John Osborne and Molly Naylor

John Osborne Molly Naylor

– reviewed by James Webster
– at the Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford, 17/09/15 –

Poetry porn – probably a misleading sub-heading…

There’s a genre in television at the moment that you may be aware of – it usually involves some kind of heist format and it invariably involves a group of incredibly impressive people completing improbable tasks with aplomb – it’s been tentatively genred as ‘competency porn’ and it can best be described as ‘people who are very good at their jobs doing their jobs very well’.

I mention this because John Osborne and Molly Naylor could be justifiably described as ‘poetry porn’: two people who are very good at poetry doing poetry very well.

Two poets at the top of their game…

A little bit of background: Osborne and Naylor are two very accomplished writers; for example, they’ve recently worked together on After Hours, a comedy on Sky 1 that airs later this autumn. Osborne, for his part, has appeared regularly on Radio 4 and has just finished a run of his solo show Most People Aren’t That Happy, Anyway at the Edinburgh Fringe. And Naylor has had a lot of love for her two solo theatre shows, Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You and My Robot Heart. These two people are good at what they do. So, while I’d usually want a full-length poetry show to be tied together by some narrative or theme, it’s actually nice to see them live just performing some of their work without any more reason than it’s bloody excellent.

John Osborne – eminently, oddly and heart-breakingly pleasant…

There’s something strange about listening to Osborne‘s poetry. You find out pretty quickly that he’s got an easy, humorous manner that lends itself to light, comic work – and certainly his pieces are filled with punchlines and awkward humour – but then you realise at the end that you’re hugging yourself and you just made that ‘mmmph’ sound like you’ve just been punched in the stomach and you’re about to cry and you’re not sure exactly when that happened.

He sets the tone with a piece on a boy at his school called Michael Jackson (musing that his parents just “weren’t familiar with the Jackson 5”), which combines a whimsical humour with a kind of mundane absurdity. A joyous hymn to social awkwardness. He follows up with That Money Would’ve Turned You Into A Bastard, imagining the life of someone who dropped out of their office lottery syndicate just before their colleagues won it big, revelling in the complex weirdness of a unique social situation – a piece that celebrates the grimy, understated wonder of life’s tiny, grimy pleasures. Like many of his poems, it’s a piece that hints at broader commentary on the human condition, deftly implying a level of profundity that lingers in your brain for you to figure out later. Similarly, his Kylie Internet Dating prods lightly at ideas of celebrity whilst brilliantly characterising the social anxieties of online dating (when you’re not sure you really like the person, but you’re super invested in them responding to your message).

There’s a kind of fantastical magical realism that he brings to a lot of his work, from the fragile, brain-tingling beauty of a dream where he and his sister were reincarnated as cuddly toys, to a poem about being the kind of person who had learnt the constellations and could be that person who read the heavens for their friends. The whole thing combines this level of pervading melancholy with intense likeability and whimsy, so that you’re sat there feeling incredibly sad but with a great big smile on your face and you’re not really sure how to feel about the whole situation.

His talent for tackling the ordinary in endearingly fanciful ways is probably best on show in Our Waitress is the Employee of the Month(where he imagines her exploits to have earned such a title and also prays no-one draws attention to this situation) and George Alagiah (a meditation on a life lived hoping you get to be the one to report the death of the queen), both of which take normal situations and imagine them to their logical conclusions – rich with John‘s distilled sense of awkwardly triumphant melancholy.

Molly Naylor – carpe feelings…

It was when Molly read the line “when you have doubts, you can just aim for the face” in a tone dripping with satisfied malice that I knew we were onto another winner. While her Poem 1, a piece ostensibly about writer’s block but more about self-doubt, was already showing itself to be evocative and funny, that was the first line that she showed she had bite. While Osborne’s pieces have a tendency to go for the sad, Naylor’s aim straight for the emotional throat.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the extract from her play, Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You (available on bandcamp fyi). Based by her real experiences of being caught up in the London bombings in July 2005, the snippet we heard was at once enchanting, warm, and spikily poignant. Kind of like the poetry version of a hedgehog – it’s super sweet and really expressive, but getting too close would probably be painful. It starts with a fun and rambling monologue, punctuated with speculation, jokes and bravado (“We still smoke because we’re obviously indestructible”), presenting unexpected angles on an event you think you’re familiar with. As the rambling town becomes an emotional tumble, there’s some really keenly expressed flashes – a lovely moment filled with tenderness and warmth when Naylor is stuck inside a tube in the middle of the disaster and gets to know all the other passengers she’d been speculating about (turns out the woman with the giant scarf was on the way to France). A beautifully fragile bit where her partner tries to block her from seeing the wreckage. A scene of them in a supermarket suddenly realising no-one knows what they’ve just been through and it makes you feel like the bottom has dropped out of your stomach.

There are other gold-tinted pieces of writing too – a trio of poems on love spanned the range from early infatuation (Ask – full of wittily constructed frustration with the impossibility of adult expression and missing the “magic of cider courage and tip-ex declarations”) to the breakdown, recrimination and eventual acceptance phase (It’s a Lovely Day For Blame and Obituary of a Failed Relationship make for well-paired poems that charge head-first at filmically unrealistic expectations and ends in the line “they looked after each other until they couldn’t” which hit me so hard in the feelings it made me do a little distressed “eeeeeeeeeee!” noise).

Other highlights included: a piece of sea-polished wonder in The Wrecking Season (there’s a film of the same name you should totes look up), the gawky magic of Armour, and, my favourite, the surprisingly intense idea of seeing someone’s soul (or sole?) in their shoes with I Don’t Like Bowling, I Love It (“how will I work out who in the bowling alley I want to sleep with?”).

To put it simply, at her best – when the rhythms are rolling out with a kind of irreverent reverence and she’s deftly drawing the walls of her world up around you – you suddenly feel like you’re living in an entirely different world, one which is not entirely unfamiliar, but filled with inestimably more wonder and pathos.

This shouldn’t work…

A quick caveat – it’s not that I don’t have any criticisms of this event. The format was a bit stilted (poet – break – poet), the lack of an overarching theme or narrative (even just a loose one) makes the event feel a tad bitty, there isn’t a huge amount of variation in tone and performance style (they were just so bloody winningly pleasant all the time, y’know?). And… those things should be a problem. Normally I would think that was a problem.

But they’re just so good at what they do and so goddamn personable that I found myself not really giving a shit and I just lost myself in the uniquely weird worlds they built up. (They maybe could do with varying the format a touch though.)

A bloody delight is what it is.

Sabotage Star Rating: ★★★★

John Osborne and Molly Naylor are at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Studio tonight and will be continuing their tour across autumn.

Saboteur Awards 2015: Best Spoken Word Show, Regular Spoken Word Night, Spoken Word Performer, and One Off Event

awards– In which James Webster sums up Best Spoken Word Show, Regular Spoken Word Night, Spoken Word Performer, and One Off Event –

What an evening.

The Saboteur Awards really were the most wonderful time. It was lovely having so many amazing, creative people all in one room to celebrate the exciting achievements in indie literature over the last year. 12 awards, 12 trophies, 12 bottles of very nice champagne (we had the best prizes this year), two fascinating panels, one embarrassing gaffe, a hotly contested game of bingo, a few tears and more than a few drinks later, and the awards were over.

I joked on the evening that “we are all winners here, but some are more winsome than others” and, of course, I was lying. Everyone involved in the awards (those who could be there and those who couldn’t) is equally winsome and it was an incredible pleasure to be a part of bringing such an awesome crowd together.

Best Spoken Word Show

In a phenomenally exciting (and very closely fought) category, there was a brilliant mix of shows in the running. From Colin Davies and 2001: A Space Ode and Ditty‘s warmly nostalgic account of a life in geekdom that took people on “a witty and wonderful trip through sci-fi and comic fandom” and was also described as:

“Engaging, refreshing, touching. A revelation!”, “Colin is a fantastic writer and uses every word to great effect. Nothing is wasted.”, “For a show which is about sci-fi, it manages to include non-fans and not alienate them (pun not intended …. or should it have been?)” and “A brilliant hour of geekdom writ large. It’s so dense with pop cultural references that one wonders how he managed to fit any other words in.”

To Schlock! and Hannah Silva‘s multimedia smorgasbord of poetry, sound and British Sign language that took 50 Shades of Grey and “made a silk purse out of a pig’s ear” and brought it to life with “humour, honesty, laughter and tears”. Voters also said:

“Best thing to come out of 50 shades”, “Because there is nothing like it and it made my heart flap in my ribcage like a stuck bird.” and “Because it’s unique in content and performance: shocking, controversial, darkly funny, revelatory and risk-taking with absolutely no safety net. Hannah Silva takes the art of live multi-media performance to a whole and extraordinarily memorable new level.”

Then there was Sophia Walker‘s Can’t Care Won’t Care, an excoriating one-woman interrogation of the care system that voters called “socially conscious, gripping theatre” and according to our review she “wields words so strongly they might break you”. Further, it was:

“a show that hangs entirely on the writing, and that should be how we judge spoken word shows. Stripped back, simple, show with a script that knocks you sideways. When I saw it, more than half the room cried”, “I saw Sophia Walker live earlier in the year, and her work is just so powerful and moving, she is definitely worth amazing recognition.” and “This is urgent, vital spoken word that acts out the counternarrative to every time you ever hear ‘care workers’ or ‘the care system’ on the news or in the pub. Which is every night. It matters now, and it matters that it is given the attention, the grit and the eloquence it needs to convince people of that.”

But coming in as the runner-up in this absurdly competitive field was Ross Sutherland with the work of split-second, synesthetic brilliance that is Standby for Tape Backup. Voters called it: “Funny, heartbreaking, compassionate and innovative” as well as “fucking dope” and, having managed to catch it myself earlier this year, I can attest to its sheer creative joy. Further praise:

“Because it was imaginative and entertaining, and anyone who dares to do such daring stunts with technology deserves an award.”, “He is incredible. Funny, heartbreaking, compassionate and innovative. A charismatic performer of unusual and compelling material.”, “He has a beard” and “The most original, captivating, super cool spoken word show I’ve ever seen!”

But, the winner, which was greeted by shrieks of glee by an appreciative audience, was Jackie Hagan with Some People Have Too Many Legs. Our review called it: “a poetic, playful, psychologically-astute piece of theatre which engages the audience’s hearts as well as minds”

While voters said:

“This show makes something witty and life affirming out of a nightmare experience, and with not a trace of inspiration porn in sight.”, “Hilarious show about a heart- stopping subject, brought into the limelight in such an intimate and toughly tender way. Jackie is hard and funny as care bears wearing steelies.”, “Cos its fucking awesome. Clever. Funny. Poetic. Sexy. Sad and a dancing unicorn” and “Because it’s a brilliant show and she is an extraordinary wonderful warrior of a woman and deserves all the prizes and goodness life can throw at her.”

Sadly, due to an incident with a dodgy thumb, Jackie couldn’t accept her award in person, but she sent a lovely acceptance email in which she showcased the chutzpah and humour that won her they award by professing to be “off my tits on morphine”, hoped that we were all suitably drunk and claimed to be working on new show “Some People Have Too Many Thumbs”. Fundamentally, you have to love a performer who’s bold enough to cover herself in glitter and drink cava out of her own prosthetic leg.

Some People Have Too Many LegsBest Regular Spoken Word Night

A lot of great nights in this one, from across the UK. Evidently is a Salford-based night with an emphasis on warm atmosphere and riotous entertainment, with voters saying:

“they have totally rejuvenated the performance poetry scene across Greater Manchester”, “Well-programmed nights with all the best talent. They treat guests so nicely and produce kick-ass films.”, “The friendliest, most exciting night of spoken word, brilliantly hosted and put together by the team of Kieren King and Ella Gainsborough. First timers are made to feel welcome, and seasoned performers can’t wait to take part” and “My favourite place on earth. Warm, friendly and encouraging.”

Another of the northern contingent, the Say Owt Slam has a reputation for being a real melting pot of styles and ideas, with such varied topics as pokemon, anarchy, feminism and contemporary politics all thrown down and taken apart; voters said:

“It is a show that four times in a row has sold out, that I have been to and been blown away by the quality of the performers and the hosts, and their gust poets have always been amazing. As one of the hottest nights out in York, it deserves awesomeness!”, “Not been going long, but every time it’s been fizzing with creativity, emotion and brilliant performances. The best night in York!” and “Tons of energy at this well loved venue. A real gem and true ambassador for the spoken word.”

Project U is the performance arm of Unthank Books, also nominated for Best Anthology; relatively new, it’s a playful and friendly space that’s achieved impressive popularity impressively quickly by showcasing the best of performance prose instead of poetry. Voters said:

There’s a wonderful atmosphere there – friendly yet serious about good writing. Well organised: no ‘free mic’ – just high quality storytelling and experiment.”, “spoken word in a unique atmospere that makes you want to grab your pen” and “The readings are consistently excellent and there are always new people to meet. A thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining evening, every time.”.

Despite all these strong contenders, this ended up becoming a straight-up head-to-head between two titans of poetry. These behemoths of spoken word duked it out to the very end, with less than 40 votes between the winner and the runner-up. Said runner-up, a previous winner in this category, was the stand-up poetry juggernaut that is Bang! Said the Gun. An absurdly successful event that’s hosted some of the biggest names in spoken word and been broadcast on Sky and Channel 4, Bang! Said the Gun is, in many ways, the spoken word night. To quote the voters:

“To make people like poetry, Bang! is where you take them. It’s our gateway drug.”, “This night is genuinely fun, off-kilter, raucous, and the roll-on of the open mic winner nabbing a feature slot for the next night is a great idea.”, “Love it love it love it.” and “BANG is the best in the country: lively, welcoming, professional to the nth degree behind its friendly facade, and a genuine transformer of the poetry landscape. The others are all good but only Bang regularly attracts people who do not identify as spoken word fans – just as people looking for a good night out.”

It is all the more impressive then that the winners defeated these kings of poetry, wresting the crown from their very brow(s). Bad Language is another Manchester-based night, which, as well as hosting a selection of top performers, reserved half the open mic for newcomers every time. Voters heaped praise upon them, such as:

“Incredible open-micers for a free night, run with great friendliness & professionalism. Hugely encouraging to new performers, and fiercely promoting gender balance.”, “Literally changed my life. Their supportive open mics took me from a stage-fright wreck into a performer and semi-professional writer. I owe BL so much.”, “Truly egalitarian night. Encouraging people not just to watch but to engage and becomes an entry point into the entire ‘scene’. A friendly corner of the literary community entirely without snobbery or pretension.” and “Great beards.”

bad langBest Spoken Word Performer

Always a fascinating category, in the past few years this one has consistently thrown up surprise after surprise, showing just how vibrant and quickly evolving the spoken word scene in the UK is proving to be.

Newcomer Stu Freestone has been on the Spoken Word scene for just 18 months (after being inspired by Scroobius Pip in Edinburgh) and has wasted no time finding his style, winning fans and earning an impressive reputation, taking his debut show to Edinburgh last year and following up with another this year. Voters said:

“Stu always speaks from the heart and you know you are in for a roller-coaster of emotions when you see and hear him perform his poetry. Fantastic – thoroughly deserves this nomination and fingers crossed he wins!”, “Best eyebrows that curled words around a microphone this year.” and “Stu Freestone brings a fantastic energy with everything he does.     He defines what a spoken word poet should be, to me.”

Oz Hardwick is clearly a man with a ridiculous number of talents. A writer, journalist, photographer, musician and professor, he’s both performed and been published across the world and has been gracing the back rooms of pubs with his poetry and music for years. Voters said:

“Having heard Oz read in person, I see that he finds in each audience, in each room, potentialities–added elements that can make that given reading singular. Like a good cook, he knows how to make the most of his ingredients!”, “Because Oz Hardwick delivers his mesmerising and wonderfully diverse poems that delve into the depths of the human condition with passion and heart.” and “A voice I trust and words that stay with me.”

Chimene Suleyman is a London-based writer and performer who is always good value. In the past she’s represented the UK at the Internationale Biennale 2011 and her poetry collection Outside Looking On has been stonkingly received and was mentioned in the Guardian’s Best Books list. Voters said:

“She balances a conversational style of delivery with heavy subject matter in an unforced and therefore galvanizing way”, “She is a powerful and fearless performer.” and “I’m voting for her because she came to Margate”.

One nominee, however, who was no surprise was Sophia Walker. A mainstay of the Saboteur Awards shortlists, she once more made the shortlist for both Best Performer and Best Show and came the closest out of anyone to challenging our eventual winner. She’s a one-person storm of a poet, combining powerful emotion with elegant wordsmithery and consummate performance who never shies away from important topics. Voters said:

“Raw, honest, un-sensational but quietly mesmeric. Her performances build in intensity until they have you by the guts.”, “Beauty, truth and humor delivered in one package. It is brilliant what she does.”, “passion + truth= enlightenment” and “She spins words like silk, transforming the raw and rough of the human experience into pieces of profound beauty.”

But the winner’s rise to the top was, in the end, unstoppable. An ascendant star of spoken word, Hollie McNish has captivated and gobsmacked audiences, gone viral on multiple occasions, and bravely taken on a bevy of societal issues in a way that speaks to all kinds of people. Earlier in the day, Sophia Walker had commented on how in other countries spoken word is an art form of dissent and of protest, whereas in the UK it’s mainly an art form of entertainment. It feels to me, then, incredibly appropriate that the top two performer spots were taken by Sophia and Hollie, two performers who constantly engage with social and political issues in a way that is thoughtful, fierce and persuasive.

Plus, Hollie wrote a piece about how giving birth is like being a transformer, which makes me geek out for her massively.

Voters said:

“Commitment, integrity and a willingness to stick her neck above the parapet on social issues which expose her to a whole lot of trolling.”, “Engaging, honest poetry performed with a realism which allows any audience to engage with the genre, coupled with an irreverence for the conventions of performance which proved to be refreshing.”, “More important than ever to have strong, engaging and funny voices for feminism if we’re having 5 years of Tory horror.”, “Because awesome.” and “She has brought poetry into the public consciousness and opened up women’s issues in an accessible and enjoyable way.”

Hollie McNishBest One Off Event

Another award that never fails to deliver, presenting this one has made me tear up at two awards ceremonies in a row now.

Heart Poems for Children’s Heart Week, for example, has an inspiring and heartbreaking story behind it, as one voter put it, Rebecca Goss became “an ambassador for paediatric heart charities following the death of her own daughter. Her selfless commitment deserves recognition.” As well as spawning some amazing poetry, the week-long event also raised awareness for the Children’s Heart Federation Charity. Voters added:

“Stunning array of poets supporting a great charity.”, “Fantastic poetry but also for a really fantastic cause – shows poetry can simultaneously work as art and something purposeful/useful.” and “Beautiful and haunting poems”.

MINE by Holly Corfield Carr was the only project to be nominated in more than one category, as the textual accompaniment to this live piece was also nominated in Best Poetry Pamphlet. A fascinating and intimate experience that was at once both guided tour and live literature, Holly took audiences into unusual spaces and opened both their eyes and their ears to a new and haunting experience. Voters said:

“An amazing, multi sensory experience.”, “Best site specific piece I’ve ever seen – just beautiful” and “Corfield Carr is always finding unusual, forgotten, underused spaces (old factories, Victorian public toilets, boats) with their own fascinating history, and transforming them into vivid experiences through poetry. MINE blended place, poetry, science and history to create an unforgettable experience”

Words and Women do great work all year round, supporting women writers working in the East of England, providing a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. Their International Women’s Day event brought together music, theatre and literature for a whole celebratory day that was called:

“This event was so inspiring, really well attended and a variety of readers and performers – this variety was reflected in the audience too. Words and Women are doing really good work for women writers in the east of England.”, “wonderful community event inclusive and popular. unfailing commitment to this special gathering by the team behind it. tireless effort in making it happen.” and “From funny and thought-provoking readings to powerful and emotive dramatic monologues, the Words and Women International Women’s Day event was an excellent showcase of work from a range of talented female artists.”

OE by Max Barton, Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston was another innovative multidisciplinary experience that retold the story of Orpheus with poetry, art, music and performance, creating an evening that tingled across the senses and lingered in people’s minds – so much so, in fact, that it emerged as the runner-up!

Voters said:

“nothing prepared me for the immersive and brilliant experience: Tom’s pictures of the underworld, Kiran’s poetry, Max’s music …deserves multiple showings”, “this show brought together the performing arts, the spoken word and visual art forms. An immersive experience the performance thrilled its audience (of which I was a part) and created a sense of wonder and laughter and pain that I have not often felt – and certainly had not expected.” and “Such an amazing night! Each component (song, poetry and paintings) strong enough to stand alone, coming together in an extraordinary way.”

But, in a field full of inspiring events and projects, the real stand-out and clear winner was Jo Bell’s The 52 Project. An experiment in creative engagement and criticism, participants were encouraged to write a poem a week for a whole year under her eager-eye. Providing prompts, feedback and plenty of support, Jo Bell marshalled the project 500 members on to new heights. The thing that really struck me about this project, was the sheer number of people whose lives it touched and changed and the continuing ongoing impact that will continue to ripple across the poetical landscape for years.

Just listening to Jo talk about it in her acceptance speech made me cry some of my own tears. What a project.

The voters said:

“Amazing project which just grew and grew, encouraging experiences poets and those who had never written with her well-thought out prompts, Jo Bell has given her time selflessly to this project.”, “An absolute phenomenon. Life affirming and life changing for so many people.”, “A unique event that will widen and deepen poetry in Britain for years to come”, “Because 52 is beyond fucking brilliant!!” and “Because of Jo Bell’s 52 I’ve had poems published and plucked up the courage to embark on an MA in creative writing. 52 has supported and encouraged so much talent in just twelve months and has become a wonderful network of poetry friends. Jo gave up a year of her life to help other writers find their courage and their voice. She, and the 52 project, truly deserves this award.”

52 ProjectSee you next year, folks!

Spoken Word Round-Up 2014

– by James Webster

It feels like we’ve had a cracking year for Spoken Word in 2014, with the established regular nights going from strength to strength (Bang Said the Gun, Hammer & Tongue, Chill Pill etc. just keep going) and a spate of new, inventive events popping up as well, including poetry game shows, speakeasies and the wonderful strangeness of the Anti-Slam. Plus, there were a glut of gleaming solo shows that went up to Edinburgh (where the Spoken Word category was bigger than ever) and more still that toured across the UK. Live literature in the UK seems very healthy right now.

cropped-sabotage_wide_1020-300x46Sabotage’s most viewed Spoken Word posts of 2014 (as of today)

  1. Given her massive success this year, it’s maybe not surprising that Artist Spotlight on Kate Tempest was our most viewed Spoken Word article
  2. Coming in second was another oldie, a whopper of a review from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe (with three reviews squeezed into one)
  3. The Anti-Slam Oxford comes in next, proving that our readers enjoy bad poetry as much as the good
  4. The Splitting of the Mermaid by Lucy Ayrton was also a popular read (and an utterly magical show)
  5. And The Mechanisms‘ wild-west Arthurian space-epic High Noon Over Camelot rounds out the top five.

The Saboteur Awards in May provided a great chance to come together and celebrate all the wonderful works that the previous year had brought us, and it was marked by a charming performance from our new Best Spoken Word Performer, Steve Nash, as well as a horrendously moving acceptance speech from Best One-Off, Against Rape. Sophia Walker stormed the Best Show category with Around the World in 8 Mistakes, while Best Regular Spoken Word Night went to the superb fusion of live and literature that is Liars’ League. And who could forget that video from The Anti-Slam crew.

We headed up to review in Edinburgh once more in August, seeing a lot of lovely poetry. Tim Clare’s Be Kind to Yourself was definitely a highlight, while Richard Tyrone Jones amped up the geek-factor with his Crap Time Lord. Other Voices: Spoken Word Cabaret continues to be one of the best things about the Fringe, while Lucy Ayrton and Sophia Walker were determined to make me cry to the point of severe dehydration with The Splitting of the Mermaid and Can’t Care, Won’t Care respectively.

As part of our ongoing efforts to try and cover as much of the UK as possible, we’ve recently appointed Mab Jones as our Spoken Word Editor for Wales, and the coverage has already started with a review of Bethany W Pope at The Cellar Bards, while we’ve also had a great review of Inky Fingers in Edinburgh and We are Enemies in Cork sounded absolutely fascinating. Meanwhile, London upped the ‘weird venue’ stakes when we squeezed into Horatio and Me, a show staged in a very cosy disused public toilet (ArtsLav). Ooh, and the European tour of Welcome to Night Vale was a live storytelling event like no other…
Editor’s Picks (in no particular order)

Having seen a lot of spoken word shows this year (with an especial glut in August at the Edinburgh Fringe), it’s been even tougher than usual to pick my own personal top five. But out of a smorgasbord of poetic riches, my absolute top picks are:

  1. High Noon Over Camelot by The Mechanisms. Their six-shooting, space opera remix of Arthurian legend utterly blew me away. A single, gold-plated bullet shot straight into my FEELINGS.
  2. Quiltbag Cabaret – a new addition to the spoken word scene in Oxford, Quiltbag has a strong focus on showcasing queer-themed content, providing a safe space for its audience and also offers the chance to mingle and do crafts in the interval. Bloody charming.
  3. The Anti-Slam – in both its Oxford and Valentine’s Day iterations, this unique poetry night that celebrated ‘creative engagement with failure’ was a real joy. This celebration of all that’s worst about spoken word was superbly conceived and birthed by Dan Simpson and Paula Varjack.
  4. Wingman Richard Marsh triumphed again at the Fringe with this foul-mouthed and furiously entertaining two-person poetry play.
  5. 300 to 1 – in a year packed full of theatre and television taking advantage of the centenary of the First World War, it was refreshing to see a show about the war that took an inventive and irreverent anti-war perspective. Witnessing a teenager describe the plot of 300 to Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon was priceless.

Welcome to Night Vale Live Show (20/10/14) by Commonplace Books

nightvalelogo-webreviewed by James Webster

So, what’s all this fuss about Night Vale?

You’ve probably heard of Welcome to Night Vale. You’ve probably listened to Welcome to Night Vale. You probably love Welcome to Night Vale. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you probably don’t live on the internet (like some of us could be accused of), so here’s what it’s all about…

Night Vale is a fictional radio broadcast in a fictional small American town that’s populated by handsome scientists, hooded figures, radio interns with short life expectancies, vague-yet-menacing government agencies, angels named Erika and much more (no mountains, though, mountains aren’t real). They are the strangest characters you will ever love with all your heart.

To put it more succinctly: it’s a podcast (created by Joseph Finch and Jeffrey Cranor). A podcast that, over the past couple of years, has grown to become one of the go-to purveyors of internet-based weird fiction. It exists in the gap between radio sit-com, serialised short horror fiction, and internet whimsy, and over the last two years it’s spread its spider-like reach gradually and surreptitiously across the interwebs, becoming one of the best examples of how to tell a story on an almost-entirely digital platform.

The ‘almost-entirely’ is where this review comes in, as I recently attended one of Welcome to Night Vale‘s live shows (they’re currently on a European tour), where the podcast format was turned into a live storytelling event. Night Vale experienced live is a superb example of both live and indie literature, an excitingly odd package filled with familiar-yet-alien ideas and wrapped in warm-but-weirdass voices.

The wonders of live radio/performance…

Walking into the Union Chapel in Islington, there was already an atmosphere of magic and creepiness – there’s just something about the huge and somewhat gothic church-space filled with smoke and bright lights, the cross-hatching of sombre and glam that evokes an air of paranoid wonder. Already a good start. What followed was a forty-minute self-contained slice of heightening fear, tinged with superbly surreal humour, which gradually invited the audience deeper and deeper into the story.

The stagecraft was handled with a deft touch – while the conceit was that the narration was supposedly broadcast live on radio, but the cast would occasionally cast a glance, or a few lines directly to audience members (a real highlight were the absurdly entertaining horoscopes, each one addressed to the most prominent/loudest person of each star sign). Then building to bigger set pieces that included at least one moment of severely charming and cleverly engineered interactions between audience member, plus one particular sequence that must have thoroughly freaked out the vast majority of the audience.

The voices that make it real…

Of course, a podcast is made or broken by the voices behind the microphone and Night Vale has assembled a recurring cast that oozes with talent. From the mile-a-minute, hyper-hipster voice of Michelle Nguyen (Kate Jones) that drips with barely concealed condescension, to the brash superiority of Pamela Winchell and the winsome earnestness of the special guest star, *NAME REDACTED*.

But the voice that really makes the show, the one most often describes as ‘the voice of Night Vale’, belongs to Cecil Palmer (as played by Cecil Baldwin). He fills the performance with a warmth and friendliness that draws the audience in, adding just the right amount of musical whimsy, and allowing a little gruff foreboding to creep in around the edges. It’s his voice that makes the strange and magical seem pleasantly mundane and makes the near-mundane so terrifyingly strange. He also really sells the emotional dynamics between characters, like, seriously, that voice makes me feel feelings.

Basically, listening to Baldwin’s voice is like being wrapped up in the world’s warmest and most disconcerting hug.

A fan-created experience…

One of the most striking things about the event was the sheer level of involvement and sense of community from the fans. This level of engagement (and sheer number of people in attendance) was one I’ve almost never seen at more traditional live literature events, with audience members arriving in Night Vale themed costumes and trading running jokes across the auditorium (including one dedicated fan dressing as recurring character ‘the Glow Cloud’ and being greeted by the crowd with a loud ‘All Hail!’).

It was an event that made you feel part of a community of fiction enthusiasts. An event that made you feel part of the show. There are still a few tickets left for the live show in London at the Shepherd’s Bush O2 on the 9th of November. You don’t have to be a fan of the show to enjoy the event and if your taste in fiction strays towards the weird, funny and adorably odd then I advise you to get along.

300 to 1 by Monkey Poet

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-Reviewed by James Webster

I was unfortunate to miss Monkey Poet‘s epic satire of Frank Miller/Zach Snyder’s homoerotic, pro-war extravaganza at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, so I was really pleased to be able to catch it in Oxford this month. It’s a bit of an ‘out there’ idea: a teenager struggling with poetry homework is visited by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and ends up acting out the plot of 300, but I was genuinely delighted by his gung-ho performance, hilarious gags that blended surreal silliness with clever insight, and a pleasantly thoughtful look at the importance of Britain’s famous war poets.

This is madness … No. This. Is. Spoken Word.

From the start, Monkey Poet‘s performance was an over-the-top, enjoyable and camp joy. From the booming voice-over and absurdly exaggerated poses in the intro, to the clear-cut characterisation of the many characters, and the entertaining audience interaction, it all came together as Monkey Poet span his story with laugh-along aplomb.

With all manner of silliness going on throughout, what was perhaps most impressive was his sheer commitment, throwing himself into the action sequences, the hammy dialogue and the outlandish and/or famous characters. With visual jokes (so much excellent gurning), plenty of wordplay, character comedy and the whole thing soaked in tasty irony, not a gag was left unturned; a top performance.

Directed by one-man specialist, Gary Armstrong, the performance really brings the show to life and sells what could otherwise be a somewhat outlandish spectacle. While this results in some jokes being a tad overplayed (the horny teenage bit was somewhat overdone), it does keep the audience rapt (and shaking with laughter) throughout.

Poets, what is your profession?

The most obvious sign of Matt Panesh/Monkey Poet‘s impressive writing talent are the plentiful one-liners (and there are so many): the zingers spill out of the fast-flowing and snappy dialogue in a tide of funny. But like the best comedies, the jokes are planted deep and rooted in meaning and the moments of heartfelt poignancy are all the more effective in contrast to the laughs.

This is perhaps demonstrated best in the dialogue between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, as their affectionate back-and-forth frequently hints an impressive depth of feeling, while the details of their lives and (spoilers) deaths are subdued and grief-filled; a fitting juxtaposition to the overblown trumpery of the main narrative.

With an ear for jokes and a feel for feelings, Panesh‘s show is very well crafted indeed.

dulce et decorum est

Of course, the subject matter of this show is particularly relevant given we’re in the centenary year of the First World War. Such shows might run the risk of seeming exploitative (using the anniversary of a tragedy to springboard a show), but 300 to 1 manages to avoid the issue with its creative format, engagement with themes of education and sexuality, and constant subversion of the source material.

While perfectly capturing the camp absurdity and homoeroticism of 300 (underscored by the teenage protagonists repeated protestation of “It’s not gay!”), it also manages to explore the idea of repressed sexuality with some sensitivity (and humour e.g. Sassoon’s: “Wilfred is what we’d call a repressed homosexual. While I was never openly homosexual … I was a blatant homosexual”) and throwing in some criticism of class and education systems to boot.

It certainly had its flaws; there’s an occasional lack of subtlety and a number of jokes that go on a bit too long or are repeated a bit too often, and occasionally it feels like the narratiove is too closely tethered to its source material (as there’s just so much 300 ridiculousness to fit in). But all of this is easily forgiveable for the show’s overall effect.

Because at its core, this is a show that looks to break down the glorification of warfare and to get to the heart of Owen’s powerful poetry. And when the protagonist takes off into a suddenly impassioned version of Anthem for Doomed Youth the audience was struck silent by sudden and overwhelming catharsis.

Monkey Poet‘s enjoyable and intelligent satire is well-recommended and you can keep up with his future gigs via his Facebook page and his website.