Monday, February 24, 2020

Poetry, punk, plans, and purple fish

An away-day from the stormy south-west this week, to the Unicorn beside Tower Bridge to see Tim Crouch performing his solo piece I, Cinna, inspired by the story of Julius Caesar. Tim has re-envisaged several of Shakespeare’s minor characters previously - I saw I, Malvolio back in 2011 but that was practically stand-up comedy compared to the psychological insight and complexity of  this exploration of the thoughts and relevance of Cinna the poet, murdered by the mob back in 44BC.
Helvius Cinna was a real person, and his death was real too, mistaken for the assassin Lucius Cornelius Cinna while on his way to Caesar's funeral. He was late already and in Tim Crouch's monologue this is due to his private reservations about Caesar's rise to a too-absolute power. 'The people want a king, like in the old days,' he laments, as contemporary riot images flash violently on the backdrop.
What would you die for? is one key question he wants us to reflect on, and written answers are required- we have notebooks and pencils provided and Tim Crouch waits like an invigilator after each challenge. (I don’t know about others in the audience but for me this was bliss - I always write in a notebook during productions, though I haven't yet perfected the art of doing so legibly while still watching the action on stage.) His instructions begin as a control, but when our controller loses his power we become the scribes and poets and historians. A complex piece that could be endlessly analysed, and another tribute to the power of real drama. Shakespeare's character Cinna the poet had no voice in the play except to protest his political uninvolvement - the plangent warning in Tim Crouch's resurrection of the silent poet is that if we lose our words as sentient witnesses, then tyranny will win. Poems in response sent in by the audience are all here - including mine.

Roots Session at the Grain Bar on Wednesday gave us a double helping of singer-songwriter excellence - Tamsin Quin and Lazy Daze. Tamsin is delightful solo, offering a selection of 'happy songs about regrets', also teamed up with Phil Cooper and Jamie R Hawkins as Lost Trades, and Glastonbury trio Lazy Daze are well known on the south west scene: I especially love their (sadly once again topical) song about floods in Somerset: The Waters Rise.
Another party night on Saturday as the Cornerhouse said goodbye in style to massively popular bar managers Tom and Amy with marvellous (and also massively popular) Purple Fish, one of the most exciting cover bands around. Much dancing ensued!

And the week ends with a double-helping of punk at 23 Bath Street, with Wiltshire's thumping ear-plug-defeating One Chord Wonders and the sensational Gimme Gimme Gimmes from Edinburgh who would walk five hundred miles and then five hundred more to perform anything remotely connected with Scotland. They look like a Butlins bar band from the 1950s (I know, I worked there)
and they sound brilliant. 

Concluding this post with a quick look ahead to the Frome Festival in July - the 20th birthday one - as we're now all submitting our events to the brochure: brilliant Liv Torc will be main guest at the Poetry CafĂ© (Monday 6 July) and Nevertheless Pub Theatre returns to the Cornerhouse on Thursday 8th with 'I'm Talking to You' - six dramatic monologues by local writers. Here's me and Rosie Finnegan threshing out the near-impossible task of picking from the submissions. We look happy, despite the dilemma, because there were so many excellent entries...  more data lata!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Realism and lyricism and rain

Writer Will Eno has called all his characters 'Jones' which might seems to suggest they’re ordinary folks, just like you & me - but who else in the world could be like these couples - needy, evasive, self-contradictory, incoherent then exquisitely lucid? Well, perhaps all of us in our different ways. The Realistic Joneses, at Theatre Royal Bath's Ustinov Studio takes under two hours to remind us that everyone has secret sorrows and joys and if this sounds like a long play about nothing, you should know that it’s a superb script, beautifully written and acted - an absolute delight of a production, laugh-aloud one moment, poignant the next.  Bob Jones (Corey Johnson) is recuperating though it’s unclear from what (he won't say, except that his syndrome's name sounded like a jazz quartet) with support from his wife Jennifer (Sharon Small): their neighbours, John Jones (Jack Laskey) and Pony (Clare Foster), have problems too, though the owner/holder relationship here is less clear.  There is no incisive moment of conflict and no carnage, only the story of something unknowable, and it seems over too soon when it ends. Great direction by Simon Evans intensifies the sense of quest for connection of both couples, and designer Peter McKintosh has created an evocative set, with glass doors enhancing and sometimes mirroring the precarious vulnerability of all the characters, neutral removal boxes as seating, an astral void above and emptiness beyond. Written in 2012, timeless in a modern world and will probably remain my 'best drama' for 2020 right to the end of the year: it's simply superb on till 7th March, see it if you can. Images: Simon Annand.

A delightful Frome Poetry Cafe too, with Deborah Harvey and Dominic Fisher, two of the Bristol-based IsamBard poets, guesting at our spring session. 'Green Shoots & New Beginnings' was our theme, selected hopefully although in current global conditions it might have seemed sardonic. However we had a really lovely evening: as well as some even more recent work, Deborah read from her new collection The Shadow Factory and Dominic shared from Ladies and Gentlemen of the Dead. Both poets have the ability to distill the extraordinary from the commonplace, combining visceral imagery with tender memory, with form stripped down to its essence. Fourteen 'Open Mic' poets shared impressive and entertaining words too - some moving, some funny, and all much enjoyed. Here's Jo Butts, current Frome Festival Poet Laureate, reading her witty history of Saint Valentine. 

Words with music now, starting with Roots Session at the Grain Bar on Wednesday.   Jon Amor denies that he has the longest fingers in the world but it's hard to believe him: they must certainly be among the fastest strumming ones. He leads the Jon Amor Blues Group as well as performing solo with his mainly-original songs - the scorching 'Stitch in her party dress' was my ear-worm all week. A brilliant session: great rock-bluesy music and sharp lyrics.

Paul Kirtley, indefatigable organiser of local music gigs, excelled himself this week with not only a late night charity event but an afternoon acoustic session next day. The White Hart at Corsley was the venue for Saturday evening and as storm Dennis kicked off outside, the small friendly group in the bar proffered song requests and shots and turned this event into something of a party.
Next day's session in The Three Swans,  by contrast, was completely full, with most of the audience also performing. Lovely informal atmosphere and great range of styles and instruments, plus performers of every age, all crammed into the baroque-style decor of the upper room there. These three images may give some idea of the range of performers: Paul's house band (not all, just as many as fitted in to one frame) playing rock classics - probably Wagon Wheel, the Callums, (Sarah, Vin, and Annie) with Dakota by Stereophonics, and me doing some semi-scurrilous wordage of my own. (thanks David for the snap) A rich event indeed.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Tyrants, storms, poetry, drama, bees and murmurations

There's been quite a lot of everything this week, weather included, so let's start with the fun side of drama: the Merlin One Act Play writing Competition Winners Evening when the six chosen scripts were performed on stage: costumed, with set & lighting, and fully rehearsed by director & senior judge Claudia Pepler-White, on the Merlin main stage - a prize to make any writer drool if they're serious about creating plays for stage. Sadly one of the winning writers, Jonathan Skinner, was defeated by the storm from coming to see the show, but Vivian Oldaker, Clare Reddaway, Alexandra Ricou and Alison Clink were all in the audience to enjoy the applause and the discussion & feedback in the bar. From Romeo's Juliet on Jeremy Kyle to a daughter confronting her jailed child-killer mother, from thought-provoking issues like a transplant causing personality change, and life-trading in a dystopian near-future, to a role-reversal comedy and a bizarre farce, the mood zig-zagged between each short play, creating a hugely varied evening of well-performed drama. You can see more about the plays and masses of pictures on the link above.

Now to Bath, where Sophocles' Antigone, the ruler whose tyranical abuse of power destroyed everything he valued and drove those around him to despise him, is a good choice currently for dramatic production, and the Bath Theatre Academy students at The Egg last week created a strong sense of the issues and the inevitable ending of the conflict. Antigone's challenge to the tyrant about her right to bury her brother enhances the relevance, as she is responding to a more powerful law than the cruel king can comprehend.  There's not much scope for a wide range of mood in a narrative trajectory from deadlock to mass self-slaughter but Issie Sallows found dark humour in her role of the soldier. All this young team had commendable stage presence, and director/facilitator Kate Pasco encouraged them to reinvent the ancient roles and 'breathe new life' into the characters. Impressive.

And still with words: Frome Writers Collective monthly meeting on Monday featured a short talk on the Golden Egg Academy given by Abigail Kohlhoff and Nicki Marshall, both of whom contribute to the mentoring programme for children's authors, with advice relevant advice also to writers in any genre looking for professional publication. A quirky addition to the event, held as always at the Three Swans, was provided by the formal presentation to landlady Lucy Cooper by FWC member John Walton of a Remington typewriter circa 1920, to join the medley of unusual memorabilia in the upper room where we meet.
There was a spate of public writing on Saturday as Extinction Rebellion Frome collected love-thoughts to nature from passers-by to create a message of positive praise for the earth which will be published in the upcoming issue of Frome Times. I was invited to help at the final stage, and with XR's Pippa Clarke had the delicious task of compiling these heart-shaped fragments into a cascade of word-imagery, creating a moving valentine poem to our planet.

A brief mention here for the Proof Pudding Club, where Tina Gaisford-Waller, Hunting Raven Books manager & initiator of this inform-then-indulge monthly meeting, was dispensing chocolate sponge and gathering our opinions.  Overall winner in our group was The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christuana Figueres. Yuval Noah Harari - he wrote SAPIENS - calls it 'inspiring' so definitely one to go for when it's officially released on 25.2.20.

Bees now - Fifty of them, in fact, all realistically crafted from fabric by artist and textile worker Lydia Needle who became concerned at the loss of our butterflies and concluded that 'something is missing from our ecosystem' and that the bees could disappear too. Lydia, here talking to bee-keeper James Bartholomew, produced lifelike versions of each different type of bee - they have a surprising range of size and structure - and invited other artists to research and respond in their own medium. The result is FIFTY BEES, an unmissable exhibition at Black Swan Arts, which has created a real buzz (sorry) with each bee accompanied by the art work it had inspired - here's the Squat Furrow Bee, and wildlife artist Hazel Mountford's accompanying imagining of secret life in the field margins that are its habitat.

The related ekphrastic poetry group Words at the Black Swan drew 15 writers for an excellent session led Claire Crowther - some of the poems in response to the artwork will be on the group's page very soon, and the exhibition is showing in the Long Gallery until March 14th.

All of which brings us nicely back via words to performance, still on theme as Frome Poetry Cafe had invited thoughts of 'green shoots' as guests Deborah Harvey and Dominic Fisher are 'IsamBards' with an interest in poetry walks - this picture is from a piece in the Guardian about them. Deborah's visceral and visual imagination and Dominic's thoughtful, personal words proved a great combination, and 14 'open mic' readers treated us wonderful range of ideas.
There are images of all the readers here courtesy of David Goodman, who also took this pic of me enjoying listening to Jo Butts, Frome Festival Poet Laureate, on top form with her Valentine ditty.

Concluding this lively and varied week with music: Nunney Acoustic Cafe defied storm Ciara with a cram-full audience for an afternoon of classy bands, duos, and soloists. Main guests were The MellowTones, Jane Langley's new band playing songs composed by Jane herself. Also exciting, and new (to me), Quiet Man, wonderful Mountain Speaks Fire, the well-named Don't Scare Easy Tribe, Decades, and other combinations & soloists. Here's Jane's band and Mountain/Fire duo Vin Callen & Helen Robertson performing their encore, In the Pines, and a link for more pix here.

Ending with the magic of murmuration... This is the moment the swirling clouds of starlings abruptly began to drop into the reeds of Shapwick Heath wetland.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Mormons, monsters, music... and the end of an era.

It's been going for nearly ten years now, opening in Broadway collecting nine Tonys and four Olivier best-musical awards and now it's in Bristol at the Hippodrome - the outrageous, hilarious, scurrilous, high-energy musical The Book Of Mormon. Armed with row A seats (a birthday present) and appropriate treats, my theatrical co-director Rosie Finnegan & I settled down to a couple of hours of hysterical laughter at the lines, admiration at the dance moves, and general joy at the absurdity of this tale of a couple of mismatched young missionaries setting out to convince a tribe in a remote area of Uganda that the resurrected victim of a Roman crucifixion was magically revived and returned to America to found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and that the solution to their problems of poverty, AIDS, and local warfare is to be baptised. Luckily, as the Book of Mormon didn't sound very interesting to Elder Cunningham (the Billy Bunter in a chorus line of lush blond 'elders') he has spiced up the story with bits of Lord of the Rings & Star Wars, and the tribe fall in happily with his preaching, until... well, you get the gist, if you haven't seen it yet this production is showing until 22 February.

Next night's theatrical experience could not have been more of a contrast: Return to Heaven at  Frome's Merlin Theatre is a dance drama from the highly-acclaimed Mark Bruce Company, performing internationally but developed in Frome. This extraordinary performance achieves sensational production qualities, emerging from blackness into dramatic lighting, creating tension and emotion through strange creatures and symbolism as well as amazing movement and the powerful soundtrack. Mark has suggested the story is about a jungle expedition, and the programme clarifies that this journey is non-linear and open to interpretation: there's a taster of the hypnotic mood, strange symbolism and dark beauty of the performance in the trailer hereImage Nicole Guarino

A group of the audience remained at the Merlin afterwards and were joined by many others for a vigil on the ECOS stones until nearly midnight - where better to mourn the passing of our national integrity than standing within these great monoliths, each donated by the founding countries of the EU back in 1989 to create our unique amphitheatre and celebrate union with the concepts and ideals of shared identity. Chris Watson of Magic Eye videod the event, which unexpectedly hit the Guardian front page. This was my eye-view as the singing of Ode for Joy, in German, which marked the saddest moment.

We might want to stop the world and get off, but at least there's still music... a strong double-act entertained the Grain Bar Root Session audience on Wednesday as singer-songwriter Ben Hardy-Philips, performing with William Tate, followed by a set from Fly Yeti Fly. This delightful duo live on a barge in Wiltshire with a dog who goes wild at the full moon: they watch otters, and fireflies, and these & other shared glimpses of their life combine with their excellent songs and stories to enhance their performance - a great role-model for all guests, and a really lovely event.

The usual Saturday evening clash of great music in several pubs means, sadly, I can offer no report of the ever-excellent Valley at the Cornerhouse, but the HooDoos lit up the night at the Sun Inn with their quirky style, classy singing & playing, and superb audience rapport - despite cramped space and a large pillar, which explains why this image doesn't include all six brilliant band members.

Ending this bulletin with a timeless image: Roddenbury Hillfort, with sunshine splashing the thick carpet of beech leaves on Sunday. This relic from the iron age, part of the original Selwood forest, seems to have a strange quality of silence and peace.