Sunday, October 31, 2021

Wild wuthering and other fantastic displays

FORGET WHAT YOU KNOW, the preview for Wuthering Heights at Bristol Old Vic urges, THIS IS NO PERIOD DRAMA, and director Emma Rice's version of Emily Brontë's gothic fantasy of passion revenge and redemption, enhanced with music, lighting, fights, dance and puppetry, is indeed no ordinary remake. It's spectacularly wonderful, especially in the first act - in fact you could practically leave in the interval: the recovery strand doesn't grip or intrigue as much as the dark themes of child abuse and Bristol's own connection with slave shipping. 
The storytelling follows the original version in that it's all narrated to Mr Lockwood who, after being blown in by spectacular stage effects and set upon by dogs, is curious to know why a ghostly woman comes screaming at his window. Some of the visual devices, like the birds flying past for every death, do effectively enhance the storytelling but the personification of the moor by various cast members with spiky headdresses as a kind of Greek chorus didn't for me create any real sense of its presence or significance. But overall this is an amazing achievement with a superb cast: Lucy McCormick plays a psychotically disturbed Cathy, and Ash Hunter is stoic as abused, vindictive, Heathliff - both with terrific singing voices. Also particularly engaging are Tama Phethean as both the young Earnshaws, Sam Archer as a lissom Linton and Katy Owen as his adorable little sister Isabella. 
This National Theatre, Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic & York Theatre Royal co-production is at BOV until Nov 6 and the last four performances will be streamed online book here - highly recommended. 
(The pic at the top is the end of the first act, as sneaked from my camera - the others are promo shots from the website.)

This has been a theatrical week in other ways too. 
Frome's blackbirds', previously featured on several TV channels and in the Guardian, are preparing for their protest at COP26 and toured the town on market day to raise awareness.  Their message is simple: if the conference doesn't succeed in changing policies, all birds will die and so will the rest of the life on earth.  We're lucky that our town council supports this message, as do many local groups which monitor our river and local wildlife and, encouraged by our Green councillors, take a practical role in cleaning our streets and general environment. So it probably won't surprise you that there was no town-sponsored firework display to mark Halloween: much better than that, we had a drone display over the old Showfield, watched by thousands. This was designed by Frome-based Celestial using a fleet of 256 drones to create glowing coloured images in the sky to a moving soundtrack of poems read by local children, the best civic event since Jenson Button scorched up and down the high street doing donuts in our 2013 festive celebrations. After sensationally reforming in various ooh-ahh images, the display concluded with a love-message to the town that none of us here will forget. And no dog-owners were enraged.

Moving on to less volatile, though also performance-related art now: and an up-coming exhibition at the Gallery at the Station currently in preparation. 
Artist Marian Bruce is know for her powerful figures, often life-size and embodying a sense of mute suffering. Currently, however, her Frome studio is full of the energy & skill of the dancers of Havana, as Marian prepares for In Movement at the Gallery at the Station - an exhibition of drawings & sculpture inspired by her collaboration with Acosta Danza in 2018. Marian was in Cuba as designer for Chris Bruce's production Rooster and became fascinated with the body postures of these flexible dancers. She showed me her initial sketch: "I was sitting in a bar on a warm night sipping a mojito, sea salt on the breeze and music all around, and I picked up a black biro and on the back of a novel I was reading, I drew these, each of them in one continuous line - that's the Zen influence." You can see the stunning result here and the exhibition will be opening next week.

A double helping of splendid music this week: in Bar Lotte on Wednesday evening it was the sensational combination of saxophonist Iain Ballamy joined by Anders Olinder (keyboard) and Henrik Jenson (double bass). All three of these performance giants are also composers, and a fair amount of creative improvising appeared happening throughout their set, which was hugely exciting. 
Also dimly lit - or actually in this case, erratically & with savage smoke-effects - was the mightily-anticipated return of the magnificent Back Wood Redeemers, hosted by The Cornerhouse on Saturday evening. All our favourites were there - Right Thing Wrong, Hold On, Chocolate Jesus, and other irreligious scurrilousness - with the redemptive line-up further enhanced by Sarah Hobbs on loan from the Hoodoos on double bass.  

With a definite feeling around that the window for shared activities may soon be closed, either by legislation or winter wariness, such events are treasure. Ellie and I snuck in another cocktail night on Monday but most connections are outdoors.  I'm constantly careful, using masks & frequent flow tests and opting for a 'safe' performance of Wuthering Heights instead of press night, but as we all know human contact is a vital aspect of maintaining health. Breakfast chat meetings and coffee catchups can all still be outdoors, and the writers of the 'Fromesbury Group' managed a meet-up after a long break, so I'll leave you with the selfie Debs took of her, me, Emily, and Debby at the Archangel. Other pub gardens are available!


Sunday, October 24, 2021

From pre-Raphaelite Soho to modern Tottenham, via apocolyptic & other tales

Holburne Museum in Bath currently has a 'special exhibition' of Rossetti's Portraits, and they really are something special. Dante Gabriel Rossetti has been my favourite of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ever since 2009 when Aiden Turner took that role in the brilliant TV series Desperate Romantics - see right -  but the gentle, generous sketches of his friends which are among the portraits displayed  actually suggest a far more sensitive personality than the BBC's portrayal. Certainly he had a passion for red-heads, and after the laudanum-overdose death of Elizabeth Siddal ("accidentally and casually and by misfortune" the official verdict decided) he become infatuated with Jane Morris, pictured above.  In modern eyes these paintings may not look unconventional, but they flouted the Royal Academy's norms as established by Sir Joshua Reynolds, in their vibrance, detail, and subject matter. 
The museum gardens seem mainly under reconstruction or self-rewilding, though lovely, with bedraggled blooms and spiky stems tumbling around in every bed. It was still raining when I left, but Bath buildings look wonderful in the rain, their blonde stone enriched by the saturation and a velvet white sky beyond.

Staying with imagery: Frome Wessex Camera Club offered an excellent show of individual work inspired by the pandemic in Corsley Reading Room - sadly only for four days so this will end on 25th.  With 21 screens plus projected imagery,  Closing Down and Opening Up covered a range of responses from personal stories of hospitalisation with - luckily - happy endings, to a focus on new skills or personal memories, with photographers on hand to discuss their work.  Free, fascinating, and with tea & cake, this was a brilliant way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon.  Here (above) is Julian Sandoe's graphic saga of a son in intensive care plus a first grandchild, and my snap of Mick Yates, who superbly curated the whole exhibition. 
(late addenda - can't resist adding Mick's reciprocal snap, which also shows the exhibition stands much better than mine:

On the music scene, autumn has begun with a flurry of gig cancellations, as cautiously-emerging bands have had to recognise what our alleged leader currently doesn't: that the 'new normal' will always trump careful planning. So it was great to catch the fabulous Hot Club de Frome playing hi-energy jazzy blues at Lotte's Bar on Wednesday night.

In a different genre, Frome musician John Law, nationally esteemed for his 'kaleidoscopic fusion of jazz, rock, electronica and classical,' performed his new composition CONGREGATION at the Wiltshire Music Centre, offering a sumptuous taster here. The full session is still available on livestream here.
As prohibitions on social gatherings seem set to continue into another season of discontent, one  unexpected bonus has been an extension of communication skills among the determined: Frome Writers Collective's Gill Harry, who initially took our meetings zooming online, this week successfully created a hybrid session from the meetings room at The Crown, with sound for readers provided by Lisa Kenright & Mike 'Herb' Herbert. The evening's theme of 'Spooky Stories' inspired ten readings and a range of tales from shivery to satirical: I particularly liked Brenda Bannister's quirky take on the Little Shop of Horrors theme. 

Story-telling on a grander scale from The Art House in Southampton where The Travelling Talesman is also maintaining an online option, this time with a topical little saga titled The End Of The World As We Know It. This extensive Apocolyptic tour begins in Mesopotamia (latterly know as Iraq), source of the first written tales of constructed history which, like all legends, concern man's struggle against malevolent deities.  In a narrative featuring eye-popping atrocities, this extensive saga of the gods' war on humanity travelled through varying mythologies through wars, floods and plagues from Valhalla to Fukushima and beyond.  Most interesting of all was the after-show question session, which inspired this monologue from the Hampshire griot: "There are no 'things', everything in the world is make out of vibrations tiny flashes of energy...but Time is the fundamental frequency of the universe - the reason we can't see this is that we're all on that wave ...dark time and dark energy are such big frequencies we just can't see them."  What happens at the end of the world? he was asked. "Every note eventually dies away. Entropy carries us to a constant state, until we achieve the death of the universe. Only then is the end of all life as we know it."  

And it's not yet too wet, or cold, for walking the lanes: hips and berries are doing their jazzy thing all around the hedgerows, and a sunset walk to Marston Park offered the usual superb lake views.
This post was originally planned to conclude with the poem Begin, in homage to Irish poet Brendan Kennelly who died on Sunday, but because those inspiring words have been shared here previously (and because you can read it here - or hear the poet read it here ) instead here's the poem which last week won its teenage author, Giovanni Rose, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awardbeating over 6,000 young poets from all over the world - and showing why we need poets. 
Welcome to Tottenham
Where we wake up to the smell of 'Chick king',
mixed with the odour of the corpse from the night before.
Where we cover our blood stained streets with dried up gum,
Where kids have holes in their last pairs of shoes,
Where daddy left mummy and mummy’s left poor.
Welcome to Tottenham.
Where if you look like me then it’s harder for you,
Where everybody’s equal unless they’re darker than you.
Where the police see colour before they see the crime,
Where children get stopped and searched and aren’t allowed to ask why.
Welcome to Tottenham.  
Where the drugs addicts sit at the back of the 149. 
Where education and sports are the only ways to shine.
Where we ride around on stolen scooters,
Where we can’t afford tuition so the streets are our tutors.
Welcome to Tottenham.
I love but I hate my home,
still listen to the voicemails of my dead peers in my phone,
I live in a nightmare. I had to learn how to dream,
Welcome to Tottenham.
The devil’s playground.
We fight over streets we don’t own,
Knife crimes on the rise because the beef can’t be left alone.
Why does no one understand that we just want our youth clubs back,
Why do they claim they’re not racist but label the violence here black?

Welcome to Tottenham.


Sunday, October 17, 2021

Émile in suburbia, moral barbarism, & a woodland walk

The Good Life, that popular TV sitcom from 1975 which caught this nation's desire to sympathise with, though not actually address, the stress of competitive materialism, inevitably seems - after nearly fifty years of deepening concerns - to be more about suburban pretensions than environmental awareness. 
So in that sense this new onstage version at Theatre Royal Bath is successful. Tom and Barbara (Rufus Hound and Sally Tatum) are preoccupied with their pooing goat and sick piglet, Jerry and Margot (Dominic Rowan and Preeya Kalidas) are preoccupied with entertaining Sir and Mrs Sir (Nigel Betts and Tessa Churchard), lots of pea-pod wine is drunk and the wider issue of planetary destruction never clouds the dinner party conversation.
The set (designed by Michael Taylor), however, is terrific, morphing shudderingly from one bourgeois living-room into the other while action is still in progress.  But this is a farce not a retrospective of the warnings of early eco-warriors, and Jeremy Sams' production will probably appeal to many who remember the TV series with affection.  Directed by the writer, the show will tour until the end of November when it features in the Chichester festival. Images Dan Tsantilis

This week should have featured two of Frome's top bands on Saturday night but sadly both cancelled so instead the music spot this week goes to the excellent Mark Abis, busking in the sunshine of the morning market.  
The other compensation for the loss of a great evening of music was that I didn't have to forgo tuning in to Wells Festival of Literature, having already booked online access to a talk by political journalist Peter Oborne on The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.   I've already bought the book, but the talk was an excellent summary and Peter's passion is plangent. His methodical research on the stream of lies emanating from Downing Street, unchecked by any of the mainstream media, is as impressive as it is shocking, and Peter seemed near to tears as he admitted "I really felt ashamed to be a political journalist."  Boris, he confirms, has no interest in the truth - he brought in 'a bunch of thugs' and the Johnson lie machine dominates totally, since any journalist who deviates is simply banned from contact. "It stinks. The BBC supports Boris' palpable nonsense... We inherited a system of truth. We've smashed it."  No editor will take Peter's articles now, but his books are going well. (my screenshot)

Art now: Frome Art Society has a prizewinners exhibition in Black Swan Arts lower gallery, on till 14th November, which demonstrates the extraordinary talent of many of this group's members - this is Alan Overton’s painting ‘Looking towards Willow Vale and the old telephone exchange, - evening light' and there's a truly splendid gallery of members' work  here.     Creativity-with-purpose was the theme of Tuesday's craft workshop at the Silk Mill, as participants at 'Wine and Parachutes' created wall-art to support the MayDay submission for a more sympathetic development of the Saxonvale site. Kate and Damon Moore have campaigned fervantly for this, so fingers crossed that the futures of Maddox (in the pic) - and all the others - land safely.  
And Portrait Artist of the Year is back on Sky Arts in a new series with wonderful Stephen Mangan and the arty team, the best hour of the TV week. Here's actor Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as painted by teen artist Kat Hughes who won the first heat. If you're a fan, there's an excellent blog about the show here. (If not, try watching it: Wednesdays, 8pm.)                                     
Ending the week with a long walk in dazzling sunshine through the trees of Roddenbury Hill fort, an amazing hill-top forest just outside Longleat. It's not a 'mast' year so there were few chestnuts, but masses of furtive fungi, pale against the red-gold carpet of the beech leaves. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A hefty week for theatre, so buckle up!

September in the Rain isn't just a recent memory or a sentimental song, it's also a play written by John Godber in 1983, allegedly about his family but also about every Yorkshire couple who sat in deckchairs on the beach at Blackpool complaining about the weather, each other, and everyone else - in fact the dramatic structure is a series of cliches strung nostalgically together... but the current production at Salisbury Playhouse skillfully finds the humour, and underlines the nostalgic charm. Jack and Liz are a couple who have never heard words like dysfunctional or counselling, so they rub along annoyingly and forgivingly and somehow manage to enjoy their annual holiday despite travel friction, awful lodgings, frequent rows, and constant rain. 
It's the excellence of the acting from Ian Kelsey and Nicola Sloane - subtly showing irrational mood swings but always, somehow, endearing - and it's the sharp direction from Gareth Machin, plus skilled lighting effects (Johanna Town) that make this such an excellent production: swift-moving enough to be entertaining though with no dramatic surprises, it leaves a slight aftertaste of sandy ice-cream as you remind yourself how life was gentler then, and can never be so innocent again. This production has been already mentioned in this blog, as I met the excellent cast last month, and am glad to report that Ian recovered from his script-related narcolepsy, and Nicola's delightful giggle survived the ardors of rehearsal. 
As theatres move cautiously, with streamed overlap, into old-style performances, some have decided that online productions may well provide a future, appealing as they do to a limitless geographic area. Going the Distance is a co-production from the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, The Dukes & The Watermill Theatre - a new comedy by Henry Filloux-Bennett and Yasmeen Khan, directed by Felicity Montaguwith a stellar cast which includes Sara Crowe, Shobna Gulati, Sarah Hadland, and Matthew Kelly with Stephen Fry. The storyline is totally on-theme: a small theatre, struggling to survive, puts on a last-ditch production choosing, somewhat over-ambitiously, The Wizard of Oz.  Naturally, egos and personal agendas intrude, and Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism's precept for fiction - that the good end happily - is only partially observed. Satire is from the start somewhat over-larded, but it does give perceptive insight into the difficulties facing live theatre at this time. Shakespeare, of course, overcame plague to continue successfully producing, but he didn't have netflix to compete with, so please watch with sympathy. Available until 17 October. 

Now for probably the most impassioned and skilful show online right now: Bristol Old Vic is promoting Can I live?, conceived and performed by Fehinti Balogun to share his journey into the world of environmental activism - its inspiration, its effect on his family and friends, and how his life was radically changed by understanding the current prospects, and real history, of our planet.   This is not only compelling and moving in the way our cultural history and the environmental prospects of our planet are always disturbing,  it's also brilliantly presented using spoken word, hip-hop, animation, graphs & graphics, and concluding with options  for positive involvement. Created by Complicité and available until 10 October for whatever you choose to donate, this one is really worth an hour of your life. 

Bristol Old Vic also had another idea to connect with a wider audience through online options: All The Threads You Left Behind is the first of a series of Sudden Connections - short pieces by five south-west artists, free to view.  This one is created by Anna Rathbone mourning the suicide of a friend.  Previously a 1:1 performance installation, this digital version commissioned by Bristol Old Vic Ferment allows the viewer to choose the pace & style of the narration - my choice was to read as well as listen to the text, and to contribute to the 'threads' memories too.

Back on the live stage, John Cooper Clarke arrived at Frome's Cheese & Grain on Thursday with his current tour I Wanna Be Yours - the title of one of his most iconic poems (you can remind yourself of it here) and also of his new book.  John's ability to entertain a crowd seems unflagging as he blends jokes & observations with book extracts and performances of his popular classics: he wrote Beasley Street, he claims, "18 years before that bitch Margaret Thatcher got in, and I worry I might have given her a few ideas!"  It has an update now, which John also shared: Beasley Boulevard.  And despite joking that marriage was useful only because 'without it we'd have to fight with complete strangers', he concluded with this poignant tribute: I've fallen in love with my wife.

And now for something completely different. What if in 1594 Will Shakespeare's players, made tetchy by the plague outside and the mounting bodycount in their new drama, had insisted on abandoning the Aristotelian rules of tragedy to create a merry ending for Hamlet.  Thus, Hamlet Act 6 A Comedy, performed by Shakespeare Live at the Merlin Theatre, introduces Friar Lawrence from Romeo & Juliet, now reskilled after his disaster with the star-crossed lovers, to devise a resurrection for all the slain, plus new liaisons for everyone.  Laurence Parnell as both bard and friar provides a series of unlikely revivals: none of the poisons or sword-wounds were terminal, Ophelia didn't drown she tripped, and even the skull of Yorrick gets a rewrite. Clearly the team had great fun with this extended adaptation of a short script by Dennis Harkness, directed by Alison Paine.

In case you've got this far and are wondering if everything this week involved seated observation, the answer is no, there was also some walking about: The new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth  by Thomas J Price entitled Thoughts Unseen features bronze heads, some small and some enormous, and several incredibly large bodies. They are really impressive - enigmatic but accessible: the artist says his aim is to question historic narratives & power structures in society, using presentation and scale to explore our assumptions. His monumental figures inevitably trigger thoughts of the current debate around monuments in public places, too.  It's superbly crafted, thought-provoking without being overly cryptic, and well worth a visit - a return visit too. This exhibition, and the until January 3. And the gardens there, of course, are lovely even in autumn and winter.

Saturday should have been music night at The Sun in Frome but sadly the popular Raggedy Men had to cancel - though this did give me the chance to catchup on Have I Got News For You, and Richard Osman's House of Games Night, two TV-trivia gems postponed by Friday's reopening of The Crown, my local hostelry, now completely revamped for gloozing (glam boozing.)  But the week did end with live music - lots of it, as popular Nunney Acoustic Cafe reopened with fizz (literally) after its 18 month lull. Eight acts took the stage, ranging from folk to funk, solo debut to celtic band - all superb: here's the featured guest band from Swindon Splat the Rat and Frome's new quartet combo Unit 4.  Dancing between tables and Keren's opulent cakes were both popular accompaniments to the onstage entertainment. 

Finally in a busy week: regular readers will know that, although my passion is theatre, occasionally a movie will lure me to Frome's smashing little Westway Cinema - all seats four quid, and ice-creams on a tray at the intermission like in the old days. No Time to Die, Daniel Craig's final outing as James Bond, was the occasion this week. As I'm not really competent to review this medium, here's  the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw to explain why he gave the show 5 stars: "It is of course a festival of absurdity and complication, a headspinning world of giant plot mechanisms moving like a Ptolemaic universe of menace. It is startling, exotically self-aware, funny and confident, and most of all it is big." Here's a link to a short homage to the actor who kept the  Bond franchise alive.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Forget the lost summer, there's post-equinox fizz now...

After a skimpy summer, and a heatwave that went awol, this was a good week for autumnal indulgence.
I've never before been to a Speakeasy, where you knock on a back alley door for entry into a den of alcoholic luxury,  but last week Eleanor Talbut initiated me into the HydeAway with its menu of exotic cocktails. In this Hollywood-rococo style bar we were served by professional mixologist Giles, who gave me the backstory of my negroni: he uses Holm Oak smoke to create the dramatic effect on arrival at the table, and sees cocktails as creative experiences, taking inspiration from memories of colour, smell and taste from childhood as well as the visual skills he used as a cameraman for BBC documentaries. Add Gilbert O'Sullivan in the background to complete the scene... another great night out with Ellie, 
which segues nicely into her latest podcast (here):  Déjà Vu is her topic this time, with the usual esoteric medley of tracks on the theme, plus an interview with me about my new book.
I'm not gonna lie, the big event for me this week was the official launch of Déjà Lu at Hunting Raven Books, hosted by dynamic manager Tina Gaisford-Waller, and well attended despite the evening storms.  Once again, thwarted by restrictive format of new improved Blogger, I've resorted to a screenshot image combo to show the welcome & support I enjoyed from Tina, who then took the shot of my audience, a smashing group who came up with great questions and were supportive throughout. 
Art now, and Somerset Open Studios continued throughout the week for the 205 artists particpating across the county - here's another report from a Frome studio: Clive Walley has developed his series of 'Birch trees in the mist' using tar applied by trowel after reading a book about the seige of Stalingrad and pondering on the primitive resources for art that would have been available to the soldiers.  By coincidence my photography that afternoon had included trees by the Frome river path, which in monochrome version are weirdly similar to these atmospheric images  - this is again a screen shot for comparison.

Friday night saw the opening of a solo exhibition from Mel Day at the WHY gallery in Frome. Mel is famed for her amazing twisted-metal writings and other art pieces, but these this prints and drawings show a different aspect of her skills, although these people are mostly bent and twisted too... Elegantly and impossibly contorted, their postures seem poignantly resonant of their internal lives, and perhaps all our lives nowadays.  Dancers and Dreamers is on until mid-November, so do visit if you're near Frome.  
Art is a useful segue into the Frome Independent, too, as this nationally-famous street market - cancelled for over a year - is now enjoying its first-Sunday-of-the-month status in the streets, alleys, and open spaces of our town, and art & craft feature even more than cheese!  (This month there were wild mushrooms too, collected by The Happy Forager). 
Local artist David Daniels who always pitches on Catherine Hill, has some fabulous new 'storyboards' of tiny landscapes, and - since encouraging young artists is a political act - these handcrafted resin earrings from the stall of Bristol jeweller Rosa Pietsch were irresistible too. And of course, there's the wonderful busking stage where superb sound is guarunteed from Luke Emery - this week with four top class acts: Nick Balura, the Bert Jansch of Frome, followed by the 'twisted blues and religious fervor of hugely popular The Back Wood Redeemers - then reggae rythms from the Mellowtones, and for the final hour, folk from Crossing the Rockies. Here's the irreligious Back Wood boys extolling their enjoyment of a chocolate Jesus. 
Party time this week started on Thursday at the Black Swan, with a welcome to Malcolm Lloyd, the incoming Chair of Trustees, with drinks & nibbles in the courtyard - a very pleasant occasion. And Friday's wedding party in Great Elm Village Hall had some great acts from a range of Frome performers all evening, and when the sound system collapsed, the Hoodoos simply leapt onto a bench and treated us to an unforgettable acoustic version of the Rattlin' Bog....
with Saturday's party at Frome's Rook Lane Chapel celebrating the birthday of a local opera singer who not only performed superbly herself but also inspired open-mic from many of her guests (who were polite enough to also applaud my unexpectedly-required and just-about-recalled poem rendition of You know it's a Fairytale) - was also impressive entertainment, again ending with dancing. So that's two nights of quality performances concluding with wonderful Anne singing like this converted nonconformist chapel was the Albert Hall.  The diversity of talent in this small town is astounding. 

And now that October has made the season officially autumn, it's time for the Ezra Pound poem that I generally offer at this time in the year:
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass