Thursday, 25 October 2012

You’re Not Like The Other Girls, Chrissy

The Bristol Old Vic’s Autumn 2012 programme is shaping up to be an absolute blinder. Not one of the shows I’ve seen so far has been a disappointment, and You’re Not Like The Other Girls, Chrissy is easily my favourite so far.

Tucked away in the downstairs Studio space of the building (‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore is in the main theatre), Caroline Horton’s one-woman show is a joyous 60 minutes of feel-good charm.

Based on the true story of Caroline’s own grandmother Christiane, the true life element makes us root for the protagonist even more. In 2002, Caroline helped her grandmother move into sheltered housing and while packing up her things, Caroline discovered a box of Christiane’s wartime letters. And they told her the story of how her French grandmother met her English grandfather just before war broke, how they were separated for the duration and how they fought to be united six years later.

With no schmaltz, You’re Not Like The Other Girls, Chrissy uses simple props (suitcases filled with magic and music) and an exuberant performance to take us from Paris to Cheadle, to the Isle of Wight and further afield. Echoing the feel of Persephone Books’ hot-water-bottle novels (those that are ideal for indulging with on a rainy afternoon, or as a pick-me-up), this play is a perfect example of biographical storytelling, family history and world history.

Wartime romances may be a topic that has never struggled with publicity, but it’s important for audiences (especially younger ones) to remember that if we’re talking about someone’s grandmother, we’re also talking about very recent history.

Caroline’s perfect French really helps to bring the show to life, and her facial expressions must be seen to be believed. She has great comic timing and had the audience in the palm of her hand. Both my friend and I were wiping a tear from our eyes at the end. I very much hope the Bristol Old Vic brings Caroline back with her future productions.

You’re Not Like The Other Girls, Chrissy is on at the Bristol Old Vic until October 27, and click here for info and to buy tickets. Caroline Horton’s website is here.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

'Patience' by John Coates

Oh, what good news! It’s that time of year when the wonderful publishing house Persephone brings out its newest books. And this is an extra exciting time because we’re on the cusp of its 100th book.

However, before we get there, let’s enjoy Persephone 99. This is a 1953 novel by John Coates, a rare male author on the publisher’s list. But Patience is written from the female point of view, and very convincingly so at most points of the narrative.

Our protagonist, the eponymous Patience, is a 28-year-old wife and mother who lives her life according to her strict Catholic beliefs. She has endured almost seven years of boring marriage to adulterous Edward simply because she felt it was her duty, and because the three children their marriage produced bring her untold happiness.

But when we meet Patience at the start of this book, she is on the brink of great change.

Over the course of just a few days, the book shows Patience shedding her attributory namesake and turning her life upside down. It’s giving nothing away to say that our heroine (and she is a heroine, despite her actions) is juggling the realisation she may be expecting her fourth child, with the news her husband may not really be her husband, and the fact she has finally found true love.

At the time of publication in the 1950s, Patience was banned in Ireland and considered shocking in many quarters because of its frank approach to modern marriage, romantic affairs, and women’s right to pleasure in bed. But it’s all handled in a delightfully ‘proper’ manner, with nothing risqué or troublesome to polite sensibilities. In fact, at times, I wanted to shake Patience and tell her to stand up for herself a bit more.

I find it interesting that it was a man who wrote this book, because it so delicately deals with a woman’s emotions and sexual desire. But it’s also interesting that it was also first published at a time when the very idea that women might enjoy sex was still blushed under the carpet with an embarrassed snort. Of course, Patience also reinforces to those of us without a religious faith just how limiting life is when lived according to The Book. Patience’s religion gives her comfort and instruction, but also makes her – and those she loves – desperately unhappy. And her devout brother Lionel comes off particularly badly, not least because of his strict understanding of his faith.

Persephone 99 is a delightful read. And Patience follows hot on the heels of other Persephone favourites such as The Making of a Marchioness and Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, which I comfortably call ‘hot water bottle books’ on account of the comforting glow they give you to read, and their suitability for enjoying while snuggled up in bed on a rainy morning.

You can visit the (new look) Persphone website by clicking here.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Bristol Lunatic Asylum


This week, I took a trip to the former Bristol Lunatic Asylum, which is on the edge of the University of the West of England campus on Blackberry Hill. Now called the Glenside Museum, this extraordinary and valuable museum is a treasure trove of Victorian, Edwardian and mid-century paraphernalia, photographs and machinery that has been carefully curated into a genuinely unique museum.

Housed in a deconsecrated chapel (which was derelict and home to pigeons and squirrels when the museum took it over in 1994), the Grade-II listed building is now beautifully restored, complete with working church organ (which someone was playing when we visited – although there was something confusing about listening to Get Me To The Church On Time while looking at a human skull that had been drilled during a lobotomy), stained glass windows and altar.

The museum was bigger than we had imagined, and contained much more than we anticipated. Not everything was pleasant to see (slices of human brain on a microscope plate, a pickled human brain with a cyst, Electric Shock Therapy machinery, lobotomy tools etc), but that doesn’t make it unimportant. As someone who lives with depression and anxiety, and who has spent time in the contemporary mental health system as an outpatient, it was even more fascinating for me to see how people in my situation fared 150 years previously.

But there is nothing at Glenside Museum that is intended to exploit the former patients or their memories. Everything is treated with respect, care and consideration. We spoke with Dr Ihsan Mian during our visit – a retired psychiatrist who worked at the hospital until it closed in 1994, and who is now chair of the Friends of the Glenside Hospital Museum – and he explained that the purpose of the museum is to educate people about mental illness, and also to challenge the stigma and ignorance that still surrounds the subject. Talking with him it is clear that he is extremely passionate about the museum and it’s future, and has an enclyopedic knowledge of the hospital’s history.

The museum is only open twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10am-12.30pm. Entry is free but donations are welcome. Click here to visit the website, which has a great deal of information about the museum. Click here to read a good feature from 2010 about the history of the hospital and museum in the Bristol Evening Post.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Does My Society Look Big In This? – at Bristol Old Vic

“The point about Does My Society Look BigIn This? is it is about what’s happening in Bristol now” – Bristol Old Vic's Artistic Director Tom Morris, promoting his theatre’s current work in the main house.

Morris has joined forces with writer Stephen Brown and the cast of Wild Oats to deliver a piece of satirical polemic that claims to sift through the biggest news stories and unearths the truth behind the headlines.

As you’d expect, a heavily improvised and recently written play about current local news events is going to be a little disjointed. But having a cast who have already been working on a sold-out production certainly helps. I was fortunate to sit beside Tom Morris and it was interesting to see which bits made him laugh out loud and which bits prompted him to jot down notes… it would be fascinating to hear his post-play analysis with the crew and – judging from his reaction and that of the packed audience – I can only assume it was positive.

Loosely strung around the theme of a self-funded student who’s just started university in Bristol where he’s studying contemporary dance, Does My Society…? aims to showcase the diverse population of Bristol: one that is creative, political, self-serving and more. Through different characters we encounter the Anti Cuts campaign, the Bristol Pound, local radio, academic life and more, including – briefly – the memories of an older character who doesn’t recognise the Bristol he lives in now from the Bristol he worked in as a factory hand.

I enjoyed the show enormously but I have one gripe. Where were the women of Bristol, and where were the women in the cast? There were three women in the cast, and significantly more men – although I realise this is the same cast as Wild Oats, which influences the imbalance. However, at least 50% of Bristolians are women and Bristol is blessed with strong, important and influential women, many of whom are heavily involved with today’s news stories in our city.

But I saw little of the stories affecting women in Bristol right now: the food banks that many single mothers are turning to in desperation thanks to the cuts, the absence of women in the mayoral election, the scarcity of women in the local council, the enormous problem of FGM (female genital mutilation) in Bristol’s huge Somali community, and on and on.

Where were the Bristolian women in Does My Society…? Because all I saw was a female student character, a female artist character, and one or two other minor stereotypes. But there were no real women, telling the stories that are vital, current and relevant to those in our city right now, regardless of gender. And for that reason, as a Bristolian woman, I didn’t recognise the city I live in portrayed on the stage.

But I did recognise the Bristol portrayed in the section where it was decided to find a Bristol Old Vic Mayor For The Evening. This person would be given £200 to use as they saw fit, and the audience would vote for the candidate they wanted to win. A very interesting idea.

Reflecting Bristol’s real mayoral campaign (which has just one woman candidate and 11 men), there were initially four candidates, all of whom were men. Shouts from a group in the audience for a woman were initially overlooked by the organiser but listened to after they were repeated, and a woman was sought to join the five men on stage.  The same group appealed for another woman, and one of the men stepped down to make space for a second woman. Meaning we had six candidates, two female and four male. (If only one or two of the real mayoral candidates would step down!)

Before the interval, each candidate stated how they would spend the £200. Some of the pledges were baffling in their vulgarity – one said they’d put it behind the bar, another wanted to paint roads the colours they are on the map, and two said they’d give it to students. Only one person said they would donate it to a charity – the Three Ways School in Bath. 

However, the interval was a space where we were invited to quiz the candidates… and I bumped into one, Laura, in the toilets. Laura (who is a director of the Old Vic) had initially pledged to use the £200 towards the theatre’s front of house refurbishment. But I asked if she’d consider donating it to One25 instead, and explained that a donation of £200 to them would mean that eight vulnerable women in hospital – women who have nothing – would receive vital packs of clothes and toiletries, and know that someone cared about their wellbeing and valued them as a person. While £200 of decorating equipment was barely enough to buy a few tins of paint. I was touched and impressed when, after the interval, Laura announced on stage that she had decided that should she win she would donate £100 to One25 and the other £100 to Bristol Ferment.

Needless to say, when the audiences’ votes were counted, the school in Bath scooped the most votes, with exited sex workers coming in third place. But still, the fact that Laura changed her mind and spoke about One25 on stage in front of a packed theatre is wonderful. And even though they didn’t receive the £200, I’ll be donating what my complimentary theatre ticket would have cost to One25.

Another Bristol story that deserved mention was the Tesco riot in Stokes Croft last April. Of course, this riot wasn’t really about Tesco, it was about the fact that the decision-makers in Bristol had again not listened to the citizens of Bristol. This section was nicely melded with video footage from the riots, and reenacted quotes from a policeman, artist and activist who lived in Stokes Croft.

And you can’t mention Stokes Croft without referring to the graffiti and murals, which a street drinker character told the Does My Society…? audience he loved. Again, a topical reference as this weekend, to mark Anti Slavery Day which will be on 18 October (another local story the play could have made much of), the walls of Jamaica Street – behind two of the area’s ‘massage parlours’ – are to be decorated in anti-sex trafficking graffiti. The hope is to influence the decision of at least one man who is thinking of using the services of the women working in those brothels, some of whom will have been trafficked.

As I left the theatre, I overheard a young woman say in surprise: ‘I was, like, literally engaged the whole way through. I didn’t, like, get bored once.” And I would say to the cast and crew of Does My Society Look Big In This? that this is clearly some endorsement from this young lady. But even the more seasoned theatre-goers seemed to be lapping up the messages, locality and wit of the performance. Despite my gripes about the lack of women in the Bristolian society presented here, I enjoyed the show very much and suggest you do your best to catch one of the few performances.

Please click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Friday, 12 October 2012

‘Votes For Ladies’

Recently, I’ve come across the Bristol Radical History Group, which formed in 2006 to stage talks, walks, gigs and more, as well as publishing an impressive catalogue of pamphlets, all celebrating different aspects of Bristol’s radical past.

So I visited HydraBookshop on Old Market (which grew out of the BRHG) and bought quite a few pamphlets, including Votes For Ladies: The Suffrage Movement 1867-1918 by Sheila McNeil (which I’m told is a pseudonym). 

As the title suggests, McNeil is not backwards in coming forwards in suggesting that the suffrage movement was aimed at middle-class women only, and was alienating to working-class women. These facts can’t be denied – meetings were generally held during day times meaning working-class women couldn’t attend; if meetings were held in the evenings, working-class women had little free time to attend between child-care and domestic tasks etc; middle-class women had servants and nannies to keep the home in order if they were sent to prison, while working-class women had no such luxury; and so on. These are plain facts.

What’s interesting in McNeil’s pamphlet is that she chooses deliberate and firm language to make plain her belief that this exclusivity was wrong and detrimental to the cause. In fact, the pamphlet’s title comes from a quote by Dora Montefiore (who set up a branch of the WSPU in a working-class area of East London, but who campaigned for ‘adult suffrage’ rather than ‘women’s suffrage’), who said the WSPU was not interested in votes for women but in “votes for ladies”. Implying the Pankhursts saw a clear line between themselves and their less fortunate sisters.

Since much literature about the suffrage movement only briefly mentions the exclusion of working-class women, it’s important that it’s highlighted here in McNeil’s pamphlet. I’ve now ordered a copy of One Hand Tied Behind Us by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, which is one of very few historical suffrage books to focus on this aspect. (You can expect a review of that in due course!)

Votes For Ladies takes an interesting angle on the suffrage movement, and acknowledges that there is a key area that has been often overlooked in most writings about the campaign. And it’s good to know that there is a diligent bunch of people locally who are committed to keeping the socialist past of our female history alive. In 2009, the BRHG even staged a dramatic re-enactment of Theresa Garnett’s attack on Winston Churchill at Temple Meads Station (watch the film clip here).

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Stand-Up Intuitive Show

Who says stand-up can only involve a person standing with a mic at the front of a room telling jokes? If that’s you, stop being so conservative and check out Becky Walsh – a well-established and brilliant Bristol-based psychic, intuitionist and stand-up.

I went over to The Square Club on Bristol’s Berkeley Square last night to check out Becky’s show, and got much more than a few laughs. Interspersed with a few stand-up spots inspired by comments from the audience, Becky led several readings of audience members… including me!

But as Becky said at the top of the show, while audience involvement is a big part of The Stand-Up Intuitive Show, it’s about laughing with people and not at them. And I don’t think anyone in the Square Club’s Lounge Bar felt otherwise. The atmosphere was warm, friendly and inclusive, and the message was very much that you could be involved if you wanted, or simply sit back and observe if you preferred. But most people wanted to be included…

Becky has a range of methods for engaging the audience, from reading a personal item of theirs (such as a pair of glasses, or piece of jewellery, to read the vibrations of a person she doesn’t previously know), or inviting someone to rip up an egg box so that she can read their personality from the way they tear up the cardboard. Not to mention reading the particular flower someone picks from a posy, or using random (or are they?) song lyrics to answer an audience member’s specific question.

This was certainly a fun evening and one I’d love to repeat. Because with an intuitive show, it is all about the audience and what they bring to the venue with them that evening. Becky starts the show with no idea of what questions she’ll be asked, or how events will unfold, which means you’re guaranteed a new experience every single time.

Becky Walsh appears at The Square Club on the first Sunday of every month. Visit her website for details of her other events around Bristol and the UK, and to find out about the books she’s written.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

'I Could’ve Been Better' at Bristol Old Vic

How can you not love a play that invites everyone in the audience to make and throw a paper aeroplane?

At the heart of the one-man show I Could’ve Been Better is gentle audience interaction. But don’t worry, it’s not the kind of toe-curling, sing-a-long participation of some shows, it’s simply a few discrete nods or murmurs from a selected few. But, as production company Idiot Child spells out in the programme, it is intended to keep the audience central to the work.

This one-hour show is the funny, thought-provoking and gentle tale of James (performed by co-writer Jimmy Whiteaker): a 30-year-old man who is stuck in a boring job as a railway announcer, but who livens the tedium up with almost Billy Liar-esque imagination. Interspersed with autobiographical stories about his unusual love life with the unseen Sue, James also harbours a lifelong desire to become a champion swimmer – a dream fuelled by his long-running pen pal friendship with Olympic gold medallist Duncan Goodhew.

If only it weren’t for his 11-year-old swimming pool nemesis, perhaps James would have been better at swimming? If only it weren’t for the school bullies, perhaps James would be something better than a railway announcer? If only…

I Could’ve Been Better is performed beautifully by Whiteaker, who completely convinces as luckless James. At times the structure seems a little clunky (for instance, I thought the relaxation technique segment went on too long before the punchlines started), but overall I Could’ve Been Better is a pleasure and a treat. The audience is left with the impression that Jimmy, co-writer and director Anna Harpin have really put their hearts and souls into this production, and the result is delightful.

The performance is in Bristol Old Vic’s Studio from October 3-6, and returns from October 9-13. Clickhere for more information and to buy tickets.