Review: Hammer & Tongue Oxford Slam Final 12/06/2012

– reviewed by Neil Anderson –

Sabotage recently previewed the Hammer & Tongue Oxford final, and to follow up from that, Neil Anderson reviews the final itself!

Oxford’s Skylight Crisis cafe was packed to an extent I’d never before witnessed for the 2012 Oxford Hammer and Tongue final. This was the second Hammer and Tongue event I’ve attended, and perhaps oddly, the second time I’ve been handed a judge’s score book, on this occasion at least, according to host Tina Sederholm, because I’m “not swayed by the crowd.”

The Hosts – On the Road to Edinburgh

Tina Sederholm and co-host Lucy Ayrton moved things along briskly, keeping us entertained with their bickering. They opened proceedings with previews from their forthcoming shows. Tina invited us to ‘consider the cupcake’ (from her upcoming Edinburgh show ‘Eve and the Perfect Cupcake’), and her cries of ‘lick me!’ typify Tina’s naughty but nice approach to her craft. She really is my favourite flirtatious auntie and while she forgot the words to her piece a few times, she did so with a self-deprecating charm that took the pressure off of other performers.

Lucy’s ‘Let me be Lost’, from her forthcoming Edinburgh show ‘Lullabies to make your children cry’, was just mesmerising. Paul ‘Should have been a final contender’ Fitchett, explained it was about ‘not following the trail of breadcrumbs, but still wanting to know where it leads’ and I wish I could tell you more, but to be honest, I just sat there spellbound by one of Oxford’s most heart-breakingly gifted poets. So, just go and see her (and Tina) on 12th July at the Old Fire Station.

The Final! An epic battle of words, politics, rhyme and comedy:

Lucy and Tina retreated to the wings and the competition began. First on was Pete The Temp (whose one-man show Pete the Temp vs Climate Change was recently reviewed on Sabotage), who I once saw read a wonderfully theatrical piece about North Sea Oil called “YOU rely on ME!’”, after which, he insisted everyone raise their hands and stamp their feet in a cringe fest called ‘Angry Pedestrian’ whereupon I walked out. Guess which piece he performed tonight? He began with the ‘David Cameron’ rap, confirming his talent for mimicry, but repeated ‘Eton homey’ allusions (while garnering nuclear blasts of laughter from the audience) were as predictable as the right-on buttons being pushed. And when it came to his pedestrian rant, his rhythmical verbal quickness and talent for getting the audience involved won him points, but I just sat there exasperated.

Paul Askew meandered on next. The self-styled sex symbol of Oxford poetry offered the night’s riskiest moments with ‘Three Times a Lady”: ‘I remember, the first time I fell in love with you/ … you were getting that treatment thing/where the little fish eat the dead skin off your feet/Your face looked like you were having a dildo slowly/inserted into your vagina/and I thought, “I wish that dildo was my penis.”/ Paul’s sex symbol status hung in the balance, but his self-deprecatory style eventually won over the doubters with this deadpan and humorous tale. The follow up, ‘Catastrophe Cafe, took longer to get going, relying on absurdist dialogue exchanges for momentum, and only really half making its point by the end (personally I think this is one of the most beautiful, funny and poignant poems I’ve heard – Ed).

Next up was Aubrey Mvula. His first poem, ‘I am African’ slammed media reporting of the continent exclusively in terms of disaster. Effective parody, but lines like ‘the rivers of the mighty Nile flow deep within.’ and ‘my pride stands tall as the mighty baobab tree’, while it was a powerful message of reclamation, it risked offering an image as one-dimensional as the colonial attitudes being parodied. His second piece, about child sexual abuse was more earnest, but perhaps not that controversial (the 6.9 I gave him, though, seemed to be).

Moving from the worthy to the whimsical, we had the poetic maelstrom that is Anna McCrory. She delivered a thumping version of her high street shopping fable ‘The Wizard of Argos’, and an equally enthusiastic follow-up about the let-down factor inherent in feel-good movies. It was a slightly stop-start affair, with Anna pausing several times to retrieve her lines from the back of the stage and even leaping onto a chair at one point, but by the time she’d finally got hold of the plot, the laughs came slick and fast, and we were whooping along like characters in some corny Richard Curtis extravaganza.

After Anna’s flights of fancy, Davy Mac gave us a decidedly un-rose-tinted glimpse of reality. Ex merchant navy, big issue seller and as scouse as they come, Davy sets his stall out for society’s have-nots. His poetic schemes aren’t the greatest I’m sure he’d admit – knowing where the rhyme’s going to fall in each line puts a hell of lot of stress on the vocabulary to deliver. And mixing things up by throwing in a rap did little to alter the predictable format, even if it did get the crowd on his side. And his tale of homosexual encounters during his time in the forces was heartfelt and poignant. I enjoyed his set, but more in spite of the polemics than due to them.

About as far away from homeless ex-sailors as you might care to position yourself stood Mark Niel. I wondered for a moment what Mark was doing here. Consciously and unapologetically middle-class and giggling like a suburban scoutmaster entertaining the troop, I feared he was in for a judicial pasting. Nevertheless, by the time he’d nailed Iams cat food and poetry in ‘my cat’s an Iambic cat,’ and delivered a wonderfully valedictory tale of first love with ‘Sweet 16’, the camp was well and truly on fire.

Dan Holloway is a talented writer and his early forays into poetry held promise. But, in Sabotage’s opinion, his attempts in previous performances to adopt an overtly ‘slam-rap’ style caused his delivery to seem over-performed. Dan throttled back the performance in ‘Mentalist’, his assault against mental health service cutbacks, allowing the poetry room to breathe, before building the pace towards the end with a rising sense of panic. ‘Hungerford Bridge’ meanwhile offered another tour of the seedy city underbelly that Dan’s so fascinated by, but is perhaps less convincing in a slam format then some of his other pieces.

And finally, to Neil Spokes, Oxfordshire pub landlord and I have to say it, Vic Reeves lookalike. And his first piece sounded a bit like Shooting Stars meets Splodgenessabounds, Neil roaring “Pint of Fosters and Errrrrrrrrr…’ followed by a list of your average Brit lout’s Top 10 tipples. It was cathartic no doubt, but in need of some polishing. He continued the weekend party theme with the more sobering ‘Neretva’, set against the shelling of Mostar. It didn’t quite hit the mark as, unlike his opener, Neil seemed slightly too removed from events.

The Dramatic Conclusion

Finally, for those who care to know: the three highest scorers were Dan Holloway, Davy Mac and Pete the Temp. Pete and Davy were called back for a final head to head and Davy, by now on his last legs, eventually won through, perhaps because, while the audience clearly admired Pete, it was Davy who gained their affection and respect.