Review: The Last Word Festival – The Roundhouse (16 Nov – 1st Dec)

– reviewed by Lettie McKie

(image courtesy of Stuart Leech)

A hot-bed of thrilling spoken word …

The Roundhouse is without a doubt one of the best performing arts venues in London. Not only does it have a diverse creative programme that includes some very exciting work with young people, it is also a huge champion of the London spoken word scene.

The Last Word Festival is a sumptuous feast of fresh poetic talent. The performers have been working with Roundhouse producers all year to develop new writing, telling honest and heartfelt tales in contemporary voices that are inspired by music, poetry and storytelling.

A Tale from the Bedsit by Paul Cree is hands down the best piece of spoken word I’ve seen all year.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I joined the little crowd of audience members as we left the Roundhouse bar to be welcomed by Paul in a tiny room of the Camden Lock Hotel. It was bizarre to be ushered into a room masquerading as a theatre set, but Paul made it all the more easy by being laid back and friendly, taking our coats and making cups of tea.

The idea was simple but really effective; re-create the look and feel of a young guy’s home in a run-down bedsit, then cramn in 8 people at a time to listen to an hour of poetry while sitting on his bed! It was extremely well executed, with a detailed, chaotic setting and unobtrusive music produced by sound designer Phillip Davies. The sound was integral to the piece as Paul draws heavily on his MC roots to explain how he got into poetry.

The poem told, through simple and considered language, the story of Paul’s journey from growing up near Gatwick, through moving to Brighton and trying to find something meaningful and fulfilling to do. He talks candidly and with sharp humour about his time living in the bedsit, reading comics, working in Sainsbury’s, falling for a colleague and gathering enough courage to find a better job, move out and get on with his life.  It is a gentle, personal and honest coming of age story about his discovery of poetry: a complete delight to listen to and also very funny.

A collective story to carry you away …

Run is ‘An exciting collaboratively-imagined story that draws eleven distinct voices on a thrilling journey through one night’. Told by 11 young poets who’ve come through Roundhouse’s creative mentoring programmes, the stories have also been written by the company with each poet developing a character, a story and a sustained presence throughout piece. The whole performance felt comfortable and relaxed, the poets sharing a literary score that carried us away into our imaginations and their stories.

The poems were written and delivered in a diverse collection of styles, rhythms and tempos, with monologues interspersed with group work (a witty and essential way of holding the piece together). Often one poet would narrate whilst others took on personas within the story, not acting things out but standing still or sitting, so that the action did not detract from the words. The poets invited us to see their images in our minds eye, rather than re-creating them on stage, a sophisticated and cerebral storytelling approach.

With such a farrago of different personalities on stage it was possible to find some voices more compelling than others. The performance was fast paced and lasted under an hour without much emotive action, so I found it a little hard to entirely keep up with each thread. For me the stand out poets of the evening were Sean Mahoney, who is effortlessly witty and watchable (‘the thing about taste the difference is that you can really taste the difference’) and Zia Ahmed who’s impassioned poetry is crammed with a stream of original and darkly perceptive images. Zia’s portrayal in this piece of a guy’s obsessive love was tragically vulnerable and funny, a highlight of the piece.

An intense installation interlude …

In between the two performances I booked into the installation Salander which was an immersive experience in the main Roundhouse space. Inside a tiny shed and armed only with a torch I had ten minutes to read poems hung from the ceiling, written by young people involved in the project all to the mesmerising backdrop of Gorecki’s beautiful Symphony No. 3. The poems were extremely accomplished, written on themes of childhood memory, pain and loss; my favourite was You’re the sun’s rays on a stormy day by Rayyan Khan. The idea of giving participants ten minutes alone with the poems guaranteed they’d be given the attention they deserved, rather than glanced over in a busy room.

Nurturing new performers …

I caught some other great events during the festival including scratch competition Words in Progress where artists were given 15 minutes to impress 4 judges with an unfinished piece, bidding for an exclusive Roundhouse development package. The audience were also asked to give feedback through answering specific content focussed questions on a form. This analytical process was extremely interesting, and indicative of Roundhouse’s inclusiveness, giving the audience a chance to directly comment on creative ideas! The standard of Words in Progress was a little hit and miss, but my favourite was Sophie Rose who wrote and memorised her extremely funny and perceptive poem, Quiet Violence, in a little under a week.

And in case that left you wanting more …

Before I left I made a quick pitstop at the Poetry Takeaway. Masterminded by Bang Said the Gun! creator Dan Cockrill. This fantastic stall allows you to order up a poem like you would a chicken chow mein; give these talented poets a title and they will whip you up a poem. Peter Heyhoe scribbled me down a fantastic piece entitled trapped grape on the vagaries of dating.

The Last Word festival is a perfect example of spoken word at its brightest and most intelligent …

It showcases some of the most promising new talent in London and it’s exciting to see this art form being taken seriously by a top London venue dedicated to fostering the careers of creative young people.