Sunday, August 26, 2018

Mostly music, with a bit about oak trees

Trees. They were among our earliest deities and most of us probably still have that reverence in our psyche, expressed often as a passion to visit woods and a sense of awe at the ancient giants still surviving. As part of the Arborealist event at Black Swan this summer, Frome's tree expert Julian Hight gave a talk on Friday, showing some of the photographs he's taken around the world to illustrate his fabulous World Tree Story published in 2015. It's fascinating to see them compared with earlier records - here he shows an 1840 lithograph by dendrophile artist JD Strutt of the Great Oak at Fredville in Kent.
Oaks are Julian's particular passion: they shrink and gnarl as they age, often almost grotesquely, and they hollow into caverns so their age can't be assessed by counting the rings with an increment borer - but from folk tales and drawings, it seems they can live thousands of years.This is the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, made famous by the Robin Hood legend. It's fenced off now - the Stonehenge of ancient trees, Julian says in his book on Britain's Tree Story. Oaks are home to more wild life than any other tree, probably at least 500 species, as some things can only thrive in rotting oakwood, which means these trees as they age are 'hotspots for biodiversity' as Julian puts it.
And to finish this arboreal meander, here's a tree I saw providing shade to an entire flock of sheep on an afternoon cycle this week.

'If trees are not our teachers, we are at least their pupils. They have given us shelter, medicine, shade, food and fuel. It is a mere two hundred and fifty years since wood was superseded by iron as the fundamental material on which the great human experiment was founded and for almost all of our cultural history trees and woods have played the role of provider and teacher.' - Max Adams

Julian was one of the people who gave generously of their time & expertise when I was researching for Frome Unzipped, which segues nicely into my most recent mini-launch on Saturday, at the library.  It's really interesting to see which aspect of this wide-ranging story from prehistory to post-punk is picked up in post-talk chat: at the bookshop it seemed to be mainly buildings, at the coffee-house it tended to politics: this time it was the problems facing Frome in the future as economic rifts widen. It would be wonderful to think Unzipped could actually contribute to raising the awareness essential to find solution.
Music now, and a sampling of a typical week in the town that loves to strum, drum, and sing: here's Geoff Younger with Colin Ashley at the Cornerhouse on Saturday with classic favourites, while Frome Jazz next day at the same venue gave us the Graham Dent Trio with John Plaxton and Howard Vause (vocals) - while Tuesday saw Paul Kirtley's Blues Jam at the Artisan, and Wednesday is always Roots Session at the Grain Bar: this week with Snakesnakesnake from Glastonbury, a highly entertaining trio with big visual appeal. 
And to end the week musically, the Cornerhouse was now also in reptilian mood with Rattlesnake Voodoo rocking in energetic style - there's a link to their recent VRA session here. Note the venue transformation! - still tricky for photographs, but excellent for atmosphere. 

Even in a great week for music, the most sensationally exciting performance was at the Merlin, from Tri.Art Theatre summer Dance and Drama course participants, and achieved incredibly by these young performers -18 is tops, many were younger - after only two weeks rehearsal. In the Heights is a good choice for a young cast, with its themes of community and struggle for a better future, but a demanding one too in terms of accent subtleties and the amount of on-stage narration needed to follow the story, and the entire team was simply superb. Impressive direction, brilliant choreography, great live band, terrific dance skills, and strong acting in key roles, this never flagged for a moment and I honestly felt, as I joined the standing ovation at the end, that I could happily have sat down and watched it all again...  Here's Dillon Berry, who was rightly mobbed by applause, with some other characters who also gave unforgettable performances.  This production has been entered for the Somerset Fellowship of Drama awards, so fingers crossed you'll hear more of it. 

 Leaving Frome again now, briefly, to end this post with Lift Off! in Salisbury, a weekend celebration of creativity across the city, linking the Arts Centre, Playhouse, and Festival. There's  live music, visual art trails, performances, and on Friday night there were fireworks... My brother Pete & I were enjoying the hospitality of Wiltshire Creative, the new umbrella organisation for Salisbury's art scene: Pete was an active campaigner for the continued use of  deconsecrated St Edmunds Church during the 1990s threat to close it, so it was especially good to see the impressive exhibition there now, as well as enjoying a bop in the Cathedral Close as dusk fell.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Three dramas and a funky band

American author Patricia Highsmith was by all accounts a weird woman: rude and racist, she self-identified with her most well-known character, psychopathic killer Tom Ripley, and believed that murder, by gaining for a moment the absolute attention of the victim, was a way of making love. She spent her final years in Switzerland. A foul-mouthed alcoholic misanthropist can be savagely funny in small doses, as Father Jack proved, but the unrelenting tirade of vitriolic abuse is almost monotonous in Joanna Murray-Smith's 2014 play Switzerland, currently revived at Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio. What saves the story from being merely unpleasant is the increasing suspense as her visitor's persona subtly, mysteriously, shifts, and what makes the production impressive is the superlative acting of Phyllis Logan as the rancid writer and Calum Finlay as the young man who arrives to plead for one more Ripley story, and to bring her a knife... Chekhov famously said if you show a gun in the first act someone has to fire it before the end: there's a huge armoury on this set from the start, but it's the hunting knife with its ‘polished mirror steel & thin tapered edge’ which is significant from the moment of reveal...  I can't say more without spoilers, except that designer William Dudley and director Lucy Bailey have combined to create an impressive production of a thought-provoking play. On till 1st September.
From Switzerland to Donegal: Aristocrats at the Donmar in Covent Garden, the highlight in a reunion with my friend & Derry flat-mate for two years shortly before the last troubles. Brian Friel's play charts the final days in the big house of a once-wealthy family, their grandeur now all gone, all with troubled lives, social conflicts, and secret griefs… Yes, it did feel pretty much like the secret love-child of The Cherry Orchard and it's not Friel at his best - there’s some over-egged speeches and the late-arriving motif of a hidden child is unnecessary as well as unresolved - but it’s brilliantly acted: David Dawson is mesmeric as Casimir, the fey, fantasising, brother, and Emmet Kirwan is strong as Eamon, the village lad who managed to marry one of the daughters of the ‘big house’ and now seems unsure why… Also excellent is patient Willie (David Ganly) - the Lopakhin in this infertile orchard - and there’s a brief but unforgettable glimpse of the once-powerful father. What distances us from the intimacy of these lives is the meta-theatrical approach that director Lyndsey Turner has chosen, with stage directions intoned to introduce each section and characters miming briefly before settling down still in view to wait their cue like subs on a bench. The non-naturalistic approach goes to extreme in Es Devlin’s design which I found distracting, particularly when the emotional final act was literally upstaged by the scenery - a massive faux-19th Century rural backdrop symbolising past splendour - and lugging a dolls house around the bleak stage to illustrate items mentioned in the script was overly contrived and a bit naff. But apart from that, an entertaining show.

The Price in Arthur Miller's play of that name might appear to relate to the $11,000 that old Mr Solomon offers Victor for the hoarded contents of his father's house, but of course it's more than that - it's the cost of a family trauma which grew from the 'Great Depression' - and obliquely the ongoing effect of that on the entire American nation. Onstage action follows the meeting of two brothers after long separation, both returning to their childhood home now scheduled for demolition to pick over memories and grievances: the current revival at Theatre Royal Bath, directed by Jonathan Church, benefits a lot from David Suchet as the old dealer, who brings a jaunty spark to this otherwise downbeat story.  Both the brothers - Brendan Coyle and Adrian Lukis - are impressive as defensive, damaged, men vying with each other as to who paid the higher price for their father's hoarding, although glamorous Esther is less convincing as Victor's wife and seems sometimes to have wandered in from another show.  Simon Higlett's massive set literally looms over the action, graphically depicting the claustrophobic clutter of the past still overshadowing these lives. Victor when alone interacts in moments of moving tenderness with the props of his past - his fencing kit, a harp, his brother's oar, but for me the dominating symbolism of furniture cluttering their lives detracts from the development and the reveal of other, subtler, aspects. On till 25 August.

Ending this post now in Bruton, where Hauser & Wirth host free summer parties in their Radić Pavilion throughout August: last Sunday's featured Frome's amazing Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots, irresistible whatever the song - I think this one is Kirsty MacColl's tale of the guy down the chip shop who swears he's Elvis... but it could be any from their 'whirlwind of folk blues & Americana-groove with harmonies and tales of whiskey, woe, zombies, and love.'

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Street life with castle, beach, murder-mystery & more...

Nunney Street Fayre on Saturday, as you'd expect from the spelling, is an extravaganza of stalls selling cakes and summer-festival style attire, interrupted at intervals by cider & prosecco bars and ice-cream vans - but with a magnificent USP: ruined Nunney Castle, in the centre of the village and surrounded by a moat. Here the awesome Acoustic Cafe team gave us a day-long stream of live music, on two stages so no set-up breaks, and you could lounge on the grass listening to fabulous folk, blues, and punk classics for hours... I was there for five, fortified by fizz, leaving then for a theatre date. Here's the punky Raggedy Men but I also really enjoyed the other bands and individual artists, especially Splat the Rat ranging from In Hell I'll Be In Good Company to gentle Bees Wing... (thanks Stephen for the snap)
So a swift bike-ride home got me back in time to de-hippify for the rather posher environs of Corsley Manor, to join friends for the Illyria production of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Oliver Gray, who designs and directs the summer season, warns in programme notes that four actors on a tiny stage in a complex tale involving multiple characters is 'ridiculous' but of course it's the ridiculousness of this clever quartet we love. Liv Spencer's haughty Holmes, Nick Taylor's broad-Yorkshire Watson, Rachel O-Hare and Lee Peck in multiple roles were all hilarious, even in the scariest moments as the unlikely story unravelled. With the villain finally triumphantly identified, Dr Watson - not unreasonably - asks what the motive could conceivably have been. 'That is of no concern to me,' the great detective huffs, 'I am only interested in problems of the present and the past, not those of the future.' Not just a riotous romp, a sly critique of genre detective stories too...

Next day was the first Sunday in August so Frome had its monthly Independent Market - the seaside one, with a beach and donkey rides in the marketplace, and Mojo Moves from Rare Species street theatre leading a startling-energetic aerobics session - think human-glitter-ball in shocking-pink lycra romping like a baby hippo on speed.
For calmer enjoyment, there was the Busking Stage - here's Kevin Brown and Duncan Kingston playing blues.
Sunday early evening jazz is back at Cornerhouse: Simon Sax and friends gave a great jam session, with songs from Nicki Maskell & Graham Dent on piano. Midweek highlight was Lazy Daze, a charismatic trio - great rapport & fabulous original songs superbly played.

Ending this busy post with an update from Frome Unzipped, with my first serious, with-a-reading style, launch on Tuesday at Hunting Raven Books where lovely Tina set the bar high in her introduction but audience response was brilliant:  questions good and comments fabulous. (Thanks Tina for the sneaky shot of me holding forth.) I've been delighted by all the feedback, on facebook ('a cracking read'- thanks Mike Grenville) and from people I meet around - like, 'I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I am!'... I do hope everyone who buys it feels that way...
And Pete Lawrence has just posted a chat we had for the Campfire Convention: you can listen to the 'Firecast' here:

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Two away-days ~ & Frome still hectic in summer heat

London on a hot day... there seem to be more people here than actually live in the world, I think as I walk from Paddington to Covent Garden, fantasising continents emptied, or perhaps some of the crowd are holograms. I'm here to see The Lieutenant of Inishmore, my birthday present to myself, at the Noel Coward, a classic end-19C theatre all gilded and rococo-styled with pink velvet seats.
For some reason I thought this would be a sad Synge-style tale of auld Ireland. It’s actually a black comedy. Martin McDonagh wrote this extreme parody while the Good Friday peace treaty was precarious, and there’s still plenty of provocative edge in this Father-Ted-meets-Pulp-Fiction tale of patriot terrorists - in this case, the IRA & all who splinter within it. It's savage, and hilarious, and astoundingly well-acted - Aiden Taylor is mesmeric - he says every word like it’s just come to his mind, a rare and brilliant quality in an actor. Dennis Conway as his father Donny is great - ‘It’s incidents like this that put tourists off’ he opines glumly as his living-room takes on the vista of an abattoir - and Charlie Murphy, the dead-shot Bonnie to Paidraic's Clyde, is sublime when she sings The Patriot Game. The production has been very well-received, with several ★★★★★ reviews - there's a roundup here. Praise is unfaltering for Aiden Turner's psychotic Padraic - 'magnetic' is a frequent choice in reviews, in some 'smouldering' and in others 'animal'. Time Out was specific: Turner is terrific - I mean, yes, he would surely be the most handsome terrorist to have ever lived, but get past the hunkiness and he is wonderful, perfectly nailing Padraic’s weirdly endearing mix of innocence, zealotry and murderous rage.
 'A violent play that's wholeheartedly anti-violence' was the playwright's aim: Michael Grandage's direction, enhanced by gory props, maximises both violence & comedy, but the indictment of terrorism is plangent too.  There's a throw-away comment from Donny on INLA, the anti-Ceasefire splinter-group: 'Some folk join the IRA to travel. With INLA you never leave the Falls.'  The reference might be missed by a modern audience, but I remember the Falls Road in Belfast, where catholic flats were peppered night after night with protestant bullets and the British Army's CS gas rained down each ferocious weekend - that was neutral, of course, it just poisoned us all, especially the babies.

Frome meanwhile is once again alive to the sound of music, with the fantastic Pete Gage Band on top form at Sam's Kitchen, and the wonderful Raggedy Men at the Griffin - the gigs overlapped so apologies to the  for missing the first set of a brilliant session of authentic 70s punk with style, soul, & splendid riffs.
The regular Roots Session at the Grain Bar this week brought us the compelling world-folk sounds of Light Garden.

Upfest 2018 arrived in Bristol last weekend, bringing masses of street artists and creative events to Bedminster - I missed the active days due to my boiler having adverse reaction to a routine service and emoting all over the conservatory, but the buildings of course were still there on Tuesday and North Street's pageantry is well worth a visit. Two of Frome's finest were represented - Paris and Boswell - as well as names from Argentina and Connecticut to Czech Republic, Greece and India, with immensely varied styles. There was bit of a Simpsons theme going on too but the cartoons were less impressive than the amazing large-scale portraits and life-like works.
I'll conclude this bulletin with an update on Frome Unzipped, which was the focus of a fascinating discussion at Rye Bakery last week led by Peter Macfadyen, founder of Independents for Frome, and a feature in Frome Times, our local news provider which always punches above its weight as a freebie, celebrating creativity and positive news. Thanks, Ben & team, for this one: