Sunday, April 24, 2022

Dramatic dysfunctions & other distractions

The main feature, culturally, this week is The Fever Syndrome at Hampstead Theatre, the tale of a family gathered to celebrate their father's lifetime award for scientific success. Time Out gave only 2 stars to this 'overwrought and underwhelming drama' by Alexis Zegerman but I'd already booked for a matinee as a talisman of hope back in those dire cold days in February, and bought my Berry Bus ticket too, so to London it was.  A sunny walk through Regent's Park and a strong performance by Robert Lindsay as the patriarch both rewarded me, but the review did have a point: the actors were excellent but all seven characters are in personal crisis so there's little variety in emotional tone. 
Some  directorial decisions made by Roxana Silbert seemed added specifically to vary this unrelenting solidity by adding odd behaviours under stress, but the main attraction remained Lizzie Clachan's inspired set design: the entire house sliced through the middle to reveal everyone's activity at all times.
But the story is long, overly intellectual, and unrelentingly sad. And there's a child ghost, a further distraction to confirm that you can't throw everything in the larder into a bowl and expect it to make a good pudding. Here's the set viewed from my seat, and below is a moment from my walk through the park & up Primrose Hill, from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage - the best enjoyment of the day.

To Shakespeare now, so steady yourself for another rocky ride:
If you decide to update Shakespeare's Henry V, as Donmar Warehouse has, it's probably a good idea, at this point in time, to find some new angle on the brazenly patriotic theme of English courage in invading other lands. This National Theatre Live production directed by Max Webster was streamed to participating venues - including Merlin Theatre - on Thursday and a small audience watched Kit Harrington take the role of the king, showing him as monotonously brutal from his puking party days to his aggressive invasion of France as soon as he was crowned.
It may have been awesome for the live audience in London, inches away from full-on action with flashing lights and impressive props as well as intense emotion and manic energy, but it was exhausting to watch on screen. Long sequences of subtitles were required for scenes in which the script had been translated into French, presumably for historical verisimilitude although, with a multi-national mixed-gender cast, that aspect inevitably remained evasive. I don't know the bard's view of Henry as a king but in this production he's a deeply unpleasant character: a war-monger and a bully, with a compulsion to dominate everyone around. It was a very long 3½ hours.

Art now, made in Frome & small but perfect. Dan Morley, renowned for his superb paintings of tiny items like feathers and keys, has taken his observation of detail in a different way. Jonathan Meades in Museum without Walls wrote of 'the glory of decay, decrepitude's pattern-making, entropy's sublimity' in our inconspicuous hinterlands, and Dan's new exhibition at the WHY Gallery, Unseen, explores this concept in a fascinating way with a list of the locations of the small gems photographed & then meticulously painted. This irresistible exhibition runs till 4th June - strongly recommended: you may look at these 'unseen landscapes' (as Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks calls them) in a different way in future, and perhaps record some yourself: here's an exquisite detail of graffiti near the river painted by Dan.  Inspired by these tiny images, Eleanor Talbot & I photographed some urban 'edgelands' in Apple Alley and then went, via HydeAway secret cocktail bar, to for a superb Spanish tapas board & fizz.

And on to music: Bar Lotte, always offering excellent sound on a Wednesday night, this week gave us The Country Boys who luckily turned out to be more Postmodern Jukebox than Worzels, with funky jazz numbers and sensational skills on guitar & vocals (Joseph Trudgeon), bass & harmonica (Bill Frampton) and keyboard (Dan Somers). They're not a regular line-up, but let's hope they visit again.

Ending with a blast of nature: the Easter blossoming from the Judas tree in Frome's Victoria Park, allegedly so named because that disciple hanged himself in penitence from one of this species. A gentler theory suggests the name derives from Arbre de Judée, as these trees are abundant in Judea. Yet another name is the Love Tree. It doesn't have the fairytale-ballgown-style coverage of many other flowering trees in Frome, or the majesty of splendid veterans, but it's a favourite of mine because the pinky-red blossom bursts from the bark without waiting for foliage.  
And when the wild garlic blooms, it's time to head for the woods... this one is by Berkley, just beyond the town, every yard of it thick with wood anemones and the dense blue haze of bluebells... thanks David Goodman for being my guide to this paradise.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Music, art, & sunshine plus a dash of technotrauma

So this week we're on a new MacBook, which is at present wary & wilful but hopefully will calm soon. Or perhaps that's me. Anyway, here goes with the update - music first:  Frome loves its punk: no need ever to ask Whatever happened to the heroes, all the Shakespearos - they're here, in the throbbing heartbeat of the town's music life, and specifically so on Thursday at Frome Cricket Club where band night turned into a massive dance party. Here's Du Kane (vocals) Steve Smith (bass) Nick Horton (drums) and Dave Maskrey on lead guitar, after a staunch opening set from Carl Sutterby, rocking the room with Teenage Kicks, Sex 'n Drugs 'n Rock 'n Roll, and other unforgettable classics.

On Wednesday evening Bar Lotte enjoyed Iain Ballamy's brilliant band line-up, with Henrik Jenson on double bass, Jem Stacey on drums and Denny Illett on guitar, with classic numbers ranging from the romance of The Street Where You Live to a funky version of Take Five

And zigzagging from punk via jazz to rock, on Saturday night Brakelight filled The Sun with their capering and classic anthems: Meatloaf, Stones, Queen, Beatles, Bowie... and more, all delivered hi-energy style to the enthusiastic audience in the bar.
Art openings featured this week, as Black Swan Arts is offering two impressive exhibitions at the moment: the Round Tower is featuring Artists for the Ukraine, a small but impressive collection of work donated by the makers to raise funds to send in support for Ukraine's refugees via our twin towRabka-Zdój in Poland. Some, like this painting 'Sunflowers of Hope' by Annemarie Blake, have been created especially for this project - you can see all the art here.   
In the Long Gallery, another impressive diversity of artwork is on view at the Frome Art Society Spring Exhibition. This egalitarian group is fully supportive to artists of all abilities, and all submissions for the annual show are accepted, which makes the standard of work on show all the more impressive. Here's Stuart Weightman, standing below his portrait of 'Lee', which won second prize in the Vera Skinner awards and wouldn't have looked out of place on TV's Portrait Artist of the Year.
Big excitement in the town centre of Friday night, as new proprietors Francis and Keren Hayden (of Nunney Acoustic Cafe fame) celebrated their arrival at Home - a re-christening of the establishment previously known as Fat Radish. The theme here will be 'grazing' while chatting, rather than set courses, and Keren's focus is on fresh ingredients and desserts. There will also be regular performance events! The launch party was great fun, with much chat, free-flowing fizz, and sound-supremo Will Angeloro. Here's me & Keren with Tracey Rupp Rawlins.

Sunshine continued into the weekend for the market - also a 'Makers Market' in the main hall, for local craftsfolk of all kinds, offering edibles, wearables, cuddleables, and more: among the many intriguing artefacts, Little Spoons Ethical Jewellery was especially intriguing, as Lizzie buys antique silver spoons and remakes them into rings, retaining some of the patterning. Also beautiful & intriguing, Ginger Pink Yarns are created with dyes from foraged plants and plant-based food waste - onion skins, if you were wondering, create a luscious toffee-gold colour.
Meanwhile outside in the market yard, traders & buyers enjoyed the hottest day of the year so far, and the return of popular busker Mark Abis.  And La Strada's icecreams are back...

Concluding this week with a view of early evening across the lakes my way home from a walk to Marston Church: it's a lovely route, with flower-rimmed lanes and long views across the fields to Cley Hill - very precious now, as this land is all under threat of dubious development - and, after seeing Jacob Rees-Mogg's gushing tweet Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia, my thinking was that there might be some kind of celebration in churches today. At Marston. I found a few sheep nibbling grass bin the graveyard but the door was locked.  A great walk, though.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

A double dose of drama, and some Hot Words

“Never boring for a split second” was Noel Coward’s view of Harold Pinter’s dramas: that's certainly true for Theatre Royal Bath’s new production of The Homecoming, arguably  the most Pinteresque of all this playwright's plays. Complex family relationships are revealed by conversational interaction which, whether brutal or benign, always seems banal. On a superb set (designer Liz Ashcroft) conveying in its spaciness the isolation of each inhabitant, director Jamie Glover ensures that every utterance contributes to the sense of non-connection and personal fantasy. The whole saga is brutal, physically and emotionally, yet the stylised unreality of speech with Pinter's iconic pauses and nonsequiturs ensure that it’s more intriguing than scary.All the men are steeped in their own delusions, never fully interacting, their speeches full of self-important fantasies. When these are challenged they crumple, several times literally. They don’t listen to each other, except to scoff. In reality these men are weak and seedy, and when Ruth arrives, the prism tilts. In a society more than ever concerned with gender roles, it’s interesting to surmise what Ruth’s effortless dominance signifies. Her husband’s passivity is as bizarre as her behaviour, and the unseen children are another insoluble: it’s almost as if Pinter didn't want his puzzling play to be ‘solved’ at all...
There are big names here: Mathew Horne - a million miles now from Stacey’s patient adoring Gavin - is impressive as Lenny, one of the strange sons of Max, who is well played by Keith Allen (Trainspotting), and the rest of the cast all have strings of credits. Shanaya Rafaat takes the role of Ruth, the wife who accepts her husband’s family’s offer to adopt her as a whore with the unforgettable farewell to her husband ‘Don’t become a stranger’; Ian Bartholomew is moving as Sam, the more-nearly-normal brother of Max; Geoffrey Lumb is touching as the quiet boxer and Sam Alexander plays Teddy, the homecoming brother.  The best thing I've seen on that stage for a long while. Images: Alan Henning
e move, theatrically speaking, now from the social attitudes of England in the 20th Century to those prevailing in 1782, when 133 men and women were thrown off the Zong slave ship as unwanted 'cargo' to preserve their drinking water. The radio version of The Meaning of Zong, produced by Bristol Old Vic, was broadcast on Radio 3 last year (reviewed in this blog March 28) and was both shocking and moving , but this full-stage 2-act version brought spectacular imagery and sound to the tragedy. Giles Terera, who took the role of the agitator for justice Olaudah Equiano (an actual 18th Century campaigner who was himself a stolen for slavery as a child) has been working with director Tom Morris for six years to bring this story to the stage. During that time Bristol became a hub for Black Lives Matter protests, culminating in the toppling of the Colston statue to join the bones of the many black slaves drowned there for their insurance money. As a case study of an era when black men and women were simply cargo, and their
killers were prosecuted not for murder but for an insurance scam, this is fascinating, but it's superb as theatrical performance too, shifting from spectacular displays of djembe drumming (Sediki Dembelo, music designer & performer) to dreamlike sequences under the sea, then shifting to eloquent arguments as the legal case is gathering momentum. Paul Higgins is brilliant as Granville Sharp, nearly worn out by his lonely role of opposition to the slave trade, but sharp enough to see the case through.  Jean Chan's stage & costume design enhanced every mood, with wooden planks a powerful link between the scenes whether as ship decks or menacing threats. Images @curtisrichardphotography.
Readers with particular interest in the theatre bits of this blog will find more on Plays International website here, and here 😊 

Moving on now to a group enterprise in environmental awareness:  Poets have been concerned about the damage caused by mankind to the earth's environment since at least 1820, when John Clare published Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Nature but since COP 26 this concern has become - in the southwest at least - a coordinated effort to create positive change, through raised awareness and informed action. Hot Poets is the result of a collaboration between performance poets Liv Torc and Chris Redmond, supported by a raft of institutions and individuals, and last year they produced a collection of 12 Poems About Saving the World.  Liv and Chris have now taken Hot Poets a stage further, with online workshops to create performance pieces about a chosen environmental project: this week they hosted two readings. At the session on Monday (thank you David Thompson for inviting me!) all of the sixteen poems presented were excellent: impressive in their research, compelling in their message, cleverly crafted, and moving in their delivery. 
The diversity of chosen projects was fascinating, as was the diversity of approaches to crafting a poem: 
Angela Higgs wrote from the future, 'remembering' the transformation of brown-fill sites to solar farms, while Tokoni mourned the sinking islands ('is it home when you can no longer stand on it?') and Jay Farley's marvellous combination of scientific research and clever word play actually managed to convince me that mushrooms can, or at least could, save the world... 

Music spot this week goes to the marvellous Brue River Band, who promised and delivered 'floor-filling funky blues' at the Sun Inn on Saturday - a friendly venue great for atmosphere but not for photos - and Sunday saw quite a lot of people at Rise Community Centre in  Whittox Lane chapel for a fabulous exhibition of wildlife recorded in Easthill, the most ancient of all Frome's undeveloped sites. As well as a large number of screens filled with superb images and fascinating information, there were quizzes to inform and intrigue, cakes and plants for sale, and music to enhance the mood. 

Signing off this week on a personal note: my devoted MacBook, constant companion for the last 7 years, had a heart attack on Thursday and has been dying by degrees. It's currently on a life support system - a new separate keyboard - but requires so many rests, and splutters for words so often, (eg this paragraph has taken 5 minutes) that I've had buy a replacement, on which, hopefully, normal service will eventually be resumed. Massive appreciation to David Goodman, without whose technical - and emotional - support, my MacCrisis would be still unresolved.  Off now to the Proof Pudding book club, for review-sharing and cake.

Monday, April 04, 2022

A dramatic week for personal passions

Sorry, You're Not a Winner, the new play by Samuel Bailey produced by Paines Plough & Theatre Royal Plymouth and currently ending its tour, arrived at Bristol Old Vic for only three nights so unless you live in Newcastle you won't be able to see it now, which is sad because it's absolutely brilliant. The title is an ironic comment on a social setting the writer knows well - but Liam has stepped up, he's got a place at Oxford, moving away from the drab neighbourhood that limits his options, and leaving his best friend Fletch who's too ready-to-be-rough to ever succeed. This 90 minute play is about friendship, lost yet enduring, and how hard it can be when you come from a place where success feels a bit like shame. It's also immensely rich in humour and insights that go beyond social cliches, tightly written, and superbly acted. 
Eddie-Joe Robinson is compelling as the clever lad who doesn't feel comfortable with the Oxford crowd but can't reclaim his home territory; Kyle Rowe is utterly believable as his irrepressibly reprobate home-town 'bestie'.  The storyline focus is so strong that this feels mostly like a two-hander although the lads' women are also very well-played, especially Shannon (Alice Stokoe) with Katja Quist as posh Georgia. Also integral to the production's success is Jesse Jones' tight direction and Lucy Sierra's superbly simple set: an immovable environment where doors both invite and abruptly bar entry. As a social comment on Unequal Britain, this is unarguably convincing; as a drama it's mesmeric.  Images: Steve Tanner.
As a footnote, Sam Bailey won the Papatango Prize with his first play Shook which was released as an online production after plague stopped play on the stage of Southwark Playhouse: you can read my review in this blog Feb 7th last year. 

Back in Frome, the Merlin stage was filled with elaborate costumes from the decadent end-game days of the French 'Ancient Regime' as revived in Frome Drama Club's production of Les Liaison Dangereuses. This version of the epistolary novel by Pierre Choderios de Lacios is from Christopher Hampton: it's all about decadence and deceit, and this production involved fantastic costume and a lot of scene changes - in fact the set-movers were on stage more frequently than several of the characters. It's also a tour-de-force for Laurence Parnell, onstage most of the time as the tirelessly immoral Vicomte de Valmont. Director John Palmer confesses in the programme notes to a longstanding desire to produce this saga of decadence and abuse on a delirious scale in pre-Revolution France.
As a footnote, blatant sexual importuning unexpectedly became topical at the weekend when news broke - on every national media outlet - that Frome's MP is suspended for sexual shenanigans & drug use. And we thought all he did in parliament was abstain!

A very different performance event came to Frome with the first session of Dirty Laundry, an evening of story-telling and poetry at The Three Swans on Wednesday. The brain-child of Olly Davy, a superb raconteur himself, this was a really brilliant event with a wide range of themes and styles offered by the ten performers to an enthusiastic audience - I'm chuffed to have been one of them, and look forward to the next session on May 19th. Here's guest headliner Chris Redmond, currently working with the 'Hot Poets' at "the hopeful end of climate change" with a brief to change the narrative to 'imagine a future we love rather than one we fear.' 

The Three Swans upstairs room was also the choice of Vicki Burke, multi-talented musician who plays sax in funky-folk band Flash Harry as well as performing on harp and singing her own compositions: she used all her self-expression talents on Monday at in the launch of her new CD, Beauty in the Beast, a Musical Journey into the Labyrinth. These compositions complement the spiritual journey described in her book, from which Vicki read extracts, supported by violinist Gina Griffin. A well-planned and fascinating event.

Pete Gage, widely admired as a talented musician, became well known as a poet after publishing 44 Poems with Hobnob Press last year, and has followed this with his second collection Gerontius: deeply-felt personal reflections illustrated with atmospheric colour photographs also by Pete. His launch for this collection was at Hunting Raven Books on Thursday, and Pete talked about his influences and his central theme of light and darkness, to an attentive & appreciative audience. He also brought his piano and played some favourite songs that chimed movingly with the themes of his poems: Evening, Motherless Child, and Nobody's Fault But Mine - these links are to live performances by Pete with his band at The Cornerhouse in Frome and The Bell in Bath, but Pete is just as impressive on his own, in a bookshop... We're privileged, in Frome.

Art top spot this week goes to Si Griffiths' exhibition at Spacecraft in Westbury, a wonderful shop selling arty things of all kinds, including guitars handmade by Lucas Vermeeren.  Si's work is in a separate gallery and looks terrific: there are several paintings featuring his iconic clown character, some sinister but most poignant, but a street-art influence is emerging in Si's newer work which is really impressive. This image (right) is one of his largest, and visitors all found it fascinating.
(You can see the painting I bought last year in his 'Sold' gallery - line 8 down, 2nd along, which he has titled Grief but I saw as My Parents' Marriage. So, same thing really.)
And a shout-out to Tony, the kindly bus-driver who generously drove me all the way back to Frome when I'd misread the timetable and there were actually no more buses running beyond Dilton Marsh.... 
Still with paintings: Artists for Ukraine, the new exhibition at Black Swan Round Tower, is showing works donated by over 30 local artists for auction, with all proceeds going to the Town Council's fundraising for Frome’s twin town Rabka-Zdrój in Poland, which is arranging to take in over 500 Ukrainian refugees.  This painting is Freedom and Truth, by Sabrina Rowan Hamilton: There's a wide range of styles and themes, some from very well known names, and the exhibition is showing until 24 April so plenty of time to view and bid - you can see all the art works and bid online here.

And finally: Sunday could not have been more busy, with a Frome Independent - market, that is - in the morning, including the usual busking stage where Back of the Bus drew a large crowd of supporters (and several toddler-dancers) then the brilliant Rosco Shakes at Bar Lotte all afternoon, with a Jazz Jam at the Cornerhouse in the evening... So I'll end with an image of each, and hope you can work out which is which... Good luck everyone with next week's promised snow!