Stop the clock…
In the world of spoken word poetry, there is nothing more popular for poets to do then host their own one-person show. It is practically a rite of passage for those who hope to be taken seriously and given the pretty solitary nature of poetry it’s not hard to see why so many performers go down this road.
The shows are usually written by the person performing them and they are usually semi-autobiographical, they tend to be a little under an hour long and also common themes involve delving into that person’s childhood memories to understand their current situation. It’s a formula that works, the format saying ‘to understand where my poetry comes from, you should first understand where I come from’.
Sean Mahoney’s Until You Hear That Bell ticks all of these well-worn boxes, but don’t let that put you off for a second. Its USP is that it is, I’m pretty sure, the first spoken word show told in bursts of three minute snatches timed like the rounds in a boxing match. It’s also a completely true story, not just a ‘some of these things were kind of true once’ story.
It’s all in the eye contact
Sean started out as part of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective before going on to run his own event BoxediN at Shoreditch’s Box Park and appearing on Channel 4’s Random Acts. He is one of those performers just as comfortable chatting on stage as performing, so I was interested to see how he would fair without the chance to cosy up to the audience in long links between poems. The fast-paced nature of the three-minute format, however, means that Sean can still build a rapport, never allowing the scene to stand still for too long. Confidently ignoring any hint of a fourth wall, he speaks to individuals holding their gaze just like one would in a conversation (which is what the best spoken word shows feel like).
The story reveals that Sean was an amateur boxing champ as a teenager, fighting in local clubs for years. The story he tells, standing in a white square of tape and clutching a sports bag, is about his childhood trips to the boxing club that gradually became a bigger and more important part of his life until he considered going pro.
The story charts the highs and lows of his time learning, and becoming good at, boxing; his dad the initial driving force to him picking up the sport. The three-minute format allows him to jump quickly between ages and anecdotes, changing the mood and tempo to suit the story. He keeps his audience guessing what will happen next, never revealing too much at once and there are plenty of belly laughs ‘My little sister had to punch me and I had to try not to be punched, this was what happened when mum was out’.
For a lot of the first half of the show Sean describes how he overcame fear, self-doubt and intimidation to find a sport that he loved. He also spends a lot of time on stage bounding around, even jump rope skipping at one point. By the middle of the show he is drenched in sweat but this only goes to reinforce the truth of his story…this isn’t just a nod to a passing hobby…Sean really was a very good boxer. An old TV and VHS lies in the corner for the first 40 minutes, looking vaguely nostalgic, but then he turns it on and (although the screen is a bit small to see properly) plays an old home video of him winning a fight. This is a really important addition as it brings the noise and atmosphere of the fights he describes to life.
This sequence marks a crescendo in the show and an end to the boxing stories. Sean takes off his sports clothing and begins to turn away from fighting, but will he have the courage to tell his Dad what he really wants?
A supremely engaging and fiercely performed piece; a winner both in and out of the ring.
Sabotage Star Rating: ★★★★