Sunday, December 26, 2021

Winter dramas, walks, and a rapid retrospective

Once again the high season for family theatre has been spiked by anxiety about indoor gatherings, for all but our political leaders anyway, so a production of Hansel & Gretel in Bristol couldn't be more timely.  'Stories you know in places you don't' is this company's tagline, and for most of us, Arnos Vale Cemetery is certainly an unusual venue to stage a fairytale. At night - we arrived when this woodland gravesite was already in darkness - this extensive garden cemetery is quite something: Inspired by Parisian cemeteries and aiming to emulate Greek architecture, this extraordinary park for the dead was opened at the start of Victoria's reign and is now filled with a gravestones, towering pillars, and massive monuments like a ghost city - the perfect place for one of Grimm's terrible tales of unhappy children and wicked witches...  
Insane Root's version, taking small groups at a time on an hour's tour of both the tale and the woodland, had a wonderful energy that was accessible but still lyrical and fantastic: the journey through dark paths led separately by both children (we were in Hansel's group, he was brilliant) was the unforgettable highlight of a magical show. We were asked not to take photos, so these are downloaded, they don't convey the magic. Book by January 1st, it's like nothing else you'll see this year.

With online productions the only other theatrical option in times of plague, those clever Sharp Teeth people came up with another solve-it-at-home murder mystery: Sherlock Holmes III - Murder at the Games. It's a fully audience-participation created drama, with the script created by our detecting interrogations as inspired by plot prompts and steered by six artistically presented 'case files' which some of the audience in my 'discussion room' had clearly studied shrewdly. Personally I was just in awe of their slick expertise in people skills as well as dramatic intrigue. The final reveal is satisfyingly in line with classic whodunnit plotting & immorality, and the eight performers are all delightfully kitsch.  Joinable until 8 January - great fun.

So the big 3 days have trundled by, and I hope they were good for you: here's my favourite picture from today - sunny Roddenbury Hill on a family Boxing Day walk.
This beech-covered hillside is extraordinary in that it dramatically shows the contours of its history as an Iron-age fort, with several of the protective banks clearly in residual evidence. It's also just a beautiful place to roam in all seasons.

So as this is my official End Of Year post, even though we're not yet at the official start of 2022, here's some wind-up moments and personal awards. With Zoom-widened audiences, it's been a great year for performance of both drama and poetry, with impressive online initiatives early in the year as well as great live shows later on. My top pick of the former is Wardrobe's The Great Gatsby, for the latter,  in a hot contest it's Wuthering Heights, bursting onto Bristol Old Vic's stage in November. 
 Also in terms of live performance, massive credit to Martin Dimery and the team for a triumphant return of Frome Festival with a programme brimming with glittering highlights - especially the music sessions organised by Dave Smith, and the performances on the Merlin's ECOS amphitheatre: The Tempest from Folksy Theatre was my favourite, after - of course - the Poetry Cafe, an amazing finale to my 21 years of promoting spoken word in Frome, though this won't cause the finale of that genre. The HOT Poets  initiative has recently produced some impressive ecological poems, and the return of live bands to local venues brought special joy: Bar Lotte deserves a special mention for fabulous Wednesday night jazz sessions, but the Raggedy Men - post-punk punks - at The Sun in November stand out as unforgettable.

There have been several superb exhibitions of art, craft, and photography in Frome: September's display of responses to the pandemic curated by Active & In Touch was inspiring but my personal pick has to be David Moss at the Silk Mill, because this gave me the cover picture for my August publication of Deja Lu. with Hobnob Press. And credit goes also to writer Claire Reddaway who kept our spirits up with her Kilter Theatre collaboration of readings in Storyopathy, which encouraged me to compile this collection.   
This year was the first time for me in over 25 years with no trip abroad (these were mostly working trips, btw, leading writing courses) - but an away-weekend to Wales in May was a highlight - here's the impressive Dolgoch Falls, highlight of a camping trip to Tywyn. 

So after a quick flip through some of the highlights that illuminated my 2021 like that wonderful lantern parade in Frome, here's with a memory of that night: created by Frome people under guidance of Frome artists with support from Frome Town Council and our internationally-famous punk Mayor Andy...  I hope your own reflections on the year we're leaving have been - mostly - happy too.  

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Decisions and revisions which a ruling will reverse...

Sadly but inevitably, Nunney Acoustic Café - a major music venue just outside Frome -  cancelled their Christmas party this weekend, planned as a 2-day event to celebrate the ending of those months of disappointing restrictions.  Luckily however, although Stalbridge is a bit further away - in fact, over the border in Dorset - in this delightful
 little village the Guggleton Farm Arts centre has an outdoor concert-hall (ie large yard) with a covered stage. Here on Friday night, eight brilliant acts played and sang under the stars to an appreciative audience, sustained by a bar and fresh-made pizzas, until nearly midnight. Performers included Frome favourites The MellowTones (pictured) and Nunney's Francis Hayden, as well as six other solo acts, a mix of covers and original compositions. 
Of the former, I especially enjoyed the set from Nick Coleman which included a fabulously evocative version of Radiohead's Creep... A really wonderful party-night event, despite the cold. We may need more outdoor events like this as the weeks crawl past on their relentless way.
Meanwhile, Rosco Shakes at Bar Elle on Wednesday will probably be the last indoor gig of the year for me -  a brilliant finale, though, as the lads never fail to deliver fantastic rhythm&bluesy jazz. 

Words now, with the Frome Writers on Radio festive edition now available online from Frome FM: the opening interview with Tina Gaysford-Waller (at 4.45) on her recommendations features local authors published by Hobnob, including poetry from Pete Gage and David Thompson - and her 'high recommendation' of Deja Lu as a 'fantastic collection, the attention to detail is fabulous' had me purring. There's also an excellent interview with John Killah, seen here signing copies of his wild-fire success Struck Off outside Hunting Raven Bookshop. image: John Chandler

On Monday the Black Swan Arts writing group met in the Long Gallery, and with no art (yet) about which to wax lyrical, our leader Sara Morris enterprisingly encouraged us all to write limericks. Here's one from David Thompson:  
The Tory top brass in South Ken
Don't live all that far from Big Ben.
If they want to get canned
While parties are banned,
They drop by refurbed Number 10.

The last Rainbow Fish Speakeasy 
of the year was on Thursday: these zoomed poetry performance nights hosted by Frome's Liv Tork are inclusive and friendly open mic sessions with a main guest - this time Matt Harvey with a marvellous poem about whales from the recent Hot Poets project - you can click here to hear Matt recreating his wonderful description of the opulent flocculent fecal plumes of whale poo... There was a very different but also thought-provoking contribution too from Frome's David Thompson also on the theme of global awareness and human domination of earth and its creatures.
Also this week, a reminiscence meeting for my first ever local writing group, now in its 20s: the Fromesbury Set had a wonderfully refreshing catchup over wine spritzers at the Archangel in Frome. Our official photographer, Debs, took this selfie snap. Thursday's ongoing weekly writing group involved much sharing & analysis and a fair bit of feasting too (cranberry mince-pies a feature!) with that tang of this-may-be-the-last-time which is in the ether everywhere now... 
And my week concluded with a festive splash of theatre, as Bristol Old Vic has made their 2019 production of A Christmas Carol  free to view online for the rest of December - which, if you consider what other big theatres charge for their screenings, is a rather wonderful present to all their followers.
My blog review at the time enthused about every aspect of this immersive production which, despite the vast number of liberties taken with characters and dialogue, nevertheless stays powerfully true to the spirit of the story: the damage to community caused by money-hoarding and the indifference to others' suffering shown by the wealthy. John Hopkins in the central role of Scrooge is superb throughout, from rage to reconciliations, with a nice line in repartee during audience participation bits. 
Also delightful is the device to bring a child from the audience to remind Ebenezer of the vulnerable child he once was... here's a couple of screen shots to show the range of visuals. Recommended, click the link above!
So as this is my last bulletin before the traditional day of winter celebrations on our small island, I'll leave you with the wonderful musings of J Alfred Prufrock, by courtesy of TS Eliot: click here and enjoy the luxury of mere melancholy, which is something there's little place for in these times.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Drama in the wild: two forests, and a riverbank.

Most of my favourite stories throughout childhood involved small children made unhappy by rejection - The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and other such classics, all involving ultimate vindication and social acclaim. Bristol Old Vic has found a way to fit a tale of reckless robbers into this satisfying mould with Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest, stirring into their novel mixture various fairytale memes and popular songs, to the delight of both children and adults in the audience. When young JJ (played by the most mature member of the cast incidentally) is given a magic book to comfort him, he finds his way into the most unusual version of the traditional story imaginable... and of course, becomes a hero. This festive offering has been devised by the Wardrobe Ensemble so narrative anarchy is guaranteed, though channelling Bryan Adams was a surprise. And there are masses of oblique references to other whacky tales and memorable absurdities - Alice's Wonderland, The Blues Brothers wild quest, BlackAdder, Peter Pan, Boris... in other words, plenty for the adult children in the audience to pick up on and relish. 
 My favourite characters were yuppy Will Scarlet (Tom England) and the very very very wicked Sheriff of Nottingham (James Newton, who was the boxer's girlfriend in The Rocky Horror Show at the Wardrobe Theatre last time I saw him.)  There's a message of hope though, as Robin finally decides "The days of greed are over," and abandons his trip to the Costa Sol to stay and to "fight for an England that is fair, to make our children proud."  Wouldn't that be nice.  Directed by Tom Brennan and Helena Middleton, full cast & credits here, Images are screenshots of the promo.

A dramatic move next night from fantasy forest to rural riverside, for Frome's Merlin Theatre's musical version of Kenneth Graham's famous classic The Wind in the Willows. With three -football-teams-worth of interacting animals, singing/dancing woodland creatures, and a live band, the slick & professional-looking delivery of this production was a tribute to everyone involved, especially director Claudia Pepler. Credit for costumes must go to the 17 dedicated hat/glove/tail and ear constructors: all were delightful with road-hog Toad, resplendent in an amazing pond-weed-colour costume with hair to match, absolutely standout. Huge credit to the dedication and talent of this team.

From theatrical forests and woodlands to the real thing: a visit with my family to Westonbirt Arboretum to wander the paths of the illuminated trees, with occasional interruptions for mulled wine or churros and chocolate...  A balmy evening - and the limited group-number ensured by the organisers - ensured a really lovely experience.

No music to report in this week's edition, as all these theatricals & visuals clashed with Wednesday's jazz and also with Saturday night's double-band bonanza in Frome. But I was back in town by Sunday evening for the final Proof Pudding Club meeting of the year. This reading-group-with-a-difference, conceived and led by Hunting Raven Bookshop manager Tina Gaysford-Waller, reports over coffee & cake in River House Cafe on the proof copies arriving in the shop each month - this time we had mulled wine & mince pies in honour of the season, and a Secret Santa book gift for everyone. Here's Tina's pic of some of the gift-pile as I forgot to take a snap, and to finish this week's bulletin, a look back at Monday night in the Hydeaway, Frome's fabulous 'speakeasy' - cocktails in a converted print shop with fellow writer Nikki Lloyd.


Sunday, December 05, 2021

It starts earlier each year... a blogful of festive goodies...

Even in a week crammed with sparkly-season specials, Wednesday evening at Bar Lotte is always a highlight: this week the fabulous Rosco Shakes gave us jazzy blues with great bass from Josh, Ned's amazing drum/vocals combo, Tim sensational on keyboard and Steve on 'sax that gets you eating your knuckles', to quote my companion... unsurprisingly there was dancing before the evening was over. 
And live music ushered in a weekend of festive art markets - here's The Decades at Black Swan Arts' brilliant Makers Market on Friday night, with masses of brilliant craft stalls & a late night cafe too. 
How nice to have a funky festive market crammed with works by local artists, you may think - but this is Frome: in the same weekend we also enjoyed an amazing art fair at the Silk Mill, Midwinter Joyant in Keyford, a Christmas Gift Market at the Cheese & Grain, and a Makers Market in Lower Keyford with mulled wine under tiny glittering lights... and then it was Sunday, time for our nationally acclaimed Frome Independent - market, that is - selling absolutely everything edible, drinkable, wearable, displayable, and above all giveable... if you didn't solve all your present problems there then either you weren't trying or you found too much you wanted to keep yourself.
As there were far too many intriguing & beautiful items to decide which images to include here, this pic is from outside Hunting Raven Books, where Julian Hight was selling his fantastic books of trees around the world.  Which also leads me nicely on to the most unusual book launch I've ever attended: Frome legend Tony Bennett (we have a lot of local legends, you may have noticed) selling his illustrated life story at the Sun Inn, with queues extending outside the door to grab a signed copy of life as fully lived by this truly iconic Fromie - notorious as an award-winning florist as well as for leaping from a blazing bedroom after a bedtime cigarette set his house on fire. Here's Tony signing my copy of He Can When He Will - and he remembered my name. Now that IS fame.

And speaking of Frome's quirky creatives, we also have our own festive Dismaland-alike: Santa's Grotty, the inspired creation of artist and political satirist Kate Talbot, a grim experience of phoney good cheer amid dangling covid microbes, which is entered via Kate's notorious shop Hung Drawn Quoted.  Here's a glimpse of one of the exhibits, though sadly I'm not allowed to give away any of the outrageous lifesize caricatures...  The £5 entry price goes to Fair Frome.
Still with a festive focus, but more cheery and moving out of town now:   
I've been a devotee (which is the posh word for besotted fan) of Stephen Mangan since Episodes, in my view one of the cleverest TV comedy series ever - and he's now taking the lead role in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic so, since the window for safe travel before winter may soon narrow, this week seemed a good opportunity to scoot up to London and see it.  I haven't visited this venue since leaving London in my late teens - previously I went regularly with my father, dramatic critic HG Matthews, or else on my own, paying 2/- 'on spec' at the door for any seat still available - so it wasn't surprising to find the theatre much changed. Matthew Warchus, the current artistic director, has aimed for an atmosphere audiences will find "accessible, inclusive, and informal", which turns out to mean with friendly attentive staff, lots of loos, and - for this production anyway - a free mincepie on arrival. 
The performance area of my memory,  where I watched a young Judy Dench throwing a tantrum in Franco Zefferelli's unforgettable production of Romeo & Juliet, is now part of the auditorium, and actors used a kind of central corridor between the aisles to perform their high-energy, immersive version of Charles Dickens' tale of a skinflint visited by 'ghosts' that bring remorse and radical life change. 
A Christmas Carol has become as deeply identified with seasonal celebrations as carols themselves - there are 12 in this show - and this is the fifth winter that the Vic has featured this production.  Programme notes identify 'rage, determination and a fiery compassion' as Dickens' motivations, and these would have been inspired in part by his own painful childhood. This Scrooge is never too afraid of the ghosts to argue, but he is moved to tears by his memories. The nightmare aspects of the tale are vivid, but it's a feel-good show too, with a running thread of love and the possibility of new hope,
enhanced by the hundreds of tiny lanterns dangling above the storytelling, and the visual surprises.

Ending with exciting news - for me, anyway, and for my erstwhile 'Live & Lippy' performance-poetry partner Hazel Stewart, now living in Cumbria. We revived our lyrical connection during lockdown via zoom, and put together a package of old & new pieces which, to our delight, has now been taken by Caldew Press - here's editor Phil Hewitson zoom-chatting about options, and showing us his upcoming publication of John Hegley's poems about Keats.  So, in this illustrious company, our double-album-on-page of performance poetry pieces What's it Like for You? and Dance for Those Who'd Rather Not will be out early next year! 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

A week of dazzling night-lights & sizzling performance

Storm Arwen (the Welsh name means 'fair' which seems  ironic) gave an early fluttering here on Friday causing cancellation of the 'Little Night Market' which should have launched Frome town festive celebrations but the Lantern Procession went ahead, to the excitement of the huge crowd watching Jamma de Sa
mba lead hundreds of lantern bearers down the hill to the town centre where mayor Andy did the tree-lights-switch-on. This parade is really something: Frome artists Mel Day and Alice Vaas for the last five years have been leading workshops for anyone wanting to join in, providing willow wands and  tissues as well as instruction, and results this year were especially stunning, with magical moonflowers and other clever constructions like owls, and a dazzling green frog.
Still in Frome next night, this time with two Olympians of poetry, Liv Torc and Elvis McGonagall.  Fromie Liv features often in this blog; Elvis has performed in Frome in the past, but my role as Spoken Word Co-ordinator at the theatre was on plague-pause until we heard he was booked for a southwest tour - although ironically the other venues weren't able to deliver so Frome was the sole beneficiary - all of which moithering leads to the happy outcome that on Saturday a big & beaming audience in the Merlin Theatre was brilliantly entertained by an award-winning shouty Scottish poet, with a local legend as support act - honestly, you couldn't want a better night than that could you.
Liv established massive rapport from the start and delivered a mix of very personal poems and powerful eco-poetry: as one of the Hot Poets, she delivered her remarkable poem When You Know The Water's Coming at COP26 and her terrific collection The Human Emergency is available from Burning Eye.  
Elvis has published a new collection with Burning Eye too: that link in this case takes you to Complete and Utter Cult, which contains many of the vehement & hilarious political diatribes with which he entertained his audience: you'll find his exasperated satire on emotive reporting Gimme Some Truthiness, his savagely funny 'trip through the sunny uplands of British exceptionalism' What a State and - my favourite -The Immigration Alphabet, in which “P is for Priti Patel, turning back boats like a psychotic King Canute.”  Both these poets have big personalities and amazing delivery, so it's unsurprising there were queues after the show to buy signed copies - at under a tenner, both books should be on your Christmas lists both to give & receive!

So now we've acknowledged that the C word will have to be uttered quite a few times before this time next month,  it's panto time:
Little Women in Black,
 billed as 'a brand new darkly comic Christmas show from The Wardrobewas my choice for a festive drama this winter as I'm a big fan of this anarchic Bristol pub theatre. - it's so niche and locally popular that promotion is minimal, and this image is the only one available of their 'parody mashup' of Louisa May Alcott's tale of dull lives in 19th Century Massachusetts. This "anarchic, sexy, adult-only devised comedy with little women, big guns, scary aliens and a sweet 1990s soundtrack" presents the March sisters as you've never imagined them... Pretty Amy, a wannabe Britney with a passion for pink, is probably the most like her fictional inspiration; her sisters however are sassy sky-roaming galaxy guardians apart from massive Beth, who doubles as Laurie, and he's an alien, but a great singer.  It's all fast-moving and incredibly funny, and the audience rapport is phenomenal - you feel like you've crashed a private party at times, and the four actors - Jenny Smith, Tesni Kujore, Jessikah Wilson, and Tom Fletcher, are brilliant.  Directed by Julia Head, showing until 16th January. 

There's no getting away from the approaching rituals now that the tree lights are on in the centre of town and decorations dangle in all the shops. Frome FM's friendly On Air Book Group once again invited me and Tina Gaisford-Waller, manager of Hunting Raven Bookshop, to join them at the recording of their festive edition edition. Sheila Hedges and Karen Stewart focussed on fiction, I went for non-fiction* and poetry, and Tina  gave us a whistle-stop tour of her hot tips in every genre.  
Here's Karen, Tina, me and Sheila enjoying this delightful hour of chat, recorded by James Ellis and enhanced by mulled wine, mince pies, and general booky chatter: the show goes on air on 3rd Dec at 2pm, and the link will stay live for later listening.   (* apart, obviously, from commending my own collection of short stories, Déjà Lu - perfect stocking filler or small gift, available from Hobnob Press, Hunting Raven or me!) 
And also on Frome FM radio, Eleanor Talbot's ever-intriguing podcast Variations on a Theme  this week puts a focus on fashion.  As always, the playlist is wildly eclectic and the scope is entertainingly broad, ranging from Bowie and Dylan to Madness and The Irish Rovers: we learn the history of the top hat, or 'beaver', and of the kilt, and various fads & extreme styles of apparel, and I'm using this as an excuse to post a picture of Aiden Turner in a pre-Raphaelite style waistcoat.

Still with audial entertainment this week, but a shift of mood back to climatic and ecological concerns: Last Friday's art openings caused me to miss the viewing at the Town Hall of Rivercide,  George Mombiot's film about our river crisis, but you can hear about this - and other crucial situations, on Frome FM here 
Annabelle Macfadyen was one of the protesting 'Blackbirds' at COP26: interviewed by Rupert Kirkham about her rationale, she explains  "The blackbirds in Druidic mythology stand at the gateway between the world of concrete reality and the dream world, the unconscious, and if we can open up to the possibility...  the changes we need can be made.
This programme is well worth a full listen for the discussion, and for Al O'Kane's performing two of my absolute favourites of his songs: Losing It and Animals.  Pic snatched from Frome FM's post, thanks.    (Oh, and the strange looking game is Prometheus, invented by Frome's Christopher Curtis and now a hot favourite as a Christmas gift.)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Vibrant art & music as autumn starts to fade

It's been a vivid week for visuals: Frome's town centre, already a half-way to a Dickensian Christmas filmset with its cobbles and overhangs, is beginning to sparkle in anticipation of solstice celebrations, and a brilliant exhibition at Black Swan Round Tower gallery is reminding us how art makes a great gift... not just paintings here but wonderful ceramics and garments. Friday night's opening of Together Again, an exhibition by Old Bakery Artists was crammed with superb work, all very well displayed, and with many of the artists themselves present. Cleverly curated to show all the work to advantage despite the sometimes-tricky circular space, this was full of vivid colour and varied textures - Here's surrealist painter Caroline Walsh-Waring with some of her work, and a young visitor admiring the knitted fertility deities on display. 

Another opening on the same night at the WHY gallery displayed some of the immaculate and extraordinary engravings by Chris Pig, who I met outside discussing his work with some of his fans.  His exhibition, Fancy Goods, wasn't so easy to photograph in situ, but you can see one of these impressive works here - an immaculate and tender glimpse of a moment in time in a barbers' shop.

Music has been impactful too, with jazz, funk, and 'twisted blues and religious fervour' enlivening the gathering gloom of late November.  Rosco Shakes brought their upbeat jazz style to Bar Lotte on Wednesday, this time with a different line-up: Steve on sax, Josh on bass, Ned on drums and vocals and guitarist Paul who scan wing his guitar over his head and plays it on his back... whoever said jazz musicians are snobs?
And on Saturday, 23 Bath Street opened its stage for a fundraiser for Fair Frome, an independent community service providing support for the most vulnerable in our community, for whatever reason. This charity is based at the Town Hall and provides a wide range of vital services, especially in the winter.  Two popular local bands played live: Unit 4, a newish funk quartet fielding vocalist Mark with David on guitar, Danny on bass & Pat on drums.  The Back Wood Redeemers followed, with their six-piece band giving a theatrical performance of their of gospel/rock favourites. Dancing ensued, some of it on stage.

Finally: the changing colours of leaves seemed even more vibrant than usual this year but the strong winds brought masses of them down creating rich carpets on our pavements but stripping trees naked. It looked like maybe a little too late for my walk from Heavens Gate to Shearwater on Sunday, but by the lake the trees were still russet and gold: here's my favourite shot.