Wednesday, October 17, 2018

That strange and beautiful thing called love

'Do you know what le vice anglais really is? It's our refusal not to admit our own emotions.'  This bitterly self-deprecating acknowledgement from Sebastian, jaundiced literary critic in Ustinov Studio's In Praise of Love, is at the painful heart of the drama.  From an unpromising start of domestic trivia and mutual irritation, this deceptively multi-layered story builds up to a gripping and immensely moving tale of mutual deception and self-deception, all for love... To say more would be a spoiler if you don't know Terence Rattigan's 1973 play, though probably it wouldn't spoil your enjoyment of this production directed by Jonathan Church, carefully set in time and place by designer Tim Hatley and achingly well-acted by Robert Lindsay and Tara FitzGerald as the deceiving couple.  Robert Lindsay is awesome as the disillusioned ex-novelist who sneers at his son Joey - sympathetically played by Christopher Bonwell - and addresses his wife like Christopher Robin's Nanny,  but when he tells his friend Mark about her backstory in Estonia he could break your heart.  Social mores of the '70s are strongly established in the script, nostalgically for someone of my generation, and it's also a painful critique of the collapse of political optimism: Sebastian still claims Marxist purity in his left-wing rants, and despises Joey's Liberal idealism not so much for the puerile rebellion it probably is, but as 'crypto-fascist vote-splitting to let the Tories in'.  The story was famously largely inspired by the unhappy true story of Rex Harrison losing his wife Kay Kendall to leukemia, but the terrible legacy of national aggression, as evidenced in the history of Estonia, is a strong strand too.  Showing till 3 November -book now, you won't regret it. Image: Nobby Clark

Moving forward twenty years, in a housing estate somewhere in South East London where people shout a lot, Leah, Jamie and Ste are growing up in a world obsessed with sex, spliffs, and Sally from Coronation Street. Beautiful Thing at Tobacco Factory was written and set in 1993, when being 'queer' while no longer illegal after the age of 21 is still a taboo subject in schools - and a bruising insult on the streets. Jonathan Harvey's drama must have seemed mainly a gay coming-of-age story when first performed, but as times and teens change it's become a lens on a very different & less technically sophisticated world. Director Mike Tweddle's production boasts community involvement via a large local choir who add musical energy while also ensuring enthusiastic audience response, and the cast of five were excellent, especially Jamie (Ted Reilly) who compensated for limited utterance with hugely expressive eyes, and his mother (Phoebe Thomas) who managed to create genuine personality beyond the neighbourhood-loudmouth stereotype. On till 27th then touring.
Images Mark Dawson

Monday, October 15, 2018

Women in costume in love - with music, of course

Shakespeare in Love could be subtitled Shall I compare thee to a saucy rom-com, witty satire, or bardic farce? but whichever you choose it's a total delight. Based on the movie screenplay by Tom Stoppard & Marc Norman, this Lee Hall adaptation for stage at Theatre Royal Bath has a massive cast of superlative actors in terrific costumes in a high-energy romp which is also crammed with allusions to Shakespeare's plays, his life & times, and even to later legends (did Marlow really write all the best lines?) - but you don't need to pick up on any of the references to thoroughly enjoy the show. Designer Max Jones used the circular stage to terrific effect with a set comprising basically no more than a balcony to evoke Romeo's classic love scene, which somehow created pubs, castles, theatres, and even dockland - and the fights were fantastic. Pierro Niel-Mee as Will and Imogen Daines as Viola-aka-Juliet made a lovely couple, Edmund Kingsley was a marvellous Marlow and Geraldine Alexander's imperious Queen added a wicked touch of BlackAdder ("Tragedy is all very well but we very much like a dog") - and every role was well played under Philip Breen's well-paced direction. Highly recommended, on till 13 October then touring the UK ~  images Pete le May
It's easy to forget these days that a mere hundred years ago, the women who campaigned for voting rights were seen by most of the rest of the English population rather like the IRA were in the 70s: violent extremists causing havoc for no justifiable cause. ‘What we’re dealing with here is a lunatic fringe of frigid women’ declares one of the posse of Typical Men at the start of Her Naked Skin at Salisbury Playhouse, Rebecca Lenkiewicz's play set in - and largely about - the early days of the Suffragette Movement. Since their early days of polite propaganda, women had become tired of being ignored & disdained and had embarked on a more violent policy, attacking property & assaulting policemen, starting fires & storming parliament... and then there was the Derby death leap, a decisive moment in the history of women's suffrage which provides the opening of the play.
Lesbianism was the other frequent explanation for their behaviour, as women found genuine camaraderie and intimacy across social classes: that too is an aspect explored in this drama, but the most unforgettable scenes for me were the reconstructions of the treatment of imprisoned women. In one shocking scene we see what force-feeding actually involved, the horrifying brutality paradoxically presented in a strangely beautiful tableaux as a pyramid of men grip the girl so that one nurse, standing aloft like an angel, can pour egg-mix down the long tube forced through her nose all the way to her stomach. Direction is by Gareth Machin, with a strong team of professionals playing the key roles and excellent support from community actors as their protesting supporters.  The number of short scenes in different locations created difficulties in maintaining connection with the action which were not entirely solved by a swiftly revolving stage and quick-drop sets, but this excellent production is really worth seeing. Abigail Cruttenden takes the central role of Celia, but watch out too for naive Eve (Lorna Fitzgerald) defiant Florence (Jane How) and understandably frustrated William (Robert Hands) Showing till 20 October.
On to music now:  Friday night's treat was local blues band Nasty Habits playing in the City Arms in Wells as storm Callum lashed. It's a pleasant pub and their set had a great response, though last time I was in Wells was for the anniversary screening of Hot Fuzz and it was difficult not to feel the regulars were all part of the NWA plotting for the greater good in the smokers' garden outside...

Saturday saw the massively-anticipated return of the Back Wood Redeemers to Frome's Cornerhouse music pub for an evening of  flamboyant theatricality and much dancing. This awedome 8-piece band always dresses in unique style for their gigs, combining superb musical skills with high energy impact and a big splash of dark humour. Unmissable.
On Sunday the tempo at the pub changes for the early evening jazz session: Keith Harrison-Broninski trio performed with Rosanna Schura and Nathan Mansfield - a lovely melodic round-off to the week. Sunday should have also featured a trip to Cranmore Tower for our 'Poetry Walk' on the theme of autumn, organised by John Payne and Martin Bax, but Storm Callum kicked that one off the schedule by lashing up a mudbath on the paths we planned to use. So here instead is a picture from a walk on Saturday around Stourhead, which for some strange reason maintained serene sunshine the entire afternoon.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Prattly poems, fishy tales, swamp songs & more...

Poetry Platter night at the Merlin is always a treat for spoken word enthusiasts in Frome - a fully-staged & professionally-lit performance by special guests, with the option of one of Jo Harrington's scrumptious buffets too. This autumn's event was particularly special, as Steve Pottinger brought his fantastic Poets, Prattlers & Pandemonialists to Frome on their south-west tour with this phenomenally successful -and unique- confection of drama and poetry. It's poems, Jim, but not as we know them: all human life is there, its hopes and follies, grievances and joys - funny, poignant, bantering, and sometimes crazy. Droll Steve, thoughtful Dave Pitts, and marvellous Emma Purshouse kept the audience rapt for an hour of cleverly crafted, apparently casual, sharing of passions as they plan their performance in a Wetherspoons somewhere near you..

The book spot now, and it's a long one this week. On Monday I was due to talk about Frome Unzipped at the Frome Writers Collective monthly social at the Three Swans but I had no copies left and Hunting Raven Books had sold out too... cue urgent email to my patient publisher at Hobnob Press, who made a mercy-dash to Ex Libris bookshop in Bradford which had just been delivered a new batch ('It's a terrific book - local history but not as we know it, I hope it's the start of a new genre' the donating owner gratifyingly opined) so I had some copies to wave about and sell.
Also talking that night, poet Ann Philips whose beautifully illustrated new collection Inbetween Lands celebrates a year of experiences and encounters, and Elizabeth Legge who is researching the salacious background to the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1889. The 'Mayerling' mystery still apparently fascinates many - I'm using a picture from the movie, of Omar Sherif and Catherine Deneuve as his mistress although he's far more dashing than the syphilitic prince and she's a lot older than his alleged death-pact partner.
Hunting Raven Books was the venue for a strikingly different talk the next night: Sardine is the new book from writer Trevor Day, who has exhaustively researched every aspect of the life and times of this ubiquitous little fish. Sardines are harvested in seas from Cornwall to California, as the term covers over 90 similar small fish, including pilchards (but not anchovies, their mouths slant differently) and Trevor's range is equally extensive, including marine biology, nutrition, canning, cookery and social culture, like the fact that 'Doc' in Cannery Row was modelled on an ecologist-friend of Steinbeck's: Ed Ricketts, who warned as early as 1946 against over-fishing. Image here is again from the movie version, and this time actor Nick Nolte is not as dashing as the real Ed Ricketts, 'paradoxical and charismatic', who enjoyed 'many women' in his life when not involved in research into biological communities. A fascinating talk full of tasty titbits of fact and information: a smorgasbord of pescatarian delights, just like the book.

Next night another book launch, same venue but a very different topic: Frome's prolific social historian David Lassman was talking about Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths in & around Frome, his newly published collection of fourteen tales of nefarious and mysterious events, compiled in collaboration with Mick Davis. Some of these are referenced in my book Frome Unzipped, but this book goes into far more detail, sometimes gruesome but always interesting: did you know that the Salvation Army in their early days were violently militant and their aggressive preaching caused pitched battles in Frome, on one occasion leading to imprisonment for two of the Salvationist leaders?... quite a contrast to the cosy, bonneted, images we have today....

Then to Bath's Rondo, to catch Edward Day on tour with his one-man extravaganza - Super Hamlet 64, an exploration of Shakespeare plot and characters as a video game in a production that the word 'zany' may have been invented for.  Funny, clever, and passionately immersed in retro video games and the bard's plays, it's indescribable really - engrossing and engaging at so many levels. I'm no game-player so didn't get beyond working out that wicked Uncle Luigi must be Mario's brother, but I loved Edward's lyrical script and the mishmash of soliloquies that finally enabled Edward to stop dying at level 4 and move onto the serious uncle-killing part of the game... the wild singing accompanied by 8-string ukulele was good too.

Moving up a level from 1985 screen graphics to fine art, there were two interesting exhibitions in Frome last week:
At the Hubnub there's If Not Now, Then When: Andrew Roberts offers a collection of 'plein air' paintings from all around Europe, which he describes as 'visual onomatopoeia for the landscape', a metaphor which while interesting seems somewhat subfusc. The paintings themselves are vibrant and full of stories, I liked them.

Just opened at the Silk Mill: Letting the Light In is an exhibition celebrating the 'culture, colours, and people' of Udaipur in Rajastathan, compiled by Peter Hayes who created the ceramic pieces. The painter of those fascinating, vividly coloured, faces is Shahid Parvez and there are also photographs by Rupert Grey and landscapes by Peter Brown.
When is it ever not a good week for music in Frome? Certainly not this week anyway, with high-energy Swampgrass simply fabulous at the Grain Bar on Wednesday,
Cornerhouse throbbing to rock classics from Lix'n'Stix on Saturday and with a brilliant Jazz Jam on Sunday, and Mark Abis one of the buskers at the Frome Independent monthly market on Sunday... which seems a good place to pause, in the sunshine of a superb October day.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

A tale of two towers - then normal service resumes

Torre del Mar is a coastal resort in the Malaga province, which means the beach is basically a sandy strip between high-density resorts, but it was originally a Moorish fishing village and the town behind the long promenade is popular with the Spanish so although Brit is spoken, it doesn't predominate. The old castle was expanded and fortified in the 1730s as a direct response to the loss of Gibraltar: some of the old walls remain and although much has gone, there are definitely what the Bristol Old Vic team would call Ponderable Clues. Information at the site  is entirely in Spanish, and is compiled with plangent indignation, translating: In 1704,  Gibraltar was lost in an act of piracy by the English fleet while Spain was not at war with Great Britain, and became a base to continuously harass the coasts of Malaga... Everyone you'll meet nowadays of course is charming to the English - we're no longer the dominant nation who seized the rock, we have a more risible role on the political scene, and Nazi bombing less than 100 years ago seems even more outrageous - there's a mural of Picasso's famous protest painting on the sea front, in the silver-sandy tones of the strand. We were on the campsite, under plane trees and near the beach bars where you could watch the moonlight flickering on the sea as darkness spread and it was still warm...

Further down the coast in Gibraltar itself, there's another history: a tale of epic endeavour as years of conflict left the rock riddled with tunnels longer than the roads outside, and 14 sieges devastated the community - the final one, in 1740, lasting four years. This tale doesn't need translation- it's English, like the town streets and pubs named after our monarchs, admirals and politicians. The caves, however, were home for Neanderthal communities for 100,000 years - there's a great museum emphasising their important place in the history of the rock - and from 711 this was a key part of the Muslim empire here, named The Hill of Tariq after their leader. The old Moorish tower known as the Calahorra, half-way up the climbable part of the hill, was the largest in the area of Iberia controlled by Islam and for 800 years called Al-Andalus. This was a seige tower, a place of last resort in the many battles that followed - there's 'impact craters' on its sturdy walls that have been dated back to the Castilian attack of 1333. Life under siege for the British community during the 18th century would have supported Thomas Hobbes view of life as 'nasty, brutish, and short', in a camp where disease, starvation, and bad sanitation killed them off in hundreds every year. Military discipline was savage - the mother in the reconstruction may be upset not just by that cartload of grey corpses but because her husband is lashed to a frame awaiting flogging for missing a call of Who Goes There? as required every half minute by men on sentry duty.

Back home, Frome is doing a nice line in autumnal sunshine and Somerset Open Studios arts fortnight is nearly over - in fact the only studio I've visited is Clive Walley who is developing his impressive series of Birches in Mist... here's Clive with 109 and 110 as a  diptych. The turbulent, red-tinged, foreground to these ethereal trees adds a strange undefinable element that visitors have found powerful and disturbing.

Though I've missed much music, including marvellous Pete Gage at the Grain Bar, I did arrive home in time to hear the extraordinary voice of Lewis Clark at the Cornerhouse, not only sounding amazing on his own folk/blues but interpreting Amy Winehouse impressively too.
Saturday was also Bath Spa University MA Scriptwriting Showcase Festival, with an afternoon of 16 short scripts, showcased fully-produced for stage or screen. Rosie and I went along as all three young actors in our 2017 Nevertheless Pub Theatre festival drama - Time Slides -were involved in various productions. I usually prefer live drama, but the two films we saw impressed us more than the staged scripts: one was a clever & very funny parody of women's roles in the entertainment industry written & directed by Gabrielle Finnegan, the other the poignant & succinct story of a short-lived child-snatch by a feckless mother - look out for more from Isla Ure. Gabby, hope you don't mind I've nicked this picture of you filming from the Shorts and Tees website!

It's six years now since writer Kate McEwan had the unlikely-sounding idea of overcoming her procrastination by gathering a likeminded group around her to encourage each other to persevere.
'The Write Place' became their shared solution - a studio at The Black Swan where you reserve a desk space and then just get on with it, and the group has grown to around 200 members, all using the opportunity of a few hours away from home pressures or temptations plus the ethos of commitment to personal projects. And perhaps also unlikely, Sunday morning turned out to be a perfect time for a writer's party to celebrate with prosecco & cakes, and talk with writer friends familiar and new, and join Kate's toast to 'Procrastination, the tie that binds us.'

Monday, September 24, 2018

Arrivals, departures, and renovations

Zooming to Bristol right after a 17 hour journey home from a remote Greek island (via the dentist) probably wasn't the best way to bring appropriate focus to a theatrical production, but I didn't want to miss the sneak preview of newly- refurbished Bristol Old Vic before press night of Touching the Void, their current blockbuster which is collecting streams of stars from reviewers. I'll start with the tour. BOV's iconic frontage has been boarded up since work began so entry has been round the side, just off Welsh Back, through a temporary bar area. In future you will enjoy this lustrous reception area in a building so radically revamped as to be tagged REBORN in the screen presentation that met our awed group. Tom Morris, artistic director, and chief executive Emma Stedding talked us through the 252 years that had left BOV isolated from city life and in need of desperate measures to survive.
Or, as Tom put it 'Bristol Old Vic is the Stradivarius of theatres, but it had become a complete mess.' With an eye-watering £26m grant, architects Haworth Tomkins took on the brief of making the theatre contemporary & commercial while preserving and restoring all key historical features. Steve, the architect for this bit, explained the aim was to take away certainties and leave 'ponderable clues... we're taking existing fabric and making it more informal and accessible. That's what we all feel theatre should be about.'  So, with the theatre poised to renew its 'passionate love affair with the city' to quote Tom Morris again, on to the current show - which is also about taking drastic measures to survive. Touching the Void was a book & a film so anyone with an interest in real-life adventure probably knows the story: In 1985 Joe Simpson & Simon Yates decide to climb the west face of one of the most difficult peaks in the Peruvian Andes and both nearly lost their lives. Compounding the peril of their descent, Simpson fell and as he dangled over an abyss and his friend, realising he had no strength to pull him up, cut the rope between them to save himself. Yates survived, and extraordinarily so did Simpson, who wrote the best-selling book. This is another of those stories like A Monster Calls (probably the best show this year for me) which makes you initially wonder why it's being adapted for stage when it seems to require so much that only film effects or the internal imagination of reading can provide. Set, lighting, and music are all impressive, and so is the physical agility of Edward Hayter and Josh Williams as Simon and Joe - I liked Patrick McNamee too, as the dorky backpacker who helps them recount their tale to Simon's sister, whose angry bewilderment slowly succumbs to the lure of the rock.  David Greig who wrote this stage version - (I loved his play Midsummer so much I saw it twice) - makes the sister, played by Fiona Hampton, a leading character, which does sometimes divert attention from the extraordinary intensity of the men's experience though it's a useful device to explain things that, like her, we might not know about... the way in extremis the brain turns on the body, consuming muscle to feed itself, and personalities change, and inner voices become manifest. I thought there was too much sisterly intrusion and that it would all have packed more punch in one act, but I may be a lone voice here. Anyway, if you're stirred by thoughts of adventures beyond mortality, as was Shakespeare's Claudio, and also Peter Pan, this is the play to see. Director Tom Morris.

Now for something completely different. As a consequence of Frome Unzipped, I've been asked to help in a quest to find the house where Joni Mitchell wrote four of her songs. Muir MacKean uncovered this gem in Reckless Daughter, a biography of Joni by David Yaffe. Suggestions in an email please! If we find the place, a small celebration can be initiated, probably on a 7th of November which was her birthday - it would be great if the first could be this year, when she will be 75.

Art spot now: Cheese & Grain is currently hosting an exhibition of works submitted for the Green Art competition, judged by David Chandler, who chose Emma Tuck's series of which imagines the house-martin's migratory route to Africa, and this impression of wind turbines by Richard Whitehouse.
On a musical note again, an excellent Sunday session of Jazz at the Cornerhouse featured Martin Kolarides and the Graham Dent Trio. I intended also to go along to Magic Tractor's Granary session but my psyche was still in the radiance of Greece and couldn't face the ferocity of storm Ali, which Frome caught the rim of after it battered Ireland. I watched the trees whirling like dervishes and wondered why we personalise storms: apparently its because meteorologists believe it raises awareness of potential to damage. You'd think we'd notice winds of 100 mph tearing up streets and scattering road-repair barriers like a toddler in a tantrum, wouldn't you. Apparently the new storm is called Bronagh, and I hope she doesn't delay flights to Malaga from Bristol tonight... which is where I'm off, hopefully to grab one last week of sunshine and warmth, before winter enfolds us.  I'll be back, obviously, for Poetry Platter at the Merlin - don't forget to book in advance if you want the buffet, as well as the tasty show!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Flatpack community

Frome - as you probably know if you follow this blog - is famous for its independent council: visitors arrive literally from across the planet to interrogate the IiF (Independents for Frome) about how the town became engaged with the concept of local autonomy. Founding father Peter Macfadyen wrote a book about it - Flatpack Democracy - and the reason I'm talking about it now is because I've realised there's a huge connection between Frome and Skyros Holistic Holidays on the Greek island of Skyros. There too, they do things differently. There, as in Frome, there's a commitment to creating a sense of community. Frome has the structure of a town council whereas Atsitsa is a hut-village on the west coast of the island, home to temporary communities. Daytime activities include windsurfing, abseiling, yoga, singing, art, writing - which is why I go there (here's my fantastic morning group) - and impro drama, with evening activities like starry walks, dancing, pub quiz, and on the final night a glorious cabaret. It's all a mix of esoteric, creative, and plain wild. Food is terrific, accommodation isn't, and participants - often from high-powered jobs unused to latrine ablutions - come year after year, loving the ethos every time as each group creates its own identity: a precious community in which every individual is cared for and valued. Like Frome, Atsitsa's creates its community identity by attention to diverse individual needs and a lot of meetings. There's morning demos daily for the whole group, then œkos (small group sharing) and paired co-listening to go deeper... and there's interest group meetings which all come together on the last night in a cabaret so glorious you can hardly believe that five days ago these people were still trying to remember each others' names.
To illustrate that lovely Appollinaire quote, here's lovely Lilla who believe-it-or-not had never before danced suspended from a pine tree in a silk sling...
"Come to the edge," he said.

"We can't, we're afraid!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, We will fall!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.
But if our happy band sounds more like 1950s Butlins than a Greek idyll, there are in fact many options  to evade cabin-fever. You can walk down the pine road to Cook Nara where there's ambient music and wifi at the taverna and exquisite soft sand, shallow turquoise sea and loungers...and you can walk right across the island to the old town where tiny white houses - to hide from pirates - pile like sugar-lumps behind the massive rock. There you'll find cobbled streets so old and narrow that even the local taxis stop below the Plateia in the centre, music bars & shops staying open till late - that's because they take the longest siesta in the world and only reopen around 7pm - and the long sandy 'town beach'. Near the top of the rock, overlooking the cerulean-and-golden glamour of the bay, is the most amazing museum I've ever visited: the Manos Faltaits Museum has an extraordinary range of treasures and its gentle-voiced curator, who is also called Manos, can tell you fascinating facts about anything that takes your interest because he knows every item.  Here's pictures of our first glimpse of the town from the 9 mile walk, and Manos with some of the art works. (Thanks for the me-pix, Berny)
And now I'm home but still waking on the island, my mind finding it hard to grasp there will be no dash to yoga, no lavish breakfast on the trestle tables under the bougainvillea, no morning meetings...  no local wine at 2€ a brimming glass, no singing on the terrace and no more sunsets spilling across the Aegean sea...
But Frome has a way of re-asserting itself, as evidenced by a large sticker on the post at the corner of my road when I arrived :-)
And from another Greek island - Skiathos - a picture of Vicki Burke's holiday reading... (Thanks Mark Brookes!) I've had really great feedback on Frome Unzipped, and came home to this particularly lovely email from Bob Ashford, ex-Mayor & now Chair of Fair Frome: ...Absolutely brilliant. So much I had forgotten about and so much more I have remembered. Written with warmth, humour and passion and found myself smiling throughout. Genuinely the best account of Frome I have read and does justice to all those over the years who have made this such a great place to live. Good on you!
Makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it...