Sunday, May 29, 2022

Fantasy, form, fables, futures - and fun

With June just a breath away, here in the southwest Open Air Theatre season has already begun: Frome hosted the endlessly inventive Illyria company on Sunday as their touring version of Peter Pan arrived on the ECOS amphitheatre in the afternoon to delight a mixed age audience.  The company boasts that this is the first production to include real flying, and while strictly speaking an offstage rig isn't actually quite the same thing as 'real', this complex apparatus contrived several brilliant stage effects - especially Peter's flamboyant fight scene, and the under-water life of the mermaid (with bubbles...) 

Director Oliver Grey, the founder & godfather of Illyria, points out in his programme notes that the entire story of Peter Pan is rooted in psychology of its author - as JM Barry himself observed, later in life. And as much of the book's action is problematic for live representation, his directorial decision has been to focus on, and explore, the author's idea that 'everything in this story is a game played by children...' and their nursery is always present on this set.  'After all, what is an adventure if not a trip into the imagination?'

This show is so much an ensemble production it's difficult to highlight individuals, but Nicholas Lee (Wendy's brother John, & Tootles) and Elizabeth Robin (Mrs Darling, Tinker Bell & Slightly) especially have great stage presence and dramatic energy.  The croc, and Tinkebell, deserve special mention too. Basically, the whole show is a delight. 

Music focus of the week, leading neatly into art spot, goes to simpsonharrisonbenjamin, at the opening of Hauser & Wirth's exhibition on Friday evening. Sharing Form - an impressive collection of works by Henry Moore that could not have opened on a more lovely evening, with blue-sky-sunshine to enhance all the amazing artefacts in the fabulous gardens, while indoors the rooms were full of thought-provoking 'investigative' pieces. You really need to visit if you can: it's superbly curated and this comment from the exhibition guide effectively says it all: "a rich and often surprising visual biography of Moore's relentless interrogation of form and our shared comprehension of it."

Bit of a wild card now: a historical trip to the wilds of Wales, to explore a Roman settlement in Caerleon - well, the amphitheatre and the toilets anyway, though there was probably more going on in 1st Century AD - and, even more excitingly, the discovery in the unpretentious little church of St Cadocs in Llancarfan that beneath centuries of limewash the walls are covered with amazing medieval paintings, not only extraordinary as examples of 15th Century art but also as a record of the moral and emotional thinking of that era. Expert recovery has revealed the seven cardinal sins, the 'dance of death' and, the most strongly narrative story and at the present time best restored, the wondrousness of St George, dragon-slayer and warrior saint.  Incredible, in so many ways, to witness this tribute to the legends that were vivid in the lives of this community more than 500 years ago.

Back in south-west England, Novel Nights meeting at Burdell's Yard in Bath on Wednesday provided a fascinating evening as the theme was 'climate change' and the session featured not only Maggie Gee talking about her new novel on that theme, but also readings from three upcoming novelists - two of whom were Frome writers Nicky Lloyd and Alison Clink - pictured - plus Bath writer Richard Kemp.

 and this week's final note is a booky one too: the poetry collection with the impossible name (What'sItLikeFor You+DanceForThoseWho'dRatherNot) (with pictures by Mel Day) will be launching itself on the world, ready or not, on June 6th at Three Swans, upstairs. Grab a drink & come on up. 

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Drama & burlesque, art &lit, and ancient trees

Let's start straight off with Mayfest. If you don't live in Bristol so can't appreciate the full experience, it's a lucky dip which event to choose: my pick of Birthmarked was sensationally lucky. This is the extraordinary story of Brook Tate, born into a Jehovah's Witness family and an active messenger for the cult until his gay identity compelled a rethink, an expulsion and a reincarnation. Brook relates the tale direct to audience, supported by his (actual) band of new friends, amazing props, a vast whale - which has notionally swallowed us all - and a mix of fantasy, pantomime, feel-good storytelling, and boundary-breaking devices like total costume change centre stage as part of the show. Incredible & unforgettable - there's more here.

Time travelling now back to my jaunt to the big city on the previous day, for more drama:
Earth hath not anything to show more fair, Wordsworth wrote in his 220 year-old love poem to London: Westminster Bridge in his version but it's lovely from Waterloo footbridge too. Tuesday was a brilliant day overall though the play at the Dorfman (Middle by David Eldridge) which was my primary reason for this visit was a disappointing grumpfest of marital clichés. But the Berry coach to London is fast & inexpensive, Victoria Embankment Gardens are beautiful, South Bank in sunshine is fabulous, it was great to revisit the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall & find a my poetry collection with Burning Eye on their shelves, and to discover a nice pub - The Swan - close to Hammersmith Bus Station, so an overall ace day out. 
To get the show review out of the way: it's a middle-of-the-night row that goes on for two days - no, sorry two hours: he's money'd, she's bored: she reproaches, he smashes the china, then they help each other clean up so you think Oh good it's the end, but it isn't, and the emotional hostility just carries on in the same flat way which may be due to the script (over-even) or the production (over-level) or just the length (over-long) so no need to name & blame the actors - they've suffered enough. And if you think this summary is overly critical, you should see what Lloyd Evans in the Spectator says. Seriously, this is another of those pointless plays about affluent people bored by their own life-style (see An Hour and a Half Late, reviewed in this blog 27 Feb) - where's Jimmy Porter when we need a rant about pusillanimous irritations. With a support team of 32 plus the 2 wretched actors who had to memorise the tedious script, plays like this discredit the potential of theatre in society. Rant over.

Fabulous foliage beside the Thames - even fig trees fruiting - bring us nicely to the online talk by Julian Hight oRecording Britain’s Ancient Forest through Ancient Trees - a fascinating tour of Britain's historic forest told through the monumental oaks and other surviving trees. Did you know that in Medieval times two-thirds of England was forest - a word that meant, not dense trees as we tend to think now, but owned by the king & lords for recreational hunting.  

ulian has been exploring and logging ancient trees for many years, and his slides showed superb imagery of venerable trees and how to access them through the Ancient Tree Inventory, where we can also record any you come across ourselves. His own favourites are the iconic oaks that are so distinctive in English landscape, and he plants acorns wherever & whenever possible - here's the little oak he planted in Rodden Meadow a few years ago, in a bramble hedge to protect it from being nibbled by rodents while young - The thorn is mother of the oak, as the old saying goes... 

A mega-busy Thursday brought a bumper-bundle of goodies: let's start with the afternoon treat at Cooper Hall of a presentation by Amy Webber of new material for a one-woman show she's been developing during her residency there. Amy is not only an incredible singer in a range of styles, she also has great audience rapport and some sharp & very funny material. 'I've got an opera degree that's never been useful,' Amy confides, and proceeds to demonstrate its potential by composing a funeral song for an audience member (me😊) and then giving an illustrated lecture on music genres over the years. Her satirical material is very funny and her voice is fabulous.   Next, a quick dash back across Whatcombe Fields to the other side of town - so dramatically beautiful I'm including a snap of it here -   

- to arrive at the Gallery at the Station in time for the opening of the brilliant exhibition of paintings by Paris: Ultra Aesthetics 'a touring exhibition for changing times.'   The images are mainly vivid mergings of colour & energy, and the concept behind the show is fascinating as explained by the artist in his leaflet: using found items (viz used Estate Agent signboards) the images 'hark back to Protest Art through the ages, and reference the work of young artists in New York's Lower East Side in the 1970s and 80s'. This development of his street pieces in Bristol (and Frome) is planned to develop into an extensive tour.  

And then on to The Three Swans for Dirty Laundry, the new Spoken Word event run by Olly Davy, a tasty mix of storytelling and poetry. All the  contributors were excellent but sadly my images were light-blighted so here's a picture of me doing a poem (thanks Mike Grenville) presumably (hopefully) a very fleeting moment during the bit about the Beastie Boys....

While we're on the subject of me & me-pomes, this week saw the exciting arrival of a boxful of the double-anthology created by Hazel Stewart & I during lockdown, now published by Caldew Press. Snappily entitled What's It Like For You? at one end and Dance For Those Who'd Rather Not at the other end, this pushmepullyou book is filled not only with our lyrical creations but also some brilliant drawings by Mel Day - launch will be on June 6 at The Three Swans so do pop along if you live near Frome!

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Things to know about love, & death, & in between...

Festival time has arrived already in the Southwest, with Bath Festival offering a splendid programme across the range of classic and popular arts, though there's too much also happening in Frome for me to do more than dip in. My chosen dip was Brian Bilston, dubbed 'the poet laureate of twitter', who for many people has redefined poetry for the electronic age in the way the Liverpool poets did for the 'generation gap' era of the 1960s.  He must be used to online followers but seemed slightly surprised by the size of his live audience in the Assembly Rooms - the stewards certainly were, and made a hurried room-swap to assign us enough seating. Brian has a friendly unassuming manner, with little anecdotes about each of his poems - he shares 20 of them - 8 more than Carol Ann Duffy, he confides (and Simon Armitage doesn't do any, just stands on a dais drinking sparkling water while the audience applauds.) In between such pleasantries, and a diatribe about the Daily Mail, Brian reads from his collections, with a focus on his latest Alexa, what is there to know about love?  The hour's talk goes very quickly.
My last glimpse of Brian was behind two tables of his books with a massive line of customers snaking across the big Georgian room with its dazzling chandeliers, all the way down the stairs, each queuing to buy a signed copy of a book by the bloke who wrote a comprehensive character assassination of Boris Johnson (click here). Sometimes Bath can be surprising.

The Predicament of Jackson Scott is the new drama from Black Hound Productions, on stage at Frome's Merlin Theatre on Saturday night. Black comedy doesn't get much more Stygian than this - a warning of strangulation, blood, physical struggle, murder, scenes of a sexual nature, and grief is handed to audience members at the door - but it's outrageously funny and unflaggingly intriguing. On a set that's half nightclub, half nightmare, with a bed that doubles as a grave, Jackson (Yves Scott) is squeezing Ted (Luke Ashley Tame) to death as the play opens.  Ted doesn't take this lying down, and neither later does his sister Bernice - outstandingly well played by Mia Macleod - so the hapless haunted murderer has double the number of persistent visions than even Macbeth, not to mention the attentions of the strange Counsellor (Alex Wallacot).  Written by Josh McGrillen and directed by Lex Kaby with set design by creative producer Patrick Withey, this original and entertaining drama is on its way to Edinburgh where, given its energetic physicality and slick staging, it should be very well received. Great to see something so different on stage.

Musical performance now: The Gugg - Guggleton Farm Arts to give this wonderful  place its full name- is a bit of a shlepp from Frome, being just over the Dorset border, but it's rightly on the radar of bands looking for a popular open-mic venue.  It's worth arriving early, as the Gallery always displays fascinating original art, and the main-street based little town of Stalbridge is delightful: unfortunately it's also a main route across the south-west, but framed around with fields & woods, & with an excellent independent Co-op. This week's Open Mic night featured a series of excellent performers, including local favourite 'Twitch', aka Darryl Rushby (pictured), whose set included Time of Your Life from Green Day and Nizlopi's JCB song.  Bar and pizzas completed the party atmosphere. 

Here in Frome, Bar Lotte has become the go-to spot here on a Wednesday, with its excellent regular live music sessions.  It was the turn of Iain Ballamy's jazz trio this week - here's Dave Smith who gave us a breathtaking drum solo in Dancing Cheek to Cheek.

And finally: good news for Frome's many nature-lovers: large stretches of Whatcombe Fields, the 34-acre community-shared meadows on the western side of town, have been left deliberately and carefully unmown for walkers to enjoy the buttercups...  so now fields of gold join the hedges of whitflorescence all around the town.

Monday, May 09, 2022

A summery mix: art, music, fungus, & my new book!

Let's start with Frome's new photography gallery, part of a major focus on this art form this summer launched by Lockhart Murdoch on Friday evening in party style.  Previously a charity shop, this is small but conveniently sited in the main precinct, by Boots and filled now with Lockhart's collection of  amazing black-and-white photographs, many from the 1960s. 
Frome is also looking forward to a Festival of Photography this summer, starting on 21 June and overlapping with the general Frome Festival (July 1st-10th) - there's an insight into the wide range of photo-related events here.
Still with visual arts: as Frome gears up for its annual arts festival, internationally renowned artist Corinna Sargood treated me to the tale of an earlier incarnation in 1996, when banners and coloured 'washing' transformed Paul Street into an Italian-style street festival. This hit national headlines by clashing with the BBC's filming schedule, with opinions divided on the 'Bloomers Battle' between the quirky festival and the Harvest Moon production team. The Beeb won the day with a donation to A.D.D but the Outdoor Laundry Installation was reinstalled once filming finished.

And this week's extended art spot goes online too, with the latest of National Gallery's occasional talks: this month's is Une Baignade, Asnières (A swim at Asnières) painted in 1884 by Georges Seurat, a favourite for me because of the suburban location - no false pastoral image but factory-land just north of Paris - and the two boys in the foreground, seemingly self-absorbed in private solitude. Disappointingly, this short 'talk' in superimposed text argues the artist's theme was apathy and loneliness. But it's a fabulous painting, whatever you decide.  

Music! Saturday night was a big night for big sounds: first a trip to Bristol with Rosie Eliot to see the Postmodern Jukebox in a live show at the O2 - a great chance to posh up! - and then a dash back to Frome to catch the final half hour of UNIT4's brilliant band act at 23 Bath Street. Poor picture quality, at each venue, is partly my phone's fault and partly because of dancing...

Also this week, several rural walks around Frome to enjoy the emerging green on the trees and the abundance of white below as dense clouds of cow parsley join the wild garlic and bluebells rampant around our woods and verges. While you're imagining all that, and the birdsong, and the fabulous lipstick pinks of the blossoming  trees, here too is a fascinating fungus found on Nunney footpath which was identified by keen-eyed Kieron Bacon as a firerug inkcap.
And to end the week on a high note for me, here's the sneak preview of my new novel Blow-ins, about to be published by Hobnob Press - cover design by David Moss who was also responsible foDéjà Lu.  This is a tale of not-quite everyday not-quite country folk: it's meant to be funny and maybe thought-provoking, and I'm immensely proud that two bestselling writer friends have given it the thumbs up: 'wonderful...and original', said Katie Fforde and 'funny, sharp, and moving - a vivid and intriguing read... ' said Francis Liardet.   This is the proof copy: when it's been corrected you'll be hearing more... 

Monday, May 02, 2022

May Day fun, frolics & failure...

So.. an odd thing happened just as I was about to post this update: the entire entry disappeared. So instead of an a thoughtful and possibly insightful review of last week, here - one day late -  is a slightly frantic summary: 
Music first, as Saturday night was the hotly-anticipated Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal event at the Cheese & Grain: five superb acts performing to a full & friendly audience, with opening and links from DJ Patmandu. Here's The Back Wood Redeemers who followed Henry Wacey, Back of the Bus, Mighty One, and The Raggedy Men -  all brilliant. A fantastic night of dancing with friends and listening to fabulous music from these great Frome performers.
Sunday was Independent Market day, followed by an afternoon session at Bar Lotte from the truly brilliant Rosco Shakes, with daylight giving a slightly better opportunity to catch a snap of this fabulous funk-blues band. From a laconic version of Ain't nobody's business but my own, to a rocking Kansas city here I come, the Rosco team delivers superbly in its own inimitable style, with Tim literally dancing as he speed-plays the keyboard. 

This was a great week for arts: Mark Brooke's provocative and unusual images of Melissa Stanton-Matthews were on show at the Station Gallery, where on Thursday Melissa also read some of the poems from their shared collection of art and words Meet Me Inside - a candid sharing of feelings about 'being human' in a world that values beauty above other attributes.  Melissa's intimate personal poems chime with the series of portraits Mark created to show the real woman beyond the perfect model, but Melissa is actually very beautiful.

Friday saw a plethora of exciting art show openings: Black Swan has some amazing work from Simon Hitchens, whose Beyond Body exhibition explores the connection between our experiences and those of inanimate matter like rock, to ask questions about our concept of experience: "what makes a being sentient? Is a mountain or stone a being?" Simon is fascinated, he explains, by 'the difference between the human and the non-human – what passes and what outlasts.”

Showing until 26 May and well worth a visit.

Over at the
Whittox Gallery on the same night, another thought-provoking exhibition opened. Endangered tells an important story about the life cycle of eels in Britain where sadly they are now close to extinction. Julia Manning's beautiful wood and linocut prints chronicle their amazing journeys from birth in Somerset rivers to finally reaching the Sargasso Sea, and she has been working in schools to raise awareness and hopefully halt their decline. This fascinating and informative exhibition, which also includes some wildlife sketches by Nik Pollard, is showing until 25 June.

Finally in this splendid arty triumvirate of Friday night openings: the Art Fair at the Silk Mill & Bennett Centre was open throughout the weekend - a delightful throng of art and craft of every description. The quality of work by these local makers is fantastic, and their ingenuity is amazing too: Paul Juillerat's felted banners incorporating personal treasures, and esoteric art created from scrap by Matthew Sowter to name just two of the intriguing practices on display along with the paintings and high-quality craft work.

So Friday night in Frome was buzzing with arty vibes but unfortunately I'd booked to see Mark Thomas at the Rondo in Bath and missed all these openings, although did manage a full catch-up around the venues in Frome next day. Mark's lockdown shows had been funny and full-on political so I was hoping for some satisfying satire on the current state of the nation, but disappointingly his focus was on other issues, like having a row with the front rows and giving a  detailed description of his annoying aged mother's toenails, so I left at the interval to enjoy a stroll back through the city and a wait for the bus at Be At One, where barmen wear ear plugs but the vibe is always friendly. Here's Bladud in the Parade Gardens, from my afternoon stroll round the city.

And finally - I think, though I may have missed something as it was a busy week - the continuing benefit of lockdown for me has been Zoom, a portal to art talks and theatre performance when live visits were banned and this week a connection to two interesting meetings hosted by Penny Hay at Bath Spa School of Education, who talked with Liv Torc about the amazing work with the Hot Poets.
 Liv is passionate about poetry and about the urgency of need for awareness of our climate crisis: the Hot Poets project she's spearheading made such an impact at COP26 that the team have been invited to join the UN at COP27.  Liv talked fluently, and often funnily, about the contribution that poetry can make to essential awareness of issues, and about her own writing process: 'I look on it like sculpting a piece of clay - you have to work on it while its wet', she says. 
Later that day  Penny Hay also zoom-interviewed Mikey Please, recent recipient of a Bafta for his Aardman-developed animated film Robin Robin,  Mikey talked entertainingly about his own animations and the process with Aardman - surprisingly, it's so complicated that no retakes are possible meaning everything you see is the first take - and gave credit to all the team who worked on the project, including musicians Ben & Beth Please aka The Bookshop Band, and, especially pleasing for me, my writer/film-maker son Sam.

So there you are, that was the week that got wiped by my system, or at least the shreds remaining in my memory - with a final footnote which is also the reason there's no report here on the May Independent Market, as my morning was shared with 400 others forming a human chain around the Saxondale site currently under threat of cynical development. There's an alternative plan on offer which would benefit us all far more (you can view it here) and the Big Mayday Hug around the site will hopefully have shown how much support this one has, and the level of concern in Frome about the future of this area in the heart of the town.