Friday, 12 October 2012

Richard Tyrone Jones Has A Big Heart

Wednesday night saw me head out to watch Richard Tyrone Jones's "Big Heart" show at the Deptford Albany.  This is a show which has had a long and unpleasant gestation period, with many horrible pokes and stabs taken by fate along the way.  Over two-and-a-half years ago now, Richard staged his own poetry funeral at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, resting in a coffin as various other poets paid tribute to his life and his work, and a posse of weeping widows stood around aimlessly.  It was a spectacularly well organised event which I covered in very slight detail here (on my old blog - a lot of time has passed, you see, and nobody uses Livejournal anymore) but for all the slickness, the poetry itself felt faintly crowbarred in and occasionally disjointed from the main theme.  As we left the venue, Paul Birtill turned to a friend and I and quipped that Jones had very dangerously tempted fate by staging a humorous funeral, and we all wandered off to the pub afterwards to drink some beers and laugh at the very notion.

Perhaps Birtill knows more about life and the way it works than anyone else does - and that's a scary thought in itself - for not long after this event Richard collapsed with heart failure, having unknowingly inherited a rare condition.  The show "Big Heart" takes in months of hospital stays, weakened health, the lingering possibility of death, and his eventual recovery.  In the hands of most poets, this would be a deeply depressing show which spent an hour wading through a swamp of torturous misery (Ted Hughes' poems about heart failure, for example, are strong pieces of work but wouldn't have enough charm to keep an audience occupied if stretched for sixty minutes). In fact, had the same chain of events happened to me, I doubt very much I could have squeezed a reasonable show out of it.  Fortunately, Richard has a finely tuned sense of the absurd, which has possibly been sharpened still more by being put through the mill in this way.  Encounters with coke fiends in the same hospital ward, nurses he was (quite literally) fatally attracted to, and the absurdities of being in somebody else's care are all explored.  Whilst some of the show is undoubtedly touching, thought provoking and bleak, he has still created an event with the required amount of peaks and troughs to make it a rewarding rather than hectoring experience. He is humorous about the situations his condition threw him into - even having to return to live with his parents in Dudley, which you end up suspecting was the worst deal of all from the portrayal he delivers - and charming enough to come across as a sympathetic and rounded person rather than self-indulgent human (a rare quality amongst spoken word artists).

A few technical problems paid an unwelcome visit to the live show that I saw, but the improvised jokes around these were actually sharp and funny and showed a performer who obviously now has total control of his environment.

As for the idea of a one-man poetry show being strung along one central theme, I still freely admit I have some issues with this, though have grown to accept that spoken word artists (and comedians) like producing them because it makes promoting their shows a lot simpler.  Often these events use the theme as a loose springboard and fail to stick to the concept enough, or the concept will take its toll on the writer, and some sub-standard poetry will start to slip in just because it's thematically relevant.  "Big Heart" is probably one of the better shows I've seen for managing to find an adequate balance, and Richard manages to put poems into the show which are not dull, singular narratives taking the poetry hack's predictable A-B route of semi-joking self-pity combined with Jongleurs level comedic quips.  Much of the set is strong, thoughtful poetry which is interesting and layered enough to stand up on the page (as all poetry should).

In short, this show did have some pointers for me as to how I'd like to see full-length poetry shows develop in future.  There is room for wit and humour as there is for the touching and personal, and there's no need for the performer to be afraid of big, poetic ideas while he's at it.  I'd probably still prefer to hear Richard Tyrone Jones do a set of mix-and-match material, but as I said all those years ago, I'm a tedious purist - and what his show did was prove that poetry does have a very valid place as a theatrical experience rather than being forever shunted into rowdy pub back-rooms.

Catch his show if you can.  A list of future dates is available here.  

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