Monday, November 26, 2018

Feminist drama, feral parades, festive glitz

A new performance of Pygmalion is always a delight, partly to see if the ending has been tweaked - against the playwright's expressed intention - to make the play an unlikely romance rather than the social critique that George Bernard Shaw intended. In this, as in many other aspects, Frome Drama Club at Merlin Theatre succeeded admirably. In director Simon Blacksell's production, David Holt's eccentric linguistic professor and Annabella Fairgrieve's utterly wonderful flower-girl do not seem likely to settle into future domesticity, even if charming Colonel Pickering (Philip de Glanville) remains to referee and she stops throwing his slippers at him. Much of the humour of the play is created by the absurdities of the concept of class status, and strong performances by the women in the team highlight this: Lynne McCaffrey is excellent as  practical, caring, housekeeper Mrs Pearce, in contrast to the silliness of snobby Mrs Eynsford-Hill - superbly played by Suzy Howlett. The men are good too, though it would be good to see more of Freddy in the first scene (he gets somewhat lost behind the umbrellas) and Alfred Doolittle, the usually rumbustious dustman, seems a bit subdued even before his unwanted status elevation. Gillie Richardson's costumes and Judy Simmons' hair design, plus simple but effective sets, ensure that this resoundingly successful production looks beautiful on stage though I can't find a promotional image which shows that, so instead here's a poster from Montreal and GBS in 1914 directing the contentious first London production.

From Shavian socialism to the current plight of the planet, or one of them: Extinction Rebellion has a strong contingent in Frome, participating visibly on the London Bridge demonstration, and on Saturday in Frome they showed there's big local support for their determination to change policies steadily, and increasingly speedily, destroying our world. A dramatic Funeral for Extinct Species set off from Rook Lane with a couple of hundred people following the hearse downhill to the precinct, where we gathered in the precinct around the coffin - respectfully carried by a bear, a wolf, an eagle and a (sort of) ram - to hear a poem listing and lamenting the species killed and threatened by mankind's activities. 60% have disappeared in the last 70 years.
The slow march continued, escorted by the Frome Street Bandits (dressed in mourning without their distinctive red), to the market place where Green Party's Theo Simon ended the event with a note of hope that while we have to accept the world is changing, we may be able to stop this mass extinction if we have the courage to continue speaking out. And then we had a song from his band Seize the Day, a bit of drum'n'dance to warm up, and hot chi, free from Mahesh on the Loop-de-Loop stall.

Extinct animals seems an unlikely segue but it actually works perfectly for Longleat festival of light this year, which the Sustrans cycle path has happily made available again to non-car users. There's a kind of Tintin theme here, plucky kids with a little white terrier, dashing around places and eras having adventures, one of them being the time Longleat House was assailed by prehistoric creatures.
Possibly that's a camptosaurus lurking by the bedroom windows, though it could be an iguanodon with a small head. I've no idea what the one with green wings is, but they all looked great in the dark as the full moon rose.

We're now at the start of the annual Gift-Anxiety festival, though fortunately - to my unreconstructed-Scrooge mind - there's been a slackening of the grip of that particular fever, and Frome anyway seems to focus on the opportunity to support its many local craftsfolk rather than tax-avoiding internationals. So we've already had two christmas markets - Black Swan hosted a lovely evening event throughout its cafe for its artisan traders, and Kate Cooke - pictured here at the Black Swan event - opened up her house for two days as well. There will be more to come!

Music this week once again shows how high the bar is set in Frome: the Wednesday Roots Session featured Keith James' skilful performance of a great repertoire which included Nick Drake & Leonard Cohn songs and poems of Lorca and Neruda. The fabulous Critters at the Cornerhouse on Friday opened with Cohn too, then ranged from country music to reggae as dancers filled the floor at this massively popular gig - 8 great performers superbly hosted by singer Nicola Mascall.
Sunday is jazz night at the Cornerhouse, always good and sometimes incredible: Frome often punches above its weight musically and this was one of those times - a  concert of capital-city quality as John Law on piano with Riann Vosloo bass, Sam Crockatt sax, and the incredible Dave Smith on drums gave us the music of  John Coltrane. I'm still quivering....

Monday, November 19, 2018

Wild wuthering, wanton women, & war's shadow

Dramatic highlight this week from Publick Transport at Bristol's Wardrobe Theatre with We Are Brontë, and Sarah Corbett and Angus Barr keeping the promise of their promo: 'anarchic comedy, deconstructing not only gothic themes of love, madness and revenge' in their portrayal of the real and imagined world of Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Bronwin. I did literally ache with laughter, a rare experience in these troubled times - trailer here.  The duo's impressive physical theatre skills overlay a subtext of confusion over stories, plots, and characters, in which the audience are invited to collude - some of the funniest moments came in the impro interruptions when Angus anxiously checks whether we're following while Sarah rolls her expressive eyes whispering hopefully 'we don't want to spell it out...'  Have they read any the books? 'You can find a lot on Youtube' Angus counters defensively.

Frolicking fantasies in Frome too, as Hat Tricks brought a pick'n'mix of wild imaginings to the Three Swans: words - including comedy, poetry, dramatic monologue & story-telling - and music - including songs traditional & original, acapella or accompanied, synthesised, or with haunting harp: an evening of amazing diversity and quality, compered and curated by Jane Flood and David Tanner, who have promised they will do it again next year, so look out for that! Here's Jane & David, and me doing one of me crone poems to a delightfully supportive audience. Thanks Mark Brookes for the snap.
Further literary frolics on Saturday, and the longest meal you can imagine - of 18th century duration in fact. It's 300 years since the alleged birth of Tristram Shandy, the garrulously rambling raconteur conceived by Laurence Sterne, and possibly-his-biggest fan lives in Frome: hence an extraordinary lunch party at 'Shandy Hall' - authentic courses, all punctuated with dramatic reenactions of crucial moments in the narrative.
Most of us managed to find our inner Georgian - in my case something of a strumpet, I fear - this is me, with Suzy Howlett as Mrs Shandy with her forceps-damaged babe about to start his journey in the unsuspecting world. (thanks Neil Howlett) Such was the attention to detail in the immaculate preparations of our host that as well as costumed musicians, we were also treated to short lectures on the historical context from experts in their field - the brutal unreliability of early forceps deconstructed prior to potted shrimps, neurological trauma in the homunculus just before the syllabubs, and the fascinating story of Joshua Reyold's portrait of Sterne, the only one known, mysteriously never sold. My personal contribution was a spurious connection between Frome and the novel, undertaken in appropriately picaresque manner and I'm most appreciative of the attention generously given to this footnote on our long journey through time & times.
Sunday started on a similarly luxurious note with Frome Chocolate Festival, filling Cheese & Grain with sensuous aromas and delicious samples of products carefully sourced by organiser Jo Harrington, all fairly traded and top quality as well as and irresistible.
It's a real family event, with activities for children and a party atmosphere. Here's Kisihi on the Pure Raw Chocolate stall - their rose flavour tastes like turkish delight - and Chocolate Arthouse even sold chocolate shoes...
A very different mood in the afternoon for a Poetry in Motion event led by author Ed Green in memory of his great-uncle Allen, who a hundred years ago was conscripted to leave his farm in Chesterblade to join the fight in France. Ed recently published It Leaves Me The Same, which was the sign-off, hopeful of good health, used by his great-uncle on his letters home, and Ed read from these letters as we walked around the landscape his great uncle never saw again, supplemented by WWI poems selected by John Payne, with Martin Bax & I as readers. Superb landscape made this walk even more unforgettable: from the highest point, the iron age fort believed to part of the St Michaels leyline from Glastonbury to Frome, you can look down at the little village of Chesterblade where our walk begins and ends, and then gaze around an awesome 360º, identifying outlines of Cley Hill, King Alfred's Tower, Glastonbury Tor,  Priddy mast, and Cranmore Tower. 

Our group of around 18 concluded the walk in Chesterblade's little chapel, crouched under massive yew trees painted orange by the setting sun, and all went up to the farm house for tea and chocolate biscuits.

Musical finale this week: here's Scots folk singer Siobhan Miller at Cooper Hall, with ballads ranging from traditional to original, and Canadian saxophonist Terry Quinney
guesting with Graham Dent Trio at the Cornerhouse on Sunday - really enjoyed their take on Charlie Parker's Ornithology...
 And as these lovely mild days fade in a flurry of cold weather warnings, here's Stourhead lake in the mist on Thursday.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Masses of music as autumn winds whirl...

Starting with music, superlatively good in Frome last week - and there were jazz session and Celtic sessions too...   The Cornerhouse had standing room only on Friday for a sensational blues session from Pete Gage Band, then on Saturday that venue transformed into a Bowey-inspired party night as Rebel Heroes gave a storming performance with atmospheric visual effects.
A walk down the road on sunny Sunday for Nunney Acoustic Cafe, where as well as great local artists we were treated to Swindon's fabulous folk band Splat the Rat and Danny McMahon from Bristol, currently topping the iTunes Country Chart.

When a musical duo takes the name Leonardo's bicycle you don't really know what to expect because it never existed. True, a bicycle sketch purportedly by the C15th Florentine artist inventor was allegedly found in Milan in 1974, but examination revealed that the paper had been folded & glued to hide a selection of penises not thought to be in the hand of the master, though whether that was due to poor craftsmanship or poor likeness hasn't been clarified. The new theory is that the bicycle was forged in the 1960s - (“It’s the sort of thing a bored monk might do,” says Nicholas Clayton, editor of The Boneshaker, the magazine of the British Veteran-Cycle Club) which brings me nicely to the Three Swans on Thursday, where the best of 1960s & '70s music was played live all evening by two amazing musicians who travel under the enigmatic banner of that non-existent vehicle.

Da Vinci musings bring us nicely into art, and the opening of a new show at the HUBnub of work by Susanna Lisle ;- paintings inspired by local landscape and Islamic tradition of geometric patterning, combining both elements in paintings big enough to look striking even in the massive proportions of the gallery in the old Whittox Lane Chapel.

Over now to Theatre Royal Bath, where Ruth Jones, famous for her role as louche, laconic Nessie on TV’s comedy series Gavin and Stacey, is the featured star in The Nightingales, a drama about a song group with aspirations of small-screen stardom. They seem a jolly, ordinary, bunch but nobody is quite what they first seem, and cracks in their cohesion are inevitable when wild-card Maggie persuades them to compete for Britain's Got Talent. William Gaminara's play is tightly interlaced with televisual references as the plot unrolls with several sections of narration direct to audience and bursts of song. The set, a village hall, is awesomely realistic (designer Jonathan Fensom) and this is a slick production which, as Miss Jean Brodie might say, will appeal to those who like that sort of thing.  My favourite character was Sarah Earnshaw's sassy Connie, spitting fury at Maggie's aspirations to be the next Susan Boyle. Now touring in London. Image: Geraint Lewis

So in the week when arguments about poppies replace arguments on fireworks, I'll leave you with an image of my local walk, and the good news that Nevertheless is returning:
Scratchings is our newly-formed combination with Frome Actors Network, with a production of four shorts already planned for the 2019 Festival... here's Becki, Lou and Mark somewhat shocked after our first read-through...

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Journeys literal, literary, musical & memorial

Leading with words this week, with two brilliant events both really well attended. Apologies for the image Fail on Monday for the Frome Poetry Cafe, where our two guest poets Shauna Robertson and Dawn Gorman treated us to a their two-hander of poems on a theme of 'restraint and release', intimate personal glimpses full of profound thought and wonderful imagery. The ten open-mic poets were all impressive, and included several readings composed especially for this autumnal celebration, as always with a range of styles and topics. A lovely event, followed next night by a double book launch at Hunting Raven Books organised by Frome Writers Collective imprint Silver Crow, where both local authors talked about, and read from, their own personal journey of discovery. Dizzy Greenfield wrote Strays and Relations about discovering her birth mother, and Ed Green had found a bag of letters from the front by his great-uncle and set out to research the full story:  It Leaves Me The Same (the poignant sign-off of many of these missives) represents part of a healing process for his family, and perhaps all of our community as we teeter on the brink of senseless separation from Europe. A fascinating evening sensitively managed by interviewer Gill Harry.
An impulse dash to Bruton on Wednesday, as the last days of October persisted in sunshine & blue sky with golden leaves still thick on our trees, to see the Stages and Tales exhibition by Berlinde de Bruyckere at Hauser & Wirth - massive pieces of weathered decomposing fabric, resinated & evocative of classic paintings strangely deteriorated - and also to enjoy an entertaining all-age matinee show from Mumblecrust Theatre. The Tale of the Cockatrice may or may not be based on an ancient traditional legend but it provides the two performers a terrific showcase for their talents and their puppets, with props and visual tricks that brought magic to the bland surroundings of the Union Club and delighted a large group of rapt children and their elders.

Another talented stage duo on Thursday as Living Spit returned to Bristol, to the new Weston Studio at BOV, with their current historical exposition Giants of Science. Stu Mcloughlin and Howard Coggins specialise in recreating half-remembered famous tales, from Henry VIII and his wives to Frankenstein's monster, and the basic gag is the same: it’s that Stu can effortlessly morph into any role, often in multiples (he was three people having in conversation at one point) and can bring unexpected poignancy to wild absurdity, and that Howard is always like a shouty Dad. Somehow the combo works, mostly, superbly and the end result is always funny and sometimes hilarious. I’d say this is one of the funny ones. The songs, accompanied on guitar, are witty, and their SCIENTRIFFIC history is more than merely preposterous.  From Ancient Greece the 'lecture' moved swiftly to Galileo, Newton (Coggins excelling here as an exasperated apple tree), and Mary Anning finding fossils on the beach at Lyme Regis. Then we had Ada Lovelace (did you know she invented the first computer programme? No, me neither), Charles Darwin and of course Einstein himself, now converted by relativity into a quarrelsome double personality, since all motion must be defined relative to a frame of reference and space and time are relative, rather than absolute concepts. Glad we got that sorted...
 Samhain celebrations at the Grain Bar Roots Session featured the Back Wood Redeemers, fresh from their triumph at Bradford on Avon last week, and the brilliant Raggedy Men were on scorching form in the halloween-party atmosphere of the Cornerhouse on Saturday - which was also firework night for most of the town.
Frome Town Council put on a highly-rated display at the Old Showground but the fireworks over the industrial estate viewed from my study window were thrilling too - though not as thrilling as the murmuration of starlings over Rodden Reserve on my family walk next day, swirling high across the landscape in gathering numbers then dropping suddenly en masse onto the wetland lakeside reeds.

Sunday being the first one of the month was also Frome Independent market day though I can't offer any image or report of highlights as I was stationed outside Hunting Raven Books with copies of Frome Unzipped - from Pre-History to Post Punk, selling all but one of my current stock, which pleasing (though smug) note concludes my week's meanderings in and around Frome.
This is a month of sombre rememberings so here's Tom & Amy with Carl to wish you happier times than the gloomy glimpses offered by Thomas Hood in his 1844 poem:
No sun - no moon!  No morn - no noon - no dawn
No earthly view – No distance looking blue  
No travelling at all – no locomotion 
No inkling of the way – no notion 
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease, 
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, November!