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.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Of gods & mortals, killings & madness ~ and some art.

Salisbury Playhouse identifies 'high quality revivals of classic English comedy' as at the heart of its artistic vision, and their new production Before the Party is directed by Ryan McBryde who usually does their pantomimes so there's much to laugh at in this satirical drama, adapted by Rodney Ackland from a short story by Somerset Maugham. The original story was published in 1922  but the play is set just after WW2 and this quarter-century forward shift with the original social mores retained has created the kind of timeless absurdity of a PG Wodehouse story, though with a darker centre.  (Images: Robert Workman)
James Turner's design is great ~ tastelessly sumptuous surroundings and fashion-plate frocks ~ and there's laugh-aloud humour in hypocrisy and pretensions of this upper-middle-class family fawning to their ‘betters', bullying those below them, and sneering at the black marketeers they routinely rely on to keep them provided as post-war rationing continues. A strong cast keep just ahead of farce as an erratic doorknob threatens to imprison them all while Laura's secret unravels as relentlessly as her mother’s composure, with especially brilliant performances from Katherine Manners as Laura's vicious sister and Philip Bretherton as her ghastly father, both making the most of their obnoxiousness.
In days when children were sent to their room with Nanny while adults misbehaved, writers relished the addition of a young observer. Part sagacious-Greek-chorus, part uncomprehending-distorting-mirror, they could show another perspective on events with ruthless candour. Young Susan (Eleanor Bennett) has this role, questioning the integrity of her elders until banished from the room and banned dessert. Her bewilderment is understandable. Her parents are appalling snobs, her aunts hate each other, and even God can’t be trusted. "Is he the God of Love or is he the God of Hate?" Susan wails, "How can we tell?" How indeed.
Rodney Ackland had a massive reputation at one time, though he's largely unknown now: Harold Hobson lambasted his play The Pink Room, which pre-empted the fashion for realism, as ‘jaw-aching soul-obliterating boredom’ which may have done for him what the Mercury Review allegedly did for Keats. It's no bad thing that audience reviews online have taken over from acid-tongued tyrants like Hobson. Here's Laura's lush but slightly louche lover (Matthew Romain) because it would've been nice to see more of him on stage.

Another story re-envisaged for later eyes, this time far more complex: Medea is the new production at Bristol Old Vic.  Euripides' 640BC version is a story of revenge at its most extreme and hideous, and I'd previously assumed it was a dire warning against revenge (or possibly barbarians) rather than a rally-cry for revolutionary feminism. Perhaps it can be both: this seemed to be the premise of this production underlining that History is made by women just as much as men. The original tragedy has been elaborated by director George Mann and writer Chino Odimbo by taking Robin Robertson’s 2008 translation and interweaving a modern tale about a single mum with a grudge against her ex, these overlapping stories presented mostly in song by a superb six-women cast. Jessica Temple, as Medea's nurse and Maddy's friend, was particularly impressive in this musical delivery, and Akiya Henry both looked and sounded awesome in the title role. Atmospheric lighting and a stark set enhance the surreal and sombre aspects of these twin sagas, though I found the sliding portals distracting and costume concept seems undecided ~ Medea looks great but the others, who have to change sex as well as century, tend to look as if they're trying on stuff in search of a style that suits. Opinions may divide on this interpretation of Medea - they did in my row, where Maddy's belligerence was loudly applauded.  The classic story is grim and the contemporary one glum and tritely scripted, but with great singing and visceral high-impact delivery, there’s no doubt about the dramatic impact of this performance. (Images: facebook)

Did you know that May 11 is Celebrating Somerset Day? Me neither, until I went along to Bruton Art Factory to hear Richard Pomeroy talk about his paintings and found a party with cider, local cheese, and Worzels songs, all - I quote the CSD website here - "to honour the date of King Alfred the Great’s defeat of the Danes in the 878 Battle of Edington, which is also known as the Battle of Ethandun (although the exact date of this is unknown." Patron Michael Eavis says "Somerset is a county full of entrepreneurs and people who don’t take no for an answer", which seems a good enough reason for a party.  Here's the spread put on by the ever-generous Art Factory, and here's Richard talking about how he creates his massive 'body-prints' en plein air, covering the linen fabric with acrylic paint and lying on it, then working on the floral surround later - there will be a body-printing performance on Saturday 20 May at 2pm in the gallery, free to all interested.
Back in Frome there were two art exhibition previews on Friday: Black Swan Arts is welcoming back Steve Burden, who won last year's Black Swan Open with his unforgettable painting Abettoir and now returns with a sensational show he calls Utopian Myths. Steve grew up on the Pepys estate in Deptford, a 'showcase' 1960s estate designed in post-war brutalism which like others had descended from Utopean to anarchic. Deptford Docks, which Pepys described in his diary, were the most important royal dockyards from Tudor days for three hundred years, and the massive work behind Steve is based on Peter the Great at Deptford dock by Maclise in 1857. There's a lot of vigour in his painting process, Steve agrees:"My drawing is very detailed and technical, and I want the paint to take it to another level - to take control. My paintings are robust, they're not whimsical."
At the HUBnub Centre, an exhibition from print artists Pine Feroda celebrates the arrival of a new art space for Frome in the gallery above the Rye Bakery. These big, dramatic, woodblock landscapes are created collaboratively by five artists all from the southwest: there's also a film showing their team work is as impressive as their talents. All of the group, Ian PhilipsJulia Manning, Judith Westcott, Rod Nelson & Merlyn Chesterman have an extensive background of successful individual work too.

Ridiculusmus brought their current production Give Me Your Love to Frome's Merlin Theatre: a story about a war veteran struggling, with the help of what is possibly ecstasy, to cope with his post-traumatic stress. By being profoundly about what it is, the story becomes, like Waiting for Godot, about much more: by revealing nothing and no-one, it might be the quintessential howl of humanity to 'give me love' ...or just about a man in a box in a room with a chain on the door. Bizarre, disturbing, sometimes weirdly funny, always gripping.
Ending this week's culture-bundle with The Levelling, now at Frome's smashing (3-screen, £4-a-seat) independent Westway cinema. Set on a the Somerset levels after the 2014 floods with a strong rural heart-beat, there's also a plot, a suspense story that holds till the last moments, and Ellie Kendrick as the girl at the centre is incredible. So too are the long shots of murmurations around the tor, and hares slowly swimming through the flooded fields. The Guardian gives background and a good review, and I also liked the Financial Times critic's quote which chimes with other themes in this week's post: Not just a character piece with pain and poignancy, also a swirly, dystopian, ugly-beautiful landscape painting.  There's a stark moment when the father advises his daughter how to deal with the terrible levellings life brings to our lofty hopes: "You have to forget about it. Get out of bed, and bloody move on." You could say that challenge has been the theme of all this week's dramas.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

May: rough winds and other moving & shaking stuff

Frome writers had a strong presence at the Independent Market this month, with several signing events at Hunting Raven Books ~ here's Kate Maryon delighting young readers of My Sister is Bigger Than Me with cakes and a guinea-pig too ~ and the Frome Writers Collective had their usual stall in the Magpie Market, bulging with books by local authors. As always the market offered masses to see and sample, and this month there was extra to listen to, with buskers in the streets & in The Griffin, where an open mic session accompanied the Sunday lunches. Carl Sutterby's terrific ukulele punk sounds good everywhere but my poems are mostly scurrilous or cynical... lucky my set was before any children arrived. Thanks David for the picture!
The busking stage had great bands and a big audience all morning ~ here's The Heart Collectors ~ with mellow folk music in the Archangel courtyard in the afternoon, followed by Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse.
Thus ended a weekend of sunshine and sound, with two Saturday night birthday parties: a disco at the Cornerhouse and the amazing Back Wood Redeemers, at the bar now quirkily calling itself Frome's New Venue - Name TBC but still commonly referred as The Wheatsheaves.
Now for the culture: a film, a play, and a photo exhibition this week, all with a war theme.
Ever since Frome's independent cinema The Westway reopened I've been waiting for one of their three screens to show something I really wanted to see so I could go and support it. This week I compromised with Their Finest.  It's a film about making films about WW2, set in that era, and one of the running gags is that the female scriptwriter (think Stacey out of Gavin-and, but less cute) needs to cut her scripts and leave out the part we don't need, and I wish the editors had done that too. Main attraction of the movie is Bill Nighy playing, as always, Bill Nighy, but I can report the revamped cinema is really nice so that's good. There's a useful tip in the script for writers too: Don't confuse facts with truth, and for chrissake don't let either of them get in the way of the story.

Still on the subject of war, truth, and propaganda, Bath's Victoria Art Gallery has an impressive exhibition of iconic historical photographs showing until 10 May: THE INCITE PROJECT comprises 75 photos that changed public perception of world events, from a sepia shot of Lenin's inflammatory speech in Petrograd Square in 1919 to a full-colour high-resolution image from 2014 of a rescue boat crowded with refugees. This duo from Berlin in 1945, of a Russian soldier hoisting a Soviet flag on the Reichstag reveals how the documentary photograph (top) was altered into a dramatic smoke-filled scene ~ wristwatches, presumably looted, have also been deleted from the soldiers' arms in the published shot too.

Paul Mason is best known as a radical leftwing journalist but recently he's taken his convictions on stage, first with a dramatised version of his book Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere at the New Vic and now with Divine Chaos of Starry Things at the White Bear in Kennington. An in-depth study a woman revolutionary from another era sounded fascinating, maybe even pertinent in current troubled times, and an exciting way to round off my trip up-town.  Paul writes for The Guardian, which published a piece about the play that shows its complexity. Other journals have found it overly didactic and lacking in character differentiation, but there's a positive summary here in the New Statesman.

Irrelevant footnote for this post: Before it disappears from Bristol's streets, here's a picture of the promotion for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory this season.  Please note the two reviews quoted. Oh alright, you can't read it at that size, but trust me it's a massive poster, and the second reviewer is me...  what's the emoticon for a smirk?...

Monday, May 01, 2017

Beltane bulletin: summer ahead & the Greater Good

To begin in the middle: This week was the 10th anniversary of possibly the most momentous moment in the impressive history of Wells: the special premiere of Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz, with unmistakable town locations thinly disguised as the Sandford, the rural village that made murdering Midsomer look like sanitised Stepford.
So significant a date clearly required celebration, and what better way than hoisting a giant screen in the Bishop's Palace Garden and inviting a few hundred people to park their chairs on the billiard-table smooth & verdant lawn to enjoy a Hot Fuzz quiz, Hot Fuzz fancy-dress contest, and ~ of course ~ a late night screening of Hot Fuzz. The event sold out in days. It was all tremendous fun: the rain stayed off, organisation was amazingly smooth, speedy & good-humoured, and ticket price included barbecue, drink & goodie-bag. Now I want to go back for the Hot Fuzz walk...

Back in Frome, it's been another busy week.
Spoken word first: Frome Poetry Cafe enjoyed two terrific guests and an outstanding open mic session.  Matt Duggan read from his new chapbook Metropolis, evoking the moods of Bristol life through sounds and visual details: glass shards, city sirens, and no stars...  Lindsay Clarke, our other guest, reading from his recent collection A Dance with Hermes, imagining the trickster god still present in our world, timeless and deathless, reminding us the only remedy for life is love. Poems from the floor chimed with these powerful themes of time & place and life & death: there were moving memories and inspiring glimpses as well as delightful lighter moments. Huge thanks to all who came and all who read, including Rose Flint and Rosie Jackson who shared the her award-winning poem in the 2017 Hippocrates Competition.  (Thanks Matt for the picture)

Not one but two great bands at the Grain Bar this week: Wednesday's Roots Session featured fabulous blues trio The Spoonful, and on Sunday night we had a fantastic jazz special from John Law's Re-creations. This virtuoso quartet comprises John on (double) keyboard, James Agg on bass, Sam Crockatt on sax, and drummer Billy Weir, dynamically 'recreating' other composers' tunes like you've never heard them ~ just check out their Norwegian Wood...

Now here's the thing: we all know Frome is twinned virtually with the Eden and the national press bubbles with adulation for for its quaint cobbled streets, entrepreneurial market, entertainment options and general creativity, but the outcome of this,  combined with market profiteering, has pushed the cost of a house up by an average of £36,000 on last year's prices, scarily out of reach of most young local people wanting to buy or even rent.  Fair Housing for Frome, a community group run by volunteers with support from the Town Council, held a public meeting on Saturday afternoon to outline the problem. Solutions won't be easy, but there's clearly support for finding initiatives and answers.

Merlin Theatre 'Short Play Competition' performance of the winning submissions, fully-rehearsed script-in-hand, is coming up: the winning scripts have been picked from a strong long-list ~ in fact so strong, there was no short-list as such: these six very different scripts should create a fascinating evening of dramatic action.

Looking further ahead to July: an exciting but somewhat confusing headline appeared on Frome Festival website last week: FROME FESTIVAL RECEIVES EU AWARD. Nope, our town hasn't been exempted from Brexit doom, but our festival did pass the rigorous application procedure of the EFA, a prestigious organisation of arts festivals part-funded by the EU. The ECOS stone circle helped: built in 1992 to celebrate the European Union, this amphitheatre hosts summer productions, with two in the festival ~ check the brochure, out now, for these and other July delights.

So now it's May, and officially summer. Beltane is traditionally celebrated with bonfires but we celebrated it here with a dawn trip to Saxonvale, an unofficial park/wasteland hidden in the heart of the town, part public dump adorned by amazing creativity, part woodland waist-high with cow parsley and thick with the scent of wild garlic.

We sang a few songs, in old English and rather randomly in French, and listened to the birds, and then had an excellent picnic of home-made bread and marmalade, with coffee, all provided by members of the East Mendip Green Party. They public-spiritedly stayed on to do a big litter-picking blitz of some of the messy bits, and I went back home to bed.