August 20, 2012 by The Ascending Staircase
Almost as soon as I arrive, I am sent to MMU’s Mabel Tylecote refectory to find myself some poets. What I actually find is one rather excited festival director, who then introduces me to Philip Gross and Mandy Coe, two of the award-winning stars of the show. They’re enjoying a coffee whilst readying themselves to perform alongside poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and musician John Sampson. They seem really enthusiastic about the event and invite me downstairs to Lecture Theatre 1, where I get a sneak preview of the show. There’s a table littered with strangely-shaped instruments and picket signs not unlike those from a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Philip collaborates with John, putting the musical finishing touches to one of his poems. The atmosphere is relaxed and ready.
People begin to arrive in their droves and the theatre is soon filled with the noise of chattering schoolchildren. Everybody is impatiently waiting for the music and poetry to commence.
Kaye Tew, our excited festival director, introduces the show. It begins with John Sampson who plays a horn, complete with funny faces, to the amusement of the schoolchildren. They giggle and clap. ‘Hello,’ he booms in his deep voice, ‘Mandy Coe!’ John returns to his seat, stage left, as Mandy stands to perform.
Mandy’s performance is very much centred around connecting with her audience. Her poetry speaks of the dreams and hopes of children, who are clearly her target audience here. The first poem she reads to us emphasises how a passion for something, such as dance, can seemingly alter the speed of time, whereas one of her final poems reveals the far reaches of human ability, and how we are more than even we realise. Clearly, Mandy is very interested in human nature, particularly the carefree nature of children and how it differs from adults. Yet, she manages to keep this potentially difficult, heavy topic relaxed and informal. Her poetry is light-hearted and celebratory, making it a successful performance. The schoolchildren relate to her well, as shown by their participation; they laugh when they should and smile when Mandy expects them to. For us adults, there is a wider sense of nostalgia for days gone by. Mandy leaves me wishing I could be a child again and feel these things first-hand.
As her performance comes to a close, Mandy introduces our next guest, Philip Gross. His unusual form of poetry focuses on the mundane, forgotten things in our world and turns them into creatures, with a sense of purpose and feeling. As he appears before his audience, he launches into his first poem immediately. It is about random household items that have been forgotten yet struggle with this rejection, as ‘everything wants to be something’. Perhaps this is a concept which children can easily relate to, as the schoolchildren seem totally immersed in this poem. It is funny and cheerfully daft, whilst also having a point. The poem receives a large round of applause. His other poems do similar things in different ways, and John Sampson accompanies in various places. A poem about fire repeatedly uses the word ‘we’, as if the flames had their own community; a rather interesting perception. Philip’s set is a hit and his efforts gain him a large round of applause.
Carol Ann seems to go down an entirely different route. Her poetry is set out like a play, with John as her right hand man. Although it is quite obviously an act throughout, children and adults alike seem to love it. One sketch sees John in a wig playing Mozart on a wooden recorder. Unusual, yes, but it sparks some good poetry from Carol Ann about music and poetry, and a sheep composer named ‘Baa’. An interactive poem sees Carol Ann playing on one of schoolchildren’s strengths, by pitting them against each other to see who can scream the loudest. Of course, they’re screaming actual words (one of Elvis, Picasso, Shakespeare, or Virginia Woolf) in time to the poem. It’s definitely a good way to get the children’s attention. The rest of her poetry follows the same ilk; it is comedic and relatively interactive for the children, so nobody’s attention seems to waver from John and Carol Ann for long. John shows off some strangely-shaped instruments, explaining their backstory and playing them so the children can hear how they sound. He is clearly a vital piece to Carol Ann’s reading.
The children send the poet laureate off with a huge round of applause. They have definitely loved the afternoon; after all, it’s better than maths, isn’t it?