Monday, October 14, 2019

Nostalgic for sun? Autumn's in with words & music

Breaking the Code could apply to defying the moral & social mores of the era, or it could mean cracking the famous Enigma Code through genius & ingenious brainwork. In Hugh Whitemore's play about Alan Turing, it's both. A play about a mathematician working in WWII era didn't initially sound very enticing, but this is a totally gripping story, intriguing, moving, and provocative, as his life is presented in shifting sequence to decode the mind of the man who wanted to make a machine that could think and feel. The Wiltshire Creative Production at Salisbury Playhouse is brilliantly directed by Christian Durham, creatively using James Button's in-the-round set and with a strong cast led superlatively by Edward Bennett as the eccentric homosexual genius. He's rarely off-stage as the key moments in his life unfold - pre-war, post-war, and as a wartime code-breaker - yet every thought he utters seems unplanned and newly thought, an outstanding talent for any actor. The rest of the cast are all excellent in their largely walk-on roles into his complex and isolated world, with rent boy Ron (Joey Phillips) and old-school cop Mick (Ian Redford) especially impressive.  On until 26th October - massively recommended.

Sizeable swathes of Frome folk have been in London this week, many wielding musical instruments and / or in costume performing in the serious street-theatre that involves us all.  Green Platter at the Merlin on Thursday aimed to create an affirmative & empathetic context for climate protest, with poetry and spoken word.  With Rose Flint launching her stunning prize-winning eco-poetry collection Mapping the Borders, plus readings from Deborah Harvey and Dawn Gorman who both also write powerfully about the beauty of natural landscape and its frailty, and with Liv Torc who is, to quote Deborah, a force of nature in herself, performing her internet-sensation poem The Human Emergency, the poetry we heard throughout was simply fabulous, and Julian Hight, Frome's specialist in woodland and all things arboreal, concluded the event with an illustrated insight into the ancient forests of our land. One of the best spoken word events I've ever hosted.  Thanks David Goodman for these the images of the event..
And then weekend was awash with live music. Saturday evening saw Back Before Breakfast at the Cornerhouse, and The Sun totally rammed from wall to bar counter with jigging fans of the fantastic Raggedy Men, who seem to exceed their own record for high-energy impact in every show.

Sunday was Nunney Acoustic Cafe, with a full afternoon of live music from bands, duets, and solo artists, with popular regular performers joined by talented guests, two from the Czech Repubic. The "almost-too-talented-to-be-real" Hoodoos - to quote the organisers - were headlining with eleven 3-song support spots, mostly with a folksy feel but lots of variety and originality.
Here's the nearly-unreal Hoodoos, and some more special moments: Francis Hayden singing - we hope auspiciously -Dylan's Times they are a'changing, Dave Clark's version of Tom Waits Tango Till They're Sore and, among the original songs, a welcome return by Emma Shoosmith, Paul Kirtley singing with David Goodman & Colin Ashley, and shamingly-English-fluent Czech Tom Oakland... I could go on commending but they're all on my facebook page.

And now autumn's properly here, berries are withering and nuts are falling into the lakelike puddles, time to get ready for whatever the oncoming months will bring... marching boots for many of us. 

Monday, October 07, 2019

Wake me up when September ends


It was National Poetry Day last week and Liv Torc, chieftain queen of the Hip Yak Shack was commissioned by BBC Somerset Sound to create a poem celebrating 'home truths' about the county. Liv visited Hunting Raven Books on Saturday to share this and other poems - you can listen here, and she'll perform this, and her now-viral poem Human Emergency, at the Green Platter event next week - if that's not in your diaries, put it in now!  Poetry's annual day was also marked by a performance in the now-disused Shepton Mallet prison choreographed by Frome's Rosie Jackson - I missed this, but there's an excellent blog account here by Deborah Harvey, one of the poets. The all-male prison closed except for visits 2013 after four centuries of chequered history: I visited it regularly for a while to tutor one of the prisoners who had a yen to write a play and a social worker prepared to support him, and found all the Category C lifers remarkably pleasant.
It's now five years since Flatpack Democracy - a guide to creating independent politics was published by eco-logic books as an account by Frome's IfF councillor & ex-Mayor Peter Macfadyen of the work behind establishing Independents for Frome, who took over the council and still hold it now. Flatpack Democracy 2.0 tells what happened next, which includes national and international connections formed in response to this template, and was launched last week at Rye Bakery (with nibbles and prosecco, Frome's pack isn't too flat for that.) Publisher Peter Andrews followed his role as barman with an intro to Peter Macfadyen's brief talk,which ended with a quiz for each table. Questions like Where was the term 'flat-packing' in this context coined?  (it was Amsterdam) and How many times has Frome's MP voted to reduce spending on welfare (it's 23, shockingly) generated much conversation at the tables, as independent councillors and candidates from Shepton, Bath and Wells had joined us for the event. For anyone interested in how communities function and thrive, Peter's sequel will be as invaluable as his first report, full of realism about group interactions and written with humour as well as the wisdom of experience.

Despite this week being short for me - Spanish sunshine was still the view even on Wednesday - there's a lot of music to report.  Visual Radio Arts featured an hour of The Hoodoos, Frome's 'funky swampy' new sensation - you can watch it here, as VRA keeps an archive of all its shows - with Carl Sutterby stepping out of his Raggedy Man role to interview the band members: here he is talking to multi-talented David Goodman.


The Hoodoos  headlined at the Grain Bar Open Mic on Sunday too, in a crammed programme with a large attentive audience and, unusually for this venue, onstage lighting -welcome in theory but somewhat eyeball-challenging.
Ben Hardy-Phillips, who recently set up this monthly event, has extensive contacts so it was great to see musicians from Glastonbury and Bruton - and young talent like the fantastic foursome '1156'.

Visual art now, and a brilliant new exhibition: Art Interiors: Garden & Home by Steven Jenkins and Jenny Raggett opened on Friday in a party atmosphere at the Silk Mill, a perfect location to display these beautiful ceramics and fabric items as well as wall art - all available to view and buy until 16th October, well worth a visit.

Also a visual treat, here's a glimpse of Patrick Dunn's 'Banco de Gaia' visuals at the Loft on Friday night - perfect for multi-sensational dancing as September ends and there's another Independent Market, where Frome's Red Rebels walk silently through the crowds to remind us that climate change protest is escalating as the new month begins.


Wednesday, October 02, 2019

A short intermission.



Much has been happening in Frome as September ends. There's been a carnival, a climate strike in the streets, music sessions - including Pete Gage band at the Grain Bar Roots Session - and all kinds of other livelinesses but this bulletin will digress to a brief account of sunny Spain, as viewed from a motorhome travelling through landscapes ranging from beach to mountain, trees to towns, with long walks and lingering tapas meals... a holiday, in other words. 

Here's a whistle-stop tour of our fortnight:
From an excellent coastal start in Torre del Sol (where wild parrots outnumbered tourists, and a Stones cover-band played at the beach bar) we headed to the Sierra Nevada mountains and explored the 'whitewashed village' of Güéjar. The church here seemed to have been hijacked from moorish origin by the addition of a bell-tower, but the spirit of rebellion is still healthy - there's an avenue dedicated in 2015 to all victims and one of the street statues was sporting a flag in support of the November 25th International Day of Elimination of violence against women.


After driving to the Sierra Nevada summit to gaze at the awesome views, we turned back south and spent several days in Ronda walking the lanes that circle the town which give far more impressive views of the famous gorge than the over-popular bridge, and enjoying excellent 1€ cortado coffees at the Bodega San Francisco.
The next plan was to find a campsite near enough to Seville to take a bus into the city, but as the temperature was edging up to 30° that day, we opted instead to use the pool -
- and next day headed south-west to just north of Cadiz, past the parque natural, to a remote but lovely campsite by a long soft sandy beach that offered a 3-kilometre walk to Sanlúcar.  In the other direction a stroll brought us to a tiny clifftop bar perfect for watching the sunset as local children played on the beach.
An even shorter walk from our (exclusively Spanish) site took us to a tiny village where no-one spoke any English at all, so shopping and tapas meals were a combination of my pidgin Spanish, the odd bit of Googling, and a lot of smiles and nods.
Three fabulous days here left us just time for one more exploration: the Pueblos Blancos, 'white villages', developed from moorish settlements.
We found an Aire on the outskirts of Casares, now a lively town but still with its ancient castle and with views right across the hills to the rock of Gibraltar. Our camping area doubled as an ornithological centre and we could watch the Leonardo vultures slowly circling above.  Here also, at El Rincón de Zoya, we had a tapas so splendid I broke my no-pitctures-of-meals rule...
And then it was back home via Malaga airport for me, as the motorhome trundles on the rest of its holiday journey. Normal service will be resumed in the next blog. In the meantime feast your eyes on a few of my Spanish highlights...

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The 'Showtime' edition, mostly

Let's start with a costume drama: Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of) is a refreshingly hilarious version of Jane Austen's most performed story presented by Bristol Old Vic with Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh as a Trom Theatre Company & Blood of the Young production: Six energetic young women take on 21 key roles with entertaining indifference to plausibility, Lizzie's father being played with surprising conviction by an armchair, and there are frequent expletives and bursts of cheesey pop songs, with several nods to other classic productions, as when Darcy arrives home and his baffled servant comments 'You're very dry, sir...'  What's particularly good about this high-spirited, wickedly funny, version - apart from the costumes and the general absurdity - is the clear focus on the economic situation which was Jane Austen's real motivation in creating a household where the iniquitous laws of male inheritance would devastate the lives of six women, unless one of them at least could snare a man - but not silly Lydia's way, causing her mum to lament ‘who would touch any of you with a shitty stick now?'
There are so many moments of sheer delight created by this multi-roling cast it seems unfair to have a favourite, but Meghan Tyler's vulgar, outspoken, lovely Lizzie would be mine - here she is with wicked Wickham (Felixe Forde) at a moment of temptation. Isobel McArthur, also Mr Darcy, was the writer and Paul Brotherston directed. On in Bristol till 27 September before touring until spring 2020.

It takes a really special talent to range from witty impro chairing of  TV's HIGNFY to the sinister hitman in Pinter's The Birthday Party last year at the Harold Pinter Theatre  but Stephen Mangan can, which is why I was really keen to see The Man In The White Suit on stage at Theatre Royal Bath this week. So keen that I actually bought a ticket - press seats are unavailable before its West End premiere at Wyndhams - and called it my birthday present to myself. So this is not a review, merely a personal appreciation, and as there are no production photos available apart from the promotional one which makes it look truly terrible, here's an image from What's On Stage of Stephen Mangan as Sidney Stratton with Kara Tointon as the skirt interest.
Set in the optimistic 50s. when skiffle dominated the teen scene and the quest for durable, rather than disposable, products was still an industrial aim, the storyline is simple: an amiable young inventor aims to create an everlasting fabric to make life easier for everyone, but neither the profiteering manufacturers nor the salary-conscious workers actually want it... out of this slender cloth a hugely entertaining drama is fabricated, with major credit to the energetic cast, especially to wonderfully endearing Stephen Mangan whose escapes and confrontations must surely have given him some bruises in rehearsals... With a plot-line half-way between Professor Branestawm and the Big Bang boys, it's all mainly slapstick and fish-fights (don't ask) but there's a slender thread of seriousness: the inventor's appeal 'More and more clothes is not the answer -some day it will all catch up with us!' raised audience applause, and there were jeers at greedy capitalist's threat 'For the good of the country, laws can be circumvented, even Parliament prorogued!' At least I think they were jeers, you never can tell with Bath.
After two such dazzling and inventive parodies perhaps New Old Friends was inevitably disadvantaged in terms of creating dramatic impact with their production Crimes on the Coast which premiered at the Merlin on Friday. The concept seemed promising: a Poirot pastiche held by one narrator, with three lively actors playing every other role aided by stand-in costumes when necessary, but the script was long-winded and the narrative voice lacked impact. There were some entertaining moments - the intrusion of puppets, and false legs to create a small boy - but the overall storyline is slow-moving and incoherent. It might work better in a studio setting, with more audience connection, rather than on a large stage.


Part-performance, part-music event, Vicki Burke gathered quite a party on Sunday to film the chorus - with dance - for her upcoming video project Magic Money Tree (Crowdfunder link here.) Vicki has recorded some of the musicians and Sunday's sunshine was a great opportunity to film the song: here's Howard Vause describing his concept as we gather around the oak tree in Rodden Meadow. - sounds like this will be another great video from this innovative director.

Moving now to music performance, and a highlight at Wednesday's Roots Session at the Grain Bar as The Raggedy Men held a full-house audience rapt - though not too rapt for dancing between the tables... There were several new numbers in this high-energy 75minute set but nobody tires of their fabulously-revisited classics like Teenage Kicks, Guns of Brixton, and (always my favourite) No More Heroes...

And by popular demand, Splat the Rat were at the Cornerhouse on Saturday with their rapid-fire take on folk classics like the Irish Rover - sadly without amazing 'box-banger' Sultan Vinegar, but with a strong drummer stand-in. Jazz on a Sunday night at the Cornerhouse is always a great way to end the week, especially after a sunny day: Grahm Dent's trio had as guest for this month's session guitarist Martin Kolarides for an evening of laid-back musicality - I especially enjoyed their version of Thelonious Monk's feisty number Well You Needn't.

A literary event to conclude this bulletin, with the Society of Authors lunch in Bath organised by Diana Cambridge: an excellent light meal at the Bath & County Club in Queens Parade followed by a well-pitched short talk by Nic Bottomly, aka Mister Bee from Mr B's Emporium, the bookshop with a difference.  Self-published books now outnumber conventionally-published ones, with active local promotion more important to authors than ever now amazon has pushed the trade into so precarious a state, but the good news is that this is the third consecutive year of growth for bookshops. Interestingly, the book trade was one of the first businesses to be hit by amazon, but the survivors of that blitz are successfully fighting back with 'extreme customer service and passionate bookselling' - Frome's Hunting Raven Books is another good example of this - and the trend to environmental awareness is helping stabilise high street trade too. A fascinating summary with an encouraging conclusion for writers of all genres.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Summer has come and passed...

A last look back at summer now, in an immaculately trimmed Home Counties garden, a long time ago : Alan Ayckbourn's first play Relatively Speaking has been revived at Salisbury Playhouse by Wiltshire Creative in a superb in-the-round production. It’s 1965, era of Dollyrocker dresses and The Temptations, London notoriously burgeoning with a new emerging cultural energy while the Home Counties strive to maintain middle class morals and values. When Relatively Speaking opened in London two years later, the evolving scene was reaching its peak in the ‘summer of love’ and this comedy was perfectly pitched, winning rave reviews and establishing Alan Ayckbourn’s reputation at a humorous dramatist.
Historic pieces are always interesting to see in revival, and this is a phenomenally good one: the set alone raised applause, especially when the bed morphed into a lily pond complete with fountain. Converting the main house to an in-the-round venue is masterly, allowing James Button's effective evocation, with Chris Davey's lighting, of both the London flat and the affluent Buckinghamshire garden. The cast are splendid: Hubert Burton as the naive younger man in love with Ginny (Louise Calf),  Tim McMullan as the man he asks for her hand in a misunderstanding only the audience is following, and Caroline Harker as Sheila, bemused but endlessly hospitable as her garden fills with people talking at cross purposes.
Directed by Jo Newman and showing till 28th September - worthing going for an evening of laughter especially if you feel this would be a good time to slip back fifty years a more optimistic past.

Frome Writers Collective recommenced the monthly get-together evening at the Three Swans with an event I sadly missed - my fingers are beginning to type that phrase on auto, sigh - which from reports was much enjoyed: the readings, by their authors, of the stories created by the Writers In Residence at Frome Festival, back in July. 
In case composing a tale 'in residence' sounds a leisurely sort of activity, these brave scribes are 'residing' for couple of hours in public, in a shop or cafe, responding to an unknown prompt delivered in sealed envelope at the start of their enterprise, and their efforts are seized on completion of the specified time... it's writing, Jim, but not as we know it.  Lots of enjoyment though, and all the results admired, with Sarah Deacon's piece chosen as winner of the Alan Somerville award, duly presented on Monday by his wife Jo. Here's Sarah back in June, busy spinning the web of words that won the judges' hearts.

Also on the theme of Frome's writers, Nikki Lloyd was selected as a reader at September's Novel Nights in Bath at Burdall's Yard. This prestigious event follows an effective formula: the first half is a 'writers' showcase' introduced by organiser Grace Palmer and, after a short networking break, Colette Hill introduces a talk, this one by The Bath Novel Awards - immenstely interesting to all fiction writers. Sadly I was already committed, but I look forward to hearing about this from my writing group. I don't know who took the picture of Nikki for their flyer (not me, though I wish it had been!)

Two new exhibitions opened at Black Swan Arts on Friday. The Long Gallery features work by Fiona Hingston: The English Woman's Flora consists of 3D floral sprigs made from wire, masking tape, and graphite, all based on the illustrations in the Observer Book of Wild Flowers. Each one takes an hour and a half to create, so the 200 exhibits here represent 300 hours of work.
The Round Tower also has a new exhibition, showing the work of the Black Swan Guild in response to the theme BODY:art. This varied and very impressive collection from ten guild members also includes pieces by 3 guest artists and represents a fascinating variety of amazing work, from a vivid study for a cobra tattoo to Dan Morley's delicate drawings of his partner's tiny earring. Kate Cochrane's series of scary images of the Skeleton Woman fascinated me too - a really interesting variety of interpretations on the theme - on till 6 October.
Frome hasn't yet settled into its autumnal rhythm of regular events music-wise, but on Thursday The Valley with Nicola Mascall and Steve Loudoun brought their funky country style with an edge of reggae rhythms to an appreciative audience at the Cornerhouse.

Nunney Acoustic Cafe returned after its summer break for an afternoon of varied musical acts. Frome duo Harding McCabe took the main guest spot with an all-original set including some experimental approaches and themes ranging from flâneuring in London to the voyages of Odysseus.  Strong support acts included Shane Fry with Charles Daniel, Paul Kirtley, and two talented youngsters: Ezra Herring on keyboard and Ben Remington on electric guitar,.