The subtle assimilation of poetry into mainstream entertainment was much in evidence on this bill with three out of the four main acts having a poetic background, each artist taking the form into different areas. A good turn-out in very agreeable surroundings provided a strong platform for them all to strut their very different stuff .
A variety bill requires a skilled compere to draw together the disparate elements and tonight we had one in comedienne Iszi Lawrence. A southerner parachuted into parochial Black Country territory, she needed to find her feet fast . Fortunately she did so by spotting a school age girl in the audience, Katy . This provided an ongoing connection and theme as the evening advanced ,even though it may have caused Lawrence to temper her material slightly, and Katy to wish that her aunt hadn’t seated them at the front! Her themes were safe; awkward flat mates, the perils of living with your mum, buying your first alcoholic drink, and her penchant for Alan Rickman’s dulcet tones, (and beyond!). That easy manner was just what was required , as she breezed easily through her stand-up comedy between each act.
Heather Wastie is an artistic polymath well known on the Midlands circuit, tonight she performed as Montserrat Carbonarra, an opera singer whose orchestra was sadly otherwise engaged. But she was not going to let that put her off. A beguiling mix of comedy, light verse and………….operatic singing, she entertained and amused as the opening act, the highlight of which was when she had to improvise as an oboe too, as the oboe player also was unable to be present. The only disappointment being that the audience was ready for more when she finished – but that’s opera singers for you!
Performing a poetry set in front of an audience on a variety bill is no ordinary task. Fortunately, Jo Bell is no ordinary poet. The current holder of the salaciously titled “Bilston Love Slam”, she titillated with her risqué material (all in the best possible taste , of course), and engaged with the sincerity and authenticity of the rest. A festival regular and Director of National Poetry Day she knows how to play her audience Topics including disastrous dates, internet dating, sailors and computers were comfortable crowd pleasers, but there was no dumbing down. Context , an assembly of discordant phrases was sharp and clever, Urban Mermaid her tour de force. The latter brilliantly juxtaposed the urban grime of the Manchester Canal by Piccadilly Station, with the myth of the Mermaids in a piece of startling, and inspired, imagery.
The second half commenced with an act that had, unlike Montserrat Carbonarra, remembered their instruments, in this case a double bass – and a triangle. Paul Eccentric and Ian Newman are The Anti-Poet, a beat duo who combine comedy, poetry and music in a winning, idiosyncratic mix. Paul is the voice ( and triangle player), Ian slaps the double bass and plays the straight man in the comedy. Having recently played twenty eight gigs in seven days they were unsurprisingly well rehearsed, opening with the defiant We Are Artists before taking in the trials of doorstep evangelists, fame with Overnight Success ,and black humour with I Hope It isn’t Anyone We Know. Original in material, and striking in appearance, the crowd loved them.
Headlining was Steve Best who blasted through an initially bewildering but ultimately triumphant set. Ablaze with energy he appeared to get through half an hour’s material in the first half minute as he manically told jokes, performed tricks and made faces. Once we had time to adjust, things began to settle. We were watching a very accomplished visual comedian using props and gadgets combining slapstick, magic and stand-up. Balloons disappeared into his mouth, only for them to reappear with hankies from “the other end”, puns and one liners ricocheted around the room, and he had time to play the guitar, rather well. Very quickly the room reverberated to pretty much continuous laughter as one joke piled onto another with shades of Steve Martin, Charlie Chaplin and Tommy Cooper all rolled into one hugely enjoyable 21st century package. A worthy bill-topper and a big success on the night.
A variety night with variety, but producing a coherent whole, promoter Emma Purshouse has set herself quite a standard with this annual series of events.