Sunday, July 24, 2022

Yet more summer celebrations: drama, art & music

Remember Treasure Island? A coming-of-age story, about desert islands, buried gold, pirates, and a parrot? Exeter's physical comedy theatre Le Navet Bete are touring with their version, at Bristol Old Vic until the end of the month and strongly recommended.  All the elements are there, except the parrot is called Alexa and is just as inept as that cloud-based info-system, and a raft of extraneous characters are also integrated, including Captain Birdseye and an erotic mermaid who steals every scene - a difficult task as the four multi-tasking performers are all fantastic. 
Director John Nicholson has somehow retained a key element in the story - the innocent young hero seeking buried treasure - throughout this hilarious mayhem, even when plot progress at one point depends on the outcome of a game of 'Play Your Cards' right with the audience. Matt Freeman is outrageously memorable, but all the cast are brilliant, interacting with each other and with the audience to make the whole show a giant party. I've never heard an audience laugh so much - strongly recommended.

A different dramatic mood now from  Black Hound Productions, as Frome's fearsomely talented young theatre company has created An Edinburgh Fringe Double Bill previewed at Merlin Theatre on Wednesday.  Both plays use sensitive insight and humour to explore life experiences typical today.  In Seeds of Memories, a young man reminisces in the garden of his much-missed grandfather, finding a kind of magic as well as many memories; in Alright?, a disaffiliated teenage boy struggles to cope in a school-and-home void without support - again, with humour as well as insight. 
 The first play is a virtual monologue for Ollie J Edwards, supported throughout by Lesley Hayes who morphs between beloved Nan & less-adored Mum, and by Lisha Allen as a glamorous evocation of Nature. There's clever puppetry and evocative, neatly-choreographed, scene-shifts evoking natural magic as emotions swell and shift.
The second play is even more engaging, and did actually drag a couple of tears from me as teenage Noah, played by Thomas Price, flails between the tedium of school and home, with a disaffected school counsellor, an inept father, and a dotty grandmother as his only support. This too is extremely well staged as Noah's isolation is evoked by the total absence of any 'key connections': the school psychiatrist is conveyed by a small recess - "because mental health is an afterthought in eduction" while Gran is a voice from the overly-plush corner where 'like some sort of confused pickpocket,' she drops hip-flasks in Noah's pocket in lieu of any real contact. He's heading downwards until the night his dad snaps & rants at him, and Noah realises 'this is the most we've ever spoken', and achieves an awkward, but realistic, breakthrough.  Both plays are written and directed by artistic director Patrick Withey, who also designed the imaginative sets.  

Summertime in the Southwest is as thick with festivals as Edinburgh's Royal Mile is with performers. The Frome Festival of Photography was speedily overlapped by the multi-inclusive Frome Arts Festival, and now Black Swan Arts Open 2022 has filled every available wall and surface in the building with nearly 200 visual art works from over 1000 submitted from far & wide as well as locally - you can see them all in online shop. There's a big buzz around this exhibition, which has insisted on a ceiling price of £1000 from all artists, even the most established - some already showing online as sold.

Theres an exhibition also at the Good Heart Tibetan Memories Cafewhere Lockhart Murdoch  has filled the walls with photographs of Tibet from his archives. These are mainly historic press photographs from his vast collection at One A gallery and shop in Frome town centre, intriguing to visitors at the opening and thrilling to chef Namdi, who recognised the figure featured in one - his own lama and friend. (That's him in the background, behind Namdi's happy grin. ) Alison Murdoch, founder of the Good Heart, also spoke of future plans for this pay-it-forward cafe with a focus on community support

On a personal note: as well as all the above delights, it was my pleasure this week to be interviewed by the truly wonderful Eleanor Talbot about my latest novel Blow-Ins, for her weekly international online show Variations on a Theme (also broadcast on Frome FM next week, link to be posted later). Eleanor's insights are always incisive so our conversation was in-depth & quite challenging - it's great to be quizzed by an enthusiastic fan who also asks questions like "How do you manage balancing the funny with the darker themes?" Perhaps because art is, after all, like life...

This week's landscape is from the riverside at Freshford, at the end of a family walk on Sunday, with the recent intense heat now ebbing into a very pleasant languid warmth.

Although Upton Blues is a week behind us now, in another world below the Malvern Hills where a campervan-village among golden 'cat's ear' field flowers waves with colourful flags, it's been great reviewing my photos of that festival... if you don't have facebook, here's a screenshot of a few snaps...

And finally, another in my series of occasional alerts to fantastic online music you might not already be aware of: Peter Bence, officially the world's fastest piano-player. He's Hungarian, travelling Europe giving live concerts & on Youtube too: here's his version of Don't Stop Me Now - there's more fantastic Queen performances on his page here.  

Monday, July 18, 2022

Hot week, cool blues...

This is a digression-ary posting, as my last five days have been spent soaking up the sun and listening to cool sounds at Upton Blues Festival - biggest free blues festival in the UK. Impossible to attempt a  'review' of any of the blisteringly good bands on the sixteen stages (and various pavements!) across this little town below the Malvern Hills as identifying genres - or indeed sometimes even instruments - is beyond me, but the campsite was brilliantly organised, the town was welcoming, the sound was fantastic and a great time was had by all.  

Don't go quite yet, though - I do have a brief review for you: Bugsy Malone, the stage version, which opened at Theatre Royal Bath and is now on its UK tour through fourteen theatres, concluding with a West End run. Based closely on Alan Parker's famous movie with its Oscar-winning music score by Paul Williams, this is directed by Sean Holmes, reviving his acclaimed 2015 production at the Lyric Hammersmith. It's certainly an enjoyable distraction from much that's happening in the 'real world' to be transported to a land and time when the biggest problem was 'You're no good if you haven't got IT!' and glamour, talent, and romance ruled....  The child stars are delightful, but inevitably it's the high energy of the adult ensemble set pieces that inspires the most exhilaration - the strobe-lighting-enhanced car chase that concludes the first half is simply fabulous...  My full review, for Plays International, is here.

Monday, July 11, 2022

It's a wrap...Frome Festival 2022 now golden memories...

Our revels now are ended. Frome Festival, the week when every public space offers performance nightly while homes & gardens across the town open daily to share artistic & horticultural splendours, is over for another year. Festival Director Martin Dimery has steered the show splendidly for his final time, and can step down with due dramatic pride in this year's showcase of the range and quality of events.  
And as Martin is also responsible for this festival's theatrical highlight - he wrote the book & lyrics and directed the production -  we'll start with The Haunting of Richard the Third. With music by Martin and David Hynds, Kairos Theatre Company performed this stunning drama, emotionally gripping and crammed with jeopardy and joy, on ECOS amphitheatre. It's the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field, and Richard, last Plantagenet king of England & last English monarch to be killed in battle, is recalling his increasingly indefensible rise to power. We see his glory days, and his fall, overwhelmed by the Yorkist army of Henry Tudor, whose dynasty ruled England for the next hundred years. It's now 20 years since Richard’s body, in an unmarked tomb, was found in a car-park in Leicester. Steve Middle was superb as the degenerating king, and Sarah Wingrove genuinely moving as his queen, with all the cast of supporters & foes, nobles & peasants - and ghosts too, combining to create three hours of riveting entertainment. 
With several theatrical productions, and only one week of festival, choice was difficult: my next pick was the black comedy Silence by Moira Buffini at the Assembly Rooms, a Dark Ages drama billed as Monty Pythonesque. Written in 1999 and well received at the time (it won an award for best English language play by a woman) this production by Frome Drama definitely had its moments and was well acted and often funny but perhaps Black Adder and social media have raised the bar for dark age satire as there wasn't much edge or bite, and the thought-provoking aspect seemed lacking. 
Even the Museum became a performance space this year, as Rosie Eliot of Nevertheless Productions together with Debbie Clayton created a clever, funny, and informative drama around some of the characters in the current 'Celebrated Women of Frome' exhibition there. The Auditions imagines six of Frome's most colourful historic characters chatting as they wait for their moment to impress the judges of Britain's Got Talent: here Christina Rossetti worries that In the Bleak Midwinter will be dismissed as too gloomy while Emma Sheppard is keen to further her philanthropic work with a rendition of Bring Me Sunshine - an apt choice as her 1859 pamphlet urging workhouse reform was titled 'Sunshine in the Workhouse'.

Segueing from conversational speech to narrative, the dark horse of the festival was a one-off extravaganza at the Assembly rooms on Monday: The Magic of the Universe from the Pagan Gospel Groove Machine, led by Ed Green, promised 'an interactive immersive experience with audience participation, harmony singing, music and dancers, told with love, hope, spirituality and connection'. Think '70s 'happening' idealism, with shared intention like an '80s 'encounter group'. It was moving simply listening to the music and watching the backdrop film of galactic activity, but the hall was too full of seating for the audience to actively join the dancers - a really lovely immersive experience though.
As you'd expect, bands were playing in most of the pubs around town - Frome's popular Unit 4 had a 'Soundcheck' show on VRA, viewable here - and there was also excellent live music at nearby Marston Park Glampsite, a pleasant 40 minutes walk away, down lanes and across fields, which offered free access during festival week to locals - fabulous to lounge by the lake at sunset, listening to high quality live jazz from the Damian Cook Trio, with Bryan Posslethwaite on piano & Henrik Jenson on bass.
These were my evening highlights, but throughout the daytime there was an amazing array of art on view in venues right across the town - and beyond, too. Among my favourites were Cameron Scott's relief wood carvings, and the superb paintings of Miguel Ornia-Blanco and Dan Morley in their Silk Mill Studios, but there was much more that was hugely impressive too.
The final weekend brought another Frome Festival extravaganza/happening - the Open Gardens, when 42 private gardens in and around Frome reveal their locations and invite visitors to call in and admire them - the map plus details is a well-invested fiver, as wandering these gardens and talking to their friendly tenders is worth five times that. Lavender thick with bees, forests of hollyhocks, lily-ponds, trees, curios, and cups of tea all feature in these drop-in visits, with garden-lovers comparing notes and sharing recommendations. 
And finally... this week's artsy account of life in Frome life will conclude as mine did, on a writerly note: Frome Writers Collective gathered on the ECOS site to read flash fiction to each other - thanks Dawn Denton for this pic of me, with organisers Gill Harry & Brenda Bannister -
- and to discover the results of this year's short story competition, judged by  journalist and novelist, Keith Stuart ... and the winner was: Nikki Coplestone! And my festival, having begun by sipping champagne with Roger McGough, ended with the monthly 'Proof Pudding' book-club meeting at River House, where we share our reviews of titles sent to Hunting Raven Books for manager Tina Gaysford-Waller's consideration - mine this time was STALKING THE ATOMIC CITY by Markiyan Kamysh, a shocking yet lyrical account of the perilous life of an illegal returner to Chernobyl. 


Friday, July 08, 2022

Detour from Frome Festival to Prospero's island...

A midweek detour to Bath, for a new production at the Ustinov Studio which you really need to know about:

Shakespeare's final play is tantalising to producer and audience alike. The Tempest is crammed with all the bard's themes - betrayal, revenge, true love and clownish absurdity, psychological insight and romantic fantasy, and often seen as the final conclusion of his reign as magician/storyteller, but this production adds more, revealing themes and prototypes as timeless as today's headlines. Here's a coterie of political plotters, here's inept clowns struggling to seize control, believing in their own delusions. And here of course are Shakespeare's counterpoised captive spirits, both confined in roles they are desperate to escape. Ariel (Dickie Beau), seeming traumatised by terror of his master, is finally freed, while defiant Caliban ((Edward Hogg) continues to suffer - interestingly this Caliban is no monster and seems largely to have been degraded by mistreatment. But Prospero of course has acted protect his daughter, the gorgeous Miranda (Tanvi Virmani), a fit consort for this handsome Ferdinand (Pierro Niel-Mee).  Nicholas Woodeson as Prospero is mesmeric, and the two groups of conspirators, overlords and underlings, are both well played - the drunken trio as drunk as you'll ever see them, piping alcohol into their mouths as they plan their work-event in Prospero's domain. Most memorable of all, the set (designer Christof Hetzer) is a living presence in itself - an extraordinary wasteland, violent and magical, with real stones, real mud, and a backdrop that converts from storms to faerie theatre shows.

This is the first production under new Artistic Director Deborah Warner at Ustinov Studio. It is amazing throughout and, from the unusual start with Ariel watching the set being readied, nearly three hours disappears with constant unsettling and brilliant surprises. We stood to applaud at the final curtain.

Monday, July 04, 2022

Frome, fizzing with festivals this week

Frome Festival, PHOTO FROME, and Frome Open Art Trail, together conspired to make last week delightful but difficult for the conscientious arts blogger. With 45 festival events over the weekend listed in the brochure, this report can be only a personal skim-through, so let's start in the Merlin Theatre with readings by Roger McGough, premier 'Liverpool Poet' in the 1960s, considered by ex-Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy to have brought poetry out of the grip of scholars and back to the streets. Roger is still brilliant, entertaining the full house with random & very funny raconteuring as well as with his recent poetry. That famous offbeat humour is still evident - 'Live fast, die young - failed on both counts" - and his anecdotes of poems sent in by sacked workers when he was Writer in Residence for BT were hilarious. With Liv Torc providing a brilliant opening, this was altogether a fantastic evening of entertainment, and it was a real privilege to share a glass of champagne with the poets and event organiser, Lockhart Murdoch, at his house after the show.

Still with theatre performance, Olivier-award-winning Little Bulb Theatre Company offered their Feast of the Gods on Saturday afternoon in Victoria Park, a wonderfully entertaining all-age, audience interactive, show which delighted a large crowd despite the thunderstorm. It's more about interaction than plot, and after the crisis threatening Cupid's wedding was sorted, the entire audience joined in the feast, with fizz & cakes served by cast & musicians. 

There's a tenuous link now with the Sunday Independent Market, as bride Athena is, in the non-Arcadian world, guitarist for Rosco Shakes, who were performing in Bar Lotte during the afternoon - as ever, brilliantly entertaining jump-blues band (since Glasto 'discovered' by The S*n newspaper.) 

So as we've shifted to the subject of music, there's been a lot of it, and extremely varied, from the many classical works in the programme to the Frome Street Bandits in the Market Place for the Food Feast on Saturday. So here they are, entertaining the large crowd queuing at the food stalls, and here for contrast are The Raggedy Men at the Sun Inn on Friday, Spanish guitarist Juan Picard entertaining at Lo Rapitenc tapas bar, and the immersive audiovisual club night with Sensonic at the Silk Mill.

The Small Publishers Fair is a long-standing festival feature, always popular with book-lovers. Organised very efficiently by the Frome Writers Collective, this event on the first Saturday sees literally hundreds of readers and writers checking out the stalls and buying books. Opened this year by Writers' Collective member Peter Clark, whose recent book ''Churchill's Britain from the Antrim coast to the Isle of Wight' was New Statesman's Book of the Year, it remained buzzingly busy throughout the day, with tea & buns thoughtfully provided by FWC members. Definitely a useful event for writers - this was how & where I met my current book publisher, John Chandler of Hobnob Press, seen here at his stall, which now features books by five!! local writers.
So now we're on that subject, last week saw the launch of another book by a local author who recently joined this imprint: Alison Clink was at Hunting Raven with Frances Liardet on Tuesday to talk about, and read from, her new novel Two Blackberry Lane. A crowded bookshop enjoyed hearing her extract reading, and the backstory of this intriguing and poignant 'house through time' tale, inspired when Alison discovered some old deeds in her own house.

Still with words, last week also saw the long-delayed return of a Poetry Cafe in Frome as a venue has now been offered: an upstairs room at HOME, the new cafe/bar in the centre of town. Twelve spoken word performers shared their poems in a convivial & supportive atmosphere, with a wide range of themes, moods and styles. A rich event - though the only visual evidence is a phone shot at the break, which fails to capture the rapt attention during readings...

Visual art now: and a new exhibition at Whittox Lane Gallery has a seasonal theme: Land of the Summer People, showing until 4th Sept features large scale oil & cold wax landscapes and some framed watercolours by artist Jenny Graham. The gorgeous gallery setting appreciates big images like these, and opening night was well supported.

Another opening now, as 27 galleries open their doors to visitors for the Frome Open Art Trail 2022, on throughout the festival. A full report will hopefully follow in the next edition: here's your taster - venue 9. Alex Howell paints evocative landscapes and seascapes, and her friendly opening was full of people discussing where they would hang their favourite images, so hopefully her sales will go well.
And art brings me back to photography, specifically to the final two exhibitions in the PHOTO FROME project which opened last week: 23 Bath Street is the quirky location for the work of Ramona Carraro 

and our own local camera club, Frome Wessex Photographic, has an impressive display of talent at the Town Hall. The theme for all members was "My vision, my process", interpreted in various different ways. Talking to the photographers just before the opening, it was moving to hear from Anna Kovalevska, whose theme was meditation, that the red image in this shot was taken in her homeland Ukraine on the day that war began.