Tuesday, December 26, 2017

winter woods : the Nature Watch edition

Dendrophilia literally means simply 'love of trees' but like arbophilia it's become seen as  a sort of sap-induced sexual arousal. A passion for woodland walking is a simpler sensuality for most of us: it's about smells of moss & lichen, sound of birdsong and crunchy leaves, the green & auburn tones of midwinter, the tranquility, and our deep instinctive awe at the timeless majesty of these tall life forms we call trees. Perhaps it's more like animism ~ our ancient understanding of the super-natural powers of everything living on earth.
This post is mostly about binge-walking.  At winter solstice my walk from Frome into Wiltshire with David took us along the Sustrans path through Longleat woods, always beautiful. Here's one of the fairy-tale creatures inhabiting the parkland over the festive season. There are owls, too, though sadly in cages. Next walk was with my family and in the opposite direction: we took a field route around Radford Mill, including the ancient holloway named 'Jenny's Path' after the little donkey that hauled coal between the mine and the canal in the late 18th Century. And then on Boxing Day, my favourite close-to-home walk, along the field edge just south of Frome to Roddenberry hill fort, flanked with beeches, glorious in every season.

This has been a good week for music too, with several open mics, Pete Gage Band at the Cornerhouse (his new CD is amazing) and a big tribute event for Griff Daniels, one year gone and still much missed, at the Roots Session in the Grain Bar. Nikki Mascall and Steve Loudoun led an epic musical gathering including Simon Sax, Mike Peake on trumpet, and Paul Hartshorn guitar.

No theatre to review week but I'm chuffed that the new issue of Plays International has a image of The Tin Man at Bristol Old Vic on the front cover, as featured in my column on productions in the southwest within. Still on a theatrical theme, I'll end with an odd tale which began in July when I stumbled upon ~ that's the term for an unexpected and fortuitous discovery I believe, though actually they were on a shelf ~ a pile of Theatre World magazines from 1962. This monthly publication is long defunct but it was once prestigious, and my father was their reviewer for various festivals and many London shows. (His style was caustic rather than effusive, in case you were wondering where I get it from.) Anyway, he sometimes took me along, and the May '62 issue includes one I remember vividly: the first English production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at the Aldwich.  I was overjoyed to find these back in the summer, and now I'm overjoyed all over again, as my wonderful family have framed the entire collection of covers ~ or rather, a hi-res image of each, no magazines were harmed in making of this gift. Isn't it great? All I have to do now is find somewhere to hang it...

Sunday, December 17, 2017

'Twas the week before... Poems, songs, and wild wood pigeons

Frome Poetry Cafe last week was a midwinter word-fest of images and memories, thoughtful, fantastic, and mirthful. Our guest Robert Walton gave us two terrific sets from his new collection Sax Burglar Blues ~ one poem in particular, with the unlikely title Making a Herringbone Harris Tweed Garment, impressed the audience immensely with its evocation of a colour-filled fabric growing as 'the weaver wove from the yarn of weft and warp on the beam and loom.... ' And a great Open Mic too, from twelve poets all offering a different take on what this season means, from John Christopher Wood afflicted by Santa Claustrophobia, to more serious thoughts and even melancholy. The 'secret santa' gift recipients, chosen by Robert, were Linda Perry for a powerful poem about the winter sea in Cornwall and Rosie Finnegan for her clever pastiche 'Twas the Night Before Brexit ~ brilliantly performed too.

On Friday I finally got to see the Merlin pantomime, a quirky take on Hansel & Gretel written & directed by the truly awesome Claudia Pepler who seems to keep the theatre vibrant by a combination of tenacity and fairy dust, supported by volunteers & foyer sales on zero funding from Somerset or the Arts Council. That's a reason to buy tickets even if there were no other, but there's much to enjoy in this ensemble production full of song and comedy as well as wintry sorrow. Unlike the heavy-duty contemporising of the Old Vic's Little Matchgirl, this re-telling keeps us from the start in fairy-tale-land, but the dark fears and distress are all the more real for that. Some really inspired touches, like the ginger-bread children and the evil weasil, marvellous graphics by Howard Vause, and a super performance by the Grimm Brothers themselves ("Jake and Will - we are story-tellers", "or disrupters, if you will") as wood-pigeons both saving & confusing the lost children in the woods of their deepest dreads. Dillon Berry and Pete White surely have careers ahead on stage or screen. You can read the full review from Fine Times Recorder here. Images Dave Merritt.

This has been a hectic week but as it was mostly either work or seasonal private get-togethers ~ three writers' group meetings and the same number of parties ~ there's not much to post.  I'll finish with a picture from the final Nunney Acoustic Cafe of the year: a rousing rendition of Honky Tonk Woman from Frome musicians Paul Kirtley and Colin Ashley. Paul also sang a couple of the songs he's written about ideas in poems of mine, including a new one, and I did my current party piece, a new poem I have to read because I haven't learned it yet. It's a bit of a marmite one, I've found. Anyway, happy solstice all!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hans Anderson, Artisik Ego, and happier tales

Blue skies and sunshine for the last Independent market of the year, with seasonal decor, music, and pop-up-party places.You probably all know by now what the tented carnival in Frome streets looks & sounds like ~  just add tinsel and collectors with buckets for Fair Frome Big Christmas Get-Together.  Yes, it's that time of year again, and having just seen The Man Who Invented Christmas at Frome's little independent Westway cinema, I'm feeling a lot less curmudgeonly than usual about the C word, an delighted to find confirmation that this delightful version of the writing of A Christmas Carol is essentially, mostly, true (apart from that odd & unsatisfactory change to the final ghostly visitation.) Overall this movie is a sentimental treat, in the original sense of touching emotions, and Dan Stevens is charismatic as Charles Dickens feverishingly penning his novella in six weeks.
There's a fascinating, though irrelevant, link between Dickens's story and the next item, which I found while checking Hans Anderson's dates: these two writers not only coincided time-wise, they also met. They also became, for a while, friends, with shared concerns over increasing social inequality and poverty, until the Danish writer overstayed a visit and was asked to leave and the relationship terminated. Which all goes to show you can make a mess of reality, but stories live forever, just like Yuval-Noah-Harari says.
So, returning now to the comfort of imagination: The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales at Bristol Old Vic originated last year at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. It's a blending of Hans Anderson's tales directed by Emma Rice, who has now parted company with the Globe after her neon-lit disco for a Hackney-located Midsummer Night’s Dream was not appreciated by the Board (well she did publicly opine ‘the only reason to do Shakespeare is to mess it up,' so they were warned.) This flamboyant production delivers what we've come to expect from their main shows: an ensemble piece with a big cast and on-stage music, a quirky take on an old tale, and a thoughtful strand of modern moralising ~ a formula designed to appeal to all ages. Making Stage Relevant to our Screen Generations is a problem for all theatres, and BOV are very aware of this - a pre-show talk by chief executive Emma Stenning emphasised a new role for the building after its £12million injection ‘ending the journey of trying to fix from the inside and thinking what it wants to be as part of this city.’  Which now includes being provider of brunch and private functions, as local firm Fosters take over the catering - well someone had to, it was dire: I used to linger in the taxi rank cafe at the station rather than take a chance on their coffee machine. Good luck to them all, and back to the play: As well as the poignant central story ~ a hungry child at risk in a big city ~ there's much fun with the Princess & the Pea and The Emperor's New Clothes, and long look at the more obscure tale of Thumbelina which seemed to be there largely to add another puppet. Perhaps it's the continuing legacy of the War Horse effect: a conviction that the one thing stage can do better than other media is puppetry. It’s not infallible ~ viz. their puppetised Midsummer Nights Dream in 2013 ~ but a child-size, silent, observer-participator can certainly play a powerful role as a kind of innocent flâneur. The match-girl story arc for me was more successful than the Thumbelina story, which made for unsettled focus between the actor and her miniature alter-ego. Puppets by talented duo Lyndie (designing) & Sarah (directing) Wright, and Vicki Mortimer brought the strands of narrative together with fantastic, and sometimes very funny, costumes.

Another, though different, diversity of narrative plus moralising next from Mik Artistik's Ego Trip, on tour and in Frome especially for a Momentum support event at 23 Bath Street (aka Wheatsheaf). With excellent, and essential, musical support from Jonny Flockton & Benson Walker on guitar & bass, Mik's Leeds-toned growl delivered a couple of hours of social observation combined with abuse to a packed and cheering audience. Mik knows his market: his material is pitched to an ageing generation, evoking the music and memes of more rebellious years. Most of it scoffingly. Your kids aren't bothered about the fucking Pixies and anarchy ~ yer wasting yer time... His audience loved it all, even Mik's jeering yells of "This is boring! BORING! and YOU PAID for it." A night to remember, as officially declared by the oddest rock god ever.

Black Swan Arts' current exhibition in the long gallery is From the FieldsCarry Akroyd's prints inspired by the poetry of John Clare, a series of vibrant anthems which both celebrate and mourn the changing face of our land. Think Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks, there's that kind of wandering energy in these beautiful precise accounts, layering past and present together. On Monday our ekphrastic writing group met, steered by Louise Green, to take words from the pictures in the way the artists took from the poems... You can see some of these on the Words at the Black Swan website.

Still with nature and its preservation: another of the many wonderful moments my current project research has given me: Asda has been in Frome for 12 years but I'd never realised that part of their 'rent' for this presence was the establishment of a wild life area on some of their land. Rodden Nature Reserve survived this pragmatic inception because of a sextet of committed locals, two of whom I met last week. There's much to tell about the wild life, and their work, but for here I just want to celebrate their passion and commitment. If in some future incarnation I find myself a Bonaparte's gull then I hope I hatch in Rodden reserve, where some really great people really care.

Some seasonal glimpses now: the tree at Frome Library adorned by the Blue House knitters inspired by Mary Henderson, and 12 Days at the Round Tower, a collection of wintry images from just some of the superb visual artists around Frome, collected and curated by Paul Newman. Missing images from this week's round-up include some terrific music ~ The Raggedy Men at the Griffin, and Blue Midnight at the Cornerhouse ~ as my pictures don't do them justice, and Hansel & Gretel at Merlin Theatre because I didn't get to use my ticket as the lurking lurgi caught up with me again. 
Ending this post with the reminder, if you're in or near Frome on Monday, it's Frome Festive Poetry Cafe night at the Garden Cafe!

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Savage families & cats, plus lucent celebrations

The new play at Ustinov Studio Theatre in Bath, The Open House by Will Eno, is a suitable tale for the season: a family reunion that absolutely no-one is enjoying - in fact the dog has outright legged it. Prepare for bullying aggression from father (Greg Hicks), passive-aggression from mother (Teresa Banham),  mute resentment from both grudge-bearing children (Ralph Davis & Lindsey Campbell), and an atmosphere of unmitigated wretchedness that even dark humour wouldn't sustain for 90 minutes... and happily it doesn't have to, though I can't tell you why not (or show in imagery) because it's so unexpected, and clever, and satisfying, you have to go & see for yourself. Please do, it's on till 23 December.  Michael Boyd directs, the costumes (Madeleine Girling) and set (Tom Piper) are both great ~ again, image-hints would spoil.  Forget story arc, or inciting incident, or any of the rules of drama you learnt, simply sit back and enjoy.

Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol is also offering alternative entertainment for the festive season, and after Rocky: A Horror Show (which was great) and Goldilock, Stock, and Three Smoking Bears (which was fantastic), I had high hopes of Reservoir Mogs, a girly re-envisaging of the macho-thug genre plus massacre of Lloyd-Webber cuteness. The audience clearly had similar expectations: there's a kind of party atmosphere in the non-ticketed seating ~ it's tiered like a proper theatre, but you're stamped to go in like a festival ~ and response was enthusiastic. For me the first half was a bit too much like St Trinians girls, immaculately costumed & face-painted, being wickedly naughty to entertain their teachers (or perhaps vice versa) but after the interval I was converted, when all pretence of narrative thread was abandoned in favour of audience abuse and an amazing multiple death scene... well cats do have nine lives so it takes some time to demolish them all... No apologies for spoilers, they can't stop you enjoying a show at this great little theatre.

Moving to things more sensible, Bath Short Story Award, a prestigious international writing contest for short fiction, put on their usual splendid event in Mr B's, a bookshop so compellingly wonderful it's hard to leave with just the book you came for: in this case the 2017 Winners Anthology. Short readings from winners and others included in this impressive collection gave a taster of the high standard from which literary agent Euan Thorneycroft of A M Heath, had to pick! Congratulations to organisers Jude Higgins, Anna Schlesinger & Jane Riekemann ~ and good to meet up with friends from Bath literary scene including Debby Holt.

Meanwhile Frome is gearing up for all things festive, which means many crafty-arty events with mulled wine and stollen, and even more music than usual. Here's Frome Street Bandits giving a lively performance on Friday after the big event of the week: on a clear night with a bright moon ~ and after removal of the screens around the market cross renovations ~ the Tree-Lights-Switch-On! This year the honour went to 10-year-old Ted Lewis-Clark who designed the santa-stamp for the Post Office (our own main box has been painted blue and starry in his honour). All fun and much enjoyed by the massive crowd, as was the singing and the stalls, but the real delight of the night was the lantern procession: hundreds of lanterns all made by their carriers, led by drumming bands from each end of the town to create an unforgettably magical scene ~ huge credit to Mel Day and Aliss Vaas for the long hours of many workshops, thanks to the town council for sponsoring, and total appreciation to the people of Frome and around, for joining in and making this amazing night happen.