New Writing Cumbria online magazine: The Carrot

At the moment, I have a number of jobs, but one thing that I love about all of them is helping to create interesting artworks. Whether I’m helping teenagers explore the possibility that they can write poetry, or helping facilitate theatre tours and exhibitions at Prism Arts, or working on my own writing, it’s always exciting to see the seed of an idea come to fruition.

Through my job as New Writing Cumbria, I’ve been working with a group of young writers and editors to produce an online magazine of new Cumbrian writing. And I’m delighted to say that Issue #1 has now been published.

For the first issue, we chose the theme ‘Cumbria-land’. We invited anybody from or living in Cumbria to submit work on the theme – but there was also a bit of a twist. While we did want some of the more traditional types of writing (poetry / fiction / script etc.), we also wanted to explore some of the extra options that creating an online magazine provided.

So we actively encouraged people to submit something a little bit different: film / audio / visual art / crosswords / recipes / jokes…

Admittedly, we didn’t receive any crosswords, recipes or jokes (next time, please?) but we did receive a number of visual and audio pieces, as well as some video. We also used visual art from some of the 2014 Young C-Artists.

The idea was to create something that was fun and vibrant: something that didn’t look like a traditional magazine. And I have to say, I think we succeeded.

We had some excellent submissions, from a large number of writers / artists, and working with the young editors was fantastic. It was great to see them getting so passionate in their discussions over which pieces should be included, and it’s moments like that which remind me just why I love doing the jobs I do.

So don’t be shy: head on over to The Carrot and have a read / watch / listen!

When you look around an audience and see a fairy, a man in a top hat and nightshirt, and several pirates, you know you’re in for a good night.

Wendy, John and Michael Darling in Theatre by the Lake's Christmas production of Peter Pan
Isabella Marshall, Meilir Rhys WIlliams & Matthew Coulton: photo by Keith Pattison.

Any theatre that puts on a production of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is starting from a good place – especially when press night is also fancy dress night. It’s a fantastic story, and has a witty, entertaining, timeless script. But the script also presents challenges, the main one of which is of course flying.

To simultaneously fly four actors above the (comparatively small) stage in Theatre by the Lake’s Main House was ambitious, both for the technical staff operating the flight rigging, and for the actors who had to avoid hitting the set or each other. Luke Jerdy as Peter did a particularly exceptional job of making flight look easy and natural.

There were a couple of mishaps with the flight equipment (a couple of tangled wires, and a bump against the wall), but overall the ambition paid off. Against the backdrop of Martin Johns’ beautiful set, and enhanced by his vibrant costumes, flight certainly added to the magical feel of the show.

The cast brought Barrie’s wonderful characters to life: from Isabella Marshall’s sensible and caring Wendy Darling, to Peter Macqueen’s cunning and somewhat misunderstood Captain Hook. Meilir Rhys Williams as Michael, the youngest, was a delight to watch, captivating the audience with his childish mannerisms and charm.

However, it was the Young Chorus who really stole the show. From jellyfish, to mermaids, to the Lost Boys, the younger members of the cast brought their own magic to the performance. They all held their own alongside the professional actors – particularly the Lost Boys, who were challenged with carrying large amounts of the story, and who rose to the challenge magnificently.

Despite the challenges posed by the script, Ian Forrest and Mary Papadima created a feel-good production of Peter Pan, which was rounded off by cheers and whooping from a very appreciative audience.

Last year, after Swallows and Amazons, I came out of the Theatre by the Lake smiling. This year I came out grinning.

One day a week (plus a bit extra), I run New Writing Cumbria for Eden Arts. We do a number of things, btu one thing we’ve just started is putting on events at Penrith Old Fire Station. The first one went down a storm!

The evening featured poet Kareem Parkins-Brown, musicians Kev Kendal and Bill Lloyd, writer Stephen Redman, and filmmaker Richie Johnston. Oh, and a bar inside a horse box, naturally.

Here are a couple of shots from the night:

~ Katie Hayes (Anna), Liam Smith (Deeley), Rebecca Todd (Kate): Photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Katie Hayes (Anna), Liam Smith (Deeley), Rebecca Todd (Kate): Photo by Keith Pattison ~

There are plays that make you laugh. There are plays that make you cry. Then there are plays that make you think for days after the curtain call has ended and the lights have gone up. Mary Papadima’s production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times is definitely one of these.

The play appears to start ordinarily enough: a couple, Kate (Rebecca Todd) and Deeley (Liam Smith), anticipating the arrival of Kate’s old friend Anna (Katie Hayes). However, because this is Pinter, all is not as it seems. The surreal curves of the set, reminiscent of a Dali painting, hint at the distorted reality that follows, as Deeley and Anna engage in a power struggle over their claims to Kate. As versions of the past surface, the possibilities voiced (and not voiced) by the characters make the Pinteresque silences spine-tingling – particularly in the intimacy of the Theatre by the Lake’s small studio theatre.

It was this intimate space that helped to produce the play’s intense, claustrophobic atmosphere. However, it was the fearsome, electric, and sometimes sensual onstage chemistry between the actors that really created, sustained and then heightened the tension.

From Hayes’ Anna, confidence in her own sensuality, to Smith’s Deeley, too full of assurances of his role as alpha male, to Todd’s Kate, often voiceless in her position trapped between the two – each of the three elusive roles was executed with a sensitivity and realism that left the audience unsure whose side to take in the unfolding battle for a kind of dominance.

Put all of this against the backdrop of Sanne Noppen’s soundscape of dripping water, rumbles, and low unspecified noises, and the tension and uncertainty in the theatre simmered almost to boiling point.

In a play where memories differ and realities are constantly shifting, and the truth of nothing is guaranteed, it is easy to forget that these are actors, and that we as the audience have unwittingly become a part of the layered and manufactured realities that make up the fabric of the play. It is the sort of production that leaves you reeling.

[Theatre by the Lake: Keswick]

The Comedy of Errors has a quite frankly ridiculous plot, even by Shakespearean standards, about the mistaken identities of two sets of twins separated at birth. If Ben Travers’ Rookery Nook (also showing in Theatre by the Lake’s main house this season) is an outrageous farce, then Shakespeare’s shortest play outstrips it in its barely controlled madness – which is exactly what makes it such good fun to watch. 

Comedy of Errors 2

Fortunately, Ian Forrest’s production of The Comedy of Errors did not try to dial down or intellectualise the humour of Shakespeare’s text. Instead, the vibrant chaos of Martin Johns’ set enhanced the chaotic plot as the characters chased each other around the stage in a manner that would have made Ben Travers proud.

Henry Devas as Antipholus of Ephesus and Bryn Holding as Antipholus of Syracuse mirrored each other perfectly in their confusion and bewilderment as the play developed, without losing their individuality as separate characters, while James Duke and Chris Hannon as the two Dromios provided the production with well timed and executed (if occasionally slightly overdone) slapstick humour.

The two main women in the play provided another expert pairing, as the sisters Adriana (Cate Cammack) and Luciana (Jennifer English). However, unlike the similarities between the two sets of twins, these two seemed to delight in their contrast, with English’s calm and reasoned demeanour providing the perfect foil for Cammack’s comic hysteria.

But it was two of the smaller parts that really stole the show. Matthew Vaughan’s superb comic timing was unsurpassed, both as the goldsmith, but especially as Dr Pinch, the hysterical and slightly suspect physician, who attempts to perform an exorcism on the bewildered Antipholus of Ephesus.

The other special mention has to go to Peter Rylands, whose silent comic acting as a disgruntled  and unsympathetic merchant was easily as engaging as any of the speaking parts.

Overall, the production was an enjoyable one, combining slapstick and farce with the more subtle witticisms inherent in Shakespeare’s language. It was an entertaining evening out, from which we came away smiling.

Comedy of Errors 1

‘The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.’ – Alfred Drury

~ Writing advice from Alfred Drury: V&A, London ~
~ Writing advice from Alfred Drury: V&A, London ~

This is the quotation that soars above the entrance to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It is. as you would expect, rather fitting. The V&A houses thousands of items, each beautiful and noteworthy in its own way.

It’s also a philosophy I try to follow in my own practice.

I tend to write vary varied material: poetry; blog posts about travel; press releases and publicity material for my jobs. I’m even attempting to write a Mills & Boon-style romance!

But what matters to me isn’t what I’m writing – it’s how I write it. And I know that sounds slightly corny, so let me explain:

When I’m writing poetry, I focus very closely on the language I use, on the images it creates, and on the sound of the words when spoken aloud. I pay attention to meter and cadence, and think actively about rhyme. The result is usually less than a page, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quick process. Instead, it’s as though the writing process has been condensed and strengthened, like that double strength fruit cordial that you somehow always end up using too much of.

When I’m writing for my romance, however, the process is entirely different. Partly because it’s all just a bit of fun, although I do still want to do the job properly (heaving bosoms and all!). So I focus on the story: how events shape emotions, and how to get characters from A to B. I don’t focus too closely on the language: it’s more like impressionism, with broad brush strokes just intended to convey feelings, rather than meticulously engineered imagery and sound.

Totally different ways of writing, but they do have something in common: in both situations, I’m trying to achieve a purpose. Whether that purpose is the precise conveyance of an exact emotion, or the deep desires of two characters with sexual tension so thick you couldn’t slice it with an electric carving knife. What matters is achieving your goals.

‘The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.’

I’m not assuming my work is excellent – although that’s obviously what I strive for. And I strive for excellence by striving towards the various purposes I set out to accomplish.

Now excuse me, I have a romance to write…

~

This post originally appeared on my travel blog: Second-Hand Hedgehog.

[Theatre by the Lake, Keswick]

It isn’t often that a play can make you laugh and cry simultaneously. Alan Bennett manages it. So does Brendan Murray.

Seeing The Lights

At first, Seeing The Lights is a seemingly light and casual play about family disputes. At its heart, however, it is emotional and highly charged.

As an ill (and possibly dying) old woman prepares for her birthday, the only present she wants is for the whole family to be together to visit the Blackpool Illuminations like they used to. But one of her children is half the world away in Australia, and the two closer to home are far from united. In the confined setting of a northern terraced house, frictions intensify and old rifts widen.

The Theatre by the Lake’s programme describes the play as a comedy, which is largely accurate. However, Murray’s quirky dialogue often catches you unawares, and a surprising turn of phrase can tip the balance between comedy and heart-wrenching sadness – all the more heart-wrenching because of the intimate domesticity of director Stefan Escreet’s production in the Studio Theatre.

The two rooms that make up Anna Pilcher Dunn’s set are recognisably unremarkable, while Laura Cox’s portrayal of the central character, known only as ‘Mum’, feels like the sort of person you would probably know. In fact, the whole family dynamic at times feels uncomfortably familiar.

Terry (James Duke), the son-turned-carer, is at once universal and surprising, witty and tender. Although Seeing The Lights is very much an ensemble production, for me it was Duke’s honest acting and complex emotion towards Mum that carried the play, and it was for him that I rooted in the warzone of family life.

However, some pity also has to be felt for the children’s partners, Ray (Chris Hannon) and Nasir (Alan Suri) – both in their own way caught between two warring camps. Characters who could so easily have become passive and helpless instead provided just enough resistance to the formidable yet vulnerable Muna (Rebecca Todd), to enable the complex and shifting family dynamic that drives the entire plot.

It is also what makes Brendan Murray’s play a mirror in which we can see the fraught complexities of any family. At least, I know I can see mine.

[Theatre by the Lake, Keswick]

In anything written by the Scots Makar (think ‘Scottish poet laureate’), you expect a witty and surprising use of language – and Liz Lochhead’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula does not disappoint. The script was full of humour and dramatic irony, which Mary Papadima’s production brought out in full, and brought a thoroughly modern feel to the classic tale.

~ Matthew Vaughan (Count Dracula); photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Matthew Vaughan (Count Dracula); photo by Keith Pattison ~

Enhancing this contemporary atmosphere was the set, whose clean lines and muted colours were beautifully simple and versatile. Transitions between locations (from Whitby, to Bedlam, to Dracula’s castle  in Transylvania) were therefore both swift and entirely believable, aided by Andrew J Lindsay’s video, and Dan Steele’s superbly atmospheric music.

The play also contained some stellar individual performances. Matthew Vaughan played a formidable yet almost feline Dracula, reminiscent of Olivier’s Richard III. His manipulation of Lochhead’s dialogue was masterful, and he held the audience in thrall as easily as he did the other characters.

Opposite the vampire’s cunning intelligence, Henry Devas played Jonathan Harker as a pitiably naive young man, at times almost like a young boy caught in a trap.

The two main women also gave excellent performances, with Cate Cammack’s Mina an excellent (comparatively) rational older sister to Jennifer English’s young, wanton Lucy.

The other performance which deserves great acclaim was that of Liam Smith’s Renfield. Perfectly balancing the line between madness and reason, his adoption of the character was complete – so complete, in fact, that it took me until the curtain call to recognise him from The Winterling. His physical performance was also very impressive.

But the play was not perfect. Stoker’s novel covers hundreds of miles and a lot of plot, and the play also felt a bit too long. It was frequently a struggle to hear the dialogue, which was a shame for such an otherwise enjoyable production. However, for me the incredible individual performances outweighed these shortcomings, and still made the play a great evening out. (And, at almost three hours long, it’s certainly value for money!)

[Theatre by the Lake, Keswick]

A stormy night in a candlelit house in the middle of nowhere; it sounds like the setting for a gothic horror novel. But Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling is firmly grounded in reality – even if it is a warped and troublesome reality. 

PRESS Winterling
~ Liam Smith (West) and Alan Suri (Wally); photo by Keith Pattison ~

The Winterling is a homage to Harold Pinter: throughout the play, the characters struggle for the upper hand, and Jez Pike’s production brings out the tension and fear of the unknown so typical of Pinter. The play is also darkly humorous, and Butterworth’s quirky and halting dialogue was handled superbly by all of the cast.

Particularly impressive was one exchange between West (Liam Smith) and Patsy (Henry Devas), as they quizzed one another on the history of an ancient fort. Watching the two men challenge each other’s knowledge was like watching a young stag challenge the alpha male; the tension in the theatre was palpable.

Alan Suri’s Wally formed the third side of this power triangle. Although Suri perhaps handled Butterworth’s halting dialogue least successfully, he nevertheless created an initially vulnerable yet ultimately imposing figure as he fought for his superiority within the group.

In a parallel triangle, where West, Draycott and Lue quite literally claimed their space, the tension seemed lessened. Although not without a certain hardness, Draycott (James Duke) elicited both laughter and pity, while Jennifer English’s Lue seemed so real, I wanted to reach out and help her realise the dream towards which she strives throughout the play.

However, the star role was taken by Maura Guthrie’s sound design. From the outset, Guthrie’s soundscape gave the sense of total immersion in the world and style of the play. As fighter planes roar and thunder overhead during the blackouts, the tone for the play is set: this is a vulnerable space, one where anything could happen and the characters’ destinies are not entirely within their own hands. It is a place for fear, and for the sudden impact of the unexpected.

If drama is conflict, then Theatre by the Lake’s production of The Winterling is a tense and darkly funny drama.

[Theatre by the Lake, Keswick]

A house in the country. A pretty but distressed girl running from her angry German stepfather. A rumour-mongering woman with a downtrodden husband. A vicious cat, and two slightly hapless cousins waiting for something interesting to happen.

Let chaos ensue…

Rookery Nook
~ Matthew Vaughan, Chris Hannon & Bryn Holding: photo by Keith Pattison ~

 

From the moment we saw the stage, Martin Johns’ set created the tone for the rest of the play: large, respectable, and plenty of doors for hiding places and near misses.

Despite a slightly slow start, Ian Forrest’s stylised production of Ben Travers’ Rookery Nook lived up to expectations. Much of the joy in a farce comes from dramatic irony (knowing something the characters are yet to discover), and this was dealt with superbly by all of the cast.

However, and the scenes of comical violence were less convincing. At times when no action or revelation were occurring, the pacing sometimes felt baggy, as though the play was treading water until the next moment of hilarity. During those hilarious moments, though, we frequently found ourselves laughing out loud, and losing ourselves in the conceit of the play.

The central pairing of conspiratorial cousins Clive and Gerald Popkiss (Bryn Holding and Matthew Vaughan) provided a strong backbone for the play, as they sought to help beautiful ingénue Rhoda (Cate Cammack). Cammack’s initial entrance provided a breath of fresh air for the drama, and it was at this point that the first act really took off.

Chris Hannon’s physical comedy as the downtrodden Harold Twine was well maintained, as his wife (Katie Hayes) sought to unravel the mischief, helped judgmental housekeeper Mrs Leverett (Laura Cox) with her slightly questionable accent.

A special mention needs to be made for Katie Norris’ portrayal of floozy Poppy Dickey; although only on stage for a short time, she provided fun and laughter, and ‘flags for the lifeboats’ became the quote of the night!

Overall, Rookery Nook was an enjoyable evening out, and we came away smiling. Some of the dialogue could have been tighter and the action slicker, but this is something that I’m sure will improve as the performance run continues, and the production becomes the crisp, funny farce that it has the potential to be.

Poetry Installation: Lowther Castle, Cumbria

Beneath The Boughs was an installation of contemporary poetry at Lowther Castle, Cumbria, which took place over two months in summer 2013.

The installation featured work by poets from Cumbria to Singapore, and included poems hung from trees, in Victorian summer houses, and even on underwear on a laundry line! The exhibition also included an interactive area, where visitors could create their own poems, as well as work by local students from Shap Primary School and Queen Elizabeth Grammar School.

Over seven thousand people saw the exhibition, which was funded by Arts Council England.

Photography by Katie Johnston.

Stephen MacDonald’s Not About Heroes is a play about poetry. It is also a play about pity. It is, of course, a play about war. But above all, it is a play about the strong friendship between two men: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

 

~ Philip Labey and Mark Addis in Not About Heroes ~
~ Philip Labey and Mark Addis in Not About Heroes ~

In the Theatre by the Lake’s current production, directed by Jez Pike, Owen and Sassoon are thoughtfully portrayed, not only as the great poets we recognise today, but as people, with their own fears, hopes and doubts.

Both cast members (Philip Labey as Wilfred Owen and Matt Addis as Siegfried Sassoon) portrayed this human aspect beautifully, and did a superb job of carrying the play. Their more humorous moments brought a vitality to what is essentially a very wordy play, while the inevitable tragic ending caused more than one set of tears in the audience.

As Sassoon battled against his inner turmoil, Addis’ speech at times became almost uncomfortably loud in the intimate space of the Studio Theatre, leaving Labey’s Owen like a startled deer in the brazen headlights of the older poet. Labey’s timidity during the characters’ first meeting was something any writer or creative writing student will identify with, but it was incredibly moving to watch him grow in confidence into the man that Owen was destined never to fully become.

This inevitable pathos is echoed by the simplicity of Martin Johns’ set. The backdrop of dead trees is an ever-present reminder of the war, while the carpet of Craiglockhart hospital on one side of the stage fragments into the blasted mud of the Front on the other.

There were occasions where the play shifted into an overly stylised version of itself (the opening, for example), but fortunately these moments were few and fleeting, and quickly gave way to the real meat of the production: the intimacy between the two poets.

‘The poetry is in the pity,’ reads Owen from his Preface. In Jez Pike’s production, not only poetry and pity, but drama as well, are in the chemistry between the play’s two impressive actors.

Adapting a well-loved childhood classic is always a risk, but in the case of Theatre by the Lake’s Christmas production of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the risk pays off. Helen Edmundson’s script, directed by Stefan Escreet, brings the novel to life for a new generation, while not losing the magical and nostalgic feel of the book.

~ Caroline Hallam, Nadia Morgan, Rosalind Steele and Joel Sams: photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Caroline Hallam, Nadia Morgan, Rosalind Steele and Joel Sams: photo by Keith Pattison ~

There was a wonderful moment at the start of the show, when there were audible intakes of breath from the audience as the lights went down. Excitement was running high – and it carried on running high for the rest of the evening, for both children and adults alike

For me, one of the most beautiful things about this production was that it reminded me what a play fundamentally is: play. And Theatre by the Lake’s Swallows and Amazons is all about playing.

Designer Martin Johns’ revolving set comprises a huge pile of wardrobes, suitcases and chests of drawers, all of which became the island. The props were similarly created from everyday objects: a parrot from a feather duster; a baby from hot water bottles; birds from garden shears; the Swallow from an upturned table. This creation of the extraordinary from the everyday exercised my imagination, inviting me to play along with the characters. While Theatre by the Lake steers clear of pantomimes, Swallows and Amazons drew me in with a childlike conspiracy of believing, making me feel far more involved in the story than I could have done from just shouting ‘He’s behind you’.

This sense of involvement is aided by the sense of space created by Andrew Lindsay’s superb lighting, and of course by the fabulously versatile actors, who not only play out the story’s various characters, but also sing and dance to Neil Hannon’s lively, catchy songs, and accompany on various musical instruments; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised when only nine people took the curtain call at the end.

All in all, I found Swallows and Amazons a fun and joyous evening out: a performance not just for children, but for the child in all of us.