Following a brief summer hiatus, Blahblahblah made a welcome return to Bristol Old Vic tonight, bringing Ben Mellor and Dan Steele in tow to perform a final farewell to their successful touring show ‘Anthropoetry’.
Billed as a “stand-up poetry and music fuelled tour around the body, attempting to get the measure of modern life”, it certainly promised an innovative mix of content and lofty ambition. The existing feedback and longevity of the show has been positive; having debuted at Edinburgh in 2012 it’s since travelled to Australia and returned in an internationally road-tested form to Edinburgh in 2013, before snaking its way south through various venues towards this closing performance in Bristol.
Mingling amongst the expectant crowd and indeed strolling casually through the ‘fourth wall’ that separates the audience from the performance, Ben Mellor introduced himself to the front rows. Dressed in a medical coat and clutching a stethoscope, he enquired about the general wellbeing of those seated around him. Soon engaging the room en masse, he noted that despite his lack of relevant training or qualifications he should nonetheless be referred to as ‘Dr Ben’, adding that self-appointed medical authority certainly hadn’t harmed Dr Dre too badly in his career.
Introducing his on-stage collaborator Dan to the audience, a comedic relationship was established with Dan assuming the role of a mute sidekick dressed in skin-tight, full-length black lycra, upon which some ‘pseudo-X-Ray’ imagery offered the chance to peer inside his body. With Dr Ben referring to Dan and his exposed innards like a running order for the show (the evening would chart its way through the body from top to toe), he proved both a great visual reference to revisit during the evening and a recurring opportunity for comedic riffing between the duo.
Despite this modest introductory role, Dan soon shifted from a speechless prop to a musical maestro, having departed Dr Ben’s spotlight to perch behind an array of instruments and gadgets. From this new position, his level of expression grew dramatically with the introduction of his keyboard playing which he manipulated electronically into a looping pattern, upon which he layered silky-smooth acoustic guitar. Over this mellow, textured soundscape, Dr Ben performed an increasingly complex and comedic spoken-word introduction comprised entirely of body-related puns. This novel introduction captured the interest of the audience and the tongue-in-cheek wordplay raised playful laughter amongst the room, as well as the occasional eyebrow.
Having shifted focus from an interesting look at the head and mind down to the extensive reach of the respiratory system, the opportunity to cast attention to each individual element of the vocal process was embraced. From the booming bass of the chest to the lofty treble of the nasal passage, each element was amplified down the microphone and looped rhythmically via high-tech kit from which a selection of cables trailed. It wasn't long before fully textured beatbox rhythms were fleshed out in speaker-rattling fashion, infusing further musicality into the evening.
This creativity and attention-to-detail was evident throughout their performance in the reverbs, fades and general use of polished audio effects that maintained a smooth gloss over the majority of proceedings. Rare mishaps with the kit and a tendency to indulge (even if ironically) in the extremities of pun usage would rock the boat at times, but the cool-headed recoveries of the performers maintained the show’s intended momentum and often added extra laughter to proceedings, even if preceded by pun-induced groans.
Not all laughter and upbeat musical jamming though, there were dips into altogether darker territory. One particular example was the atmospheric description of a loveless dystopia, brilliantly relayed under dramatically dimmed lighting. This sudden gear-change offered a polarising breadth compared to the jovial feel of the evening preceding it. With the mirthless, helpless future being described stemming from a world uncomfortably similar to our own, the piece was both fascinating to watch unfold and at times far more familiar than comfortable. Heavy, dark and resonant, the lingering intensity that lay in the wake of the piece was relieved shortly after with a quip from Mellor, who restored a relieving normality to the room.
Though all anchored in the overarching anatomical narrative, over the course of the evening the individual segments of the show covered some vast ground. ‘News in Briefs’ drew upon a mixture of comedy, politics and social commentary in its focus on the negative repercussions of ‘Page 3’ and the farcical political soundbites that were once attributed to the topless models. This was followed with a track of “heavy-dub-metal-step”, in which the acoustic guitar was morphed with FX into a chugging rock sound, upon which Mellor rapped about the nervous system. This in turn was shortly followed by an interlude that drew upon the conveniently rhythmic gurgling of Dan’s gut as an unlikely musical source. Having soon turned the hungry rumbles into a looping backing track, further beat-boxing and a strong flavour of Tory-bashing was introduced in a ‘Pasty Tax’-oriented piece that’d evolved from impressively unusual roots.
Building on the fiery, politicised momentum, a further stop on the anatomical tour was that of the spleen, which provided a convenient occasion for Mellor to vent his own, launching into another strongly motivated performance that was both angry and relatable (and enjoyably cathartic to watch). His delivery at times reminiscent of Scroobius Pip’s snappy South Eastern twang, the spirited piece concluded with a section stressing the importance of picking one’s battles in life, which proved an impressively resonant finish to an enjoyable segment.
With the evening having reached its finale in what seemed like the blink of an eye, Dan began playing some dramatic piano sounds over which Dr Ben concluded his performance with a monologue that began its journey in the murky depths of nihilism, before steering an uplifting path towards a hugely more positive analysis of the human condition. Summarised with the loose paraphrasing of the Buddha (‘Don’t be a dick!’), their anatomic analysis was complete. Mellor launched into a final flurry of urban-sounding beat-boxing that both juxtaposed and interwove itself brilliantly with the elegant looping piano, upon which Dan picked up the guitar and let rip with some great rock solos to close.
Somewhat of a double-edged sword, the intensely varied mixture of ingredients that formed ‘Anthropoetry’ proved both a fascinating strength and a slightly sabotaging weakness. Refreshingly unique, its largely captivating blend of intelligent subject matter was relayed in a fantastically creative, attention-grabbing manner. Yet conversely, the sections which fell short of that benchmark felt slightly hollow and contrived in comparison, particularly under the intensified focus of the choruses.
Thankfully those sections were rare and when 'Anthropoetry' was in full force, the experience was great. Packed with moments of artistic flair from the talented duo, it was undoubtedly an entertaining evening, owing to the genuinely impressive ingenuity, interplay and execution on display. Perhaps victim to its own ambitions though, the breadth of the narrative left a residual impact that felt a bit too thinly spread, unable to shift the show comfortably past the status of a highly enjoyable ‘jack-of-all-trades’. Whilst the charting of the anatomy offered structural and thematic glue to proceedings, there were times where it felt like the individual chapters wanted to burst free of their overarching context; one wonders if a more strongly focused takeaway could’ve been imparted to the audience if some of the passionate secondary themes were pursued further.
Nonetheless, it was a typically eclectic and enjoyable event from Blahblahblah, who’ve kick-started their Autumn/Winter programming in fine fashion. Tonight’s audience will no doubt be looking forward to seeing both exactly what Mellor & Steele will conjure up next, as well as what lays await in this brand new stellar series of spoken-word events at Bristol Old Vic.
Photography: George Dallimore