Sunday, January 27, 2019

Wise children, reality disorder, and other war words

'It's a wise child that knows its own father', in the words of Homer, and paternity is a central strand in Wise Children now at Bristol Old Vic with Wise Child - which is also the name of Emma Rice's new 'joyful, emotional, ensemble touring company' here in co-production with Old Vic, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Oxford Playhouse, and York Theatre Royal. With all that involvement you'd expect something sensational, and you'd be right: it's a flamboyant, exuberant, show with all the elements BOV seems to most relish: onstage musicians, circus-style physicality, fantastic costumes, bold casting, puppets, and dark delicious fairytales made modern - it's Greek mythic in scope and Shakespearean in splendour and it's absolutely fabulous. In the past I've been querulous about puppetry but the little twins as babies and as fighting toddlers are heart-winners, and the dancing-singing-cartwheeling cast are all superb. I particularly liked Sam Archer as uncle of some of the twins and Katy Owen as the saucy naturist granny who sex-educates her adopted girls by demo with a ring donut and a stick of rock. It's based on Angela Carter's novel about warring theatrical families, so you might expect extreme feminism and Grimms-style grisliness, but the story chicanes evocatively through time & times largely happily, with some poignant moments and Wildean lines: It is every woman’s tragedy that after a certain age she looks like a female impersonator, opines Dora (delightfully played by Gareth Snook, which enhanced the epigram). For me personally the fact this is set in 20th century South London, around Brixton in fact - my stomping ground as a wayward teen - was sprinkles on the iced donut. On till 16th February, definitely recommended.

Two different art exhibitions opened on Friday: the HUBnub gallery, a beautiful space which needs strong work,  has a show that meets the challenge: impressive paintings by Jamie Gallagher which explore 'the psychological effects on humanity of the current extremes of social, political and cultural disruption.' Post Normality Reality Disorder attracted a big buzz at the launch, & I need to go back to interrogate these pieces again...
Also a powerful magnet and a lively & sociable launch: The Sands of Time in Black Swan Round Tower represents the 'creative estate' of Stina Falle, well-known in Frome for her extraordinary talent and visionary imagination. Stina has decided to sell, by chosen donation, all her drawings, paintings and makings collected throughout a prolific creative lifetime, with 100% of takings going to the mental health charity Mind in Somerset. The tower on Friday was cram full of sketches, storybooks, portraits, and installations - here's Stina behind a symbolic shroud - but they were going faster so get there before February 2nd if you want to have a piece of unique artistic history.

Music section is sparse this week, as Sunday jazz is on a midwinter break and no Roots session either, but there were some good sounds at Hat Tricks variety night at Three Swans, with jazz melodies on guitar from Graham and Adrian, and several excellent unaccompanied singers. With a couple of story-tellers and a handful of poets in the hat-mix too, this was once again a delightful night.

Moving out of town to end the week in Bath, where Frome historian and author David Lassman led a sell-out crowd of 40 Bathonians plus two interested Froomies and a helpful Toppings bookseller (Felix also organised coffee and cakes for us all) around key sites of Bath describing the events that had devastated the city. As sunshine pierced the frost, we heard insights into the blunders that led to the worst blitz, and descriptions of the lost vistas - it was all so interesting that several locals joined us uninvited at various points and there was a rush to buy David's book Bath at War 1939-45 at the end of the tour.

Finally... it was Burns Night on Friday, so if you enjoyed carousing with whisky and (possibly vegetarian) haggis, as I did, I hope you included in your reverential readings the Ode to the Immortal Bard of Ayr, Robert Burns, by Sir William McGonagall, a tribute so full of excruciating lines it's like eating turkish delight with toothache.Your genius does sparkle bright / like to the stars of the night,this 1807 paeon of praise declares, ending fervently You were a mighty poet, few could with you compare /and also an honour to Scotland, for your genius it is fair. And you can't say fairer than that.
McGonagall is often mocked now (like I just did) but for a handloom weaver in late-19th century Dundee he did well and never appeared to doubt the merit of any of his prolific output - he showed his first piece to his local preacher who admired it with commendable diplomacy: "Shakespeare never wrote anything like this." Failing to find fortune in New York, he returned to Dundee where, for 15/- a night in the local circus, he read his poems to crowds who pelted him with eggs, flour, herrings, potatoes and stale bread until the council banned the act for causing riotous behaviour. Mcgonagall wrote a poem chiding them. Interestingly, the 'world's worst poet' was making a living out of his bizarre lyrics at a time when the weaving trade was dying, and there was a theory in his lifetime that Sir Topaz Mcgonagall, Knight of the White Elephant, was actually "not so daft". Reader, you decide....

Monday, January 21, 2019

Myths, legends, and modern heroes -

An effective antidote to the national news arrived last week at Bristol Old Vic's Weston Studio which swarmed with vibrant and talented youngsters recreating heroic Greek mythology when the BOV Young Company - with extra fizz from the Wardrobe Ensemble - took on the story of Hercules in a ping pong parlour. Here all of humanity is the helpless plaything of wilful gods, as psychotic Zeus and vengeful Hera struggle for power over the young men of Thebes, and Hercules' physical power can't help him cope with his suppressed emotions. It's a morality tale for modern times, and it's funny, fast-moving and inventive as well as raising serious questions about the need for more articulation of the pressures on young men in our society. Rehearsal pictures rarely show anything of the quality of the final production but that's all I've got - at least you can see the age range of this terrific group of talented young people. Superbly directed by Helena Middleton, though sadly it was only on for three nights.

Three years on and Frome's David Bowie night continues, moving this time to the Cornerhouse for our celebration-memorial: brilliant deejaying from The Fat White Duke wearing the iconic red lightning-strike, and a big screen to show images of interviews and concerts throughout: a fabulous evening of singalong and dance ended with - of course - Heroes.

Another great music night at the Wednesday Roots Session, which featured Reg Meuross. Reg is a mesmerising singer/songwriter and also a charismatic raconteur who held the crowded Grain Bar rapt with songs about the Hull triple trawler disaster of 1968 and its consequences, and personal and fantastic tales from his US tours - like how Billy the Kid actually survived to age 95, with songs about seeing Phil Ochs & Elvis eating lunch in Morrison's Cafe in Texas, and Dylan Thomas meeting Hank Williams in a bar before Leaving Alabama... Another change of mood then, with And Jesus Wept, a lament for the 306 young soldiers suffering shell-shock in the war and subsequently shot for desertion, and concludes a superb evening of thought-provoking entertainment with the anthemic England Green and England Grey.

The Artisan on Friday hosted another of Paul Kirtley's Bare to the Bones charity gigs featuring mainly rock classics, played by a lively ensemble - with me making a brief appearance as the 'cerebral' spot. Thanks Steve!

Still on the subject of fundraising entertainment, after a recent break-in at The River House cafe and theft of their charity collection-pots, staff responded by working for an entire day in without speaking to anyone, serving customers in the guise and costume of mime artists, to raise donations replacing the stolen cash. Thumbs up, indeed!

Frome's community spirit became a bit of a theme this week, with requests to talk about Frome Unzipped on Monday to group of trainee tour guides at the Town Hall, and then on Saturday morning the privilege of joining an annual walk in memory of campaigning journalist Crispin Aubrey, organised by his daughter Meg for the legacy fund in his name. Around 40 people gathered for the start of the tour at the HUBnub where co-owner Io Fox told us about its amazing restoration, then onto Catherine Hill to hear the quirky history of Reg Ling & the Valentine Lamp, next to the cobbles of Poldark's Passage - sorry, Gentle Street, then via a look at the Silk Mill to the bridge for my short spiel about the origins of the town, and where Sarah Scholefield (pictured, with Meg) spoke of Willow Vale and her novel Redferne Lane.  By then the weather, previously uncertain, had made a definite decision on rain, so we scurried up Cheap Street to huddle into Hunting Raven Books where an encouraging number of those who hadn't told me that they'd bought my book already now did so.

Still on the subject of books, Bath Flash Fiction Awards on Saturday provided a great evening of entertainment and an amazing variety of winning tales, read by their writers, as organiser Jude Higgins launched both Flash Fiction Festival 2 and Bath Flash Fiction 3 in a party atmosphere at St James Vaults - I didn't get a group picture so this is from their website (credit Christopher Fieldon). Both these lively collections are published by Ad Hoc Fiction.

And now a rare movie-spot to conclude this post: having recently been lured by Steve Coogan's name in the cast list to watch Holmes and Watson, which turned out to be the official Christmas turkey, I was cautious about a visit to Frome's lovely little independent Westway cinema for Stan and Ollie, but it deserves every accolade reviewers and audiences have given it. Tender, beautifully written and superbly acted, this feel-good-then-bereft-then-better movie has to be the best friendship movie since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Full houses all three showings on Sunday, so book when you're passing for whenever you can!

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Arty start to 2019 and other January tidings

The arty start to the new year begins at Bath's Holburne Museum (specialism: knowledgeable & chatty volunteers) which has several temporary temptations enhancing its Georgian splendour this month: That marvellous study of '60s iconography and human nature Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy has been shoehorned into the long gallery with the silverware, where it succeeds in looking utterly stunning, glimmering beyond the teapots as you enter. Ossie Clark influenced so many of us in those ruffled chiffonny days of spliffs and parties, and David Hockney's disarming simplicity of style has mirror-like clarity. Simply staring was one of those epiphany moments, spilling over with nostalgia, and our small group of visitors, strangers on entry, began confiding in hushed voices, awed like pilgrims in Chartres when the sunlight shines through the stained glass rose windows. More treats upstairs too, with an on-loan exhibition of Gainsborough's portraits of his theatrical chums - Mrs Siddons of course, Thomas Linley, John Henderson, and others who trod the boards of Drury Lane and the Haymarket - and also the boards of Bath's own Theatre Royal, which acquired its licence through the influence of Gainsborough's friend, the architect John Palmer. No photography is allowed in this gallery but this National Portrait Gallery image of the painting of David Garrick, 18th century equivalent of Hugh Grant, shows how much more fluent Gainsborough's portraiture becomes with friends, when there was no need to give enhanced evidence of status, wealth, or lapdogs.
Bath in winter sunshine, with Wedgwood blue sky and gilded buildings, is an artwork in itself of course so with visuals very much the theme of the day, my next drop-in was the Victoria Art Gallery by Pulteney Bridge. The current visiting exhibition is On Paper: from the Arts Council Collection. The connecting notion of this small collection is that all use paper 'as a material in its own right rather than just a surface to be painted or drawn upon.' Collage seems an obvious process, and there are some examples (including a reconstruction of Wittgenstein's thought processes by Eduardo Paolozzi) as well as other more esoteric interpretations of the theme. I quite like this portrait of Sid Vicious in paper, board and glitter by Jim Lambie - the extra glow is reflected room lighting - not sure whether or not it's enhanced...

A fascinating & provocative new exhibition opened on the first Friday of the new year at Frome's Black Swan Arts: Eleanor Bartlett's paintings on the theme of Matter - challenging in that the artist (here pictured) demands 'does art have to mean anything?' and fascinating in that this seems contradicted by her premise - that 'matter describes form and form resolves matter in a continuing and unstable exchange...  the chosen vehicle of realisation, literally the stuff of imagination...'  The Words at the Black Swan workshop on Monday led by poet Louise Green found much to engage with in these impressive black blocks created by tar and wax.
Other than visual imagery, the first week of the new year has been a time for favourite local walks, well wrapped up and within striking distance of a warm inn: here's Stourhead lake early on a frosty morning.

And now as the new year limbers up for its second week, normal service is resuming in the creative corridors of Frome. Our Nevertheless Fringe Theatre Frome Festival co-production with Frome Actors Network ~ provisionally entitled The Sex and Death Quartet ~ is back in rehearsal, and Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar have restarted (hurrah!) with the fabulous Raggedy Men, on absolute peak form with our favourite punk classics and outrageously riffing up some new ones.

Final footnote for the first post of 2019: a look back at the week before christmas when Hunting Raven Books sold FIFTY-FOUR copies of Frome Unzipped - fingers crossed book-tokens may keep the roll going a bit longer... Our popular independent bookshop was on ITV West News on Wednesday too, with its manager the lovely Tina Gaisford-Waller rightly extolling her books, her staff, their customer-care, their customers, and our town.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Unavoidably seasonal!

December ended with  mild weather, a lustrous solstice dawn and enormous silvery full moon, plus festivities nightly all around town. There was much festive spirit around in the week leading up to the big day, with great live music too. Artisan was the venue for another of the Bare to the Bones gigs organised and led by Paul Kirtley, with a dozen musicians entertaining with songs ranging from classic rock -with Annie Davenport's lyrical sax - to a delightful spot from a young performer apparently perched on a snowman.
By the weekend Frome was as lively as you'd expect, with music all over the place and Pip Utton's acclaimed reading of A Christmas Carol at the Merlin, but my report is a bit patchy: you know how when you're young and get over-excited and your mum says, stop dashing about - you'll Get Ill, and you don't, and you do... well, it appears it's the same when you're old too, so a few events didn't make the final cut. The Cornerhouse hosted a particularly lively session on Friday led by Geoff Younger and Colin Ashley, with great guests and much dancing, but I can tell you nothing about the following night's events (though luckily I was mobile enough to respond to Hunting Raven's urgent call for another delivery of Frome Unzipped to fulfil demand in their christmas rush.... twice!)
On Sunday the Three Swans hosted an amazing afternoon of festive singalong music - classics, folksongs and even carols - involving a gathering of murmuration proportions of amazing performers of all ages, definitely the best possible way to ease into the official crux of the season especially when topped off with the Pete Gage Band, in top form as always, at the Cornerhouse in the evening.
Cornerhouse kept the musical  flag flying high with the final Jazz Club of the year, which featured the Keith Harrison trio with guest Knud Stuwe, whose playing on the esoteric oud - an ancestor of the lute - added a wistful mood to the crowded pub.
Change of mood again at Cornerhouse with the New Year house party - host Martin Earley providing a smashing buffet and the lovely local musicians and singers creating the smashing party atmosphere.

I did manage several walks, coughing gently, so here's an image from midway through that bit between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve when the holiday shifts from public to personal: high above Eastville Park (which is really lovely btw and features a lake with swans and a heron) there's the remains of a WWII look-out station, inherited now by brambles and graffiti artists. We came across it at the same time as a group of local walkers and one was happy to tell the story. This was the site of legendary supergun 'Purdown Percy' - a massive ack-ack gun that shot down countless enemy aircraft. Legendary indeed - there was no such weapon here, only a battery of small guns  showering shrapnel all over the city. Perhaps height enhanced the sound, or maybe it was patriotic optimism, but actually between 1939-45, only two of the hundreds of German planes flying over Bristol were ever shot down.
And the traditional year's end to a writer's blog is always a poem. I was going to write you a satire on the Majestic message delivered this year beside a golden piano, which began by commending the might of the RAF and ended without apparent irony vaguely commending the notion of universal peace,  but I lost heart. Here instead is the passionate voice of Dylan Thomas reflecting on the passing of a lifetime as we all sail away from that other country called 'the past.'
Nothing I cared, in the lamb-white days, that time would take me
up to the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of my hand
in the moon that is always rising,
nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
and wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh, as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, 
Time held me green and dying
though I sang in my chains like the sea. 
Makes me feel glad I missed out on a happy childhood.  Go well, may 2019 be tender with you.