Following some light-hearted riffing, Anna Freeman kicked off May’s Blahblahblah with an interesting new piece that deconstructed the craft, the performance and the audience's reception of poetry. By building her poem from notes-to-self and stage directions (along the lines of, ‘this is where it would get seriously clever’ and ‘this is where the crowd would have an epiphany and clap wildly’ etc), the piece was uniquely interesting to watch. Interwoven with some great lines and imagery, like the description of an apprehensive mapmaker confronted by his first empty page, the poem showed great promise ripe for further exploration.
Whipping up applause for the first act of the evening, Anna introduced Molly Case to the Bristol Old Vic crowd. Stepping under the bright spotlights, Molly was sharply dressed in a cropped suit jacket and heels, yet spoke with a contrastingly delicate tone.
Opening with her piece ‘Arches’, Molly explored the moments and memories associated with a relationship that played out across exotic travel locations. Moving onto the altogether different poem ‘Spinal’, Molly gave an insight into her work as an NHS nurse whilst examining the contrasts and overlaps with her poetry and art. With talk of needles, spinal fluid and other such medical details, the piece may have started squeamishly for some, but the evolving context and thought-provoking close was stitched up neatly, concluding a brief but enjoyable set.
As she parted the crowd to warm applause, Anna Freeman coaxed Molly back up to perform her viral piece ‘Nursing the Nation’, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times online and performed at the Royal College of Nursing's Congress 2013, where it received a standing ovation.
Whilst crafted from similar building blocks to her previous two pieces, ‘Nursing the Nation’ seemed to execute more decisively and impact more resonantly. Though as softly-spoken as she was before, the passion and the importance of her pro-NHS message seemed to possess more ‘bite’, despite its graceful delivery. In fact, the benevolent tone and compassionate stance further endeared her smart words and likeable presence, offering her opinions rather than forcing them upon the room. Generating a second, larger round of applause, Molly Case's ‘Nursing the Nation’ was a welcome addition to the evening.
Next to the stage was Simon Mole, a boomingly-voiced chap whose accent had a distinctly South-Eastern twang. Exuberant chalk to Molly Case’s poised cheese, Simon launched himself into a poem about an opportune event he enjoyed whilst cycling on Edgeware Road. Initially unsure of its direction, the crowd hesitantly followed his urban tale, weaving with him on his bike down the dense city streets of London, enjoying the ride whilst second-guessing its final destination. Introducing his comedic finale with an unexpected bang, Simon won the crowd over in a rib-tickling instant that revealed great comic timing and reinforced his confident stage presence.
His next piece explored his helpless gravitation towards the art of bread-making, and his relationship with the ageing process that's undoubtedly driving his new culinary pursuit. Peppered with comedy and reflections on life whilst delivered in an easygoing fashion, Simon demonstrated that the affable finesse of his opening piece was clearly not a lucky one-off.
Content and tone varied largely across the remainder of his set, including heartfelt rumination on the passing of a friend, rowdy tales of nightclub reunions with mates and the description of a fictional Ninja Skeleton which he’d once concocted to the amazement of the school kids in his poetry workshop.
Having left the stage, Anna Freeman eagerly commenced the second encore of the evening to call Simon back in order to perform his “hair cut poem”.
Regaling the audience with the story of a particularly bad haircut at the mercy of an overzealous barber, he packed plenty of comedy into a traditionally non-eventful scenario. With the crowd creased up in laughter at Simon’s misfortune and the excruciating description of the “Friar Tuck shit” he was left with on his head, those present leapt into a call-and-response mantra with him, committing never to politely praise the work of a bad barber in order to spare their blushes.
Leaving the spotlight to huge applause, it seemed the former Friar Tuck lookalike had left a strong impression on the Bristol crowd.
Following a short intermission for the audience to chomp a few free sweets and grab a top-up from the bar, birthday girl and headliner Zena Edwards was welcomed to the spotlight with a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’, where she received a novelty cake and candle to celebrate her special day.
With Anna Freeman having hyped up her back-catalogue of work with mentions of collaborations and commissions for various broadcasters and outlets including the BBC and Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the crowd were eagerly primed for Blahblahblah Round 2.
Starting with a piece about London, Zena began to sing, casting a spell over the room with her impressively smooth, soulful voice. The elegance of her song soon gave way to some fantastic character acting that saw her hunch her shoulders and shuffle her way around the stage playing ‘Mahmud’, a somewhat eccentric old photographer living in London. Snatching at a camera that was hung from her stooped shoulders, Zena Edwards was long forgotten and instead it was Mahmud that edged his way around the room, peering down the lens at the audience before turning the camera inwards for a laugh-out-loud-prompting selfie pose.
The accents, mannerisms and interactions she performed with Mahmud and his acquaintances (including his dog!) were all mesmerising, each drawing upon superb nuances and well-observed traits that breathed texture into the tale. With time seemingly hanging still in the air, the room had become enveloped in the story and the reality Zena created for her characters. Enjoyably balanced, big laughs were as present as the engaged, wide-eyed silences of a crowd transfixed by the subtlety and detail afforded by the story's extended pacing.
Following with a piece about anger that noted thematic roots in Greek mythology, the audience had a chance to see more of Zena herself. With her own personality and London accent becoming more apparent over time, the strength of her previous acting had become all the more impressive by contrast.
As she continued to talk, her consideration of abstract concepts such as anger and indeed people’s behavioural motivations underneath their anger alluded to the serious preparation and whirring of cogs that lay behind the effortless stage presence.
Topics of body image, self-confidence, inequality and much more were relayed over the course of her set, with interspersed audience participation throughout. Casually inviting the front-row of the basement theatre to help fold fabric into a dress for her to wear, Zena engaged interactions without breaking the momentum of her act, further investing those present into her captivating tales.
More song ensued, again demonstrating the honeyed vocals to the spellbound room, intertwined with further superb portrayals of characters of different ages, gender, ethnicity and personality, each realised as comfortably and authentically as the last. Such attention to detail continued, most enjoyably with audibly re-enacted observations like the “clackety-GAK, clackety-GAK” of the London Underground carriages, the “whiiiipesh” of aggressively turned newspaper pages and the endless electronic bleeps of technology in cities (likened to the mass whispering of digital “SOS’s”). The execution of these well-observed details infused the imagined environments with vivid character and, at times, powerful subtexts too.
Clearly enjoying herself and obviously appreciated by the crowd, Zena Edwards wrapped up her set having excelled under the spotlight. Whilst sometimes her narratives seemed as if they might conclude too far into the distant horizon (a stark difference to the comparatively punctual pace of Simon Mole’s rapid-fire tales, for example), it was the abundant nuance and confident mastery of her art that meant that on such few occasions one never felt lost in the swells of the story, but instead pleasantly adrift in that which was unfolding.
In the final encore of the evening, Zena packed in a quick, finishing piece in which she beat-boxed a rhythm, scaled it up with the help of the audience then rapped over the top with the inclusion of some exotic sounding patois. Ticking yet another box for creativity and adding a further success to her set, she concluded her brilliant variety performance with big smiles all round.
Once again demonstrating the sheer breadth of talent that falls under the ‘spoken-word’ banner, Blahblahblah continues to deliver top-quality content to Bristol.
Photography: George Dallimore