The Maze by Guest Reviewer Norman Hadley
I’m writing this review on the time-honoured principle that all publicity is ultimately good publicity because Lancaster ‘s latest arts showcase got off to a very shaky start indeed last night.
The event was devised and hosted by Kevin Coughlan, an occasional Spotlight performer who did an open mic slot in July. Kevin wanted to provide a new arena for poets, prose writers and comedians starting with himself and his circle of friends.
The venue was Bar 11 on Church Street . Kevin deserves credit for securing such a swish setting for a free-entry event, with good facilities for video projection and a bar within arms’ length. However, the shortcomings soon became apparent; there was no stage, no microphone, no lighting to speak of, the stairs led straight on to the performing area, as did the noisy door to the Gents’.
Kevin elected to both perform and compère, which was a balancing act too far, in my view. It was far from clear whether we were supposed to be listening with our artistic or procedural ears. Maybe he could persuade one of his friends to take over the MC role so he could concentrate on his forte, which is unscripted verse. He performed a short, personal piece called “Fossil” with real feeling.
Next up was Craig. Owing to Kevin’s informal planning and the matey nature of the occasion, hardly anyone merited a surname. So he shall be Craig and Craig only. He had a relaxed, seated performing style, performed without notes and spoke with a clear Scottish accent that carried well.
After a rather long and combative preamble, his first piece was a paean to Dr Jack Kevorkian (aka Dr Death) convincingly putting the case for quality of life over quantity. I did feel, however, that some of the couplets (“Something, something ,something end. Folks may feel I’ve gone round the bend”) veered towards the McGonagalesque, unsuitably for such a grave subject. The second poem was more assured; a cautionary tale of a psychedelic trip to Walrus Rock Canyon .
Kevin came back on to do a piece (was it a piece or just continuity announcement?) on the Easter Rising, then it was me haranguing the audience for five minutes before Kev was on again with a bawdy piece about his meat and two veg.
Next up was Nathan, reading from a laptop balanced on one knee. I wouldn’t recommend it as a performing style, as it produced a powerful disconnect with the audience. A shame because the material was quite strong; a topical conceit about Gordon Brown fingering the pearl-handled revolver as the banking and expenses crises unfold and a bouncer’s-eye view of urban chaos in Salford and beyond.
Meanwhile the event itself needed some crowd-control, with phones ringing and sudden changes of plan (“can I go for a piss? can I go for a fag?”). After a break for the necessary functions, Toby read a long prose piece about life in apartheid-era South Africa . The writing was good, with chillingly banal details from that time (kids were tested for ethnicity with a pencil – if it stuck in your hair, you were black) and a nice turn of phrase (a slow Cape accent “sounded as if it had been left out in the sun too long”) but the delivery and planning let it down.
Even after excising “a couple of thousand” words, Toby overran at least twofold, had no eye-contact with the audience and precious little variation-of-tone, apart from a brief take-off of an Afrikaans accent.
Next up, except he stayed sitting, was Tom O’Neill, who gave a couple of rather halting read-throughs of Kipling’s “If” (That one from the World Cup) and Auden’s “Funeral Blues” (That one from Four Weddings).
Kevin had wanted a whole section dedicated to comedy but he only had one comedian. Joe was well-known to most of the audience but not to me, which may explain why most of his material passed me by. He was very mobile on his feet and confident in his delivery, but the in-jokes fell flat on my outsider’s ears. Name-checking Cartman sounded like old news to me.
The next part of the evening was a fluffed attempt at quick-fire improvisation. This was an incredibly ambitious concept to try at a first-time event and it didn’t work – it needed a few ‘plants’ in the crowd to build up momentum before others got the idea and started chipping in.
The last part of the night was a variant of the Alphabet Game but I had to be elsewhere so I don’t know how that went. Can someone comment who stayed to the end, please? In fact, that goes for the whole night; if you were there and you had a different impression, please add your comments below.
All in all, I thought this a very wobbly start to an over-ambitious venture. I think Kevin needs a higher ratio of seasoned performers to maintain momentum and spur the newcomers on. He needs a clearer and simpler structure and not to attempt too much too soon. Harsh though this review may sound, I hope he pulls it off … in time.
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