The show started with The Gudrun Sisters, Seonaid Matheson on violin, and Jacqui Wicks on ukulele and vocals. This is not just turning up and playing: this is serious musicianship. Jacqui introduced the set by saying, ‘For people who have not seen us before, we sing songs about harlotry, heartbreak, alcoholism, drug addiction, the devil, despair, and death.’ I responded with my accustomed ‘underwhelmed yay’.
The set featured a song in which the narrator has murdered her lover by cutting his throat, and who is trying to persuade the judge to send her to the electric chair. This was followed by ‘the one cheery one’, Frim Fram Sauce. The violin, ukulele and vocals combined to produce maximum filth. This is truly the devil’s music: you can feel yourself morally degenerating as you listen.
Seonaid plays the violin just as well pizzicato as she does with the bow, which starts to look like taking the piss.
The stage in the Café Bar at Unity Works is in a room with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, which means that the visual backdrop is a view of the Theatre Royal, and the traffic on Westgate, the main street. A bus went past. It was the 232 to Waterloo Garage, which seemed somehow evocative of the bluesy nature of the performance.
A change of mood was introduced by the old trade union song, ‘Which Side Are You On?’ The chorus was also the evening’s first piece of audience participation. This produced a fervently presented, Arthur Scargill-style pointing finger from Gav Roberts (who was there as a member of the audience, not a performer).
The last number in the set was ‘La Vie En Rose’, another cheery one: shome mishtake, shurely. The coda sounded like the closing theme music to a film, the kind of film that makes you sad that it’s over.
We had ten minutes to recover before Mark Connors came on. He was wearing a very fetching black shirt with little white squares all over it, which I had to resist the urge to try to count. He introduced a piece called ‘How To Avoid Being Sectioned’ (as in the Mental Health Act) but had to pause as an ambulance went past with its siren on. There was more audience participation with a piece with a chorus that went ’96. 96. 96. 96’. There was a piece about an inauspicious start to a stepfather-stepson relationship, a subject also dear to me. I have written poems about bereavement, but not about an undertaker. Mark’s piece, ‘One Step Beyond’ (partly a reference to the ska track) is about an undertaker, called Hadrian.
This is my kind of contemporary, confessional poetry. It is what Kirsten Luckins once told me off for calling “urban” poetry. I mean “urban” in the sense of being understood most by people who live in towns and cities, not as synonym for rap.
You can buy Mark’s debut poetry collection, ‘Nothing Is Meant To Be Broken’ from Stairwell Books. (Other debut poetry collections are available from the same publisher.)
In keeping with a quaint custom of Unity Words, the compere had to introduce another compere. Joe Kriss introduced Geneviève Walsh, in her capacity as the latest mentor for the Pandemonium Poets. This evening’s line-up featured three female poets. Susan (surname not given) appropriately continued the Satanic theme with a rhymed poem called, ‘I Met Him’. Darinka Radovanovic, who had appeared before as a Pandemonium Poet, did an unrhymed piece called ‘Invisible Innocence’, about domestic violence. She wore a strikingly enormous yellow scarf. Malika, who had travelled from Manchester, wore a broad-brimmed black hat. Her piece was called ‘Manchester Calling’, a personification of the city which evoked a combination of craziness, sleaze, and constancy.
Next up was Matt Nicholson. I already knew a poet called Matt Nicholson, but this was a different one. He had his set list written in block capitals, on a piece of paper, on the floor in front of him, which was considerate, because I was sitting in the front row, and it meant that I could read it, upside down. His first piece was called ‘How Long Have I Been Asleep?’ It was an anti-establishment, political rant. Next was ‘This Pub’, followed by, ‘Ambition Is A Quiet Moment’. He introduced a piece called ‘3D Printer’ by saying, ‘Confession time. My weird addiction is to awful, American sitcoms.’ The title of the piece is opaque: it is actually about cynicism and lack of regard for one’s fellow beings. He did another piece about pubs, another favourite subject of mine. This was called ‘Beneath This Old Sod, Lies Another’. ‘Memento From The Sea’ is a poem about feelings associated with a single instant in time. I was intrigued by the line, ‘It was a fried moment’. He finished his set with ‘The Straw House’, the title of which summed up the transient character of much of the set’s subject matter. Matt’s performance was entirely in keeping with the emerging themes of the passing of time; trying, and not always succeeding, to do the best with what we have, and mortality.
This was further reinforced by the fact that the evening’s headliner, David Jay, had had to disembark from his train, and catch a Megabus, because someone had committed suicide by jumping onto the line. Nevertheless, he did arrive on time and seemingly in a composed state of mind.
David Jay wore a rather remarkable, black jacket, which had epaulettes: not fascist dictator-style, gold epaulettes, but epaulettes, nonetheless.
David Jay’s performance was one of those which require the reviewer to put down the notebook and give his undivided attention, for fear of missing something. He recites from memory, and, indeed, some of the last part of his set was improvised, seamlessly. He uses multiple speech registers, and sophisticated breath techniques, some of which reminded me of Zena Edwards, who had headlined here in February. He uses the movement of, not just his hands, but his whole body, to reinforce was he is saying. There was a post-modern moment when he took out of his inside pocket a plastic water bottle, which I noticed had no water in it.
The recurring theme of violence, and the poet’s opposition to it, was emphasised by bouts of shadow-boxing, done very convincingly. The recurring line with encapsulated this was, ‘They misuse the metal’. At one such utterance, he tapped the microphone (which his performance did not happen to use) as an example of metal which had been put to a peaceful use.
The audience at the Theatre Royal lent a more dynamic character to the back-drop by coming out of the theatre. I don’t think they got paid for this.
David Jay also used beatbox drumming and imitation of a scratch turntable in his performance. Some of what he was doing seemed like drama as much as poetry. Seldom have I seen such a range of techniques used in a single set. Only once did he consult a piece of paper, in the last part of his performance. His pieces are generally much longer than mine. He must practice constantly, or have a prodigious memory.
As he finished, the fifth ambulance of the evening went past, but with no siren on.
Possibly the most memorable line of the whole evening was said by Malika, in conversation after the performances had finished. ‘I went to my friend, Seb’s, house, and threw up in his mother’s cake-tin.’