So we’re running, dogging the heels of different lives that beckon us along or shake us off, leaving us breathless. In collaboration with theatre director Yael Shavit, Run is an ambitious spoken word odyssey in which eleven poets paint a cinematic, kaleidoscopic vision of London at night. Moving like a series of jump cuts between lives, we focus in then pull away from ordinary yet pivotal moments – break ups and breakdowns, connections and miscommunications, which the poets render for us in real time and present tense.
To begin with, Run relies on familiar scenarios that narrowly avoid cliché– Oyster card failure, train silences, station crowd tensions, awkward encounters between strangers on buses. Yet, whilst the set-up’s not entirely original, what the spoken word form brings is the quality of the personal and the present, reinvigorating the mundane by the nature of the tales’ conveyance. It’s not so much seeing everything anew, as slightly and wonderfully askew.
The piece gains confidence once the company feel they’ve snared us with some less demanding plots and irresistible humour. It’s then that the surreal and the absurd are unleashed – a conversation between a drifter and a fox under a car, a woman whose job (or punishment) is to serve as living platter for wealthy sushi patrons, a wannabe modern-day Batman catching sight of himself in a shop window and realising, ‘I am the weirdest thing I see..’
The text itself that the poets so deftly handle, throwing and catching it between them, manages to infiltrate all those non-places and transitional spaces – train, rail station, bus, street – by peopling them with the performer’s endearingly singular observations. Whether it’s withdrawing money at the cash point next to a homeless person, captured on a corner shop’s CCTV or in contemplation at a Chicken Cottage counter, these are the moments where we don’t usually see ourselves, where it seems we hardly even exist – Cloud of Foxes train the spotlight on these almost-absences, affectionately attentive at all the idiocies and intricacies of everyday life.
Though Shavit deploys a wealth of techniques to try to transport us, it’s not the theatrical elements (soundscapes and asides) that immerse us in the story but, more simply, the images that hover surprisingly tangibly at the juncture between the performers’ words and our own imaginations. Certain scenes stick in the mind: panic-stricken Sean Mahoney fumbles his encounter with a girl, crippling fears of unworthiness prompted by his too-teenage bedroom, ‘I want to kiss her as much as I want a vacuum cleaner..’
Interestingly, it’s here that the theatricality of a crowded stage works best, because it’s comi-tragically farcical to see a room full of strangers in what’s meant to be an intimate encounter. Zia Ahmed as another forlorn suitor (and a fox under the car) has a compelling presence, balancing a kind of dazed near-detachment with brittle vulnerability and artful eloquence. Nihaarika Negi too is passionate and uninhibited performer whose character’s moment of escape seems the most rewarding and deserved of the piece, ‘The road is a fragrance I can’t quite place’, the fugitive cries, a trembling newborn overwhelmed and overjoyed by the city.
Shavit’s triumph and sometimes hindrance is her management of these eleven stylistically disparate voices. Some sections follow a more formulaic familiar rhythm, but Run is at its best in moments of anxious irregularity, jarring repeats, the backtracks and sudden stumbles. It’s when the text reconfigures or explodes out of traditional poetic structures that it really strikes at the heart. Though communality seems to be the aim here, what we actually receive is London as a city of fragments and fissures, lives that overlap but struggle to make contact. That decision to ‘run’ is the persistent motif, individuals urged to escape restrictive systems of familial and societal expectation, and as much as the sentimentality can cloy, that impetus to resist daily indoctrination is also quietly revolutionary. Much like the city it celebrates, Run is imperfect, yes, but often wondrous.