Friday, September 15, 2017

Two Pinters and a pick and mix

It's hard to bring anything new to the table of a Pinter play, and nor would one want novelty: those famous pauses, cryptic non-sequiturs, stripped-down brutality of human relationships are the elements that give each differently-unique drama that distinctive Pinteresque voice.  Betrayal is a love story, sort of, and a chunk of biography too, as it was allegedly inspired by the playwright's own affair with Joan Bakewell. The plot is simple: Jerry falls in love with his best friend Robert's wife, Emma, and they have an affair. The story is told backwards over ten years, from the awkward aftermath to the sensual start, the audience catching glimpses more like moments on a passing train than voyeurs of passion.
The new production at Salisbury Playhouse directed by Jo Newman superbly evokes the 1970s mood on a deceptively simple set by Hannah Wolfe, lit by Dave Marsh, with the essential separation of all three protagonists highlighted by the way each inhabits their own space like characters in a Hockney painting.
Kirsty Besterman is superb as the art dealer at the centre of the triangle, and Robert Hands brings intriguing enigma to her husband, possibly long-suffering, possibly something rather nastier. Robert Mountford as once-amorous Jerry brings out the laughs in the first act so much he seems more a hapless Bertie Wooster than a credible literary agent, but in the slow-burn climax his persona emerges: his passionate declaration This is the only thing that has ever happened is potent and poignant, as if it were the missing heart of the story.
It's only the debris of these relationships that we see, apart from a final glimpse of the tingling start of the affair which leaves the lingering question: Who betrayed who? Robert knew for years, and Emma knew he knew, while Jerry followed his heart and took his lead from his lover.  The fact that Robert Mountford looks a little bit like Harold Pinter when young is inevitably intriguing, but this play is neither a vendetta nor a personal defence: I'm not quite sure what it is, actually but it's evocative, thought-provoking and often funny, and this well-performed production is worth a visit. On till 23 September. (Production images Helen Murray)

Following this effective recreation of Pinter's era, watching The Caretaker at Bristol Old Vic felt a more arduous experience.  It's a longer and more arduous play, for a start, and 're-imagining' the story in 2017 was not to me entirely successful. There's a kind of prescient innocence in Pinter's script, written before homelessness became more familiar and more political. The cast are all superb, despite slightly awkward clowning from the tramp and the decision to make the landlord brother a kind of Puck figure, and it's a credit to all three that the fact a black man was so determinedly and irrationally racist became eventually irrelevant to a story which seemed at times a kind of Waiting for Godot situation for homeless Davies (Patrice Naiambana) and his host (Jonathan Livingstone) occasionally interrupted by wild-card brother Mick (David Judge).  Persistent sound, especially during the most poignant and painful moments of the second act, was probably a Marmite factor ~ I'm assuming some people loved it ~ but my main problem with this production was the 'explosion' concept set which dominated everything and upstaged everyone. There were some powerful highlight moments, but the subtleties in the dynamic of relationships were drowned out by visual embellishments. Directed by Christopher Haydon. (Image: Iona Firouzabadi)

 One of the best things about this time of year in Frome is that, now the holidays are over and the schools are back, the town goes into full social-activity mode. Last Saturday there were three events on the same night. One was A Late Summer Night's Dream in the magical setting of the Merchant's House Secret Garden, illuminated by night-lights and a moon only just beginning to wane. This 'casual celebration of music, literature and naked poetry' was organised and hosted by poet Liam Parker, and I hope he'll create another similar happening soon, as I was at another gathering of creatives: The Rye Bakery, in the old Zion United Reformed Church in Whittox Lane, now refurbished with many original features restored, was the splendid setting for a celebratory dinner party with poems instead of speeches.

And a welcome return this week to the Acoustic Cafe in Nunney, best way to spend a Sunday afternoon now sunny walks are off the menu ~ and an awesome line-up: Emma Shoosmith, Henry Wacey and Mike Barham among fifteen class acts, including superb headline act Maia Fry. Another high point for me was performing two of my poems in tandem with Paul Kirtley presenting the songs they inspired him to write: Crones of Avalon and Proxy Botox. (Thanks Barry Savell for the image)
Also returning after a break, Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar launched their autumn season with a stonking set from Back Before Breakfast, combining brilliant musicianship with stirring storytelling and great audience rapport. Taxi Driver's Travis, bone-collector Mary Anning, Victorian melodrama, Tasmanian tigers, and more.. all original songs, and a couple of original-crafted instruments too. A band to look out for!

Final footnote: Jill Miller has been visiting Frome on one of her visits from Spain, where she lives now in coastal Villajoyosa. When we met up she presented me with a photo from the days we were both writing fiction. In the last twenty years much has changed in our lives, we've both moved house and changed genres but still get together when we can, to reminisce, write, and plan new projects together...

Friday, September 08, 2017

Autumn medley: meetings, music, and a mystery

As August morphs reluctantly into autumn,  Ham Wall RSPB Reserve proved the a perfect place to spend the last sunny day. It's a round walk of less than two miles but every turn of the flooded meadows is bird paradise ~ indeed, at the Avalon Hide, as sunlight illuminated a white egret spreading its wings, I actually heard a twitcher tell his friend "Thought I'd died and gone to heaven..." Strawberries and prosecco made a perfect picnic, thankyou Mike, and Chrissie Hynde for the drive home was a nice touch too.
Havant & District Writers Circle, a serious-sounding name for a delightful group, invited me to join them last Saturday in the peaceful surroundings of Park Place Pastoral Centre in Hampshire for a workshop.
Bravely, they opted for a full-day session, and fourteen writers arrived ready to seize every writing prompt with energy and amazing diversity plus frequent wicked humour. Hugely creative and great fun, in short ~ thanks so much to Carol Westron and Wendy Metcalfe for inviting me along. I enjoyed every minute.

A somewhat subdued Independent Market to greet the first Sunday in September, as drizzle all day reduced the number of stalls and fun stuff, and crowded the streets with dripping umbrellas. More Renoir's Les Parapluies than Lowry's Market Scene, in short, but with small pleasures like the busking stage. Here's 'Peone', jauntily leading off the morning's live music session.

Frome Writers' Collective monthly meeting at Three Swans was crowded for talk on "The Perfect Murder" by Alan Hamilton, author of Stalemate, a fictional tale inspired by the most famous unsolved murder in English history ~ the 'frenzy killing' of Julia Wallace in her Liverpool home in 1931. Alan's meticulous account of the circumstances, trial, and outcome were illustrated by slideshow and so well presented you could have heard a pin drop. One by one the theories were considered and discarded as the facts became curiouser and curiouser... could this woman of 70, claiming to be 20 years younger, have had lovers who combined to turn on her? Could her mild husband, despite so secure an alibi, have donned a mackintosh over his naked body to shatter her brain like a Nutribullet? All this and much more gruesome detail was presented and analysed in a fascinating study of the true story which Raymond Chandler called 'unbeatable' and PD James believed 'the most mysterious case ever.'

Frome Museum curator Sue Bucklow has been researching the little-known connection between 19th Century French sculptor Camille Claudel and the Singer family, at that time foundry-owners. Camille, at one time known primarily for her disastrous love affair with Rodin, has this year been finally honoured by a museum dedicated to her art  in Nogent-sur-Seine: this photograph of Camille's visit to Frome in 1866, presumed taken by Amy Singer, is now on display in the Town Hall with other images & more details. Another fascinating fact for fromeophiles.

Musically Frome has been quieter during August, with Roots Sessions taking a summer break and many musicians off at summer festivals, but Thursday saw Jazz Club return to the Cornerhouse with Funk from the Far Corners featuring the amazing talents of Keith Harrison-Broninski on keyboard, Andy Christie on guitar and Chris Jones on bass & double bass, with sensational drumming from Roberto Nappi, all climaxing in a sensational interpretation of Dodge the Dodo. (yes I did have to ask, not being familiar with Esbjorn Svensson). As a new arrival in town told me in awed tones after this finale, "I've got £80-tickets for a concert next week and I know I won't hear anything better than that!"

And finally for this posting: Jill Miller, Frome's most famous feminist ~ her 1983 novel Happy as a Dead Cat was on the reading list for Women's Studies courses for two decades ~ also renowned for founding Positive Action on Cancer counselling service, and for touring her autobiographical stage drama Time Bomb internationally was invited to reflect on What keeps you awake at night?  Battersea Arts Centre selected twelve people to film, in the dead of night, their answer to this question. Jill talks movingly about her personal killer: "Don’t let them say I was brave…" But she clearly is brave, to challenge the popular cliche of the 'battle' with cancer ("I'm a pacifist" she says simply) and to speak calmly something usually either sentimentalised or taboo. You can see Jill's response here.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A surprisingly sunny Bank Holiday

With southwest England enjoying Greek-style temperatures this past week, A Winter's Tale proved happily premature when travel-writer Roger Jinkinson took me to see this Tisbury Arts Group production in the 'Commandery' of the tiny Norman hamlet of Ansty. Lavishly costumed, and with an impressive lead performance from Steve Whittingham as psychotic King Leontes of Bohemia, here's the pivotal moment of as the queen obediently enjoins her husband's friend to stay longer, unwittingly inspiring a suspicion-tantrum that destroys their marriage and kills their beloved son ~ the sweet boy who ironically initially urges "A sad tale's best for winter." Shakespeare at his most sadistic, in an extraordinary and exquisite setting.

Also choosing an interesting venue, Frome Writers Collective held their summer 'Flash Fiction' picnic in ECOS, outside Merlin Theatre. The acronym stands for European Community of Stones, and this impressive amphitheatre was created to celebrate the founding of that once-valued community in 1992... Anyway, it's a great performance space, and worked well for the readings of ten very different, all enjoyable, short tales evoked by the trigger phrase 'I never thought I'd see it again' ~ here's Simon Lawder, voted favourite for a clever dialogue topped by a surprise ending... or should I say, toupéed... smiley-face!
Home again in Frome means returning into a vibrant live music scene: the superb Pete Gage Band on fabulous form at Sam's Kitchen, and top class Jazz Club stuff from John Law with Mike Mower as  Law 'n' Mower at the Cornerhouse.

Other Bank Holiday special events for me included doing one hundred sun salutations with YogaBen ~  it took three hours, including quick breaks for chocolate ~ and a long cross-country walk ending at a delightful field party in Chapmanslade.  
And now the planning for autumn begins, with two two exciting projects already: Nevertheless is returning after a few months break with a professional production that Rosie & I are massively excited about: Died Blondes by writer/performer Joan Ellis imagines the last words of a movie star and a murderer, Marilyn Munroe and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England. This has already shown at several festivals, including Edinburgh, and was reviewed as both moving and thought-provoking... that's September 28 & 29 at the Archangel. And on October 13 ~ contain your excitement and keep the date! ~ ELVIS is coming to Frome. Yes, the great McGonagall will be at the Granary, doing his witty political shouty stuff. Tickets for everything just £5 ~ while they last.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Don't blame Beckett

"Godot has a lot to answer for, attributing tramps with gnomic wisdom" complains Alan Bennett although admitting his legendary Lady in the Van has somehow "a vagabond nobility about her." Alan Bennett’s dramas gravitate frequently to ageing English ladies, giving voice to their genteel struggles in monologues like Cream Cracker under the Settee and A Woman of No Importance, and other poignant Talking Heads. Here the voice is more like Rod Hull’s Emu. Mary Shepherd is cantankerous, demanding, belligerent and malodorous, and she is real, having famously lived in the playwright’s front garden in posh Primrose Hill for fifteen years. Maggie Smith brought her antics to the screen and now Theatre Royal Bath concludes their summer season with a staged version of the story of  The Lady In The Van.
The playwright steps into this account himself not once but doubly, affable in the time-line of events and more caustic as retrospective observer and analyst. The film had the real Mr Bennett for this second role, so director Jonathan Church has had to make the best of this device, though it's hard not to wonder why we need a second, non-lookalike, Alan Bennett when we have a perfectly serviceable Alan Bennett on stage already. My other niggle with the script is that the connection between the disreputable old woman he tolerates in his life and the ageing mother he puts in a Home is so palpable and poignant that it's gratuitous to have it spelled out by Bennett-the-commentator.
As with all Theatre Royal productions, the cast is impressive: Sara Kestelman touching as well as terrifying as the irrational and tragic Lady, and Sam Alexander endearing as the hapless version of her patron. Minor characters are so steeped in parody it’s difficult to see them as other than 2-dimensional though Cat Simmons does a superb job with the social worker.  Designer Robert Innes Hopkins provides much to entertain visually, with an array of startling costumes and effective set and those total scene-stealers, the vehicles: that infamous van and, mysteriously, a scarlet Reliant, whose arrivals and (especially) departures are unforgettable high points.  Showing till 2 September. Images Nobby Clark

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Travel Fever

Blogs, like tadpoles, evolve. 'My blog' originated to reflect the different aspects of 'a writer's life' but has slowly become mostly all about Frome, a 'what's on' of where to go and what to see. This posting is a temporary regression as I've spent the last two weeks leading a writing group in the magical island of Skyros. 'Magical' is not hyperbole. I'll quote Christina, a participant on the other morning course: "Even to me as a Greek, this is not like the other islands. It is very special, it is totally authentic."

We learned some of the unique history and traditions in a talk from Michael Eales on one evening, and explored five thousand years of legend & culture at the fascinating Manos Faltaits Museum near Rupert Brooke Square. Why is a poet so quintessentially English here a landscape feature? He died nearby while sailing to Gallipoli, from a mosquito bite, and was returned to Skyros for burial in an olive grove in the barren south of the island. In that dry earth a richer dust is concealed, as the poet sentimentally foresaw, and though his words seem to us callow & jingoistic compared to the angry truthfulness of Owen and Sassoon and all those poets who saw action, Skyros has taken to its heart the young man who loved Greek myths and set off to fight for freedom.
And here on this island for two weeks I spent my mornings writing and conversing about writing, with coffee and fresh juices, at various bars all a strolling distance from the Skyros Centre: at the Plateia in town, by the beach, and on the Faltaits museum veranda. We wrote, and shared, and in these small but perfectly formed groups there was time to explore ideas and even invent words. Tom Kelly created one that sums it all up: scrawlwonderblossom, which means 'feeling your mind open to the sunlight in a Skyros writers' group'.
These two weeks are the busy season for Skyros town, whose 3000 population swells extensively ~ fortunately for their fragile economy ~ but most visitors are Greek as this isle is a favourite with Athenians, so the surround-sound of their conversations enhances the sense of exciting unfamiliarity. As do the daytime temperatures 26-30C (that's 78-86F for you, Mo) but there was always a warm breeze.  Also on my list of constant sensual pleasures: that intense dazzling azure sky, the scents of jasmine and town life, the marble-cobbled streets regularly sluiced by conscientious townsfolk ~ streets so narrow the small delivery trucks passed mere inches from the shop-front merchandise and tiny bar terraces, scarily but skilfully reversing long stretches of these steep, narrow, curving paths.
And when the sun drops behind the rock is my time for twilight writing: at Anatolikos Animus high above the sea, beach-bar Korfari, and sophisticated Kalypso in town.

Evening comes late to Skyros but it's worth staying up for the band in the hillside amphitheatre under the full-moon, and the fiesta in the plateau.
I've arrived home still in a prolonged state of Travel Fever ~ the term coined by delightful Marion Püning for the thrill of a journey full of excitement and enriching memories. I could say so much more, but you get the pictures...

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Dramatic confusion in Ephesus & America, music & art in Frome

I've long wanted to see a performance by the famous Lord Chamberlain's Men, so their touring production The Comedy of Errors in the Bishop's Palace Garden in Wells was irresistible. The company concept is based on Shakespeare's players of that name: all-male, in Elizabethan costume, performing outdoors with music & song ~ a refreshing alternative to the Emma Rice way of zazzing-up the bard with Bollywood and balloons.
As comedies go this is a brutal one, crammed with cruelty and only one gag: massively repeated mistaken identity ~ although the lack of similarity between any of these 'twins' is a good joke too. The palace garden venue at dusk is ideal, providing additional backing to Alan Bowles' minimalist set, the rain mostly stayed off, and the seven young actors are excellent - watch out in future for rubber-faced Barney Healey-Smith in comedy roles. Direction by Peter Stickney.

From ancient Ephesus to 1950s America for another comedy of mistaken identity: North by Northwest at Theatre Royal Bath is the UK premiere of a show originally conceived by Melbourne Theatre Company. If you're ever wondering how to translate a 'chase' movie involving trains, cars & planes to stage, and get the audience cheering, you need to see this. A big part of the success of the production is the shape-shifting set and the clever effects, taking us all into their visual jokes from the start, and the sharp direction of an ensemble cast in constant quick-change personae, creating ever-changing scenes of office, street, railway, and even Mount Rushmore in an indescribably nail-biting and hilarious climax.
From first glance at the programme it seemed this spoof thriller would be male-dominated with its hero, villains & henchmen, cops & bellhops, but in the event although Jonathan Watton is an endearing as well as suave lead, it's Olivia Fines who totally steals the show ~ though no spoilers about her role in case there's anyone else out there like me who've never seen the Hitchcock film.
Overall credit must go to director Simon Phillips who with lighting designer Nick Shlepper also designed the set, and to Esther Marie Hayes for costumes to enhance the cartoon-style story-telling. And whether you've seen the movie fifty times or too young to have heard of it, I can't imagine you won't love this fast-moving tongue-in-cheek show: definitely recommended. Images Nobby Clark.

Back in time & place to Frome last week, and after the visceral drama of Black Swan Arts' previous exhibition In the Absence of Truth, the new show SKETCH is quite a contrast: one hundred sketchbooks sit primly on shelves around the room, requiring the donning of white gloves to reveal their pages. At the Words at the Black Swan workshop on Monday they remained inscrutable to me but others in the group had more success, and our skilful leader Louise Green introduced us to the concept of 'specula' poems, the second verse reiterating the first in reverse lines.

Live music corner: Roots Session at the Grain bar this week featured Julian Dawson with excellent support from Francis Hayden who runs the Nunney Acoustic Cafe and is also a fine singer-songwriter.
Friday was an extraordinarily good evening for music even by Frome standards, with the brilliant Pete Gage Band at Sam's Kitchen and Loudon Wainwright at nearby Cheese & Grain, making it possible to enjoy a good hour of Pete before scampering down to appreciate folk giant Loudon III, joined onstage by Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield. Much of the set comprised what I'd call 'male crone' lyrics: ‘We have a lot of songs about death and decay in our set, because we know our demographic’ Loudon explained, plausibly. He didn't play my personal favourites (Can't fail me now and Daughter) but he did play The Swimming Song, voted one of the 'Best Summer Songs of All Time' by Rolling Stone.

My next post will be from Skyros, where Achilles played as a child and Rupert Brooke is buried, where the islanders built their chora up the side of the biggest rock on the coast to trick the pirates (and rob them too, copying the patterns of weaving and carving and engraving from these re-stolen hoards to create a rich local culture) and where in the 1970s an idealist couple had the dream notion of a centre for creative retreats that could translate into real life...
Skyros Holistic Holidays was born, and I'm delighted that once again I'll be working with writers at their centre each morning, walking to the beach in afternoons, watching the purple glow on the rocks in the evening, and maybe at least once seeing the sun rise over the Aegean from Brooke Square...