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