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It seems far too long since Blahblahblahs’s last outing, December’s jaw-droppingly good anti-Christmas anti-slam. With Valentine’s Day having just passed and no doubt the soon-to-be-seen spring lambs bringing all things procreative to mind, it was Blah’s turn to take on romance with ‘Love: What's the Point?’. Again with a competitive aspect, two teams – eight poets in total – were invited to make the case for or against love. What would happen? Would we see a bunch of lovelorn poets, earnestly pining? Would those tasked with arguing against love be brutally cynical?
Always on-hand to set the agenda for the evening, Blah’s Anna Freeman started with an uproarious poem that asked a new flame: ‘Can you see yourself with me… in ten years… in therapy?’. As if to underscore the romantic theme of the evening, Freeman accosted members of the audience to choose cut-up cutesy pet names for the performers – listed below in square brackets – the outcomes of which ensured irreverence from the get-go.
Bohdan Piasecki [Big Chief Creamy-Wobble] first took the podium on the side of love. Offering two poems from different stages of a relationship, he treated the audience with the first poem, which dealt with love through the lens of an urban landscape - ‘I will give you the city as a gift’ – to the same verse in his native Polish, a language that often trumps English in its inherent musicality and in its poetic tradition (witness the towering Adam Mickiewicz). Nothing at all was lost in translation. The aforementioned poem blended seamlessly and spellbindingly, while his second dealt with love of family and was equally captivating, leftfield and abundant with imagery.
Our first advocate from the anti-love camp was the inimitable Jonny Fluffypunk [Silly Little Cuddle-Pants]. Jonny also gave us a poem set in time – from the beginning of a relationship. Exquisitely cynical about new love: ‘ignite some vile aromatherapy candle’, there was however a discernible undercurrent of yearning. The second piece revelled in seedy loneliness – describing a bachelor neighbouring an amorous couple. Jonny treated the audience later to a bit of autobiography – being moved away from London to the gentile surroundings of Buckinghamshire, a longing for the excitement and edginess of the city with him ever since. It seems for him, it wasn’t so much that love is innately bad, just that there are so many absurdities and unsavory things along the way.
Malaika Kegode [Admiral Licky-Bear] was the next poet in favour of love. Warm and ethereal, her graceful tones have been showcased at Blah before. Unashamed longing was in her first poem. Her second, meanwhile, talked about love in the broader sense, reminiscing about a friend who has passed. Whether or not jazz-poetry technically, the openness and tenderness, tinged with the slight wistfulness of her delivery and coupled with precise rhythm is at least reminiscent of that strand within said genre.
Rosy Carrick [Doctor Sticky-Monkey] lent a sardonically witty and often surreal delivery, clever role-play abounding. Carrick is the person you wanted to hang around with at school. Wry, cool, erudite and a bit ribald, here is someone – with respect to the matter at hand – who is wise to the fallacies love sells us; less anti-love, more ‘anti the sort that makes you want to vom’. She offered her kind of love stories – weaving in kooky quotes from politicians about trainspotting, incarceration devices and ankles, suggestive of society’s somewhat niche romantic desires.
Buddy Carson [Inspector Fumble-Knickers] unapologetically defended love, speaking with authority without fawning over it: ‘even shit love is good’, making a compelling argument. His first piece with flawless and energetic meter talked about different types of love, indeed different sized hearts. His second was altogether more visceral, indeed biological, providing evidence that the concept is not static, and certainly not one-size-fits-all.
Furthering the cause of the love-cynics, Danny Pandolfi [Captain Smoochy-Bum] delved into poetic rap, imbued with a spiritualised, redemptive cadence, presumably on the pitfalls of love: ‘nobody wants to see a face on a trainline’; with entreaties from someone who has been there ‘take my advice’, almost as a note-to-self. Gesticulating poetically and animatedly about the frustrations of all things romantic, he ruminated on the interface between love and perfection.
Poet Curious [Silky-Bunny Old-Beast] again and rightly turned the focus away from romantic love towards familial love and as a riposte to the cynics, that strength of love that develops over time. He offered a musical metaphor as an ode to his daughter which was heartfelt and meticulous – incidentally the first poem he wrote for either of his children. Music analogies peppered poem number two which recounted a romantic affair: ‘hard vibes like bashment’ but also did those of science, with him talking of ‘neurons’ and ‘universes’ alluding to the physicality and totality of love.
With the only gendered, instantly-generated stage name of the night, anti-romantic Laurie Bolger [Princess Tasty-Bits] gave a brilliantly every(wo)man account of love in her two poems; the first, equally touching as it was unromantic. Her pieces, in terms of content, describing the space and environment of a morning-after and the jaded, single twentysomething experience, typified a common thread amongst many of the performers – an acerbic nostalgia, that if not full of quixotic love, is nevertheless tender and earthy.
It was great to see the diverse interpretations of love – sometimes obliquely referenced through science or biology, or its relations to and reflections in other media like music or film, always highlighting what an integral part of life it can be. One was in awe and indeed envious on how this talented troupe were able to philosophise in such an entertaining and accessible way. In the end, it was deemed by the audience that love won the day and accordingly the pro-love team were treated to chocolate roses as a token of their victory.
If – to paraphrase Johnny Cash – you found yourself this February bound by wild desire, ready to fall into that fiery ring, you could have done much worse have some of the finest talent in spoken-word and poetry level with you on such matters of the heart. While Shakespeare implored that if music be its food then we should play on, other would rather the needle was solidly removed from the vinyl. With this in mind, Blahblahblah this month pitted some amazing poets and spoken-word artists against each other with stunning results.
Photography: Darren Paul Thompson
While there are multifarious ways in which to approach the festive season, broadly speaking there are two opposing ends of the spectrum. First is the shiny, cheery, entire house front-lit one, unflinchingly peddled to us through constant loops of Christmas music and every media source with which we come into contact; at the other there's those who see the bleak mid-winter for just what it is: bleak. For its December outing, Blahblahblah gave gleeful succour to those in the latter camp, indulging us with a bit of anti-Crimbo camaraderie.
A festively abundant crowd made their way in from the dank December evening, picked up a mulled cider (courtesy of Blah), and packed out the Old Vic's Studio Theatre ready for the popular series' final show of 2015. 'Blah Humbug' was billed as an anti-slam to get us as far away from the oppressive form of glad tidings and enforced jollity as its line-up of eight spoken-word artists from across the UK could possibly muster.
Anna Freeman, Blah's director-cum-host was ready as ever to set the tone and everybody appeared to be on-page that Christmas can indeed be a bit shite. So as to set a benchmark from which all had to land as far away from as possible, Freeman (who had been trawling the internet for such an artefact) relayed suggestions from a Christmas blog. The writer of this blog implored readers to do festive activities which were so sickeningly earnest and devoid of humour, it had Blah’s audience simultaneously cracking up and recoiling in horror.
With each artist having two shots at reaching that anti-Christmas high (or is it low?) this was always going to be a chock-full, exhilarating, Grinch-inspired ride from a stellar line-up.
Lucy English initiated proceedings and got the audience instantly sputtering and chuckling, imagining a holiday season in which she really could for once be the 'Christmas Bitch' – suggesting that she probably is actually quite good at and acquiescent to the Christmas 'thing' really. Second time ‘round she dabbled in something she is usually a bit unimpressed by, with a Christmas-themed send-up of experimental poetry. Her audience participation in said piece elicited some often disturbingly frank responses of awful Christmases past from spectators.
In its juxtaposition with the compulsory cheer of the holiday period, there is always the potential for any sadness in it to be accentuated. The superb Salena Godden offered us a taste of this with a biographical poem, having visited her father’s long-lost grave around Christmas some years ago, though the sorrowful content was combined with tenacity and light in tone. Godden is warm and engaging, her second piece was positively carpe diem – a droll rejoinder to the ‘can’ts’ (try to precede that with ‘what a bunch of…’) of this world. She even utilised the talents of the audience in a conductor-like fashion to brilliant effect, getting them to imitate the can’ts protests of ‘whatever’, ‘doesn’t matter’ and ‘can’t be bothered’.
Chris Redmond highlighted the discrepancy between the habitual Noel frivolity and the reality of what is happening now, far away, with direct reference to the war currently unfolding in Syria. His impassioned polemic was genuinely affecting, delivered with finesse and sardonic indignation. It provoked thoughts and no doubt left at least some of the audience members similarly angry. Redmond then wittily pondered the transition in his life from one of hedonistic twentysomething artiste to the domesticity of fatherhood around the motif of finding Phil Collins songs having a ‘good beat’ – something that would have been unconscionably lame previously.
Jonny Fluffypunk was aptly humbug in his own absurdist way. First of all, he mused on how celebrities crave anonymity - it's the one thing we have that they don't, or for that matter will ever have again. In this hilariously surreal tale, Mick Jagger for instance was sighted on a London bus - his lips ‘like two sausages’ nonchalantly thrown onto a bun by a ‘cocksure teenager’. Other celebrities in this alternate universe were completing similarly bleak tasks, eagerly pining for obscurity. Later on, in his slightly grizzled Cockney tone, he gave a piercingly amusing riposte to the injustices of the political system, deftly pointing that Ian Duncan Smith’s shorthand moniker is a lot like that of irritable bowel syndrome.
Wilf Merttens added a more experimental, softly-spoken tone into the mix. Extremely erudite with literary allusions, his pieces were also full of wit, flitting from beautiful and sometimes dark imagery to irreverence. Holding the audience well, his poems seemed to intertwine real-life experiences with the more fantastical, recalling other performers we have seen from the extremely high-calibre line-ups at Blah this year.
Oozing gritty Mancunian swagger with a slightly nerdy edge, Thick Richard was instantly spellbinding. Accessibly angry, pint in hand and snarling down the mic, his world is one of the urban down-and-out but with a flash of absurdism in the vein of Jonny Fluffypunk, perhaps indeed in the tradition of fellow leftfield Manchester wordsmiths John Cooper Clarke or Mark E Smith. In one piece he adopted the voice of an individual branded ‘scum of the earth’ – powerless and disdained by those with agency, captive by his environment and threatened by those around him – all executed with a blackly humorous tone.
Vanessa Kisuule appeared to a raucous reception adopting the persona of a slightly jaded Mrs Christmas. Dressed in a garb suggesting North Pole crossed with fetish club, in her first performance she cleverly and comically explored themes of feminism in the context of social media as her Mrs Christmas responded to diverse tweets – chauvinistic trolls included – following the apparently public demise of her relationship with Father Christmas. In both pieces she enthralled the Blah crowd, with a cool, inventive delivery.
It was ultimately down to the audience to decide a 'winner' through an admittedly unscientific measure of cheering. While every artist received rapturous applause, it was ultimately Thick Richard with his gloriously grim and darkly comic representations of urban working-class life that proved the least festive of all. His prize: some ‘seasonal aromatised wine’ (mulled wine to you and me) and shop’s own-brand chocolates!
Audience thoroughly entertained, the overall impression was that one could have easily stayed seated all night captivated by the superb acts, reveling in the anti-Yuletide bonhomie. All that might be left to do would be to crack out a bottle of whiskey, bitch about Christmas and play some poker. Blah has constantly impressed all year and with so many ludicrously good artists, what a delectably Scrooge-esque crescendo Blah Humbug turned out to be.
Photography: Darren Paul Thompson
'Blah's Big Weekend' was billed as, "a ground-breaking collaboration between Tangent Books, Bristol Old Vic and The Thunderbolt Arts Pub... a huge and colourful celebration of words and a chance to engage with some of the best and brightest poetic minds in the UK."
Having attended all the events in the program, we certainly agree with the statements above - it was fantastic!
Thursday evening saw John Hegley entertain an audience with a selection of instruments, collaborators, spoken-word and song. Following his show, he kick-started a disco which he peppered with a range of activities in-between the audience's enjoyable bopping amongst swirling party lights and a plentiful helping of multi-coloured balloons.
Friday started with a 'Talking Tea Party' in which the participants (loaded with plenty of soft drinks and cakes), were able to discuss 'The Future of Publishing' in a very open, informal and insightful fashion. Featuring Richard Jones (Tangent Books), Kate Johnson (Agent at Wolflit), Clive Birnie (Burning Eye Books), Stefan Mohammed (Author) and chaired by novelist, poet and performer Anna Freeman, the event proved a great success.
Friday evening welcomed Bohdan Piasecki and Kate Tempest to Bristol Old Vic in a jam-packed, sold-out exhibit of refined spoken-word talent. A popular previous visitor to Blahblahblah, Bohdan regaled the audience with a selection of enjoyable, impactful pieces, before passing the spotlight on to Kate Tempest. No stranger to Bristol, Kate's performance reminded those eagerly amassed just how talented a performer she is, whilst introducing herself to the uninitiated with a fiercely passionate, exceptionally smart and inspiringly empathetic showcase of spoken-word mastery. Whether snappy snippets, mid-length classics or one staggering full-scale epic that unfolded over the course of what must have been fifteen minutes or so, she provided a truly unique live experience to the delight of the Bristol crowd.
Saturday morning saw Jonny Fluffypunk entertain and educate an animated group of youngsters with the wonders of language and rhythm, after which award-winning writer Amy Mason commenced a creative workshop with a group of eager adult attendees.
The afternoon hosted the second of two Talking Tea Party's, this time focusing on the increasing overlaps between the worlds of spoken-word and theatre. Featuring Chris Redmond, Jonny Fluffypunk, Amy Mason, Vanessa Kisuule, Sharon Clark (Bristol Old Vic) and Anna Freeman, it proved another tea-and-cake-fuelled success, in which ideas were discussed, knowledge shared and good times had.
Mid-afternoon saw Vanessa Kisuule welcoming the public to Bristol Old Vic as the appointed 'Poet in Residence'. Crafting tailor-made poems on request, then committing the newly-formed pieces to paper with a vintage typewriter, she captured snapshots in time and offered them to her audiences gratis, providing an original and lasting memory for those fortunate enough to pass by.
Also adding a lasting memory was the performance of Chris Redmond's 'Tongue Fu' band, which concluded Saturday's events. Backed by a team of talented musicians (including Bellatrix of 'Dizraeli and the Small Gods' - the double-bass playing, Female World Champion Beatboxer), Redmond launched a rowdy party of incredible energy and superb artistry from those on stage. Inviting poets to the mic, they were to perform a selection of their work with unrehearsed accompaniment from the band. Whilst this improvisational collaboration certainly had the potential to nosedive amidst a chaotic tangle of words and noise, the result was quite the opposite. Matching and evolving the sentiment of the music to reflect the words of the poets, the two art forms intertwined in a way that enhanced the collective impact impressively; the soundscape rose and fell with the poems with a reactive fluidity, morphing between lapping waves or crashing sonic tides accordingly. With Chris Redmond both performing and introducing a wealth of lyrical talent - Anna Freeman, Vanessa Kisuule, Tim Clare and the force-of-nature that was Salena Godden - the line-up proved exactly the catalyst that was needed to fully realise the Tongue Fu premise.
Not only did Saturday's closing event offer a fantastic execution of an inspiringly unique concept, but it also provided a truly one-off performance, born of in-the-moment magic that will remain exclusive to those in attendance. Clapping and cheering wildly in appreciation, Tongue Fu was undoubtedly a very popular addition for Bristol's beaming and energised audience.
'Kick-Back Sunday', the final day of programming, saw events shift a mile or two across Bristol to The Thunderbolt Arts Pub. Fuelled by local ales and some tasty home-cooked chilli, Blah's Big Weekend concluded with sneak-peaks at forthcoming Edinburgh shows from Angie Belcher (and her alter-ego Odious Vex), Tim Clare and Harry Baker. A spectrum of styles and content was on display, with plenty for all to enjoy amidst a laid-back, Sunday atmosphere. The odd technical glitch or duff line was present throughout proceedings, but the forgiving, informal context of the event and the eagerness of the crowds to see new pre-Edinburgh material meant they were but small bumps in an enjoyable conclusion to the weekend.
Blah's Big Weekend was superb. That so much top-quality programming was packed into such a short space of time was both a real triumph for the organisers and a clear joy for both those performing and attending. The snowballing momentum of spoken-word as a medium is fascinating, entertaining, inspiring and indeed thrilling to watch unfold, and once again, Blahblahblah has positioned itself at the forefront of the movement.
Photography: Darren Paul Thompson
Returning to action in 2015 with a stellar, eight-strong line-up of guest performers, Blahblahblah’s new-year revival was met with a capacity crowd packed wall-to-wall in Bristol Old Vic’s basement space.
Nestled together tightly, those amassed sipped drinks and chatted animatedly in anticipation of what promised to be a great - if somewhat whistle-stop - introduction to a wealth of celebrated entertainers.
Dividing the headliners into three teams - namely ‘Team Lust’, ‘Team Love’ and ‘Team Loss’ - the semi-competitive ‘Valentines poetry slam’ pretext of the evening was engineered to encourage the discovery of the most powerful, post-Valentines poetic theme, but more importantly to provide an entertaining gimmick upon which an action-packed evening could excitably unfold. The performers themselves were nestled almost as tightly as the crowd, lined upon a long bench under the spotlights, perched and waiting for their call-to-arms as expectant competitors of the three word-wielding tag-teams.
Introduced entertainingly by Anna Freeman, the ‘battle’ commenced. Though without the anticipated appearances of Lucy English and Buddy Carson, the line-up still proved as talent-packed as it was brilliantly varied.
Whether representing their prescribed Valentine themes diligently or spinning only a tenuous association from which they’d entertain and enthral on a tangent of their own, the audience seemed unanimously gripped by the performances of host Anna and her guests. Wilf Merttens, Jonny Fluffypunk, Harry Baker, Vanessa Kisule, Sally Jenkinson, Laurie Bolger, Molly Case and Ben Mellor each took their turn to shine, leading the evening down dramatically different avenues of content and delivery. Very much a roller-coaster of experiences, the performances would switch from subtlety and nuance to laugh-out-loud comedy with a compelling variety, the faces of the audience responding with beaming grins, furrowed brows and misty-eyed resonance accordingly.
With the 'Loss' theme haphazardly championed the winner and it’s poetic proponents awarded a novelty prize for good measure, the evening concluded to the sound of appreciative cheers and rounds of applause. Having entertained those present with a skilled group of performers that created a commendably broad spectrum of experiences for the £7 entry fee, Blahblahblah has leapt excitably into it’s 2015 programming to the enjoyment of a packed crowd.
With a wealth of both established names and promising fresh talent scheduled for forthcoming events, this new-year momentum appears as if it’ll continue to roll comfortably onwards, reinforcing Blahblahblah’s status as the jewel in the crown for spoken-word in the South West.
Photography: George Dallimore
#184: 'Blahblahblah' w. Rachel Rose Reid, AF Harrold + Jonny Fluffypunk @ Bristol Old Vic, 8th December 2014
As 2014 draws to a close, so does Blahblahblah's successful series of Autumn/Winter programming. Concluding with both a metaphorical bang and the physical addition of a hand-crafted, imitation campfire, the 'Storytelling for Adults' theme of this December show formed the backdrop upon which Jonny Fluffypunk, AF Harrold and Rachel Rose Reid would demonstrate their talents to the South-West.
Following an entertainingly buoyant introduction from increasingly confident host Anna Freeman, the packed crowd clapped animatedly as the evening's first visiting wordsmith took to the spotlight.
Dressed strikingly, sporting an impressively bushy moustache and brandishing a pair of extravagant sock puppets, Jonny Fluffypunk exuded zany character from the very first step of his entrance. This persona only expanded with the addition of his booming voice and joke-packed dialogue, which darted its way through a laughter-packed half hour of varied emotions, accents, themes and styles.
Whether depicting the familial friction of father-and-son sock puppets or relaying comedic tales coupled with his accordion, each new finely-crafted twist of his act offered an engaging supply of laughter and reflection. Avoiding the two-dimensional pitfalls that can undermine lesser ‘wacky’ acts, Fluffypunk’s confident execution appeared grounded in experience and was delivered with enjoyably-weighted mastery.
One would expect the challenge of following such an exuberant presence to be a daunting affair, though the spectacularly-bearded bard AF Harrold rose to the occasion comfortably. 'Out-plugging' the departing Fluffypunk's enthusiastic advertisement of available merchandise, he sparked a competitive dialogue between the pair which proved both entertaining banter and an enjoyable thematic link between their sections of the evening.
Performing from his new children’s story ‘The Imaginary’ alongside a projected slideshow of its images, he engrossed the room with his effervescent storytelling, though the narrative barely progressed for all the excitable tangents and enthusiastic explanations he sprouted.
Following a short half-time interval, AF Harrold returned, this time without his projections but instead sporting his new poetry book and a further generous helping of wit. Reading a selection of poems from this latest collection, he led the audience through a range of impressively-constructed wordplay, laugh-out-loud punchlines and entertainingly quirky riffing.
With the spotlight passed to Rachel Rose Reid, the smiling crowd enthusiastically welcomed their final act. Drawing upon a somewhat festive Hans Christian Anderson tale to greet the imminent arrival of Christmas, Rachel passionately prefixed the story with wider context before delivering it to the room.
Riding the natural flow of the story and accentuating it with excitable peaks and dramatic troughs, Rachel’s performance was commendably spirited. However, the well-crafted range of emotion, tempo and tone in her delivery didn't elevate matters as high as hoped. Following the sharp wit and rapid-fire pace of the previous two acts, the comparably long-form tale felt lacking in momentum and hovered frustratingly beyond the realm of true engagement.
Following with a piece on the altogether different topic of American singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, Rachel’s introduction was as similarly detailed and enthused as that of her previous story, which again stirred up an intrigued anticipation within the room. Formally commencing the piece with some soulful song of her own, she displayed an able voice brimming with emotion that soared around the intimate basement venue. Having conjured an Americana atmosphere that hung dramatically in the air, she began painting her story. Sadly though - despite clearly being crafted of passion and delivered with both heart and skill - the combination of its jumping plot and a tendency for style over graspable substance produced more near-misses than heightened impacts.
Though this particular selection of stories was perhaps better suited before the fast-paced, punchline-packed nature of the preceding acts, Rachel Rose Reid’s performance showcased a versatile skillset and an enjoyable stage presence.
Once again, this latest Blahblahblah event proved that the audience is right to expect both variety and talent in spades. Concluding a mightily successful series of events for 2014, the path is now paved for an even bigger and better year to follow. A quick glance at the scheduled line-ups for the New Year suggest that Bristol Old Vic strongly intends to remain the premier venue for spoken-word in the South West.
Photography: George Dallimore