Monday, March 25, 2019

Much Ado, Ukulele frenzy, and more...

Setting Much Ado About Nothing in the aftermath of WW2, when victors returned to celebrate and claim their women, has been done before - (viz. an excellent community production at Bath's Rondo in 2017) and Northern Broadsides + New Vic make good use of the volatile emotions of that era in their production at Salisbury Playhouse till March 23. There's a nod to Dads Army in the comedy as land girls cavort around, and hints of comic capers early-movie style, but the brutality of the bard's plot is not sugar-coated.  Claudio's sadism is always difficult to reconcile with comedy, but casting him as younger than his pals, and less self-assured, did help with this, and it worked too that Benedict and Beatrice are middle-aged and hence defensive about their single status. Robin Simpson and Isobel Middleton in these roles bring robust snottiness to their banter rather than the ironic elegance of a Darcy and Lizzie, but that makes the terrible command to 'Kill Claudio!' even more impressive. This show has been touring for a couple of months and, while never flagging, doesn't seem in its first bloom of exuberance, but with a strong cast plus on-stage music there's much to enjoy. Images: Nobby Clark

Hat Tricks, occasional variety night hosted by Jane Flood and David Tanner at The Three Swans was back on Thursday with a range of short spoken word and musical acts, some thoughtful and many extremely entertaining. Here's Jane in her role as story-teller, and Jud Relf as charming songstress Charlene.

Moving now to live music, always popular in Frome venues, and last week proliferating even more than usual. On Friday the marvellous Pete Gage blues band filled the Cornerhouse with dancers, while next night Seize the Day came to the Big Green Gig at 23 Bath Street with their powerful protest songs. If you thought environmental folk songs tend to be worthy but weedy, you really should hear their drum-fuelled anthemic Child of the Universe - I can call this 'sacred song' written by band leader Theo Simon "unforgettable" with confidence, because I still remember it from first hearing in 1987, when I first came to Somerset. Theo is now the Green Party candidate in Somerton and Frome, but the band is still radical & thrilling .
Frome town is ukulele-friendly in the way some pubs are dog-friendly, a devotion that found energetic expression in the first Frome Ukulele Festival  also on Saturday, which took place in six different venues throughout the day & evening. Rook Lane Chapel was the hub, with open-mic sessions, jams, and other events all day, and four pubs hosted other events: viz the workshops & band heats for the epic 'Battle of the Bands' in Cheese & Grain hall in the evening. The festival attracted hundreds and was impressively well organised by Malcolm Lloyd and the Mighty Frukes, with tireless tuition to enthusiasts of all ages from Sam Widdows & Roger Southard among others. Participants arriving throughout the morning were greeting with tea & cakes, a range of stalls with uke-related merchandise - including of course actual ukuleles - and the impressive timetable in a welcoming programme with a customised illustrated town map. Profits go to Fair Frome and Frome's Missing Links. And the trophy winners were... The Motherpluckers, a lively sextet of young mums who delighted everyone, though I have to say I also loved the Ukerjaks, for their theatrical repertoire & great teeshirts.

And to end the week: jazz at the Cornerhouse, this time an internationally-acclaimed duo dropping by on tour: Pete Oxley and Nicholas Meier, who with a mere ten guitars between them offer an impressive programme - here's the 7-string and 11-string guitars doing a bit of dualling in one of their lively instrumentals.

Final footnote this week goes back to the world of theatre, or more precisely to Theatre World, a long-running, now defunct, reviewing magazine. Plays International, for whom I have the privilege of reviewing productions in Southwest England, has in their new edition published an article I was commissioned to write about my father, theatre critic Harold Matthews, who contributed reviews of London shows to that monthly periodical from the end of the war to the late 1960s, during the Angry Young Men era and the impact of Brecht, sharing with me as an impressionable teenager the excitement of Old Vic productions featuring legends of the future like Judy Dench and Franco Zeffirelli... The piece is one of their features: he would have liked that.  

Monday, March 18, 2019

Two plays, two talks, and a ceilidh

Stones in His Pockets was written nearly a quarter of a century ago - evidence, if more were needed, that national stereotypes never fade.  Tinseltown has come to a wee oirish village and the locals all want to be extras, happy to recreate rural pastimes like bog-cutting for £40 a day and a glimpse the glamorous star who struggles with her oirish accent in an implausible romantic storyline. Challenge comes from a real-time plot intrusion, but will it be too 'unreal' to be accepted in the synthetic world of the movie-makers? What makes this play interesting is the device of using two actors, both men, to represent everyone - locals, extras, production team, crew, and stars. With minimal adjustments to their costume, Owen Sharpe and Kevin Trainor used gesture, posture, voice change, and quite a bit of hair stroking to not only convey the ongoing friendship of Jake and Charlie but also more than a dozen other characters - arrogant, seductive, decrepit, camp, stoned... an amazing tour de force from both.  Marie Jones' script has won awards and plaudits in the past, and this Theatre Royal Bath production directed by Lindsay Posner is sure to be well received when it moves on to the West End.  Image Nobby Clark

Another theatre, another double-act show about contemporary culture: two women this time and about as different as a performance could be: Queen Cunt - Sacred or Profane? explored attitudes to feminism in a series of edgy and outrageous 'absurd comedy' sketches at Frome's Merlin Theatre in the finale of their highly-praised tour. Deborah Ward and China Fish, the 'performer writers', take satire to extreme heights of inventiveness then deliberately crash-land in wild vulgarity, parading parodies from a drunk Virgin Mary to a dancing queen Theresa May, savagely lampooning men who oppose feminism then delightful as old ladies enacting a sex video for our edification... and there's a vast talkative clitoris onstage projected between each cameo onto the female orifice that comprises the set. With a project so determined to defy sexual stereotyping it is probably outrageous to mention that Deborah and China are both gorgeous-looking women, but they really are, so I will.

Two really good talks in Frome this week also: Hunting Raven Books hosted the launch of Dave Hamilton's new book Wild Ruins BC, aptly subtitled 'The Explorer's guide to Britain's ancient sites.'
Here, area by area across the British Isles, you will find all the still-visible traces of ancient history located and identified, so wherever you travel you can find and appreciate these glimpses of our past. Somerset alone has 12 such prehistoric sites worthy of pilgrimage, and for your convenience there's also a section on which are 'best for' photos, or children, or pub lunches...  This is a book that promotes itself by its photography and clarity, and it was also really interesting to listen to Dave's story of its making, a chronology of his own personal immersion in historical landscapes as well as the fascinating timeline from the palaeolithic era around 850,000 years ago (go to Norfolk for the earliest find here) to the coming of the Romans in 43AD.

Frome Friends of Palestine recently invited student applications for a 2-week visit to Palestine in order to provide first hand reports, and the chosen 'reporter' was a young student of politics in Bath. Deivi - she's Estonian, with flawless & sophisticated English language skill - was a lucky find.  Her talk, illustrated with her own and media photographs, was an exemplary visual diary of courage and realism in a situation as tragic as it is dangerous. She visited Hebron, experiencing the checkpoints and harassment, went with the International Solidarity Movement to a village about to be demolished, and finally experienced the tear-gas reality of the Gaza border protest.  Her sensitivity, as an outsider in this struggle, was as impressive as her empathy: 'They do not put themselves at risk like this expecting to end the occupation, they do it from a place of affirming their identity in the struggle - they are willing to take this pain because the pain of losing your identity is much stronger. Even the children understand this."
Back to Ireland again, in a way, to end this post, as Frome's  Celtic band members arrived en masse to celebrate St Patrick's day at the Cornerhouse. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Art and life in Brussels

As a 'writers' jaunt' with my word-smithing friend and erstwhile Live&Lippy co-poet Hazel Stewart, our 4-night stay in Brussels turned out to have an unexpected emphasis on visual art. We'd neither of us been before so had no idea what to expect: our aim was to squeeze in one last trip abroad as Europeans, walking through Arrivals in the EU citizens line and enjoying non-alienated immersion in the cultural experience of this city while it was still part of our experiential identity... and to have a great time. Mission accomplished! The old city, about a 15 minute walk from our hotel, is a cats-cradle of impressive edifices linked with tramlines and zebra-crossings and cobbles (and zebra-crossings on cobbles) and ribbon-development roadworks. Many of the buildings are extensively decorated, with statues satisfyingly secular as well as saintly, and there's masses of modern street art, so our exploratory walks all became art-trails of sculptures ranging from absurd &/or vulgar to the impressive series of 48 bronzes around La Place du Petit Sablon in homage to the city's ancient crafts. Ten larger statues here also celebrate 16C notables - here's me with Guillaume le Taciturne aka William of Orange from 1533-1585 - a century before the King Billy of Irish notoriety, of course.
The abundance of visual stimulus around in the city streets continued within doors too, with every imaginable style from traditional to pop, classical to op, vividly represented in the cafes, bars, boulevards, and galleries of this fast-moving and fabulous city.
Here's Hazel in some of my favourites: MiMA (the Millenium Iconoclast Museum of Art) - the reconstructed Arles bedroom at the Immersive Van Gogh experience where we learned that the brilliant colour strokes in paintings like Starry Night were the consequence, poignantly, of Vincent's colour-blindness... and the Magritte Museum, an amazing journey through the artist's works over four floors of imagery with an excellent short film showing how the effect of his mother's suicide lingered in his art and perhaps explains his choice to leave the surrealists for a more bourgeois life with Georgette.

So with no ambition other than to spend each day wandering and writing, we were especially lucky to find wonderfully varied places whenever we decided to stop for refreshment, from the gilded splendour of the Metropole Cafe to ultra-hip TICH, with friendly cafes down side roads for amazingly good scoff: Cafe Charbon, your home-made salmon quiche was fabulous, with an equally good experience at 'Coming Soon' where the walls are filled with original photographs of film stars at Cannes festivals all taken by owner Jean-Pierre Malherbe.

Brussels, we found even in our short stay while going no further than our feet would take us each day, is a city of paradox. Streets of elegant frontages (art nouveau designer Victor Horta apparently was the influence here) share the skyline with towering glass-fronted cubes, and fruit-stalls piled with oranges share the pavement with armed soldiers and rows of electric scooters - the Boris bikes of this city. And, of course, so much more.... Writers like painters use their medium to explore and process their own lives, and in this process there are always serendipitous coincidences of observation and discovery.  I'll end with one of my favourite images, from the canal side near MiMA, the old brewery that now celebrates street art. 

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Dramatic reflections

Shakespeare had a thing about mirrors - or at least, his kings did: Richard II in his abdication speech pleads for a mirror 'so I can see the very book indeed/ where all my sins are writ' and symbolically smashes it as he abdicates to Henry. Richard III, brooding on his deformity, takes the obsession further, and the new production at Bristol Old Vic superbly uses the nightmare potential of literal self-reflection to create a set where every assault, every collusion, every betrayal, is visually echoed from subtly different angles. The effect is haunting. The set's archways never change, as if the entire story is all in Richard's fevered mind: sometimes the glass mysteriously clears and ghosts from his murderous past watch the ambitious king writhe. It's mostly very dark, but occasionally beautiful, as when the petals cascade down to symbolise the ending of the red and white rose rivalry.
 In a stella cast Tom Mothersdale is supernova as Richard, his deformity and his charisma both emphasised in his unforgettable performance. The design team - Chiara Stephenson, with Elliot Griggs lighting & George Dennis sound - all deserve credit too. Directed by John Haidar, this is a collaboration with Headlong and part of BOV's vision of renewed vibrance and engagement with the city and community. If you like your Shakespearian history plays true to the bard's intention but you relish classic gothic horror and a bit of black humour, this is definitely one for you - it's timely too: 'England hath long been mad and scarr'd herself.. in blind division,' laments Richmond, surveying the debris as he takes up the baton and promises 'fair ordinance' - we could do with some of that right now.  In Bristol till 13 April, recommended.

This is an interim post for southwest arts followers - the next will be an off-piste bulletin from Brussels!

Monday, March 04, 2019

Dramatic passion and all that jazz...

February's 18° days may be rightly disturbing, but the week's sunshine worked well for Tobacco Factory's new Shakespearean offering of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I can be a tad purist about Shakespeare - in my view his timeless themes rarely need tweaks to bring them on trend - so it was a delight to find that this updated-version is superb: nine excellent actors and innovative direction ensured that the comedy is laugh-out-loud funny, plots are clear, and energy high throughout. The tripled-up roles of the cast work brilliantly, with special praise to the men: Joseph Tweedale whose gay Helen/us was not only plausible but seemed almost essential, Dan Wheeler whose Flute totally & hysterically stole the final scene, and Danann McAleer,  brutal as a fairy and charmingly ineffective as an Am.Dram co-ordinator - all memorable roles. Heather Williams’ Bottom will stay with me for some time too… I did have some reservations: costumes were not 100% successful, and nor were the fly-tip props, the fairies looked and sounded more like a tribe of crusties, and the start-&-finish ‘twist’ didn't do it for me - but the same-sex love affairs worked well and the Pyramus and Thisbe cameo was a real highlight. At a deeper level, director Mike Tweddle credibly found connections with our 'harsh and problematic' possible future: 'Sadly, in 2019 it's all too easy to see how our politically fragile society could lose its hard-won social values.' Highly recommended, on till 6 April. Images: Mark Dawson.

Chicago, based loosely on life in that city during the 1920s,  era of jazz, 'celebrity criminals' and lawyers who lucratively defended them, proved a splendid choice for a 'High School Edition' from Frome College students. Directed by Claudia Pepler, on a superb art deco set designed and built by Mike Witt, with on-stage orchestra, razzle-dazzle costumes, this outstandingly talented team of youngsters danced and sang their way brilliantly to the happy ending - for the starlet murderers anyway. Megan Wright and Cordelia Tarbrooke were stunning in these roles (Images: Mike Witt top, Chris Bailey cast shot), with Barney Nuttall great as hurt husband (front end L) and Solo Candy (front end R) unforgettable as Billy Flynn, the media-manipulating lawyer. Frome College productions regularly reach a standard that makes it unsurprising that so many participants go on to train for the professional stage - or that the dedicated team of adult supporters regularly win awards in this field. This is another memorable one.

Meanwhile, Frome was preparing to transform itself into a magical promenade theatre show for the entire weekend, as Window Wanderland decorated the town's streets with 189 (I counted the list on the back of the map!) houses created fantasy lands and fairytales on their windows. Most used coloured tissue and silhouette cut-outs, some were simple and some were impressively complex, and the total effect was fabulous. Schools and shops and businesses joined in too, and the most elaborate creations- like the projected works of Singers Foundry -had clusters of admirers around them, with passing groups offering further recommendations, in this extraordinary night gallery. This one is not the most sophisticated or artistic, but for me it sums up the spirit of the project, and our town too.

Another good week for live music as well, with an excellent Roots Session at the Grain Bar - honey-voiced Steve Loudon supporting The Spoonful, Cream-themed blues trio with an esoteric range of stringed instruments, good material, and great voices.

 Friday was a big night at the Cornerhouse: Martin Earley celebrated his 8th 'birthday' as landlord there with a session from The Critters, the 8-strong rock-&-reggae band that Carling would probably claim to have made 'if we made bands'...  Nicki Mascall led this high-energy outfit through a medley of favourites from Moondance to Stir It Up, and the entire bar instantly became a mosh-pit of dancers. An unforgettable event, huge credit to all the band.

Saturday night is always a dilemma, as there's live music in several bars, but after a long window-watching walk, I dropped into 23 Bath Street for the garage band night: Los Grebos, the 4-piece covers band with an unexplained passion for Ken & Barbie, and Unit X, tagline "Frome 3-piece doing original punky noise psycho metal numbers". Here's Ron Tree, well-known and popular in Frome, singing about the badger people ('you can't kill the badger people/ they survived the ice age/ they're the recorders of time...') - photography was initially tricky as stage set-up seemed designed to smoke the musicians out like foxes, but the dancing was good.

No Independent Market report this month, as the planned March restart was kicked off the schedule by storm Freya - but with great resourcefulness, the busking stage removed itself to  23 Bath Street where the Back Wood Redeemers gave a great show to families, friends, and surprised regulars.

And if that wasn't enough music for three days, Jazz Jam returned to the Cornerhouse for a lively session - with superb singing - hosted by Simon Sax -sadly the dim red lighting made this impossible to record without a night-vision camera, but you've probably got enough pictures bragging about Frome for one week anyway. Let's end with a look ahead to spring.... crocuses along the river path, planted by the young rangers from Critchill School. Thanks, kids!