Reviewed by Norman Hadley
Guest critic Norman Hadley here. Lunecy-master Kevin McVeigh has asked me to stand in as the poor lad must be exhausted from attending every artistic endeavour in the district. Disclaimer: I’ve never reviewed anything in my life – if I’ve been too harsh you can have it out with me in the comments below.
Spotlight’s New Home
Two months in, and it seems like years since Spotlight moved from the Yorkshire House to the Storey. Gone are the distractions of the rumbling fan, screaming emergency vehicles and chattering barflies. The Storey is where one comes to listen.
Kicking off and compèring was Spotlight regular Simon Baker, providing a momentum-maintaining stream of drollery. We were even treated to impressions of Spotlight organisers Ron & Sarah that had Rory Bremner making anxious calls to his agent.
The new venue seems to have heralded a mass raising of game as the quality was superb. First up was Bernard Alvarez, a fine poet and exceptionally likable stage presence, radiating the serenity of a Tibetan Lama. He had an excellent solstitial poem, including a dialect word that was new to me; swealer – he who burns the stubble. This was a well-crafted piece of bucolic melancholy that left you wanting to read it on the page.
Pascal Desmond‘s roguish broguishness is well known to Spotlight regulars. He treated us to musings on the risks of catching H1N1 on budget airlines and the media portrayal of the expenses scandal. And, best of all, he didn’t try to instigate a sing-song.
Newcomer Michael Durrant dazzled with some naturalistic poetry sparkling with bold but telling metaphors; at Cockersand Abbey, the distant winds “hoisted fleeces” over Ingleborough. But he was able to go deeper than descriptive Daffodilia, ruminating on the limits of language; the coarse and clumsy correlation between the word R-O-C-K and the sensory experience of holding a stone on a beach. This was Wittgenstein channelled via MacCaig. More, please.
Also new to me was stand-up comic Lewis Charlesworth, He gave a very confident performance that suggested great potential. He showed good command of the stage, standing front-centre like he meant it, but should remember also to address the wings of the crowd.
Angela Martin read two poems dripping with natural imagery and nostalgia, beseeching “Can I open the honey jar of that summer?” as she recalled her 13-year-old self flowering into adulthood on the shores of Lake Garda with only an olive and pink bikini between her and the blond boy with the kissable lips. This was sensual stuff, full of red geraniums tumbling down hotel facades but told so wistfully…”Show me a glimpse, show me a hook I can hang my memories on..”
Also introducing a pair of poems was Wendy Haslam. Both pieces were environmental – a difficult subject to draw on without appearing too hand-wringing. The first, on the menace of human detritus, was a bit earthbound but the second, on climate change, reached for more rarefied metaphorical heights, with skies ‘once filled with albatrosses’. Alas, she lost nerve that her reader was following her and came crashing down with over-literal lines, such as polar bears ‘needing the cold to catch their prey’.
Tony Walsh sauntered in late, on his way to another gig but still found time to blow the room away with two outstanding, unscripted slam-style poems. Slam-style pieces often disappoint when they leave the sense that delivery exceeds content. Not here. The literary knowingness began with the title, ‘Start all the clocks’ but what could have been just a piece of writing-about-writing showed real emotional depth, such as the deft audience-plummet from the beach boy holding Dad’s hand to Dad’s estrangement and the poignancy of “Mother nature…writing woman across a girl’s chest”, all delivered with consummate timing and the best ‘How does it feeeeeeel?’ refrain since Dylan. His second piece was also a delight; a litany of advice in the Vonnegutian ‘Use Sunscreen’ mould, with snappy counsels such as that every day ends with a ‘y’ but should start with a ‘why not?’ Summon this man for a longer set forthwith.
On The Bill
Stuart Anthony kicked off the main part of the evening with a textbook display of introspective singer-songwriterdom. Where he once struggled with the chatter of the Yorkshire House, the new, quieter Spotlight seemed a better showcase for him. I did, however, query the wisdom of having him first as he has distinctly late-night, staring-into-your-seventh-whisky sound.
Stuart wears his influences on his sleeve, so he kicked off with a Nick Drake instrumental for the great man’s might-have-been birthday. And for you younger readers who’ve never heard of Drake, hey, fame is but a fruit tree. Stuart then launched into his own material but it was, guess what, a tribute to Nick Drake. This is a bold topic, having been long since served by ‘Solid Air’ but Stuart brought his song off with aplomb.
Even his second song, a lament for a heroin-addict friend, couldn’t resist name-checking Neil Young’s ‘Needle and the Damage Done’ and the title track of his new album ‘House of Sun’ had some decidedly Jeff-Buckleyesque trills over a delicate tumble of arpeggios. It was a good performance but I’d be interested to see Stuart growing the confidence to develop his own voice, distinct from his heroes.
Poet Rebecca Willmott offered fairy cakes to members of the crowd before her recital. Tiny in the hand and adorned with icing, hundreds-and-thousands and an ‘eat me’ label, they were the perfect predictor of Rebecca’s act. [Full disclosure; the critic had one but this is fully documented in the register of Members’ interests with no black ink]
She arrived with a panoply of paintings, parasols and stuffed toys that, for me, rather distracted from the verse. Resplendent in floaty pleats of pink and sparkle-cheeked, she could have Charlestoned across the stage without eliciting a murmur of surprise. Her poems were choc-full of feminine imagery, with ‘blue-pearl tears’ and competent use of sibilant alliteration; ‘the swaying of soft summer blossoms.’ There were some clunkers, however; ‘delicate like a fawn’ and ‘rosebud lips’ were distractingly hackneyed.
Ultimately, for me, the sugar rush proved too much. This performance was a Moses basket full of fluffy kittens floating down a river of syrup into brandy-snap reeds. And by overrunning her ten-minute time-slot, Rebecca earned a rather intemperate outburst from Ron. Shorter and tauter has to be the way.
Rosie Whitmore was a wholly different proposition. I first saw her read at the Spotlight slam and begged Sarah to invite her back for a longer set. Sarah needed no convincing. Taking to the stage dressed in purple (OK, may be it was lilac), it would be no surprise if Rosie did spend her money on summer gloves and satin sandals. Here was a woman taking Miss-Marplish delight in confounding expectations, including the salty suggestion that lovers tape their trysts for their agape grandchildren.
There were tinges of self-deprecation that recalled Wendy Cope, but these pieces had more stamina and substance than Cope’s quickfire witticisms. We had delicious musings on nominative aphasia (or whatever the word is), followed by her fresh and original riposte-to-Frost from the slam. And a poem about a child’s malapropisms (‘I got this dress from Marks Expensive’) tiptoed around sentimentality with Betjeman-like skill. There were echoes of Betjeman in many of Rosie’s lines; ‘steps learned at Saturday ballet’ for example.
And there was erudition, too. My god. A poem about a pomaded matinée idol devastating the girls by ‘flashing his peacock smile’ took flight from earthbound imagery, drawing on a sustained cosmological metaphor of black holes ‘spaghettifying’ stars that drifted too near. Superb.
The strength of Spotlight is its variety. Mihkel Hassan took us in one mighty leap from cut-glass Jennifer Aldridgery, across all socioeconomic borders to the mean streets of Salford and stories from an upbringing that read like a Shameless script. I had seen most of these performance poems before but Mihkel keeps growing in stature, looking increasingly authoritative on stage.
There were also big improvements in his arrangements. ’50 Princes’ sounded great with a backing track and was vastly more authentic for being entirely delivered by Mihkel rather than resorting to a call and response style unsuited to its autobiographical nature.
Wisely, he only invited the audience to join in on a denunciation of the BNP. Slagging off Nick Griffin was always going to be an easy sell to this crowd, so the involvement sounded sincere. ‘Dreams’ was a broad sweep of politics-and-beyond that was ambiguous enough to hook the whole room into nodding agreement. Impressive.
Steeve the Poet has been appearing at Spotlight since Methuselah lost his milk teeth. That’s not a typo, by the way, he genuinely has more ‘e’s than a Moss Side dealer. His stage persona suggests one of Alistair Sim’s more lugubrious offspring, beginning diffidently by subverting all conventions of performance. Thus we had an incongruous reading of a recent Carol-Ann Duffy poem and a series of short, pithy pieces that studiedly petered out to confound applause.
Steeve’s schtick is to protest abandonment by his muse, so there were snippets of crossword, random translations from a phrasebook and a cancelled Dalek invasion of Runcorn. All of this is mere softening-up for when he brings out his big guns. A tribute to the late Hovis Presley was fittingly warm, some ribald humour on the Israel-Palestine problem was surprisingly well-pitched and a Lancashire transcription of ‘America’ – “Cathy, I said, as I mounted a (G/g)reyhound in Bacup” needed aisles for us to roll around in.
The hang-doggerel continued, with lines such as ‘They phone you up, your Mum and Dad. They don’t mean to but they do. When they accidentally press redial…’ and ‘First they came for the window cleaners but I did not speak up.’ Funnier than a Chorley cake with a Groucho Marx nose.
Winding down the evening were The Low Countries, made up of guitarist Nigel Parrington and Belgian singer Els D’hooge. This was lush, wistful stuff, with literate refrains like ‘the handmaid’s blush must be spared’ and gentle harmonies lullabying us towards midnight. ‘Dog Kennel Lane’ embroidered a nostalgic lyric with a couple of pleasingly delicate harmonica solos. ‘Let me down lightly’ was as plaintive as anything I’ve heard.
If I could criticise, I would ask Els to project her voice with more confidence. She seemed a little stagefrit at first, only loosening up towards the end of the set. And it’d be nice if TLC could throw in something a smidgen more upbeat to offset the minor-key mournfulness. All the same, a mellifluous end to the evening.
Once more, Spotlight’s variety pack of acts has provided a month’s worth of nourishment for less than a box of Sunny Delight.
3rd Friday of every month