Monday, November 27, 2017

Dramatic time-slips: 16C to1945, 18C revisited in 1963

A couple of theatrical re-envisagings for you this week: First, Shakespeare's sweet-bitter comedy Much Ado About Nothing from Rondo Theatre Company in Bath. Set in 1590s Sicily this story of soldiers returning from war to reconnect with the women missing them (and becoming more feisty, too) seemed to directors Lisa Thrower and Andrew Fletcher to have fascinating parallels to the end of World War II. This too was a time of conspicuous celebration, with undercurrents of unease as roles were clearly changing. Beatrice especially has a confidence in her opinions which chimes with the independence of those UK women who'd coped with amazing fortitude for six years, and now found they were expected to step back into subservience. The directors' theory works ~ impressively well in fact. On an unelaborate set with lots of union-jack bunting, the bard's script transfers with minimal tweaks to the volatile emotionalism of 1945, making it actually easier to forgive stupid Claudio and believe in everyone's gullibility. A terrific cast helps: Naomi Miller and Chris Constantine as Beatrice & Benedict were simply superb, bringing absolute authenticity to every moment, especially in the scene after Hero's collapse which still makes me shudder to recall. Among their elders, Jeremy Fowlds' Leonato, his friend Don Pedro (Matt Nation) and wicked Don John (Richard Chivers) were all excellent. I laughed, I cried, what else do you want from a comedy on a cold night? Big congratulations once again, Rondo Theatre.

Over to Merlin Theatre now, where Frome Drama Club chose a ready-made revival: Richard Bean's award-winning One Man Two Guvnors is a re-envisaging of The Servant of Two Masters, a commedia dell'arte piece by Carlo Goldoni written in 1746. It's the same central thread, as summarised in the title, but the 1963 version is set in the seedy side of Brighton, and the immensely successful National Theatre production, which transferred to Broadway, featured not only a TV superstar but a skiffle band live on stage. Calum Grant directs, with Andrew Morrison as James Corden ~ sorry, as Francis Henshall ~ who has to carry much of the comedy, including organised impro and binge-eating. There's nice contrast from Tracey Ashford and Giles de Rivaz as Rachel and Stanley, especially in their tender reunion, and laugh-of-the-night award goes to Laurie Parnell's Charlie for four words, perfectly pitched: So what's your point? An excellent review from Fine Times Recorder here gives more detail of this exuberant production: congratulations to all involved - and my personal special appreciation to Aaron Hooper's skittish geriatric waiter and his wayward wig.

As the misnomered 12th month creeps closer, Frome is already getting jiggy with crafty markets & multi-clash jollities... my Saturday night scamper round town concluded this week at the Sun Inn where the Raggedy Men showed why they're shooting to supernova status ~ especially when supported by a lively uke band and rapper XjX

Another mini time-trek on Sunday as Jazz at the Cornerhouse this week featured the sultry songs of Ella Fitzgerald, born a hundred years ago, recreated by the smouldering voice of Frome's Emma Harris, with the John Law trio ~ Billy Weir drums & this time Adrian Smith on bass.

To end this post: my appreciation to Ciara Nolan, for including me in her chronicle of Humans of Frome ~ big privilege to be interviewed for this, and a pleasure too as Ciara being from Dublin can relate to my Irish experiences...  Published in Frome Times this week.
And another, 'finally' moment: As a TV viewer generally only when the moon is blue, I'm loving Howards End on BBC on Sunday nights. EM Forster is one of my favourite novelists: he uncompromisingly nails Englishness in all its foibles & follies, and this tale of upper-class arrogance also reveals the inherent weakness of their 'liberal' middle-class challengers, and it's just brilliant. "I don't intend to correct him, or to reform him - only connect," says avant-garde Margaret with confident aplomb. A good meme but a difficult aim, as history shows us still. Great story-telling and great acting too. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Retrospective moments & Restoration drama

I had high hopes of the current Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which I visited on Thursday, and it totally exceeded them. I realised she was more than a clever illustrator from the existential anguish and ever-present incomprehensible wildness that pervades her magical tales of Moominland, but I hadn't expected the richness of her candid & personal paintings - I love this one of her family, with Tove herself slightly caricatured, watching her brothers play chess just before the war. (Lars, the one who is not in uniform, became her business partner & collaborater later in life.)
Tove was a passionate pacifist, and her cover illustrations for the Finnish satirical magazine Garm throughout the war years show her views. This 1944 one is filled with little Hitlers, robbing farms and households, torching barns, and trying on a crown. There's a tiny little creature clasping the M in this cover, and also on others, who later evolved into Moomintroll...  The popularity of the Moomin characters and stories led to comic strips and merchandise but Tove accepted few commercial propositions - for Amnesty, UNICEF and the Red Cross she made an exception. She also seems to have had a filtering policy on her literary illustrations, apparently only taking The Hunting of the Snark, The Hobbit, and Alice in Wonderland.  
After a couple of hours at the gallery I wanted to buy up the gift shop, but calmed myself with a reminder of some of the permanent treasures of this extraordinary little gallery, the first dedicated art-gallery in England and home to treasures like Gainsborough's Linley Sisters, Murillo's street urchins, Rembrandt's Girl at a Window, Reynold's portrait of Mrs Siddons being tragic, and a mesmeric self-portrait by John Opie.
Time then for a wander round the rest of Dulwich with my brother, who has a far better recolletion of this part of south London we both grew up in, me in the 1950s and he in the '60s. It's changed a lot, is all I can say, and all for the better. (Thanks Pete for the picture)

Still on a time-trekking theme, this time back to the days of Abigail's party, with the launch of Return to Kirrin at Hunting Raven Books. Set in 1979, it's an affectionately-spoofy envisaging of the grown-up lives of Enid Blyton's renowned quintet ~ and that's as many clues as I'm allowed without getting sued. Co-authors Suzy & Neil Howlett shared their skills, Neil providing pace & plot while Suzy added detail and nostalgic enthusiasm for Blytonesque style of story-telling: 'like that baby fleece you cuddle up to, and then grow out of.' There's uncertainty around the location of Kirrin, claimed by Dorset as based around Corfe but perhaps more plausibly an island off Cornwall seen by Enid on holiday. It seems appropriate that these origins are lost in the past.  My own experience of the jolly japers is limited to the Comic Strip Presents version in 1982, but then I had an odd childhood. A retro-party at Three Swans led to interesting comparisons of era & values, and lashings of canapes. (Incidentally, the famous phrase "lashings of ginger beer" never appeared in any of the Famous Five books... oops, gone and used the FF words. Sosumi!)
Now a leap backwards of over 300 years, with a revival of a Restoration Comedy classic: The Provoked Wife as produced by Stepping Out Theatre is lavishly stylish and authentic in every Baroque detail ~ even the venue.
Kings Weston House just north of Bristol is a long trek from Frome, but there's something quite magical about watching a play written by John Vanbrugh in the mansion he himself designed for the politician Edward Southey in the early 18th Century. In a room panelled with life-size Gainsborough-esque portraits, with lighting enhanced by chandeliers, an in-the-round performance allows the audience an intense connection with the shenanigans and improprieties of the characters. In these genteel surroundings, we sit quiet as the sylphs in Rape of the Lock (Pope too is scathing of the affectations of this era), and find ourselves voyeurs of plots both predacious and mendacious. I won't go into details ~ there's a lot of story, and it moves fast ~ other than to say the wife in question, Lady Brute, decides to take revenge by an affair, and the knock-on effect is no end of lasciviousness and frivolity. In the midst of this is a jealous neighbour and her french maid, who is really a bloke called Tom (Sam Dugmore) in frock, wig, and lippy. There's an abundance of frocks, wigs, and lippy actually: the provoking husband dons one when drunk, the magistrate he's hauled up before next day is clearly wearing a corset... Costumes are a huge part of this show, as is the amazing music (baroque with undertones of Benny Hill) created by Colin Smith and John Telfer.
The cast of eight are all strong, creating audience rapport in every scene: I was especially moved by Lady Brute and Belinda (Stephanie Manton) in a scene of rare intimacy without their wigs ~ a poignant reminder that behind the apparent licentiousness of these bored, intelligent, young women, their options were... well, nonexistent. Women, married or not, had no rights, however violent their husbands. This clever production is not only fabulous to look at and very funny, it manages to remind us of the kind of 'English' values best left behind. We're still working on some of them... Directed by Briony Waite, with the Stepping Out company support team in baroque finery to set the mood, and an after-show supper in the dining hall as extra excitement.

A half-hour Uber-ride, and three centuries, away in central Bristol, Luke Wright was performing The Toll at the Wardrobe Theatre. This photo isn't quite right hair-wise, but I can't find one closer: the Johnny Bevan look is gone and it's boyish again ~ in fact Luke still complains he's I-Dd regularly when trying to do grown-up things. It's probably difficult to know how to follow a multi-award-winning show (for both acting and writing) and Luke has gone back to what he also does so well: intimate performance of powerful poems. His tour takes its name from his latest collection, but it's the chat that makes these poems ones to hear as well as read. Luke is a master of traditional formats and wordplay and wit, but it's his narrative ballads, serious, satirical & often sad, that stay. And I really like that he opened with one inspired by coming to Frome and seeing Cley Hill.

Which brings me nicely back home to Frome, where Wednesday was an excellent night at the Grain Bar Roots Session with Swampgrass, an amazing blues band from Glastonbury, ably supported by Julian (Bugs) Hight.

As winter creeps in there's been much lantern-making, in free workshops run by Mel Day and Aliss Vaas, where so many lanterns have been made I'm surprised there's not a national shortage of withies and tissue and sloppy white glue. It's all for a candlelit procession on December 1st, and this is Orion's creation in progress, being recorded by a Danish film crew who arrived in town last week to film the Doings of Frome ~ the sort of thing that often happens here.

Finally this week, Sunday's Chocolate Festival, an annual jollity when Cheese & Grain hall is crammed with stalls dedicated to all things chocolatey, from a recreation of Willy Wonka's Factory garden to chocolate shoes and make-up, there's every colour, texture, and flavour imaginable & then some more (lime & chilli is delicious) and the smells are amazing. Here's a glimpse of the crowded hall, with Empress of Chocolate herself, Jo Harrington, looking happy. As she should.  Now I'm off to nibble on a slice of Kraken Rum & Raisin Cheesecake. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

History decides winners... you may not always agree

A visit to the Wardrobe Theatre is always a delight: proper pub theatre in the heart of Bristol, only a short walk from the station via the new Avon footbridge, and more importantly every show I've seen there has been fantastic. How to Win Against History didn't break that record. Based on the true story of Henry Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey, this musical is fascinatingly entertaining not only because the three performers have masses of talent & charm but because Seiriol Davies's witty, absurd, script is based on intense research: this is a character study of weirdness uncontrolled by the usual social limits of access to funding. Henry's status allowed him extraordinary excesses. To quote the annotated script that I couldn't resist buying: 'Born to inherit the empire, instead he burned brightly, briefly, and transvestitely through his family's vast wealth, charging round Europe dressed as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine or sometimes a butterfly, in a car with rose-scented exhaust fumes...'  Henry died in 1905 aged only thirty, and his family erased every trace they could of his existence. The Evening Express headed their obituary 'A Wasted Life', and wrote reproachfully of the man who became bankrupt on £100,000 a year and 'bought diamonds as an ordinary man buys cigarettes'.  Social familiarity with psychiatric definitions was limited at that time, but envy of wealth wasn't. These days, when abuse of personal power is increasingly under scrutiny, the colourful exploits and foibles of this gentle, generous, man seem almost innocent. How to Win Against History is a co-production with Tobacco Factory Theatres. Image: Mihaela Bodiovic

A quick blast of music now: Rebel Heroes at the Cornerhouse, best Bowie tribute band I've yet heard...  and The Raggedy Men on  the busking stage dazzling a large crowd with their 70s retro-punk at the Independent Market last Sunday.
Stallholders and strollers enjoyed a wintry sun for this ~ I  popped into the Magpie market hall too, to check in with Frome Writers Collective and to take a look at Matt Straker's art in the Grain Bar.   And now the glitter-arti opening at Black Swan Arts is over, there's an opportunity for a quiet look at the exhibition of winners from an Open Arts contest that attracted over 900 entries. Viewer responses to the winning choices have been mixed: some find the pieces inscrutable and the artists' notes obfuscating, but then as Picasso said art should not aim to please. It all made for an interesting writing workshop on Monday, impressively led by Louise Green who suggested subterfuge as an overall theme: the artists' meanings concealed, as poets also often do. There's a link to our writerly responses here, and as contrast to the elusiveness of those ~ mainly pale-toned ~ exhibits, here's Matt's vigorous portrait of Dave Grohl. Exhibition on till end November.

Frome Writers Collective social evening at the Three Swans this month featured readings from the nine 'writers in residence' in shops and cafes during the festival. To suit the festival theme, the writers' trigger was a Jane Austen line: passionate Darcy's plea to Lizzie "Surely, you must know it was all for you." Responses ranged from humorous to murderous, poignant to absurd. Writer Tim Bates was chosen as this year's winner ~ fittingly perhaps, as it was his original idea for a one-day "sweatshop" that we pinched off Bruton Festival of Arts and brought to Frome...

I'm not familiar with G√ľnter Grass's picaresque tale of the Nazi regime through the eyes of a perpetual child, but 'the team that brought you Dead Dog in a Suitcase' was enough to entice me to Bristol Old Vic to see The Tin Drum. As always with Kneehigh, the on-stage musicality is fantastic, visuals amazing with great use of shadows and symbols,  and a terrific ensemble performance team but this time though there's the usual verve, the story-telling feels weak. The first act is mostly personal back-story and only after the interval does a real sense of allegory develop. But Oskar as a puppet (created by Lyndie Wright) is superb, with an expression both wise and naive: despite his drum he's not an initiator and his observation seems more like the incomprehension of the little man than the deaf-dumb-blind secret power of a Tommy; neither the Messiah nor a very naughty boy, perhaps only a delusion of innocence. And there's memorable moments: one is when nice kind Alfred arrives home sporting a red armband, innocently excited by the new group forming to empower the lives of folk like them… and another is the trail of tiny refugees across bodies on the stage as the cast sing sadly. The end will either comfort or disappoint you.
Artistic Director Mike Shepherd's company is legendary, and for this production he has Ali Roberts (Tobacco Factory's loss) as Executive Producer as well as Carl Dead-Dog Grose as writer, and Charles Hazlewood composing and ~ well, it's Kneehigh, 'one of our liveliest national treasures' as The Times has sententiously observed, so book before the company heads on off on tour.  On till November 18th. Images Steve Tanner

Back to the present now, and the regular retelling of WWI history. Siegfried Sassoon is buried near Frome in Mells churchyard, and his grave always has flowers on November 11th. Sassoon like Wilfred Owen was unequivocal in his opposition to the conflict:
"You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by, 
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go."
Meanwhile in town the Cheese & Grain was enjoying a day of electric dreams, showing off a range of vehicles including the Mark 1 Tesla Roadster, Renault Zoe, & various bikes. Frome Car Club has gone electric so the Zoe is available to hire, but the Tesla is more photogenic. David Bowie's movie Labyrinth was shown in the afternoon, powered by Electric Pedals.
A frivolous footnote to conclude this melange of past & future: when you lick your first-class stamp to send those belated reciprocal festive greetings, give a thought to the cheery santa steering through a sky Van Gogh would have appreciated: this image, picked from over 9,000 entries, is by a young Frome artist: well done Ted Lewis-Clark! May all your moons be golden.