Following a lengthy winter break in which the spoken-word team at the Bristol Old Vic was presumably nestled in hibernation mode, this late-February evening saw the welcome return of Blahblahblah. Drawing a smaller crowd than regulars are accustomed to, the modest gathering will surely grow in future months as news spreads that the South West’s leading lexical ambassadors are back (with a brand new rap).
This year marks a decisive new chapter in the voluble life of Blahblahblah, with entertainment now being programmed for the first time by the current compère Anna Freeman. This is a sign that the torch has well and truly been passed on from the unforgettable Byron Vincent, who resigned from the post last June leaving a fine legacy in his wake. Resplendent in her self-proclaimed role of ‘King of Poetry’, Freeman was clearly delighted with her new responsibilities in a curatorial capacity, promising a new season of events brimming with both established and emerging acts.
Conceding that this evening’s booking was a purely selfish indulgence (having previously enjoyed seeing Jack Stratten (a.k.a Malcolm Head) perform at the Edinburgh Fringe), Anna kept her opening gambit to a minimum with the faux-romantic ‘True Love’. Initially poking fun at the woeful ‘sexy talk’ frequently exchanged between fleeting and interchangeable lovers, the poem projected the somewhat grim realities of relationships that grow from such awkward moments of passion. Warming the crowd up in a concise fashion, the flame-haired lyricist welcomed the assistant archivist to the stage.
To explain, the fictional creation that is ‘Malcolm Head’ juggles performance poetry and stand-up comedy with his full-time assistant archivist job at Kent Police Museum in Chatham. As the show progressed it became clear that the two clearly go hand-in-hand, with content and delivery a direct result of the eccentricity that abounds from this wonderfully peculiar character and his exacting professionalism.
Shuffling onto the stage wearing a golden backpack that would remain throughout the show, Malcolm began proceedings by establishing a rigorous administrative procedure that would set precedence for the rest of his performance. Taped to the stage’s rear wall were five A4 sheets of paper which constituted a contents list of the night with Malcolm referring back and ticking off each point as each section was completed. Needless to say, we were unapologetically warned from the outset that this would be an “admin-heavy show”. Far from being tedious, however, Malcolm’s deadpan confidence and disarming quips were refreshing in their originality and it wasn’t long before the poet-cum-comedian had the captivated audience in stitches.
Taking ‘Beat Poetry’ by its literal meaning, one section saw Malcolm banging a drum while reciting residual thoughts on life, such as whether a dog with two appendages would really be happier, and that fun-sized Mars bars would be much more euphoric if they were “absolutely massive”. Food for thought...
One particular highlight of the show was the performance of ‘Pension Play’, which drew upon the dramatic talents of a willing audience member to great effect. Juxtaposing the lives of two men named Ronzo and Brian over the course of thirty years - one concerned for his future and therefore saving for a pension, the other living life reckless and carefree – the short play was nothing if not unique in its presentation. With each act jumping at an incremental rate of ten years, both characters veered into tragedy and prosperity respectively as a direct result of varied levels of responsible living. To make up for a dwindling production budget (on the part of the performer, not the theatre, Malcolm admitted), audience members were asked to close their eyes at the call of “BLACKOUT!” (allowing the 'actors' to discuss the previous act and refine how the next should be performed), then reopen them for 'seamless' re-immersion at “LIGHTS UP!”. Wonderfully bizarre in its delivery but serious in its “important message”, what the play lacked in poetic resonance, it more than made up for in laughs.
From Malcolm’s ‘savage’ approach to hecklers - which drew upon his ‘heckling response database’ folder that held reams of devastating retaliatory put-downs - to a Q&A session simply titled ‘Ask Malcolm’ and twenty-one Tesco-inspired haikus, Malcolm’s performance often veered into a surreal realm where quirky thoughts and cadence were left for the audience to ponder before swiftly launching into the next oddity. Although sometimes lacking the lyrical eloquence suggested by the show’s ‘Poetic Justice’ moniker, Malcolm held a deceptively powerful stage presence and his low-key charisma propelled sixty minutes by in a flash. A strong start to a new season under new management, Blahblahblah hit all the right notes and next month’s booking, the inestimable Dizraeli, will only serve to build on this strong foundation.
Photography: Darren Paul Thompson