Monday, January 15, 2018

shows, faces, words, wildlife, and a dilemma for Frome

Black Swan Arts current exhibition is Face to Face, paintings and drawings by Oliver Bedeman, which has been widely enjoyed. I loved every piece ~ tenderness without sentimentality, life-style insights without ever seeming clichéd. Most of the titles reference song lyrics but the pictures aren't labelled so when you look in the catalogue your first impression becomes illuminated and extended. The boy with gun is a Southern Man, wondering maybe how long, how long...  the young man on the train is a Nature Boy, travelling very far, very far to learn the truth about love...
Another excellent writing workshop from Louise Green for the growing group participating in Words at the Black Swan brought extra dimension to our responses by inviting us to write pieces that explore these resonances. Here's mine:
Urban Scrawl
I see you face to face in this abandoned site, your trail 
of challenges in skull-white smiles and broken glassy eyes
your watchful burning tower blocks tagged with flourish of defiance
your celebration of dystopia, private army of grotesques;
fantastic fiendish friends, their cacophony of questions
unanswered in the silence of stubborn Saxonvale.
As a footnote, Black Swan Arts complex is currently being unified which hopefully will be good news for visitors of this vibrant resource. The assurance is that jobs are safe and in future "The cafe will be at the heart of everything we do."

First meeting of the year for Frome Writers Collective, held as always at Three Swans, featured an excellent talk by Peter Clark on the value and practice of writing a regular diary.  Peter has travelled all over the world with on British Council business and literary missions but he's far more disciplined than me and confines himself to 300-400 words a day: he reckons he's clocked in over six million words over the years, which will be material for quite a few books.  So far his Damascus Diaries and his Emirates Diaries have both been published. His talk was entertaining as well as informative: Peter refers to his raw diary as 'a blend of malice, self-pity and narcissism' and confesses the final books, while extensively edited, are still 'indiscreet.' Witty reminiscence and top tips for writers, another excellent FWC evening.

De Hepe's splendid emporium on Bath Street ~  in the local news last year for responding to aesthetic trolling by putting it in the window for the entertainment of passers-by ~ is owned as you would expect by a genial & flamboyant individual. Robin Cowley isn't naturally a small-town dweller, but he's as passionate about Frome as, well, as I am. His current concern is a very real issue, and after we talked I suggested that this blog might be a small start to wider awareness, and Robin agreed. This is his point: When Frome was down on its uppers it was individuals taking the challenge offered on Catherine Hill that provided the impetus for the change we needed. And now that that’s all come to fruition, other people are taking advantage of it by raising rents, and actually it’s penalising the very people that did the planting of the seeds in the first place. And I think that the landlords have a responsibility. I don’t begrudge anybody taking advantage of the popularity and the rebirth of the town but we need to remember why Frome is popular now.  And it’s not because of massive input from multinationals or even the District Council, so we need to remember our roots.
A serious point, which the council as well as anxious tenants will realise: combine this with rising house prices which will drive out many of the next generation ~ even if they'd intended to work in a family business that won't otherwise survive ~ Frome in the future may no longer be a popular hive of small independents and idiocyncratic self-confident style. Well, it's happened before... I refer you to Cobbett in his Rural Rambles nearly 200 years ago, on a return visit to Frome which he'd last seen when it was busy and affluent, finding destitution among the cloth workers: "Yes, these men have ground down into powder those who were earning them their fortunes: let the grinders themselves now be ground, and, according to the usual wise and just course of Providence, let them be crushed by the system which they have delighted in..."

After missing press night due to December's lurgie, I finally caught up with Beauty and the Beast at Tobacco Factory too late to recommend it, though it'll be in my column for Plays International, because it's now sold out until the end of the run. And so it should be. This delightful co-production with N.I.E directed by Alex Byrne represents the triumph of simplicity over flamboyance, with a cast of six talented actor-musicians and no gimmicks, just the magic of storytelling and song creating a fairytale drama to satisfy all ages. With only a flutter of leaves and occasional props, the scene shifts back and forth from castle to forest hovel (le gîte terrible, as we are in France) where newly impoverished merchant Maurice is attempting to relocate his horrendous twins, aided by beautiful Isabella, non-avaricious misfit of the trio. Most of the comedy is inventively created by the appalling sisters, played by Samantha Sutherland and Elliot Davis, who can't grasp the concept of 'poor' - they can't pronounce it actually, rhyming it with 'Mwah!' which is the sort of sound they're more used to.
Roles follow the fairytale mostly, but this is a feisty Beauty who chooses to confront the Beast herself. Act 2 abandons tradition too, following (with much audience consultation) the besotted Beast's attempts at wooing, on top of a table in Mad Hatter chaos of chocolate mousse, terrible jokes, and wild dancing. It's all going quite well until Beauty realises Maurice is ill and dashes home for a dad-snatch in a wheel-barrow. The ending is a mix of classic and original too, with a touching moment of transformative love, but also a kind of Thelma-and-Louise-gone-very-wrong finale for the wicked sisters.  So I'm sorry you've misssed it, all I can say is, look out for the next NIE production, and for anything anywhere where Elliot Davis is performing. Especially in a frock. And look out too for other developments at Tobacco Factory Theatres.

From devised to revived:
I've been a massive fan of Stephen Mangan since The Hunt for Tony Blair, avidly watching every episode of Episodes and, as a writer for stage, I'm obviously in awe of Harold Pinter, so when I saw The Birthday Party was celebrating its own 60th birthday at the actual Harold Pinter Theatre, I promptly booked. I like my Pinter plain: I fretted over BOV's explosive version of The Caretaker last year, and was quite happy there were no distractions from the dense perplexity of Pinter's belief that 'the more acute the experience, the less articulate its expression.' We're not really supposed to understand, the programme explains, any more than we really understand life.
The story starts like a sit-com in the boarding house of a stoic husband and his dim ditzy wife ~ Peter Wight and Zoë Wannamaker excellent in these roles ~ which has only one resident: Stanley, who might or might not have been a pianist, but he's not doing anything now, until two men arrive, who might or might not be Dumb-Waiter-style thugs, and the mood changes to menace. Stephen Mangan is electric in the role of dominant Goldberg, with good support from Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as McCann. They arrange an unwanted party for Stanley ("This isn't my birthday!"). Strange and sad things happen. Stanley might or might not know why, and as audience we are left with our own assumptions. I didn't think Toby Jones was quite compelling enough in the role of enigmatic victim, but that might come from direction. With a big stage it's hard to create tension as you don't get a real sense of menace when everyone's spaced out, and perhaps Ian Rickson aimed to keep that feeling of nearly normal life, just a bit weirdly messed up.  He did that well. I don't think I'll ever forget Goldberg's quiet, babylike, request Blow in my mouth....

And now for something completely different: a walk round Rodden Nature Reserve on Sunday morning, with about sixty other enthusiasts, organised by the Mendip branch of Somerset Wildlife Trust and led by Eve Tigwell, who pitched it perfectly for our motley crew, some experienced bird-spotters, bat-supporters and otter-counters, some tabula rasa like the toddler who toddled enthusiastically ahead, and some in the middle like me, enthralled by Frome's very own nature reserve. With hundreds of wildlife residents and thousands of visitors, this is a real gem and it's right outside Asda so you can just park and stride! but you only have two weeks before the breeding season means a lengthy closure till the autumn.
Back to work now, it's been fun sharing. As Blaise Pascal said, I would like to have written it shorter but I didn't have the time.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Begin again

A short medley this week, and future blogs will be sparse for a while as researching my current project is taking about 23 hours a day.  'Research' is the grand name for a labyrinthine process, as googling leads me instantly into a web of fascinating irrelevances. Chat sites especially are glitterballs of distraction, as when I somehow landed, while searching for something entirely different, on an old mumsnet thread about choosing books which included the comment "There is a writer called Crysse Morrison, one of whose books looks quite interesting and whose articles I have seen in magazines. But I won't read her book because she spells her name such a daft way."  'Unquiet Dad' sounds delightfully like my father, who would never read anything by a woman or an American.
So here we are in a new year, looking in Frome today pretty similar to the one we just kicked out. Short sunny days, good company and great music - here's an afternoon jam in the Three Swans with a mash-up of bands plus various acoustic instrumentalists and a bit of electric too.

And here's a powerfully evocative new figure created by Marian Bruce, who gave me permission to share. This one is unnamed, but her other figures represent consequence and this one also resonates a sense of human suffering. Marian says people find her art 'hard', but viewers struggled with Guernica too: Picasso said the purpose of art is not please, it is rather to bristle with razorblades.

We live in a world that dreams of ending, says Brendan Kennelly in Beginhis sublime celebration of mundanity, yet something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin.  I usually quote that poem in full to end the year but for a change here's a little ditty inspired by research: another distraction that won't make the final cut, but it seems appropriate now I'm going dark, as the theatre folk say:
The coffin path passed through the pub
and as each corpse's journey paused,
pall-bearers & grievers shared a round 
before proceeding to the waiting grave. 
This cadaverous custom must
have comforted mourners as dust returned to dust, 
and probably enlivened the funerals no end.
That's it from me, now a new year is out of the box let's see if we can keep it nice this time.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

winter woods : the Nature Watch edition

Dendrophilia literally means simply 'love of trees' but like arbophilia it's become seen as  a sort of sap-induced sexual arousal. A passion for woodland walking is a simpler sensuality for most of us: it's about smells of moss & lichen, sound of birdsong and crunchy leaves, the green & auburn tones of midwinter, the tranquility, and our deep instinctive awe at the timeless majesty of these tall life forms we call trees. Perhaps it's more like animism ~ our ancient understanding of the super-natural powers of everything living on earth.
This post is mostly about binge-walking.  At winter solstice my walk from Frome into Wiltshire with David took us along the Sustrans path through Longleat woods, always beautiful. Here's one of the fairy-tale creatures inhabiting the parkland over the festive season. There are owls, too, though sadly in cages. Next walk was with my family and in the opposite direction: we took a field route around Radford Mill, including the ancient holloway named 'Jenny's Path' after the little donkey that hauled coal between the mine and the canal in the late 18th Century. And then on Boxing Day, my favourite close-to-home walk, along the field edge just south of Frome to Roddenberry hill fort, flanked with beeches, glorious in every season.

This has been a good week for music too, with several open mics, Pete Gage Band at the Cornerhouse (his new CD is amazing) and a big tribute event for Griff Daniels, one year gone and still much missed, at the Roots Session in the Grain Bar. Nikki Mascall and Steve Loudoun led an epic musical gathering including Simon Sax, Mike Peake on trumpet, and Paul Hartshorn guitar.

No theatre to review week but I'm chuffed that the new issue of Plays International has a image of The Tin Man at Bristol Old Vic on the front cover, as featured in my column on productions in the southwest within. Still on a theatrical theme, I'll end with an odd tale which began in July when I stumbled upon ~ that's the term for an unexpected and fortuitous discovery I believe, though actually they were on a shelf ~ a pile of Theatre World magazines from 1962. This monthly publication is long defunct but it was once prestigious, and my father was their reviewer for various festivals and many London shows. (His style was caustic rather than effusive, in case you were wondering where I get it from.) Anyway, he sometimes took me along, and the May '62 issue includes one I remember vividly: the first English production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at the Aldwich.  I was overjoyed to find these back in the summer, and now I'm overjoyed all over again, as my wonderful family have framed the entire collection of covers ~ or rather, a hi-res image of each, no magazines were harmed in making of this gift. Isn't it great? All I have to do now is find somewhere to hang it...

Sunday, December 17, 2017

'Twas the week before... Poems, songs, and wild wood pigeons

Frome Poetry Cafe last week was a midwinter word-fest of images and memories, thoughtful, fantastic, and mirthful. Our guest Robert Walton gave us two terrific sets from his new collection Sax Burglar Blues ~ one poem in particular, with the unlikely title Making a Herringbone Harris Tweed Garment, impressed the audience immensely with its evocation of a colour-filled fabric growing as 'the weaver wove from the yarn of weft and warp on the beam and loom.... ' And a great Open Mic too, from twelve poets all offering a different take on what this season means, from John Christopher Wood afflicted by Santa Claustrophobia, to more serious thoughts and even melancholy. The 'secret santa' gift recipients, chosen by Robert, were Linda Perry for a powerful poem about the winter sea in Cornwall and Rosie Finnegan for her clever pastiche 'Twas the Night Before Brexit ~ brilliantly performed too.

On Friday I finally got to see the Merlin pantomime, a quirky take on Hansel & Gretel written & directed by the truly awesome Claudia Pepler who seems to keep the theatre vibrant by a combination of tenacity and fairy dust, supported by volunteers & foyer sales on zero funding from Somerset or the Arts Council. That's a reason to buy tickets even if there were no other, but there's much to enjoy in this ensemble production full of song and comedy as well as wintry sorrow. Unlike the heavy-duty contemporising of the Old Vic's Little Matchgirl, this re-telling keeps us from the start in fairy-tale-land, but the dark fears and distress are all the more real for that. Some really inspired touches, like the ginger-bread children and the evil weasil, marvellous graphics by Howard Vause, and a super performance by the Grimm Brothers themselves ("Jake and Will - we are story-tellers", "or disrupters, if you will") as wood-pigeons both saving & confusing the lost children in the woods of their deepest dreads. Dillon Berry and Pete White surely have careers ahead on stage or screen. You can read the full review from Fine Times Recorder here. Images Dave Merritt.

This has been a hectic week but as it was mostly either work or seasonal private get-togethers ~ three writers' group meetings and the same number of parties ~ there's not much to post.  I'll finish with a picture from the final Nunney Acoustic Cafe of the year: a rousing rendition of Honky Tonk Woman from Frome musicians Paul Kirtley and Colin Ashley. Paul also sang a couple of the songs he's written about ideas in poems of mine, including a new one, and I did my current party piece, a new poem I have to read because I haven't learned it yet. It's a bit of a marmite one, I've found. Anyway, happy solstice all!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hans Anderson, Artisik Ego, and happier tales

Blue skies and sunshine for the last Independent market of the year, with seasonal decor, music, and pop-up-party places.You probably all know by now what the tented carnival in Frome streets looks & sounds like ~  just add tinsel and collectors with buckets for Fair Frome Big Christmas Get-Together.  Yes, it's that time of year again, and having just seen The Man Who Invented Christmas at Frome's little independent Westway cinema, I'm feeling a lot less curmudgeonly than usual about the C word, an delighted to find confirmation that this delightful version of the writing of A Christmas Carol is essentially, mostly, true (apart from that odd & unsatisfactory change to the final ghostly visitation.) Overall this movie is a sentimental treat, in the original sense of touching emotions, and Dan Stevens is charismatic as Charles Dickens feverishingly penning his novella in six weeks.
There's a fascinating, though irrelevant, link between Dickens's story and the next item, which I found while checking Hans Anderson's dates: these two writers not only coincided time-wise, they also met. They also became, for a while, friends, with shared concerns over increasing social inequality and poverty, until the Danish writer overstayed a visit and was asked to leave and the relationship terminated. Which all goes to show you can make a mess of reality, but stories live forever, just like Yuval-Noah-Harari says.
So, returning now to the comfort of imagination: The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales at Bristol Old Vic originated last year at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. It's a blending of Hans Anderson's tales directed by Emma Rice, who has now parted company with the Globe after her neon-lit disco for a Hackney-located Midsummer Night’s Dream was not appreciated by the Board (well she did publicly opine ‘the only reason to do Shakespeare is to mess it up,' so they were warned.) This flamboyant production delivers what we've come to expect from their main shows: an ensemble piece with a big cast and on-stage music, a quirky take on an old tale, and a thoughtful strand of modern moralising ~ a formula designed to appeal to all ages. Making Stage Relevant to our Screen Generations is a problem for all theatres, and BOV are very aware of this - a pre-show talk by chief executive Emma Stenning emphasised a new role for the building after its £12million injection ‘ending the journey of trying to fix from the inside and thinking what it wants to be as part of this city.’  Which now includes being provider of brunch and private functions, as local firm Fosters take over the catering - well someone had to, it was dire: I used to linger in the taxi rank cafe at the station rather than take a chance on their coffee machine. Good luck to them all, and back to the play: As well as the poignant central story ~ a hungry child at risk in a big city ~ there's much fun with the Princess & the Pea and The Emperor's New Clothes, and long look at the more obscure tale of Thumbelina which seemed to be there largely to add another puppet. Perhaps it's the continuing legacy of the War Horse effect: a conviction that the one thing stage can do better than other media is puppetry. It’s not infallible ~ viz. their puppetised Midsummer Nights Dream in 2013 ~ but a child-size, silent, observer-participator can certainly play a powerful role as a kind of innocent flâneur. The match-girl story arc for me was more successful than the Thumbelina story, which made for unsettled focus between the actor and her miniature alter-ego. Puppets by talented duo Lyndie (designing) & Sarah (directing) Wright, and Vicki Mortimer brought the strands of narrative together with fantastic, and sometimes very funny, costumes.

Another, though different, diversity of narrative plus moralising next from Mik Artistik's Ego Trip, on tour and in Frome especially for a Momentum support event at 23 Bath Street (aka Wheatsheaf). With excellent, and essential, musical support from Jonny Flockton & Benson Walker on guitar & bass, Mik's Leeds-toned growl delivered a couple of hours of social observation combined with abuse to a packed and cheering audience. Mik knows his market: his material is pitched to an ageing generation, evoking the music and memes of more rebellious years. Most of it scoffingly. Your kids aren't bothered about the fucking Pixies and anarchy ~ yer wasting yer time... His audience loved it all, even Mik's jeering yells of "This is boring! BORING! and YOU PAID for it." A night to remember, as officially declared by the oddest rock god ever.

Black Swan Arts' current exhibition in the long gallery is From the FieldsCarry Akroyd's prints inspired by the poetry of John Clare, a series of vibrant anthems which both celebrate and mourn the changing face of our land. Think Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks, there's that kind of wandering energy in these beautiful precise accounts, layering past and present together. On Monday our ekphrastic writing group met, steered by Louise Green, to take words from the pictures in the way the artists took from the poems... You can see some of these on the Words at the Black Swan website.

Still with nature and its preservation: another of the many wonderful moments my current project research has given me: Asda has been in Frome for 12 years but I'd never realised that part of their 'rent' for this presence was the establishment of a wild life area on some of their land. Rodden Nature Reserve survived this pragmatic inception because of a sextet of committed locals, two of whom I met last week. There's much to tell about the wild life, and their work, but for here I just want to celebrate their passion and commitment. If in some future incarnation I find myself a Bonaparte's gull then I hope I hatch in Rodden reserve, where some really great people really care.

Some seasonal glimpses now: the tree at Frome Library adorned by the Blue House knitters inspired by Mary Henderson, and 12 Days at the Round Tower, a collection of wintry images from just some of the superb visual artists around Frome, collected and curated by Paul Newman. Missing images from this week's round-up include some terrific music ~ The Raggedy Men at the Griffin, and Blue Midnight at the Cornerhouse ~ as my pictures don't do them justice, and Hansel & Gretel at Merlin Theatre because I didn't get to use my ticket as the lurking lurgi caught up with me again. 
Ending this post with the reminder, if you're in or near Frome on Monday, it's Frome Festive Poetry Cafe night at the Garden Cafe!

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Savage families & cats, plus lucent celebrations

The new play at Ustinov Studio Theatre in Bath, The Open House by Will Eno, is a suitable tale for the season: a family reunion that absolutely no-one is enjoying - in fact the dog has outright legged it. Prepare for bullying aggression from father (Greg Hicks), passive-aggression from mother (Teresa Banham),  mute resentment from both grudge-bearing children (Ralph Davis & Lindsey Campbell), and an atmosphere of unmitigated wretchedness that even dark humour wouldn't sustain for 90 minutes... and happily it doesn't have to, though I can't tell you why not (or show in imagery) because it's so unexpected, and clever, and satisfying, you have to go & see for yourself. Please do, it's on till 23 December.  Michael Boyd directs, the costumes (Madeleine Girling) and set (Tom Piper) are both great ~ again, image-hints would spoil.  Forget story arc, or inciting incident, or any of the rules of drama you learnt, simply sit back and enjoy.

Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol is also offering alternative entertainment for the festive season, and after Rocky: A Horror Show (which was great) and Goldilock, Stock, and Three Smoking Bears (which was fantastic), I had high hopes of Reservoir Mogs, a girly re-envisaging of the macho-thug genre plus massacre of Lloyd-Webber cuteness. The audience clearly had similar expectations: there's a kind of party atmosphere in the non-ticketed seating ~ it's tiered like a proper theatre, but you're stamped to go in like a festival ~ and response was enthusiastic. For me the first half was a bit too much like St Trinians girls, immaculately costumed & face-painted, being wickedly naughty to entertain their teachers (or perhaps vice versa) but after the interval I was converted, when all pretence of narrative thread was abandoned in favour of audience abuse and an amazing multiple death scene... well cats do have nine lives so it takes some time to demolish them all... No apologies for spoilers, they can't stop you enjoying a show at this great little theatre.

Moving to things more sensible, Bath Short Story Award, a prestigious international writing contest for short fiction, put on their usual splendid event in Mr B's, a bookshop so compellingly wonderful it's hard to leave with just the book you came for: in this case the 2017 Winners Anthology. Short readings from winners and others included in this impressive collection gave a taster of the high standard from which literary agent Euan Thorneycroft of A M Heath, had to pick! Congratulations to organisers Jude Higgins, Anna Schlesinger & Jane Riekemann ~ and good to meet up with friends from Bath literary scene including Debby Holt.

Meanwhile Frome is gearing up for all things festive, which means many crafty-arty events with mulled wine and stollen, and even more music than usual. Here's Frome Street Bandits giving a lively performance on Friday after the big event of the week: on a clear night with a bright moon ~ and after removal of the screens around the market cross renovations ~ the Tree-Lights-Switch-On! This year the honour went to 10-year-old Ted Lewis-Clark who designed the santa-stamp for the Post Office (our own main box has been painted blue and starry in his honour). All fun and much enjoyed by the massive crowd, as was the singing and the stalls, but the real delight of the night was the lantern procession: hundreds of lanterns all made by their carriers, led by drumming bands from each end of the town to create an unforgettably magical scene ~ huge credit to Mel Day and Aliss Vaas for the long hours of many workshops, thanks to the town council for sponsoring, and total appreciation to the people of Frome and around, for joining in and making this amazing night happen.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Dramatic time-slips: 16C to1945, 18C revisited in 1963

A couple of theatrical re-envisagings for you this week: First, Shakespeare's sweet-bitter comedy Much Ado About Nothing from Rondo Theatre Company in Bath. Set in 1590s Sicily this story of soldiers returning from war to reconnect with the women missing them (and becoming more feisty, too) seemed to directors Lisa Thrower and Andrew Fletcher to have fascinating parallels to the end of World War II. This too was a time of conspicuous celebration, with undercurrents of unease as roles were clearly changing. Beatrice especially has a confidence in her opinions which chimes with the independence of those UK women who'd coped with amazing fortitude for six years, and now found they were expected to step back into subservience. The directors' theory works ~ impressively well in fact. On an unelaborate set with lots of union-jack bunting, the bard's script transfers with minimal tweaks to the volatile emotionalism of 1945, making it actually easier to forgive stupid Claudio and believe in everyone's gullibility. A terrific cast helps: Naomi Miller and Chris Constantine as Beatrice & Benedict were simply superb, bringing absolute authenticity to every moment, especially in the scene after Hero's collapse which still makes me shudder to recall. Among their elders, Jeremy Fowlds' Leonato, his friend Don Pedro (Matt Nation) and wicked Don John (Richard Chivers) were all excellent. I laughed, I cried, what else do you want from a comedy on a cold night? Big congratulations once again, Rondo Theatre.

Over to Merlin Theatre now, where Frome Drama Club chose a ready-made revival: Richard Bean's award-winning One Man Two Guvnors is a re-envisaging of The Servant of Two Masters, a commedia dell'arte piece by Carlo Goldoni written in 1746. It's the same central thread, as summarised in the title, but the 1963 version is set in the seedy side of Brighton, and the immensely successful National Theatre production, which transferred to Broadway, featured not only a TV superstar but a skiffle band live on stage. Calum Grant directs, with Andrew Morrison as James Corden ~ sorry, as Francis Henshall ~ who has to carry much of the comedy, including organised impro and binge-eating. There's nice contrast from Tracey Ashford and Giles de Rivaz as Rachel and Stanley, especially in their tender reunion, and laugh-of-the-night award goes to Laurie Parnell's Charlie for four words, perfectly pitched: So what's your point? An excellent review from Fine Times Recorder here gives more detail of this exuberant production: congratulations to all involved - and my personal special appreciation to Aaron Hooper's skittish geriatric waiter and his wayward wig.

As the misnomered 12th month creeps closer, Frome is already getting jiggy with crafty markets & multi-clash jollities... my Saturday night scamper round town concluded this week at the Sun Inn where the Raggedy Men showed why they're shooting to supernova status ~ especially when supported by a lively uke band and rapper XjX

Another mini time-trek on Sunday as Jazz at the Cornerhouse this week featured the sultry songs of Ella Fitzgerald, born a hundred years ago, recreated by the smouldering voice of Frome's Emma Harris, with the John Law trio ~ Billy Weir drums & this time Adrian Smith on bass.

To end this post: my appreciation to Ciara Nolan, for including me in her chronicle of Humans of Frome ~ big privilege to be interviewed for this, and a pleasure too as Ciara being from Dublin can relate to my Irish experiences...  Published in Frome Times this week.
And another, 'finally' moment: As a TV viewer generally only when the moon is blue, I'm loving Howards End on BBC on Sunday nights. EM Forster is one of my favourite novelists: he uncompromisingly nails Englishness in all its foibles & follies, and this tale of upper-class arrogance also reveals the inherent weakness of their 'liberal' middle-class challengers, and it's just brilliant. "I don't intend to correct him, or to reform him - only connect," says avant-garde Margaret with confident aplomb. A good meme but a difficult aim, as history shows us still. Great story-telling and great acting too. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Retrospective moments & Restoration drama

I had high hopes of the current Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which I visited on Thursday, and it totally exceeded them. I realised she was more than a clever illustrator from the existential anguish and ever-present incomprehensible wildness that pervades her magical tales of Moominland, but I hadn't expected the richness of her candid & personal paintings - I love this one of her family, with Tove herself slightly caricatured, watching her brothers play chess just before the war. (Lars, the one who is not in uniform, became her business partner & collaborater later in life.)
Tove was a passionate pacifist, and her cover illustrations for the Finnish satirical magazine Garm throughout the war years show her views. This 1944 one is filled with little Hitlers, robbing farms and households, torching barns, and trying on a crown. There's a tiny little creature clasping the M in this cover, and also on others, who later evolved into Moomintroll...  The popularity of the Moomin characters and stories led to comic strips and merchandise but Tove accepted few commercial propositions - for Amnesty, UNICEF and the Red Cross she made an exception. She also seems to have had a filtering policy on her literary illustrations, apparently only taking The Hunting of the Snark, The Hobbit, and Alice in Wonderland.  
After a couple of hours at the gallery I wanted to buy up the gift shop, but calmed myself with a reminder of some of the permanent treasures of this extraordinary little gallery, the first dedicated art-gallery in England and home to treasures like Gainsborough's Linley Sisters, Murillo's street urchins, Rembrandt's Girl at a Window, Reynold's portrait of Mrs Siddons being tragic, and a mesmeric self-portrait by John Opie.
Time then for a wander round the rest of Dulwich with my brother, who has a far better recolletion of this part of south London we both grew up in, me in the 1950s and he in the '60s. It's changed a lot, is all I can say, and all for the better. (Thanks Pete for the picture)

Still on a time-trekking theme, this time back to the days of Abigail's party, with the launch of Return to Kirrin at Hunting Raven Books. Set in 1979, it's an affectionately-spoofy envisaging of the grown-up lives of Enid Blyton's renowned quintet ~ and that's as many clues as I'm allowed without getting sued. Co-authors Suzy & Neil Howlett shared their skills, Neil providing pace & plot while Suzy added detail and nostalgic enthusiasm for Blytonesque style of story-telling: 'like that baby fleece you cuddle up to, and then grow out of.' There's uncertainty around the location of Kirrin, claimed by Dorset as based around Corfe but perhaps more plausibly an island off Cornwall seen by Enid on holiday. It seems appropriate that these origins are lost in the past.  My own experience of the jolly japers is limited to the Comic Strip Presents version in 1982, but then I had an odd childhood. A retro-party at Three Swans led to interesting comparisons of era & values, and lashings of canapes. (Incidentally, the famous phrase "lashings of ginger beer" never appeared in any of the Famous Five books... oops, gone and used the FF words. Sosumi!)
Now a leap backwards of over 300 years, with a revival of a Restoration Comedy classic: The Provoked Wife as produced by Stepping Out Theatre is lavishly stylish and authentic in every Baroque detail ~ even the venue.
Kings Weston House just north of Bristol is a long trek from Frome, but there's something quite magical about watching a play written by John Vanbrugh in the mansion he himself designed for the politician Edward Southey in the early 18th Century. In a room panelled with life-size Gainsborough-esque portraits, with lighting enhanced by chandeliers, an in-the-round performance allows the audience an intense connection with the shenanigans and improprieties of the characters. In these genteel surroundings, we sit quiet as the sylphs in Rape of the Lock (Pope too is scathing of the affectations of this era), and find ourselves voyeurs of plots both predacious and mendacious. I won't go into details ~ there's a lot of story, and it moves fast ~ other than to say the wife in question, Lady Brute, decides to take revenge by an affair, and the knock-on effect is no end of lasciviousness and frivolity. In the midst of this is a jealous neighbour and her french maid, who is really a bloke called Tom (Sam Dugmore) in frock, wig, and lippy. There's an abundance of frocks, wigs, and lippy actually: the provoking husband dons one when drunk, the magistrate he's hauled up before next day is clearly wearing a corset... Costumes are a huge part of this show, as is the amazing music (baroque with undertones of Benny Hill) created by Colin Smith and John Telfer.
The cast of eight are all strong, creating audience rapport in every scene: I was especially moved by Lady Brute and Belinda (Stephanie Manton) in a scene of rare intimacy without their wigs ~ a poignant reminder that behind the apparent licentiousness of these bored, intelligent, young women, their options were... well, nonexistent. Women, married or not, had no rights, however violent their husbands. This clever production is not only fabulous to look at and very funny, it manages to remind us of the kind of 'English' values best left behind. We're still working on some of them... Directed by Briony Waite, with the Stepping Out company support team in baroque finery to set the mood, and an after-show supper in the dining hall as extra excitement.

A half-hour Uber-ride, and three centuries, away in central Bristol, Luke Wright was performing The Toll at the Wardrobe Theatre. This photo isn't quite right hair-wise, but I can't find one closer: the Johnny Bevan look is gone and it's boyish again ~ in fact Luke still complains he's I-Dd regularly when trying to do grown-up things. It's probably difficult to know how to follow a multi-award-winning show (for both acting and writing) and Luke has gone back to what he also does so well: intimate performance of powerful poems. His tour takes its name from his latest collection, but it's the chat that makes these poems ones to hear as well as read. Luke is a master of traditional formats and wordplay and wit, but it's his narrative ballads, serious, satirical & often sad, that stay. And I really like that he opened with one inspired by coming to Frome and seeing Cley Hill.

Which brings me nicely back home to Frome, where Wednesday was an excellent night at the Grain Bar Roots Session with Swampgrass, an amazing blues band from Glastonbury, ably supported by Julian (Bugs) Hight.

As winter creeps in there's been much lantern-making, in free workshops run by Mel Day and Aliss Vaas, where so many lanterns have been made I'm surprised there's not a national shortage of withies and tissue and sloppy white glue. It's all for a candlelit procession on December 1st, and this is Orion's creation in progress, being recorded by a Danish film crew who arrived in town last week to film the Doings of Frome ~ the sort of thing that often happens here.

Finally this week, Sunday's Chocolate Festival, an annual jollity when Cheese & Grain hall is crammed with stalls dedicated to all things chocolatey, from a recreation of Willy Wonka's Factory garden to chocolate shoes and make-up, there's every colour, texture, and flavour imaginable & then some more (lime & chilli is delicious) and the smells are amazing. Here's a glimpse of the crowded hall, with Empress of Chocolate herself, Jo Harrington, looking happy. As she should.  Now I'm off to nibble on a slice of Kraken Rum & Raisin Cheesecake.