Sunday, February 24, 2019

Art, drama, pink drinks, poems, & potatoes

Festival time starts in February for Frome, with a flurry of form-filling to ensure a place in the brochure that lists everything going on in town in July - here's a sneak preview of the cover, as introduced by director Martin Dimery at the recent conference.  Theme this year is Singer family foundry, the massive creations of which can be seen around the world, but there will be plenty of non-bronze activity too: look out for poetry (from Hip Yak Slam & Festival Poetry Cafe) and drama from (among other groups) Nevertheless Productions who've teamed up with a talented quartet from Frome Actors Network for a sizzling hour of pub theatre at the Cornerhouse. The title is still under wraps but FAN are already smouldering into an impressive blaze so watch, as they say, this space.

The new exhibition of ceramics by Peter Hayes at Black Swan Arts has aroused much interest locally.  Peter has travelled widely in Africa, India, Nepal, and New Mexico and his explorations into 'how things are made' in the context of their landscape are assimilated in his work. His statement is perhaps apt for any of the arts: 'It is the material that is in charge.. it is my job  to push it to its limits and somehow an equilibrium is reached between make and material.' Friday openings are always followed on the Monday by a session for writers to respond to the art ('ekphrastic poetry' is the technical term - Keats was a fan, and so was Auden) and this month's leader Christina Sanders in an excellent session emphasised the 'landscape' of the gallery as part of the art: some responses from the group have been posted on the website of Words at the Black Swan.

Moving to drama now, in a week with two big shows: A Song at Twilight, now playing at Theatre Royal Bath, is one of Noël Coward's last plays and has been seen as essentially autobiographical although the playwright himself claimed the situation was inspired by Max Beerbohm's low-flame vigour when visited by an old fling. Somerset Maugham is also in the frame as a model for this repressed and caustic ageing writer confronted by failure both emotional and moral, and challenged by his ex-mistress to make amends.
Simon Callow has had to repress his natural wit and endearing twinkle in order to fulfil the part of Hugo Latymer, which will probably be a disappointment to his fans, but there are some amusing lines, mainly from Jane Asher's Carlotta.  Jessica Turner as Hugo's wife Hilde, confined in role to a loyal foil in the first act, is excellent when denouement arrives, and Ash Rizi's impassive manservant Felix uncorks a mean bottle of pink champagne. Action all takes place in a hotel suite in Switzerland for which designer Simon Higlett has created a set of pale opulence with a large picture window where the sky slowly darkens as a full moon glimmers across the lake beyond. Stephen Unwin's direction uses this chill space with its ignored beauty to emphasise the distance between his two central characters. On until February 23rd. Images: Nobby Clark.

Over to Salisbury Playhouse now, where in a similar decade (1962, to be specific, when Helen Shapiro was walking back to happiness with a woopah oh yeah yeah) Felix's rosy champagne was nothing like as lethal as Giuseppe Renzo's raspberry cocktails, literally a killer when the first corpse  hits the stage in The Mirror Crack'd, an Agatha Christie classic cleverly adapted for stage by Rachel Wagstaff.  Times are changing in St Mary Mead: there's a 'development' and not only are low types arriving but the big house has been bought by an american for a movie shoot. As shooting becomes real and confusion mounts, Miss Marple is thrilled to have something other than her sprained ankle to think about and uses her renowned knowledge of human nature to solve the mystery. Susie Blake follows none of the Marple screen models and is absolutely excellent in this central role as voyeur of a brilliant ensemble: lovely film stars (Suzanna Hamilton & Gillian Saker) brusque director (Joe Dixon) loyal butler (Huw Parmenter) and other suspects, including the husband of the first victim who looks a bit like Dr Crippen... while Chief Inspector Dermot Craddock flounders and Dollie Bantry (Julia Hills) keeps the spinster sleuth supplied with gossip and clues. Effective set & costumes and Melly Still's direction combine to create engaging story-telling through creative use of flashback cameos,  rewinding and fast-forwarding to recreate a different recall. Great fun for anyone who remembers the era and the who-dunnit genre, as a full-house audience at the Saturday matinee appeared to - though I did overhear one lady in the queue for the loo confide to her friend that the story seemed 'a bit far-fetched...' On  here till 9 March, then touring. Images Helen Murray

Rounding off a varied week, Sunday here in Frome was the annual Potato Day and Seed Swap in the Cheese & Grain, co-hosted by Incredible Edible. Not just lots of buckets of potatoes and masses of packets of seeds all for planting but environmental information too, this lively and friendly event attracted a big crowd throughout the day. And for anyone who ever doubted that our bit of southwest is simply magic, here's what the river looks like along near Nunney...

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Men of steel and reasons to be brave

It's black history season in theatreland this week, with the opening of two memorably good new productions both with a focus on struggles for equality. Blue Door at the Ustinov Studio in Bath is the second in their season of UK premiers from the Americas. Tanya Barfield, writing before Obama's presidency, set her drama in 1995 which was the year of the Million Man March, a peaceful mass gathering in Washington as a statement of black presence. The play charts one insomniac night in the life of Lewis, a mathematics professor who did not join the march.  Satisfied with his academic success, although still chronically fearful of racist judgment, he saw no reason to identify with a troubled past - until his career is in jeopardy and his wife leaves... A series of powerful stories, mainly to audience, track his ancestral history as unravelled by two hugely impressive actors: Ray Fearon as Lewis and Fehinti Balogun as three generations of his family.  The slave cabin set and nightmare lighting (Madelaine Girling & Elliot Griggs) effectively enhance Lewis' nightmare in a thought-provoking play that still has resonance today. Well worth a visit. On till 9 March.

Bristol Old Vic's Weston Studio takes a more upbeat look at the struggle, with a focus on the 1963 protests in Bristol at the 'colour bar' on Bristol bus workers, in Princess and the Hustler.
Ten-year-old Princess hasn't seen her hustler father for years, until he returns unexpectedly with a sister for her and her angry mother and wary brother, and embroils them all in the 'Walk to Work' protest project. (As a happy aside, the actual Civil Rights organisers were invited to the press night party and thoroughly enjoyed reliving their role.)  Fast-moving, funny, and emotionally truthful about both family dynamics and the way political issues can split close-knit communities, this BOV co-production with Eclipse and Hull Truck is written by Chinonyerem Odimba, tightly directed by Dawn Walton on a great set (Simon Kenny designer), and superbly acted by the whole cast, with a standout performance from Seun Shote as the maverick father. In Bristol till 23 February, then touring till mid April and should be a massive success everywhere. Images: The Other Richard

Moving back to Frome now, for local treasure Pip Utton's one-man show at the Merlin Theatre on Friday: And Before I Forget I Love You, I Love You. Quite a move from Pip's usual historic characterisations, this moving account of the devastating effect of Altzheimer's disease on sufferer and family alike was premiered at the Edinburgh Festival last summer and greeted by 5-star reviews. Talking direct to audience, Pip's tender funeral eulogy for a loved wife merges with the survivor's own struggle with the same demons, tracked by the medical tests used to show the way minds dissolve as if by acid attack when gripped by this 'worst illness of them all.' Pip's poignant saga was inspired by his experience of seeing his mother deteriorate and die, and any kind of upbeat ending might seem impossible but Pip managed this with compassion and realism, and well deserved his standing ovation.

A quick look at music now, with a couple of excellent ensemble events: a Celtic and Transatlantic session in the quirky upstairs room at the Three Swans on Friday night - always an inclusive showcase of the extensive talents of Frome's musicians - and another great blues night with Paul Kirtley's Bare to the Bones team, with the amazing blue-grass Original Barn Finds as guest band.
'Frome as a visitor destination' was the theme of a conference at the Town Hall earlier this week, and if that c word makes you sigh, maybe you have no experience of a Frome conference - this one was well-presented in a friendly atmosphere (thanks Jean Boulton and Mayor Rich Ackroyd) with short & mostly relevant presentations, nondaunting Q&A opportunities (with enough mics), lots of coffee, and a fab free lunch from Mrs B's.  One of the most fluent and interesting of the presentations was Sue Bucklow's preview of a theme event in the upcoming festival - the Heritage Lottery funded project to reinstate in the town's awareness one of the major names in Frome's industrial history: JW Singer, whose foundry from 1866 for nearly 130 years created massive sculptures of monarchs, myths and monsters admired around the world. Every one of the commissions cast by the skilled foundry workers - there were around 700 of them - was photographed in process, and by extraordinary serendipity around 3000 of the glass plate images have been recovered.  You can see more on the Discover Frome site here and there will soon be a Singer's Trail around the area of town that created the sculptures now installed around the world and admired by millions.

Another event with a retrospective edge to conclude, as Frome author Frances Liardet held a launch party at the Cornerhouse for the UK edition of her novel We Must Be Brave set in and after the last war.  Response to the American and Australian editions has been sensational, and reviews of worldwide are superlative - check out the Guardian- 'masterful... lyrical... richly observed, lovingly drawn and determinedly clear-eyed to the last.' Frances' editor at 4th Estate, Helen Garnons-Williams, talked to the packed room about her excitement when she first read this 'lovely, luminous' book and Frances read the opening - a lovely luminous event too.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A long week but a good one in Frome

We've just enjoyed an unusually music-rich week, even by Frome's standards. Wednesday's Roots Session featured two excellent acts: Garry "the slide guy" Smith from Dorset, and the Ed Goodale Band. Ed credits his Asperger's Syndrome for the insight that enables him to create his impressive songs and lyrics, and the 4-piece lineup includes brother Ollie on drums. On Friday, the brilliant Pete Gage Band returned to a crowded Cornerhouse for a fantastic evening of blues & dancing, and then on Sunday afternoon the monthly Nunney Acoustic Cafe offered a steady stream of talented performers for a full four hours.
All were highly enjoyable, and among my highlights were Frome bands We Don't Scare Easy and Goodman and the Bad Girls, both very recently-formed, and main guest Otto Wilde also from Frome, whose unique performance style could be described as indefinable...

From music to art: the Round Tower at Black Swan Arts is currently crammed with vibrant and varied images created by students at Frome College in a wide range of media, with the corridor also ablaze with colour from the work of the Middle Schools in response to the national 'Big Draw' project. Making a Mark is on till 23rd February - a must-see if you can.

No theatre news from me this week but masses of fabulous poetry: Four superb performance poets from varied corners of the southwest descended on the Old Fire Station in Frome on Saturday afternoon, to record WordPlay for Visual Radio Arts. I had the total privilege of interviewing, in my capacity as trainee presenter, the awesomely creative voices of Birdspeed, Chris White, Josie Alford, and Rhys Ashton Tucker - you can see the result online here. Here's us with producer Phil & camera-person Mags at the end of a scary (for me) but exhilarating hour.

Slight spillage now into the next bulletin, but as I'm late with the week's arts news I'll finish with the Frome Poetry 'Love' Cafe, traditional now for February, with Hip Yak Poetry Shack queen and all-round goddess  Liv Torc (I have now run out of enthusiastic adjectives but it has been that kind of week) as our popular guest. Liv's poems of passion celebrate intimate moments like the wet patch, the great kiss, and the note on the fridge, and they are all witty and poignant and powerfully performed, so the buzz in the Garden Cafe was immense. On the open mic, fourteen readers ranged widely in their responses through humour, reminiscence, social commentary, friendship, passion, and golf... Another wonderful night - here's Liv & me with Cat who read for the first time and will be back to co-guest in a future Frome Cafe (thanks Melina) and we'll do it all again but differently in May! 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

When the white stuff came...

Roots Session at the Grain Bar provided an excellent session this week: Jon Amor, the man with the longest fingers in the world, with support from Rob Lear, very different performers but both impressively talented. I particularly liked Rob's topical song After the Storm, and Let It Go from his album of that name. Jon, a brilliant blues musician who sounds like a whole band of brilliant musicians once he gets his loop going, has a superb new album out: Colour in the Sky.

And then came the white stuff. Flakes whirled all night on Thursday, but didn't stop Bare to the Bones benefit night, another of Paul Kirtley's house-party style community concerts. The venue this time was the marvellously rococo and eccentric upper room of Three Swans, and an immensely good time was had by both audience and performers, mostly overlapping in status such is the amazing pool of talent in our small town. Special mention to Sarah Hobbs with Bill Farr for their Gypsy, and to superb new trio Good Man & the Bad Girls for their wonderful version of Wicked Game, and to everyone.
Weather like politics, even when perverse and chaotic, has no place in a blog about creative Frome, but the blizzard brought so much disruption in its icy wake that most of the other things I was going to report on were cancelled. On the plus side, the town looked glorious in sunshine next day when I teetered out and the events will be rescheduled - and the Frukes had a great party jam session.