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.