The Wyrd Wonder Presents… an Evening of Ghastly Delight… (Chapter, Cardiff, 13/03/15)

-Reviewed by Jemma Beggs-

What better way to spend Friday 13th than attending ‘An Evening of Ghastly Delight’ in Cardiff’s charming Chapter Arts Centre? Hosted by Rebecca Parfitt, founder and editor of the wonderfully macabre literary magazine, The Ghastling, this was a celebration of “all things Gothic and a little bit strange”. The doorman had been replaced by ‘The Spectre of Chapter’ – an eerie looking character whose mystique was slightly shattered by his accompanying the return of our tickets with a cheerful exclamation of “I look like a right idiot, don’t I?”.

The room itself was very atmospheric and crammed with eager attendees and performers alike. A small, minimalistic set at the far end of the room consisted of a bare table, some black and red draping upon which sat a rather life-like crow, and a man playing the most beautifully haunting music on a cello. The entire stage area was bathed in deliciously deep red lighting which threw up some suitably spooky shadows on the plain white walls.

The first performance was from Zeuk who provided the music throughout the night. Beginning his piece he spoke into the silent room: “I see. I feel. I change.” He then began to sing a dark lullaby accompanied by live music from the cello and his own guitar playing. His hair was swept back from a white painted face which, under the glow of the red lights, served to enhance the otherworldly atmosphere of the evening.

We were snapped out of this hypnotic performance by Howard Ingham, an expressive and confident performer who started his story, ‘So I caught up with Dennis’, in a snappy, conversational manner.  A meandering, reflective tale of walking and worms, it had an unsettling tone underlying it, which made it perfect for this ghostly themed evening. Time denied us a full rendition; a shame as, upon purchasing a copy of ‘The Ghastling’ in which the story is featured, it is far more powerful and thought-provoking when read in its entirety; but of course this is the nature of these evenings – to provide a tantalising snippet which will entice the audience into purchasing the entire publication. (Something I am tempted into far more often than is healthy for my bank account!).

The next reader was Jo Mazelis whose story ‘The Whisper’ is also to be found in ‘The Ghastling’. It began by exploring the nature of story itself, offering an intriguing glimpse into the mind of a writer, before plunging into a sorrowful tale of self-doubt and low self-esteem. Touching upon depression, loneliness, paranoia and jealously, it deftly covered some major themes within a short piece; however, the initial contemplation of the essence of stories themselves was what really captivated me, and I think if Mazelis developed this further the results would be superb.

Following her was Bethany Pope who read her story ‘The Silver Wire’ from new anthology of Gothic Fiction ‘A Flock of Shadows’. Featuring a terrifying bat-like monster with the head and shoulders of a woman but with its lungs, stomach, heart and liver trailing behind it like a tail, this was a true horror tale. Of all the wonderful stories performed, it was this image which had me looking over my shoulder when I finally emerged into the night air at the end of the evening. However, there was some light to combat the dark, as it was also an insight into the meaning of motherhood, and Bethany herself described it as being, in a sense, an homage to her foster mother, Lebrada.

The final performer of the first half, and my personal favourite, was Mark Blayney, another contributor to ‘A Flock of Shadows’, whose story ‘Wednesday Ghost’ was brilliant; completely hilarious and decidedly quirky, it began with the line “I suppose I shouldn’t have killed her, but when do we ever do what we’re supposed to do?”. And, just like that, the room was hooked. It didn’t hurt that Blayney is a superb performer as well as writer, truly bringing his story to life and taking an incessantly ringing mobile phone completely into his stride, seamlessly slipping in the line “People’s phones go off when they’re in the station” whilst in the middle of a description of said station, much to the audience’s amusement.

The second half resumed with the first section of Mark Ryan’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as Told to Carl Jung by an Inmate’, performed spectacularly by Dean Rehman and Nathan Sussex. Incredibly intense, both actors were simply mesmerising, capturing the characters and the audience’s full attention. Performed with absolute commitment to the roles, this was acting in its purest form and was both chilling and comic in parts. Drawing us in with menacing whispers before erupting into tortured shouts, I nearly jumped right out of my seat at one point – a magnificent performance.

Closing with one last spooky song from Zeuk, the evening came full circle and, in all, the evening was a fantastic way to earn some well-deserved attention for ‘The Ghastling’ and ‘A Flock of Shadows’ and the excellent writers within them.  Wonderfully weird, with more than a little of the macabre about it, this Friday 13th is sure to stick in my memory for many fear-filled nights to come.


Some People Have Too Many Legs by Jackie Hagan (Llanover Hall, Cardiff, 06/03/15)

-Reviewed by Mab Jones-

TimeHop tells Jackie Hagan that it is two years ago today when she was making the pitch for what eventually became this particular show – just before what happened happened, and she became ‘an amputee’. Or, “before my leg got lopped off”, as she puts it, in her inimitable, refreshingly no-nonsense style.

This ‘calling a spade a spade’ aspect is apparent again later in front of her captivated Cardiff audience. Hagan tells us of the time she sought out names for the end of her leg which, a nurse told her, had “healed weird”, and now has a scar which bears some resemblance to a mouth. It looks “like the blonde one out of Birds of a Feather”, the poet tells us. She muses upon the idea of calling it John, but fears that’s too reminiscent of the Elephant Man, and she doesn’t want to make ‘it’ the “Elephant Man in the room”.

This play-on-words is just one of many examples of the wit and humour that pepper the show – or, that glitter it, should I say, glitter being one of several symbols of the world Hagan introduces us to here. For her, glitter isn’t just the cheap and cheerful stuff you find stuck to the odd card or amply scattered across children’s drawings; it represents a mindset that is akin to Hagan’s own – ‘optimistic and imaginative’, bright and sparkly, and able to throw itself at fears with daring, determination, and a twinkle in its made-up, multi-coloured eye.

I enjoyed how these personal symbols were explained and expressed within the show (for don’t we all possess our own personal signifiers, symbolic only to ourselves and shared with select others)? This made the tale feel more intimate, more inviting, and Hagan added to this sense by beginning the show by saying it felt as if she had ‘invited us all into her living room’. We are naturally nosy creatures, who love seeing into each other’s homes, I think, and the stage design was such that it seemed we had stepped into Jackie’s house here, the word ‘home’ itself set in large glittery letters and hung, bunting-like, from the edge of a cocoon-style white tent.

At times, of course, this tent also brought to mind the bed sheets, sterile coverings, and latex gloves of the hospital where much of the action was set. The beep of a heart monitor was the backdrop to some of the storytelling at one point, replacing the upbeat, celebratory music that played at other times. Lights flashed and a ‘dream sequence’ took place during the scene where Hagan’s leg was finally cut off, the fabric of the tent suddenly becoming ominous and overtly-, overly-, overwhelmingly white.

This scene stood in sharp stark contrast to other elements of the show, for instance, the Rainbow Brite doll and teddy bear sat on the steps of the stage, and which were later used to act out a scene in which Hagan communicated with her dead dad. The familiar and the frightening, the comforting and the uncomfortable, were melded together often in this way, Hagan’s false leg acting as an overall, over-arching image to proceedings – her metal ankle decorated with sequins, buttons, and even flashing fairy lights was featured on both the front and back of the show flyer and reminded me of a mascot, a trophy, a chalice filled with wisdom (or wine – and, indeed, Hagan did humorously mime drinking bubbly from her upturned leg towards the show’s conclusion).

Again in interview, Hagan made mention of how much she had changed, due to the story outlined in her show. She shared her various ‘coping mechanisms’ with us, the main one of these being : “all I need to do is be awesome”. Does the writer and performer manage this? Perhaps there was no way she couldn’t have, all considered. We are told that there were dark moments, instances where all she could do was cry; but above all there is the fierce optimism and dogged determination to turn tragedy into something quirkily, crazily beautiful. Hagan’s work is grounded in references to pop culture – children’s toys, telly programmes, “drinking pints of Baileys”, Charlie’s Angels, Gregg’s beans and sausage slices – but the moral of the story is far more than these items, gleefully played with by the artist, might suggest. At heart, there is the hope that we can all deal with difficulties as Hagan herself has done – with “gumption”. “I know that you have had to cope too” the writer states at one point on a held-up placard. And it is thanks to this “optimism”, “imagination” and, in Hagan’s case, “paper and pen”, that we leave the show feeling we could do, too, even if faced with such overwhelming challenges ourselves.

In short, this is a poetic, playful, psychologically-astute piece of theatre which engages the audience’s hearts as well as minds, and I do recommend that you try to see it if you’re able.

Some People Have Too Many Legs is now on tour around the UK, please see for dates.


Photo by Mab Jones

Photo by Mab Jones


Shame by John Berkavitch

shame– reviewed by James Webster

Shame is a highly ambitious and well-realised multi-disciplinary show. Created by John Berkavitch, this genre-bending show blends theatre, spoken word, hip hop, physical theatre, music and animation into a dizzying and highly accomplished performance.

It begins with Berkavitch asking the audience the question ‘what are you most ashamed of’, before he’s dragged into his own memories by a cast of dancers wielding surprisingly threatening umbrellas. What follows is a collection of his own shameful anecdotes, hopping pleasantly through time, weaving the stories together in an enjoyably non-linear fashion, allowing each strand of the show to shed light on the others. Each story is told by John, while the cast of performers become either set or other characters as the show requires, and music and projection help to set and ground each scene.

The stories are well constructed, clearly told, and hold the audience’s interest brilliantly. There’s a good mix of content and tone, from childhood nostalgia and sibling bickering, to adult romantic frustration and teenage tales of graffiti and violence. The stories come together well, demonstrating a great sense of humour in the words and physicality, while building to intriguing and occasionally surprising conclusions. A little too often, though, the ending seem telegraphed, which slightly undermines the drama of the piece (this is possibly an unfair criticism as the stories are all true, but it felt like more could have been done to either heighten the tension of an unavoidable outcome, or to obscure the stories’ direction and keep the audience guessing).

Still, Berkavitch summons a great deal of feeling, drawing his scenes well in these tightly-written tales, evoking superb drama and empathy from these fraught and emotionally rich situations. For a spoken word show, I was a touch surprised the language itself wasn’t richer or more intricate, but there are some very powerful turns of phrase and each scene is crafted with a great deal of care and skill. But it still seemed to lack the moments of surprising genius that make you see the world in a new way, which the best spoken word always does so well.

The show’s biggest strength is the ingenious mix of disciplines, breakdance becomes an apt metaphor for the show’s struggles, the soundtrack adds a layer of depth, projected animation immerse you in the show’s world, and the bending bodies of the cast become a mix of different objects and locales. This is demonstrated best in the coffee-shop scenes where the cast make for a hilarious coffee-maker, whirring and grunting and chugging away with great effect, or in the graffiti scenes, where the cast’s easy comraderie summons up the blusterous fun of adolescence and animation gives an extra glimpse into their attempts at street art.

This mix of disciplines is also the show’s greatest weakness. The dance can distract from the story, coming in a points that hinder the pace and meaning of the show, seeming almost tacked on in places. The projection devolves into randomly projected patches of light that don’t add anything and confuse the storytelling. The music doesn’t always mesh and comes across as more soundtrack than soundscape; it’s just not embedded into the fabric of the show and occasionally seems incidental to the tale being told. And the often superb physical theatre can be a touch clunky.

The direct address to the audience at the start isn’t really dealt with, either, which feels like a lost opportunity. It feels like there’s an attempt at a dialogue with the audience, a sharing of shame, that gets a bit lost in the show’s ambitious, polymath performance.

This show is still well worth seeing for the heartfelt tales it told with genre-defying ambition and daring, and the occasionally messy nature can be easily overlooked for the sheer brilliance of the moments when everything came together.

Star Rating: 3/5

Shame is in the Underbelly’s Big Belly (venue 61) until 24th August at 8.50pm. Tickets here.

Wingman by Richard Marsh

wingman– reviewed by James Webster

Richard Marsh‘s two-man poetry play is a marvel of wit and emotion. Like all good comedies, the gags flow thick and fast, rich with wit and dexterous wordplay. What makes it a great comedy is that the jokes are rooted in deep and powerful emotion, as Marsh twines together his twin narratives of fatherhood into a hilarious and moving tale.

Those familiar with Marsh‘s work will be unsurprised by the calibre of the writing and performance, his one-man Skittles was a colourful and bittersweet joy, while his Dirty Great Love Story was a fantastically grubby, lively subversion and reclamation of the romantic comedy genre. Wingman is another showcase for his inventive word-wrangling and intricate plotting, delivering a tight comedy that’s constantly tickling the audience into laughter and lands a hefty emotional punch too.

The story follows protagonist Richard through his mother’s illness to the re-emergence of his estranged father and an accidental pregnancy with a co-worker, the meat of the narrative provided by his father Len’s outlandish and manipulative attempts to reconnect with his son and Richard’s struggles to deal with his own potential parenthood alongside the brilliant (but under-utilised) character of Brigitte. The plot careens along, constructing a series of absurd situation and tiny moments of emotional resonance, each twist of the plot barrelling us into the next comically unlikely situation (from taking a bath with his dad to a hilarious act of coitus interruptus); it’s an expert example of comic plotting. Each strand of the story is nicely geared to shed light on the other, both of Richard’s fatherhood narratives informing the other and making for a richer, more insightful story.

The story is further enriched by the wonderfully drawn cast of characters; Richard’s mother has a spiky voice and overbearing demand for grandchildren that infuses life into the story long after she’s left it (wanting to outlive all her relatives, she kept track with a “death spreadsheet” and we’re told at her funeral that each guest is a “personal failure”). Len (Richard’s dad) has a blithely deliberate ignorance of social propriety (repeatedly breaking in to Richard’s flat and stalking Richard on social media), offbeat charm and strange brand of emotional support (waiting in the car park with cans of Stella after a particularly emotional encounter) makes for a really rounded and engaging presence (a laugh-out-loud and poignant performance by Jerome Wright). Our protagonist is a tangled ball of insecurity, affection and beautiful sarcasm (“How’s your life?” “How’s yours? Nearly over obviously.”) and his sniping comments and vicious asides about his father are one of the many things that make the piece sparkle. Brigitte is a highlight, a ball of self-assured and brash Welsh invective (“Don’t fuck with the Welsh, we’ll fuck up your life and we’ll fuck up your dead”), but the focus on the male relationships of the show meant she was a sadly minor character (I mean, it’s understandable, it’s a tale about fatherhood, but it does make the play seem oddly imbalanced).

Throughout, Marsh‘s talent for wordplay and humour shines through. His language is endlessly creative, capturing all of life’s filthy, frustrating and gorgeous moments, demonstrating a captivating and amusing turn of phrase. He’s got an eye for the dirty jokes, theatrical set-pieces and little emotional pinpricks that bring the script to life with winking wordplay.

What was frustrating, however, was that Richard’s sarky nature seemed to get in the way of any real character development, while he gains a better understanding of his father, the relationship with Brigitte doesn’t get as much time and sometimes seems forced (which feels only partly intentional). The romantic subplot takes a backseat to his father’s redemption and Richard’s own happy-ending doesn’t feel like it’s entirely earned as it didn’t feel to me like he had changed or learned that much about himself.

That said, this is still a top-class production that will fill your ears with glittering words, strain your stomach with laughter and maybe tease the odd tear from your eye.

Star Rating: 4/5

Wingman is on until 25th August at Dome 10 at the Pleasance Dome (venue 23) at 2.10pm. Tickets here.

I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust by Yu Xiang (trans. by Fiona Sze-Lorrain)

-Reviewed by Zara Raab


Named by The Asian Review of Books as one of the top women poets writing in China, Yu Xiang rarely makes historical or geographical references in I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust. She begins her second full-length book––her first was Exhale (2006)––  with ‘My House’, where she issues not so much an invitation as a warning:

I have a door, a reminder:
Be careful
You might lose your way.
This is my house. . .

Sometimes open, sometimes shut, doors are thresholds between worlds, semi-permeable boundaries bearing all the mythology of crossings. The reminder seems to be for the householder (the poet here has a male persona) as well as his reader.  ‘My House’ is deceptively simple: a lonely man describes his dwelling: “I have a chair. Sometimes / it disappears.” The narrator claims to have a stable life, but the boundaries of the self here as in other poems are porous, flexible, easily crossed—whether by invasion or betrayal. This opening poem and others here have a fairy tale aura—without the happy endings of most such tales—in the way Yu Xiang introduces magic, and in the narrator’s struggles to negotiate external reality.

In ‘The Key Turns in the Keyhole’, for example, the poet uses a locked door to establish a credo for daily life. The poet lists her rituals:

taking out the garbage I open it
getting the milk I open it
the toilet bowl is clogged, I open the door
when someone comes I open it
when someone leaves I open it

I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust registers the ephemerality of fluctuating fantasy. As the poet says, “I like staring at fleeting things” (‘Distracted’). “[E]very day,” she writes, “has a wonderful letter, falling on / a road in the rain / like footprints / the world afar step by step”. Yu Xiang’s poet-persona’s boundaries are thin, transparent. Confronted with dismal reality, she stands on the edge of a twinkling a half-life, about to disappear. The poet projects these qualities in dazzling array on the world. In “Distressed Person,” for example, the narrator looks in the mirror, like Snow White’s stepmother, and tries to imagine the mirror’s experience:

she is distressed that she looks exactly like me
distressed that she can’t be me

Ephemeral or non-identity leads to extreme states, like the metaphoric (rather than medical) autism described in section 2, ‘This Person is Vanishing’. Many poets have written on this theme, from Wallace Stevens, whose snowman is “nothing himself” beholding “nothing that is not there, / and the nothing that is,” to Marianne Moore, whose mule in “I Like a Horse” treads the nothing and “skirts the treeless precipice”. Unlike Moore’s mule, Yu Xiang’s treading is not done safely; the persona is troubled, even abject. Yu Xiang turns different body parts––eyes, mouth, hair, vagina—into inventive metaphors for these alienated states. Like autism in the popular imagination, this is a difficult, mysterious poem:

entranced eye for eye
then forlorn
they grow on the same face
diffusing the same illusion
but one can’t see the other

The idea that my left eye does not-–cannot—see my right eye, that I cannot in this sense “see” myself, is striking. Sight here creates illusion rather than revealing reality.  In another poem in the sequence, the persona dyes her hair over and over, and this becomes a trope on dying: disguise becomes a method of obliterating what is disguised.

Other poems here capture the liminal quality of youth, its openness and vulnerability to experience. ‘A Gust of Wind’ is a howl of loneliness:

You make me feel how empty my body is
how it needs to be filled. You can fill me
You connect the wires and let the current in
At this moment, my cry is not a scream

‘The Place I left Is Still Swaying’, captures the fugue state of emotional regression following separation from a lover:

I stand on the platform
watching the metro in motion. Watching you
leave with the metro. Watching myself
sliced by sharp car windows
thinly, slice by slice

[. . .]

You can’t see me, as if
you won’t see me in this life again
No one notices me. In the crowd
no one
notices me. I see a body
another body
each blurrier
than the other

The train windows in which the lover’s reflection is cast cut her slice by slice to vanishing. No one in the station sees this happening, not only because the experience is subjective, but also because she is no longer there, blurred to nothing by the other’s departure. She is no longer the adolescent lover who believes her own body will provide her the sustenance she requires to live; unconsciously, she may recognize the need for something more than the satisfaction of her own impulses—the need perhaps for adult cooperation with reality, but has yet to name or seek it.

The long, sequenced poem ‘A Painting Life’, concerning seeing, writing, arranging, conceiving, is one of the few here with political under tones.  The narrator plans to paint “some outdoor scenes/ like going to work every day” When black and white pigments are squeezed on a canvas, “white smudges blood / black explodes / the grey in-between like an abstract government”. She’ll paint scenes from her life, like

a beggar couple singing ‘Visit Home’
a distorted history, a dusty
fugitive, or refinery tailings, dug and re-dug
filled but never finally levelled
Culture Street, Peace Street, improvised quotes
and undefined anger. . .

There’s humor, here, too, or a kind of veiled sarcasm: “I want to paint some still lifes [sic] / sell them cheap to get by”, but the “still lifes” turn out to be collections of medals that she arranges and re-arranges, each new arrangement a fresh “still life” as if the medals were the life. In the end the paintings are the artist’s way of escaping, or trying to, a life she cannot support, each painting an “exile”. May be the poet is commemorating the thousands of Chinese who have migrated from China to the West:

I’ll send you a painting, with
no title or signature
like one exile after another

The six-line poem ‘Low Key’ compares a man’s life to a leaf, falling soundlessly, “as a man who lives alone a long time, and dies”. Sze-Lorrain’s translation emphasizes the density of the images and the poem’s aphoristic quality. One can find online a more expansive translation than Sze-Lorrain’s of this poem by David Lehman and Fan Jinghua, who translate the title as ‘One Leaf’:

One leaf falls
All night long only one leaf has fallen
A leaf falls every night of every season of every year
Leaves are falling one at a time
Without a sound
Still falling and then falling down
Reaching the ground
As one who lives alone keeps living
And then dies alone

Sze-Lorrain’s concision better captures the minute existence Yu Xiang embodies in this poem.  Her title, ‘Low Key’ seems to me to express more matter of factly the mood of Yu Xiang’s poem.

I have already mentioned how, all throughout this collection, Yu Xiang records the inconsequential with diligence and clarity, finding beauty in that which is fleeting. Not only is experience ephemeral, but human life—at least the poet’s life––inconsequential, as well. In ‘Holy Front’, Yu Xing compares human life to flies buzzing, futilely hurtling themselves against a holy front (one meaning of hold is transparent, like glass):  “I guess my life is no different from these flies”. In a later poem, Yu Xiang imagines bumblebees swarming.

In Sze-Lorrain’s translation of ‘The Rotten, the Fresh’, the stings of the bumblebees “are scaling needles heater/ by the noon sun”. It is a vivid image. Sometimes, Sze-Lorrain’s translations jettison the typical rules of syntax, as in ‘Fantasia of a Housefly’ which begins: “walking into the hotel’s backyard / black hailstones / came pounding down in clusters”. One wonders if the original contains a similar anti-grammatical thrust. Still, Sze-Lorrain’s translation of Yu Xiang’s rendering of an attack of houseflies is vivid, and conveys an eerie blurring of subject and object, of flies and person fused in proximity.

‘The One Who Writes Poetry Tonight’, inevitably evokes Adrienne Rich’s late classic ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’. Yu Xiang’s poem begins at night and ends at dawn.  I was at first put off by grammatical challenges arising from my difficulty in parsing the subject of Sze-Lorrain’s verb “give.” But by substituting a directive, “take,” the poem claimed its power for me. Running eighteen pages, this is the longest poem in the book and, as the title says, is addressed to a poet (perhaps herself) writing through the night, and seems to enumerate the blessings of the poetic vocation.

you are here, the ladder you’ve used
for thirty years is here too
will give you the pleasure of coming down
if you can’t climb up
give you fine food, fitness and adult games
give you others’ lives
others’ names
others’ overcoats
others’ lovers

Following her surrealist bent, Yu Xiang includes “used furniture” and ”insanely long weeds between computer keys” among the gifts of the vocation. She ends on a sweet note of aubade: “I can go on writing a poem / which can be unfinished / but it will be dawn soon“.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s translations speak for themselves in a post-modern idiom, whatever their success in capturing the music of the poet. In Yu Xiang’s new work, the poem does not so much energize the poet as provide scaffolding for perception and action, a path toward meaning in an ephemeral life. Once she has exhausted the expressive potential of ennui and emptiness, the poem is reduced to an electrifying skeleton making breath and movement possible. Yu Xiang’s poems offer, not a window or even a mirror on the world, so much as a lyric keening of successive moments of the day and night. Her imaginary has a vivid, ephemeral connection to the bodied world.

Now if we could begin to hear the poet speak the poem in her native language, as I did—in Cantonese, I believe—at a panel of the 2014 AWP meeting in Seattle, where the sheer brilliance and fullness of the sound captivated the room!