The Magic Bus: Onboard with ‘The 900 Club’

The 900 Club_image

‘The 900 Club’ was produced by ‘In The Works’ – a spoken word theatre company, run by Bibi June, Ross McFarlane, Shannon O”Neill & Ellen Renton and based in Glasgow. The company develops spoken word theatre shows – ‘The 900 Club’ is their latest show, which ran from 3 – 12 August at the Scottish Poetry Library. Wanting to promote spoken word theatre as an art form, and build a sustainable, accessible tradition for performance poets, In The Works is meant to be a hub for anyone wanting to grow as a poet, performer and theatre maker.

Bibi June’s solo collection, ‘Begin Again’, is available from Speculative Books.

I have yet to meet anyone entirely new to performance poetry or spoken-word who isn’t, on first exposure, unfailingly, without exception – Every. Single. Time – impressed with what they’ve seen.

And so they should be. Done well, spoken-word is an art-form that seduces, beguiles and inspires. Watching skilled performers (and there are a lot of skilled spoken-word performers on the Scottish scene) wrap words around images, around phrases, around rhythms, around words is a beautiful thing to witness. So when you put four of Scotland’s best-regarded performance poets together on one stage, as was the case with ‘The 900 Club’, the results, at times, were quite sublime.

‘The 900 Club’ is the second production by Glasgow’s ‘In The Works’ theatre company. I confess that I didn’t see their first show, ‘A Matter of Time’ – but I was very much onboard for this one. 

The subject matter – the burden or gift of friendship, relationships and the loss of a loved one – was deftly handled and beautifully articulated in much of the verse. It all rang true without being obvious or cliched. It was, in most respects, exactly what you’d want from the marriage of spoken-word and theatre – a production that showcased the strengths of both art-forms.

There were niggles (I’m afraid there are almost always niggles), the Scottish Poetry Library – delightful though it is, in so many different ways, is no theatre. This was a show that cried out for a bit more tech – foley sound, to bring the bus journey alive a bit more, variable lighting states, to support some of the mood shifts and add emphasis to the isolation and distance between characters at key points.

And I couldn’t help but think that the staging, which left the actors sitting down for 80-90 percent of the performance caused a wee bit of an issue. Spoken-word performed standing up often relies (consciously or unconsciously) on a range of body movements. When performers echo those movements while they’re sitting down, it kind’ve makes them look like they’re squirming, slightly uncomfortably, in their seats. But none of this really mattered, in the greater scheme of things.

Of course, the big difference between ‘The 900 Club’ and all of the other spoken-word theatre shows I’ve seen recently was in the number of people on-stage. Put simply, having four people gives you more options. It lets you be more recognisably ‘theatrical’ in that you can write passages that are more like conventional, theatre dialogue. You have more scope for movement as multiple performers can be in different places at the same time, pin-balling words around the auditorium and it gives you recourse to what is, IMHO, the most powerful weapon in the performing-arts armoury – multiple voices, speaking or singing in unison.

What was really interesting for me, was the way that the four performers, and their script, dealt with the tension between the discipline of slam-style, performance poetry – which, basically, aims to grab the audience, hold them tight for three minutes, then let them them breathe – and the progression through a narrative arc that allows for multiple instances of build-up > tension > release, that a long-form show needs.

There were some fantastic interventions or disruptions to the poetic flow. At one point, a group sing-a-long to Ben E, King’s, ‘Stand By Me’, worked beautifully – both as a release of tension but also as a highly-effective mechanism to move the narrative on to its next emotional peak.

Personally, I could have done with more of the performers ‘riffing’ off each other – but, overall, ’The 900 Club’ had the swing and performative dazzle of a really good jazz-quartet gig – four virtuosos swapping solos, picking up themes and playing to each others’ strengths. There was some real imagination and creativity in the use of the four voices. There were lines spoken in shimmering unison – followed by dialogue delivered in a plainer, more conversational style, to move things along – then moments of acrobatic synchronicity that made me think of a, kind-of, high-wire verbal trapeze act.

The build-up to the final section, where Ellen Renton and Shannon Doherty stayed seated and Bibi June and Ross McFarlane moved to the back of the auditorium and the two pairs flipped exchanges from one performer to another, and one pair to another, was a marvellous example of what spoken-word theatre can be, when you bring the best of both art forms together. I think anyone who saw ‘The 900 Club’ – whether they were new to spoken-word or long-standing supporters – will have been impressed. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what ‘In the Works’ come up with next.

[Author’s note #1: In case it’s not immediately obvious, I am not a ‘professional’ writer/reviewer. I take no position on whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. There will be no star ratings here. What you’re getting, for the price of however long it takes you to read this piece is one person’s opinion. I am up for debate/discussion. I am happy to be told that, while I felt like ‘this’, you felt like ‘that’. Your thoughts/responses are as valid as mine. ]

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