This Christmas in Bristol has heralded in some very excellent poetry shows to mark the festive season. There was one though that sold out before the line up was announced – of course it was BlahBlahBlah. With a line up like Lucy English, Johnny fluffypunk, Thick Richard, Chris Redmond, Salena Godden, Vanessa Kisuule and Wilf Merttens – you’d be sorry not to be there. We therefore enlisted local poet Malaika Kegode (the curator of Milk, a new spoken word night at the Halo) to review the night on behalf of Burning Eye…
Its a really cold and drizzly night until I step into Bristol Old Vic for Blahblahblah’s Anti-Christmas special, aptly named “Blah Humbug”. The place is packed out and the smell of mulled cider- a free cup to every ticket holder- lingers on the air. Its fantastic to see that the audience is so varied in age and gender; a testament to Bristol poetry and to the night itself. Blahblahblah was born in 2012 and quickly established itself as a firm, reliable favourite in the Bristol scene, continuously providing nights of quality spoken word from both emerging and established acts around the country.
The auditorium, which in the daytime is host to the Old Vic’s children’s Christmas show, is dressed perfectly, we’re surrounded by autumnal trees and instruments cluster on the stage. All this wonderment is held together by our compère, Anna Freeman- a fantastic poet in her own right (her book Gingering the World from the Inside is available in the Burning Eye store and comes highly recommended!) Her style of hosting is refreshingly casual and friendly as she talks us through the night ahead. We’re in for a kind of, not quite but almost slam where our seven performers will each perform poems that encapsulate the opposite of traditional Christmas spirit. As an example of what to rally against, Anna recounts a blog belonging to an American woman who proclaims herself to be “the most Christmassy person ever”, abuses exclamation marks and likes to dance around the tree singing carols. This is our bench mark for Christmas spirit, with that our first performer for the night graces the stage.
Lucy English, a lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa Uni, presents to us her “Christmas Bitch”, her gentle delivery is deliciously and wickedly juxtaposed with the messages behind the piece, told from the perspective of a woman who is tired of putting up with being nice, sweet and polite at Christmas, when the family are being anything but! Lucy’s conversational and easy stage presence won a lot of laughs of recognition and empathy from the audience. Her second piece was a piece of experimental poetry and immersing theatre, with tongue lodged firmly in cheek, Lucy involved the audience asking them to contribute to the poem about the worst Christmas ever by volunteering their own Christmas horror stories. It was a poem of solidarity that said “It’s okay to be a bit miserable at Christmas sometimes!” Lucy’s rapport with the audience is clear, she feels like your pal and she was a perfect choice to both open and close the night.
Salena Godden has an incredibly arresting stage presence; she commands your attention before she speaks her first line. She introduces her poem simply, as being based in Bristol in December. It is a tender, heartbreaking retelling of visiting the grave of an estranged father. Salena paints such the imagery of a cold, strange December day so vividly that I notice, when glancing about the room, many of the audience members have their eyes closed, heads bowed to take in the strength in vulnerability that she so beautifully gifts us. The subtleties of her storytelling ripple through the audience and poets alike in a shiver. Her second piece, “Can’t Be Bovvered” is a call to arms to stop being so apathetic and lazy. It is a hilarious and engage piece which makes the audience into a choir. It is another interactive poem which is a real crowd pleaser but also carries a pivotal message about living and creating, even when things get difficult.
Next up we have Chris Redmond! He was one of the first performers at Blahblahblah and is such a lovable one, a real joy to watch. He begins with a brief preamble, deciding to go with a serious poem to start. It’s a response to George Osborne’s recent comment that Britain has “got its Mojo back”, it’s a powerful piece criticising the celebration of destruction that captures the audience at such a poignant time. His second piece, more light hearted plays on that fantasy we all have of featuring in our very own movies, complete with backing track. It’s a warm, physical and musical poem.
The night bounds on with Johnny Fluffypunk, feeling a little under the weather, although you couldn’t tell through his raucous, conversational style as he jokes with the audience throughout his first poem which tackles bumping into Mick Jagger on the No. 38 to Clapton Pond. He seamlessly allies himself with the audience, drifting in and out of his verse to allow us into this world. The humour builds to a rather poignant climax. His second piece is a return to politics for the night, a hilarious yet scary vision of meeting with an insolent Iain Duncan Smith and what to do once he leaves the room. Johnny has a stage presence that forces the audience to prick up their ears, he’s electric to watch.
Wilf Merttens’ stillness provides a nice juxtaposition with Johnny Fluffypunk’s energy; Wilf speaks at length with the audience before beginning his piece. His signature amicable, awkward stage presence makes us immediately warm to him as he reads a beautifully melancholic poem called “Cyclic” from his pamphlet, “Rocket”. The reading is calm and aches with feeling, Wilf takes care of us as he leads us through the story and the audience clearly feel safe in his hands as we’re guided through this web of thought. In the second half of his performance Wilf continues to help the audience feel looked after as he recounts a patchwork poem stitched together by conversations with various different people about their faiths and beliefs. It’s a small but perfectly formed offering, delicate with some incredible, beautiful writing.
The reason why this night works so well and the audience remain constantly engage is the variety of the performers. Once Wilf has left the stage Thick Richard stomps on, grabs the audience by their shoulders and launches into his poem “The sun has got his hood up” in his Manchurian drawl, Thick Richard encapsulates cynical, sneering anti-Christmas to a T, with grotesque, visceral imagery we’re brought into his brash, stinking world which seems like a lot of fun! In fact, his second piece “Scum of the Earth” we follow his character, a hopeless alcoholic who never stood a chance. It’s darkly hilarious in it’s ridiculous and painful description of a true loser who you definitely can’t imagine having a good Christmas.
Finally we have Vanessa Kisuule, who comes to the stage as her new character Mrs Clause. Dressed to the nines in black heels and “tarty” festive garb, the piece begins as around Twitter a device as @MrsClause is bombarded by questions from fans of her and her husband, quickly these “tweets” become an onslaught of abuse, a reality faced by many women on social media. The poem then bravely breaks away from this device to a wonderfully tender passage on Mrs Clause’s first meeting of Santa. Vanessa gorgeously turns the thing on its head, the results are fascinating and poignant, a rich character study that left us all wanting to hear more of the story. The second piece, “Things to Keep you up at Night” Vanessa returns to perform as herself. It is a warm and intelligent study on the human condition, on anxieties and niggles that we all experience. The audience murmurs in recognition and appreciation to how these every day worries are so expertly articulated, we all feel slightly less alone by the end of it.
The ‘winner’ of the anti-Christmas, sort-of-slam was Thick Richard with his beautifully cynical poetry which truly embodied the opposite of Christmas Spirit! He won an aromatised wine based Christmas drink. Lucky him!
During the interval and at the end of the show I was struck by how everyone in the audience were mingling, all laughing and chatting. It’s rare to see so many people open to talking to strangers, comparing their thoughts on the performers and their poems. In experiencing spoken word it seemed like we all were in it together. There were a smiling faces as far as I could see, and forgetting the consumerism and greed of Christmas- this camaraderie is what the season should truly be about, and we achieved it tonight through poetry.
(Not-so-very) Merry Christmas!