Monday, October 29, 2018

Candid Shakespeare, fine art, and spectacular music

Pip Utton, Frome's favourite one-man-showman, has re-presented himself in iconic roles from Hitler and Churchill to Charles Dickens and Charlie Chapman and is now offering another intimate insight in At Home With Shakespeare. In role as the Stratford theatre-manager/playwright, he makes masterly use of that you-do-but-dream  conceit much favoured by the bard himself: this is Shakespeare in 2018, as amused by our misconceptions as delighted by our awe at his words, dreaming his past loves and jealousies even as we dream his presence in our theatre. He teases the audience with quotes, some not even his own, and the intriguing suggestion that his plays were all workshopped with the cast and their impro words then combined, he takes us vividly into the noisy, bawdy, noisy, world of Elizabethan theatre. It's a hugely entertaining performance as well as intriguingly informative, although not all the theories propounded are incontestable, and, to be picky, Shakespeare's neologisms are nowhere near so numerous, and there were chiming clocks in Italy from 14th Century, so impatient Juliet could well have heard one strike nine... But hey, who's counting?

The Black Arts Open Exhibition is now in the Long Gallery, and this year the selection has been well received: it's varied and thought-provoking but every piece has some interest or appeal - in fact doing what a gallery for the community does best. From the precise beauty of small things meticulously painted by Dan Morley to Marian Bruce's dangling mobile of wild wailing faces, there's much to intrigue and ponder on, with several figurative pieces too, like this portrait of her daughter by Kay Lewis Bell.I'd seen this at Shave Farm during last year's Somerset Arts Week, and it was great see it again with the red 'winner' label -among other accessible choices by the judges, one of whom this year was Michael Eavis.
Our Words at the Black Swan workshop on Monday was led by Mike Grenville who encouraged us to consider the entire exhibition as if deciphering its messages from a time in the future... (you can see some of the outcomes here.)

As temperatures plummet and clocks are set to winter, Frome appeared to treat itself to a little music festival. We enjoyed several international visitors: South African Nibs Van Der Spuy at the Grain Bar Roots Session with an excellent set including a moving tribute to Nelson Mandela, and delightful duo Hope Country along with Luke Philbrick and Hannah Scott guested at the Sofar session (Hope is in Wisconsin, where they aren't big on geography, apparently, as the lads' tour was mapped on a tee-shirt image of the UK with Scotland shrivelled and N. Ireland vaporised, which might help Brexit negotiations but would pose issues for the 1.9 million population.) Our Sunday Jazz Club this week featured Bosonova rhythms with the gypsy violin and sultry voice of Azhaar Saffar. Paul Kirtley gathered a posse of local musicians together on Thursday as  'Bare to the Bones' charity event at The Artisan,for a lively jam session of folk/rock/ blues favourites plus some original songs - including Paul's Crones of Avalon with me performing the poem that inspired it. Popular Three Corners were the Saturday night band at The Cornerhouse, another big line-up with a large following, and next afternoon when two favourite Frome bands played at the Three Horseshoes in Bradford on Avon, most of Frome seemed to follow them. The awesome Raggedy Men gave us a stonking set of classic punk tracks, followed by The Back Wood Redeemers' dark revivalists songs of pioneering America, in the Stygian gloom of a cavern-like room where swirling dust glinted gold in the sunlight every time the door opened - wonderful atmosphere and terrific music. So that's four solo performers, a duo, a quartet, a sextet, an octet, and a jam session varying from three to a dozen - all in six days...  Keep it up, Frome, it's fabulous.

Monday, October 22, 2018

History, ecology, and music

A little over 200 years ago, Britain was at war with the French, then as we all know from school, Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo. He was given £750,000 thank-you from parliament at a time of massive poverty as grain was stored for profit by mill-owners despite bread shortage but most of us didn't learn that at school. The working classes also had no choice at all in government as 92% of the population had no vote at all, and anyway their allotted MPs had mostly never set foot in their own constituency. This was the background to the events in the true story of the massacre of unarmed men women and children gathered to listen to speeches in St Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819. 700 were severely injured and 18 slaughtered at what horrified newspaper reporters promptly dubbed Peterloo, and that's the title of Mike Leigh's latest film, in cinemas next month. The premier, followed by a Q&A session from Mike as part of the BFI film festival, was appropriately in Manchester: it was streamed live on Wednesday at selected cinemas one of which was Wells which is where I saw it. Critics have commented that some of the early dialogue is expositional (true, but how else would people understand why they were all hungry?) but the speeches are all authentically sourced: “When the powers in the hands of a number of persons whose interests are not that of the people, the destruction of our nation is inevitable and imminent” says young Radical Reformer John Baggerly.  Mike Leigh, in the Q&A also screened, was asked why he made this film. It’s soon going to be the bicentenary,  he replied, and many people still know nothing about what happened. "This is not a museum piece, it’s a visceral dramatisation, and I’m in the business of making films that ask questions. You don’t have to be very bright to see that it relates to things that are happening in our world now."

And it was that unassailable point which caused me to cancel my plans for Saturday (sorry, Common Salt) and book the early train to London, to join the other 700,000 - at least - people marching through the capital in support of democracy and a public vote not manipulated by lies deceit and fraudulent funding.

Historical contrast on Thursday at the newly refurbished Bristol Old Vic for a new production of Twelfth Night from the BOV company with Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. The concept is delightful: Shakespeare's title invites music, mirth, & general revelry and his plot involves much dressing-up, so director Wils Wilson and designer Ana InĂ©s Jabares-Pita turned for inspiration to the psychedelia of the '60s & '70s and a set that would evoke the idea of ‘a never-ending bohemian country house party’.
What could possibly go wrong? For many of the audience, clearly nothing: there was huge applause for the parodic songs, some of which were brilliant (Malvolio's Rocky Horror moment for one) but others, possibly missing the bard's firm hand, noticeably left at the interval. There were some strong performances -  I'd sit through it all again for Dylan Read's Feste - but some pairings lacked chemistry. The conceit that roles were taken almost randomly by the carousing 'house party' is funny up to a point, but, as with the over-milked fake-letter scene, exaggerations around gender-switching weakened and confused the dramatic impact of Shakespeare's story. Images Mihaela Bodlovic
Back in Frome, a Tree Conference networking day to encourage the reforestation of planet Earth met at Merlin Theatre on Sunday, and even with solid sunshine on the spectacular displays of autumn foliage outside and Apple Day celebrations in the new Community Orchard, the event was totally sold out and the auditorium remained crammed with passionate dendrologists and tree-huggers. Founder & director Suzy Martineau introduced a series of expert speakers all with a passion to change society's view of trees as commodities to an understanding of their vital role in planetary survival. Dr Martin Bidartondo has been exploring the effects of pollution on our fragile ecosystem, understanding of which seems hardly to have changed since Leonardo da Vinci wrote We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot: he delivered his somewhat-sombre findings with dark sardonic humour. More hopeful was the case-study of a failing chemically-saturated farm now transformed successfully into an amazing habitat, repopulated by birds, butterflies, animals, and 'thorny scrub', essential to protect tender saplings and enhance the process of natural regeneration. Isabella Tree's book Wilding is a true story with an inspiring solution: 'we have to take our hands of the steering wheel and give the driving seat to Nature' - that's if the human-centric guidelines of 'wild life' campaigns allow...
Reconvening after al fresco buffet lunch created by Keren Hayden, we heard about the importance of imagination - no argument there - and met four delightful teenagers using theirs to encourage tree planting. They were asked to suggest one thing could make a difference.' Changing the education system would be a wonderful place to start' said smart Hannah. No argument there, either. We heard, with visuals, from Andy Egan and Tersa Gitonga about reforesting projects in Kenya and Europe, and Frome's tree champion Julian Height just had time to share some of his amazing experiences and  fabulous images as Peter Macfadyen brought the expertise of Frome to the forum.

Frome's pubs gave us the usual diversity of live music: a Celtic jam at the Three Swans with Trevorr Mills, the Mark Smallman Band stirring up a blue storm at the Cornerhouse on Saturday, and Graham Dent's jazz session with Peter Jones cooling the tempo there on Sunday.

Finally for this week: All About Frome is a monthly programme on Frome FM  focusing on volunteering work in the town and this week I was invited to talk about my book Frome Unzipped in terms of the community spirit strong throughout our history ( link here.) Thanks to programme makers Rupert Kirkham and Julia Welland, and  appreciation to Richard Ackroyd for cycling from Lands End to John o'Groats for Sustrans Missing Links and to Stephen Dale, coordinator for Dorothy House.

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.