The Wedding – Gecko Theatre, Preview

wedding header

“The Wedding” , a physical theatre piece,by Gecko theatre, who are based in Ipswich is touring nationwide, and this week comes to Derby Theatre. Highly acclaimed, I am not entirely sure what to expect, which is probably a good thing. I will be reviewing it on Thursday night, why not come along and check it out with me?

weding jimp
Derby Theatre have run a useful Q&A with Director Amit Lahav which gives us a taste of what is to come:
The Wedding Q&A with Gecko’s Artistic Director Amit Lahav



Amit Lahav


Internationally acclaimed Ipswich based physical theatre company Gecko is currently touring their seventh touring production, The Wedding, which arrives at Derby Theatre for three performances from 8 – 10 February. The show is set in a dystopian world in which we are all brides, wedded to society and bound by a contract. But what are the terms of this relationship, and can we consider a divorce? Led by Artistic Director Amit Lahav, Gecko’s latest creation has been inspired by the complexities of human nature: the struggle between love and anger, creation and destruction, community and isolation.
Q. For someone who has never seen Gecko’s work, how would you describe what the audience will see?
When you come and see a Gecko show, you sort of fall into a dream – or a nightmare, depending on your point of view! Each moment is crafted very carefully so you never know what’s going to happen next; there are always tricks and things will emerge from unexpected places. The shows are both a reflection, and a comment, on life, which can sometimes be a dark place. All the different elements are there to take the audience to another dimension, and as an invitation to re-imagine the world.
Q. How would you define physical theatre?
Physical theatre usually involves more of a focus on movement, imagery and diversity in performance styles. We use very little text to make our work but the show is ‘written’ and ‘storyboarded’ like any other piece. For me, the main language for the audience is not words. Movement comes from the same place as language – both are emotional vehicles of communication by which the audiences understand the storyline. This is why I love working with an international ensemble of performers who can use their own languages in all of Gecko’s shows – it is movement and emotion that tell the story.
Q. What is Gecko’s trademark style of performance?
We perform very physical, epic pieces that highlight the complexity of human nature in modern life. I have now spent fifteen years making shows and developing Gecko’s style of physicality. It’s a style that’s both athletic and emotionally honest. We use breath as the anchor for exploring all movement and emotion.
Q. Where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration for creating work is all around us. It’s in our personal lives, in the news, politics, and in the relationships that we have with our friends, families and colleagues. A personal emotion, reaction or situation is always the starting point for me.
My initial feelings about The Wedding came from a sense that we are bound by a contract with our state. Watching the world around me, I became aware that state dominance has slowly become more elusive and underhand, which gives us the impression that our marriage with the state is transparent and democratic, but in fact is more aggressive and controlling. Surveillance and Privacy, The Transatlantic Trade Agreement and our Human Rights are all huge areas where control and power are being carefully manipulated. These are very worrying times. Yet somehow, despite it all, I remain an optimist. I faithfully believe that through the will of the people and the power of community, we will make it through.
Q. How do you then realise these ideas for the stage?
The process for all the shows I have made start by allowing these initial thoughts to develop into themes, scenes and characters. This can take a long time and requires patience to allow the ideas to grow, whilst constantly looking for further inspiration to inform the ideas. For this show, I studied wedding ceremonies from around the world, attempting to understand how even across languages and cultures, people join together with a supreme belief in their unity. Once the main concept has come together we start creating and designing the physical and technical elements associated with all Gecko shows. It’s not like a conventional theatre process where somebody is in a rehearsal room with a script and then they add the lights. All the various elements have to happen together, so those things are being thought about from the very first day. It’s a very collaborative process with everyone inputting and working together: director, designer, composer, performers, etc.
Q.At what point is the show seen by an audience for the first time?
We always share a work in progress version of a new show with an audience after the first period of development. For The Wedding, we performed at Pulse Festival in June 2016 in Ipswich. This first performance can take the show on a new trajectory as I find it almost impossible to truly know a show until audiences interact with it. I’ll then take the show into a second development phase, in which the piece is re-written and re-worked.
How different will The Wedding be now to the performance at Pulse last year?
Very! Only a very few scenes, characters and visual elements from the first sharing will be in the final product. The process of making a version of the show for touring takes months of reflection and creation of a brand new storyboard and design. As a company, we will spend a lot of time creating the new version of the show. We start to reimagine the choreography, build the physical aspects and work on the technical elements in a fully equipped theatre. This process takes us right up to opening night, and further adaptations will still continue to emerge as the show begins its first tour!

Thursday 8 – Saturday 10 February


The company itself promotes The Wedding as follows:

We are all married, bound by a contract.

But what are the terms of this relationship? And can we consider a divorce?

Led by Amit Lahav, Gecko’s latest creation is inspired by the complexities of human nature: the struggle between love and anger, creation and destruction, community and isolation. In a blur of wedding dresses and contractual obligations, our extraordinary ensemble of international performers will guide audiences through a dystopian world in which we are all brides, wedded to society.

Combining movement, imagery and provocative narratives in Gecko’s trademark style, our seventh touring production brings these contracts into question with an emotionally charged and spectacular performance.

We all want to believe in our journey, but where are we heading? Is it too late to stop, to go back, to fall in love, to start again?


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Cinderella – Birmingham Hippodrome

Over a decade ago I was a balletphobic theatre goer. Traditional ballet and dance simply did not connect with me. I had tried, and failed, or maybe the shows had failed? Then I went to see Sir Mathew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” and everything changed. Bourne, and his New Adventures Dance Company, showed me what was possible with the form. I have devoured his productions ever since, although this was my first “Cinderella”, which was premiered some twenty years ago.

cdp dane
Bourne’s sets invariably impress, this is no exception. We are taken inside a monochrome domestic interior, dazzled by the Café de Paris, whisked down into the London Underground, along the Thames Embankment, before saying farewell at Paddington Station, complete with train. Wartime in 1940’s London is atmospherically conjured, a triumph for designer and costumier Lez Brotherston. The lighting is astonishing, and hugely demanding. Searchlights, flames and bomb bursts are demanded for the action scenes, show lighting for the Café de Paris, then there are the underground and over ground station scenes, lighting designer Neil Austin is equal to every challenge.


Prokofiev’s score never fails to bewitch and beguile, yet somehow, along with the ballet, we are offered swing, jive and a conga. It was written during the Second World War, premiered in 1945.Thus a setting during the War is absolutely in sympathy with its genesis. The music is rich and sweeping, tender and poignant. You could be listening to a soundtrack of a period film, a sensation encouraged by the use of contemporary projected Pathe News clips. Everyone is dancing, with each other, to each other, and to survive.

cinders dress

Most of the men are in uniform. The women wear flowing skirts and dresses of the 1940’s era and offer a perfect stylistic fit for ballet, elegantly flourishing to each ballerina’s movement.

The pivotal pairing is Cinderella and the evil Stepmother. The latter is played by Madelaine Brennan, who is satisfyingly sassy and evil, the former by Ashley Shaw, in turns mousey, sexy and vulnerable. Her entrance in the Second Act, introduced by the fairy godfather before she tiptoes down the staircase of the Cafe de Paris is pure Hollywood kitsch, her solo dances in a beautiful white ballgown were exquisite perfection. They were danced with the assurance of someone who knows that they are a star, but executed with the panache and chutzpah of someone who enjoys showing why.



The Café itself is wonderfully recreated, destroyed, then recreated again in spectacular fashion. Local boy Andrew Monaghan excels as raffish RAF pilot Harry, dashing, daring and wholly believable as Cinderella’s love interest. Stephanie Billers and Nicole Kabera play the step-sisters as fairly straight forwards bitches, the comedy element falling to step- brothers Dan Wright and Stephen Murray. That one has a foot fetish, is a neat idea for a story about a lost shoe.

The production is lavish in every department, not least in the cast, with over twenty named dancers, and many supporting players too. Ballet involves telling a story without words, great dance evokes such emotion that words become superfluous. This production easily falls into the latter category. The set, costumes, production values, dancing and realisation of the narrative are all of the highest order. Sir Mathew Bourne was present for this opening night, his attendance a measure of his attention to detail and commitment to his productions. I spoke to him briefly, his concern that I, and everyone else, should enjoy the show. We did.The standing ovation at the shows close was richly deserved.
Runs until Sat 10th and continues on nationwide tour.

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Private Lives – Derby Theatre

Written by Noel Coward some 88 years ago in 1930, “Private Lives” is a comedy of manners showcasing his trademark wordplay, badinage and wit. Performed by the London Classic Theatre Co, this is Director Michael Cabot’s first foray into Coward. The prospective downside of this is inexperience, the upside, that he would not have tackled it if he did not feel that he had something to offer the play.

The action unfolds on the balconies of a hotel in Deauville in the first act, and in a swanky Parisian apartment in the second. Set and Costume designer Frankie Bradshaw excels with the former. Bright, art-deco and stylish, it features two rooms with balcony, side by side, cocooned centre stage, symmetrical, and resembling a television studio. It perfectly meets the demands of the dialogue.

A tight cast of five demonstrably enjoy themselves. Newlyweds Sibyl ( Olivia Beardsley) and Elyot (Gareth Bennett- Ryan) open as the ill-matched couple, Bennett- Ryan exuding exasperated ennui, Beardsley combining an irritating personality and irritating voice with commitment and conviction. But it is their neighbouring room guests who ignite the fun. Victor (Paul Sandys) combines pomposity and vacuity in equal measure. Amanda ( Helen Keeley), ex -wife to Elyot, speaks at breakneck speed , revels in her role as feisty femme fatale, and shows off a beautiful backless antique gold dress with panache and vim.

Cabot has the production, which lasts less than two hours including interval, charging along at some pace, being to theatre, what the Ramones were to pop music. This leaves no space for the audience to become bored, whilst occasionally racing through some lines which may have been better appreciated if the audience had been given more time to savour them.
Coward’s script does not feel dated, although the impact and nuances of divorce will be less keenly felt by a modern audience than would have been the case with a contemporary one. Elyot’s second half punch to Amanda’s face brought gasps from the audience, as did his line “certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs”. Yet Amanda gives as good as she gets, a more palatable outcome for twenty first century consumption. Their passionate chemistry largely convinced, their bickering convinced absolutely, at one point they seemed to be reprising an argument I had engaged in with my partner earlier in the day!
The highlight of the evening is the awkward breakfast scene as Elyot and Amanda park passion and poison to down pastries, while Victor and Sybil go to war. Coward described Victor and Sybil , as “little more than ninepins, set up to be knocked down” but Beardsley’s Sybil shows she can do a bit of knocking down herself in the surprise denouement.

A well-attended opening night gave the players rousing, generous, and deserved applause for a production which runs till 3rd February at Derby, and continues on nationwide tour until the end of April.
Gary Longden

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The Perfect Murder – Sutton Arts Theatre


The Perfect Murder is a recent stage adaption by award – winning writer Shaun McKenna of the book by internationally- renowned, best-selling crime novelist Peter James. A comic thriller, it drew a full house for the opening night, reflecting both James’ reputation as a story teller , and the strong reputation which Sutton Arts rightly enjoys for this type of production. Stuart Goodwin directs, one of an unusually strong stable of Directors which the company uses. He can be relied upon to manage twists and turns, as well as shocks and laughs, in a suburban noir thriller certain to keep murder/mystery fans happy.



John Islip and his team have done a fine job with a busy set, which on a relatively small stage, manages to incorporate a marital bedroom, a prostitute’s bedroom, a kitchen, a lounge , a utility room with freezer, and enough doors to keep a farce fan content.
The plot is far simpler than the book. Victor and Joan are unhappily married and are planning to murder each other. Victor is seeing a Croatian prostitute Kamila whom he plans to run away with. Joan is having an affair with handyman Don , who has brought back the spark to her love life. Detective Constable Roy Grace is on hand to ensure that wrongdoers are caught and punished.



Jayne Lunn, as Joan, is the star of the show, a drudge in the lounge with her husband, a sexy minx with her lover under the duvet. Yet her performance would be less effective without the wonderfully dour Richard Cogzell as Victor opposite her. His lofty position as IT manager with the country’s ninth largest manufacturer of egg cartons fails to impress her now. She fills her day by watching crime dramas, mainly to ascertain the best way to commit the perfect murder, and by bedding her lover. Joan’s younger lover, swaggering Don, is always quick to impress with a bare chest, and a comic line in rhyming slang, a curious trait for someone who is revealed on stage to come from Birmingham. Giles Whorton enjoys himself enormously in the role, keeping the running gag of his rhyming slang just the right funny side of tedious. Kate Lowe handles her part as hooker Kamilla well. Looking sassily convincing in the role, she combines overt sex appeal with the laboured ennui of a whore, and apparent psychic powers. The immensely talented Chris Commander makes the best of the fairly underwritten part of detective.


Clockwise: Chris Commander does not believe a word as Detective Roy Grace, Giles Whorton forgets to take his shirt off,  Jayne Lunn and Richard Cogzell plan to kill each other, Kate Lowe ready for action.

The sex scenes are racy, but not coarse, the humour often as black as a moonless night, and it is the comedy which carries the show. The lesson that all should take is that when acquiring bin bags to dispose of a murder victim, never economise and settle for thin value bags.



Mckenna’s adapted dialogue is strong, the plot development a little clunky, a common issue with book to stage transfers. But it is the sparkling cast who illuminate the show, their enthusiasm, vim and brio, easily smoothing over any plot cracks, ably and confidently led by Stuart Goodwin.



As is common in many murder mysteries, the exact historical setting for the action is opaque, the dress contemporary. However the soundtrack is gloriously eclectic, veering from Take That, to Sting, and the Sex Pistols, often with considerable comic effect. The evening flies by and holds the attention from start to finish, the perfect pick-me-up on a cold January evening for what turns out to be, inevitably, an imperfect murder.



Continues till Sat 3rd February.

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Boeing, Boeing – Highbury Theatre


Boeing, Boeing – Highbury Theatre

France has produced some fine playwrights of weight and comedy – Molière, Racine, Yasmina Reza and Feydeau, to name but a few. But its most frequently performed playwright worldwide is Marc Camoletti, author of “ Boeing Boeing”, a farce in a form made popular by Brian Rix, but with a distinctive Gallic favour. It is approaching fifty years old from when it first opened in 1960 , and ran for seven years in the West End, but its mix of sexual comedy and national stereotypes still resonates long after the rumble of the engines of Super Caravelles have disappeared into the distance. Written pre-Brexit, it now reappears almost post- Brexit , it’s national stereotypes ripe for re-examination. It is a favourite with amateur companies, and with good reason. It is surprising how little variation there is between how the French see Americans, Italians and Germans, and the British view.




Set in Paris in the sixties, and originally featuring two Frenchmen, for this production, the men are British as is their housekeeper, whilst the young women retain their national identities. The plot is simple, playboy Bernard has three fiances who are air hostesses with different airlines whose conflicting schedules means that he runs a menage a quatre, enabling him to always enjoy one at home, whilst the others are the other side of the world. This arrangement is assisted by his long- suffering housekeeper Bertha who would rather not be doing any housekeeping whatsoever. However, the arrival of old friend Robert both complicates matters, and provides vital auxiliary assistance, when Bernard’s carefully organised diary begins to nosedive from 35,000 feet as new faster aircraft shred his meticulous diary arrangements.



The simple, but effective set, inevitably boasted a lot of doors which opened and closed with increasing frequency as the farce hotted up. A mock -up of an a fish tank was an idiosyncratic guilty pleasure to spot. The sixties were a time of expanding travel when being an air hostess was the height of glamour, falling only just short of being a film actress. The costumes of the air hostesses were authentic, and colour coded, red for TWA, yellow for Lufthansa, and blue for Alitalia ( which helped Bernard identify which fiancé he was entertaining) . The fitted uniform jackets and pencil skirts pleasing on the eye.
The action pivots around Edward Hockin as Bernard, whose louche, smug, swagger is soon pricked by the logistical chaos which envelops him with the unstoppable power of four Pratt & Whitney engines. He gives an angular, physical performance reminiscent of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty, trying, and failing, to keep his disintegrating domestic arrangements from collapse. Robert Hicks, as Robert, is a strong foil to Bernard. He enters the production like a lamb, but leaves like a lion, with a girl to boot! His erstwhile provincial innocence falling away as he starts to savour cosmopolitan city life.


Sandra Haynes plays Bertha deadpan, laconic, droll, and world – weary. She shuffles, whilst the other young women shimmy. Christina Peak is a joy as TWA hostess Gloria. Flamboyant, brash, man-eating and sassy, her performance visibly grew in confidence as the play unfolded. Representing Lufthansa is Liz Adnitt as Gretchen, borrowing some mannerisms from “Allo Allo”’s Helga, reserved but with hitherto unrealised passion. She slipped into the Teutonic stereotype with ease. Her physical comedy with Robert was particularly pleasing. Third fiancé aboard is Bhupinder Brown, Alitalia’s Gabriella, who threw herself enthusiastically into her sex kitten role, coquettish, sexy and …Italian. All three women retained their accents admirably and consistently.


The first half of the show is longer than the manic second, but never drags. Director Ian Appleby understands the raw ingredients of farce, and this production offers pace, slamming doors and comedy aplenty. He has not “sexed up” the production. The men’s trousers stay on, the ladies undress more covered than their daywear, there is nothing to offend, and by modern standards the script, bar the opening line, is not particularly bawdy. Maiden aunts will require no supplies of smelling salts. It is easy to see why this farce has endured, and remains popular. This production does full justice to the original spirit and vision of the show, running until 3rd February.
Gary Longden

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Rebecca Watts v The In Crowd

It is unusual for  a poetry article to annoy me. A piece by Rebecca  Watts did just that. This is my response. Links to the offending article and associated material are to be found at the bottom of my piece.

I have no issue with Rebecca Watts expressing her opinion. I do have an issue with the evidence she uses to support her opinion. I am bemused that she should use “shock jock/clickbait” tactics to attract readers to such a conservative position. Her opening gambit is:

“WHY IS THE POETRY WORLD pretending that poetry is not an art form? I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.”

The poetry world is not pretending that poetry is not an art form. A cohort of young female poets may well have been lauded for their honesty and accessibility. They have also been lauded for many other things, and rightly so. None have denigrated intellectual engagement, or rejected craft that I am aware of.

Does artless poetry sell? What is artless poetry?

rupi kaur

I am not a devotee of Rupi Kaur ( I doubt that a middle aged white man is her target audience), however I am in awe of anyone who writes poetry, or a book, that sells 1.4m. Anyone who thinks that to do so involves no craft or art should give it a go. It speaks to, and connects with, a large audience, something any writer aspires to. Reflective, mystic poetry has a considerable following with a proud tradition, see Khalil Gibran.

Kate w

Nor am I a devotee of Kate Tempest, ( I doubt that a middle aged white man is her target audience). However, I am in awe of any poet who can pull thousands to see her perform, as happens at Festivals. She draws many who would not describe themselves as interested in poetry, and leaves them, wanting more, not simply more Tempest, but more poetry. Anyone who thinks that to do so involves no craft or art should give it a go. I wonder how many Rebecca will attract to her next reading? I also admire the lyricism and invention of Tempest’s best work.

hollie w

Watts has entirely underestimated McNish, of whom I am a devotee. She is a pop star, expert in playing to many audiences. Put her in front of a young Slam/Performance Poetry audience and she is hip as fuck. Put her on Woman’s Hour and she is a housewife’s favourite. Put her in an audience of academics she will impress and delight, in English, or French. McNish will play to the audience in front of her – but is that not what all performers do? When it attracts an audience as diverse as hers it should be a cause for celebration, not sniping.

Watts sneers at the popular. “The ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good: witness Donald Trump. Like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well”.

Such sneering invariably comes from those who are unable to draw a crowd themselves. Honesty and accessibility are not Tempest’s and McNish’s only virtues. The view that they do not aspire to do anything well is insulting and ignorant. Subtlety and eloquence? Try Hollie’s “Language Learning”.

Watts claims that poems are “ deliberately created works, not naturally occurring phenomena”. I would be interested in her views on the first and second stanzas of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. When I first heard Longfella’s “This is the Place” I had to stop the car, sometimes great poetry IS a naturally occurring phenomena.

Watts bemoans that :

“There is an upside to poetry becoming something that ‘anyone could do’……Even in the other arts, the line between amateur and professional is clearer than it is in poetry.”

Poetry IS something that anyone can do – but only as much as anyone can do anything. It is just as hard to do it well as any other art, something which Watts misses. She is derailed by the concepts of amateur and professional, the only criteria should be, “is it any good?”


The Article in Full
WHY IS THE POETRY WORLD pretending that poetry is not an art form? I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.

The short answer is that artless poetry sells. In October 2016 The Bookseller reported the highest-ever annual sales of poetry books, ‘both in volume and value’. According to Penguin’s poetry editor, Donald Futers, this boom was due to the emergence of a ‘particularly energetic and innovative’ generation of young poets, who come to publishing with a significant and ‘seemingly atypical’ following. Figures released on National Poetry Day this year confirm this is no fad: sales are up by another fifteen percent in volume. In 2016 and 2017 the bestselling title, which has outstripped all others by a staggering margin, has been Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. Here is a typical poem from the book: ‘she was music / but he had his ears cut off’. Here is another:

i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like
when i am sad
i don’t cry, i pour
when i am happy
i don’t smile, i beam
when i am angry
i don’t yell, i burn
the good thing about
feeling in extremes
is when i love
i give them wings
but perhaps
that isn’t
such a good thing
cause they always
tend to leave and
you should see me
when my heart is broken
i don’t grieve
i shatter

Following the example of New Zealander Lang Leav (with whom she now shares a publisher), Kaur amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram before self-publishing a collection of her poetry online. Alerted to its popularity, Andrews McMeel Publishing – a specialist in the gift book market, now with a developed (as far as sales revenue is concerned) poetry arm – picked up the collection and issued it in print. By May 2017 it had sold 1.4 million copies (back then just over one per each of Kaur’s Instagram followers). Commenting on the appeal of Milk and Honey, Kaur’s publisher Kirsty Melville insisted that ‘the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with’.

Had we time to digest it, the diagnosis might provide cause for concern. The idea that Web 2.0 has a deleterious effect on our attention spans and cognitive abilities is nothing new; internet entrepreneur Andrew Keen argued the case in his 2007 book from which this essay takes its title. A decade on, this autumn, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams registered his dismay at how social media platforms were helping to ‘dumb the entire world down’, lamenting specifically the role Twitter played in Donald Trump’s election victory. In the arena of politics, language has always been the slippery servant of self-promoting, truth-bending, popularity-seeking individuals. In the age of the sound bite, for which social media is the perfect vehicle, we no longer expect the statements politicians utter to convey any meaning whatsoever. From literature we have hitherto expected better – not least because endurance, rather than fleetingness, is one marker of its quality. As Pound put it, literature is ‘news which stays news’. Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.

Though their reach is nowhere near Kaur’s in terms of absolute sales figures, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish are her UK equivalents, dragging their significant and seemingly atypical followings into the arena of establishment-endorsed poetry. Both developed profiles on YouTube as an extension of their presence on the slam/performance scene, before being picked up in print by Picador. Both have received the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Through them, the establishment – by which I mean its publishers, editors, reviewers and awards administrators – demonstrates its belief that poetry must adapt to changes in the way people engage with literary output. Even McNish has deduced that her ‘poetic memoir’ Nobody Told Me won the Ted Hughes Award ‘because of where the poetry has gone, not for the quality of the writing’.

What good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us? The ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good: witness Donald Trump. Like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well. As Kaur’s editor has explained: ‘The emotional intensity of Rupi’s message of self-empowerment and affirmation, combined with her passionate audience really resonated and we could see through sales of her self-published edition that her readers were really responding to her message.’ Similarly, Don Paterson, the editor of Tempest and McNish, says McNish appealed to him because of her ‘direct connection with an audience’ and the ‘disarming honesty of the work’.

When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry? Curiously, the obsession doesn’t apply to all literature; there is no expectation that the output of novelists or playwrights should reflect their personalities. Yet every one of the reviews and articles relating to McNish in the press in the past two years cites this feature as her work’s main selling point. Reviewing her new Picador collection Plum in The Scotsman, Roger Cox writes:

It’s not that she doesn’t care about things like scansion and simile; more that, in her personal list of aesthetic priorities, immediacy and honesty matter more. […] Much of what McNish has to say urgently needs saying; and if form follows function in her poems, well, that’s as it should be.

Honesty as an aesthetic priority? The function of poems? BBC presenter Jim Naughtie delivered similar non sequiturs when interviewing McNish for the BBC News channel’s Meet the Author broadcast on 15 June 2017. Asked what audiences like about her poems, McNish answered: ‘they like the honesty in them’. Naughtie elaborated:

They want poems that don’t seem too artificial or contrived, that actually hit you in the solar plexus. […] With any good poetry there’s nowhere to hide for the poet – I mean, it’s all there, isn’t it?

When we don’t expect linguistic precision from poets, perhaps it’s unfair to expect it from arts editors and broadcasters. Still, people who do not know that poems are deliberately created works, not naturally occurring phenomena, should not be paid to pass judgement on and host discussions about literature.

If, on the other hand, these cultural commentators do know that poetry is an art form, why are they lying? One explanation is that they are pandering to a strain of inverse snobbery that considers talent to be undemocratic. In acting thus, they are playing a part in the establishment’s muddle-headed conspiracy to ‘democratise’ poetry.

It was against precisely this ‘inadvertent’ trend that Paterson argued in his 2004 T.S. Eliot lecture ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ (the full text is available online at A comparison of his standpoint then with his more recent comments about the new poets he has elected to publish reveals an astonishing U-turn. In 2004 Paterson denounced ‘the populists, who have made the fatal error of thinking that feeling and practice form a continuum […] those self-appointed popularisers, who, by insisting on nothing but dumb sense, have alienated poetry’s natural intelligent and literate constituency by infantilising our art’. Such writers, he argued, ‘purvey a kind of straight-faced recognition comedy, and have no need either for originality or epiphany’. In the Guardian on 16 June 2017 he identified the same characteristic as a cause for celebration, claiming that McNish’s work ‘gives me the kind of feeling you get from recognition comedy’.

Feelings aside, the analogy is problematic. Recognition comedy is the art of provoking laughter by making an audience recognise absurdity in the familiar. Its effect, when done well, is the cultivation of humility through self-awareness. McNish’s poems consist of assemblages of words that relate to familiar topics. Their effect is limited to recognition, which merely reinforces the reader or audience member’s sense of selfhood. As McNish and her critics acknowledge, her fans are drawn to the poems by the themes – sex, relationships and perceived social inequalities – as well as by McNish’s ‘unpretentious’ presentation, where unpretentious means abundant in expletives and unintimidating to anyone who considers ignorance a virtue. Again, these are characteristics Paterson derided in 2004:

To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how dreadful the war in Iraq is […]. This kind of poetry is really nothing but a kind of inverse sentimentalism – that’s to say by the time it reaches the page, it’s less real anger than a celebration of one’s own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no-one’s mind about anything; more to the point, anyone can do it.

In 2017 he asserts the opposite:

Hollie takes on subjects that we don’t talk about as much as we think we do. People may think it’s easy writing as spontaneously as she does, with no artifice, but it’s really not. It only works because it perfectly suits her personality.

Paterson is right in this: Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality. I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry. Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude of its faux-naïve author, and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.

In 2015 I heard McNish speak on a panel at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where she was also a main performer. Two things she said struck me then as bizarre, both in themselves and for the fact that she chose to admit them publicly. The first was that her publisher (presumably by then Picador) had sent her a pile of books to read, because they thought she hadn’t read enough poetry. The second was that the poems she was writing presently were the same as the poems she had written in her childhood diaries. It must have been around this time that she hit upon the idea for Plum, which treats us to the ‘first poem I wrote down, aged 8’, along with poems ‘written aged’ 9, 10, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 24, 25, 27, 29, 30 and 33 (as indicated in subtitles). Sometimes the childhood poems are explicitly paired with poems written in adulthood, with an introductory note by McNish highlighting their similarities. Via this novel format she curates her self-image as a writer in possession of her full talents from the start.

Poetry as an autobiographical project is nothing new; we could credit Wordsworth for inventing the expectation that a readership should be as interested in ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ as the poet is. Ignorant of any tradition out of which poets write, McNish has inadvertently penned a Prelude for our time. Where Wordsworth’s lifelong poetic project explores the development of the poet’s particular sensibilities – development brought about through a combination of emotional experience, education, philosophical reflection and personal engagement with events, and debates whose implications extend beyond the poet’s sense of his individual identity and importance – McNish’s slapdash assembly of words (‘scribbled in confused moments’, as she says in the acknowledgements) celebrates the complete stagnation of the poet’s mind.

The first double-page spread of the collection presents ‘Meadows yellow, brown and green. / Rainbows in the sky. / No litter on the grass or fields. / Butterflies flutter by’ alongside ‘i think of strawberries in the summer / firmed and ripe and juicy / and how perfectly dandelion seeds / are made to helicopter breezes / procreating across fields’. The first is standard eight-year-old fare, suggestive of neither backwardness nor literary promise. The second, ‘written aged 30’, is a response to McNish’s mother’s assertion (McNish calls it ‘advice’) that ‘I love you to the moon and back, Hollie / but you are no more important than a tree’. McNish’s philosophising (‘and i wonder why we’re here […] and i wonder what the point is […] and what the fuck we’re on this rock for’) leads her simply to ‘remind myself / this is not all about you, hollie’. Unfortunately the thought, like a tweet, is no sooner expressed than forgotten.

The eight-year-old’s poem is printed twice: it bookends Plum’s first section, which consists of seventy poems grouped under the heading ‘(mind)’. While the second section consists of eight short poems categorised as ‘(body)’, the majority of poems in ‘(mind)’ are concerned with sex, anatomy, physical appearances, dancing, animals, food, or some combination thereof (‘Hiccups’, ‘Sweat’ and ‘Nipples’ are all classified as ‘(mind)’). If this feeble attempt to convince the reader that McNish’s infantile outbursts carry some philosophical significance seems preposterous, the use of parentheses to shield the terms from scrutiny is plain insulting – defensive and pretentious, meaningless and attention-seeking all at once.

In ‘(mind)’ we find the poem ‘MIDSOMER MURDER’, which attempts an analysis of the contemporary penchant for TV detective dramas. It begins:

there’s so much blood on the streets
why do we love to wade in it?
behind the safety of tv screens
we dip toes wet to the limits

it’s the underside of life
we like to lick a little for some reason
obsess over lips, spill, red, kissing death
camera shots zoomed
into actors’ faces screaming

A few stanzas later ‘we’ are caught red-handed, ‘lusting over shadows to stand in / where we can idolise the blame’. And what are we to learn from ‘our own grim fascination in this / in the details of the crimes / in the thorns piercing rose-red flesh / into other people’s chalked outlines’? The poem concludes:

it’s a human obsession, perhaps
to look beyond the fairy-tale glory

but when roses are painfully laid
on real graves every day
why do we so love a murder story?

In a sense it is unfair of me to single out this poem, because it’s the one in which McNish most obviously attempts to be poetic. Certainly it’s a departure from her usual style of garbled literal statements with the odd approximate rhyme thrown in. Did she actually read some of those books her publisher sent, notice that other people’s poems contain imagery and metaphor, and decide to give these a go? If so, should we judge the outcome more favourably, preferring the noble amateur’s efforts over the practised artist’s achievements? I keep reminding myself of the facts: this is published by Picador; Don Paterson edited it; the book costs £9.99.

Open Plum at any page and you will find writing of equivalent quality. Another perplexing example is ‘NO BALL GAMES’, the message of which (all the poems have messages) is that as a society we shouldn’t vilify young people when we don’t provide them with places to go. Lines such as ‘like ghosts / the “youth” now shuffle round / youth clubs closed / for lack of pounds’ could have been lifted straight from Alan Partridge’s magnificent poem about the working classes in the North ( For lines such as the following there is no explanation:

so now
stinks of shit
from sewers, seeps to streets to poison kids
preaching, it lies in gutters lined in teenage kicks
deflated footballs, mud and teenage sick

with stomachs thick and sagging centres
minds left numb and fun repented
it snatches fire-filled beating teenage hearts
pours water over bursting teenage sparks

till nothing’s left, nothing to do
towns now turned to teenage zoos
caged and locked, their pathways blocked
left only cock or trudging shops

as the young poor wait and rot
labelled yobs by headline cops

If only Schopenhauer could have read Plum! It would have distracted him from his hatred of Hegel. It is such stuff as madmen tongue, and brain not; the product of a ‘(mind)’ with a limited grasp of denotation and the ways in which words can be combined to form meaningful phrases. Yet in the Times (23 July 2017) Jeremy Noel-Tod claimed that McNish ‘can be verbally deft over long stretches, and is seriously interested in how language shapes the world and our emotions’. (He also says McNish writes with a ‘passionately insistent voice that seems to look you in the eye’, which perhaps explains his indifference to her tangled attempts at metaphor.)

Another misconception among – or deception practised by – her celebrants is that McNish’s ‘bold’ (Scotsman) and ‘fearless’ (Scotsman, Times) inclusion of poems by her younger self in the book is both generous and admirable – that her ‘willingness to let it all hang out’ (Guardian, Scotsman) should inspire us to greater honesty concerning our own failings. ‘As part of her fearless, funny and inclusive campaign against “armoured adult thoughts”,’ asserts Noel-Tod, ‘it makes perfect sense’. Can anyone really have been hoodwinked by such faux-humility? Rather, by making a virtue of her arrested development McNish shields herself from accusations of puerility. The book is deliberately bad: it is predicated on the defiance of all standards by which it could be judged. Here lies absurdity. Proud of their imperviousness to literary influence, the personality poets would have us redefine poetry as whatever the poetic establishment claims it isn’t. Ignorant of Shakespeare, Burns, Rochester, Dickinson, Rossetti, Harrison, Ginsberg, Larkin, Plath, Rich and a thousand others (including their contemporaries – Addonizio, Capildeo and Lee-Houghton, for example) they regard themselves as taboo breakers, as though no poet before them had ever written about sex or motherhood, highlighted inequalities or deployed obscenities.

While in person McNish admits her desire for establishment status – telling the Guardian that she ‘never would have got in’ if she’d ‘just sent [her] stuff off to traditional poetry publishers’, and, now that she is ‘in’, resisting the appellation ‘spoken word poet’ because ‘it can be a bit of a derogatory label’ – her writing is predicated on a truculent anti-establishmentism. In fact, in Plum the entire project of poetry – of invocation through language – is overturned. ‘I tried to capture it here, but I can’t’, McNish says, introducing a poem about her first bra. ‘I would say they are some of the worst poems I have ever written’, she smirks in her commentary on ‘extract from Désirs’, one of her ‘many terrible teenage love poems’. It is a twisted sort of vanity that leads a person to crave applause for what they believe to be their worst creations. Yet as McNish understands, the cult of personality that social media fosters works precisely this way: once you care about the person you’ll consume anything they produce – especially if it makes you feel better about your own lack of talent. ‘the poems tumble out my mouth / like our learnt school lines / people seem to like it’, she writes in ‘Oasis’. Despite her wholesale condemnation of aspiration, McNish aspires to be admired for her talents, as well as liked. ‘People often come up to me at gigs and tell me that they didn’t think they could write poetry until they read mine,’ she has lamented in the Guardian. ‘It’s not really a compliment, is it? Saying that anyone could do what I do.’

There is an upside to poetry becoming something that ‘anyone could do’. The art form can no longer be accused of being elitist – an accusation that until recently has precluded its mass-market appeal. In other contexts, elitism is not considered an evil in itself. We frankly desire our doctors, hairdressers, plumbers and sportspersons to be the best: to learn from precedent, work hard, hone their skills and be better than we are at their chosen vocations. Even in the other arts, the line between amateur and professional is clearer than it is in poetry. As Paterson argued in 2004: ‘Poetry is a wonderfully therapeutic thing to do at amateur level; but amateur artists and musicians don’t think they should exhibit at the Tate, or play at the Wigmore. (Serious poets, I should say, don’t start off amateurs, but apprentices – just like any other vocation.)’

Perhaps because poetry is taken to be the loftiest of the literary arts it is the most susceptible to invasion by those intent on bringing down all barriers on the grounds of fairness. McNish is one such warrior. In her commentary on ‘Politicians’ she claims that her mother’s warning ‘not to become an inverted snob’ is ‘one of the most important and difficult lessons I’ve tried to learn’. Her poem ‘Aspiration’ (subtitled ‘After watching Grand Designs on telly for the last time’) is revealing in this regard. After stereotyping those with ‘highly paid jobs’ and ‘workmen’ equally (she’s nothing if not egalitarian in her refusal to engage thoughtfully with others’ experiences), she compares the Grand Designers ‘sarah’ and ‘tim’ (or ‘jim’ – his name inexplicably changes halfway through), who ‘nibble on nuts from a vintage glass ashtray’, with herself ‘nibbl[ing] on nuts eaten straight from the packet’:

and i think how those nuts might taste from a bowl
on a dining-room table carved straight out of a tree […]

and then i get bored of this dream
and i realise i do not like tim
and that soon enough
we die

It’s not clear what’s stopping McNish from putting her nuts in a bowl. But having set out to lampoon the paraphernalia of an upper-middle-class lifestyle, she concludes with the nihilistic flourish that any aspiration or application of effort is futile.

Whether socially or as a writer, admitting pride in an attitude of slobbishness is a way of shielding oneself against criticism or condescension. Yet McNish needn’t worry. The middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists. In fact, it is terrified of being seen to criticise the output of anyone it imagines is speaking on behalf of a group traditionally under-represented in the arts. Time and time again, the arts media subordinates the work – in many cases excellent and original work – in favour of focusing on its creator. Technical and intellectual accomplishments are as nothing compared with the ‘achievement’ of being considered representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishise. This is reflected in headlines such as ‘Vietnamese refugee Ocean Vuong wins 2017 Forward Prize for Poetry’ (Telegraph), and phrases such as ‘oriental poise’ and the ‘ragged sleeve’ of ‘ordinary working people’ (Kate Kellaway in the Guardian, on Sarah Howe and William Letford respectively). Such attitudes are predicated on the stereotyping or caricaturing of ‘audiences’, rather than an appreciation of the existence of individual readers. Just as McNish insults those she expects to buy her books – condescending to an uneducated class with which she professes solidarity, while simultaneously rejecting her spoken-word roots – the critics and publishers who praise her for ‘telling it like it is’ debase us as readers by peddling writing of the poorest quality because they think this is all we deserve.

We might ask: how is it? Life, as good poetry attests, is complicated and infinitely various. Just because something is ‘what I think’ doesn’t mean people en masse should be encouraged to listen (Trump and Farage should have taught us that much). It is the job of poets to safeguard language: to strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable. Eliot noted in 1932, ‘the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric’. Though he wrote before Orwell, Eliot knew that to embrace Newspeak is to relinquish the only tool we have for communicating and defending civilised values. If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry.
This article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January – February 2018.




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Gallowglass- Wolverhampton Grand Theatre


It is not often that a theatre -goer witnesses a world premiere production. But that is what happened in Wolverhampton (where else would you choose?) at the Grand on a wintry Thursday night. Written by Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, and adapted for the stage by Margaret May Hobbs for the middle Ground Theatre Company, a strong cast had been selected to kick start the production.

For many the first question is “what is Gallowglass”? The answer is a class of elite Nordic Gaelic mercenary warriors often used as bodyguards or servant.

The play opens with Joe, a desperate young man, about to commit suicide by throwing himself under a London tube train, a dramatic moment which did not wholly convince. He is saved by Sandor, a specious aesthete who demands servitude as reward for his action. That Joe become his Gallowglass. Joe Eyre is fabulous as Sandor, a devious, manipulative charmer, oozing gay dominant sexual intent. Dean Smith excels as the damaged innocent prey to Sandor’s predation. Karen Drury has a lot of fun as Diana, Sandor’s mother, whose tongue trips indiscretions when lubricated with wine. Rachael Hart too enjoys herself as Tilly, Joe’s brassy sister, and soon to be co-conspirator, in tiger print top and leggings tighter than a Tory NHS budget.

Florence Cady offers the glamour as Nina, whom Sandor has kidnapped before, a crime he wishes to commit again for motives which are not entirely financial. Paul Opacic is believable as Nina’s driver, and love interest, in a role which was a bit clunky for my tastes.

The set is a curious affair, two rooms, side by side, quite cluttered and fussy sit at the back of the stage, with a drop down gauze curtain providing a projectable backdrop for other settings quite far back from the front. As a consequence, what is quite an intense psychological thriller has a physical gulf between the frequent action at the back, and the audience.

Margaret May Hobb’s dialogue is strong enough, but on stage, it had a distinctly episodic nature, as if from chapter to chapter of a book, or instalment to instalment of television series. Director Michael Linney keeps the two, seventy five minute acts moving briskly enough, Jennifer Helps has created a strong costume identity too. Aficionados of Rendell’s work will not be disappointed, neither will devotees of the twists and turns of crime thrillers, and there are plenty of twists and turns in the plot. A satisfying and rewarding production which I suspect will adapt and evolve as the production gets some miles under its belt.

Continues until Saturday 20th at Wolverhampton, then continuing on nationwide tour.

Gary Longden

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