Sunday, April 22, 2018

Pleasure, passion, purpose - and sunshine

Let's start with the good news. Our national treasure of a health service is 100 this year, and Dr Phil is touring with a new one-man stand-up show to say Happy Birthday NHS! His first stop was Frome last week, to a packed and approving audience at the Merlin Theatre. As an anecdotal comedian Dr Phil is scatological and politically scathing, and as a medical adviser he's intelligent and humane. It's a good combo. He gives a potted history of the centegenarian institution, from its birthing by Nye Bevan to falling into the clutches of Jeremy Hunt. ('I have a mate who went to school with him and he says he wasn't very bright'.) But Dr Phil remains confident of the future - as long as we avoid privatisation and don't go down the other US route of 'incentified' prescribing, which results in a culture of unnecessary drugs, vaccinations, and operations.  The secret of health, he confides, is pleasure, passion, and purpose. Thirty minutes of walking - or any activity - every day is better than any drug. And other such adages which are even more encouraging when a fit-looking doctor insists on them.

Black Swan Arts has a new exhibition: Cicatrix, a wonderful word which sounds like a Greek siren but actually means the scar of a healed wound. Three Wiltshire artists have been commissioned to study and visually report on Salisbury Plain, for the last 120 years a battlefield with no enemy. One early casualty of this destruction rehearsal was Imber, the evacuated village. It's also been target practice for battles in Northern Ireland and test ground for unnamed substances fatal to the juniper trees. Tiny things there, however, are thriving: rare wild flowers and butterflies are rampant. Dawn Gorman led an excellent poetry workshop around the show for Words at the Black Swan on Monday.
There's also a new exhibition at the HUBnub Centre: Fragmental, paintings by Georgina Towler, combining to create vivid presence in a diffuse and expansive space that can be difficult to dominate.

Another author event at Hunting Raven Books - unusual only in that Tyler Keevil's connection with Frome is tenuous though charming: A Canadian now living in Wales, he won the very first Frome Festival Short Story Contest back in 2004 when his talent spotted by Alison Clink who inaugurated this event and it was this success - he claims, and we believe - which emboldened him to find his voice in writing. Tyler now makes his living through fiction and is on tour with his current novel No Good Brother, with his brother Jonathan who contributed a music element to the readings. An unusual launch event - but that's Frome isn't it...
Music information is sparse again this week - I intended to see that irresistibly-named Goat-Ropers Rodeo Band at 23 Bath Street on Saturday but the skies over Frome decided to put on a strobe light show all evening, accompanied by biblical proportions of torrential rain, so I stayed in and watched Dave worked, I mean. Pete Gage in fine form last Saturday created a dance party in Sam's Kitchen, (there was a Prince dance party afterwards too) and Velvet and Stone brought their haunting melodies and songs again to Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar.

And we had four days of summer! which is not strictly relevant to an arts blog, but when temperatures more than double overnight ~ we reached 29° (that's 84° to you, Mo) ~ it becomes essential to channel one's inner Nietzsche and stride out into the birdsong and blossom... especially when the medieval fields and ancient lanes around Frome may not be there to stride in future days...

We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the building we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.
           - Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness.

Friday, April 13, 2018

work evasions and play enthusings

It's been quite a week for schedule suspension and magical moments...
I'm going to come back to this image of the new fountain in Frome promptly hijacked by the Frome-illuminati for human sacrifice, because the excitement disrupting my working week began last Friday when a busload from Frome, driven by daring Dave, headed to Bristol's Thunderbolt to hear fabulous Captain Cactus band and his amazing and gorgeous Screaming Harlots. Good support too - awesome steel guitar from Luke Philbrick and a great atmosphere at the venue.
Next night was David Goodman's party at the 23 Bath Street, which has become such a terrific venue since Lark and Toby have taken in over. Lovely to see so very many friends and the Raggedy Men punk set was a memorable highlight... I think their version of No More Heroes - with what seemed like a hundred of the partygoers joining in - is likely to be the defining moment of this year for me...

Nunney Acoustic Cafe on Sunday afternoon always has a great range of performers: this time featured band Sloe Jam and others including a wonderful gypsy duo, the superb Splat the Rat from Swindon and some talented younger musicians like Maia Fry and ever-impressive Archie Ttwheam. (Sorry Archie, I see you are Otto Wilde now but as that comes up on google as a steak grill manufacturer, I'm sticking to the name I first knew...)

Tuesday was the Frome Writers Collective social evening, this time with an engrossing talk from Lisa Kenrick who runs Mr Rook's Speak Easy story-telling sessions in Frome. Lisa demonstrated how to grip an audience with a vivid and visceral version of the tale Frome's medieval rake Edward Leversage, and then gave advice on constructing and telling such tales, and also how to find inspiration and where to go for further guidance.

And then with no Roots session this week I really really should have dedicated the rest of my time to the project.... about which you patient blog readers have heard so much & seen so little. Instead I was lured by the witchery & wizardry of Rare Species to follow them around Frome on a tour of secret signs of the Fecund Coming...
Starting at the spring below the church steps and prowling the area nearby, Virginia Faggus and Gerald Terd held forth on much historical detail we might not know - how the young blades used the well to spread fecundity, how merchants sailed back and forth along the leat, and the fact that the Three Swans name came from the Leda legend in a little-known love-triangle version... at the church door Virginia expounded an alternative-and-weirdly-true-sounding tale of Vicar Bennett's activities in Frome, invited here by the Fromenati to create a hotbed of hedonism. It was at this point Virginia began to show somewhat alarming symptoms of some kind of demonic invasion. Gerald ploughed on, taking us up Poldark's Passage ('Aiden would suckle on my unctuous paps' Virginia reminisced, a bit of a non sequitor as Gerald was talking about unsolved murders at the time.)
We headed across Bath Street as the running commentaries continued, with Gerald now on the look-out for tell-tale evidence of the secret society of the Fromenati. He found a tunnel opening they may have used to burrow to their base in Babblington (the smaller ones, anyway) and a SIX-SIX-6 sign and it wasn't till we reached Catherine Hill that things went totally bonkers.  'The epicentre' shouted Geraldine and strode on ahead waving a car away so effectively the driver actually reversed all the way down the hill as she advanced chanting 'Juicy and Divine'.  Meanwhile something had gone wrong with Gerald's divining rod. By the time he had staggered and we had straggled to the bottom of the hill, Geraldine had turned into a one-eyed demon. She lassoed Gerald and made me hold him (I tried to resist honest but she had manic power) and made us all...
I can recount no more of the shameful night I joined the illuminati-Fromenati and poor Gerald ended up on Boyle's Cross, only say: Eat your heart out Hot Fuzz, you may have exorcised Wells but the wild energy loosed by Bennett’s burrowings below the pagan spring will empower the Fromenati forever! It was indeed the Fecund Coming.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Rites of spring... and some older wrongs

April 1st meant only one thing in Frome: forget fool tricks and mystic elevations, the market is back! Frome Independent had to cancel its original spring return due to the slush-fest that heralded March, but on Sunday the sun shone, the crowds came to enjoy the stalls and the snacks and the musicality that makes Frome so special, in streets in the morning and in bars during the afternoon and evening.

Next day we were promised thunderstorms but luckily, since the river was already spilling, they didn't arrive. I usually go to Mells for the daffodil festival, but this time went on an Edward Thomas walk based around Tellesford village and weir, with exceedingly good refreshments at the mill. This old flocking mill has been superbly renovated by  Rachel Feilden and Anthony Battersby, and now generates enough electricity for 80 houses, yet the location still looks exactly as described by Edward Thomas from his journey In Pursuit of Spring. John Payne read some of the relevant prose sections of this book, with related poems interspersed by me & Martin Bax. This Easter Monday is 101 years to the day since Edward Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras, so it was especially poignant to read his 4-line poem: In Memoriam:  
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood 
this Eastertide call into mind the men,
now far from home, who with their sweethearts should
have gathered them, and will never do again.

Hunting Raven Books on Tuesday had a big audience for David Lassman's Frome launch of The Awful Killing of Sarah Watts (written with Mick Davis) - a richly researched and thrilling account of the days when Frome was seething with pickpockets, cheese-rustlers, and ruffian gangs with names Dickens would envy (was Magwitch, in Great Expectations written 1861, inspired by the Maggs gang terrorising Frome in the 1850s?.... just a thought!)  'Crime capital of the kingdom' may be a tad hyperbolic, but certainly Frome was in a desperate state after the cloth trade collapsed, with around 97% unemployed workers and no professional support for the duo of citizen constables, as Somerset inexplicably ignored the County Police Act of 1839 for seventeen years. This fascinating tale will rank with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher as a vivid and informative show-reel from the past - interestingly, Mr Smith, the London inspector sent to solve the crime, was a friend of Mr Whicher, preceding his colleague's legendary visit by nine years.

Apart from these outings, if you've turned to my blog for a roll-call of the never-ending stream of Frome's events you'll be disappointed: I'm still on short-time for another month. I couldn't resist Al O'Kane and Rivers of England at 23 Bath Street, but other than that I've been self-exiled from the temptations of the town, so have missed most of the excellent music acts around last week.

Instead here's a picture of what spring appears to be doing, from one of my thinking-plods. Nietzche said all great thoughts are conceived by walking, and I bet he kept to his deadlines... mind you Douglas Adams claimed to love deadlines because of the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. I may have to learn to love that sound too.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Attempts at life and art in diverse dramas

A visit to the Ustinov studio theatre in Bath is always a pleasure: their productions are intriguingly different, often translated, adapted, or obscure. The current work by Harley Granville Barker, once rated higher than his contemporary Bernard Shaw, is Agnes Colander. The only surviving copy has been 'unearthed' by Colin Chambers and 'revised' by Richard Nelson to 'pry loose an actable script out of a faulty typescript of an early draft of a very early play'. It's a curio, in short.
The story is set in the early 1900s, about the same time the 'Bloomsbury set' of bohemian artists were becoming renowned, but the mood seems more pre-20th Century. Agnes wants to be an artist but she also wants relationships, and the play explores her journey to find out whether she can manage these in a 'man-like' way or whether, as her lively neighbour warns her, she will simply follow the Hogarthian harlot's progress in the attempt.  Lizzie Siddal springs to mind - Naomi Frederick looks a bit like her as painted by Rossetti, and there is a pre-Raphaelite feel to the saga despite time having shifted on for half a century: this is still a world of servants as well as women conflicted by their social status.  'We idiots have been nurtured to believe that we exist only to give you men pleasure' Agnes laments, 'We should be taught more of life and less of good manners'. Apparently Barker himself abandoned the play as 'rather poor' and certainly Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession deals with the theme more robustly and engagingly.  What I liked best about this self-consciously 'feminist' play was the visuals, which are gorgeous: lavish sets (Rob Jones) create the artist's London studio and the French coastal retreat, enhanced by fabulous lighting design (Paul Pyant) and the use of both by director Trevor Nunn.  Matthew Flynn as Agnes' Danish lover is excellent, but the difficulty of creating an empathetic central character from the script wasn't fully overcome, in my view. And I took against her artistic mission: 'I want my work to be English, enjoyed only in England - it’s about time we English stopped borrowing from other countries.' Straight route to Brexit there, I thought glumly.

In other news this week:
Gala celebrations at of the conclusion of Project Play, a lively idea to promote community theatre in the southwest by simultaneous development of the same popular drama in three designated theatres, viz: the Octagon in Yeovil, Tivoli in Wimborne, and Frome's Merlin. The play picked by producer Matthew Rock was a stage version of the Vicar of Dibley, which played to sell-out audiences in all three theatres, raising £4649 for comic relief as well as entertaining hundreds. All three groups were well represented at the Halfway House buffet dinner, a lively event with a karaoke to keep performing skills from rusting. Geoff Hunt and Mike Witt had accolades for their joint and the amazing cast of Dibley lookalikes met their counterparts as everyone had a great time. Here's our lot gathering for their formal photo.

Richard John-Riley with his one-off assortment of band members did a Soundcheck session for Visual Radio Arts last week
- no group snap of this as no space to group, what with instruments,  technical equipment, musicians, singers, speakers, and a dancer, all crammed into the studio, imaginatively redesigned by Phil and Mags to hold us all. Here's a section:  Francis on guitar, Dave drums, with Laurie, Annemarie, Gina and the man himself, all doing Whatever It Is. Laurie and I were the speakers. I had to emote teen angst, which I vividly remember even after all these years. Great fun, and an excellent session - listen to it online here.

Sadly I missed The Fall of Kings at Burdall's yard, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard II by Apricity, a young theatre company with a mission to create work exploring social issues in experimental ways - hope that went well Gabby!
And now that birdsong, sun, and official clock-time have confirmed we're done with winter, Frome is all about the yellows ~ primroses, daffodils, forsythia, a blitz of golden celandine all along the Dippy ~ and I look forward to doing a lot more walking.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Snow, sounds, & a sumptuous show in Salisbury

Another posting of mostly snapshots.... the music scene in Frome right now seems even more incredibly rich than usual.Here, without much comment, are some of the terrific sessions in town, starting with the Frome Busk, a day of young talent on show all around the town. They were all excellent, but to give a taste of the day here's the Front Runners serenading buyers around the market stalls, youngest performer Scarlett Brudnell, Archie Ttwheam who I reckon we'll all see more of, and Fresher & Angel, who won a spot at a Sunrise festival for their set.

In other music news, Crossing the Rockies did a great set at Three Swans and Phil King was epic at the Grain Bar Root Session - I keep playing Do Not your past, do not surrender to your king, do not surrender to your fears, do not surrender anything...
Three Acres and a Cow, which I've long wanted to see, came to the Rye Bakery with a provocative compilation of songs and narratives of the ongoing struggle of the people against their rulers, re-telling the legends we call 'history' with the authentic experiences through the ages. An excellent practice, and a sad outrage that it's not part of what we call our education system.

And then we had snow again... and some things got cancelled, but not all. The Black Swan Arts 'Young Open' exhibition presented 190 fantastic images from 350 entered by young artists aged from 8 to 19, in an incredible display of vibrant pieces showing extraordinary imagination and skill.  The Long Gallery had been especially prepared by one of Frome's favourite street artists Paris and the whole room looked fabulous.
Also at the weekend, a reunion with an amazing group of writers who met on a Skyros course at The Grange ten years ago, and continued to inspire each other with online support and intermittent meet-ups ever since. Sometimes I'm invited to join their session, held this time in Frome as snow flakes whirled softly pass the Cornerhouse window and slowly claimed the town.

A good production of  The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's witty, contemptuous, critique of upper-class obsession with status and birth, can never fail to delight. Original Theatre at Salisbury played it perfectly, on a superb fin-de-si├Ęcle set with gorgeously lavish costume, a visual treat throughout. (Designer: Gabriella Slade.) Gwen Taylor as the imperious Lady Bracknell looked amazing, like a steam-train in taffeta, and her scoffing mirth during that famous 'handbag' exchange was a brilliant touch. The men were fine, especially Geoff Aymer as Canon Chasuble, but it was the women who really owned the show. Susan Penhaligan's Miss Prism's brimmed with suppressed lasciviousness and Louise Coulthard deliciously evoked Blackadder's Queenie in her bored, impetuous, Cecily. Director Alistair Whatley has created a well-paced production which not only looks sumptuous and maximises the absurdity and wit of the script but also reminds us of cruelty of English society in 1895 - only months before the lionised playwright became himself a victim. 

Friday, March 09, 2018

Rich drama at the Old Vic - go by toboggan if necessary!

Natural beauty versus profitable land development... a big topic in Frome right now as social media buzzes with opinions about the proposal for our southern fields, and also the issue at the heart of The Cherry Orchard at Bristol Old Vic in a production so fabulous I'm posting this blog early so you can book before it's totally sold out. Lovely to look at, excitingly directed, with a fantastic team of actors - this ticks every box.
  Kirsty Bushell is mesmeric as well as heartbreakingly beautiful as the impoverished-aristocrat owner of the orchard in question who refuses to contemplate the rescue-package offered by the entrepreneurial son of one of her own serfs. Intended by Chekhov as an analogy of decadent old Russia losing its grip on the future as the end of serfdom allowed a new bourgeoisie to take control, it's also a moving drama involving complex passionate relationships and this production, with its faux-theatre surrounding all the action, is simply inspired. I'm annoyingly purist about my favourite classics and arrived feeling wary I might find a set made of trampled cherries, or Grisha as a puppet-child watching the action, but everything about this concept is superb with the poignant subtleties and the humour (there's quite a lot that's laugh-out-loud funny too) both exquisitely conveyed. I could say more, and will when in my full review ~ this is just to alert anyone who enjoys classy live theatre: this is essential viewing and it's on till April 7.

In other news: we had snow, and the hills of Frome were alive with tobogganists and even skiers. The river was frozen too, which I've never seen before, but not quite hard enough for skating. Supermarkets ran out of milk and bread over the three frozen days, and Three Swans ran out of ale, so the role of hosting Edventure's Open Mic was taken over by Cornerhouse.
A wide variety of music and words, including me doing some of me crone poems, raised funds for YMCA Mendip and Edventure's projects, congratulations all involved & that's all for now, after email chaos courtesy of Site5 I am again majorly behind in my work schedule... I need to get out less.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wintry Wanderland, Wordplay, country rock, art & blood

On a freezing weekend evening the town's streets in every direction saw friends and families all out and about appreciating Window Wanderland as Frome joined this international project and around two hundred homes and businesses transformed their windows into illuminated showcases for every kind of imaginative tableaux up to & including complex fairytales like Rapunzel - even the Town Hall joined in. Big appreciation to all who took part, and to Lisa Glass for bringing this illuminating & wanderful idea to Frome.

Poetry - another Word Play recording at Visual Radio Arts for your delectation: four poets shared words and chat live on air on Saturday afternoon. Dawn Gorman, Josephine Corcoran, Jennie Gilling and Louise Green can be enjoyed on the archive link here - many thanks to Phil and Mags for their awesome commitment to supporting creativity. And I should also give a quick plug to an Open Mic at Three Swans next Saturday, organised by Edventure.

Music corner: I couldn't resist a break from writing to see the marvellous country-rock band Shootin the Crow at the Grain bar on Wednesday, and Sunday's jazz at the Cornerhouse when the John Law Trio played melodies as arranged by Bill Evans - both really special events, the kind that get people saying, isn't it amazing you can walk around Frome and hear stuff like this every week, for free? (well, there is a hat, but nevertheless!)

Art now, and an art & craft exhibition at Silk Mill all weekend in support of refugees with funds going via RAISE - I loved the big compilation picture created by visitors and stall holders contributing their image of 'home' - some fabulous evocations of family and safety, all a big contrast to the camp at Calais
and a new opening at Black Swan: Here's Kate Cochrane, one of the organisers, with the result - framed free by Mount - which will be auctioned.
And another art display opened at Black Swan on Friday with the spring exhibition of Frome Art Society, as always a huge range of styles and subjects depicted by talented local visual artists. As always also, on the Monday following an opening Words at the Black Swan offered a poetry workshop inspired by the art in the gallery. Dawn Gorman who led this session invited the group to respond to the overall vibrance of the works with a focus on colour, reading Choosing Yellow as further stimulus just as Liam bizarrely arrived with a random yellow rose. One of Frome's little moments... and another inspiring session.

Now, through snow flurries, whirling but light, to Bristol, to see the first Shakespeare at the city's Southville theatre since Andrew Hilton retired from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, the separate company he founded in 1999 to bring a double drama season to that in-the-round theatre space. His directorial approach was strong but subtle: Lyn Gardner summed it up: "Hilton .... is a plain cook, whose unadorned approach – no concept, the barest stage possible, music used sparingly – pays dividends," and, in another critic's words, "It is tiresome a small, unsubsidised company in the suburbs of Bristol beat the great RSC, but one lesson that it is time to return to basics." Some of the best bard productions I've seen have been there, often with local actors in lead roles.
Perhaps I'm grieving the end of an era, or maybe this Macbeth came too soon after the stunning wordless performance by Mark Bruce Dance Company, but this Blood Means Blood version, without Hilton's sure hand restraining over-embellishments of symbolism and sound, didn't do it for me. Awareness of audience seemed an unresolved issue, with actors circling throughout their speeches, and some casting seemed designed to baffle anyone unfamiliar with the play (the women dressed like Miss Marple's maids for soldiers, priests, and the drunken porter). And who'd have thought the old play to have so much blood in it?  Everyone seemed to be puddling their hands in blood and pawing the next person they saw.  Katy Stephens as Lady Macbeth though was extraordinarily impressive. Perhaps you should go & decide for yourselves what to make of it - on at Tobacco Factory till 7 April.