Having sold out of tickets a week in advance, Bristol Old Vic’s basement theatre was nearly overflowing for the latest Blahblahblah. Those in attendance nestled into their respective nooks and makeshift crannies, eager for the hotly tipped spoken-word session that lay ahead.
Welcomed by regular compere Anna Freeman, the crowd was stoked with warm-up whoops, practice cheers and a brand new poem. Focusing her new piece on the contrast between her own hands and those of her mother, Anna delved into the nature of ageing, familial relationships and all that lay in-between. Delivered in an endearingly clunky fashion, the poem was nonetheless crafted with a poignant subtext that manifested in the creases, battle scars and accumulated character of their skin.
The first guest performer of the evening, Femi Martin, then performed a selection of short stories (referred to as ‘flash fiction’, due to their brevity). Despite their brief length, each tale was packed with charm and resonance, offering rich snapshots into vivid worlds, carefully orchestrated to deliver maximum punch over their condensed arc. With topics ranging from internet-facilitated infidelity to the parting moments of life spent in a hospital bed, each story was as unique as it was absorbing. Whilst softly-spoken, Femi’s delivery was decisively articulate, subtly leading the room through escalating narratives that climaxed with emotional hammer-blows, garnering great applause.
After a quick break the space refilled quickly, with all present keen to see the homegrown headliner Dizraeli. Already waiting beside the stage and tapping his chest in what seemed to be a pre-show ritual of sorts, the Bristolian artist was introduced to loud cheers that rang around the room. Walking straight into the light without acknowledging those watching, he maintained the rhythmic motions and took a seat before the packed crowd. Continuing, song slowly emerged from his vocal chords and the tapping revealed itself to be a percussive addition, dramatically seeded before his introduction and nurtured to full fruition in a seamless transition. This unconventional start was followed by an extended set of songs, spoken-word, acoustic guitar and unique stage presence, in what would prove to be a headfirst dive into the unique world of Dizraeli.
Dressed down in a loose t-shirt and trainers, he wandered the stage freely during the course of the night, moving about the space in a confident fashion, his performance seeming to evolve very much in the moment as if he were jamming old favourites with friends. The guitar was clutched and strummed for a track or two, relinquished and indeed revisited across the evening. Not only injecting an alternate audible texture to proceedings, the gleaming wooden body reflected dancing patterns of light around the walls and low ceiling. Whether the unique, note-bending unorthodoxy that accompanied the more eccentric tracks, the cool vibe of the fretboard-traversing slide-guitar, or the finger-picked sea shanties (particularly resonant in the West Country setting), the varied instrumental additions were an enjoyable surprise.
Speaking assuredly from the hot-seat, stage patter ranged wildly, including tales of eye-opening trips to the Third World and flashbacks of a childhood spent in and around the streets of Bristol. From stories recounting machine-gun-clutching adolescent soldiers in the Middle East, right through to lyrical nods to the shining car bonnets in the Avonmouth docks, the wider context behind his work was consistently interesting, relayed with a relatable sincerity and punctuated with the occasional touch of well-spirited self-mocking to boot.
Transfixed by such interludes as much as the performances, the crowd re-animated sharply between pieces with enthusiastic applause and vocal appreciation, before settling down again for their next unpredictable twist and turn on the Blahblahblah-branded rollercoaster.
Extremely quirky in his delivery, Dizraeli’s presence remained refreshingly novel for the duration. One minute he was pausing his own performance to simulate a viola-driven breakdown designed for a 400-strong orchestra (sadly unable to join him on this occasion), the next he was offering reflections on his travels in sun-baked Asia and the contrasting cold-shoulder confines of London. Weaving the highs, lows, comedy and tragedy of everyday life into his art, his set felt well rounded as a whole, and comfortable when navigating emotional extremes. Dips into resonant territory were unforced, effective and never allowed to outstay their welcome; such moments were given enough time to breath, hanging near-tangibly in the air, before the tension was released with the return of the buoyant charm that underpinned the set.
‘Moving in the Dark’, one of a few recent album tracks performed ‘unplugged’, offered an alternate slant on the fully produced CD-version, complete with an interesting introduction that re-contextualised the piece as a whole. Involving the obliging crowd to sing-a-long for the chorus, energy levels were raised enjoyably. This interactive spike shortly gave way to a gear-shift in tempo, with the crowd once again falling spellbound to ‘The Little Things’ and ‘It Won’t Be Long’, which drew upon great vocal skills, dialling up the intensity of the room with the songs' emotionally-charged nature for a memorable conclusion.
Effortlessly mixing styles, genres and even the mediums themselves with the most casually blurred of borders, this eclectic performance proved to be a Dizraeli masterclass. Having sailed past with a laid-back charm and a superb, free-flowing set-list, his visit to Blahblahblah was amongst the cream of their crop. With the addition of Anna Freeman’s increasingly confident compering and the deft storytelling of Femi Martin, the bar’s been set considerably high for those set to follow in Bristol Old Vic’s spoken-word arena.
Photography: George Dallimore