While We Sing

This poem first appeared in ‘For A’That’, a Dundee University Press anthology celebrating Robert Burns (ed. Kirsty Gunn and Anna Day). It was later selected by The Scotsman as their ‘Poem of the Month’ (January 2010).

 

The mouse and the louse

crawl between continents.

Holy hypocrisy spans centuries

as the cries of bastard weans

echo in the cities.

The mountain still springs daisies

as the Twa Dogs bite.

A face now stamps banknotes

where once only letters ran.

Through fluctuating fashions

he stood within the frame,

bowed head and bent knee

made meaningless, dulled to archaism

when poet and people are one.

This peasant did not kneel

and will never kneel while we sing.

What Walt Disney Did For Us

 

This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 29

 

We came before the Celts, of course.

 

We walked with the wise men of Greece

and splashed inside the baths of Rome.

We played hide-and-seek in the pyramids

and danced in the Mesopotamian dust.

 

We were there in Medieval dreams,

when the Greyhound Saint

returned the babes we stole,

when the Wife of Bath spoke our name

with a wink and a saucy, gap-toothed smile.

 

Our names cropped up in witch trials,

sealed up the fate of too many girls.

We were not seen as tiny then,

not wee, nor twee,

but dangerous as the Devil.

 

Then Shakespeare gave us proud Titania

and jealous Oberon, with Puck

the playful mischief-maker tangling up

what should run smooth and straight.

 

Enter the dazzling footlight fairies

of Victorian music halls,

the battery-powered lights sparkling

in their hair.

 

And then there was poor Conan Doyle,

who was right to believe in us

(though was a fool to think

those photographs were real).

 

Yeats made use of us

when he got lost in the Twilight,

but if that was a rebirth

then the baby was weak

and sick as a changeling.

 

In the trenches, too many lost boys

grew up so fast that we became invisible.

Our numbers died out like stars vanishing.

 

Then came Walt Disney, whose Tinkerbell

had the curves of Marilyn Monroe,

with a cute temper and sweet little furniture

that she kicked with her boudoir-style slippers.

 

After that we were done for.

 

Now, when someone says our name,

it’s little girls with glitter wings,

it’s their sticky trick-or-treating hands

that pull us down from trees and stars

and seal us up in plastic.

The King and Queen

This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 29

 

Tell me that story you tell

of the mermaid who beguiled the stars.

 

There was a mermaid on a dolphin’s back,

whose voice was so crystalline pure

that wild waves were brought to rest

and stars came down from their spheres

to hear her song.

 

Now tell me of the babe you stole,

the changeling you would not let

into my humble entourage.

 

Your humble entourage, indeed,

but I’ll let it pass and tell my tale.

 

There was a lady I gossiped with

on Indian shores, watched ships sail by

with fulsome sails.

 

She would fetch me luxurious merchandise,

her belly swelling like the ships’ sails,

until the babe ripped her fabric

and her journey stilled.

 

I took her newborn boy

for our friendship’s sake,

and for the trifles she’d brought me.

I would not give him up for the price

of all these fairy lands.

 

And so, we quarrelled.

 

I remember it well,

the night we spoke too much of lovers past,

our fights fired in the forgeries of jealousy,

the night I told faithful Robin

to pour love juice in your sleeping eyes.

 

Ah yes, the night I loved the man

translated to an ass, that monstrous angel

who woke me from my flowery bed,

a bestial doting.

 

Oh, the mischief of our night-tripping fairies,

the confusion of the forest,

moth dust, blossom petals, mustard seeds,

and cobwebs light as trifles.

 

In the end, we flew off together,

swifter than the wandering moon,

to encompass the globe

and resume our regal adventuring.

 

Yet still I think of the stars who shot

to hear that mermaid sing.

 

If men can read the future in their patterns

what could have been read on such a night,

when the stars had left their stations?

 

Were portents lost?  Were accidents made?

Would the mother of my darling boy still breathe?

 

We cannot concern ourselves with mortal ways,

proud Queen, or accidents from heaven.

The parts we play are between the earth and skies,

and if we begin to understand the stars

we must close our eyes.

 

You are right, sweet King,

and now I shall lie easy on my petal-bed;

the love I gaze upon this time is no illusion.

 

Now tell me one more story

before the fires of the stars die out.

 

Perhaps, if we speak of our wanderings,

they might dismantle their constellations

and come down to press their ears

against the treetops.

The Showers of Perseus

This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 29

 

The constellation sees centuries of dust

cling to a comet’s tail,

returning each year to shame the stars

in their kaleidoscope trail.

 

Danaë heard the drip-drip of Zeus

as he poured into her virginal tomb.

Then, the steady nine-month alchemy,

and a son who could turn flesh to stone.

 

Now, as the debris burns and blazes,

open-mouthed heads tilt skywards

and spectators are stunned to statues,

 

struck dumb by a shower of meteor dust

that springs from the star-studded product of lust

who was born of a shower of gold.

Skin

This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 29

 

The heat hit me as I stepped inside.

I was unpeeled, raw as a newborn,

as a fire raged in the hearth,

making my new skin salty and wet.

 

Each night I went to bed

I felt as if I slept in the wrong skin,

wrapped in the wrong arms.

 

He thought the sea was dark and cold,

but deep down is warm as breath

and alive with light.

 

I would go to the rocks and talk,

though when the women heard my barks

they thought me mad,

and whispered with their foreheads close.

 

One day my daughter uncovered them

during play.  He had locked up my skins

so I couldn’t go home.

I hated him then, for I’d been sick for years.

 

But as I slipped the skins back on

and slid into the water,

I bid him kiss the children for me.

 

Then I thanked him for his kindness

and the warmth of the house

that he could never make me a part of.

Shane Koyczan: Talk Rocker

This first appeared on fringebiscuit.co.uk

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Shane Koyczan: Talk Rocker was the first show to make me cry at the Fringe. There, I’ve said it. I’m not much of a crier normally. I have a reputation in my family for having a heart of stone. I didn’t even cry during the episode of The Royle Family where Nana dies. I’m basically subhuman.

But Koyczan’s poetry did something to me. He had a difficult childhood: raised by his grandparents, bullied throughout his youth, but don’t think for one second his poems are maudlin. They’re authentic, wise, wry and sparklingly funny, despite the heart-wringing content. Koyczan doesn’t ‘milk’ his past but utilizes it to form poems of rare depth and insight into the human heart, from first love and night terrors to the bonds of friendship and heavy weight of bereavement.

His delivery is understated, his quiet voice leaving audiences hanging on the lyrical beauty of his language. He seemed delighted that so many people turned up to hear him read. It’s touching to witness such a talented individual display genuine modesty. Shane Koyczan rocks.

Shane Koyczan: Talk Rocker, Underbelly. Until 27 August, 7.30pm.

Eponymous: The Perils of the Titular Star

This first appeared on fringebiscuit.co.uk

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The great thing about producing a show with a legendary band/singer/actor in the title is that you have a potential ready-made fan base. Half a Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths should, theoretically speaking at least, draw in Smiths and Morrissey obsessives. Somewhere Under the Rainbow: The Liza Minnelli Story should do likewise for followers of the Queen of Broadway, and Oliver Reed: Wild Thing should appeal to those who appreciate the exploits of the boozy scoundrel.

The downside is, of course, that if you dislike a group or person and their name is in the title of a show then that show is unlikely to feature on your list of things to see at the Fringe. When I interviewed Joe Murray, star of Half a Person, I asked him if he thought it was necessary for audience members to be Smiths fans: ‘I think knowledge of, or love for, The Smiths certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s a necessity. I think it’s a fairly charming and touching story in its own right. I’ve had people dragged along to it that hate Morrissey, but have really enjoyed the show.’

To a certain extent, I disagree with Joe. I adored the show, certainly not just because I’m a Smiths fan, but if I actively disliked their music then I wouldn’t have gone along with the story the way I did. The songs would have interrupted my enjoyment of the otherwise excellent plot and stellar acting. The Smiths are viewed by their detractors as miserable, and Morrissey’s evangelical vegetarianism and provocative political statements infuriate many. The chances of one of these people going to see Half a Person are about as slim as Morrissey’s waistline circa-1985.

But sometimes it does pay to take a risk. Morrissey-haters might flinch at the thought of Half a Person, but who knows? Seeing the show might just change their opinion of his music. In fact, disliking his music might not actually get in the way of the haters’ enjoyment of the play. Personally speaking, it’s often my own ignorance that stops me giving shows a chance.

Throughout this month I’ve been sent to review shows I wouldn’t have gone a mile near if I hadn’t been told to, and I have absolutely loved many of them (a puppet show about Hiroshima, anyone?). So next year, when I’m no longer reviewing and am back to being a Fringe punter, I’m going to try my best to see shows I’d normally avoid.

That’s another thing that writing for Fringebiscuit has taught me: be more open-minded, take a few chances. The clue isn’t always in the title.

Half a Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths

This first appeared on fringebiscuit.co.uk

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Half a Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths tells the story of William, a young man obsessed by The Smiths (and himself), who is torn between two people: the red-lipped, black-haired, dour Salomé and his best friend, gentle playwright Rick. Lolling on couches, slugging red wine and generally feeling sorry for himself whilst listening to Smiths LPs, William (played by twenty-three year old Joe Murray from Cross Cut Theatre Company) faces infatuation, heartache and a final terrible loss. I met up with Joe in a rather chaotic Black Medicine on Nicholson Street to talk Mozzer, Britishness and bloody critics (!).

I was curious to discover whether Joe had been a fan of the Smiths before he became part of the show – as a diehard Smiths fan myself it seemed the natural place to start. ‘I’ve been a Smiths fan since I was about 17 when I read the NME’s Queen is Dead anniversary edition. Never quite to William’s level, but I certainly got even more into them from doing the show. I’ve become a fairly massive geek on the subject.’

Joe’s vocals and movements when performing the Smiths songs sprinkled throughout the show are testament to this geekiness. Learning the singer’s mannerisms must have been a challenging task; how does one performer mimic another without slipping into karaoke or caricature? ‘I watched a LOT of Morrissey performances and interviews on YouTube and I listened to The Smiths pretty much non-stop. We really wanted it to be William singing the songs, not a sort of bad Smiths cover band. I think the way Morrissey sings is very hard to replicate anyway. Movement-wise, I just had to really commit to it. If you go about it feeling worried about looking awkward, that’s when it looks naff.’

Half a Person is written by Australian playwright Alex Broun, and the original play was set in Melbourne. In this version the story has been relocated to London/Manchester. ‘I think the show has really benefited from being anglicised. The Smiths are so iconic and so synonymous with a sort of “Britishness” that it was a fairly easy job. I think that’s part of the show’s charm now, so if we were to take it overseas I think that would be a major selling point. I think it adds authenticity.’

The show has received a wide range of responses. Fringebiscuit gave the show four stars, the Quotidian Times five stars, The Stage was full of praise for Joe’s performance but not the play itself, and Broadway Baby went for 1 star. I think this disparity may have something to do with the fact that if you hate The Smiths/Morrissey you may automatically hate this play and, on the flip side, if you’re a massive Smiths/Morrissey fan you’ll probably love it. (This question of ready-made fans/detractors is the subject for another blog. Stay tuned).

Half a Person is a wonderful, touching and funny show, and the songs are beautifully and lovingly performed. Go see it, swig some red wine, loll in your seat, and revel in the talent of The Smiths. And as for Joe – he’s a charming man (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Half a Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths, Zoo Southside, 17-27 August, 7.50pm

Audience Interaction: The Agony and the Ecstasy

This first appeared on fringebiscuit.co.uk

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Ever had a foil cloak wrapped round you and Nutella smeared on your arm? Ever been handed a box of soothing tea because you look ‘fragile’? Ever had balloons thrown in your face and your laptop chucked in a binliner? I’ve had all these things (and more) done to me at the Fringe and we’re not even halfway through. I feel thoroughly abused.

These sort of experiences take me outside the performance. They don’t make me feel part of it, which is what I think they usually intend to do. I feel conspicuous, sometimes downright embarrassed, and spend the rest of the show worrying what might happen next. Because of this, I feel unable to give my full attention to the actual content, as much as I wish to, and as a reviewer this isn’t helpful.

If you’d told me these things would happen to me here I might never have applied to be a Biscuiteer. And yet… I’ve actually started to enjoy the abuse. Is that weird? I’ve developed a sort of Fringe Stockholm Syndrome; I begin to love the performers who rough me up the most.

One tip I’ve learned for avoiding being singled out is to never let a performer know you’re from the press. I stupidly asked comedian Martin Mor for directions to the press office. It wasn’t my fault. I knocked on a door which said ‘staff only’ on it and it was just him inside. I couldn’t think of an excuse on the spot so spent the next hour squirming in my seat. He was mercifully kind to me, although he did make fun of the name Fringebiscuit (bloody cheek).

I was beside myself with glee when Tim Key asked me to test his bathwater during Masterslut, which featured an on-stage bubble-bath with a bottle of Radox perched on its edge. I rose from my seat, approached the bath, and stooped slightly to dip my hand in the water. ‘It’s perfect’, I said. Key smiled. He asked me how I ‘take’ my bath, with both water and Radox? I answered yes and he agreed that ‘neat’ Radox would be a bit much. He asked me what I do in the bath. I told him I listened to Radio 4 (Key is a regular on Radio 4. He knew it. I knew it. An unspoken understanding formed between us). He said something about cricket and lost me a little, if truth be told. Then he asked me what I read and I told him my Kindle (which in retrospect was a bit vague, should’ve said Kurt Vonnegut or something) and he told me he listened to Russian ballads and I told him I’d never heard any of those and he told me to sit back in my seat.

But the bond had been established. A little later, Key showed an image of a pornographic playing-card on the screen. It was of a muscled man. He handed the card to me and asked me if I liked it. I told him I did and he commented on the way I bit my lip while I said this. This was one of the most erotic moments of my life.

Later, as the show ended, I got (what I like to think was) an extra-special hug from him (wet, bear-like), and he popped a sugar cube into my mouth. I actually tasted his fingers. They tasted of Radox.

So I’m embracing this whole audience interaction thing now. It can be exciting, it can heighten experiences and, if nothing else, will leave you with lasting (albeit potentially awkward) memories of the Fringe.

But oh sweet lord: no more Nutella please. And hands off my gadgetry.

How do I love Key? Let me count the ways…

This first appeared on fringebiscuit.co.uk

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Pleasance Dome, Friday night, 11pm. I arrive early (or so I thought) for Tim Key: Masterslut. The queue is already snaking all over the joint. I ask a member of staff where it starts and he points vaguely into the distance. I sigh.

‘Is this the queue for Tim Key?’ I ask a couple of women at the back. They smile and say yes and I reluctantly join the swollen ranks, disgruntled but nevertheless happy to be there.

After a few minutes, another member of staff appears by my side and declares the house open for Masterslut. To my astonishment and delight the queue begins to move in my direction: I had inadvertently joined the start of the queue! I would never have the balls to do that deliberately.

I sit down, front and centre, in the Masterslut audience. Key is already on stage. So is a bubble bath, with a bottle of Radox perched on its edge. Key is holding a red rose, dipping it in the foam and waving it about seductively. He is wearing a suit. My heart flutters. He makes eye contact with me. I smile sheepishly.

Key lopes off-stage and launches into his set. A projection appears on the wall in front of us. It’s a diagram of the audience with arrows and phrases surrounding certain seats: ‘shake hands’, ‘hug’, ‘give a sugar cube to this one’ and so on. Key proceeds to do just this, and I get a friendly handshake. Not exactly a hug or a sugar cube, but still something to write home about.

The poetry Key recites is sublime, so funny I laugh aloud in a completely unselfconscious way (which isn’t like me). ‘An ox? An ox? An ox? An ox? I could barely conceal my incredulity.’ The words are perfectly chosen, exquisite in their awkwardness, endlessly surprising. His timing is spot-on, the strained silences stretching out before startling resolutions take you unawares. It’s what’s in his delivery too; that slightly morose expression, that petulant drawl, the sometimes quite filthy language coupled with the cheeky face of a debauched-toddler. At one point during the show he recites a poem about a man who slaps his penis onto a supermarket conveyer belt. It transpires the man has misheard the cashier, ‘hauls’ himself back into his jeans, and bashfully hands over his rewards card. Magic.

The video clips Key plays throughout the show are hysterical, and when he plunges headlong into his bath (which he does a few times) an underwater image of him comes up on screen. Later, a clip reveals that the photo-shoot for a porn playing card featured earlier was in fact conducted by Key himself, and we get to see Key urging the model to get his knob out.

This is, quite simply, perfect stand-up; hilarious, intelligent and utterly original. There are just so many reasons to love Tim Key, and I got to add another one to my list that night: he gave me a hug AND a sugar-cube at the end. Bliss.

Tim Key: Masterslut, Pleasance Dome until 21 August, 11.30pm; Pleasance Courtyard 23-25 Aug, 11.15pm.