Lit dramatically under the fading warmth of the late-summer night, London’s historic Old Vic theatre buzzed with animated chatter, its foyer packed wall to wall.
A fascinating cross-section of the capital city shuffled their way towards the main hall, from those donned in flat-peak baseball caps to those clad in crisp city suits, all equally intrigued and enthused by the night which lay before them.
Multi-tiered and fascinatingly ornate, the Old Vic was a superb backdrop for tonight’s line-up; that this fruition of ‘spoken-word’ felt somehow fresh and original amongst a building so famously steeped in live, vocal performances was an interesting contradiction.
Grand pillars, swirling carvings and rich colours adorned the arced stalls and the sweeping balconies that stretched high up to the lofty ceiling, under which one thousand or so people sat expectantly.
Surprisingly vast, the famous stage was set with a drum kit towards it’s furthest right stretch, with a large, regal sofa and accompanying chair laid empty at the front-left.
Kicking things off with some music, Kwake Bass and Raven Bush from The Speakers Corner Quartet joined the room and played some solid drum rhythms and cool strings. Using what appeared to be a violin (though playing it more like it were a guitar), they proved an interesting start to the night and offered a hint of the variety that was set to follow. Shortly thereafter, the evening’s hosts 'Polarbear' and John Berkavitch sprang their good-natured double act to life and commenced proceedings formally.
Equally excited as the crowd, they explained that the sofa was there on-stage for them to watch the rest of the show from a ‘comfy living room’ at the front row, as not only was tonight to be unmissable, it was also a welcome reunion for a group of artists who’s separate journeys have entangled themselves over the course of their careers.
A dip into rapid-fire 'call and response' around the theatre, instigated with Polarbear’s catchy ‘thumbs up’ game, set the tempo for the evening; from square one the room was warm, smiling and vocal… not only were the hosts on form, the audience had come with purpose.
The first act the animated duo introduced was Zia Ahmed, whose dry delivery and unorthodox references made for good poems with great laughs; his nod to Davor Suker and ‘Italia 90’ was a particular highlight. Equally fond of the reference, Polarbear put his beer to one side and rocked back and forth in laughter like a big kid; the Old Vic stage really did feel like a living room, albeit a rather stately one.
Next up, following some back-and-forth between the comperes, Holly McNish joined the stage to lively applause, whilst Zia settled on the sofa, the on-stage family growing incrementally.
With only a limited amount of time available to perform, Hollie softly stamped her impact on the night with a few warm poems moulded of real humanity. Whether championing imperfection when contrasting the world-views of an innocent child and an insecure adult, or making the room smile (and perhaps even blush) in her love-letter to foreign men, her short time on stage was very well received.
A further round of applause for Hollie came post-set with the unexpected arrival of her young child toddling out onto the stage for a hug. Impressively unfazed by the huge audience, this may be looked back upon as a successful first gig for the McNish duo!
On next was the greatly anticipated late-addition to the bill, well-respected wordsmith ‘Chester P’, who brought a more intense, rap-centric style to the table. Following shortly after, ‘Jam Baxter’ gave another hip-hop-skewed performance, though as he pointed out, he was without the accompanying instrumentals that he’s normally accustomed to. This highlighted, despite their fundamental similarities, the various nuances between estranged cousins ‘rap’ and ‘spoken-word’. Even without his beats though, Jam Baxter’s addition to the mix was a welcome one.
Closing ‘Act 1’ was David J, who generated great recognition as he took to the stage; whatever the crowd had seen of him previously, they’d certainly liked it.
Following the varied and talented group before him, David J managed to give a performance so incredibly different to anything I’d previously seen (ever!) that he elevated himself amongst the esteemed pack.
Where some advanced performers may toy with rhyming structure, dual-narratives or various other manipulations of their content, David J took things a step further and toyed with the very means of delivery itself. Utilising a number of captivating techniques that included speaking on his in-breath, simulating echoes on his words and ‘crossing wires’ as if two separate sentences were interfering with each other like the turning dial on an old-fashioned radio, he created a real assault on the senses.
At its peak, the intensity of the atmosphere he created had people lent forward attentively in their seats, the room cast under a deafening silence whilst everyone decoded the next line of his heartfelt poem; it was a remarkable and quite surreal experience.
Introduced by Polarbear as a master storyteller, John Berkavitch began his solo set post-interval, quickly proving his co-host’s compliments to be more than warranted.
A few jokes and comments to the crowd soon gave way to the start of a blockbuster story, delivered under spotlights glowing deep reds and rich blues, whilst a mist of stage-smoke weaved across the room from one side to the other. As his saga progressed, an ambient audio track began to meander in unison with the peaks and falls of the tale’s rhythm. Only subtle, its presence contributed to the melting onset of concentration that gripped the Old Vic.
In this ethereal scene Berkavitch had gained complete power over the audience, guiding them through their imaginations in hypnotic fashion. With a surreal and unpredicted conclusion, the audience woke back into the room with a bump after thoroughly enjoying the vivid path they’d trodden through his conjured world; the line-up was still yet to falter.
Where Berkavitch had been superbly mystical and outlandish, the evening’s penultimate act, Polarbear, was more relatable, gritty and ‘real’.
With pieces relating to his city, his childhood and various snapshots of his adult life, the content of Polarbear’s set was at a glance more ‘pedestrian’ than the eccentric stories of his co-host. Yet within the confines of his reality, the blunt honesty and enjoyable humour of his poems drew a relatable rapport with the crowd that led them through a series of great stories.
Leaving the stage to huge adoration, it seemed those that weren’t previously aware of his work were likely now big Polarbear fans after his excellent performance tonight.
Knowing there was only one performer left on the bill and having been heavily hyped by the brilliant preceding acts, the audience roared at the arrival of headliner Kate Tempest, who smiled and joked her way around the stage in awe of the incredible scene before her.
Uncharacteristically nervous given her normal ‘alpha’ stage presence, she explained that she planned to guide those present through the narrative of her new book, ‘Everything Speaks In Its Own Way’, a semi-autobiographical collection of her poems to date.
Pacing the stage, chatting quickly and beaming a cherub-esque grin, it seemed the occasion had an understandably humbling effect on her. Her grateful response only endeared her further to her willing audience, many of which seemed to be friends and family, or at the least, ardent supporters.
Starting her set with some darker content that typifies the beginning of her book, Kate performed poems that revealed a shadowy period of her earlier life in which drink, drugs and a looming destructive tendency seemed to dominate her.
However, over the course of the book and indeed her performance tonight, increasingly strong notions of both enlightenment and empowerment were evident; it felt as if we were watching her embody her past journey both physically and mentally before us, re-living her progression from troubled youth to performing authority.
Resolutely true to her writing and recitals, poems were restarted if they wavered in passion, soon bouncing back with a re-invigorated ferocity on the rare occasions they may have been lacking. As is typical of her unique performances, the red-raw, gut-busting emotion with which she delivers her poems violently draws you into a world of her creation. That these worlds aren’t just built of fiery bravado, but also galvanised with textured reflections, is their greatest pleasure.
In response to her passionate investment on-stage, applause between each voice-cracking, sinew-straining performance often rang to the extent that Kate would have to plead for a quicker turnaround between pieces so that she could complete the book's narrative arc as she’d planned.
Serving as a great structural glue, this narrative also gave the terrific set pieces a fascinating biographical context, offering a second viewpoint from which to consider and enjoy them whilst also learning more of the performer that spoke them.
With time running short though, the latter end of the performance became fragmented and somewhat tense as Kate’s struggle to fit her plans into the rapidly diminishing evening became evidently difficult.
Poems were abandoned mid-flow, mulled over, then re-started with renewed intensity owing to the extra time and pressure their completion would add. This panic and unsteady flow was far from alienating though, as the crowd turned 'to and fro' alongside their headliner, shouting encouragement, requests and cheers with each new move she made. Tonight she could do no wrong, and with each impulsive cut or addition she made the response was grateful, as it was understood that she was pruning the remaining minutes for the maximum impact.
As the time ticked only seconds from curfew, word reached the stage that the Old Vic would allow Kate to continue, news to which a jubilant smile lit across her face as if she were a child told she’d be going to Disneyland.
With this extension of time, she told of her formative years in lowly Lewisham, her love of hip-hop and her transition to spoken-word, a journey all the more unlikely and compelling given the revered stage on which she relayed the tale. Buzzed with excitement, she launched into the opening bars of ‘TRIUMPH’ by US-Rap pioneers Wu-Tang, seemingly more for herself than for anyone else, though no one was complaining as she swaggered ecstatically through the soundtrack to her youth.
Performing with the Kwake Bass and Evan Bush as the rest of the evening’s performers flocked around the sofa, Kate then powered out a musical number that got heads nodding, but for the most part lost her lyrics under the mercy of the mix. As with the dip into Wu-Tang material, the strays from her spoken-word only reinforced just how good her own material is, and just how great she is at performing it; anything else seems a distraction from the main event.
Come the time Kate Tempest had to say farewell to her crowd, the admiration she received was huge; clapping hands stretched high above peoples heads in respect, whilst others whooped and cheered like Americans. This powerful applause failed to relent, growing steadily until it flourished into a standing ovation that swept its way across the room, the noise growing ever more triumphant.
Kate seemed to freeze on stage in response to the surge of emotion before her, the powerful scene pushing her back a few steps in amazement whilst a shiver ran down my spine as I watched The Old Vic near enough lose itself before me. I can’t recall having ever seen anything like this before; it was the type of thing exclusive to movies… utterly incredible.
After the applause had subsided, thanks and praise pin-balled between the stage and the stalls until the house lights were raised and a momentous evening drew to its full close.
A milestone for Kate Tempest, a milestone for spoken-word and perhaps even a milestone for the Old Vic, tonight was an evening of significance, variety and talent; tonight spoke in its own way.
Photos: Old Vic / PR