@ The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford
– reviewed by Paul Askew –
The Performer: Steve Larkin is a bit of a legend of the Oxford poetry scene.
In fact, some would say he’s the reason Oxford has a poetry scene.
He set up and ran the infamous Hammer & Tongue night, which has now spread to other cities too, for eight years before backing down to concentrate on his own thing. His own thing being his new one man show, N.O.N.C.E.
If the title seems a little confrontational that’s because it’s meant to be. Steve’s never been one to shy away from politics in his poetry, so a show about the year he spent as poet in residence at a prison was certainly going to be no exception.
The Concept: a one-man show?
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. Yes, we’ve all seen the art of the one man/modern theatre show parodied so well on Spaced, The Big Lebowski, Family Guy, etc etc. Small theatre shows are generally treated with the same sense of general disdain as self published poetry pamphlets, possibly even more so, so it’s difficult not to approach this without some sense of caution. I’ve seen Steve Larkin perform poetry before, I know how good he is, but a one man theatre show? Really? Yes. Really.
The Show: Spoiler alert: This show isn’t just good, it’s really bloody good.
The basic storyline is that Steve and a Doctor (whose name I’m afraid I forgot to note) regularly go to HM Grendon to run a poetry workshop for the inmates. At first it appears to be met with a lack of enthusiasm, but as the prisoners who sign up get more into the course, the more the worth of what they’re doing seems. This rise in professional success is offset by a deterioration of Steve’s personal life, creating an interesting dynamic. I’m reluctant to go into much more detail, as the show’s reveals deserve to be kept as such.
The Performance: Steve Larkin is a warm and very engaging performer
It’s what made him such a good Hammer & Tongue host, so as he (and I’m loathe to use this phrase, but it really does describe it best) takes you on a journey through his year long placement, you go right along with him. It feels like he is talking to you, rather than at you (which in a full theatre is no easy feat). This presentation style is one of the main reasons why N.O.N.C.E. works as well as it does. It is never preachy, hectoring, judgmental or manipulative. Steve Larkin has the faith to just present his events and let the power of what’s happening be what affects us.
One of the other main reasons that N.O.N.C.E. succeeds as it does is by repeatedly taking you through Steve’s daily routine. This repetition is a clever trick, setting a framework for us to become quickly familiar with. It puts us in his place. He gets up, goes to work, certain same things happen, he leaves, stays in a B&B, calls his girlfriend, sleeps and dreams. By following this repeated routine, the changes are more highlighted and affecting. We are shown how Steve’s progress with the prisoners was slow to start, and each ‘Eureka’ moment makes us take more notice of it, because it’s outside of the framework. It’s unexpected.
The Prisoners: These people are people
A large part of the show deals with the interactions between the prisoners and a group of students that Steve is teaching in another job. The bringing together of these groups highlights a slight paradox in the way that the prisoners are taught and treated. These people are people, and when treated as such respond in positive ways and progress is made. Because they are people who’ve committed awful crimes though, they are never to be fully trusted. The interactions with the students highlight this conflict well, and it is a conflict that is never fully resolved.
There are a couple of uneasy moments in the Steve’s personal life side of the show, which serve to highlight how easy it could be for any of us to make an error of judgement and end up in the prisoners’ situation ourselves. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to think that you could, in one simple, unthinking moment, end up in the same position as someone in HM Grendon.
This is something we haven’t been given a chance to think about before. All the inmates who take part in the workshop are given the names of their heroes. This is said to be to enable them to loosen up and engage in the program, but I suspect it was also done in order to separate each person from their crime, so that by detaching them from what they’ve done they’ve done, they could see them as people rather than monsters. It works for the show too, as that’s the effect it has on the audience. It’s a lot easier for us to root for someone called David Bowie, say, than someone we know as a convicted murderer. It’s another little trick that really works in getting us involved in and sympathetic to the events of the show.
Conclusion: Moving, thought-provoking, superb theatre.
The ending of the show is superb. Again, I am reluctant to give too much away, but a couple of points are raised which confront us with our general perceptions and habits (both of which, I have to admit, I was guilty of), and this highlights another message of the show. We all have preconceptions, and these can often do a disservice to the people we have them of.
For all the uncomfortable moments and uneasy feelings we are given though, N.O.N.C.E. is in the end an affirming and uplifting show. Its messages are positive ones, and they are delivered in a way that makes you think about them long after the show is over.
Steve Larkin has created a moving, thought provoking, and, most importantly, a fantastic piece of theatre. I would highly recommend this show to anyone who has a chance to see it.