Thursday, June 20, 2019

Plays and poetry, a soiree and a small lament

Starting swiftly with a recommendation: you have only a few days left to see Willy Russells's comedy of academic manners Educating Rita at Salisbury Playhouse until June 22. Directed by Max Roberts for a national tour, with Stephen Tompkinson as the jaundiced OU professor and Jessica Johnson as the hairdresser with aspirations, this 40-year old social commentary still packs a surprising punch. Reverence for academia to such an extent seems incredible now, but the Pygmalion motif with its quasi-sexual frisson and that timeless theme of individuality versus social expectations, plus a strong cast, combine to create a hugely compelling production. The set is a handsome evocation of the grand old days of bibliophilic reverence and the costumes are spot on, but the major credit for this success must go to the two actors who hold the stage for nearly 3 hours. It's not a play of swerves or surprises: the dramatic trajectory is spelled out in literary references so, like Eliot's Tiresias, we can perceive the scene and foretell the rest, yet these actors bring an engaging warmth to what Frank would call tragedy. “You see, he goes blindly on and on and with every step he’s spinning one more piece of thread which will eventually make up the network of his own tragedy.” With so many witty lines, we'd rather call it a comedy, just as Howards End is called simply a novel. More relevant to this drama is the beautiful pacing from Jessica Johnson and endearing understated self-awareness from Stephen Tompkinson, ensuring an intimate and compelling performance from both.

Now to Bath, for another set of book-shelved splendour, and another trip to that other country of the past - further back this time, to 1940 and Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit in which socialite novelist Charles decides to dabble with the occult as research for his latest book. He sets up a seance at which Madame Arcati, a kind of Miss Marple on speed, accidentally summons up the spirit of his dead wife, much to the annoyance of the one still living.
This is the kind of popular-classic production that Theatre Royal Bath does superlatively well: glamorous set, fabulous costumes, fantastic visual effects, fast-paced direction and a strong cast. Geoffrey Streatfeild as the hapless author is excellent but, inevitably, the eye-magnet is Jennifer Saunders as the bicycling psychic, summoned back to repair her efforts and apologising for having been 'not only remiss but also untidy.' Also a surprise hit of the night, and I won't say why just in case you don't know the play (I didn't) as this would be a spoiler, is Rose Wardlaw as Edith the maid. On till 6 July. Images Nobby Clark.

The Bath and County Club on Queens Parade in Bath has an unprepossessing entry but a splendid interior, all vermillion and gilded, with a splendid bar efficiently run, on the night I was there with Alison Clink for the Society of Authors event on Friday, by three glamorous sisters. Diana Cambridge - author, journalist, and 'Agony Aunt' for Writers News - organised this very pleasant chance to chat, exchange “writerly” news, and network in a relaxing, friendly atmosphere, with prosecco, posh canapes, and sophisticated Spanish guitar. I'm indebted to David Kernek for the snaps, and it was lovely to talk to novelist friends like Debby Holt & to meet delightful writers like Miriam Akhtar - look out for her Little Book of Happiness coming soon. I certainly will.

Another first-time trip for me was  the BookBarn in Farrington Gurney, where I went as guest poet at the Barn Poets meeting last week. Group founder Shannon Turner led the session in this amazing venue, a bibliophilic Aladdin's cavern plus cosy cafe area for readings. A friendly and  appreciative audience, fascinating range of Open Mic readings, and vigorously expressed disgust for the front-running prime-ministerial contender, all added up to a very enjoyable evening in convivial company. Barn Poets are very active in the Midsomer Norton /Radstock area - drop into the BookBarn 7ish on third Tuesdays of the month. Thanks Shannon for the pic.

As grumpily foretold in my previous posting, this chronicle of the vigorous artsy life in Frome town is likely to be a half-mast affair for a while. Reviews of scintillating productions may be missing, and musical revels in Frome unremarked. It's frustrating but I hope only temporary: you can google PMR if you want, but I wouldn't bother, it's not a fun read. (Unlike PG Wodehouse, suddenly rediscovered - who's your comfort-go-to-author?) On the positive side, with massive support from friends - Frome does a top line in buddies & bruvvers - I didn't have to miss the double-birthday of the decade last weekend, at lovely Tuckers Grave Inn campsite a few miles outside town. The inn itself is a tiny 200-year old cider house on the National Inventory of Historic Interiors and the camp-fire vibe in the field was brilliant - here's the party barn, getting decorated & garlanded, with buffet, sound system & disco, where it all kicked off as night fell ....a summer's evening of prosecco & dancing to Darude in a hay-barn along with some of the nicest people on the planet seems to be a very effective pain relief!

Monday, June 10, 2019

Street Theatre, street music, and a birthday

Would you trust this man to guide you around Bristol riverside as dusk drew near, confiding the dreadful secrets of notorious local felons and their victims? About thirty of us did, and thoroughly enjoyed the street-walking saga of Blood and Butchery in Bedminster, another successful production from Show of Strength. Cunningly combined with a pub crawl, our guide Chris Yapp showed us the sites of violent deaths by hanging, lion assault, multiple shooting, concrete waistcoat, and - strangest of all- following trepanning (head-drilling) by a 19th century surgeon who then went on to dissect and tan the skin of the youth who took the blame. Poor John Horwood had his moment of fame though, when “40 thousand people came to see him swing,” as Chris told us with relish before moving us on to point out the Barclays Bank where £13,000,000 of melted gold bullion from the 1983 Brink's Mat robbery was laundered in weekly batches until the Bank of England stepped in - though they never found where the full stash was hidden... Next stop was  the Hebron Burial Ground, the final resting place of so-called 'Princess Caraboo' - as mysterious in death as she was in life as no-one knows exactly where she lies. Many more fascinating historical nuggets were revealed, as always on these history walks with a difference: meticulously researched, strikingly presented and highly recommended.

Moving on to the week in music, and Frome enjoyed its usual rich tapestry including a Wednesday session at the Grain Bar and other excitements that your correspondent sadly cannot illustrate having spent much of the week enduring ulticaria which is the posh word for nettlerash, and now polymalgia rheumatica, neither of which complaints have any place in an arts blog but are both on my mind at the moment.
Not all was forfeit: here's Leonardo's Bicycle at Three Swans, harmonically (sometimes literally) reviving the genuine best of 60s and 70s pop, and the sensational Hoodoos 'on the sofa' in a Saturday afternoon set for 'Humans of Frome', an occasional and very Frome-ish session on Catherine Hill organised & supported by the entrepreneurial Ciara Nolan.
And the Hoodoos were back in our midst again that evening, supporting Geoff Younger and Colin Ashley at the Cornerhouse on another of those nights that turn into a party, with singalong, dance-along songs from Beatles and Oasis eras...;
On Sunday, Nunney Acoustic Cafe celebrated its 12th birthday with no less than four featured guests: local favourites Fried, a strong duo of male voices with guitar,  and Maia who sings original and cover versions with keyboard accompaniment, plus Frome's extraordinary, outrageous, and multiply talented Otto Wilde and finally - all the way from Swindon -  peoples' choice Splat the Rat, hi-energy 'traditional folk' that sounds neither traditional nor folky. Also some great open mic sets, and excellent sound quality throughout the event. I'll leave you with 2 snaps that give some idea of the diversity - experimentalist Otto, and traditional dittyist Ken Lush - and I hope to be back with you soon.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Art and Life

Visual art takes prominence this week, as the entire Black Swan Arts complex on Friday evening enjoyed a party atmosphere with no less than three, and very different, exhibition openings. Sandra Porter  is a painter/draftsman and printmaker with a highly esteemed original voice, whose exhibition All Things Being Equal opened at the Long Gallery. Here's Sandra welcomed by Mel Day - who is particularly pleased as the gallery recently won Muddy Stilettos vote for best in the southwest.
Meanwhile in the Round Tower, the Frome Creatives were showing off their work at Frome Community Education classes with artefacts including ceramics, drawing, painting, printing and textiles. Tutors Amanda Bee and Andrew Eddleston curated this popular event.
And in the corridor that links these two galleries, David Daniels and Hans Borgonjon opened their Red Studio to display their respective skills of graphics and ceramics. An evening of visual treats.

Music now, and The Cornerhouse throughout the weekend provided a wide range to enjoy, all featuring the amazing talents within our town: blues from the great Pete Gage Band on Friday, a feast of top pop covers from The Hammervilles for Saturday night, and the Jazz Jam on Sunday evening, with over a dozen contributors combining their talents in various permutations and a special high point as singers Nicky Mascall and Caroline Waterhouse improvised together on Summertime...

Saturday celebrated the arrival of flaming June - for one dazzling day only, as the monthly Frome Independent Market on Sunday surged with umbrellas in the steady rain. The busking stage still held its audience, and not only because of the waterproof awning, with two very popular bands: Lost Revellers played fantastic funky gypsy music with awesome skill and speed, and local septet Back of the Bus deliver 'post-punk pop' with attitude and style.

 Ending this post with an image of Frome river bank in all its June glory - rewilding at its best.