On vacation from its usual setting of the Bristol Old Vic's basement theatre, the August edition of spoken word entertainment in the West Country took its summer retreat aboard the Grain Barge in Hotwells. Descending into the bowels of the creaking vessel on Monday evening, I perched myself starboard side and settled in for what promised to be yet another night of dazzling wordplay from the well-established 'Word of Mouth' collective. Presented by Byron Vincent with support from the Bristol Old Vic, there were no less than seven special guests on offer with an illustrious headline act in the form of John Hegley. Eagerly anticipating the diverse bill, the sold-out crowd sipped on their locally brewed beverages before our host for the evening, Byron Vincent, began proceedings with a tumultuous tale of volatile, boundless young love, employing his distinctive brand of highly tuned conversational witticisms to a playful and instantly engaged audience. Like any good host he broke the ice, allowing the flood to begin as the first act of the night stepped onto the stage.

         First up to the microphone was Mon Merttens, described as 'Bristol's best-kept poetic treat'. The young poet gave a sample of why he’s earned such high praise by telling an intrigued audience why dirty muck makes his world go round before ending a short but enjoyable performance with a twirling tongue-twister that tickled the crowd in preparation for the next act. With Mon retreating, a tag-team system came into play as Byron introduced the next poetical wrestler to the ring in the form of Nathan Filer. I was hugely impressed by this gentle poet, who introduced the gathering to the inner workings of his unusual but fantastically creative mind. Comedy is a huge part of performance poetry and it's talent like Nathan Filer that will help dispel the antiquated stigma that surrounds the taboo of 'going to a poetry night' as I was in stitches all the way through his charming performance. Delving into barrels of striking imagery and multimedia applications, his set was an intriguing blend of lyrical stimulation and educational enlightenment through the use of a sponge-hiding David Attenborough, an icy Krill and even a cameo from another national treasure, Stephen Fry. ‘Surreal’ does not cover it; ‘entertaining’ does.

         Moving through the ranks, the next guest to the stage was the self-described 'unfunny, sincere and often morose' Stanley Wilfrid Merttens who successfully fulfilled two-thirds of the description by employing his slightly unsettling persona to deliver some truly breath-taking poetry. As he broke into his first poem, the audience went silent as we were taken on a journey up into the clouds and I suddenly felt myself become fixated on the felicitous words which were delivered with perfect timing and staggering confidence. Ending his set with a deeply dystopian cycle ride through the atmospheric streets of a smoky London town, 'Wilf' created a monstrous image of modern day living that was almost apocalyptic in its vision and sent shivers through the room. After a brief interlude that allowed everyone in the audience to escape the sweltering confines of the lower deck, the second act resumed with some music from a guitar-wielding Jamie Harrison and his friend Alabaster De Plume on saxophone. With maybe a dash too much awkward chatter, things greatly improved when they started playing some gentle melodies that eased the audience back into the second half of the show in preparation for the next poet of the evening.

         Apologising for his haggard appearance after a taxing weekend at Boomtown festival, Adam Kammerling bounded onto the stage hauling his own brand of rock 'n' roll poetry along with him. Oozing charisma and confidence, Adam plunged head first into narrating a surreal encounter he once had with a 'nutter' on a train before breaking down into a heart-felt discourse which voiced his own cynical view of co-dependent love bringing his piece to a thoughtful conclusion. Having bounced to-and-fro from the stage like a yo-yo all night, Byron ploughed on once again and introduced the penultimate guest of the evening; a highly moustachioed, dungaree-sporting fellow by the name of Jonny Fluffypunk. Quite clearly a well-known figure in the Bristol scene, Mr Fluffypunk delighted the audience with his often obscene but captivating digressions that dealt with his love for coffee, his hatred of tea drinkers and the lewd antics of twilight tramps. Fantastically eccentric with an arsenal of lyrical weaponry at his disposal gathered over many years of playing the circuit, Mr Fluffypunk was the surprise catch of the evening, causing the audience to erupt into hysterics on more than one occasion. He left the lower deck of the swaying Grain Barge truly ready for the headline act of this festival-esque, poetical evening.

         Poet, comedian, musician and songwriter; it seems that there are no ends to John Hegley's talents and the remarkable thing is how effortlessly he manages to fuse these skills together. Starting his set by requesting everyone in the audience sit on the floor to allow the people at the back a view of the stage, it became obvious how comfortable John Hegley is in front of a crowd as he strutted around the room strumming his electric mandolin. Drifting between whimsical silliness and poignant, emotive tangents by drawing upon both his own material and that of others, Hegley's powerful diction silenced the room one moment before causing an explosion of laughter the next. Needless to say then that the next half hour flew by as we were treated to a range of songs, poems and musings gathered from thirty-five years of performances. An undeniable heavyweight in the spoken word scene, his laid-back performance rounded off a fantastically varied evening of the very highest standard.


Alex Saunders

Photo: Darren Paul Thompson