Book review – the everrumble by Michelle Elvy

the everumbleAt the age of seven, Zettie stops speaking and concentrates instead on listening to the world.

Described as a small novel in small forms, this book is far larger than the sum of its parts. I know people who devoured it in a single indulgent sitting, but for me it was so quenching  that I drip-fed it to myself – page after page, moment by moment. It offered me a place to return to for peace, quietude and stillness, and now that I’ve read it from cover to cover, I know I’ll return again.

Delivered in a series of flashes, served up with plenty of space to hold the words and ideas safe, this is a book of contemplative joy.

I often see sentences as strings of interwoven colours, but in the case of the everrumble, it was a far more textural experience. Grains danced over my bare arms as I absorbed the passages. I felt tendrils of thread waft over the nape of my neck and the polish of seashells against my toes. Most of all, perhaps because of the blanket that Zettie takes refuge beneath at the beginning, which “light enters like tiny diamonds”, throughout the ever rumble I saw the stitch-work of crochet – that alchemy of yarn, deft fingers and hook, and the hushed focus that comes with that skill (which I do not have).

In other words, author Michelle Elvy has somehow conjured a multi-sensory experience through her writing, and, even more powerfully, compressed sensations onto the page that will eke into your everyday life. Sitting here typing this, I feel the pleasure of contact with each key, and a delight in the warmth of this sunlit room, while the soft sounds of bells chiming and traffic passing drift through the window to keep me company.

Weaving in dreamscapes with glimpses into a long life, set against geography and literary musings in the form of notes on books that have captured Zettie’s attention, the everrumble is a glorious odyssey of one woman’s exploration of connectivity. Even her name is notable, borrowed as it is from her aunt – Little Zettie being a nickname bestowed on her by her brother when she was small.

Through her silence, Zettiee opens up herself to the riches of Earth’s sounds, from the human, to the natural, to the unnatural, to “the everrumble. The heartbeat of every living creature.”

And in other ways, she is utterly normal. She gets crushes, falls in love, earns a living, bears and raises children. It’s her contentment, and her intense empathy for the most part, that is extraordinary. But she is mortal, and human, for all her communing with nature – a detail powerfully examined in a segment in which she imagines reading to her children.

In an era when climate change is accelerating at a dizzying pace and governments seem ever more disconnected both from their nations and the environment they’re impacting, the everrumble is a welcome pause, and a reminder: to listen, to savour, to live well.

the everrumble by Michelle Elvy is published by AdHoc Fiction and has been longlisted for the Guardian Newspaper’s Not-The-Booker-Prize. Buy your copy.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

Theatre review – Malory Towers

Malory Towers production photography by Steve TannerEmma Rice revels in the high jinks of vintage boarding school fiction, with a typically shrewd yet tender take on the Enid Blyton ‘Malory Towers’ classics.

Riddled with song and dance numbers, oozing energy and awash with acts of heroism shored up by a compassionate heart, Wise Children‘s second production, in collaboration with York Theatre Royal and in association with Bristol Old Vic and Bristol City Council, is as complex, entertaining & irresistible as any of the characters.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner. Rose Shalloo as Mary Lou Atkinson and Francesca Mills as Sally Hope.

Rose Shalloo as Mary Lou Atkinson and Francesca Mills as Sally Hope.

Staged within the impressively adapted Passenger Shed at Bristol Temple Meads, (which happily includes a popup by Storysmith bookshop, and a bar – what a fabulous combination, as well as plenty of tiered seating), Malory Towers is conjured with a simple set by Lez Brotherstoni (who also designed the costumes), featuring rolling desks and pull-out dorm beds.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner5With the outline of the turreted school doubling up as a perilous cliff top, you’ve got everything you need to provide the backdrop to a story full of jollity, treachery, heartbreak and forgiveness. The costumes are deceptively simple, comprising burgundy blazers and pleated tunics, boaters, virgin socks and patent leather t-bar shoes.

Projected animations add to the atmosphere, from the steam train journey to head mistress Mrs Grayling (voiced by Sheila Handcock). It’s a trick that makes much of little, and allows the focus to remain firmly on the pupils, including gorgeous ‘Bill’ Robinson, played with swagger by Vinnie Heaven.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner. Vinnie Heaven as Bill Robinson

Vinnie Heaven as Bill Robinson, centre.

If you attended the company’s debut production of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, you may recognise Mirabelle Gremaud, who plays Irene Barlett, who turns backflips at the slightest provocation, and supplies much of the music composed by Ian Ross, along with pianist Stephanie Hockley.

Francesca Mills as Sally Hope delivers that character’s sensible lines with a comic touch, and reveals her megalomaniac side and “fearful heart” with such verve you can’t help but delight. Alicia Johns, played by Renee Lamb, is the class clown hiding her own secret shame beneath her humour.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner. Rebecca Collingwood’s Gwendolyne Lacey

Rebecca Collingwood as Gwendolyne Lacey, centre

Rebecca Collingwood’s Gwendolyne Lacey is possibly the biggest challenge – a truly unpleasant piece of work who is sneakily spiteful to Rose Shalloo’s meek but sweet Mary Lou Atkinson, while Izuka Hoyle’s Darrell Rivers is the fierce bestie who’d you wished you’d had on your side at school. The characters each reveal the strength wound through with vulnerability that makes them relatably comparable. This is girl power in a time before the Spice Girls claimed the phrase, a applying equally well to men with that core strength of fallibility.

Inevitably, the dramatised version has a slightly tongue in cheek tone, not least when Darrell Rivers (Izuka Hoyle, pictured below with Francesca Mills), comments on how Alicia Johns’ is ‘deliciously naughty.’

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner3

In true Blyton style, there’s a convenient storm for our school chums to rush recklessly out into (perhaps a teacher who is more than a silhouette would have been helpful at this point), and a horse to ultimately save the day (although, the girls claim the hero is in fact “working together as a team.”)

The only weakness in the plot is that it begins in the present and deposits us here again after a superfluous foray into the school pals’ attempt at staging Midsummer Night’s Dream (a nod to Rice’s brief tenure at London’s Globe Theatre?). It these bookends were deleted, the story would hold together seamlessly, but as it is they feel like unnecessary distractions.

Malory Towers production photography by Steve Tanner10

The play neatly encapsulates the idea that each rock-solid friendship group, production company, or, let’s take a leap and say board room, benefits from a diverse and varied assortment of skillsets and points of view.

As with the Wise Children play, the power bolstering Malory Towers lies in the empathy the characters demand from us and from each other. In fact, compassion surrounded by drama, laughter and song, is becoming something of a this flourishing theatre company’s trademark.

Malory Towers is on at Bristol Old Vic until 18th August 2019 and will then be touring the UKFind out more and book tickets. Production images by Steve Tanner.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Poetry in motion

Track Record_Severn Beach_Photo by Judy DarleyOn Saturday 13th July 2019, a very special train departed from Bristol Temple Meads station. Passengers collected their tickets and headphones from conductors escaped from an earlier era and made their way to Platform 1 (and three quarters, presumably), where poet Elizabeth Parker ushered into the central carriage.

This was the beginning of Track Record, an event harnessing the poetry of The Spoke – Paul Deaton, Elizabeth Parker, Robert Walton and Claire Williamson, simultaneously elevated and grounded by Eyebrow musicians Pete Judge and Paul Widens.

Track Record_train journey_Photo by Judy Darley

Poetry and trains make perfect sense as a pairing – something about the transient scenery and the rhythm means that they feed into each other as a form of literary symbiosis.

In the half hour journey between Bristol Temple Meads and Severn Beach, we listened to atmospheric recordings of the poets sharing verses inspired by the stations we were passing through, the people and wildlife who pass through, and memories from their own lives. Between or behind the words, Eyebrow’s sonorous trumpet and drums duo painted textures against the poets’ words and wove beneath our skins.

And all the while, the views: city streets giving way to wastelands, fields, industry’s sculptural effigies and the glorious sweep of the tidal Severn.

From Temple Meads to Lawrence Hill, memories of Stapleton Road, a chance encounter at Montpelier, from Redland to Clifton Down, Sea Mills, where we were joined by a Poplar Grey moth, to Shirehampton, where the moth disembarked, and onto Avonmouth’s metallic giants, St Andrew’s Road and the estuary’s feathered ebb and flow,
to Severn Beach.

Track Record_train journey_Avonmouth7_Photo by Judy Darley

Avonmouth seen from Severn Beach train line

Favourites for me included the conversational poem read almost as a list of observations by Robert and Elizabeth near the journey’s start, Paul’s Chicaning and Sweeps of Time between Sea Mills and Shirehampton, and Claire’s Migrations as the estuary stretched before us, shining.

The limited edition CD and booklet of Track Record published by Mulfran Press will be launched at St George’s Bristol in the Glass Studio on Saturday 7th September 2019. Buy tickets.

Poetry review – Afternoons Go Nowhere by Sheenagh Pugh

Afternoons Go NowhereTime, in Sheenagh Pugh’s hands, has a tendency to turn gleefully slippery. In Afternoons Go Nowhere, her tenth collection, Pugh turns her poetic sorcery to humanity, history, geology, nature, and the spaces between all those magical things.

Silken strings of words offer up glorious catches: bewildered kings, harangued statues, a lord’s horse, a  bored husband building cairns, and monks speculating about saints exhale alongside bus passengers “postponing goodbyes”, not to mention glacial water scooping “a hollow in limestone.” In Pugh’s eyes, it seems, each of these has equal gravitas.

Lit by Pugh’s keen gaze, every plant, stone, animal or person has the potential to grow playful or impatient, coy, attention-seeking, or ashamed. Unexpected characters emerge humming tunes that seem familiar, but which curl with their own original lilt.

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Book review – Unthology 11

Unthank_Unthology11 coverThere are some writers capable of winding entire worlds into a few thousand worlds, ready for readers to unpack and explore. The team at Unthank Books have a skill for identifying this particular breed of author, as showcased in the latest Unthology.

The theme of this tangled assortment of spaces is hinterlands, and the worlds contained within are appropriately shadowy – these are the places and people that exist on the edges, where starlight is more at home than the city lights, and it’s wise to wait until your eyes adjust.

In Peasant Woman Number Four, Angela Readman conjures a living museum where the protagonist Meredith takes a job bringing the past to life for tourists and school children. Near the beginning she seeds in the line “It was impossible to tell if anyone was ashamed at the museum”, hinting at the darkness she herself is hoping to escape.

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Review – new publishing house Grand Iota

Apropos Jimmy Inkling cover for webThe first two books released by publishing start up Grand Iota each entice us into streams of consciousness states of very different kinds.

In Apropos Jimmy Inkling by Brian Marley, we enter a court case where an unwitting customer, unnamed, has become the jury for the afore-mentioned Jimmy Inkling. Written entirely in dialogue with numerous digression into random topics, we soon learn that in the world our characters inhabit, gods tread alongside us and seem very like to us. We’re taught early on in the book that gods have far less power that we mortals suppose, but “have a tendency to boast”, hence this misconception. Instead of causing or preventing “typhoons and tsunamis”, for example, they are responsible for tasks such as making hinges squeak.

I’m a fan of authors who play with space on the page, and Marley works with his text as though it is clay, building small mountains by careful tweaks to font and alignment that lifts some passages so that they seem more akin to spoken asides:

His speed of thought was such that
he was incapable
of finishing one sentence
before starting another.

There’s a wonderful surreality to the court case’s progression, as time is taken out to honour the loss of a tooth, from the mouth of a character whose godly name is almost impossible for mortals to pronounce.

By this point I had lost track of whether I’d ever known what the court case was actually about, or even who was on trial, but was enjoying the ride.

It’s a frame of mind equally well suited to Grand Iota’s other bibliophilic pioneer.

Wild Metrics cover for webIn Ken Edward’s Wild Metrics we meander through the life of alternative poet K, sharing a squat in the early 1970s where, as in Marley’s book, characters ebb and flow, and the text is laced with the aura of dreaming philosophers, with punk, and Thatcher, on the horizon and literary genius bubbling below the surface.

In a neighbourhood of squats, the one where our hero resides (run by a bloke called Des) is special enough that nearby residents, including Big Steve, want in: “Steve would scrounge items from skips or dustbins that he thought Des or other members of the household might like and bring them round hopefully, like a cat depositing the gift of a decapitated mouse on the doorstep.”

There’s a sense of memories having been poured onto the page, possibly from a substantial height. Rather than being channelled towards a specific destination, each syllable nudges you one way, then another in a way that offer an impression of being immersed in K’s consciousness. I found myself setting the book aside for a few weeks and then, inexorably, returning to it – once it’s in your blood you’ll need more than a session of cold turkey to push past it.

Part memoir, part trip and part novel, it does, as the publisher promises, confound easy categorisation.

More than anything, reading Wild Metrics is akin to overhearing a discombobulating conversation on a bus that draws you to lean in with the aim of catch every muttered word.

In short, Apropos Jimmy Inkling and Wild Metrics are great companion reads. As you align yourself to unfamiliar atmospheric and gravitational pressures, you’ll find yourself hungering for another paragraph, another page and, most definitely, another book to allow you access back beneath the surface of this unconventional and intriguing waterway.

Apropos Jimmy Inkling by Brian Marley and Wild Metrics by Ken Edwards are available to buy from Grand Iota

Please note that Grand Iota is not currently open to submissions.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

The arrival of immersive cinema

Sanctuaries of Silence_ecologist Gordon HemptonLimina is the UK’s first immersive cinema VR Arts venue, and just happens to have cropped up on Bristol’s harbourside. Outside, it looks like just another building, but inside, you’ll discover oceans, rainforests, architectural marvels, and wild places that are on the brink of disappearing from the real world.

On entering you’re invited to relinquish bags and coats: “It’s best to be as unencumbered as possible.”

When the time for the screening begins, we and our fellow travellers (each screening allows a maximum of 12 people), were led into a room where swivel chairs with plump cushions awaited. So far, so low-tech. Our hosts handed out headsets, warned about possible dizziness and advised us to close our eyes briefly to regain our balance if necessary.

Limina Immersive exterior

The first scene that appeared was an illustration of Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension bridge, with a few static hot air balloons for good measure. Even this doodled scene was entire, so that if you turned in your chair the view continued, with the river stretching onwards. A calming female voice explained what was about to happen, and that Limina means ‘between things.’ I actually googled the word afterwards, and discovered it also means: “The threshold of a physiological or psychological response” and “an entrance’, which seems very apt.

We’d chosen to attend Cathedrals and Rainforest, a double-bill exploring the power of natural and man-made sanctuaries.

Our first short screening was The Man Behind Notre Dame, by TARGO. In the company of Rector-Archpriest Patrick Chauvet, we explored the cathedral’s most imposing and private spaces, pre-fire, joining him in his preparations and attending part of a mass where I found myself taking a gulp of air, expecting inhale incense. For me, the vertiginous views from among the gargoyles atop one of the towers offered a moment of breathtaking awe.

Sanctuaries of Silence_accoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton

Our second journey, Sanctuaries of Silence by Adam Loften, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Go Project, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hampton invited us to enter the Hoh Rain Forest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. It’s actually a place I’ve visited, and again I was aware of how much I understand the world through smell, as I sought the aroma of the trees dripping with moss. Our guide led us into the forest of immense Sitka spruce and onto Ruby Beach, surrounding us in layers of natural sounds as well as the calming beauty of these places. It was a highlight of the virtual reality experience, resetting my mind from the hubbub of Bristol’s city centre.

There’s something extraordinary about these films that capture a location so completely. Since the fire that occurred in Notre Dame, this particular viewing offers a gateway to a location now drastically changed. While in the screening, you can gaze in every direction and take in the true grandeur of architecture now lost in the real world.

The same was true in the second film of our double bill. The demands of modern life mean many of us spend little time deep in the countryside, and this was a much needed pause in pace.

I emerged feeling I’d been away on a walking holiday or to a spa, refreshed and rejuvenated. It seemed strange that less than 30 minutes had passed. I catch myself already wondering which event to swim into next. Perhaps Ocean, Body, Mind?

In future, I suspect smell and texture will play a larger role in these immersive events. For now, these experiences offer brief pockets of respite I think would be beneficial on a regular basis – perhaps on prescription – to keep our brains in check and remind us of the world beyond our city streets. Wonderful.

Find out what’s on and book tickets.

Book review – This Is (Not About) David Bowie by FJ Morris

This Is (Not About) David Bowie by F. J. Morris coverFJ Morris has a unique way of viewing the world that feeds into every piece of fiction she writes. Loosely using the theme of David Bowie as a connecting point, the stories in her debut flash fiction collection examine the magic of our human contradictions in glittering, meteor showers of prose.

Morris’ vivid turns of phrase bring scenes into focus – puddles ‘pop’ with rain, bodies can become rubble, and confessions are preceded by “the deepest of breaths, for the deepest of dives.”

There’s a sense of unearthing ancient fables through her tales, as even the most unexpected imagery is presented with such innate confidence in us readers to digest it that it seems at once commonplace and utterly peculiar. That’s a skill many writers fail to master in a lifetime – akin to achieving the ability to harness a trick of the light.

Morris’ sideways glance at the world equips her to embrace huge themes in a way that helps you see them anew. She tackles grief via the motion of a freshly vacated swing, and explores on questions about gender, sexuality and more in a way that invites strange flavours onto your tongue and unfamiliar textures under your bare feet.

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Book review – Unveiled

UnveiledThe first anthology of novel excerpts from the Unthank School of Writing was never going to be a straightforward affair. Created seven years into the School’s existence, editors Ashley Stokes and Stephen Carver describe the contents as brimming “with storytelling verve, imagination and talent.”

That’s all true, but what strikes me most powerfully  is the immense variety within these tales, crossing time and geographic landscapes while presenting us with a multitude of realities, shared in a diverse array of authorial styles.

The anthology opens with Lost Lessons of Imaginary Men by Nicola Perry. Reading the author biographies, it’s clear Perry is one of the more practised Unthank School alumni, and that experience shines through in this prologue and first chapter.

She opens with words that anchor under your skin: “My mother is dead inside. There’s nothing I can do for her. I am instructed in this from a young age.” Questions bubble up immediately: who is our narrator? How young are they exactly? What’s wrong with the mum? Is she the one instructing her son in this peculiar fact? If so, why? Perry has clearly mastered the art of intrigue, and we’re only 21 words in. Impressive.

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Theatre review – Equus

EQUUS. Ira Mandela Siobhan, Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) and Keith Gilmore. Image The Other RichardThere’s an explosive power within the play Equus, currently on stage at Bristol Old Vic. Peter Shaffer wrote it in 1973, inspired by a crime involving a 17-year-old who blinded six horses. Why would someone do that? The question resounds throughout the script, again and again, gaining intensity as we learn of Shaffer’s imagined boy’s deep-rooted love of horses.

There’s no doubt that Shaffer was a visionary, and his words hold their own more than four decades on, but the freedom given to English Touring Theatre’s production, directed by Ned Bennett, feels like an intoxication. The resulting creation is a sensuous and cerebral tour-de-force forged in horse sweat and breath.

EQUUSR~4

The set is minimal to the extreme, with three vast plain curtains containing the space, while contributing to the atmosphere of the scenes. At times, figures or props emerge through them, silhouettes of the horses are shown through use of backlighting, and on one occasion psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart, performed with startling sensitivity by Zubin Varla, twitches up a section to reveal Alan sitting behind.

Played by Ethan Kai, Alan is a wonderfully complex character. Initially communicating only in advert jingles (sung excruciatingly out of tune), his gradual willingness to open up is believable and moving.

And, yes, there is full frontal nudity. Perhaps, especially following the notoriety of he ‘naked Harry Potter’ production of 2008, if there had not been the audience would have felt short-changed.

What there is not, in this fresh production, are horse masks. Instead the actors embody horses through movement directed with masterful insight by Shelley Maxwell. In the pre-show talk Assistant Director Denzel Wesley-Sanderson and English Touring Theatre Producer James Quaife explained that while they tested masks in the show’s development stages, they decided they weren’t necessary.

EQUUS. Ira Mandela Siobhan (Nugget) and Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard

Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget and Ethan Kai as Alan.

It’s a wise choice, as it ensures no barriers stand between us and the performers. Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nuggets melts from man to horse through subtle shifts in stance. Hands become hooves, and the harrumphs of horses breathing become almost a form of communication. In a sense, it leaves interpretation of the worship elements of the story wide open, adding to the levels of this already richly layered script.

EQUUS. Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard

There are moments of sheer magic, not least when Dysart asks Alan, “What’s your first memory of a horse,” and we’re relocated to a seashore via the addition of six sandcastles that slide on stage fully formed. The production leaves it up to us to make sense of what we see. This trustfulness invites us to participate in envisioning the play, adding details and scope from our own frames of reference.

EQUUS. Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard.

Alan refers to horses as slave-gods, and speaks of the remarkable fact that horses allow us to control them when their size equips them to crush us in moment, if they wanted to. This idea of strength in submission pushes us to question ingrained ideas more deeply, a path Dr Dysart leads us further down in the second act as he queries his patient’s madness in contrast to his own perceived sanity. Alan’s confusion and vulnerability acts as a field into which Dr Dysart’s, and our own, can be thrown and examined.

EQUUS_Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart). Image The Other Richard.

Rubin Varla as Dr Martin Dysart

The second act takes things up a pace, as we rocket through revelations or increasing emotional intensity. The play touches on so many themes – devotion, loyalty, passion and guilt are just a few – that by the exquisitely disconcerting finale, you may find yourself ready to interrogate your own heartfelt or socially imposed beliefs.

Equus is on at Bristol Old Vic until at Saturday 20th April 2019. Find details of cast and ticketing here.

All images by The Other Richard.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.