Sunday, December 27, 2020

Nearing the end of Twin-Terrors' year

The annual preoccupation with creating a sparkling feel-good factor in the darkest days has had more than usual to contend with this year - in fact, more the average horror movie. My autumn walking routes having turned to sludge, the alternative of wet streets became a chance to enjoy all the illuminated displays: an expression of community hope and a visual delight - if you ignore the planetary damage, of course, but that's true of simply existing these days.  

Also in the real world, the big news for the week before Christmas was the sensational return of live music in Frome: Back of the Bus filling 23 Bath Street to legally-permitted capacity for an afternoon session last Sunday, with all the glitz, pizazz, and passionate punky hi-energy performance that we expect from this wonderful septet.  From their funky upbeat opening with You Gotta Have Faith to their awesome version of Hazel O'Connor's anthem Eighth Day - never more spine-chilling than this year - this performance was memorable. Huge appreciation to Lark Porter and all the team at 23 for making this happen.

No carol concerts or street singers this year, sadly, but with amazing ingenuity here's a seasonal song from Frome coordinated by Patrick Dunn: 'Carol for the Cabinet from a 'Bleak Choir' of musicians and singers. And do click on this offering from Nick Van Tinteren's Tiny Desk Concerts.

Indoors there was the winter balm of telly, and this season's big feel-good epic Strictly Come Dancing, pulling out all the stops with generous marking and a small but noisy studio audience. This series has had a massive following and deservedly-approving critiques from commentators across the spectrum ... and no-one could have looked as shocked as Bill Bailey and his partner Oti Mabuse when he was revealed as the series winner - great series, great result.  
Also on the box, a double treat from Sky Arts (triple, if you count Stephen Mangan presenting) as Portrait Artist of the Year final night not only gave us Eddie Izzard looking splendid in a frock, but also followed the progress of the contest's overall winner,  Curtis Holderas he created his commissioned portrait of Carlos Acosta, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet. This is now hanging in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, but just as exquisite is this portrait of the artist's partner, which confirmed the judges' final choice.  
A homebound Christmas left most of us tuning to the tele, rummaging among the repeats & reruns for personal gems: among mine were Greasenow 42 years old but still appealing despite its 'teenage' cast all clearly in their 20s & 30s, and a feisty version of Pride & Prejudice with some emotional scenes shot in Stourhead.

Ending this final post from a year of twin terrors with a poem, which was going to be TS Eliot's soliloquy from one of the Magi, but though beautiful it is very melancholy, so instead here's Kahlil Gibran reflecting on love in The Prophet
    Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.
     But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
     To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
     To know the pain of too much tenderness.
     To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
     And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
     To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
     To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
     To return home at eventide with gratitude;
     And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Wicked spells, beasts, ghosts, and all things festive!

Opening again with drama! Enterprising performances  despite these stop'n'start lockdowns and the catastrophic effect on theatres, starting with a live production at Frome's Merlin: Bea and the Winter Winds, whipped up by Black Hound Productions in a short space of time and despite cast changes, is a delightful folk-tale-inspired story of the triumph of good over evil as a brave girl sets off to break the spell of constant winter so the community feast can be held once more...
So, with their land withering in the thrall of Jack Frost (Pete White), young Bea (Anabella Fairgrieve) sets off to find the the imprisoned ‘good fairy’ (Amy Morgan-Bell). Of course she has helpers: a greedy squirrel and an narcoleptic mouse (Patrick Withey and Tiffany Rhodes) who intermittently steal the show with their entertaining comedy. And of course, they succeed in their quest. Patrick Withey and Ben Hardy-Phillips devised the storyline, Patrick writing the script and Ben creating the songs: the musicality is delightful throughout, as Bea has a fabulous singing voice and her guitarist brother is played by Ben, a popular local performer. Visually, it’s enchanting: the set design by Patrick is superb, featuring a semi-realistic tree and fantastic snow-swirls on the stage, which William Holmes’ lighting design plays on exquisitely, changing illumination on the branches and creating snow crystals on the imaginary drifts.  Evocative of memories for older viewers, exciting and comforting for younger viewers, entertaining for everyone, Bea and the Winter Winds is a huge success for the company and for the Merlin Theatre.  (As a footnote, Nevertheless Pub Theatre followers will remember Tiff as a Jane Austen heroine in Time Slides, our 2016 Frome Festival production... So good to see young performers continuing in the profession despite all problems.)
Beauty and the Beast from Living Spit onstage at Bristol Old Vic was about to open when Bristol moved into Tier 3 and tickets for the show were transferred from live to streamed audience. (For anyone confused by the image above, beauty is the one on the right.) Stu Mcloughlin and Howard Coggins seen live have a wonderful and chaotically distinctive duo-persona that doesn't totally transfer to screen. Perhaps we're used to comedians with the kind of subtle self-awareness of The Richardsons on our TVs, or perhaps a stage feels less magical when filmed close-up, but it's not until after a monologue introduction, a clunky role-changing first act, and a quiz, that this became really entertaining.  And when it's good, it's very good. 
Filmic tricks help - as in this screen shot - but more importantly the script begins to make life connections. 'I wanted someone else to know how I feel...' whines the beast in defence of his imprisonment of Belle. 'You have no idea how it feels to be this beautiful,' she counters, 'To know everyone wants me, whatever room I walk in...'  The absurdity in this case doesn't make this concept less thought-provoking, and when Stu sings his melancholy song about Stockholm Syndrome ('It's not going to happen to me...') another huge social issue is covertly identified. This unexpected depth in the story interpretation increases the interest immensely, and the bursts of filmic trickery do too... Make what you will of the ending - in which Beauty can accept her partner as only by pretending he's still a beast - there's some great comedy and provocative opinion in the mix somewhere, but served only in thin slices.

And now another churlish individual redeemed: Artsreach, the Dorset-based organisation bringing performance to rural areas in the southwest, is promoting a one-man version of of that classic Dickens tale A Christmas Carol on Youtube, as narrated by David Mynne. David was a co-founder of Kneehigh, so it's not surprising this is a more-than competent adaptation, gripping from the start. With minimum props - a couple of scarves and atmospheric lighting - David evokes all the extreme drama of the action and morphs convincingly through a wide cast of characters. Purists might complain that the ending is slightly altered, but it's a tour de force of narration, and never fails to grip.

 Pound Arts Open 2020 has transferred the 12th Annual Visual Art Exhibition to Flickr, so if you can't get to this gallery in Wiltshire, you can see the 60 wonderful artworks here. This is Wilderness at Benham: apologies to artist John L Harris if my screenshot doesn't do justice to the colour tone or brushstrokes, but you can see it's very atmospheric. The exhibition can be viewed till 23 January.

And finally, music... Sadly the session planned for Saturday's Frome Market was cancelled, but musicians are resilient and many gems have been posted online - you probably have your own favourite groups to follow - Open Micsolate & Postmodern Jukebox are two of mine - but if you haven't already, do click and enjoy Patrick Dunn's Gaudete.  A Tier-2 Triumph.  

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Drama's back! Controversy, murder, mirth... and more.

The dramatic event of this week was for me was review tickets for a theatre show again, after nine months' abstinence. Theatre Royal Bath had proudly announced its 'Welcome Back' season after the first lockdown, only to be closed down again before the second of their trilogy could make the stage. Oleanna is the now showing and -fingers crossed- will continue until 6th January at the Ustinov studio, with exemplary safety & sanitation provisions. First produced in 1992, David Mamet’s controversial play is about a dedicated professor whose attempt to inspire confidence in a panicky student is maliciously reinterpreted by a posse of ferocious neo-fascist feminists - or possibly a play about a complacent professor whose attempt to dominate a vulnerable student is thwarted by female solidarity... 
Jonathan Slinger as the maverick professor is superb, totally credible whether prickling with frustration on the phone or calmly confident of his offbeat educative skills. As the ambivalent student, Rosie Sheehy has a baffled belligerence that might well  appeal as a challenge to a dedicated teacher. Directed by Lucy Bailey, with a set by Alex Eales which ironically evokes Educating Rita in its scholarly intimacy even as this becomes increasingly at variance with the action.  Oleanna was iniitally seen as an important breakthrough in acknowledging an elephant in the room of sexism: thirty years on there seem to be other questions: The tutor advocates challenging the system, but is avid for personal advancement within the status quo. He may not a sexual predator, but he's certainly a hypocrite. images Nobby Clark

And now to Frome's Merlin Theatre for a dramatic contrast: As part of the Signal Fires project to revive small theatre companies in these difficult times,  
New Old Friends touring company 'producing engaging, accessible, shows that make people laugh' brought their current show Crimes Against Christmas to the amphitheatre stage on Thursday, and a resilient cast of three persisted in entertaining their entranced audience huddled- in a socially distanced manner - on the stones with mulled wine, by recounting a complex Agatha-Christie stylee saga, in complexity and unlikeliness of a multiple murders to coincide with the story of the twelve days of Christmas. As with all such sagas, it's the deftness, and deliberate undeftness, of the multi-tasking characters that provides the entertainment. 

And finally in this disparate trio, Wardrobe Theatre hosted 'the world's first interactive pantomime (possibly)' when Streaming Beauty zoomed out on Saturday night. As with all pantos, even the most salacious, the focus was flamboyant entertainment and the storyline was of scant interest. Technically, this was ambitious and amazingly successful, with Tinkerbell the technician creating subgroups in the audience to interact with the cast as Beauty struggled to sever her contract with evil Hymen Bowel. A cameo appearance by Blaise Castle to encourage us to co-create a dreamcatcher to break the spell gives some idea of the inventive absurdity. Zoomers from Bristol who know each other, and probably know the cast too, will have enjoyed it most but it's great to see innovative approaches to interactive drama in these drab days.

Also in a seasonally festive vein,  Black Swan Arts held a pop-up market of  collectables and giftables in the courtyard, cafe and Round Tower.  The 'Small and Affordable' display of delights included jewellery, ceramics, woodwork items, prints and original artworks, and more, including salted caramel brownies in the cafe.  Here's artist David Davis with one of his stunning local views.  

Still local-ish, Heart of the Tribe has an exhibition in Glastonbury, enterprisingly creating an online gallery tour, showing until January.
Ending with poetry, and a short video of six poets responding to a sculpture in Mid Wales Arts Centre. Steve Pottinger and Emma Purshouse were among this group and, as both poets have performed in Frome to great acclaim, even though they're based in the Black Country this film earns its link. Here's a couple of screen-saved snaps to show the quality of the film: this kind of project might appeal to local poets too - Millennium Green, maybe? 


Saturday, December 05, 2020

And the answer is Schrödinger’s cat...

 After this blog's grumpy inertia last week,  here's a new concept: our 'Surge Capacity' - the natural energy mankind brings to a crisis - is only designed for short bursts like a tornado which is why, after eleven months, we are inevitably depleted and in need of other strategies to cope. One is to understand the 'ambiguous loss' of our previous lives in terms of a bereavement, but there's a 'both gone and not gone' way of looking it too: just as despair & hope are coexisting, so can lethargy and activity.

With which positive thought I booked a free online talk offered by the National Gallery: 'Every Society Needs a Scapegoat', using Holman Hunt's famous painting as a focus. Christina Bradstreet, introducing, talked about the artist, possibly the most puritanical of the PreRaphaelites: for him the scapegoat seems to share a sacrificial persona with Christ, though with no choice or redemption. Disappointingly Katharine Quarmby's following talk cast no light on the social role of a scapegoat as she used it as showcase for her books on abused minority groups like gypsies, rather than discussing the fascinating question of why all communities seem to need these 'sin-eaters'.

Also online, there's an hour-long Royal Academy Summer Exhibition virtual tour through their closed galleries, though you can move through more speedily. And if you're thinking of arty or crafty gifts for family or friends, do check into the Shop Frome This Christmas facebook page and be amazed by the range of creative local artists. 

'Angry' Sam Berkson came to Frome as our Poetry Cafe Festival Guest five years ago, which why, mainly, I booked to attend the zoom Hammer & Tongue Annual Slam on Tuesday.  Sam's poems are succinct and powerful, delivered with the impact of an orator but immaculately crafted: his opening piece, written in March, was a tirade on 'this virus that is drowning.. choking.. guttering.. our planet', an elegant and apt evocation of Wilfred Owen's poem about mustard gas in the first war.  He moved on to a more positive view: that our new awareness of human fragility may have triggered, finally, the long overdue social reappraisal expressed in the 'Black Lives Matter'. Other powerful poems, both political and personal completed this brilliant set. 
The '2020-themed Slam' that followed gave us eight strong voices, judged in the traditional way by selected -audience response, with a well-deserved (i.m.h.o) victory going to 'Almalia the Alkemist,' who echoed Sam's theme in her spoken word piece asserting that, more important than Covid, In 2020 a black man died.  Here's Almalia looking happy when the audience scores were all totalled and she came out top. 
Thursday's zoom-Poetry event was very different, with none of Hackney's friendly, slightly chaotic, conviviality. Burning Eye Books' hosting of Elvis McGonagall's new book Complete & Utter Cult! was a stern affair: audience members were silenced and blacked out on arrival, so there was no sense of shared enjoyment, which seemed odd & a bit sad for the launch of a poet so witty and provocative.
Elvis last came to Frome three years ago for a special session in the Granary, startling the bar staff by absolutely packing the place out, and it's a source of quiet pleasure to me as a big fan of his work that Burning Eye posted our cover images together in their compilation collection The Best SLAM / STAND-UP / PERFORMANCE / SPOKEN WORD Poetry Book in the World.  Elvis is still terse, tartan, and potty-mouthed. Brexit and lockdown were both grist for his mill of scurrilousness and savagery, providing a banquet of derision in parody clich
és: Get it done! with gin-soaked spirits and quiet despair, rise with pride like a Victoria sponge, living a dream as the Benny Hill theme plays on and on and on and on... His support team were excellent too: Erin Bolens with the comforting thought that Christmas is just another day - if you don't like it, that's ok,  Jonny Fluffypunk,  and Luke Wright excellent as always whether 'embracing the wank' or remembering his father's skeleton clocks. 

Still with books, the Frome FM on-air book group festive edition is now posted here, with gift recommendations from me as well as from Tina Gaisford-Waller, warrior-queen in the bookshop world who this weekend transferred much of the stock of Frome's amazing emporium Hunting Raven Books to the Silk Mill to give buyers more browsing space. The range of authors is incredible: from quirky stick-it-in-the-air-B&B-room titles to massively important tomes like The Book of Trespass, from Peppa Pig to Gareth Southgate, there's genuinely a gift for everyone in your life here, and lots to put on your own booklist.  This pop-up book-fest will be back at the Silk Mill for the 18th-20th weekend for your late buys, and the store will be having some late-evening openings too.