26 March 2010

Am dram, thank you mam!

Chorltonites are spoilt for choice when it comes to amateur dramatics: I think I've seen three am dram groups in action in recent years. There's the Manchester Athenaeum Dramatic Society, who put on productions at St Werburgh's Church Hall and cater primarily for the older audience (when I saw The Hollow by Agatha Christie last year, there were two intervals and one old dear had to be taken outside mid-performance after having a funny turn).

Manchester Road Players work out of the Methodist Church Hall on, er, Manchester Road and they like a good sing-song round the old Joanna, love a farce (Out of Order; Noises Off), and serve tea and custard creams in the interval. They're losing my custom this week, however, as their latest show, Uproar In The House, clashes (rather short-sightedly, I'd say) with my favourite am dram lot, Chorlton Players at St Werburgh's.

CP's page-one description on Google is "An active, non-arsey, theatre group based in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, South Manchester. Not so much a drama group - More a way of life". I concur. Chorlton Players usually pick modern classics - Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam; Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party; The Graduate and, um, A Midsummer Night's Dream - and you can even quaff tinnies, bouteilles and cheap G&Ts throughout, or "medication" as they're calling it this week, tying in with their psychiatric ward-based play One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

The current show is possibly one of the best I've seen from them, and it's on again tonight and tomorrow at 7.30pm. There is some brilliant acting - as am dram, you tend to anticipate a certain amount of fluffed lines, crap accents and nervous giggling, but this is practically professional standard. Standout performances have to be Jamie Laidler in the role of Randle P McMurphy (the character Jack Nicholson plays in the movie version) and Alexis Tuttle as the inimitable Nurse Ratched, but there are also some great portrayals of volunteer crazies Dale Harding, Billy Bibbit and Charles Cheswick by Simon Parkin, Dennis Keighron-Foster and Rohan Shenoy respectively. Even the supporting roles are well executed and, as I've come to expect from this lot, the set is brilliant, the props are amazing and the costumes are really well sourced. Highly recommended.

25 March 2010

Ho ho ho, the green giant

Chorlton's Big Green Festival is back this week, and it's bigger and better! (I would say that, of course, given that I'm on the press and publicity committee. Still, at least I register my interests.) Tonight, there's the last in a long line of fringe events, which have included live gigs, film screenings and a scarecrow competition (you may have wondered what those creations were around and about the sunny suburb, including at Oddest bar, Busy Bees toy shop and at various outlets along Beech Road). From 7.15pm Chorlton's Big Green Festival presents What Next?, an interesting evening of varied talks on positive ways to fight climate change and Q&As by guest speakers followed by a discussion on how to get Chorlton green. It's free and refreshments will be available.

On Saturday, it's the big day, the main festival, which kicks off at 11am and runs through to 11pm. There will be music and dancing, just like at the Copacabana. Also for your delectation and delight there will be plenty of arts and crafts stalls; a Big Green Bike Parade, Critical Mass-stylee; various workshops, from wild food foraging and herb identification to birdbox painting and plantpot making; a fashion show and clothes swap; a plant swap and allotment trips; films showing in not one but two cinemas, and more tasty and locally sourced food and drink than you can shake a Morris dancer's stick at. As you'd expect, everything's eco, ethical and environmentally sound, but it's all brought to you in a fun and friendly way!

I'll see you there...

23 March 2010

Webs and intrigue

I had time to kill before going to see Lemn Sissay last week, so I took advantage of the new extended opening time (until 8pm Tuesday to Saturday) at the Cornerhouse galleries.

First up was Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, tying in nicely with the Spanish language film fiesta, which continues until Saturday. On the surface, this show seems a little on the minimalist side, stretching to just two works, yet both turn out to be pretty substantial. Psicofonias, described in the bumph as a "virtual pianola", features two parallel designs of little white dots sliding down a black screen and triggering a piano and harpsichord soundtrack. Initially, it seems jarring and confused, but I found myself increasingly lulled as I became mesmerised by the interacting sound and vision. Discarded Spider (pictured) is much more attractive than its name suggests, showing the shadow of Amorales as he takes on the arachnid role and tweaks together pliable wire to create giant cobwebs which then blow gently in an artifical breeze.

The next two floors house a rather more extensive exhibition, by Manchester-based David Mackintosh, which runs until Sunday. The Edge Of Things largely consists of some pretty basic gouache daubs on plain paper, in plain frames on plain walls. Some of the daubs are partnered with naive wording and even transformed by stop-motion into an animation sharing the name of the show; some overlay rather more skilled line drawings (a falcon; a typical museum marble sculpture). At the far end of the top gallery, a dark forest draws you in. It's the best thing here, creating a real sense of atmosphere and intrigue, but on closer inspection even this disappoints as it becomes apparent that The Woods is merely a temporary vision - painted, as it is, directly onto the wall, just missing the fixtures and fittings. Sigh.

19 March 2010

Us and Lemn

Poet, playwright and performer Lemn Sissay has many ties with Manchester. He moved to the city when he was 18, worked at Commonword publishers on Mount Street, and has made his mark on the place quite literally, with poems like Flags embedded as tiles in the pavement of Tib Street in the Northern Quarter and Hardys Well and Rain painted on the sides of buildings marking each end of Rusholme (I regularly got my tea from Gemini when I was a first-year student and couldn't cook, by the way. Don't tell my mum). Back in 1991 or maybe 1992 - a long long time ago, anyway - my friend Matt and I took one of those magical-mystery-tour-buzzes-that-go-all-round-the-houses-and-take-about-half-a-day out to far-flung Wythenshawe to hear Lemn do a poetry reading at the Forum. I've never been back, but that's not Lemn's fault; I seem to remember he was pretty good.

At the moment, Lemn lives in that there London, where he's artist in residence at the achingly cool Southbank Centre. In fact, he set up the Centre's GPS Global Poetry System, which is a bit like the rainy city's own Rainy City Stories (featuring a poem by yours truly), only on a grander scale. His other recent activity includes accepting an MBE in the New Year's Honours List. Hark on him.

Lemn is currently in Manchester on a flying visit, touring his new John E McGrath-directed solo performance Why I Don't Hate White People, on at Contact today (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday) at 8pm. There's also a special performance being recorded for Radio 4 on Sunday at 6.30pm, which you can get tickets for by calling 0161 244 2455.

The show is quite good, too. Nothing to do with poetry (although there is some poetic language), it's a personal account of Lemn's "journey of discovery" exploring the race-related issues of being deserted by his birth family, shunned by his foster family, alienated by social services and sidelined by society, but coming out the other side pretty well adjusted. There are thought-provoking moments, uncomfortable silences, serious internal discussions, documentary snippets. There's a stark white stage with three barriers, one a door. There's the use of white noise, the fuzz of a TV screen after the programming ends and the national anthem has long since droned away. There are some clever projections and creative sound effects, even if the timing was a bit off on the first night. But, importantly, it's not preachy or painful; it's all done with a huge dose of cheeky humour, self-directed fun-poking, silly impressions and daft accents, winks to the audience and potentially offensive jokes. And that's part of the point: Sissay is highly critical of political correctness, funded projects to tackle so-called problems, and the whole language of equality, diversity, integrity... All in all, it's an interesting hour that leaves you entertained and educated in equal measure.

17 March 2010

Load of Ballards

Last night was the third meeting (my first) of the Sci-Fi Book Club at Northern Quarter-based community hack space Madlab. About 21 people (two-thirds, perhaps not surprisingly, of the male variety) collected to critique The Drowned World by JG Ballard (aye, him out of Empire Of The Sun).

In initial pre-discussion discussion, most gathered were pretty vocal about how much they disliked the text; so much so, that volunteers to act as stand-in advocate were unforthcoming until one brave lady stepped forward to meet the challenge. Still, even she looked relieved when Omar eventually did make an entrance, complete with 14 salient points and questions already prepped to give the discourse some kind of structure.

Once the debate got underway, many of the naysayers suddenly switched sides and put forward reasons for backing the book, but overall the reception still wasn't that shiny. We chit-chatted about the prose (I thought it was way too bogged down in superfluous adjectives, overly-complicated vocabulary and messy, meandering sentence structures; others described it as "beautiful"), characterisation (or lack thereof), themes, and categorisation, rightly or wrongly, as science fiction.

Following a quick nosebag break (Mighty Meaty versus Vegi Volcano) and sideline natter about the chilli sauce left over from Interesting Monday, we were all asked to think positive and say one thing we each liked about The Drowned World.

I liked the work's premise - I thought the gradual destruction of the Earth as sea levels rise following the melting of the icecaps would have resonance in the context of global warming. That thought was about as far as it got. As the book clubbers all agreed, there are plenty of ideas that Ballard introduces, some with the promise of developing into quite a catchy storyline, but most dwindle off into the overwhelming drabness of the heat haze. The picture of murky lagoons, tropical plants, giant bugs and threatening lizards is vivid and all-encompassing, and it seems to be at the expense of anything else. Perhaps that's the point, we wondered, but even words like post-apolocalptic and dystopian that usually work for this kind of narrative don't find a place here.

The next book on the reading list is William Gibson's Neuromancer; according to Wikipedia , the most famous early cyberpunk novel. I hope it's less wet than The Drowned World, and more inspiring than Keanu Reeves (someone mentioned that Johnny Mnemonic is based on it). Homework also includes Clifford Simak's Skirmish from the short story collection A Science Fiction Omnibus (Penguin, ed Brian Aldiss). The next meeting is Tuesday 20 April; in the meantime keep on top of things via the Google group or Twitter, using the hashtag #mcrsf

ADDENDUM 18/03/10
Here's the Madlab blog of the evening (complete with attractive photo of the group); here's fellow newbie Helen's take on proceedings.

ADDENDUM 13/04/10
Resident Sci-fi Book Club intellectual Adrian Slatcher gives his well-educated verdict on the book (which he picked, incidentally) on his blog The Art Of Fiction.

14 March 2010

Model planes

I finally made it over to Manchester Art Gallery on Friday for a shufty at the Ron Mueck exhibition. When I say exhibition, that's slightly overegging it: the show amounts to a total of three pieces. To be fair, the website does state this and it is part of The Art Fund's Artist Rooms, which I suppose also suggests something on a smallish scale.

Actually, size matters here. Two of the three sculptures are outsized; one is much smaller than anticipated. The unexpectedly small one, Spooning Couple, is the most detailed and perhaps the most intriguing, showing the vulnerability of relationships. What I found most interesting were the various ways in which the piece could be interpreted, depending on the position from which you looked at it. If your aspect was at the head of the bed, the faces (and, more significantly, the eyes) of the "characters" are unseen and the work seems to be an intimate portrait of the pair. If you stand at the foot of the bed, however, the snapshot is all together different and the distance between the man and woman is striking.

Another thing that struck me was how much I felt I'd already read the information plaques accompanying each model. I soon realised that it was because a review I'd read prior to attending the exhibition consisted of the descriptions pretty much word for word; a kind of lazy plagiarism. Tut tut.

10 March 2010

X marks the spot

This week, Douglas Coupland was the guest on Radio 4's Bookclub, introduced by James Naughtie (which, to me, always sounds like Doherty). Coupland (which Naughtie pronounced "Copeland". I never knew) was chatting about his first novel Generation X (subtitle: Tales For An Accelerated Culture), discussing characterisation and scene-setting, and reading extracts. It was interesting and insightful for a number of reasons, not least because Douglas Coupland is my favourite author, but also because I actually didn't like this particular book when I first read it but I loved it the second time round.

Douglas Coupland's work is great because his prose is so incredibly easy to read yet it's full of deep metaphors and crazy complex ideas. I also really love the way he uses tradenames to give a sense of place and time, so I thought I'd share the part where he described receiving his first copy from his publisher:

"I was living in Montreal - I was living in a basement suite and I was living on hotdogs and oatmeal, I had no income - and the book arrived... And the actual birth moment of any book is when the Fed-Ex box arrives and you open it and like, 'Ah, there's the book!' - and the cover doesn't cover the book and the pages are sticking out by a quarter inch and everything was wrong about it and it was just the worst getting your book experience you could possibly have. It's not like 'Kaboum!'..."

08 March 2010

Listing dangerously

Last week, amid all the balanced, unbiased BBC reporting about the, er, BBC, the corporation's news channel did manage to keep a clear head and make sure we knew about a list-making exhibition currently on at the Archives of American Art in Washington. Don't mock; it's important stuff.

I'm a big fan of lists, actually, making plenty myself and also collecting the discarded inventories of others with the vague idea of using them as the basis of some kind of future project which I've yet to develop a concrete plan for.

In the article, Liza Kirwin of the Archives of American Art explains the revelatory aspect of lists: "This very mundane and ubiquitous form of documentation can tell you a great deal about somebody's personal biography, where they've been and where they're going."

I'll say. One of the lists I plucked from a wire shopping basket includes the rather specific "new pile cream". Others reveal how people really can't spell (broccoli and potatoes are a particular stumbling block).

But from reading this article, I'm pleased to learn that "taxonomy" is about list-making ("the science or practice of classification", Collins defines), and has nothing to do with stuffing dead animals. I wonder how I managed to get this far in life without knowing this fact.

ADDENDUM 16/03/10
Check out fellow Manchester Blog Awards Best New Blog winner (class of 2008) Follow The Yellow Brick Road's post on lists, where she references some other list-making bloggers.

04 March 2010

The great uncloched

There's a house I sometimes wander past Whalley Range way, and come winter I am always delighted to see that the green-fingered soul who lives there protects his or her alpines with a number of cloches. The rockery looks like a mini Moonbase Alpha and it never fails to make me smile. (This garden cloche, or bell jar, as they call it - although I would argue that's something taller and usually involves taxidermy or Sylvia Plath - is available at Hippy Shopper, BTW. I would presume you have to grow the courgettes yourself, however.)

I'm quite a fan of cloches, actually. I don't have any in my garden (perhaps that's why there have been a number of fatalities out there this year; not least a rare pale pink fuchsia grown by my mum from a cutting she pinched off a plant at Powys Castle or some such fancy-pants place), although I do have a mini greenhouse of which I'm quite proud (I put it together myself from an Ikea flatpack, and even varnished it to protect the dowling from the elements).

Cloches seem quite attractive in their simplicity and old-fashionedness. I also like cloches over food - they always manage to make cakes look even nicer, if that were at all possible. I've got a big blue wire cloche-type bit of kitchen paraphernalia to keep bluebottles and black cats at bay. It's quite successful, if a little cumbersome.

Cloche hats are another favourite of mine, being a big fan of 1920s style (I have a bob, don't I? Just because I don't dress the whole flapper hog every day makes me no less of a fan). I once went to a party as Coco Chanel and wore a cloche hat. Looked a treat, although I'm not sure Gabrielle accessorised with a can of Red Stripe.

The word "cloche" (pronounced closh) comes from the French for bell. More cloche definitions are available here.