The last ‘Blahblahblah’ event of 2013 drew a packed crowd, filling every available space from the front rows to the far corners of Bristol Old Vic’s basement arena, with those amassed eager to enjoy their final spoken-word fix of the year.
Kicking things off with an ‘Anti-Slam’ piece (i.e. a poem purposefully bad for comic effect), increasingly confident compere Anna Freeman entertained the audience with a political diatribe levelled at our “Christmas Ham-faced Prime Minister”. Deliberately lame, it was a humorous performance that warmed the crowd nicely, prompting a number of laughs on a variety of levels.
The first of the evening’s trio of headline performers, Luke Kennard, stepped amicably into the limelight in a tweed jacket with a satchel tucked under his arm. Delivering his opening poem in a bumblingly polite fashion, his manner was reminiscent of Hugh Grant at his quintessential best.
An exceedingly ‘English’ chap, his endearing nature and uber-polite stage presence formed the basis of a fascinating character that was smart, articulate and, to the growing entertainment of the room, in possession of humour both drier and indeed darker than his cherubic nature may have first suggested.
Starting strong, his set briefly detoured into the abstract with a couple of chin-stroking poems that hung in the air thoughtfully before he steamed back into top gear to launch a funny, fast-paced piece that voiced a disdain for local journalists. Delivered in a brilliantly-crafted format as if it were read from a notepad of journalist’s questions, it allowed the audience to read between the lines of the imagined writer and join their journey through an increasingly depraved tale, in an innovative and well-executed fashion.
Floundering brilliantly, the rapid-fire laughs that characterised the rest of his set were reminiscent of Boris Johnson during his ‘Have I Got News For You’ era, only ever seconds away from the next enjoyably chaotic verbal entanglement. Entertaining the crowd from start to finish through a vast range of topics that included the Wonga.com CEO, home economics and Iambic Pentameter, Luke Kennard drew a loud applause having no doubt gained many new fans amongst the Bristol crowd.
Next into the spotlight was Francesca Beard, introduced in a confusing but weirdly complimentary metaphor as, “the Vienetta of poets”.
A comfortable presence, she worked the room with a lightly-commanding charm, teeing up her pieces with enjoyable digressions and introductions that ranged between short stories and extended interactions with the crowd.
Once underway, an underlying intelligence was evidently interwoven throughout her set. Performed without the need for grandiose language or theatrical delivery, the result of her understated flair was clearly reflected in the entranced stares and audible reactions of the crowd. As a great musician uses the silence in-between notes as an extension of their expression, Francesca used each confident pause as breathing space for concepts, subtexts and parallel narratives, crafting an enjoyable voyage for the minds of those present.
With a show-of-hands highlighting that the audience held more in common with their widespread adoption of smartphones (‘united by our alienating devices’) than by a shared geographical ancestry, the topic of racial identity later proved a fascinating area of exploration. With insight into her her own experiences as someone of mixed heritage, a supermarket-based poem was another unique take on an interesting topic that demonstrated the ability to both offer depth and maintain a buoyant pace.
Moving comfortably between theory and quotes (“Happiness writes white”, she relayed) and light-hearted quips (“How’s the recession been for you?”), her range remained enjoyably broad throughout.
Inviting the audience to get their imaginations fired up for a session of “Virtual Reality - poetry style!”, Francesca unveiled a high-tech, handheld prop that she predicted may prove to be, “the next iPad!”. Offering a range of idyllic virtual voyages the audience could enjoy from the comfort of their seats, those present soon found their imaginations transported to the misty hills of a spiritual mountain range, before zapping into the glitzy red carpet of Hollywood’s Oscars ceremony, both of which were laced with an unexpected sense of disappointment and a harsh reality that was amusingly refreshing to hear.
Finishing with a heavy-hitting historical piece about the bombing of Guernica, then a short follow-up that reminded us to appreciate even the smallest pleasures in the most mundane hours of our lives, Francesca Beard drew a large round of applause from the enthralled audience, all clearly very pleased with their evening so far.
In her final interlude as compere for the evening, Anna Freeman regaled the crowd with a quick summary of her attempt to break the American market as a rapper, before launching the venue into whoops and cheers for the final performer of the night, Tim Clare.
Bounding into the spotlight in a whirlwind of anxious energy, Tim paced back and forth in frantic fashion, animatedly riffing with the audience and acknowledging the small dog tucked somewhere in the crowd that had yapped excitably at his arrival.
Breaking into song and belting out a brief line or two of ‘Age of Aquarius’, Tim switched topics as speedily as his quick-footed pacing switched direction around the illuminated basement floor. Cracking self-deprecating remarks and reeling off quirky references that ranged from the ZX80 videogames console to the works of Tupac Shakur, his manic presence was superbly unpredictable.
Next on his spoken-word menu was a trip to ‘Noah’s Ark & Grill’, a figment of the performer’s imagination and the most brilliantly disgusting restaurant imaginable. Horribly graphic and superbly creative in his brewing of vile imagery, the stunned audience bounced back and forth between winces of disgust and uncontrollable belly laughs, upon which Tim’s confidence seemed to grow bigger and manifest itself louder with each bar-raising, jaw-dropping line. This mad menu quickly lodged itself amongst the most spectacular and memorable performances at Blahblahblah yet, whilst no doubt destroying the appetites of those present.
With a short interlude between pieces, Tim caught his breath before unloading his restored energy into a blistering tirade against the Conservative-voting, small-town mentality of the middle class suburbs, epitomised in particular by his hometown of Portishead. Extending long after one would imagine he could remain so extensively enraged, the piece became ever funnier to watch as his frustration snowballed, his net of disapproval cast continually wider with ever more violent swipes, each more hilarious than the last.
In a set that had already proved wildly diverse, Tim closed the evening with a brilliantly-crafted interaction between two characters (fictional versions of himself and a therapist), which unfolded dramatically over a booming rap beat. Technically impressive, packed full of laughs and unfolding through an inventive Jekyll & Hyde-esque mechanic, Tim’s hip-hop finale proved a fitting end to a superb performance, capped with a successful foray into double-time rapping to close.
Intelligent, funny and bursting with more variety than could’ve possibly been predicted, Blahblahblah closed its 2013 run with a big, exciting bang. Having enjoyed such a broad wealth of performers and entertainment over the course of the year, Bristol eagerly awaits the return of spoken-word poetry to the Old Vic in February 2014.
Photography: George Dallimore