Last post, I told you about my experience of performing and promoting a spoken word show in Edinburgh, but, of course, I was also there as a spectator, and what a varied and intriguing experience that was!
The show that has most stayed with me is the young Irish comedian Laura Byrne’s show, End of Daze, which was on at Black Market Room 2. Although billed as comedy, she warned at the start that there weren’t any jokes in it and, although that was a bit of an exaggeration, what followed was less a stand-up routine and more an exquisitely written and bravely unflinching account of being a young carer for a mother with multiple sclerosis and coping (or, more to the point, failing to cope) with the mother’s death from cancer. Honest, grimly funny, acknowledging her own self-absorption and immaturity and entirely stripped of any hyperbole, melodrama or self-pity, it was unbearably moving, the kind of show that you leave feeling chastened and changed.
One thing that became very clear to me this Fringe, from this show and others, was that the borders between spoken word, stand-up, theatre and music are increasingly permeable. Other good stand-up shows I saw also dealt with weighty personal issues in a way that made them seem not a million miles away from storytelling, confessional spoken word poetry or dramatic monologues, e.g. John Aggasild’s Welcome culminated with a courageous and very funny section on his experience of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act; Martin Pilgrim’s Sadulthood mused on the sense of inadequacy felt if you’re well in your twenties, but have failed to attain any of the traditional markers of adulthood (which struck a chord with me, except for “well in your twenties” read “pushing fifty”), but also riffed interestingly on his Jewish identity. Aine Gallagher’s Making Sense was less confessional, but very funny and, structured as a lecture on the Irish language with Gallagher as teacher and the audience as students, it also flirted with the generic boundaries between stand-up, theatre and the educational talk.
The spoken word solo shows I saw presented an excitingly diverse range of examples of what a spoken word show can be.
Many of them also fell into the mostly-prose, non-fiction talk/storytelling/dramatic monologue camp: Jimmy Hogg’s A Brief History of Petty Crime was an autobiographical comic prose monologue about minor illegal acts committed in his youth, Rowan McCabe’s Door-to-Door Poet was a highly affecting true account of McCabe’s project knocking on strangers’ doors in various parts of the North East – from affluent areas to no-go estates, and offering to write poems for them. It did have poems in it, but very, very few, and the bulk of it was autobiographical prose that told a strong, true-life story and posed challenging questions about class, poverty, what art is for and to what degree McCabe’s own project was community-benefiting benevolence, self-aggrandising virtue-signalling or exploitation. Both shows had well-directed, very theatrical staging.
Luke Wright’s Frankie Vah was a one-character play about a fictional performance poet, which allowed Wright to showcase plenty of his ostentatiously witty, firecracker verse periodically within the dramatic monologue, but was definitely theatre – and, indeed, was billed as such, not spoken word. In a similar vein (although it had less of a story arc) was Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists, a play by Emma Purshouse, Steve Pottinger and Dave Pitt, using the self-referential framing device of a narrative about three poets meeting up to plan a poetry show to showcase a variety of political poems. The staging was very much in the tradition of John Godber – larger-than-life, physical, Brechtian, and a world away from the 20-minute set spoken word of a static performer reading a poem off his phone.
Continuing the vein of poetry-as-theatre, David Lee Morgan’s After The Flood used spoken word to stage a one-man musical: it told an ambitious multi-character dystopian fantasy story through a mixture of dialogue and highly rhythmic poetry, sung or chanted over a recorded musical backing.
Then there were shows that presented poems on a common theme, linked by talk, anecdotes and/or jokes, sometimes with a strong Vaudevillian streak of audience participation, but within a looser structure and without any overarching narrative. Joy France’s Toast and Sweet Lemons was an intimate and joyously bonkers (when I say that it involved magic painting, South American taste-altering berries and a unicorn’s head, you may get a small sense of quite how bonkers) show, where France chatted interactively with the audience on the themes of being different and conformity, of being noticed and invisibility, frequently breaking off into poems and autobiographical stories appropriate to the topic, but also handing round props for the audience to handle and play with and donning costumes and masks. Dominic Berry’s excellent No Tigers and Robert Garnham’s fabulous Juicy also fell into this (no pun intended) camp – both dealt with the issues of gay identity and the experience of homophobia through poems, jokes and anecdotes, but also threw in material on other topics, too, with plenty of showbiz razzmatazz -prop work, song and dance routines, bouncy rhymes and pantomime audience participation.
I came away with the realisation that a poetry show is a very, very different beast from a poetry set, but a poetry show can take many, many different forms and can draw on many other genres.
Then there were the multi-performer poetry cabaret shows, which hosted a range of special guests and an open mic (such as the brilliant feminist night, She Grrrowls, which featured jawdropping performances from poets such as Sara Hirsch, Lisa Luxx and Malaika Kegode, and the more Northern-slanted Twisted Tongue, where I saw amazing sets from Steve Pottinger, Ash Dickinson, Louise Fazackerley and Jimmy Andrex, amongst others).
Finally, there were the high-energy poetry gameshows, such as Raise The Bar’s Poetry Versus, which was honestly the most fun you could have in Edinburgh with your clothes on, pitting spoken word artists against each other in a competition where the vibe was tongue-in-cheek, but the poetry was high quality, combined with banter, silly party games and lots and lots of audience participation.
I saw far, far more good shows than I can fit into a blog post, so apologies if I have missed yours out.