At the end of tonight’s performance, the regular compere, local performance poet Byron Vincent, says that whenever Word of Mouth is reviewed, he is described as a shambolic compere. Well, I have attended this Aladdin’s Cave of spoken word several times, and have always before found Vincent to be funny, quick to put the audience at ease, and a talented poet. But for the first time this evening I was confused by his performance. He had a cold, so maybe he was a little off – but his introductions to the four poets making up ‘The Urbanian Quarter’ were completely off the wall, so that before they stepped on, I had their obscure collective name, their individual names, the fact that they formed a collective in the noughties and that this is a reunion after several years – and nothing else.
Vincent himself reads a new piece he’s written, as he always does, which is about the necessity, in other peoples’ eyes, of having a prefix to your name if your name is Dave. ‘Atheist-Dave’, ‘Inappropriate-Dave’, ‘Boring-Dave’, etc. Everyone I’ve ever known called Dave is in there, and maybe it’s just Vincent’s delivery tonight, but it seems a bit cruel, a bit like that film The Spelling Bee that manages to be interesting whilst having a laugh at the expense of the geeky kids. Maybe for once Vincent is nervous.
Polarbear, Inua Ellams and John Berkavitch are three of the four Urbanian Quarter poets – the fourth, apparently, agreed to the gig and then later couldn’t do it. Word of Mouth usually hosts several poets performing one after the other, standard, but tonight we have all three onstage, they’re interacting and everything – and it’s fascinating to see their ad hoc banter. They’re certainly enjoying the reunion. Ellams presents haunting, lyrical, visual poems that take you to another place and make you feel different, wistful somehow. His delivery is fluid, he measures out his careful words with sketching, dancing hands. When out of poem, though, he’s decided to give this night a bit of structure, and he’s playing that it’s a rehearsal for tonight’s performance, and that along with Polarbear and Berkavitch he’s planning what will happen tomorrow night. He can’t see us and talks a lot about the ‘fourth wall’. It’s a bit weird, but funny. The others don’t buy into it, on purpose.
Berkavitch is having a whale of a time, deliberately messing up the schedule, joking with his buddies and telling highly inappropriate jokes with the sole aim apparently, of making the other two nervous. He’s quick and funny, and a master of punchline delivery, though at times his banter seems fresher than his poems. He becomes edgier as the evening progresses and occasionally audience aren’t sure how to react.
It’s an uncomfortable pleasure watching Polarbear squirm as his companions get further and further away from a standard stand up poetry night (and from each other). His own poems are rapid-fire true tales of youth and discovery, of playing spin the bottle as a teenager, of returning home to his local after finding success as an adult. They’re raw, simply constructed, carefully observed and quickly delivered. He’s much happier performing his poems than worrying about what Berkavitch or Ellams might say next, but he’s enjoying it too, being with his mates onstage.
Finally, the fourth member, Andy Craven-Griffiths, who isn’t here, has pre-recorded something for us and we watch the video. Go on then, why not? It’s a touching story about two people who’ve had difficult childhoods finding love, gently, making snow angels on the way home.
Quite frankly there’s not much reason for someone who doesn’t know The Urbanian Quarter as a collective to watch them perform together – they don’t have much in common, and though their interactions are funny to watch, they seem to hinder the poetry rather than help it. But Word of Mouth is about experimenting with spoken word, and its audience are up for that. BlahBlahBlah has been a nonsensical experiment, and Vincent was referring to the whole night when he called it shambolic. But it was a delightful shambles, introducing its audience to four talented poets. I’m looking forward already to next month’s instalment.