Nina Conti on the edge of darkness


I saw Nina Conti’s In Your Face tour at the Brighton Dome last Saturday. The climax of her show, when she had seven people up on stage, wearing her masks on demonstrated her sheer bravery, improvisational skill and speed of thought in remembering all the accents and attributes she had given them.

She had three moments of darker theatre in her show with Monk, her glove puppet. This monkey has such a strong identity, that despite frequent postmodern allusions to it being a puppet, the audience believes in it all the more strongly.  The shorter first half ends with Nina being hypnotised into sleep by the monkey. Of course when Nina is asleep, the monkey must remain silent and they are carried off stage.

Later Nina climbed into a black sack, with just Monk visible, and the puppet fielded audience questions. This was brave, especially in a large place like the Dome where it is hard to hear everyone without being in a sack.

But most of all I loved the end of her show, when she puts the monkey away, then talking to her naked hand finds the monkey is still present, and beginning to take her over and puppet her. This was all over too quickly for me, but was nodding to a darker, more absurd territory that is clearly present for her. I’d be fascinated to see her enter it.


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A portrait shot by Innis McAllister

The day before my 57th birthday last week, I had a photo session with the photographer  Innis McAllister. Well known for his photography of beautiful models, Innis occasionally can be tempted to photograph the more aesthetically challenged.

Frankly, I was rather pleased and amazed at his ability to turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse… Due to self-consciousness and vanity I tend to avoid being photographed or, when it is inevitable, my face falls into gurning idiot or serial killer mode. Luckily Innis managed to normalise the whole process, and it became a relaxed and collaborative, happens-every-day kind of thing instead.


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Jessica Mookherjee’s ‘The Swell’ – hear her with Judy Brown, Siegfried Baber and Michaela Ridgway 19th Oct in Lewes


Jessica Mookherjee earlier this month

Gillian Clarke’s remarks on the pamphlet flap for Jessica Mookherjee’s Telltale Press pamphlet  The Swell are spot on. Among them she says Jess’s poems are ‘Bold, fiery, truthful, they tell an original story with power’.

Other than reading The Swell at a fairly late stage before publication, I had little to do with Jess’s pamphlet. Sarah Barnsley, who along with Robin Houghton, helped Jess edit The Swell said that, in the process of finalising the selection, Jess had a whole sheaf of possible replacements for each poem. Amazingly prolific at the moment, Jess is already well on her way to forming a first full collection, and her work is frequently cropping up in many magazines. The reason is that they are fabulous.

The first poem of the The Swell pamphlet, ‘Snapshot’  depicts the loss of a mother’s attention away from the little girl ‘I’ of the poem. ‘I passed on my birthright to all those unborn/ boys,’ the mother tragedy spills into the poem, she becomes a person who needs her ‘worried forehead’ soothed, needs to be watched over:

Stood behind my mother as she prayed
at the front door, led her to the kitchen,
made sure she looked at the babies.

but finally we are left with an image of childhood abandonment, how the absence of attention leaves its mark with an image of neglect:

There is no photograph of me climbing the stairs
two at a time, no evidence that I tried
not to slip and break my neck.

One thing I love about Jess’s work is the balance between such nuance, and unabashed boldness. In the poem ‘Red’:

The red curtains in my mother’s house
looked like someone had shot her.

A colour is shown as a symbol for domestic disagreement, and disappointment:

I tell you not to wear that that red shirt,
it doesn’t flatter.
There’s blood in the bathroom again,
this month.

The pamphlet is fraught with thwarted hopes and expectations, and its arena is the female body.  We glimpse the weight of expectation on women to have sons, to create families, to select the right partner. I find the poem ‘Mother’s Day’ to be eloquent about assigned roles. The poem opens, with typical boldness, describing a delivery of flowers:

Delivered like unwanted children,
I didn’t put them into water.

I find a passion and rebellion in The Swell.  I can’t recommend it enough. And if you’d like to hear Jess’s next reading, at the Telltale Press & Friends reading in Lewes with a fine array of poets. These include Judy Brown, whose book Crowd Sensations is becoming one of my favourites of recent times, and will write about it on here soon. It’s a great opportunity to hear Telltale’s Siegfried Baber up from Bath, and Brighton’s own Michaela Ridgway showcase their work too.


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About ‘The Centaur’, an opera written with Helen Russell

I’ve not talked much about the work I am doing with Helen Russell. We met in December 2014. She contacted me after hearing the CD called Clameur I had done with Matthew Pollard, and she needed a librettist for new a project based on a short story by José Saramago called The Centaur. Here is a link to Nadine Gordimer reading the story.

The project was an opera. And its narrative is centred on the last living Centaur. Saramago shows us the struggle of his half man, half horse nature. He has managed to survive by hiding in the woods of Europe over the centuries. Naturally, he is lonely, and an encounter with a woman by a river triggers a series of events where the centaur draws attention to itself. Eventually he falls from a hilltop trying to escape pursuit, and is split apart and killed on a jagged rock.

The story is deceptive, it seems quite simple to begin with, but rewards reading and thinking about. Nadine Gordimer wrote, ‘there’s as much in this little story as in 20 novels and 20 poems’. Certainly the more Helen and I thought about its dramatic and philosophical implications, the more excited we became. In the intervening years we have found ourselves discussing philosophy, mythology and ontology and the whole process has been one of personal growth. For me it also led naturally from poetry I’ve written re-imaginging mythological characters in a contemporary space. My poem ‘Minotaur’, from the pamphlet, The Nightwork  is one such example. Here it is set to music, not by Helen, on YouTube. I like it when your work seems to organically develop like this.

So for the last couple of years I have been popping around to see Helen in Hove every now and again, armed with tranches of libretto, while Helen has busied herself writing a lush and involving score. With now more than an hour of the opera safely on Sibelius software, plus notebooks of musical sketches and our carefully worked out, our vast project is gradually taking shape. Naturally, as it is opera, there’s no need to hold back from passions, and writing on a grand scale. We have written all kinds of scenes, the first we worked on was a love duet between the woman bathing in a river, and the Centaur who chances upon her. All looked over by Selene the goddess of the moon, as baying dogs and an angry crowd gather offstage. Not every day that you put yourself into that kind of imaginative space.

This is a long project, but I intend to put some more about it here. Meanwhile, here’s a snap of Helen Russell at her piano.


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Richard Fleming’s magnificent poem for the BBC: La Gran’mère du Chimquière

I feel very proud of my friend Richard Fleming this week. As the best poet on Guernsey, Richard was recently approached by the BBC to write a poem for the National Poetry Day. The poem, La Gran’mère du Chimquière read by Richard, should be – must be – listened to here. Drop in at the 41 minute mark or a smidge before.

In 2010 Richard and I released a collection of poems about Guernsey called A Guernsey Double, and in it there are a few attempts by Richard and I to nail the significance of the menhir La Gran’mère du Chimquière. However in this new poem Richard has succeeded in a way neither of us has managed before, and has created a poem of magnificent sweep and stature, that may just be the single best poem ever written about the island.

Not only is this a spellbinding, poem, but it is also a wonderful piece of radio too. A heartfelt reading by Richard capturing a charged silence and the obviously moved reaction of Guernsey’s much-loved presenter Jenny Kendall-Tobias, and fellow writer Jane Fleming, Richard’s lovely wife. Jenny is the most consistently supportive broadcaster for literature in the island, and it is fitting that she and Richard and Jane created this amazing moment of radio, one  that the whole island should be proud of.

Here are two photos of Richard. One looking relaxed, and the other, a snap the pair of us with the La Gran’mère back in 2010, with Richard looking heroic and haunted by a future muse.


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Tickets for A Glass of Nothing & We Three Kings…

Tickets are now available for my plays  A Glass of Nothing, and We Three Kings here.  You get two plays for the price of one. A bargain, even if I say so myself.

We are doing a two nights at The Marlborough Theatre, (an old stomping ground for Beth Symons and I) on Thursday 8th December, and Friday 9th December. The Marlborough is a small venue, seating only 50-ish, and we expect tickets to move briskly. We plan to take A Glass of Nothing to Edinburgh next year. So grab this chance to see it in Brighton if you can.

We are rehearsing upstairs in the trusty Duke of Wellington. Luckily we’ve retained the same cast and Kitty, Dylan  and Beth seem to coast through lots of it in our first rehearsal. We’ve also recruited the multi-talented James Kuszewski to join the cast for We Three Kings too.

I’m racing to finish We Three Kings, we had a read through of my first draft this week. I’m describing it as a twisted nativity play. Expect gender blurring, and quite a bit of Drag for a proper Brighton Christmas. It’s my favourite time of year, so thinking about it everyday to write this play puts me in a cheery frame of mind. Cheery, and dark of course.

Below: a snap just before we opened the doors when we did it in May.




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The play’s the thing

Last night Brighton Blonde Productions regrouped.  Our next shows are on Thursday 8th and Friday 9th December at the Marlborough Theatre, Brighton.

It was good after the success of the summer (four star reviews and all) to read through it again making cuts and tweaks. We want to get it so tight it squeaks.

Plus we are going not launch We Three Kings, a short 30-minute piece I am now writing like mad, as we want to start rehearsing it shortly. It is a kind of twisted Nativity. I love Christmas, so doing a play about the three kings is a bit of a bucket list thing.

As you an see, we’ve got a new multitalented recruit, James, to our lemonade-powered cast.

Below left to right: Dylan Corbett-Bader, Beth Symons, Kitty Underhill and James Kuszewski. More news here soon.


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