Sunday, September 15, 2019

The 'Showtime' edition, mostly

Let's start with a costume drama: Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of) is a refreshingly hilarious version of Jane Austen's most performed story presented by Bristol Old Vic with Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh as a Trom Theatre Company & Blood of the Young production: Six energetic young women take on 21 key roles with entertaining indifference to plausibility, Lizzie's father being played with surprising conviction by an armchair, and there are frequent expletives and bursts of cheesey pop songs, with several nods to other classic productions, as when Darcy arrives home and his baffled servant comments 'You're very dry, sir...'  What's particularly good about this high-spirited, wickedly funny, version - apart from the costumes and the general absurdity - is the clear focus on the economic situation which was Jane Austen's real motivation in creating a household where the iniquitous laws of male inheritance would devastate the lives of six women, unless one of them at least could snare a man - but not silly Lydia's way, causing her mum to lament ‘who would touch any of you with a shitty stick now?'
There are so many moments of sheer delight created by this multi-roling cast it seems unfair to have a favourite, but Meghan Tyler's vulgar, outspoken, lovely Lizzie would be mine - here she is with wicked Wickham (Felixe Forde) at a moment of temptation. Isobel McArthur, also Mr Darcy, was the writer and Paul Brotherston directed. On in Bristol till 27 September before touring until spring 2020.

It takes a really special talent to range from witty impro chairing of  TV's HIGNFY to the sinister hitman in Pinter's The Birthday Party last year at the Harold Pinter Theatre  but Stephen Mangan can, which is why I was really keen to see The Man In The White Suit on stage at Theatre Royal Bath this week. So keen that I actually bought a ticket - press seats are unavailable before its West End premiere at Wyndhams - and called it my birthday present to myself. So this is not a review, merely a personal appreciation, and as there are no production photos available apart from the promotional one which makes it look truly terrible, here's an image from What's On Stage of Stephen Mangan as Sidney Stratton with Kara Tointon as the skirt interest.
Set in the optimistic 50s. when skiffle dominated the teen scene and the quest for durable, rather than disposable, products was still an industrial aim, the storyline is simple: an amiable young inventor aims to create an everlasting fabric to make life easier for everyone, but neither the profiteering manufacturers nor the salary-conscious workers actually want it... out of this slender cloth a hugely entertaining drama is fabricated, with major credit to the energetic cast, especially to wonderfully endearing Stephen Mangan whose escapes and confrontations must surely have given him some bruises in rehearsals... With a plot-line half-way between Professor Branestawm and the Big Bang boys, it's all mainly slapstick and fish-fights (don't ask) but there's a slender thread of seriousness: the inventor's appeal 'More and more clothes is not the answer -some day it will all catch up with us!' raised audience applause, and there were jeers at greedy capitalist's threat 'For the good of the country, laws can be circumvented, even Parliament prorogued!' At least I think they were jeers, you never can tell with Bath.
After two such dazzling and inventive parodies perhaps New Old Friends was inevitably disadvantaged in terms of creating dramatic impact with their production Crimes on the Coast which premiered at the Merlin on Friday. The concept seemed promising: a Poirot pastiche held by one narrator, with three lively actors playing every other role aided by stand-in costumes when necessary, but the script was long-winded and the narrative voice lacked impact. There were some entertaining moments - the intrusion of puppets, and false legs to create a small boy - but the overall storyline is slow-moving and incoherent. It might work better in a studio setting, with more audience connection, rather than on a large stage.


Part-performance, part-music event, Vicki Burke gathered quite a party on Sunday to film the chorus - with dance - for her upcoming video project Magic Money Tree (Crowdfunder link here.) Vicki has recorded some of the musicians and Sunday's sunshine was a great opportunity to film the song: here's Howard Vause describing his concept as we gather around the oak tree in Rodden Meadow. - sounds like this will be another great video from this innovative director.

Moving now to music performance, and a highlight at Wednesday's Roots Session at the Grain Bar as The Raggedy Men held a full-house audience rapt - though not too rapt for dancing between the tables... There were several new numbers in this high-energy 75minute set but nobody tires of their fabulously-revisited classics like Teenage Kicks, Guns of Brixton, and (always my favourite) No More Heroes...

And by popular demand, Splat the Rat were at the Cornerhouse on Saturday with their rapid-fire take on folk classics like the Irish Rover - sadly without amazing 'box-banger' Sultan Vinegar, but with a strong drummer stand-in. Jazz on a Sunday night at the Cornerhouse is always a great way to end the week, especially after an exceptionally sunny day: Grahm Dent's trio had as guest for this month's session guitarist Martin Kolarides for an evening of laid-back musicality - I especially enjoyed their version of Thelonious Monk's feisty number Well You Needn't.

A literary event to conclude this bulletin, with the Society of Authors lunch in Bath organised by Diana Cambridge: an excellent light meal at the Bath & County Club in Queens Parade followed by a well-pitched short talk by Nic Bottomly, aka Mister Bee from Mr B's Emporium, the bookshop with a difference.  Self-published books now outnumber conventionally-published ones, with active local promotion more important to authors than ever now amazon has pushed the trade into so precarious a state, but the good news is that this is the third consecutive year of growth for bookshops. Interestingly, the book trade was one of the first businesses to be hit by amazon, but the survivors of that blitz are successfully fighting back with 'extreme customer service and passionate bookselling' - Frome's Hunting Raven Books is another good example of this - and the trend to environmental awareness is helping stabilise high street trade too. A fascinating summary with an encouraging conclusion for writers of all genres.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Summer has come and passed...

A last look back at summer now, in an immaculately trimmed Home Counties garden, a long time ago : Alan Ayckbourn's first play Relatively Speaking has been revived at Salisbury Playhouse by Wiltshire Creative in a superb in-the-round production. It’s 1965, era of Dollyrocker dresses and The Temptations, London notoriously burgeoning with a new emerging cultural energy while the Home Counties strive to maintain middle class morals and values. When Relatively Speaking opened in London two years later, the evolving scene was reaching its peak in the ‘summer of love’ and this comedy was perfectly pitched, winning rave reviews and establishing Alan Ayckbourn’s reputation at a humorous dramatist.
Historic pieces are always interesting to see in revival, and this is a phenomenally good one: the set alone raised applause, especially when the bed morphed into a lily pond complete with fountain. Converting the main house to an in-the-round venue is masterly, allowing James Button's effective evocation, with Chris Davey's lighting, of both the London flat and the affluent Buckinghamshire garden. The cast are splendid: Hubert Burton as the naive younger man in love with Ginny (Louise Calf),  Tim McMullan as the man he asks for her hand in a misunderstanding only the audience is following, and Caroline Harker as Sheila, bemused but endlessly hospitable as her garden fills with people talking at cross purposes.
Directed by Jo Newman and showing till 28th September - worthing going for an evening of laughter especially if you feel this would be a good time to slip back fifty years a more optimistic past.

Frome Writers Collective recommenced the monthly get-together evening at the Three Swans with an event I sadly missed - my fingers are beginning to type that phrase on auto, sigh - which from reports was much enjoyed: the readings, by their authors, of the stories created by the Writers In Residence at Frome Festival, back in July. 
In case composing a tale 'in residence' sounds a leisurely sort of activity, these brave scribes are 'residing' for couple of hours in public, in a shop or cafe, responding to an unknown prompt delivered in sealed envelope at the start of their enterprise, and their efforts are seized on completion of the specified time... it's writing, Jim, but not as we know it.  Lots of enjoyment though, and all the results admired, with Sarah Deacon's piece chosen as winner of the Alan Somerville award, duly presented on Monday by his wife Jo. Here's Sarah back in June, busy spinning the web of words that won the judges' hearts.

Also on the theme of Frome's writers, Nikki Lloyd was selected as a reader at September's Novel Nights in Bath at Burdall's Yard. This prestigious event follows an effective formula: the first half is a 'writers' showcase' introduced by organiser Grace Palmer and, after a short networking break, Colette Hill introduces a talk, this one by The Bath Novel Awards - immenstely interesting to all fiction writers. Sadly I was already committed, but I look forward to hearing about this from my writing group. I don't know who took the picture of Nikki for their flyer (not me, though I wish it had been!)

Two new exhibitions opened at Black Swan Arts on Friday. The Long Gallery features work by Fiona Hingston: The English Woman's Flora consists of 3D floral sprigs made from wire, masking tape, and graphite, all based on the illustrations in the Observer Book of Wild Flowers. Each one takes an hour and a half to create, so the 200 exhibits here represent 300 hours of work.
The Round Tower also has a new exhibition, showing the work of the Black Swan Guild in response to the theme BODY:art. This varied and very impressive collection from ten guild members also includes pieces by 3 guest artists and represents a fascinating variety of amazing work, from a vivid study for a cobra tattoo to Dan Morley's delicate drawings of his partner's tiny earring. Kate Cochrane's series of scary images of the Skeleton Woman fascinated me too - a really interesting variety of interpretations on the theme - on till 6 October.
Frome hasn't yet settled into its autumnal rhythm of regular events music-wise, but on Thursday The Valley with Nicola Mascall and Steve Loudoun brought their funky country style with an edge of reggae rhythms to an appreciative audience at the Cornerhouse.

Nunney Acoustic Cafe returned after its summer break for an afternoon of varied musical acts. Frome duo Harding McCabe took the main guest spot with an all-original set including some experimental approaches and themes ranging from flâneuring in London to the voyages of Odysseus.  Strong support acts included Shane Fry with Charles Daniel, Paul Kirtley, and two talented youngsters: Ezra Herring on keyboard and Ben Remington on electric guitar,.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Outdoor activities in a mellow autumn week

Bank holiday Monday found the Bones music gang once again in Rode Mill, as friendly landlord John so enjoyed the previous event he invited the whole team back to do it all again. A great atmosphere, with several youngsters requesting favourite numbers or dancing along.

The LISTEN summer of sound art project, which began at the end of July and extended throughout August, has now drawn to a close after an amazing variety of events across Frome, including talks, concerts, installations, workshops, exhibitions and walks. The Poetry in Motion team, which has offered walks inspired by a wide range of local characters over the last few years, had a slightly different line-up for this event, partly for the sad reason of Martin Bax's ill-health, and partly because our subject was Emma Sheppard, the long-undervalued reforming Victorian who John Payne and I have been researching for over a year. Joining us for this walk were Emma-experts Nick Hersey and Liz Corfield, and soundman John Corfield to ensure the large group of walkers heard every word. Their response of was very encouraging, and an MP3 recording will follow, for those who missed the event. Here's me holding forth on Emma's work with prostitutes which, by defying the Victorian trope of female moral frailty and the impossibility of rehabilitation, places her firmly with the early pre-feminists. Thanks Mel Dsy for the 2 pix.

Still in Frome for this week's brief glimpse of local music, most of which I sadly missed, the annual All Roads Lead To Frome event at Cheese & Grain with 20 bands filled Saturday with sound from noon till 10pm, using both stages to avoid even momentary breaks. (These identified as the "Hey Didn't The Foo Fighters Play That Stage" Stage and the "I Knew Frank Turner Before He Was Famous" Stage) Popular reggae band Irie Fire headlined - here's Ghost of the Avalanche also on the Foo, aka Main, Stage.


Further afield now, in Ebbor Gorge. This amazing woodland site in the limestone Mendip hills has caves and streams - and forest sculpture - and fabulous views across to Glasonbury and beyond from the top of this National Trust Nature Reserve.  The option of short scrambles as well as long treks, and the luscious scenery and serene picnic pitches, makes this a perfect place for a family trip:



Ending with a couple of nice local footnotes in a dark week: nationally: Happy 80th birthday to Christine Goodman, mother to talented musicians Mike and David and ballet dancer Clare, and herself a creative contributor to Frome's Memorial theatre.

And celebrating a life rather than an anniversary: here's what the Boyles Cross in Frome has looked like since news of the death,  hours of her death, floral tributes to Lisa Wells, the inspirational young woman whi started 'Lisa's Army' to support sufferers of bowel cancer like herself, co-wrote a book for children coping with parental illness, - Only One of Me - and was involved with a wide range of supportive events. She died on August 17 and by the next weekend the fountain in the town centre was surrounded by flowers in bouquets and containers with moving personal tributes. They have been  renewed daily, with new balloons and personal messages.