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.

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