Sunday, September 19, 2021

Wartime drama, still life, and spiny fungus

This week began dramatically.  
"No man is a hero to his valet" Hegel allegedly said, yet there's always a strong relationship between the server and the served, and perhaps a mutual caring beyond the annoyances that constant close contact inevitably causes. The Dresser was written by Ronald Harwood, who held that role with Donald Wolfit for many years, and recounts a night in the life of bombastic ageing actor on a UK tour during the last war.  A new production at Theatre Royal Bath recreates the glamour and the perils of that fragile, defiant, era, with Matthew Kelly giving an impressive performance as 'Sir' and Julian Clary in the title role. (image: Alastair Muir)   
I've been a fan of Julian Clary since the days of Fanny the Wonder Dog, long before that 1993 fisting gag that led The Sun to claim moral outrage and demand him banned from TV - perhaps surprising from a newspaper which continued to promote naked mammaries for salacious enjoyment for a further  22 years - so I was looking forward to his interpretation of the title role. However, director Terry Johnson possibly decided against having two outrageous characters onstage at one time: while Sir ranted like Lear on the heath,  his dresser's performance was so muted it seemed almost like a rehearsal run-through. This revival, a co-production with Cheltenham Everyman will now tour, with dates already booked till February. 


This has been a particularly good week for wall art in Frome: the Gallery at the Station hosted Simply Still, Holly Brown's debut exhibition of paintings in both traditional oils and experimental use of natural pigments. This display space was converted from an old warehouse and worked superbly for Holly's lovely lucent images.


Twelve Frome artists are participating in Somerset Open Studios which started on Saturday and will run until 3rd October - definitely do pick up a brochure as this is a brilliant opportunity to talk to creatives about their process. Six of the studios at the Silk Mill are open, including Dan Morley whose mezzotint and painted still life images are exquisite: this is one of his 'little ritual' series.
The moving and powerful Portrayal of a Pandemic exhibition curated by Active and In Touch at Black Swan Gallery was extended for an extra week due to continuing interest (thankyou Frome Nub News for using my images to share this news), and David Thompson, winner of the poetry category, met up with the judge of this category Tina Gaisford-Waller, dynamic manager of Hunting Raven Books, at the gallery last week. David 's collection of poems,  Days of Dark and Lightis now published so he joins Pete Gage in the Hobnob Press hall of Frome's poetic fame. Frome Mayor Andy Wrintmore talks in the current edition of The Giant Pod to Pete about Fifty-Six Poems,  his recent collection - (thanks for the shout-out, guys!) - you can listen to the podcast interview here - and here's David discussing his winning poem with Tina. 


In music news: sadly, that exhilarating flurry of outdoor gigs allowed by the long mild evenings has dwindled as we trundle reluctantly into autumn, but with care and flow test kits, indoor options are now being explored. The Octopus Studio in Bruton was the venue for a memorial that was bittersweet but unforgettably brilliant, celebrating with sadness, love, and big talent, a recent loss from the local musician fraternity. I know that Chris read this blog, because we met up sometimes to talk about writing, but his big talent was music and Saturday night was a live music dancing party in his honour. Here's just two of the bands: Brue River, and The Johnsons. 

And finally: top walk of the week was a long prowl around Harridge Wood, about 10 miles from Frome and a stunningly beautiful area of dense foliage, streams, and cascades - bright with sinuous rills, as Coleridge might say. This area was apparently predominantly used for coal-mining for 500 years, from the 1300s onward, so among the overgrown relics of this industry are the 'bell pits' that medieval coal workers used, and the leats they created to carry water to power their shafts. Nature has reclaimed the abandoned areas, apart from some mid -20th century planting of coniferous trees for timber.  The whole area is now primarily a nature reserve, with a bat house, thriving bird life, and a thriving population of butterflies, birds, flowers, and fungi: my thrilling find, since apparently these are only rarely seen, was a spiny puffball, the size of my fist & dark brown - both indications of longevity.



Sunday, September 12, 2021

Dramatic nostalgia & deep history this week's flavour

To be honest, the promo for The Spirit of Woodstock on Frome's ECOS amphitheatre: "Award-winning Something Underground are bringing you their latest open air stage show over two wild and immersive hours - the politics, the conflicts, the music, the protests, the moon landings, the civil-rights movement, the adverts, the drugs, the music, the musicians and the personalities, all imbued with the soundscape of this incredible era.- combined with a winsome image of a Twiggy-lookalike with sequins round her eyes, didn't really prepare me for the solo show that transpired.  There were 32 bands at  Woodstock in August 1969, but writer/performer Jonathan Brown managed easily twice that number of characters in his long (slightly overlong in the second half) re-imagining of that legendary end-of-the-60s era. 
Described by its creator as a 'semi-immersive theatre collage' this awesome feat of multi-memory never flagged in energy and the cameo characters were entertaining. Jonathan's performance is mostly direct to audience, sometimes demanding our participation, and his myriad roles range in mood from an entertainingly stoned festival-goer to the angry passion of a Vietnam veteran.
It was a hugely impressive feat for a one-man show: evocative for those of us who remember the era, the imaginative collage of characters would be informative as well as entertaining for those who don't. (And to assert my credentials for reminiscence, here's an image of me in that year - that baby isn't mine btw though I did have one by then.)

Still in theatre mode: over to Wiltshire now where September in the Rain, probably aptly, is the choice of Salisbury Playhouse for their upcoming production as theatres cautiously reopen their doors with fingers crossed there won't be a repercussion of previous seasons' cancellations - especially as the Playhouse is one of only 45 producing theatres in the country, so this is a bigger deal for the company than for tour-hosting venues.
Director Gareth Machin is currently rehearsing this John Godber two-hander with Ian Kelsey and Nicola Sloane, and Wilshire Creative's Development Director Helen Taylor had the fun idea of inviting reviewers to chat with them both over lunchtime snacks - fun for us, anyway, and both actors were charmingly accommodating. My main interest was the logistics of rehearsing in a pandemic. Ian and Nicola both admitted the process was challenging, despite the safeguard of their 'bubble': 'My brain hadn't been used for months,' Ian declared, 'I was practically narcoleptic!'  Opening night is 16th September, with a live-streamed option if you can't make into Salisbury. Here's a rehearsal photograph, and Helen with her doorway display.

Imagine this: you have an idea for a book so you visit a publisher and show him some pictures you hope will illustrate it, and the result is a commission, 5000 copies sold pre-publication, with a follow-up print of 25,000. This was the real-life experience of Frome's Amy Jeffs as described by her publisher at riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, at the launch of Storyland on Friday to a big gathering at the Silkmill in Frome, hosted by Hunting Raven Books dynamic manager Tina Gaysford-Waller. Amy herself was too endearingly modest to say much more than thanks to everyone, and to Frome itself 'for the culture of independence, and encouragement that you can do this.' Here she is signing my copy of this compelling retelling of our ancient history, with mesmerising linocut illustrations by Amy too. There's an excellent review here.  And here too is the bookshop frontage as temporarily decorated by Amy.

Also on a bookish theme: Frome Writers Collective hosted a social gathering on zoom this Thursday at which I gave a ten minute chat about short story writing, and the Proof Pudding club met at River House on Sunday evening to talk about some of the new publications arriving in Hunting Raven Books and eat cake. I was lucky in my proof pick: The Status Game by Will Storr is a well-argued and ultimately positive analysis of this pervasive aspect of social psychology. 

Other than theatre and books (and a couple of parties) this week has been mainly about walking and bees. Rodden Nature Reserve is now officially open to visitors until March, when the breeding season starts, and another highlight of my peregrination was a rainy visit to Easthill Field, where the long grass was a fairyland of glittering spiderwebs. This one's a wasp spider, a newish arrival in England, with its sac of eggs - apparently the female often eats the male after mating.  
And finally: for those on tenterhooks since last week's revelation of Frome's assault on the world record: Pending final verification, local charity We Hear You will enter the Guinness book of records after 8 hours and 671 players completed the longest & biggest ever, in the entire world, game of skittles.


Monday, September 06, 2021

Wicked drama, splendid art: a vividly visual week.

Greed, powerlust, and violence… Macbeth’s story hits current themes with disturbing impact, and this production from Beyond the Horizon highlights these aspects in the tragedy of misgovernment by a leader seeking glory without integrity.
Impactful and esoteric, this highly unusual production brings a new edge to Shakespeare's famous tale of 11th Century power struggle in Scotland. 
With James I on the throne and magic his favourite theme, the bard celebrates (and exaggerates) his Scots lineage, and adds supernatural embellishment too. The fateful predictive witches are a real highlight, all created by volatile fingering as - somehow combining Lear's Poor Tom with the Cabaret emcee in a dazzling spangled jacket - Luke Hardwell (pictured below) takes on their personae with his long white gloves... one of the production’s imaginative highlights for me.  
Visually there seems no dominant overall design scheme: costume ranges from antiquarian fighting kit (there’s a thrilling start to the final battle as warriors spring on stage brandishing a diversity of shields) to Man at M&S, the apparent choice of Ross, but the stark scaffolding of the set seems to suit every scene, creating an atmosphere of tension both in the violent interactions and the equally terrifying quiet intensity.
The seven acting members of this ambitious young theatre company are a strong team, successfully doubling disparate parts:  Katherine Aldridge’s Lady Macbeth is convincing in her ambition and poignant in her collapse, and director/producer Adam Lloyd-Jmes in the title role is mesmeric in every scene. With its radical approach and adventurous interpretations, the upcoming tour of this young company deserves massive success. Bath's Rondo Theatre hosted this production, which will now tour.


Back to Frome now for the opening night of Portrayal of a Pandemic, a fantastic multi-media exhibition at Black Swan Arts. Active and In Touch Frome, a charity offering support to anyone lonely or in need, had the inspired idea of creating an art exhibition to reflect 'the emotions of lockdown in the community, both positive and negative.' Resulting submissions are on display in the Round Tower all week, and represent a marvellous range of interpretations in a range of media from contributors of all ages.  Here's Heath Date with his winning portrait of Captain Tom, and David Thompson, winner of the written word category, whose poems will now be published by Hobnob Press. 
Some entries focus on 'comfort' aspects of isolation with impressive craftwork, others engage specifically with the plague, creating pictures of the virus. The awesome image below is The Mental Health Garden by Nicole Medin, representing nine of the recognised disorders: bipolar, anxiety, ADHD, bulimia, dyslexia, insomnia, depression, Meige syndrome, and Alice in Wonderland syndrome. This last condition, causing visual distortions and 'derealization and depersonalisation' was only identified in 1955 and is sadly on the increase - apparently Dodgson suffered it himself, so his little heroine was facing his experiences defeating his dragons by proxy. 


The Patsy Gamble Blues Collective arrived at The Sun on Saturday night to deliver their 'jazz funk saxy fusion' to a severely under-attended audience (though nice for those of us anxious about crowds) and lived up to all expectations. As a sessions musician Patsy has worked with top names and toured extensively at home and abroad and her line-up for this little gig in our local was superb, with Mike Hoddinott defying the speed of light in his epic drum solo.

Also in Frome: On Saturday Mayor Andy welcomed the Afghan Refugee support group at the Town Hall, where hot tea (with non-lactive milk alternative) was on offer ("Only in Frome" we murmured). Support from the town council was assured, but not from our MP Mr Warburton, but he does live thirty miles away...    
This week heralded the return of the famous Frome Independent after its long covidic absence. On one of the sunniest days of the year, the town's streets and alleys were again filled with stalls and entertainment. The busking stage featured several excellent performers including newly-formed Unit Four, pictured here, and a temporary skittle alley in the market square urged passers-by to help break the current world record for the most participants in an 8-hour game of skittles: here's local celebrity 'wellness guru' Cheryl Sprinkler taking aim for her first shot...    

Ending back at the start of the week: Bank Holiday Monday is the ideal time to swerve holiday destinations - especially when the sky is doggedly grey - and stay under a roof, like the glorious one of Gloucester Cathedral.  As a lifelong baffled atheist, places of worship don't usually lure me but a guided tour with the Wiltshire Lifetime Award winner for historical study Dr John Chandler (a title not as terminal as it sounds) was too good to miss. The interior of this massive edifice of vaulted cloisters is crammed with centuries of tombs and sculpted monuments, all surrounded with glorious stained glass windows.  The Great East Window, installed in the 1350s, was once the largest in the world - this credit moved in the 1960s to Illinois - but being as big as a tennis court is impressive enough.  Edward II is buried here; Ivor Gurney, first world war soldier, poet and composer, has a stained glass window in his honour, and there's an extraordinary monument to Robert Curthose, William the Conqueror's eldest son, which apparently represents the active battle pose of a crusader. The whole place is spectacular, within and without. Coffee at the docks afterwards was nice, too.