MUSCOVADO-JI5A3368Bridport Arts Centre 9 May 2015
BR Rating *****

By John Pownall

1808, the West Indies – sugar is king on these islands placed at one end of the heinous triangle of trade that joined Bristol to Barbados, Liverpool to St Lucia, and back to the shores of West Africa from whence the slaves came who grew the cane that made the Muscovado.

That history is at the heart of this tremendous production brought on tour by the Surrey-based company, BurntOut Theatre, whose founder, Clemmie Reynolds, takes the leading role as Kitty, wife of the perennially-offstage, constantly-referenced Captain. Clemmie’s own recovered family history of plantation owners on Barbados provided much source material for Matilda Ibini’s tight, memorable, and at times poetic script.

The acting is superb. From the charismatic Alexander Kiffin as Asa, the servant farmed out to stud to “replenish the herd” after “fresh” slaves become scarce following abolition, to the wonderfully energetic and sensitive portrayal of Willa, the servant girl, by Sophia Mackay, this young cast is as good as we’ve ever seen at Bridport Arts Centre, and as good as you’ll see in many a West End production. It’s unfair to single out any individual, so strong are the performances throughout, but Adam Morris’s Parson Lucy is as sickeningly sanctimonious a portrait of the colonialist’s sense of racial hegemony as one could imagine. You really want Asa to give him a good kicking after he’s made the gentle but powerful servant lick crumbs from the floor; if this is a man of God, one reflects, then there’s something badly wrong with his reading of the Bible. Ibini’s script is a gift to any actor in this role.

Words such as visceral , stunning, and brutal were banded around during the mid-show interval, and, as many of us reflected: It’s a true story, too. But somehow the play and its performance manage to bring both light and dark on to the stage despite the weight of the past. The production manages to be great fun at times as well as being grim drama at others. In one sequence, Willa carries out a minor, solitary act of rebellion at Kitty’s table; she casts sugar from a bowl into the air and lets it shower her face so she can catch it in her mouth. This, the product of the stuff her own people harvest so slavishly in the fields, is denied her as a servant, and so she takes a liberty in stealing from her owner, laughing and jumping with joy as her face is shrouded with the silver granules. She is caught of course, and, quite literally, scalded as punishment by Kitty.

This ability to move quickly from light to dark is the key to the show’s dynamic. There is also clever, emblematic irony in Kitty’s explanation of the manufacturing of the sugar from cane, a process that takes place in England as the pure white stuff is boiled and milled from the dark Muscovado – like a symbol of the two cultures that meet so violently on the island. “You have been stealing from England,” says Kitty, just as she raises the hot tea-pot above Willa’s trembling hand; a fine case of the pot calling, one might reflect.

The production also boasts fine music (if occasionally a tad intrusive when intended as background) from James Reynolds (Emmie’s brother), which mixes the hybrid cultures swinging from Baroque cantatas to Caribbean dance rhythms, and some clever choreography right after the interval. The set is simple but effective and the costumes perfect. All in all, one of the best little touring productions you’ll be fortunate to catch this year.

If you missed it at BAC (and many of you sadly did), then do try to see it at the Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton, on 12 June; it’s well worth the journey.

By |May 10th, 2015|Bridport Arts Centre, John Pownall, Review|0 Comments

Far from the Madding Crowd

Electric Palace

Red Carpet at the Palace

Electric Palace 17 April 205
BR Rating ****

By Margery Hookings

When Mapperton House first showed its golden, ham-stone face on the big screen at the Electric Palace, I almost wept. The landscape was an English version of Tuscany glowing in the evening sun.

It was a night full of emotion, as tenants and farmers from the estate gathered in the balcony for the Dorset première of Far from the Madding Crowd.

What an occasion. They’ve probably never all been into town like that together, as one group. And while the luvvies and London PR girls did air kisses and tottered around as if they had been prototypes for Ab Fab, the gang from Mapperton and neighbouring hamlets merely smiled and said “all right?”.

It was a surreal experience, walking into the foyer along a red carpet lined with spring flowers, twinkly lights and security guards.

The film is an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, with screenplay by One Day novelist David Nicholls. Doubtless it will be compared with the 1967 film by John Schlesinger starring Julie Christie, Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and Alan Bates. It compares well: it is darker and more intimate in places, with more emphasis on character rather than plot, which is what drove Schlesinger’s film.

In a nutshell, beautiful but headstrong woman inherits farm in glorious countryside and is wooed by three suitors – the solid and steady son of the soil, Gabriel Oak, the dashing cad, Sergeant Frank Troy, and the middle-aged, boring but wealthy landowner, William Boldwood.

Who will she choose, and what will she – and they – go through to get there?

Carey Mulligan radiates an assertive luminosity in the lead role but without the vanity Hardy ascribes to her character. Her passion is awakened by Troy, who forsakes Maiden Castle for a dark wood to show her his skills as a swordsman and uses a clinch to touch her up through her dress. This is the point where the pace of the film quickens; the lush landscape takes a secondary role and the characters develop.

Tom Sturridge is a bit of a weasel and seems like a boy in a soldier’s uniform. Michael Sheen, as ever, turns in a great performance although there are shades of Blair in his nervous smile. We end up, though, really feeling sorry for the serious man whose head is turned by the antics of a wilful woman when she’s flirting.

But what of Matthias Schoenaerts in the role of Gabriel Oak – a Belgian taking the part of a Dorset shepherd? Apart from a few words that jar, his accent doesn’t get in the way at all. This Oak was handsome – more handsome than Alan Bates. He was strong, safe and loving and quietly underpinned the whole film.

None of the main characters even bothered with a local accent, let alone a dialect. And the minor ones that did sounded like they came from this part of the world rather than Bristol.
The scenes with local extras were a joy, particularly those in the cornfields at harvesting. Far from the Madding Crowd is beautifully lit and photographed – the Americans will love this slice of English heaven.

And at the end, the little Mapperton family joined with others to clap and cheer during the closing credits, knowing their charabanc would arrive soon to take them back to the glorious hinterland, far from the madding crowd.

Picture: Margery Hookings

By |April 18th, 2015|Margery Hookings, Review, The Electric Palace|2 Comments

Ferocious Dog

Ferocious dogElectric Palace 16 April 2015
BR Rating ****

By Sean Geraghty

“Blown away,” answered Ken Bonsall, when I asked the band’s frontman what he made of the experience at Bridport’s Electric Palace. I would have said the same thing, as any ‘Ferocious virgin’ would.

I approached the gig with scepticism. I’d seen the website with its striking photographic images of a mohawked singer, backed by a piratical crew playing to a moshing bare-chested tattooed crowd and thought… erm, OK what’s this all about? Smoke and mirrors, or is this the real deal?

Hailing from Warsop, a village in Nottinghamshire between Mansfield and Worksop, the band has hit a rich seam, appropriate for a former mining community.

Their second album was crowd-funded and a significant endorsement in a business landscape where faith is rarely demonstrated with such enthusiasm and easily misplaced in less-deserving causes. Their reputation grows by word of mouth.

Ferocious Dog offer a full-on six-piece sound that encompasses folk infused with rock, reggae and Celtic vibrations. The combination of instruments creates a palette of sound that offers infinite variations: going in hard to get people up and moving, or slipping into melodic passages and dub-like fusions without the gruesome pretentions of some bands they have been compared with, (mentioning no names… I’m on the level here.)

I was sold when I strolled into the 200-ish crowd on a Thursday night seeing a geezer in a Clash t-shirt singing about Gallows Justice, following with tunes titled Poor Angry, Young, Living On Thin Air… not an easy sell to the typical age-ambiguous West-Dorset-Thursday-Night-Willing crowd.

There was definitely something going on, with Scott Walters’ exceptional drumming – a boy who can seriously PLAY – it still took a few warm-up tunes and pointed persuasion from Dan Booth’s dazzling fiddlework to weld the unconverted audience to the more dedicated lyric-hollering fans who had turned up in force from all corners of the country.

The bridge was built with two songs titled The Glass and Lee’s Tune. Lee, a young soldier who came back from the war in Afghanistan, died at his own hand after struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. This was no made-up pastiche but a story told direct from his father, Ken, mourning his son’s suicide and being delivered with such dignified passion, with no sentimentality, no nonsense.

Ferocious Dog have plenty to say and plenty to offer. They could be taken as a good stomping night out or as political messengers, but they should be taken seriously. They stand and deliver, reclaiming the credibility and tradition of the fiercely independent musicians that once roamed the music scene, setting their own agenda, supported by their own fans. It’s punk Jim, just as we knew it.

They should soon be seen on bigger stages. They deserve the opportunity to make a name for themselves without comparison, and I hope it comes their way soon.

By |April 17th, 2015|Music, Review, Sean Geraghty|0 Comments


dracula_2-630x420Bridport Arts Centre 16 April 2015
BR Rating ****

By John Pownall

Rabbit Theatre’s version of Bram Stoker’s horror classic is a tale of three collaborators; writer Andrew Macpherson, director Simon Harvey, and actor David Mynne. The show is witty, visually striking, and well-paced. Stripped of both the novel’s rather burdensome late 19th Century prose, as well as the clichés of 20th Century cinema, this is a production that rejuvenates the Count without drawing blood, even providing an interesting twist at the end by consigning the hero’s fiancée to an eternity of neck-biting.

The show is faithful to the narrative core of the original but has immense fun at the same time. Mynne presented, for example, the three beautiful vampire women as a row of Barbie dolls pinioned to a piece of wood that he wafted through the air, mimicking the sound of their voices crying out for kisses for us all. Van Helsing’s holy water was dispensed from a water pistol, the occasional jet finding its way into the front row seats, and Renfield’s predilection for eating live flies was played by Mynne with schoolboy relish; you could almost hear them crunch.

There were moments too of genuine suspense. Mynne’s height and baldness must invite comparisons with Herzog’s Nosferatu , and as he stood in front of the moon (a very clever hanging sphere lit from within and suspended from a steel tripod) draped in his black cape, skin as pale as a ghost, just for a brief minute there was that odd mixture of fear and erotic thrill that always accompanies the Count’s deathly seductions.

Any one-man adaptation risks losing an audience from time to time because one voice alone (no matter how versatile) can pall. There were perhaps a couple too many repetitions of favoured methods of representation – the cut-out bats, for example, appeared rather a lot, and the vocalised sound effects of storm, wind, and physical happenings were sometimes annoying.

Yet the show remained compelling in spite of its limitations of scale, in large part because of Mynne’s energetic good-humour. This even extended to an after-show chat during which he explained that his ‘moon’ had been fixed earlier in the day by BAC’s conscientious technicians, and thanked us all for attending despite the unseasonal barbecue weather. He needn’t have – it was a great show and deserved a much bigger audience.

By |April 17th, 2015|Bridport Arts Centre, John Pownall, Review|0 Comments

D H Lawrence’s Poetry

Graham Fawcett

Graham Fawcett

A talk by Graham Fawcett
Sladers Yard
19 March 2015
BR Rating ****

By Elaine Beckett

Lawrence wrote well over 800 poems, many of which he later revised. How, I wondered, would Graham Fawcett manage so much material? Would he provide some kind of route map? None was offered and from the look of the audience, none had been expected. Fawcett simply plunged us into a description of his own 1970s escape from Winchester (destination Florence), interweaving this with accounts of Lawrence’s escape to that city from humdrum Croydon.

It was confusing but it didn’t matter. Fawcett brought Florence to life: the noise, the smell, the heat, the disappointments. So when, at the end of the first 45-minute set, Fawcett read Lawrence’s Man And Bat, our imaginations were primed; we were in the room with Lawrence and all the dreadful choices he had to make about that disgusting creature ‘blind with frenzy, with cluttered fear’. We hoped he wouldn’t kill it, were amazed that after so much whizzing about, the poet was kind enough to wait until the bat finally dropped to the floor ‘like a clot’, inviting him to wrap it gently in his flannel jacket and shake it out from whence it came so that the bat could scream up and down along the Arno again;

And away he went!
Fear craven in his tail.
Great haste, and straight, almost bird straight above the
Via de’ Bardi.
Above that crash gulf of exploding whips,
Towards the Borgo San Jacobo.

DH Lawrence

D H Lawrence

The fact that Fawcett had been prepared to travel From London, running a high temperature as a result of ’flu, so as not to disappoint his audience (indeed needing to take his jacket on and off throughout his talk in order to regulate it) says much about the man and his infectious enthusiasm for all things poetic. Fawcett was on fire.

The second half led us dipping in and out of Lawrence’s early life, his break away from all that he feared might entrap him, via Frieda, to Sicily: always on the move, never willing to compromise, tortured by the prospect of an ordinary life, Fawcett suggested that Lawrence’s observational powers were probably at their peak in the heat of that place. And Fawcett made sure to give us the whole of Snake so we could immerse ourselves in the slow, dry details of the heat, the fear, the awe, the oedipal, class-conscious   self-criticism:

He reached down from the fissure in the earth-wall in the
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down,
over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat on the bottom . . .

These superb readings impelled me to reach again for my copy of Lawrence’s collected poems. The next talk, on 21 May, is on Dante. Go experience the Fawcett effect. To be treasured, not to be missed.

By |March 21st, 2015|Elaine Beckett, Review|1 Comment