Monday, October 28, 2019

Sprightly Shakespeare, semi-soft satire, & some songs

Let's begin with Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and Much Ado About Nothing - actually much ado about quite a lot, as the plot centres on trickery from trivial to utterly evil, and the happy-ending bounce-back wouldn't convince most marriage guidance counsellors. But it's considered one of the bard's best comedies, and this is a terrific production with fabulous visuals, unflagging energy and brilliant actors. The young couples are both delightful, and the parents of sweet victimised Hero, Christopher Bianchi and Alice Barclay, are mesmeric throughout. Designer Jean Chan's costumes and set decoration are splendid - I loved the fancy-dress celebration where Benedick is spurned by Beatrice while dressed as a ninja turtle - and the modern setting allows for masses of fun trivia, as well as (mis)use of mobile phones. Elizabeth Freestone's direction is not only exciting but emphasises nuances in the plot which soften the brutality of Claudio's revenge as it seems his crush on Hero may have been fast-forwarded into wedlock by his controlling C.O, leaving him more vulnerable to Don Jon's faking her infidelity. My only reservation about the director's laudable decision to balance genders on-stage is that the least successful roles are the wicked sibling and the head constable who are both re-envisaged as women. It's partly the bard's fault that the scene when the Watch report their arrest to Leonato is a bit weak, as he often allocates lines of risible obtuseness to the 'mechanicals' in a way which while popular in his era tends to feel uncomfortable nowadays, but Dogberry's casting wasn't helpful here. But overall this is a terrific show and the three hours whizz by, so do go if you can make it to Bristol before 9th November.   Images (Mark Duet) show Beatrice falling for the happy trick that leads her to love, and Claudio facing the consequences of the unhappy trick that seems, for a while, to have destroyed his.

A different kind of stage comedy now, as Jonny and the Baptists brought their current touring show to Merlin Theatre on Friday - it's called, for one night only, Love Frome, Hate Bastards. The last time I saw this talented anarchistic duo was in Salisbury with Eat The Poor which was political agitation from start to finish, but this is a softer, more private-feelings-focussed product. There are a few minor assaults on church & state but the emphasis is now on their families and their own relationship. The Edinburgh reviewer gave this the thumbs-up on the grounds that "Men are not traditionally good at telling their best mates the affection they feel for them, so the emotional openness here is touching" but I like my satire razor-edged so although Jonny began and ended their set "You’re either against capitalism or you’re for the end of the world," for me it was disappointingly blunt in the middle.  I blame The Telegraph, which derided their 2014 anti-UKIP show for expressing concern that someone 'terrifying and dangerous' might end up in power. "Perhaps the country is sleepwalking towards Farage-o-geddon. I doubt it." wrote Dominic Cavendish disdainfully, a scepticism that apparently wounded Jonny as he quoted it on stage. I wish he'd found more resilience: there are enough songs already about babies and bromance.

Music now: Newly founded by Paul Kirtley, the monthly Acoustic Club at Three Swans on Monday comprised a small but talented troupe of musicians including, as well as Paul himself, several impressive new acts - here's sensational trio Mountain Speaks Fire, performing Vin Callan's fabulous song February Fields. Saturday's highlight was a sensational set from Back of the Bus at the Cornerhouse - their version of Gotta Have Faith is fearsome - further enhanced by the full Raggedy talent line-up... Here's how Teenage Kicks looked in the atmospheric lighting - congratulations all (and apologies to the hidden cajon player.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Autumn harvest: drama, art, music & woodland mystery

Merlin Theatre Productions always reach an extraordinarily high standard for amateur performances, especially those involving a wide age range, and My Fair Lady this week was not only a visually exciting all-singing-&-dancing delight but also offered an interesting & empathetic interpretation of key relationships. Daisy Mercedes' direction, with its focus on 'chemistry' in the relationships - and, crucially,  the shift of the ex-flower-girl's ecstatic song 'I could have danced all night' to relate to her breakthrough in elocution - creates an Eliza with two fathers, the feckless Doolittle (superbly played by Graeme Barry) and the fierce linguist professor, bringing a whole new dynamic and tension to their relationship.
This high-energy show never flagged, and Act 2 reached a brilliant crescendo in the emotional tension of script, plus also the best ensemble highlight in Doolittle's show-stopping lament 'I'm getting married in the morning' - congratulations to band and costumes too, here. A very strong cast led by Richard Pugh's dyspeptic Higgins and Daisy Weir's determined Eliza. Thanks Chris Bailey for making these great publicity pictures available.

Now to another fable - Cyrano do Bergerac.
It’s a story so extreme Mills & Boon would baulk: a man who loves so deeply that he sacrifices his own longing in order to unite his beloved with the man she prefers, wooing her with an articulate passion his rival could never possess, and carrying that secret until the day he dies. And the part is written nearly entirely in rhyming verse, which really does require the calibre of Tristan Sturrock, the actor who in a 2012 production of Peter Pan managed to make it charming and not-creepy-at-all that a middle-aged man should climb through a little girl’s bedroom window and abduct her - he is always mesmeric even with a false nose the size of a turnip.
Cyrano is Bristol Old Vic’s autumn production, directed by Tom Morris, with a cast of five men and two women in roles ranging from nuns to soldiers, and with their trademark live onstage music. There’s some initial jostling of within the auditorium and at one point we're urged to join them in song, but then the action settles into consistent narrative and becomes clearer. Programme notes explain the theme as quintessential theatre - a tale of pretending, and what happens when you ‘pretend your way into the most beautiful love story you can dream of.’ But these are boys, so it’s a war story too, and perhaps more interestingly, a story of low self-esteem, as despite his lyricism and swordsmanship - displayed superbly - Cyrano's sense of self-worth can't get past his nose. There are some touching moments, like the Black-Adder-finale-recalling war scene, and some amusing ones, like the Romeo-&-Juliet-balcony-evoking love scene when tongue-tied Christian parrots Cyrano’s lyrical words, but this kind of 'pure theatre' can seem at odds with the connection to its city's people that BOV has laudably pledged to prioritise, and it can seem a little bit whimsical and irrelevant. Unless you're a bearded nun, in which case you'll feel right at home. Images: Geraint Lewis
Also at Bristol Old Vic, up in Cooper's Loft, drama from a very different era: Everyone is Dead is set in a dystopian near-future where even the rain is toxic and Mad Max style gangs roam the land while non-specified enemies are bombing relentlessly.  Rosie Finnegan & I are interested in quirky small productions and this one further intrigued as it won the recent Theatre West competition for a play by a woman writer, with both actors also female. The drama itself is as feminine as  forest fire, though, with the two women taking refuge in a basement after a violent raid on the house. Intense hostility and emotional anguish is difficult to sustain for an hour but this is a thought-provoking play, well-interpreted by Florence Espeut-Nickless and Alison Fitzjohn as her father's one-night-stand, with impressive fight direction from Black Dog.

Back in Frome, Black Swan Arts have revealed the winners of their Open Arts Competition, always one of the most exciting exhibitions of the year as hundreds of entries are sifted to create the final exhibition - here's a glimpse of the opening night. Curated by Amanda Sheridon, this has been hailed as one of the best yet, and it's on till November 16.There's huge diversity of materials, forms, and concepts to appreciate but my 'public vote' goes to The New Ambassadors by Ros Whitehouse, as stuffed with symbolism as Holbein's original painting - and is it me or does that elongated skull (with a wisp of blond hair) look undeniably like Trump? I took a mirror along on my return visit, just to check....

Music now, and Wednesday's Roots Session at the Grain Bar came from exciting 'rock-infused folk' duo Crooked Weather, with strong support from Josh Beddis. Next night's event, aptly titled Inspired & organised by Daniel Dobbie at Rye Bakery, provided a complete contrast:  Tallulah Rendall, rock-singer-turned-sound-therapist, with a mesmeric voice and presence - you can experience a sample here - with Peter Bearder, aka Pete the Temp, performance poet and generally off-the-wall entertainer with words and sounds. Here he is, treating us to strange sonic experiences like rapping in Latin and random loop effects, clad in an elegant evening dress and Ascot style straw hat. Both acts were superb, and the bean soup beforehand was good too.

The rainy week ended dry and sporadically sunny for John Payne's Autumn Poetry Walk through the beech wood to Cranmore Tower, an extraordinarily lofty folly with amazing views across the Dorset hills. This was originally planned by John, with Martin Bax and myself, for last year, but illness interfered with that plan, so it was especially good to be all together again on Sunday. As well as leaves, and mushrooms, there were  masses of fallen nuts on our path, and one of our group was able to explain this crunchy carpet: 2019 has been a 'mast' year, when forest trees simultaneously flower excessively, leading to huge increase of fruit later. Mysterious, and fascinating! Thanks John for the picture of me & Martin at a reading stop.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Nostalgic for sun? Autumn's in with words & music

Breaking the Code could apply to defying the moral & social mores of the era, or it could mean cracking the famous Enigma Code through genius & ingenious brainwork. In Hugh Whitemore's play about Alan Turing, it's both. A play about a mathematician working in WWII era didn't initially sound very enticing, but this is a totally gripping story, intriguing, moving, and provocative, as his life is presented in shifting sequence to decode the mind of the man who wanted to make a machine that could think and feel. The Wiltshire Creative Production at Salisbury Playhouse is brilliantly directed by Christian Durham, creatively using James Button's in-the-round set and with a strong cast led superlatively by Edward Bennett as the eccentric homosexual genius. He's rarely off-stage as the key moments in his life unfold - pre-war, post-war, and as a wartime code-breaker - yet every thought he utters seems unplanned and newly thought, an outstanding talent for any actor. The rest of the cast are all excellent in their largely walk-on roles into his complex and isolated world, with rent boy Ron (Joey Phillips) and old-school cop Mick (Ian Redford) especially impressive.  On until 26th October - massively recommended.

Sizeable swathes of Frome folk have been in London this week, many wielding musical instruments and / or in costume performing in the serious street-theatre that involves us all.  Green Platter at the Merlin on Thursday aimed to create an affirmative & empathetic context for climate protest, with poetry and spoken word.  With Rose Flint launching her stunning prize-winning eco-poetry collection Mapping the Borders, plus readings from Deborah Harvey and Dawn Gorman who both also write powerfully about the beauty of natural landscape and its frailty, and with Liv Torc who is, to quote Deborah, a force of nature in herself, performing her internet-sensation poem The Human Emergency, the poetry we heard throughout was simply fabulous, and Julian Hight, Frome's specialist in woodland and all things arboreal, concluded the event with an illustrated insight into the ancient forests of our land. One of the best spoken word events I've ever hosted.  Thanks David Goodman for these the images of the event..
And then weekend was awash with live music. Saturday evening saw Back Before Breakfast at the Cornerhouse, and The Sun totally rammed from wall to bar counter with jigging fans of the fantastic Raggedy Men, who seem to exceed their own record for high-energy impact in every show.

Sunday was Nunney Acoustic Cafe, with a full afternoon of live music from bands, duets, and solo artists, with popular regular performers joined by talented guests, two from the Czech Repubic. The "almost-too-talented-to-be-real" Hoodoos - to quote the organisers - were headlining with eleven 3-song support spots, mostly with a folksy feel but lots of variety and originality.
Here's the nearly-unreal Hoodoos, and some more special moments: Francis Hayden singing - we hope auspiciously -Dylan's Times they are a'changing, Dave Clark's version of Tom Waits Tango Till They're Sore and, among the original songs, a welcome return by Emma Shoosmith, Paul Kirtley singing with David Goodman & Colin Ashley, and shamingly-English-fluent Czech Tom Oakland... I could go on commending but they're all on my facebook page.

And now autumn's properly here, berries are withering and nuts are falling into the lakelike puddles, time to get ready for whatever the oncoming months will bring... marching boots for many of us. 

Monday, October 07, 2019

Wake me up when September ends

It was National Poetry Day last week and Liv Torc, chieftain queen of the Hip Yak Shack was commissioned by BBC Somerset Sound to create a poem celebrating 'home truths' about the county. Liv visited Hunting Raven Books on Saturday to share this and other poems - you can listen here, and she'll perform this, and her now-viral poem Human Emergency, at the Green Platter event next week - if that's not in your diaries, put it in now!  Poetry's annual day was also marked by a performance in the now-disused Shepton Mallet prison choreographed by Frome's Rosie Jackson - I missed this, but there's an excellent blog account here by Deborah Harvey, one of the poets. The all-male prison closed except for visits 2013 after four centuries of chequered history: I visited it regularly for a while to tutor one of the prisoners who had a yen to write a play and a social worker prepared to support him, and found all the Category C lifers remarkably pleasant.
It's now five years since Flatpack Democracy - a guide to creating independent politics was published by eco-logic books as an account by Frome's IfF councillor & ex-Mayor Peter Macfadyen of the work behind establishing Independents for Frome, who took over the council and still hold it now. Flatpack Democracy 2.0 tells what happened next, which includes national and international connections formed in response to this template, and was launched last week at Rye Bakery (with nibbles and prosecco, Frome's pack isn't too flat for that.) Publisher Peter Andrews followed his role as barman with an intro to Peter Macfadyen's brief talk,which ended with a quiz for each table. Questions like Where was the term 'flat-packing' in this context coined?  (it was Amsterdam) and How many times has Frome's MP voted to reduce spending on welfare (it's 23, shockingly) generated much conversation at the tables, as independent councillors and candidates from Shepton, Bath and Wells had joined us for the event. For anyone interested in how communities function and thrive, Peter's sequel will be as invaluable as his first report, full of realism about group interactions and written with humour as well as the wisdom of experience.

Despite this week being short for me - Spanish sunshine was still the view even on Wednesday - there's a lot of music to report.  Visual Radio Arts featured an hour of The Hoodoos, Frome's 'funky swampy' new sensation - you can watch it here, as VRA keeps an archive of all its shows - with Carl Sutterby stepping out of his Raggedy Man role to interview the band members: here he is talking to multi-talented David Goodman.

The Hoodoos  headlined at the Grain Bar Open Mic on Sunday too, in a crammed programme with a large attentive audience and, unusually for this venue, onstage lighting -welcome in theory but somewhat eyeball-challenging.
Ben Hardy-Phillips, who recently set up this monthly event, has extensive contacts so it was great to see musicians from Glastonbury and Bruton - and young talent like the fantastic foursome '1156'.

Visual art now, and a brilliant new exhibition: Art Interiors: Garden & Home by Steven Jenkins and Jenny Raggett opened on Friday in a party atmosphere at the Silk Mill, a perfect location to display these beautiful ceramics and fabric items as well as wall art - all available to view and buy until 16th October, well worth a visit.

Also a visual treat, here's a glimpse of Patrick Dunn's 'Banco de Gaia' visuals at the Loft on Friday night - perfect for multi-sensational dancing as September ends and there's another Independent Market, where Frome's Red Rebels walk silently through the crowds to remind us that climate change protest is escalating as the new month begins.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

A short intermission.

Much has been happening in Frome as September ends. There's been a carnival, a climate strike in the streets, music sessions - including Pete Gage band at the Grain Bar Roots Session - and all kinds of other livelinesses but this bulletin will digress to a brief account of sunny Spain, as viewed from a motorhome travelling through landscapes ranging from beach to mountain, trees to towns, with long walks and lingering tapas meals... a holiday, in other words. 

Here's a whistle-stop tour of our fortnight:
From an excellent coastal start in Torre del Sol (where wild parrots outnumbered tourists, and a Stones cover-band played at the beach bar) we headed to the Sierra Nevada mountains and explored the 'whitewashed village' of Güéjar. The church here seemed to have been hijacked from moorish origin by the addition of a bell-tower, but the spirit of rebellion is still healthy - there's an avenue dedicated in 2015 to all victims and one of the street statues was sporting a flag in support of the November 25th International Day of Elimination of violence against women.

After driving to the Sierra Nevada summit to gaze at the awesome views, we turned back south and spent several days in Ronda walking the lanes that circle the town which give far more impressive views of the famous gorge than the over-popular bridge, and enjoying excellent 1€ cortado coffees at the Bodega San Francisco.
The next plan was to find a campsite near enough to Seville to take a bus into the city, but as the temperature was edging up to 30° that day, we opted instead to use the pool -
- and next day headed south-west to just north of Cadiz, past the parque natural, to a remote but lovely campsite by a long soft sandy beach that offered a 3-kilometre walk to Sanlúcar.  In the other direction a stroll brought us to a tiny clifftop bar perfect for watching the sunset as local children played on the beach.
An even shorter walk from our (exclusively Spanish) site took us to a tiny village where no-one spoke any English at all, so shopping and tapas meals were a combination of my pidgin Spanish, the odd bit of Googling, and a lot of smiles and nods.
Three fabulous days here left us just time for one more exploration: the Pueblos Blancos, 'white villages', developed from moorish settlements.
We found an Aire on the outskirts of Casares, now a lively town but still with its ancient castle and with views right across the hills to the rock of Gibraltar. Our camping area doubled as an ornithological centre and we could watch the Leonardo vultures slowly circling above.  Here also, at El Rincón de Zoya, we had a tapas so splendid I broke my no-pitctures-of-meals rule...
And then it was back home via Malaga airport for me, as the motorhome trundles on the rest of its holiday journey. Normal service will be resumed in the next blog. In the meantime feast your eyes on a few of my Spanish highlights...