Sunday, June 27, 2021

Midsummer edition: drama, music, art, and a glorious garden

Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris hosted a webinar on Wednesday to launch the theatre's upcoming season - that's Autumn/Winter, grim thought - and to discuss how the team had coped with the last 18 months of cancelled income and lost shows. Remarkably well, it appears. Aside from the inevitable hardships, Tom's team used the time to affirm creative priorities, accelerate essential change, and devise wide-reaching ways of audience connection that the theatre will maintain, in tandem with live contact, when the pandemic is over.  Their 'engagement programme' throughout the city, currently responding Black Lives Matter, will continue, and the success of Touching the Void enhanced online has encouraged the team to think of adding an online option to other shows.  So the following night I was able to watch from home their current production, Outlier, developed from 2020's Ferment Fortnight and co-produced with performance poet Malaika Kegode and brilliant fusion band Jakabol supporting throughout as she narrates her coming-of-age story based on her teenage years in Devon. It doesn't have the ferocity or raw humour of Trainspotting, but it does have poignant credibility, enhanced by Malaika's confident and connective stage persona and supported by lighting graphics in a party atmosphere: sad as well as wild, this is one the exciting new projects outlined in the season launch.

Back now to Frome, for an extraordinarily vibrant art exhibition at the Silk Mill, where David Moss has managed what few solo exhibitors could do: he has filled virtually every inch of this massive hall with huge canvasses, all brimming with vivid colour.  The opening was on Thursday night, and these stunning canvases will be showing throughout next week.

Also highly recommended - but you'll have to wait till the 'Hidden Gardens' event in Frome Festival -  is the superb 'secret garden' in Critchill. I was introduced to this amazing place by Eleanor Talbot, whose Variations on a Theme radio show this week explores its nooks & crannies and discusses gardening and garden design. It's hard to choose a single image to convey the amazing range & display of colour and foliage created by the inspiring couple who have created this garden, but this one, from the far end, may give some impression of the care taken in design, and the vista beyond. And that wild flower area on the left will have burst into bloom by then.

Concluding now with a flurry of music: The Bookshop Band, a talented duo who create songs about books, have throughout lockdown been entertaining online, holding their final concert on Friday. They've crept into this blog before, as their concept originated in Mr B's Emporium in Bath, and Ben & Beth often return from their home in Scotland to perform live - hopefully, one day in Frome.. Here's one of the songs they played: In a shop with books in -which works just as  well with Beth singing.

And on sunny Saturday, Frome's popular busker Ron Tree shared his spot and joined in with Luke Philbrick's Solid Gone Skiffle Invasion after arriving to discover a pitch invasion in Cheap Street.

Saturday was until recently the much-longed-for date of the Cornerhouse out-of-lockdown gig from popular local band Back of the Bus, but like the bands booked there for next week's festival, this had to be cancelled. The Cheese & Grain however has more audience-space, and managed to book Get Cape Wear Cape Fly - aka Sam Duckworth - at short notice. It's fifteen years since I fell in love with his first CD The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager, and Let the Journey Begin on his second album became the emotional soundtrack of my life. Bristol in September had looked my best bet to catch his current tour, so his arrival here was a brilliant treat. GCWCF is now 35, still looks like a bohemian teenager, and still sounds fantastic. Good support from Frome's Henry Wacey, too.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The fusion edition: science & literature, and life

Copenhagen has had a troubled journey to the main stage of Theatre Royal Bath. Originally scheduled for November 2020,  delayed till January this year and then postponed by further lockdown, Michael Frayn's forensic analysis of the troubled relationship between two wartime physicists has finally arrived on the main stage with a different director - Emma Howlett taking over from Polly Findlay. Current restrictions on spacing and requirement for masks were scrupulously observed throughout - an important aspect for the continuation of live theatre. Perhaps because of this reminder of societal controls, the play, although set firmly in 1941, seemed to evoke relevance to life today in its suspicions, uncertainties, and irrational blaming.  There was no social media then of course, but the whispering anxieties, reappraisals and retellings all seemed to chime with the information chaos we live with now.
It's a known fact that the German physicist Werner Heisenberg met his old mentor, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, again in Copenhagen 1941, but the nature of the argument they had that night has continued into history unsolved. Michael Frayn has spun from this a trio of options, part historical surmise, part psychological guesswork. Nothing is clarified, yet there's an uncomfortable feeling that Bohr's protege may have deliberately blocked the Nazis' attempt to build an atomic bomb while his mentor, while taking the moral high ground, had supported the work that led to its deadly creation. Philip Arditti and Malcolm Sinclair are great as angry physicists yet irresistible friends, with Haydn Gwynne as Bohr's wife, whose role is to shadow her husband's perplexity. We first meet them all deceased and still baffled, and the insoluble introspections of these two scientists mighty minds prowl the massive space between them, emphasised by Alex Eales' bleak set with an enormous white circle above them shifting like a magnifying glass over their protestations.  Photos Nobby Clark

Another dramatic take on science on Wednesday, as FromeDrama at Merlin Theatre explored the interface between Quantum theory, string theory, relativity, and human emotions. Constellations, by Nick Payne, presents a volley of short interactions between a man (Ben Hardy-Philips) and a woman (Stephanie Mitchell) who don't know/know & love each other, have/haven't been unfaithful, and are dealing with terminal illness/recovery. Here's when Roland admits his love for Marianne, though in another reality this wouldn't have happened. Slickly directed by Andy Cork, with stunning sound (Laurence Parnell) and lighting (Matt Tipper), this production effectively dramatised intriguing questions about life choices, free will, and options for change.  This play, even more than Copenhagen, shows what a long way theatre drama has come since the contentious division between science and literature that shadowed the 1950s, summed up by C P Snow in The Two Cultures. It's a long time since stage drama was considered cosy, even though it was 1965 before Ken Tynan said the first-ever 'fuck' on TV.

It's been a week of fabulous long hot days - until the weekend, sadly - and the gorgeous sunshine allowed me several long walks locally: one to Orchardleigh on a quest for waterlilies on the lake, finding instead woodlands full of birdsong, wild life including baby squirrels, and fields full of sheep and wild flowers including my first orchid this year. 
Both of my writers' group meetings have thrived too: the Fromesbury Group celebrated our late-afternoon meeting in the park with Portuguese custard tarts and a selfie (thanks Debs)

Still on a writerly theme, Frome's famous independent book emporium Hunting Raven is up for another award, nominated as Best Bookshop in the Southwest (Dorset & Somerset to be precise) by Muddy Stilettos - you can click to add your vote. Tina Gaysford-Waller, the Raven's inspiring manager, was also featured in the Big Issue 'Spirit of Independence' issue this week, celebrating the national Independent Bookshop Week, although this had passed rather unnoticed here since every week is independent bookshop week...

It's also been a week of disappointment - expected but still sad, as the Cornerhouse had to cancel several sensational bands in Frome Festival next month. Fortunately most of the programme remains intact: Merlin Theatre will mainly use ECOS amphitheatre, which will have a cover over the stage. This extraordinary construction was, ironically, created to celebrate the UK joining the European Union: you can read its story on the Merlin website - or indeed in my book Frome Unzipped.  The Poetry Cafe will be held there on July 6th, with Liv Torc our fabulous guest - you can hear me extolling her on Frome FM here, starting at 16.14 minutes in.

A blast of music to end the week, as Ruzz Guitar's Blues Revue, twice-postponed, finally landed in the Cheese & Grain on Saturday night, playing blues classics with sensational style. Guest Pete Gage on keyboard & vocals took the first hour with Ritchie Blake on bass, joined by Ruzz for some numbers - video taster here. Social distancing ruled out dancing but there was a great atmosphere throughout the evening and I managed to grab a couple of photos - here's Pete & Ruzz playing their version of Ain't Nobody's Business (the video is a lockdown version, the live vibe was terrific.)
And although advance booking doesn't really suit convivial Cornerhouse, it has enabled Graham Dent to bring back jazz on Sunday evening - with Adrian Smith on double bass and bass guitar. Graham (keyboard) and Adrian have recorded a lockdown double album titled Inspiring Detour, and their live performance showcased some of their album tracks - Dat Dere by Bobby Timmons is one. Here's the duo sharing space with the new pub decor.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

The no-jacket-required issue, mostly outdoors

As we in the Southwest shuffle with fingers crossed into festival season, at present time there's much to look forward to. Frome Festival has a full programme out, and Bath Fringe Festival - always influenced by the creative energy of the students as well as the city's established traditions of music, theatre & comedy - is spilling with great-sounding events and exhibitions, many of them free.  Rosie and I went along to see a late-night production of a new play by Gabrielle Finnegan (who Frome audiences may remember from our Nevertheless production Time Slides for the 2016 Frome festival) at Widcombe Social Club on Monday evening. Gabrielle joins the two actors as narrator of Cat and her Whittington, retelling the familiar story from a modern perspective & a self-avowed Marxist feminist view. Full of factual data and angry polemic, this unapologetically transgresses the general rule that entertainment shouldn't preach, but all the case-study situations are realistic and the link narration, delivered mainly in panto-style rhyming couplets, is witty as well as vehement. Personally I really enjoyed it - this is a director/performer to look out for. 

Still lingering in Bath, the Holburne Museum is reopening, but - like several theatres in the southwest, with a sympathetic eye on those still not comfortable with - or able to - travel, so there's an online exhibition of the works of Thomas Lawrence, introduced by curator Amina Wright and free on Youtube. Lawrence's reputation hasn't survived so strongly as his rival Gainsborough, whose famous Blue Boy (painted in response to his Red Boy) hangs in Dulwich Picture Gallery, a regular Sunday-afternoon-walk from my parents house when I was a child. Late 18th Century art was more admired at that time, and a reproduction of Lawrence's painting of Miss Murray hung over my bed as my father had, in a rare moment of sentiment triumphing over gloom, for some reason decided she looked a bit like me.   

And the fabulous sunshine has led to a scatter of outdoor gatherings, as well as some wonderful walks and incredible floral displays along hedgerows, fields, streets and gardens. Saturday's market was full of the usual displays of plants, craft, garments, jewellery, cakes and coffee stalls, with the Tribe busking on the bridge. Here's three popular Fromites - a writer and two musicians - spotted by an appropriate stall, and Somerset's favourite poet Liv Torc.

Live music has already returned to the streets of Frome with Frome's Tribe taking position on the bridge on market days, and on Sunday afternoon the boys took the open-air stage at Marston Park. Rosie and I walked there down the lanes and across the fields, and enjoyed a great set of rock classics from the band in this beautiful lakeside location in stunning sunshine.

If all this seems too paradisiacal, there's still danger imminent: our tranquil southern fields are under increasing threat of obliteration by a massive housing development which would destroy a rural area twice the size of Bruton. There's nothing NIMBY about the protest at this prospect: the estate will have no facilities, medical educational or social, and will simply provide easy access to the bypass for commuters - these houses won't supply local need, and many may remain vacant while developers wait for the real value - the land - to increase. StopSGC is the link to support the protest.
Ending this week with a quick shout-out to Frome Times, a local paper that reports the issues that actually matter. This week's front page features two environmental issues plus an award for the town's 'Active & In Touch' volunteer group: it's great to have a 'local paper' that follows and features the positive aspects of town life and the real issues. Frome Times is constantly an intelligent medium for actual news - you can read a digital version here. 

Monday, June 07, 2021

What fools these mortals be! existentialist angst and funky romps

TS Eliot regarded The Four Quartets, written over two years in four different locations, as his masterpiece: they secured his Nobel Prize, yet over half a century later their meaning seems as abstract and complex as ever. They don't have the vivid, witty, characterisation of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, or the epic storytelling of The Waste Land, and while his stage work like Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party (not to mention Cats!) is readily accessible, these four long reveries. Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding are obscure, disturbing, questings about existence and time in a world where Humankind cannot bear very much reality. 
Ralph Fiennes, who delivered and directed this performance at Theatre Royal Bath, found nuances of mood in his mesmeric presentation, and the subfusc lighting by Tim Lutkin and monolithic imagery on set (design by Hildegard Bechtler) support this sense of elemental isolation. The recitation lasts over an hour but Ralph Fiennes has such a strong affinity with the poet's words he might have been simply speaking aloud his own musings.  It's an extraordinary performance, forensically demanding yet ultimately emotionally unyielding.  Ralf Fiennes image by Matt Humphrey, set as seen by my phone.

At the other end of the performance spectrum, a splendid romp from start to finish - which was 2 hours later:  Sean Holmes has directed A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Globe as if everyone in the audience either knows the play backwards or simply doesn't care as long as it's funny. In these trying times, perhaps chiming with national bewilderment, it works absolutely brilliantly. 
Everyone in the cast seems to play every part at some time or another - fairies, lords, ladies, and mechanicals all so mixed up that you can only tell who's playing Puck now by the labeled teeshirt.  Bottom's scene with Titania is played like a couple of tipsy landladies at a fancy-dress party, one of the mechanicals is played by an audience member (who is enticed by the cast to interrupt proceedings for a selfie) and the lovers in the woods keep morphing into fairies. 
It's hard in this medley to pick out a man-of-the-match, but if there is, it's definitely Peter Bourke mesmeric as Oberon, the ultimate magician in the crazy mess-up summer dream. He brings overtones of Prospero to the drama, which is quite some feat when everyone's dashing about looking like a party popper. Director Sean Holmes has done something quite amazing here: it trampled over all my preconceptions, and deeply-held interpretations & I loved every minute of it. images my screenshots.

Another highlight of the week was a trip to Salisbury to discuss the front cover of my upcoming collection of short stories with the commissioned artist, Helen Look. This level of involvement in the finished product is a rare treat for an author, and also became a chance to look around this historic city which I've previously explored little further than the Playhouse. Even more impressive than the cathedral, set amid long green lawns with intermittent sculptures and bordered by enormously tall trees, is the nearby church of Thomas a Beckett. After his martyrdom in 1170, Thomas became a cult hero and the city's first church in 1220, predating the cathedral, was dedicated to him. It subsequently fell down, and the 15th Century replacement has splendid stained glass windows which are upstaged by the enormous and detailed painting of Judgement Day, showing the souls found unfit to enter the pearly gates being dispatched by devils to Hell. Several appear to be clergymen, with a bishop clearly evident at the bottom. 
Back in Frome, sunshine and the relaxation of national regulations have allowed live music to return, and open-air gigs are already anticipating next month's festival. The Tribe, an amorphous group fronted by Paul Kirtley with David Goodman, took their rock medley to the beautiful grounds of Rode Mill on Saturday, and played again in Frome's Victoria Park on Sunday, joined by the brilliant Original Barn Finds. Here's the venue at Rode, and the bands in the park - with fingers crossed for more days like these.