After eleven years of verbal and lyrical violence, Brighton’s poets and rappers called a truce for this one-off Fringe Festival special. The cult spoken word show, now an annual fixture at the Concorde, was tonight held in the Spiegeltent – a venue that always somehow seems apt for the occasion, no matter what’s on stage. This travelling shed of mirrors also has the effect of making every show feel a bit like a special event. The change of scene certainly helped ease the crowd into a different dynamic.
An early round saw both teams sublimate their rivalry into a comic showdown between seagulls and pigeons. This attempt to turn the villains of Brighton’s wildlife into avatars for a themed literary contest was always going to be a farce. One confused poet even ended up temporarily joining the MCs’ team by accident (he’d taken the time to make a papier mâché seagull hat, you see). Another refused to take sides at all, comparing the choice of birds to a toss-up between a flying rubbish bin and a diseased muck dispenser. Although it made for an entertaining opening, it was clear nobody was really that interested in fuelling the feud.
And, in truth, the night was all the better for it. The usual tribal animosity, so useful as a stagecraft set-up, gave way to a more jovial atmosphere and a series of new rounds, each adding a fresh twist to the format. Thus it was that we came to see our first ever ‘compliment-off’, a rare enough event in any public arena, let alone one characterised by a long-standing war of words. Gramski the rapper began proceedings, his piece praising the poets in turn, applauding the very things that would have previously been the basis of a hilariously snide put-down. It was honest and heartwarming, yet the revelation that each side had secretly come to admire their counterparts’ talents had a humour all of its own. Then came Mike Parker’s grand declaration of rapper love, read from an oversized pink card emblazoned with a glittery heart. Where dissing once got all the laughs, here the jokes were on the side of sincerity.
In a similar vein, Enlish’s story about dealing with depression and caring for his dying mother blew away a few perceived ideas of what rapping can do – even if it took a rather rough shouting down of some giggling girls at the front to make the point. Later on we heard some truly inspiring and inspired words from the other side when construction worker turned wordsmith, AP Staunton, performed his slam-winning poem about overcoming book-burning building site prejudices.
Just before the interval the audience gave suggestions for topics to test the poet’s improvisation skills. Having had the break to scribble some lines, most availed themselves well. But this was the rapper’s territory and they knew it. Robin Lawley, the same chap who refused to side with either of Brighton’s mangiest birds, also refused to play the improv game (as is his wont) and instead read a readymade on one of the suggestions that had come up: UKIP. Taking the form of a letter to Nigel Farage from a sympathetic but uncertain supporter, the piece brilliantly nailed the insecurities behind the party’s appeal: “I’m scared, Nigel. It’s not that I’m a… No, of course not.” If we hadn’t already been standing the ovation would have been impressive.
Finally, a rapper-devised round saw two poets facing off against each other. In the red corner we had Rosy Carrick, leader of team poetry, host of Komedia’s Hammer & Tongue night and possessor of a deadly sharp, incisive wit. Who would dare take the gauntlet? Enter Chris ‘The Walrus’ Parkinson, a hairy madcap hoaxer with a deceptively meandering style of freeform verse. While Rosy lambasted him for having an imaginary wife and an ‘inadvertent’ movie career (see here), she herself was taken to task for an inability to refrain from pouring caustic sarcasm upon all she surveys, including nervous first-time poets at her own open mic night. Turning the poets against themselves was a class move on the MCs’ part. From the sidelines it seemed they enjoyed the ride as much as the audience.
Will the truce last until the next bout in January? Will the rappers’ divide-and-conquer tactic pay off? Find out in the next exciting instalment of this hilarious ongoing spoken word soap opera. Great stuff.
Brighton Spiegeltent, Saturday 3rd May 2014
Words by Ben Bailey
Photo by Michael Gajewski