NST and West Yorkshire Playhouse. The story of the phonetics professor who turned a flower-girl into a duchess may be better known in its romantic reincarnation as My Fair Lady but Shaw's intention was avowedly didactic: He believed our consonant-based language required reform, famously declaring 'It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.' This production, directed by Sam Pritchard, brilliantly skewers the phonetic heart of Shaw's play from the first moment. Before we see the actors we hear them preparing their voices, and the opening scene is entirely focussed on the impact of speech and our expectations of others from their voices alone. Playfulness by exaggeration pervades throughout: the professor's mother is 'At Home', as Victorian society required, in a transparent container like a hot-house cubicle or specimen box, where her guests politely raise teacups in unison and even her dress blends with the wallpaper. And Alfred Doolittle, who'd probably be doing standup these days in clubs if not on Live at the Apollo, grabs a mic to make a direct-to-audience appeal to support his plea for a fiver for Eliza, him being one of the Undeserving Poor and not requiring a tenner. Ian Burfield is great in this role.
Media resonances & references both underpin and overlay this contemporising of Professor Higgins' experiment, with filmic interludes segueing the scenes, a spot of selfie-Youtube, a tardis-like box for Eliza's journey and distinct essence of Big Bang's autistic Sheldon in Higgins himself ~ indeed the overall concept of blending Victoriana with modern mores evokes the impact of BBC's Sherlock. The cast led by Alex Beckett as Higgins as are all strong, but this is a production that will be remembered more for its interpretation than any single performance ~ and it will be remembered. This kind of touring show, rather than filming big names on big stages, is how theatre will stay alive.

Moving forward a decade to 1923, Arnold Ridley (aka Private Godfrey in Dad's Army) spent a scary night in Mangotsfield railway station waiting room and was inspired to write Ghost Train. The only play to with a fairground ride named after it, this comedy-thriller also launched a dramatic genre, the group of stranded strangers in jeopardy, and Frome Drama Club brought this classic story to the Merlin last week ~ drama so cleverly constructed it's
impossible to give any outline of the plot without spoilers, other than to say that tension builds at every turn for the six passengers forced to spend the night in a dingy waiting-room apparently haunted by a deadly supernatural presence. Set and costumes are superb, evoking the era as effectively as the dire slang in the script ~ in fact some of those 'old boys' and 'old girls' could have been tweaked out and performance pace tightened. This is a great ensemble piece and very entertaining, combining entertaining social comedy with disturbingly eerie effects, brilliantly contrived by sound and clever filmic effects. A well-chosen piece for team production with some fine individual performances.

Frome live music scene now, as always with a focus on the fabulous proliferance of free sessions our town is famed for: Wednesday's Grain Bar Roots Sessions featured the Three Pilgrims whose powerful set featured original pieces as well as traditional airs. On Saturday Galleons had a gig at the Granary, along with popular local singer-songwriter Phil Cooper. There were bands at the Cornerhouse and Artisan too, and a great jazz session at Griffin, but these venues need to get better lighting or Your Correspondent will have to get a costlier camera. So here's a snap from the Nunney Acoustic Cafe on Sunday with featured guests Ethemia, a lovely duo who perform their own songs and are radio favourites of Gaby Roslin who gave them the great quote: Ha ha Graham Norton you don't have Ethemia. I liked what Berny Poulton, one half of this duo, said about song-writing: "It's a funny thing ~ you don't find the song, it finds you, a bit like a cat."

And after a week of stunning sunshine, using the fragile excuse of a lovely, merely mildly melancholy, Philip Larkin poem, this week's post ends with images of some fabulous walks with friends:
The Trees
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread, 
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Philip Larkin

Monday, April 03, 2017

Now that April's here... sunshine, singing, & some spoken stuff too

This illustrated edition of Frome life starts with some of the week's great music sessions ~ from Olli's Open Mic
at the Artisan on Monday to Sunday's afternoon jam at the Archangel and Jazz the Cornerhouse with Graham Dent's terrific trio with Simon Sax guesting ~ wish there was sound for their magic version of John Coltrane's Impressions.)

Music too at the first Sunday Market of the year on the first of April, a glorious day of sunshine as solid as the crowds at the wonderful Frome Independent. Here's Gina and her Company of Men rocking the busking stage, and the ever-rolling stream of market-goers crossing the river.
Big civic news of the week was the opening of the new Town Hall, an impressive Victorian building on the southern hill of the town ~ Frome has hills at every turn ~ now elegantly refurbished since Somerset CC moved out. You can read more in the Frome Times, or even in a book, but here's the splendid Italian Renaissance exterior, and a couple of our splendid civic dignitaries: Mayor Toby with Deputy Al and secretary Rebecca, greeting Froomies all keen to take the guided tours on throughout the afternoon.
There was a party in the evening too, which I missed as I'd already opted to go to Toppings in Bath to hear TS-Eliot-prize-winner Jacob Polley reading from Jackself.  Described as 'firecracker of a book' by the judges, the poet blends Jacks of rhymes and fables with memories of a Cumbrian childhood to create this loosely-autobiographical collection, 'playful and terrifying, lyric and narratively compelling.. an unforgettable exploration of an innocence and childhood.. one of the most remarkable imaginations at work in poetry today.' Jacob sees his writing process as "doing a jigsaw but without the front of the box" & I relate to his 'kind-of-strategy' too: "I would never stop it going where it wanted to go, even if it didn't seem very poetic or seemed stupid." An interesting event, and also a chance to catchup with Diana Cambridge who runs writing groups from her bohemian home in Camden Road.

No report from the Grain Bar this week as Wednesday was booked for another away-from-base event: As the Crow Flies at The Salberg studio theatre in Salisbury Playhouse, written by Hattie Naylor. The last play I saw by this writer was Bluebeard, a powerful piece produced in Bristol four years ago which I reviewed as 'tautly shocking from the opening line, words chosen with precision and cuttingly delivered, poetic and visual ~ not so much filmic as a series of savagely erotic paintings.'  So I was interested to see what this drama about a woman and her pet crow would be like. I have to say the crow was brilliant ~ Tom Brownlee totally charismatic with or without his superb mask. It’s an ambitious aim, to extend a story that could be summed up in a sentence (lonely woman finds wounded crow, keeps it for a bit, becomes less lonely) to a two-act play with story-telling through exposition and songs, but there's some interesting science: I didn't know before that birds fly using quantum entanglement:throwing out two electrons in opposite directions to inform each other and relay information instantaneously back to the bird. There is no way of knowing which particle is ahead in time and which is past. They both exist in the same moment.

Footnote for this week: a look back at the Poetry Platter at the Merlin, courtesy of photographer David Goodman. Frome's next poetry night, on 24th, will be back at the Garden Cafe with readings from Lindsay Clarke and Matt Duggan
So here in running order:
me, XJX, Hannah Teasdale, Chris Redmond, Liv Torc, and Buddy Carson.
You're welcome!