UniSlam18 – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Final of UniSlam18
Curve Theatre, Leicester
28 January 2018

In a wash of blue light, Curve’s Studio stage is simply dressed: four mics are lined downstage, three shard-like trophies on a small table upstage watch over the mics, and, to their right, a line of tables lurking in the dark ready for the judges to take their places. It’s the final of UniSlam18.

Over the previous couple of days, twenty five teams from universities across the UK took part in workshops, preliminary and semi-final rounds, ending up with four teams vying to become UniSlam18 champions.

Before curtain up (or perhaps slam down), audience members sang and danced along to an ’80s fest of Bon Jovi, Prince and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin”; I estimate I was one of a handful of people in the audience who could remember these songs first time around. No matter, it gave the place a real gig feel, got everyone in a lively mood and built anticipation nicely.

UniSlam began at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Midlands’ poet and playwright Toby Campion helped coach the Edinburgh University team to victory, and every year since, Toby has organised the event in full. The aim of the event is not only to support poets coming up through university but also “work with groups of young people who experience various barriers in accessing literature and engage them with poetry in an inspiring way”.

Back to the final: Kat Francois is our host, and she performs this duty with warmth, wit and a whole heap of sass.  Erin Bolens delivered an enjoyable ‘sacrificial poet’ slot, warming up the crowd with her poem ‘Home’, a naughty-but-nice reflection on her guilty pleasure relationship with London (being from Leeds).

The rules

Teams representing the universities of Kent, Birmingham, Bath Spa and Manchester performed one poem each over four rounds, sometimes individually, sometimes as a group. Poems performed in the semis can’t be repeated in the final, judges score on the quality of the writing and the performance; any performance longer than three minutes loses marks.  The judging panel comprises the mighty poetic talent of Rob Auton, Kayo Chingonyi, Alice Watson (from the Poetry Society), Vanessa Kisuule and Bridget Minamore.  Phew.

A couple of common themes feature throughout the performances: explorations of mental health and, like Erin’s opening poem, reflections on home and living away from familiarity (perhaps not unexpected of a student voice).

Whoops and hollers

A fast-moving show, whoops and hollers of appreciation top and tail each performance.  Audience members also ‘mmmm’ and ‘yeah’ their approval of the poet’s words during the performance, along with bursts of finger-clicking at a particularly good line. This clicking is rather odd, but also distracting as I found myself trying to predict when a wave of clicks might sweep across the audience like a plague of crickets.

(NB I would prefer to name check individual poets, however, they are introduced by university rather than name.)

Kent – a couple of poems stood out, one a nicely-paced, amusing contemplation of beards, with encouragement to

cultivate your inner beard and wear it with good grace

Also, a cheeky poem within a poem, a meta-performance poem which knowingly deconstructed Pythonesque-style what we were all there listening to – tricky for the next person to go onstage and follow, however, the audience loved it.

Birmingham – Often delivering their poems as a group with impressive voices in ’rounds’, and choreographed movement. Really effective, particularly the ‘sadness factory’ poem, and with a more theatrical feel to their performances.

Bath Spa – poems predominantly inwardly reflective and individual, delivered well.

Manchester – as above, poems reflective and personal in style. I enjoyed one of the poet’s take on the home theme, comparing country and city life through wild flowers. The team’s final poem was raw and emotional, and I was intrigued by the breakdown in language and the poet’s sheer force of delivery.

Overall, impressive performances of well-crafted poems, confidently delivered and well-rehearsed.  It is clear there has been some serious bonding and poetry-love going on between the teams and their supporters, with space to explore ideas, express themselves as writers and performers, and respect one another’s work.

An added bonus was each of the judges taking to the mic; Bridget, Vanessa and Kayo all continuing the themes of home and identity with sharp, stinging words. Rob’s poem “Heaven Food” is surreal, shouty and hilarious.

The result

We are reminded this event isn’t about the points, it’s about the poetry. But, it is a competition and trophies must be awarded, so it’s third place for University of Kent, second for Bath Spa and University of Birmingham are UniSlam18 champions.

I’d say this is a fair result – Birmingham certainly had a different and innovative approach, and with their more collaborative performance-style, the embodiment of team spirit. One of the team, Sean Colletti, was also awarded the UniSlam Ambassador Award for his attitude both within his own team, and working with others.

After a seismic week or so for poetry in the media (what with ‘that’ PN Review article), it is reassuring, energising and indeed, a beautiful thing to witness the supportive encouragement wrapped around this whole event; testament to Toby and his team for their positive, inclusive attitude.

Based on this, poetry is in a good place with an encouraging future.

 

 

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Bad language

Who wants to read a book about grammar and punctuation? Thought not. It is likely, if you had such a book, it would be purely for reference purposes – your job, your studies but, ultimately, a purely functional item.

Anyway, back to the question: who wants to read a book about grammar and punctuation? Would you be interested if it was called ‘F*cking Apostrophes’? Or how about ‘How to swear’? Reader, I have both these f*cking books!

As a word nerd with an add-on passion for punctuation, I was a happy giver and receiver of these books for Christmas 2017, an amusing shock-in-the-stocking type thing. Entertaining as they are, it struck me how much the use of taboo language acts as an aid to learning.

Stephen Wildish’s How to Swear takes seven key swear words, provides their etymology, as well as examples of use when breaking down the phrasing into parts of speech. It’s not just words either; there’s pleasing use of Venn diagrams, tables and diagrams, and useful ‘how to’ sweary flow charts.

It’s important to get the detail right, so Mr Wildish has included a handy guide on the correct order of adjectives in insults (size and age come before shape and colour – ‘ stupid, little, green … ‘, rather than ‘green, little, stupid’, for example).

As it turns out, ‘f*ck’ is one of the English language’s most versatile words, employed as noun, verb (transitive and instransitive), adjective, adverb, intensifier, imperative, interjection, conjunction and, appropriately, a ‘grammatical ejaculation’. It’s amazing how much easier grammar appears to become when you see what the ‘offending’ word is doing in a sentence.

An amusing and useful book – always a great device to use humour as a learning tool, as well as the smug glow of knowing when you’re using an expletive as a reinforcing adverb as opposed to a plain old adjective.

F*cking Apostrophes by Simon Griffin is a reinforcer of rules, essentially adding the aforementioned ‘f’ word in front of ‘apostrophe’ whenever it appears (quite a lot, as it happens).  I like this book – as well as providing a bit of background history, Griffin sorts out when to use apostrophes with plenty of examples.

We know that sex sells. I’m not convinced that also applies to grammar and punctuation, however, maybe swearing adds something along the way as it really aids engagement.

Perfect for the grammar police officer in your life, regrettably, I doubt these will also feature on an approved reading list for any of the key stages of the curriculum, which is a real, f*cking shame.

 

 

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A Passage to India – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Royal and Derogate and Simple8 Production
A Passage to India
based on the novel by E M Forster
adapted by Simon Dormandy
directed by Simon  Dormandy and Sebastian Armesto
Royal and Derogate Theatre, Northampton

Simon Dormandy’s adaptation of E M Forster’s classic novel A Passage to India is imaginatively brought to the stage in this Royal and Derngate and Simple8 co-production, and the latest in the venue’s Made in Northampton series.

Having two directors on a production often rings alarm bells. Here, however, the co-directorship of Dormandy and Sebastian Armesto successfully steers us at a compelling gallop through the oppressive heat and expectations of colonial rule, love and religion in Forster’s fictional Chandrapore, Northern India. A strong ensemble cast creates striking scenes, particularly the sequences in the menacing Marabar Caves—the physicality of bodies and bamboo poles is mesmerising.

Dormandy’s programme notes advise that a minimalist approach has been taken with design style, to focus on “character and relationships, not period and milieu”. Set in the novel’s original timeframe straddling 1910 and 1912, simple period costume, tea boxes and cloth are greatly enhanced with the on-stage presence of composer and musician Kuljit Bhamra and musician Meera Raja. They add a beautifully atmospheric soundscape, and eerily combine with the cast’s chants and echoes in the dark Marabar Caves.

Asif Khan as proud but ultimately disillusioned Dr Aziz and Richard Goulding as the honourable Fielding skillfully portray the nuances in their relationship. Their characters form the heart of the play, and there’s a nice counterbalance between Aziz’s enthusiasm, humour—and anger—and Fielding’s repressed frustration.

Great support from all the cast, with strong performances by Liz Crowther as the redoubtable Mrs Moore and Phoebe Pryce’s earnest, well-meaning Miss Quested.

With Dr Aziz’s unsuccessful run-in with the colonial powers of pre-WWI India, and the clash of cultures—Indian and English, as well as religious—it is right to ask what’s changed in 100 years? Set at a time when England looked out to her Empire, there are certainly apposite and topical messages here. Unfortunately, the pace of this play did not allow full development, leaving rather binary “good” or “bad” characterisation, and some themes unexplored.

We are warned at the start by Aziz’s lawyer friend Mahmoud Ali “One cannot be friends with the English”, and after a dangerous brush with English rule, Aziz escapes to the independent state of Mau—and its warm backdrop of bright colours and light.

Despite the cast’s chants of “no, not yet”, and “no, not now”, Aziz and Fielding’s final, emotional scenes of reconciliation inspire joy and optimism. An imaginative and absorbing production.

Images by Idil Sukan

 

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When life gives you lemons (and a new cake tin)

I recently purchased a big, round cake tin in the Debenhams sale (and there was a tin inside it for biscuits!). So, with the worst reason ever to make a cake, I decided to ‘try out’ my new tin.

(This is also a post about using stuff up: lemons, dates and marzipan – all fruits of a cupboard rummage.)

I cling desperately to the creaming method when sponge-making (and imperial measurements).  I’d love a Kitchen Aid one day, and imagine myself happily watching ingredients churning round in an ‘all-in-one’ method kind-of-a-way, producing lots of delicious fayre, and whilst using every attachment. #Lifegoals.

Despite what I have said previously – that I don’t experiment with recipes when baking – I did give my standard sponge recipe a tweak. With the fail-safe ratio of 1 egg to every 2oz butter/sugar/flour, I added a lemon. I used my zester which gives quite long strips of peel  – you could use the fine side of a grater but hey, life’s too short for that and the grater’s difficult to wash up.

NB: In the spirit of frugal kitchen practice, I used the remaining half of lemon in my tea for the rest of the day.

Lemon sponge cake

6oz butter
6oz golden caster sugar
6oz self-raising flour
3 eggs
zest of 1 lemon
juice of half of above lemon
Filling – lemon curd and a few spoons of butter icing (found a pot of ready-made icing during cupboard rummage)

Preheat oven to 190C/170C fan/Gas 5. Grease and bottom-line 1 deep or 2 Victoria sandwich tins. Cream together butter and caster sugar till light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Fold in flour. Stir in zest and juice. Spread into tin(s) and bake for about 20 mins (a bit longer if in one tin) until golden on top and springy to the touch. Turn onto a wire rack after a few mins to cool completely.


Halve cake horizontally (if baked in one tin), spread with fillings. Nice with a cup of tea – put any cake remains in a nice cake tin!

Verdict: the image implies the cake was soggy and stodgy – this is one of the lightest sponges I’ve ever produced, so take heart.

 

 


Stuffed dates

For that last taste of Christmas past, I pitted the dates, made some little marzipan ‘sausages’ and voilà, we’re back in my childhood in the ’70s.  Some might say life’s too short to stuff a date but I would disagree – the rather boring process allows one to do ‘other thinking’ so I’m happy to confirm no time was wasted during this process.

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Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Unholy Mess and Omnibus Theatre present
Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea
by Jemima Foxtrot and Lucy Allan
directed by Lucy Allan
designed by Mayou Trikerioti

at Upstairs at the Western (part of Find the Right Words presents)

On a cold, January evening in a land-locked East Midlands city, we pack our metaphorical bucket and spade for a trip to the seaside with Unholy Mess and their production Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea

Unholy Mess may be better known as performance poet and Saboteur Award shortlist-regular Jemima Foxtrot, and co-writer and director Lucy Allan.  Now at the beginning of a short tour, Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea enjoyed a three-week run in Edinburgh last year, and follows their debut show Melody (2016 Saboteur Award Best Spoken Word Show runner up). 

Jess Green, creator and compere of Find the Right Words (FTRW) and host venue Upstairs at the Western are now programming a new venture, FTRW presents, where a past FTRW headliner returns to the venue with their full-length show and, as with FTRW, a free pre-show workshop is also offered.

But, back to the seaside. For much of the show, Jemima is resplendent in a vintage red swimsuit, and through poetry, song and a pedal loop, she explores memories of childhood, holidays and darker experiences in several key scenes: the re-telling of a joke in a pub, telling a bedtime story to young nephews, recalling family holidays by the sea.

Salt air swaddled us

Framed by an open shell, and on a reflective surface scattered with sand, changes in lighting signify different settings – the focused light of a tent at night, a bright, sunny day, and the dappling of shimmering water. Jemima expertly weaves moods and melodies through words and movement; the ‘doo-wap’ poem is particularly effective, her cheeky humour not always drowning the pathos which lurks beneath. 

You have a big, hairy beer belly and you get offended when I mention it

I watch you closely as you push barbed fish hooks into big, maroon maggots

Described as a poetry play, there is no distinct chronology to the narrative in this show, and some may feel frustrated that fragments of story and experience aren’t resolved, however, I found this mesmerising. After all, there is no rule to how memory and experiences ebb and flow in one’s mind, and there is a strong sense of floating in and out with Jemima’s poetic tides. With echoes of playwright Caryl Churchill’s experimentation with language, repeated phrases and motifs take on different subtleties as the performance progresses and combine; the phrase “I’d just turned ten” denotes both a childlike innocence and later, a more sinister recollection.

Jemima’s performance is siren-like: engaging and charming, she creates soaring sounds, sometimes a little too loud but a representation of the discordant effect of a multitude of competing, inner voices. We are lulled by the waves, but aware of danger. 

Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea is a voyage for the senses and expertly evokes picture postcards of familiarity – alert to the joy of fish and chips but with a salty sting in the air.

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Two soups – the old and the new

TwoSoupsDelivery of my Wonky Veg box from Morrisons yesterday, a build-up of courgettes and trying to be organised for weekday lunches meant some hot soup action this morning.

I’m a ‘try-it-and-see’ kind of cook; I use a recipe more for inspiration, and am happy to venture into the kitchen and adapt what I’ve got available – that’s me, always living on the edge (not with baking though – I don’t wish to interfere with the science bit, so best not to fiddle too much until the goodies are baked and tasted).

I like the combination of courgette and cumin; previous courgette soups have been a little bland and insipid-looking, so today I used a red onion instead of the usual bog-standard brown, and added a garlic clove.

Courgette and cumin soup with red onion

cumin seeds – a good teaspoon
a little oil
1 red onion, chopped
small garlic clove, chopped
2 large courgettes, sliced
1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
stock (I like Kallo Organic vegetable stock cubes  – I don’t measure the water but I think this was about 750ml – 1 litre. Enough to cover all the veg in the saucepan plus about about a centimetre more. If too thick after blending, add some more boiled water)

Heat oil in a largish saucepan, throw in cumin seeds, allow to sizzle for 30 seconds or so to release their aroma.

Add chopped onion and allow to sweat down for several minutes. Stir in garlic and cook another minute or two. Stir in courgette, cook for a minute or two, then add the potato and stir. After another minute, add the stock, stir, pop the lid on. Bring to boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes.

Blend, taste, season.

courgette soup
Verdict:
the red onion and garlic give a deeper flavour – not a huge difference to previous versions, but enough to notice. The cumin provides earthy tones.

 

 

 

Jean’s carrot soup (with Sally’s tweaks)

a little oil
1 large onion, chopped
5 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large potato, peeled and chopped
stock (cube as above)

Heat oil, sweat down onion for a few minutes. Add carrots, stir and cook for a minute or two, add potato and cook a mother minute or so. Add stock, pop on the lid and cook for 20 minutes or so until all the veg is soft.

Blend, season, taste.

Jean recommends adding a knob of butter when blending. I don’t do it, but feel free.

Verdict: I love this soup, and make it all the time. You could add some chopped parsley or coriander when serving if you had the urge.

Variations: Such is the versatility of soup, and this recipe, I’ve previously chucked in a ‘getting-a-bit-bendy’ parsnip and used up a stalk or two of celery with the onion which gives a slightly sweeter flavour.

PS – delighted to receive two books for Christmas featuring soup. I’m still pouring over them (oh, a soup pun), but will report back on results.

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Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve and Rose Theatre Kingston present
Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine
adapted by David Wood
directed by Julia Thomas

Continuing what is becoming something of a Christmas tradition, Curve serves up another dose of Roald Dahl for younger audiences; this year it is George’s Marvellous Medicine, adapted by David Wood, and the third co-production with Rose Theatre Kingston.

Providing a little additional backstory not in Dahl’s 1981 book, we see young George enjoying life with his mum and dad down on the farm. Cut off from his friends during the school holidays, he disappears into books and his imagination to pass the time until the whole family’s world is turned upside down by the arrival of Grandma (something many may be experiencing, not just over the school holidays).

However, Grandma is not a very nice grandma and she soon has everyone living in fear of her next unreasonable demand. George bears the brunt, not least having to give up his bedroom for her, and he devises a marvellous medicine to transform her from nasty to nice. Inevitable ‘hilarious consequences’ occur, but, as ever with Dahl, matters are resolved in brutal, dramatic fashion.

This production is perfect for the four-year-old to early teen in your life, featuring bubbles, bangs and bodily functions as well as some small-scale audience participation. Preston Nyman immediately endears and engages as George, and we are more than happy with his plan to deal with his uber-horrible relative.

Lisa Howard is great fun as a brusque, Northern Joan Collins-esque Grandma, wielding her leopardskin grabber like an evil claw, whilst also managing to operate some very unwieldy-looking giant arms (an after-effect of said marvellous medicine). A fine performance from Chandni Mistry as Chicken, and Catherine Morris (Mum) and Justin Wilman (Dad, whilst playing numerous on stage musical accompaniments) provide excellent support.

Director Julia Thomas keeps things moving briskly with some clever touches in Morgan Large’s costume and set design and the whole creative team marry complex lighting and sound effects into a harmonious blend.

All age spectrums in the audience appeared fully engaged in the performance and, in an auditorium where the heady aroma of eau d’Haribo hangs thick in the airsome bang-up-to-date political references are a nice distraction for post-teen members of the audience.

Those with any health and safety concerns may also be pleased to hear the final song “Don’t Try This at Home” heeds the fact that George’s marvellous medicine comprises kitchen and bathroom cabinet staples.

Less gross-out than other Dahl adaptations, this show is no less charming with a strong moral message to absorb—be nice to each other, or else. A fun, family show—not just for Christmas.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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