Monday, December 23, 2019

Wicked queens, naughty nuns, and more lights & music

I don’t go so often to Tobacco Factory Theatre since the whole area became a permit-parking-only zone, and the promotion image for this version of Snow White didn’t entice me, but luckily a friend tipped me off I was missing a treat so on a dark and icy afternoon I plodded the 40 minute trek from Temple Meads Station and was opulently rewarded. This is a fabulous production - not, though there is fair bit of audience interaction, a pantomime but a great classic story, spiced gently and entertainingly with environmental and social values. New International Encounter, here in collaboration with Cambridge Junction as well as Tobacco Factory Theatres, has a reputation for superb, accessible, story-telling - inventive, succinct, and with lively musicality. The four musicians are on stage throughout: they carry the narrative thread, create the spirit of the magic mirror, and enact the seven dwarves with (mis)calculating insistence about their number. This happy band of social misfits have all left stressful jobs to live an alternative life-style, growing seven kinds of onions and serving vegan stew in a non-gender way. They do their incompetent best to take care of Snow White, but the wiles of the wicked Queen initially wobbles the community into frightened calls for "locks, keys, fence, wall - 42 feet high, with barbed wire! and a buzzer… We’ve got to take back control!" Luckily they quickly decide,  No - this is not us. Love is what matters - an open heart.  But clear personal boundaries! 
All this is fun but doesn't distract from the Grimm focus in the tale on the wicked queen and her terrible plans.  Stefanie Mueller in this role is absolutely fantastic, swinging from near-recognisable family stuff at the start - the exasperation over teenage defiant fibs - to demonic obsession with her appearance and evil plots to kill her step-daughter (I got the blame for that, actually - one of the dubious delights of a front seat in an interactive show!) But even she is allowed a small, thought-provoking, voice when she laments, I was told I had to be 'the fairest,' nobody told me that just 'fair' would be enough. Multi-talented Ms Mueller also designed the set and costumes. This is genuinely an all-age show and it's on till 19th January - a great antidote for dark days ahead. Images Mark Dawson.

Meanwhile 700 years ago in the real world no-one was having a good time in a society dominated by the draconian rules of sex-starved, sex-obsessed church officials. Based (surprisingly closely, though the dummy left for burial probably wasn't a mop&bucket) on the true story of a nun on the run, Breach theatre created Joan of Leeds - a lusty end-of-year romp with mirth, bawdiness and song, in keeping with the Yorkshire Medieval Players they claim to be, which sounded like a fun idea and worth a trip to New Diorama Theatre although central London isn't my patch for reviews. Medieval texts abound with explicit imagery of nuns involved in all kinds of activities not associated these days with holy orders - the penis-gatherer here is at least demurely clad - and Breach seized the opportunity provided by erotic visions for much scurrilous activity and scandalous costume. There was a short unconvincing attempt to evoke a parallel with the social struggle of lesbians in the last century, but the best bits by far were the lusty erotica and hysterical absurdity.

Another evening prowl in search of festive illumination, this time to Stourhead, didn't reward nearly as well as Longleat: the concept of blasting heavy colour on specific buildings and trees benefitted neither, and the elegant vista of the lake on arrival was obliterated by oscillating vividly-coloured bobbles. You don't have to be a cantankerous dendrophile like me to recognise that Stourhead is an elegant example its era's respect for the grandeurs of antiquity and the concept of beauty in nature, and fierce floodlights detract rather than embellish.

A blast of music now:
The 'Last Bones Gig of the Year' was at the The George at Nunney,  courtesy of manager Tania, and with the massed instruments & voices of the entire village, it seemed, especially for the finale version of Fairy Tale of New York which Bones leader Paul Kirtley reckons as good the original...  certainly more celebratory. I also liked the the guitar solos on Come on Baby Light My Fire, but it was all enjoyable - big appreciation to both Frome and Nunney gangs for a great gig, to the customers who contributed to Paul's charity bucket, and of course to the man of every Bones match, Paul himself. The sound was fantastic but historic buildings don't cope well with biblical-scale downpours so my images caught the convivial atmosphere rather than the event.
Back in Frome, we've had a goldrush of brilliant bands: amazing Purple Fish bringing classic rock to the Cornerhouse on Saturday, followed next night by the utterly awesome Pete Gage band with Craig Crofton on saxophone.. two sensational events from passionate professional performers - Frome pubs must lead the world for treating their customers to great gigs like these.

The Three Swans took over to fill the gap on Sunday afternoon with an all-afternoon session from the massed forces of several local bands as traditional folk musicians from various traditions joined up with singers and players in a variety of styles from swampy funk to 80's pop. This was a real party event, with all ages crammed into the upstairs room amid the rococo furniture and startlingly retro wall adornments.

Happy celebrations whatever you choose to do - see you after the flack has settled on a new year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Lights, music, curtains...

Frome Festive Poetry Cafe on Monday evening had a focus on the community aspect of these bi-monthly-ish get-togethers at the Garden Cafe: we've enjoyed some fantastic guest poets at these events, and will continue to do so, but this time the metaphorical mic was given over entirely to the floor - or rather to the creative people who come as audience. Here's me somewhat randomly allocating the gifts donated by Hunting Raven Books and Merlin Theatre but the prize for everyone was a really lovely night, rich in imagery with poems ranging from poignant memories to witty word-play. Several 'debut poets' took the plunge, including a touching 'thankyou letter to Frome' from Chloe Rayburn, joining popular regulars like Mike Grenville (with a piece inspired by the current Black Swan exhibition you can read here) humorists Moira Andrew and John Christopher Wood, and John Payne, who read and distributed a moving poem from his current research on the workhouse in Bath, consulting leather ledgers in the Guildhall basement: They list the money spent, the figures, / but not the suffering / of children, elders, the mad, the sick./ We must hold them in remembrance ourselves.  Thanks David Goodman for the photos.
Next night's illuminating imagery was the literal kind, with an evening walk over the Wiltshire border into neighbouring Longleat Festival of Lights rewarded by an awesome scene of myths and legends in massive scale filling the park right down to, and including, the lake. This extraordinary spectacle is on until Jan 5th and it really is, also literally, fabulous: I've been critical of this costly 'spectacular' in the past for tacky cartoon figures and badly re-envisaged storybook characters, but this year's theme-envisaging is truly awesome - every mythic monster and hero from legends around the world is here, aesthetically beautiful as well as posed in thrilling story-telling moments - the illuminated tags beside each were being extensively used by visitors, I noticed, to succinctly fill the sad omissions in our 'education' system. There are hundreds of beautiful images there to enthral and photograph - I picked two that chime currently for me.

For the rest of the week Frome seems to have been wall-to-wall music. Raggedy Men at the Cornerhouse were a perfect choice for Friday, with dancing from the start and lots of shout-along moments to great songs from Jonny Rotten and The Clash - classic smashing punk, but with riffs! Andy, Bugsy, Carl, and drumming dervish Pat - you were just what we all needed.

Dancing-from-the-start at Cornerhouse again next night for amazing Bristol band Flash Harry, who claim to be a folk rock-balkan-cajun band but it's not that simple (!) to describe them - they can sing&play at fast-forward, make a sea-shanty sound like Deep Purple, make a hoe-down song jazzy or the other way around, and have a penchant for hamsters. I can't find their wonderful Get Out Of Bed song online but here's a sample of their style from a Bristol gig.
Sunday afternoon Acoustic Club in the Three Swans, co-ordinated by Paul Kirtley, was a pleasantly casual affair, with a series of enjoyable performances including a great set from Mountain Speaks Fire who were joined for their version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night by guest singer Anna Callan making an early debut. (I always thought this was a Nirvana original, but it's actually traditional, first recorded in 1939 by Lead Belly)
And the tempo stayed relaxed back at the Cornerhouse for Graham Dent's Sunday jazz night, this time with Caroline Radcliffe as guest singer with Graham's regular Piano Trio and John Plaxton on trumpet.

As this is primarily an arts blog, there will be no comment about what also happened last week and I'll leave you with a seasonal poem from William Yeats: The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spirtus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man
 A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
 Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
 That twenty centuries of stony sleep
 Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, December 09, 2019

Midwinter high spirits in times of sleet and glitter

A Christmas Carol at Bristol Old Vic was never going to end with Tiny Tim saying God Bless Us Every One - like L.P. Hartley's past, they do things differently there. Yet despite burlesque overtones and operatic narration, this irresistibly engaging production stays close to the spirit of the storyline, though with the occasional intrusion of foodbanks and shopping trolleys, and even closer to the spirit of Dickens.  All the principle characters of the story are here: embittered Scrooge, his patient nephew, his loyal clerk with a small sick son, the warning ghosts and phantom-memories of loves and losses... but they're all a little bit unexpected. Bob Cratchit is a chubby deaf mute - so, uncoincidentally, is Mrs Fezziwig (Stephen Collins delightful in both roles) - and Tiny Tim and Ebenezer when very young are played by two children extracted for this purpose from the audience. This is particularly entertaining when Scrooge, observing ethnic diversity between himself and the shiny-eyed happy child he used to be, comments 'It's me! I remember the flat-top.' Our anti-hero's flair for impro is especially useful in the final scene, when he begs the audience to tell him how to make amends: on the night I was there, suggestions were focussed around drinks for all at the bar, until 'Come on you lot, this is the immersive bit!' was rewarded with the suggestion of a turkey, and the drama could move to its happy conclusion.
John Hopkins is tremendous in this central role, terrifyingly nasty until the ghosts take him in hand and the poignancy of his memories evokes a moving grief. Tom Morris's adaptation skilfully enhances the parallels with Dicken's own experiences, subtly emphasising how treatment of the poor and weak in Victorian days is emulated in our own society: it's significant that Ebenezer learnt his contempt for 'lower orders' and his desire to amass wealth when he was sent away to school, as so many of our current political leaders have been.
Historical and social relevance is fascinating but this is above all a strong story retold in a fantastically entertaining style, with great musicality, weird effects and scary puppets, funky costumes, lashings of humour and some weepy moments - everything you want from your favourite morality tale in fact. Massive credit to director Lee Lyford, designer Tom Rogers, musical director/composer/lyricist Gwyneth Herbert, and the ten superb actors - enthusiastically recommended for all ages, on till January 12th. (Images Geraint Lewis)
And another 'winter special' opened this week: Cinderella at the Merlin Theatre in Frome, also impressively re-envisaged, and also presented with masses of music and spectacular effects. Claudia Pepler, who writes and directs these shows, goes back to Grimm's tales - and indeed these original authors control the plot in their manifestation as pigeons, thanks to superb balletic comedy duo Dillon Berry and Pete White, who tell us 'We are the brothers, the brothers Grimm, we're story tellers, or disrupters, if you will - we fly from tale to tale...'
Here's the charming prince (Ben Jenkins) and his adorable Ella (Amy Maughan) watched by her wonderfully dreadful sisters (Tabitha Cox and Abi Holmes), with Victoria May as the stepmother tricked by land-grabbing Dave Merritt. This kind of plot embellishment, as well as Ella's environmental passion, brings the classic tale cleverly up-to-date while losing none of the fairytale quality - in fact Howard Vause's pumpkin-to-coach animation sequence is one of the highlights of a glittering show. This production is up for the Somerset Fellowship of Drama Cinderella Trophy, and so it should be!
(Images: Dave Merritt)
And now for something rather less visual: Writers on Radio, presented by Frome Writers' Collective, is broadcast monthly on Frome FM.  Each programme is a miscellany of information and entertainment on writerly topics, with a dash of music. The upcoming show also includes my short personal tribute to Jill Miller.  Jill will always be remembered for the cancer charity she founded but she was a writer too, and I was invited to share this aspect of her life. Here's the team at the end of the recording: Suzy Howlett, Jules Garvey-Welch, Sian Williams and Lisa Kenwright, with techie PJ - the show goes out Friday Dec 13 and is online here.

Next day saw me back at the studio for the On Air Book Group, broadcast live and online soon, a convivial session with Sheila Hedges at the helm: Books-as-gifts was our seasonal theme, with an overview from Tina Gaisford-Waller, queen of Hunting Raven Books, and a range of ideas from charity shop browsing to splendid editions, like Britain's Forest Story by Frome's Julian Hight. My other recommendations included the marvellous Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth - rapid-fire witty word-loops connecting origins with torrents of historical anecdote - Frome's bookshop will order you a copy for the logophile in your life!  Here's me with Tina and Pat Taylor talking to hosts Karen Stewart and James Ellis with Sheila Hedges - thanks Terry Stewart for the picture of us all. Our chat is online now here - number 37 (06/12/19)

Music report this week is thinner than usual, due to so much else going on: The Back Wood Redeemers at theCornerhouse on Saturday gave their usual stonking selection of dark specialities like Give Them A Good Death in a performance even darker than usual as the light bulb had been removed. So here's a snatched shot of fantastic Eddie Young abandoning his double bass and invading the dance floor - I forget what he was singing but it was awesome...

And a look back now at two ongoing projects in Frome both celebrating successful conclusion: Black Swan's boundary-breaking Listen - a Summer of Sound Art successfully signed off its final programme in a wide-ranging list of events and although contact with the town council and Frome FM to maintain new initiatives will continue, a wrap party seemed appropriate. So Sunday afternoon saw a very pleasant cava and cake party at Black Swan cafe, with a final word from organisers Mel Day and Helen Ottaway, pictured here with sound-wizard Michael Ormiston.

Finally for this week: way back in summer sunshine, a group of Vicki Burke's Fromie friends assembled with her in Rodden Meadow to dance around the big oak as part of Vicki Burke's Magic Money Tree - a campaign video for the project PIPPA (People in Positive Politics Association) filmed by Howard Vause. The preview was on Sunday at Frome's Granary, and as multi-talented Vicki is also a band member in Seize the Day, we had a rebel-rousing introduction to the showing too.
I'll leave you now to the contemplation of your hopes and trepidations for the week ahead...

Monday, December 02, 2019

Wild Goose Dreams, lantern lights and frost-fired music

Starting this week at Ustinov, Theatre Royal Bath's never-disappointing studio production space.
Guk Minsung is a 'wild goose father', a married South Korean who's sent his wife and children to America where he supports them while living alone.* Chuja Seo is a North Korean defector refugee, now making a new life alone while traumatised by the cultural differences she finds over the border.  Goosefather lives on his i-phone, she lives in her dreams: these unreal worlds fill the stage and provide the energy and the passion of Hansol Jung's drama Wild Goose Dreams as internet connections and emoticons shout and dance around him, while she is haunted by penguin soldiers with clipped wings and her interfering abandoned father.  These sequences, hilarious and tragic, are helped by a brilliant set designed by Jean Chan, and enhance a skeleton blind-date romance into an extraordinary story both provocative and informative.  Michael Boyd's direction and a strong cast ensure this drama resonates beyond the entertainment of media parody and even the gravitas of political data - go if you can, it's on till 21 December.
*Not-fun facts: 200,000 fathers are estimated to do this, to save their children from the gruelling South Korean 18-hour day schooling system. And recent studies show more than half of North Korean defectors suffer from PTSD and other psychological disorders. There's still a lot of laughs though...

This is the time when towns & cities all over the UK as darkness falls begin to glitter with the strings of lights, and the traditional fir tree (six million of which will go to landfill in January) twinkles through the gloom of every town centre. Frome does this a bit too, modestly as befits its eco-awareness, but the town's real celebratory greeting to the festive season is the awesome lantern parade on Light the Night.

The atmosphere at this town-council sponsored event is indescribable as thousands watch and follow the hundreds of home-made lanterns swaying down the hill, following the parade led by Jamma de Samba's fabulous drummers. There were a smattering of religious-birth relevant songs around the time of the actual switch-on moment, taken by the mayor, following a lively set from our local Rock Choir of karaoke classics like I'm Still Standing... Yeah yeah yeah indeed.

Art exhibitions now, a plethora of them, as local craftsfolk seize the chance to present their work as possible gifts, with Saturday featuring Frome Festive Art Fair, a one day spectacular of printmaking, painting, ceramics, sculpture, illustration and jewellery shared across two splendid venues, Silk Mill and Rook Lane Chapel. Every artist had fabulous work to offer so here's two general views:

Next day, Silk Mill did a quick turnaround for the studio artists' collective own exhibition: the Silk Mill Collective's Christmas Fair, an even busier event selling classy jewellery, ceramics, designer-clothing, paintings, sculptures, and glassware all created by the 14 artists and designer-makers who work there.
This was held on market day, while in the meantime a Christmas exhibition by artists of the Black Swan Guild has also launched. Small and Mighty includes a fascinating mix of personal themes and studies, and is on at the Round Tower until December 24th.

Turning to music, there's quite a tangle to sort out as both Friday's Light the Night event and Sunday's Independent Market were thick with music, so I'll start with the relative calm of Saturday: Here's Rebel Heroes Bowie tribute band at the Cornerhouse - with apologies to Boot Hill All Stars for missing their gig that day for Shelter at 23 Bath Street.

A time-jump back to Friday night  when, after the lantern parade arrived at the town centre, there was more street theatre to enjoy as popular Frome Street Bandits band took advantage of a fine night to transfer from the Grain Bar stage to the courtyard where there was plenty of room for their massive duelling trombones.

Then a dash to the Artisan, rewarded by an evening session from top-of-leaderboard Bare to the Bones team as Paul Kirtley's assorted medley of creative jammers were joined by Hello Hopeville. Both bands gained big applause and charity donations from punters who even made space in the crowded pub to dance.

Sunday afternoon saw another charity gig at 23 Bath Street from the Back Wood Redeemers Alternative Nativity, 'an irreverent Sunday Afternoon Knees-Up' welcoming all sinners with comforting classics like Give Him a Good Death and I'll do the Wrong Thing &  I'll do the Right Thing Wrong (and Eddie's sinister Chocolate Jesus for which I can't find a soundcloud link.)
This tasty afternoon irreverence was followed by Back of the Bus at the Griffin: 'post punk pop with attitude' and ukeleles, with a particularly vicious take on Psycho-killer. I love their sinister version of Nice Day For a White Wedding too.

Sunday evening was much calmer, with a pleasant Jazz Jam at the Cornerouse. Among a varied group of performers, here's a rare picture of Simon Sax who organises this event with Nicki Mascall. And still on the theme of Frome's fantastic range of music this week, although sadly no image was possible in the stygian gloom of 23 Bath Street, credit too to the talents of The Brackish plus Rivers of England in a lively fund-raiser gig for Frome Labour party.

All of which kerfuffle brings us in sparkling style to the frosty final month of this year, with the Frome Independent Market now taking a break until March. Word on the street assured me that this festive-shopping market was fantastically busy and successful, but my personal participation was limited to Hunting Raven Books on Cheap Street, where I sat with Julian (Bugsy) Hight signing & selling books . So I'll close with a top-tip for booky presents: If you've already bought everyone Frome Unzipped, or just because Julian's latest addition to his tree saga is beautifully illustrated as well as massively informative, then Britain's Ancient Forest is a the way to go.