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There’s a passage near the end of Wendy Jones‘ novel The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals (Corsair, 2012) where one of the characters – Wilfred himself, no less – comes to the conclusion that his notion of reading the dictionary from cover to cover as a way of bettering himself is not helping:

The words he wanted were so simple, any child could speak them. They were simple words to write and spell. Big words, clever words – all those words beginning with A – were rather grand, too grand really, and unnecessary. When would he ever need the word avocado in Narberth?

How times change.  These days, the Guardian says (says Wikipedia), that Narberth, in Pembrokeshire, is “a gastronomic hub for west Wales”, lively and full of galleries and antique shops.  A decade or three ago we used to regularly stay nearby with family, and Narberth was a name often seen on road signs that we never thought to follow.  Back in 1924 (I do not doubt the novel), it was the sort of repressive place (“a town that pretended innocence and only allowed for innocence”) that had me dredging up words from the days when I was ‘reading’ (as they say on University Challenge) sociology – fine words like gemeinschaft and gessellschaft, that spectrum from community to society – and saying three cheers for modernity.

Is The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals as bad as its title might suggest?  It was only keeping faith with the Book Group that kept me going.  Come the meeting it became apparent that mine was a minority report, though in discussion I had to acknowledge some credit where it was due – for the powerful dignity and integrity of the three main characters as things direly progress.  Wilfred gets himself into a situation “because of a yellow dress … with a low waistband and a square neck that was slightly too low, perhaps only by half an inch” and rather than keep mildly lecherous thought to himself blurts out a proposal of marriage to the wearer of said dress.  Yeah, right.  

The trouble is, it’s not sure what it wants to be.  It starts out as a vaguely comic candidate for the Sunday 9 o’clock Candleford slot on telly, with lots of cod Welshness (how I tired of the sing-song reference back to “his apprentice master, Mr Ogmore Auden”) and then turns into something really quite dark and bleak.  It ends like a box set pleading for a second series, or at the very least a spin-off following the one departing to that London.  But then I have to admit that I ended up caring about Grace, Wilf (as he’s never called) and young war widow Flora.  Other saving graces: odd incidentals about undertaking, photography, and beekeeping.  Even the cheerleaders at Book Group found those quotes on the cover of the paperback – “Gently glorious”, “Magical and bewitching” – missing the point.

The best of Adam Sharp

Graeme Simsion‘s The best of Adam Sharp (Michael Joseph, 2016) is a midlife crisis/great lost love novel.  He, Adam, is a successful database architect, who manages to fit in three pub quizzes a week in Norwich, married to a software developer whose start-up is being bought up for big bucks on condition she moves to the States, and she’s not bothered if he comes or not – his choice.  She, Angelina, is a lawyer, a Commissioner for Equalities in Australia, married to Charlie, an older ‘deal-maker’.  They‘d first met 22 years ago when he was 26, working to a contract in Oz and playing the piano in a bar (“not a pub, a bar” he insists) in the evenings, and she was young and famous, one of the leads in a TV cop-soap, in an unhappy marriage; he leaves when the job demands he move to another place and they both get on with their lives.

Out of the blue he gets an email, just saying ‘Hi.’  What follows is a tale, narrated by the Adam of the title, of jealousy and infidelity, trust-testing and sex games, coming to a climax (if you’ll excuse the expression) in a French Villa where Angelina and Charlie are staying, and have invited Adam.  There are various cliffhangers, comings and goings and changes of mind; I’m not giving anything away.  It has its moments and there are some decent scenes, along with consideration of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, all sorts of specific wine nonsense, the Kübler-Ross grief model, and BATNA, or ‘Best alternative to a negotiated settlement’, a concept from negotiation theory; this is a fine romance.

The paperback cover, and a move to tape cassette!

To tell the truth I only carried on with it from early on (“I was back home in Norwich, reading up on Pete Best, the Beatles’ forgotten first drummer, when the email popped up …” ) to keep faith with my Kinks in Literature feature here on Lillabullero.  I knew there was a reference in there somewhere because the author has helpfully supplied a 2½ page ‘Playlist’ of what was probably his dad’s record collection, and Lola features (it’s a pretty good sequence about Adam learning to play the piano, which I’ll expand on elsewhere).  Indeed, our narrator can’t stop using music (and the odd book, like Love in a time of cholera) as metaphor, simile and sieve through which to view his life: “If my life prior to 15 February 2012 had been a song, it might have been Hey Jude … ” (not a bad musical analysis, as it happens).  But he also courts obscurities that had me hitting Google furiously: “I sang Walking in Memphis and found I was enjoying myself … I did the Dylan-Springs obscurity Walk out in the rain and got another cheer for the line about sore feet”.  Nope, not the Boss, but Helen Springs; Dylan never recorded it, Eric Clapton did a maudlin version of it, but this, from the Del McCoury Band, is a pretty joyful take that I feel the urge to share:

Then there’s this:

      Long ago, I listened to Billie Holiday singing Summertime – not once but many times – and I thought it was as close to a perfect rendition as could be imagined: Lady Day laying out the melody in all its languid easy-living elegance, the restraint of her delivery only accentuating the feeling behind it.

      Years later, I listened to Janis Joplin’s live performance. It’s a screaming primal blues, the melody no more than a point of departure, but still, unmistakably, the same song. My familiarity with Billie Holiday’s version only made Joplin’s reinterpretation more powerful and in turn opened my mind to nuances I had missed in the original. Having experienced both versions, I knew the song in a way I could never have if I had heard only one.

      Making love to Angelina felt different and familiar at the same time.

Never been a great Joplin fan, and personally I think she murders it.  I have always had a lot of time for Billy Stewart‘s funkily energetic assault on the song though:

But I indulge myself.  Time to move on.

Behind her eyes

I’m not going to say much about Sarah Pinborough‘s highly successful Behind her eyes (HarperCollins, 2017) because I could say too much and give the game away.  It’s a page turner all right.  There are plenty of twists on the way – not least in the reader’s perception of who the good guys are – but the shift at the end is dazzling in its audacity.  Mind-blowing is a phrase not much-used these days …

Single mother Louise has a drunken snog with David, a married bloke, the first bloke she’s fancied in ages.  Goes to work next day only to discover he’s her new boss; ok, I’ll give away that an affair ensues.  Louise also bumps into and befriends his seemingly vulnerable wife, Claire; they become new BFs, with Louise being drawn into her problems.  Seems neither Claire or David know that Louise knows the other, and she aint telling (and she’s the decent one).  He’s a psychiatrist and there’s a big, slowly revealed – and duly revised – back story to the marriage, with its probably criminal roots, one way or another, in a fatal fire at her parents’ country house when they were much younger.

In a library it has to be shelved in Crime fiction, but to say any more might give too much away; I will say psychological thriller as sub-genre along the way.  There’s a necessary suspension of belief involved, but I was so skillfully drawn in.  It’s crisply written, with the narrative mainly shared between Louise and Claire, with ‘Then’, ‘Later’, and ‘Now’ passages to help it along.  The final reveal … Wow!  Good job …

A meal and a show in that London

Family-gifted celebratory treats: a mixed experience.

Apparently over 7 million theatregoers have already seen The woman in black in the West End over the last 28 ‘terrifying’ years.  Which may explain why we seemed to be the oldest couple in the difficult to find tucked away Fortune Theatre – a cramped trip back into the past in itself – on a Saturday night.  Indeed, I thought we’d seen it before in MK (wasn’t our choice) but it soon became apparent I was mistaken.  Wasn’t convinced by the framing mechanism for the narrative – worried man seeks actor to help up his presentation skills in telling his terrible tale.  It’s a two-hander and as such a feat for the actors, but I wasn’t really drawn in.

Of course there’s always a problem with ghost stories if you don’t believe in ghosts, and I found the effects were either corny – not easy to do effectively, I’d guess, in such an old theatre – or relied more on volume and surprise than anything else for their shock value.  Most chilling moment – and chilling it was, I’ll grant – was right at the end, when it became apparent that the curse had not been lifted.

Earlier, a meal in a ££££-er on TripAdvisor, at Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden (website).  That was a real treat.  We had the 5-course vegetarian taster menu; the chefs come out and tell you what’s going on the plates, of which there was a splendid variety of shapes and materials.  The place was buzzing but the service was right on the ball.  Most interesting tastes that have hit this palate in a long time, only challenged years past by a couple of specialist veggie gaffs in Brighton and Lyme Regis.

 

 

 

 

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The morning before The Antipoet‘s 10th anniversary video-shoot show, WiiFit told me I had the body of a 21 year-old.  The morning after said performance WiiFit told me I had the body of a 37 year-old (still only just over half of the reality, but, you know).  Nevertheless, as the I Ching invariably says: no blame, and there is a Latin tag for it (post hoc ergo propter hoc, for what it’s worth).   Though the sweets provided at each table  – pick-and-mix and mini-chocolate bars, a nice touch – may have contributed to the weight gain.

‘Come and be part of the fun as we film 10 years of The Antipoet,’ they said; ‘be an Antipoet extra for the evening’.  ‘Watch and enjoy as The Antipoet perform pieces from the last decade whilst filming a DVD to pop into their new book, Does my bass look big in this?’  So we did, and they did, and a grand time was had at The Cock Hotel in the town of Stony Stratford (“our spiritual home”), last Thursday.  The book is published later this year.

Philfy Phil lived up to his moniker (maybe too much at least for wife and her mate) and lamented that no-one onomatopoeic enough had died lately to refresh the pantheon of his take on Paul Simon’s The boxer (the one with that chorus).   Then it was time for those “masters of beatrantin’ rhythm and views’ (© www.theantipoet.co.uk/ ) to take the stage and give us two ‘best of’ sets – ‘greatest hits’ as far as I’m concerned – from the last decade’s prodigious output.  Filming necessitated a more disciplined approach than seen previously (though not a great deal so) (or should that be soberer … ).  Retakes and director Donna’s interventions only added to the fun.

For those (oh lucky people) yet to come across the Antipoet (oh, come on – I’m talkin’ ’bout the joy of discovery), in the past I’ve written about the lads extensively here on Lillabullero, so I’m not going to repeat myself.  Here links to two lengthy pieces on the occasion of their last two albums, We play for food and Bards without portfolio:

Thursday, they delivered all the faves: there’s plenty to sample on YouTube and their website.  I never tire of their take on painful poetry gigs, Random words in a random order, and indeed many more, but was particularly glad they chose to feature 1420 MHz (megahertz), one they don’t do that often, evoking as it does a sense of wonder amidst the worthy scorn, angst and social commentary.  Here it is from an earlier time:

As Phil says, they should be on telly – after all, what else is Channel4 for?  The name chosen for the FaceBook event for this show should serve well enough as a title for the show: Rant along an Antipoet!  And what a panoply of guests they could showcase, including those who closed the show – Fay Roberts, Richard Frost, Justin Thyme – with cleverly and joyously worked parodies and addendums to the basic opus.

Another Wow!

A kid’s show at the local library a couple of days earlier and a quieter enchantment from the Wriggle Dance Theatre‘s Into the Rainbow.  There in my capacity as grandparent, I had a pretty good idea we were in for something a bit special when  greeted in mime at the top of Stony Library’s stairs by a young woman with an umbrella, guiding us to our places on the floor.  I say us – it was one child, one responsible adult, so I just lingered close by, leaning on a pillar, witnessing the show and watching the watchers.  Both were great.

Why the umbrella?  Rain sound effects because … rainbows! I was slow to make the connection.  Amazing what you can do with a couple of boards, some long coloured ribbons and a big shiny blue sheet if you are a couple of trained dancers – women working through the medium of mime and, um, interpretive dance (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase) – and a relaxed troubadour leading or commentating in song.  I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to trained dancers before – graceful and gymnastic, in tune with each other – and was so impressed overall by an accomplished ensemble performance as, over 45 minutes, they introduced the colours of the rainbow one by one, each colour given its own min-show.  The big shiny sheet was the sea, under which they swam, heads popping in and out of strategic gaps in the cloth; grandson – live performance like this was a new thing for him – had to be discouraged from going under the waves himself.

 Brilliant show, expertly pitched and well appreciated by all.  A lovely interlude.

 

It’s The Antipoet’s tenth year and to mark this momentous event, we once again return to our spiritual home of Stoney Stratford for a one off best of show which will be recorded and released as a DVD for the summer 2018 season. So come along and be immortalised as part of this celebration and wonder at how we ever got this far and where the hell we’re gonna go next!!!

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The Bardic Trials

And it came to pass that Stony’s got a brand new Bard.  All hail poet Sam Upton!  Crowned (or rather, cloaked) after an absorbing contest with accomplished storyteller and laidback one-time Texan Lynette Hill at York House Centre.  Tellingly, Sam delivered his statement of Bardic Intent acknowledging the tradition and the work of previous holders of the post in verse form.  Shame there were only two up for it this year, but it was a good contest, and a fine evening’s entertainment was put together by the Bardic Council and outgoing Bard – Bard 007 Mr Stephen Hobbs – nevertheless.  Sam will have a hard job to match Steve’s work rate.

Fay Roberts held a buzzing audience still and entranced with a poem delivered entirely in Welsh – I add No, really! for those who’ve never seen her – while Northampton’s Bard Mitchell Taylor‘s was an energetic (with much poetic striding) and passionate set, by turns personal and political.  Original stuff from singer-songwriter from Dawn Ivieson, in fine voice.  Professional comedian James Sherwood finished the evening off in style.  He had me in stitches, not least when – sat at and playing keyboard – singing and raging against the mathematical inexactitude all too often found in popular songs.  Wish I could remember some culprits other than 50 ways to leave your lover (in which just 5 are listed); there was that Cher song …

The Pantomime

The Stony Stratford Theatre Society‘s 3rd annual panto,  Dick Whittington in Stonyland was a hoot, with all the traditional trimmings, complete with plenty of nods to the locality and no little originality from playwright (and Principal Boy) Danni Kushner (no surnames on the handout, no surnames here … except this one … for the writer).  Great ensemble performance (Oh, yes it was), invidious to single out etc etc (Oh, no it isn’t), because as Dame, troubadour Roddy’s Sally the Cook is already legend; not bad for a first acting role – “Oh, you won’t believe your eyes / at the size of Sally’s pies.”  Another first was Danni singing solo – who knew there’s a folk singer in there as well?  [Photos © Denise Dryburgh]

The Talk

Sarah Churchwell, prof of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the Uni of London, delivered a bit of an eye-opener at the Library for those who think of Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby as rooted in, and symbolic of, the Jazz Age.  No.  As she enthusiastically demonstrated, published in 1925, almost as a warning, it is pointedly and set in 1922,  highlighting with some telling slides what was in the news that year, and suggesting 1922 was to the celebrated Jazz Age what 1962 was to Swinging Sixties.

She expanded her subject to look at anti-immigrant origins in the 1920s of the first America First movement, and its links with the KKK.  I almost bought the book, though I have piles waiting to be read at home, she’s that charismatic a performer.  We didn’t have lecturers like her back in the day.

This talk, along with a handful of others, and various other events that I didn’t make it to – and those I did, above and below –  were all part of the programme of the splendid 14th Annual StonyWords literary festival.

Roger McGough. Photo © Andy Powell, who seemed to be everywhere, sound engineering and performing: so here’s a thumbs up.

That Roger McGough

Tickets for Roger McGough at York House were sold out even before the StonyWords programme was printed.  Resplendent in red sneakers he delighted a packed crowd with material that was new to the vast majority of the audience (and certainly to me).  Refreshingly none of the greatest hits were called upon; at the age of 80 he’s a sprightly and dapper performer, and still writing.  [One, um, golden oldie, Let me die a young man’s death cites the ages 73,91, and 104.  Not as much a hostage to fortune as Pete Townshend’s “Hope I die before I get old” in the Who’s (and their middle-aged tribute bands’) My generation, but then, they still do that. ]

Saying he was often accused of being ‘too sentimental’ he went out of his way to disabuse that with a neat reworking of one piece.  He was very funny, but at the same time, with a broad-ranging selection of an hour’s worth of material, not afraid to give us pause for thought.  I did succumb here, bought the autobiography.

This StonyMusicHall4

The Prince of Wales Rattlers. Photo © Andy Powell

Even without The Prince of Wales Rattlers, special guests from over the Northamptonshire border closing the show, StonyMusicHall4 would have been a grand affair.

What did we have?  With various multi-talented members of the Stony Steppers never far away we had: a sand dance, a recitation, a  clog dance (Daisy), singalong Vera Lynn, Whispering grass (from Two Men not called Matt, with accents slipping), a surreal chorus line dance routine involving half black/half white costumes, Mr Ferneyhough and concertina implanting an earworm (“With her ‘ead / tucked / underneath her arm“), some stunning slapstick choreography on If I was not a clog dancer, and … an act I’ve forgotten, I fear; sorry, please do tell.

The Rattlers started off with a couple of temperance hymns.  Too late, the barrels were empty.  Then continued with material more from the folk than music hall tradition but fully the latter in spirit, (and they elided somewhere in there historically anyway (didn’t they?)).  Great four-part harmonies, a moveable feast of musical accompaniment, a fine comedic turn, much jollity.
And so home with a big grin all over one’s face.

Them Theatre pop-ups

Caught one of these – the Light Programme, as opposed to the Dark Programme – in the Library.  A selection of rehearsed readings from a shifting cast of members of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society including a couple of Alan Bennett monologues, a bit of Bard and another old dude, excerpts from Alan Ayckbourn, the Stoppard Rosencrantz and Wossname, and a surprising piece (well, to me) from Chekhov that I wish I could remember*.  Good show, Caz & Co.

*The sneeze; the evils of tobacco – thanks Caz.

 

 

 

 

 

Pop-up theatre in the library

 

 

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… to breathe the cultural air around Stony Stratford.  Actually a few evenings, with one delightful Sunday afternoon thrown in too.  Chronologically, going back in time:

John Howarth. ©Pat Nicholson

A Blues theme was declared for late September Vaultage, and main man John Howarth delivered a varied and nicely judged set drawn from the subtler territories of the genre, playing exquisitely, singing sweetly.  An immaculately dressed gentleman sporting the Robert-Johnson-in-that-suit look (sorry, didn’t catch the name)then roughed things up a bit starting with a Howlin’ Wolf number.  Aforesaid well dressed man was wielding one of the two Resonator guitars in evidence – surely a record for at least Vaultage if not the Vaults Bar- but to tell the truth there wasn’t much blueswailing going down.  Indeed, the only harmonica seen was hanging un-played round the neck of another open-micer with one of those harness things.

Was a good evening, but I wish that when estimable MC Pat Nicholson advertises a themed night well in advance, all the participants would at least make a nod to said theme rather than doing their same old stuff; the Goodfellows at least had the grace to add the word ‘blues’ to the titles of a couple of their closely related Americana tunes, so excused.

Your humble scribe made a brief contribution. I kicked off with, “Woke up this morning / Someone told me it was National Poetry Day,” and proceeded to recite W.H.Auden‘s Roman Wall Blues.  The Sensational Alex Harvey does/did it better than me – and to music too:

Viva Vivant

Last Sunday afternoon, two hours of musical delight in York House’s intimate Beechey Room.  Vivant are a violin and melodeon duo.  Together violinist Mark Prescott and melodeon maestro Clive Williams entranced with a repertoire including some of their own compositions,  drawing on the French and English folk and early music traditions.

It was enervating yet relaxing – almost guided meditations – you could close your eyes and drift away; by which I mean bathe your mind with the beautiful patterns so woven.  Not forgetting the brief outbreak of French dancing (well, one couple, but still …) and a couple of weird waltz time signatures that I would never have realised were strange if they hadn’t explained (but then I’ve never managed to consistently count to 5 to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five).  A joy to be in the same room as two superb musicians who were so simpatico.  No higher praise: we bought a CD.

A pints-worth of the Bullfrogs in the Old George on a Friday night deserves a mention too.  All good, but the fiddler adds another dimension to their American southern border states musical mix.

What more can I say about the those Bards of Bugger All, those “paupers of the art world hegemony“, the Antipoet?  Always a joy and never a dull moment giving their all every and anywhere they go.  Invention and irreverence.  Can I remember much about this particular performance?  Apart from ex-Bard Vanessa reprising her contribution to the adaptable epic that is I like girls and the latest barnstormer that is Pointy dancing – No, not really.  Ace, though.  Of course.  Criminal that the lads never get any significant reviews working the festival circuit hard.  Not sure this one adds much either.  Extraordinary what can come out of two men, a full-size double bass and an occasional rusty triangle.  (I may have lied about the rust, but I think you’ll agree it scans better).  For the uninitiated, just stick their name into YouTube and pick at random; you might be there a long time.

Oddness at Scribal Gathering‘s September outing – save for the featured musician it was all spoken word performers, poets even.  An unprecedented absence of musos at an open mic.  Liam ‘Farmer’ Malone delivered a beautifully varied set – both sensitive and scurrilous in turn – in that warm Irish brogue.  His The gun shop is a tour de force of wit and burgeoning disbelief at the escalating armoury available on sale therein.  Elsewhere Justin Thyme’s bravura extended piece attesting that ‘We are all abusers’ was a spellbinding experience (not something you can always say); I’ll admit I may have lost the logic holding it together in the intensity of the delivery, but there’s no doubting that he meant well.

Impressive skills from James Hollingsworth with his ‘looping’ pedalboard, a contemporary update on the concept of a one-man band, performing original material.  “No backing tapes!”  You could get lost in his  ‘Psychedelic Folk Blues’ – and there was excitement to be had when he started hitting things to add some percussion into the mix – though I’ll admit to hankering for a reprise of the old style r&b strut he did for a sound check.

A while ago now, and memory fades, but mention must be made of the Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s Shakespeare’s Greatest Bits upstairs in the local Masonic Lodge’s temple, a potentially inflexible venue used inventively as the players performed excerpts from the wide spectrum of the Bard’s full canon from Titus Andronicus all the way to The Tempest with some sonnets thrown in for good measure.  And a bonus of music from the aptly named Not Two Bees (there were three of them).  Invidious to pick out individual performances, but Bravo! to director Caz Tricks.  Highly enjoyable evening.

Aeons ago now too, the Summer of Love themed Vaultage was good fun.  I’ll have another moan about open-mic-ers ignoring a theme that had been advertised and signalled well in advance, but for now I’ll let it lie and crave another kind of indulgence of my own.  While other performers sticking to the plot did covers (though gord help us from If you’re going to San Francisco) I with no little trepidation recited something I’d written in 1967.  Well an edited version thereof, major embarrassments redacted.  The scene is a room in a tower block, a then state-of-the-art university hall of residence – Sorby Hall in Sheffield, since demolished – the soundtrack almost certainly the John Coltrane Quartet’s My favourite things.  We were expanding our consciousness, ok? I was young:

Outside wind is present around the building
a modern tower M flights high
though A is the basement.
On G a red light; it is night
and rain strikes the window panes.

Focus on the red light inside the building
and let the red light grow out of itself to take in a room.

Five guys sit
in fact one of them lies stretched out
and in the red light
a blue music swells
pure, clear.

And the music is found and the music is black
and the music is round;
flat notes maybe
but even, true.

A kind of ether rests on the five
sitting, lying,
shamelessly indulgent
in the light of that red light
in the night with the wind.

Two of these guys are talking
about technique
and ‘the Bach of our time’
and the ‘intelligence’ of a record.

Two more know
that some of this is what they like
and are discovering more.
And one of their number is asleep.

The ether of the red light
is all-embracing
within the confines of the room
precariously timeless.

 

 

 

 

 

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Calling this piece A memorable Merchant I get to feel like an old sweat of a drama critic, as if I’d seen a few productions of Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice, which is not the case.  But there are moments from the Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s production of the play that stick in my mind over a fortnight after the experience – I’m not the first to call it that – and my memory’s not what it used to be.

The venue – upstairs in the actual Temple of the local Masons’ Lodge (No 1639) (and the stairs were steep and not wide) – is about the size of a thin tennis court, with audience seating two rows either side.  It made for an intimate setting that demanded something special for the enterprise to succeed.  Which it certainly did; there were times when I forgot some of the actors were friends.  Invidious to single out individuals – this was a tremendous ensemble performance – but Bill Handley’s Shylock (bottom right, below) was an absolute stunner, scary in its intensity.

Official photographer Paul hands’ cast shots

As I said, this is a play I’d not seen before, probably down to my shying away from its character’s expressed anti-Semitism.  Which was certainly not shirked here (I was shocked), though precisely because of this Shylock’s ‘If you prick us’ plea was powerful indeed.  “For me,” writes director Caz Tricks in the programme notes, “Shylock is not a bad person but he makes a very bad decision which he then won’t back down from” – locked into his own logic and circumstance, very much a trait of our times too.

It was a modern dress production shaded by a few timeless-cum-period costume hints that pushed us back in time, aided and abetted by the venue’s dark wood fixtures and fittings, in particular the Lord High Poobah’s ornate throne at one end, and a long thin black and white chequered carpet down the centre – a rectangular chess game?  The court scene was electric.  The comedy coda – the Shakespearean unmaskings of disguised identities, the happy ending – brought much relief.

Stony Stratford Theatre Society is, again quoting Caz from the programme, “a mix of professional and amateur actors.  Amateur stems from Latin, amare ‘to love’ and this company loves what we do.”  You could feel they love.   A friend who goes to the Warwickshire Bard’s Stratford a bit said – honest! – it was much better than some she’d seen there.  A triumph.  Bravo Caz Tricks!  Bravo the lot of you!

MK Calling 2017

I don’t go ‘up city’ much anymore.  The usual trigger is the need to replenish the caddy with Whittard’s loose leaf English Breakfast Tea – the only way to start the day.  The absurdity of the idea of ordering such a traditional luxury online is too much to contemplate – it just would not taste the same.  I used to try and combine this essential purchase with a visit to Milton Keynes Gallery.  As explained in the gallery’s press release below, however, this has not been possible for some time now, but at present there is a temporary respite:
This spring, MK Gallery showcases new and exciting work by over 70 emerging and established artists in MK Calling 2017. This exhibition will celebrate and champion the breadth of creativity in and around Milton Keynes and includes a wide range of art forms …
Over the last few months, the Gallery has been examined by architects and builders through digging, drilling and other physical interventions to test the foundations, structure and services in anticipation of its major expansion. For this exhibition, the basic access and health and safety have been temporarily restored to enable the building to be opened up for one last time before construction begins. With the exhibition designed to make the most of the makeshift quality of the building, artists and visitors will have exclusive behind the scenes access to the entire ground floor, including the old workshop, loading bay, shop and other improvised areas.
It made for a fascinating stroll, with, as suggested, all sorts of decent pictures, thoughts and things on show.  I liked Marion Piper’s In Side – “chalk on existing painted wall” – in the loading bay, with the attribution and explication sellotaped to the floor:

 

Anna Berry‘s intriguing Atomize (more details can be found here on her website, from which the full installation photo is lifted: http://www.annaberry.co.uk/3-2/installation-pieces/atomize/) had a particular resonance for me (as well as Anna being a friend) – those MK postcards were on sale where I used to work, I’ve sold and sent a few in my time.  The more detailed photos below are mine (click to enlarge).  Which and/or what exactly are ‘the spaces in between’?

On the way out Clive Doherty’s Percy the hungover robot made me laugh, though coming full circle, the video loop of an overflowing cup of tea (sorry, I’ll give the attribution when I have it) made me shudder:

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I’ve grown fond of that phrase, “a zodiacal sign without portfolio.”  Pure Terry Pratchett, or Douglas Adams maybe.  And yet it comes from L.P.Hartley‘s The go-between (1953), the book that famously – even unto pub quizzes – kicks off with “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”  Hell, yes.  Reading the damn thing – this month’s Book Group selection – certainly proves that.  1953 – check it out – was not a good year for the novel.  It didn’t help I was reading it off the back of Alice Munro‘s remarkable The view from Castle Rock (2007) either.

 

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Guaranteed to re-awaken the inner class warrior, The go-between, set deep in Downton territory, is a tale told by a 60-something-year old virgin looking back on events that led to the ‘tragic’ happenings occurring on his 13th birthday back in the year 1900.  Leo, an in-awe country house summer guest of the much richer family of a public school chum, finds himself being useful/used – oh the delights, the moral agonies with the prospect of a new green bicycle involved – as a messenger, helping facilitate secret liaisons between the only two half-decent recognisably twentieth century human beings in the vicinity: Marian, the daughter of the house, soon to be wed to the local Boer War-damaged Earl, and Ted Burgess, a local tenant farmer.  Initially our naive Mercury hasn’t a clue what’s going on; Leo allows the denouement to scar him for life. (Not that they weren’t happening before he appeared on the scene).

This is a rite of passage tale where basically the narrator fails; other readers have, it must be admitted, had more sympathy, but he remains a snob with no sense of outrage at what Ted feels he has to do, nor, more generally, at what such a strict reading of the social order can do all, wherever in it they reside. (For what it’s worth, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was being written pretty much half way between the events related in The go-between and its publication in 1953, though it wasn’t widely available until 1960).

I feel obligated to add here, in italics, a couple of days on, that at the Book Group meeting earlier today The Go-between was described as “a devastating critique of the class system”.  This is not unreasonable; it just wasn’t the book I wanted to read.  I’ll admit to feeling – a minority of one – something of an unfeeling clod some of the time, though I still think if that’s the case then for all the subtlety of its presentation, through the eyes of a sensitive, insecure 12-year old, there had to be some anger from the older man rather than it having to be brought to the party by the reader.  It was a good meeting.

The go-between has its moments – the progress of the cricket match is nicely done, the boys’ exchanged franglais insults are a delight, there’s a wonderful description of a fully grown deadly nightshade bush – it flows, but it’s so Downton grand and precious, and Leo the adult narrator is beyond the pale (no, is so incredibly pale): “It was 11.5, five minutes later than my habitual bedtime. I felt guilty at being still up …”; “Anyhow I do not like pubs and had rarely been inside one“.   And as for a sex life – or, um, “spooning” – as he rather dramatically puts it, ‘shown’ here in the quote that follows not exactly being a fair description of what happened: “Ted hadn’t told me what it was, but he had shown me, he had paid with his life for showing me, and after that I never felt like it.”

In the matter of class, Leo is intelligent enough to recognise favourably certain elements in Ted’s behaviour, but just cannot transcend his sense of the social order to draw any critical conclusions: “Oddly enough I didn’t mind him doing this; I had an instinct that, unlike people of my own class, he wouldn’t think the worse of me for crying“.

am-viewThat is just the sort of observation that sings out – though presented more economically – in an Alice Munro story.   For her I find myself abandoning hyperbole; it’s just that she is such a good writer.  Her vivid prose manages to deliver objectivity and intimacy simultaneously.  You observe with her, you feel what her characters are learning, how their lives are coming along.  The prose is precise, unspectacular yet never spare.  The lack of sentimentality is crucial to just how moving the stories – most of her work is short stories – can be.  I’m gripped by the stuff – physical description, the weather, journey details – I skimp over with others too.  I usually take a few notes when I read; I can’t do it with her.  It doesn’t work like that.  The results are extraordinary.

The view from Castle Rock (2007) brings together two strands of stories.  The first – No advantages – developed out of her interest in family history, going back to the early nineteenth century on the Scottish borders – a place of ‘no advantages’ as a source of the time has it – and their emigrating to and hard times in North America; America is first ‘seen’ from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock.  She draws on letters and journals and other documentation but the families are made flesh in a way no straight non-fiction treatment could do.  The second strand of stories – Home – is, she says, more in the nature of memoir, or at least they start from staging posts of emotional development and social awareness in her life, but somehow as short story, with that conceptual remove, they become so much more.  It’s an extraordinary reading experience.

Out and about

alice-in-stonylandThe continuing effects of a virus is are still limiting cultural ventures beyond the telly, but no way were we going to miss the local panto.  (The couple in front of us at the end of their row was also strategically placed to make an easy exit if the cough took hold – it didn’t).  The Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s production of Alice in Stonyland ay York House was a delight.  Developed from a script by Danni Kushner, who also charmed in the role of Dinah the Cat, this was a panto full of local references but refreshingly devoid of the traditional double entendres.  Great cast, great fun, great music, ovations galore.

Stonyland is in your heart
Its music will keep you strong
You don’t need to stamp your feet
You don’t need to shout
You just need to find your voice
Stand up, speak up, speak out!

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Alice in Stonyland (c) Bursteardrum Samuel Dore

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sunny-afternoon-programmeI’ll take it as read that Sunny Afternoon is this hugely enjoyable and successful award-winning musical, that it’s much more than just juke box theatre, and that it is performed  superbly by a multi-talented cast.  What we have here is ensemble playing at its best, full of energy, emotion and period feel.  (And of course there had to be dolly birds).  I’m taking the Kinks history for granted too.

So, I record just a few things here that occurred, after watching the touring cast at Milton Keynes Theatre, to one who has (for his sins) read all the Kinks biographies and was championing the songs long before the cliché of Ray Davies as ‘national institution’ was a given, before that soubriquet started being attributed liberally to any old Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Obviously much had to be telescoped into or left out of this telling of the story, but I thought the crucial dramatic band episodes were mostly nicely handled and worked well as theatrical moments too, in particular:

  • the ousting of co-manager Robert Wace as singer; ’50s crooner blown away mid-song by Dave’s blues guitar
  • the full enactment complete with legendary insults of the Cardiff incident where Mick Avory thought he’d killed Dave on stage in mid-show with a drum pedal
  • a collage of the all action run-ins with the unions and other awkward Americans leading to the band being banned from the States for 3 years.
  • (although I have to say, as a veteran reader and listener of the Kinks story, I thought the partial destruction of the Little Green Amp section a bit hammy, to tell the truth)

I particularly liked the way the songs were chosen and used, not necessarily chronologically, and not necessarily exclusively from the time frame of the show (1964-69), with some put into unexpected mouths as the story unfolded:

  • so Days is started by posh-boy managers Robert and Grenville when they’re given the boot; a lovely and powerful acapella spell cast over the audience as most of the gang join in
  • Pete Quaife’s exit to A rock’n’roll fantasy, the latest song in the canon featured, from 1978’s Misfits album; one of my least favourite Kinks songs, as it happens (but let’s just leave it as that being my problem for the time being).  (A friend with his own Kinks website describes “Dan is a fan” as the worst line Ray ever wrote; it has also led in fandom to disputes as to who Dan was, with pathetic claim and counter claims).
  • remind me, was Dead End Street, featured early in the show, sung initially by Ma and Pa Davies?
  • that passage in the play a lot of reviews mention, when Ray is calling wife Rasa on the phone from America, he singing Sitting in my hotel, and she the sublime I go to sleep as counterpoint; and yes, you really could have heard a pin drop.  Extraordinary moment.  I seem to recall she did a touching Tired of waiting directed at Ray as well.

A few other things less easy to categorise:

  • I was never a fan of the phenomenon, but that brilliant and witty drum solo at the start of the second half, after one had got over the initial shock of its unexpectedly being there at all, had me (and the audience) engrossed; I think it must have been a particularly good night because I thought I saw some congratulatory banter from the non-acting musician tucked away at the back of the stage.  Proof positive, I would say, that Ray does not share Dave’s famously derogatory opinion of Mick Avory’s skills.  Andrew Gallo take a bow.  (Have to report, too, a certain bewilderment for me that he was a spitting image of my niece’s husband; kept thinking, What’s James doing up there?)
  • the recreation of the genesis of Waterloo Sunset in the recording studio was beautifully done
  • Ryan O’Donnell has to get a name-check here as entering fully into the spirit of Ray; while Mark Newnham actually looked like Dave (but had a better voice).  The whole cast was tremendous (with the bonus of  Grenville and Robert being proficient on trombone) and their CVs refreshingly free of the usual Casualty, The Bill and Midsomer Murders credits.
  • a lot of football metaphors thrown in, but I thought they made a bit of a rush job with the collage of Sunny Afternoon, the show’s title song, and England winning the World Cup
  • Class: in the US Ray and Dave play up as working class socialists, and it is made quite clear that the touted classless society of the early ’60s was, if not an illusion, a very short-lived phenomena
  • a couple of neat ‘time traveller’ jokes
  • is Sunny Afternoon set to be the middle part of a very broadly defined trilogy?  I wonder this because of the way it ended, with Allen Klein reintroducing them to the American stage.  So we’ve had the Davies family background in more detail with the earlier rather fine but never made it to the West End Come Dancing musical, albeit with a fictional plot overlaid, and Ray is talking about “something epic” when the Americana – the what came next – CD is released?
  • so Allen Klein: I must admit I hadn’t realised that it was his team that cleared the legal or bureaucratic decks that allowed the Kinks to work in America again, and although there was the dramatic moment in the show when Ray made sure they didn’t sign another damaging management deal with him after he’d sorted a few things out (unlike the Beatles and the Stones), Klein’s voice announcing their return to a big New York venue seemed an odd way to end the narrative.  As if “the rest is history”, except for most people, it isn’t.  Apart from Lola.
  • indeed, I have to say I thought the admittedly joyous singalong clap-along audience on their feet finale of Lola was a bit of an artistic cop-out, a populist failure of nerve, seeing as the song Lola – the one, of course, the whole world knows – had no point of reference with the basic narrative in the show that had gone before.  Don’t worry, I was up on my feet with the rest of the audience, but I’d have preferred a reprise of Sunny Afternoon.
  • Great night, nevertheless!  I think I can see why a few of my Kinks fan community friends have seen the London cast show many, many times.  At certain times, excitement revived, when the lads picked up their instruments you could close your eyes and …  As well as all the fun.

shakespeare-circleMeanwhile, 400 years earlier …

Exactly 400 years had passed between his birth and the start of the action in Sunny Afternoon and You really got me being released, but there are still many things that are unclear about the life of William Shakespeare, born 1564.  Friday before last (Sept 2), in the local library in Stony we had a couple of world-class superstars of Shakespeare biography introducing their book The Shakespeare circle: an alternative biography (Cambridge UP, 2015).  The need for “Imaginative biography” is the phrase they used, if I remember correctly.  It was a fascinating evening, all done without the help of  a ss-shak-400PowerPoint presentation.  Paul Edmonson and Stanley Wells made for a fascinating double act, a splendid mix of wit, friendship and scholarship, their depth of knowledge staggering (but then this is what they’ve been doing for most of their adult lives).  Here’s the publisher’s puff, because I feel like being lazy:

This original and enlightening book casts fresh light on Shakespeare by examining the lives of his relatives, friends, fellow-actors, collaborators and patrons both in their own right and in relation to his life. Well-known figures such as Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton are freshly considered; little-known but relevant lives are brought to the fore, and revisionist views are expressed on such matters as Shakespeare’s wealth, his family and personal relationships, and his social status. Written by a distinguished team, including some of the foremost biographers, writers and Shakespeare scholars of today, this enthralling volume forms an original contribution to Shakespearian biography and Elizabethan and Jacobean social history.

All great fun, honest.  50 years ago, in year 2 of Sunny Afternoon, I did a sixth form project on the question of ‘Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ prompted by John Peirce, an inspirational English teacher who knew of my keenness for Mark Twain and guided me to a late work of his, published 1909, Is Shakespeare dead?  (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry).  There Twain details humourously and not unseriously the known facts of the actor William Shakespeare’s life and compares them with the width and breadth of knowledge displayed in the plays, and promotes a conspiracy theory that has been repeated over the decades, invoking various other writers for any number of reasons, as the true authors.  All nonsense, of course, and research has found a lot more about the Bard in the century hence.

No-one directly brought up the question of authorship, but one of the questions from the floor invoked the supposed “missing years” in the documented life of Shakespeare, which some have used to reconcile the mismatch Twain highlighted – did he go to Italy, for instance, and pick up all the knowledge thereof that’s there in the plays?  Apart from the fact that London was a major cosmopolitan trading port where all sorts of things could be picked up in bars etc., Wells and Edmondson said that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries also have big gaps in their documented existence, indeed one would expect it, given the times.  Anyway, mention of ‘the missing years’ reminded me of John Prine‘s rather wonderful part-song part-recitation  Jesus the missing years, which I leave you with here, to enjoy:

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