Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1
Opened 21 January, 1997

I must admit that I have seldom seen the appeal of John Hegley's poetry on the page, and had never witnessed a full-length performance from him before turning up for the London opening of Dancing With Potatoes. Two hours later I emerged at least a partial convert.

Hegley's shtick is a style of delivery which mixes the deadpan with the self-consciously absurd: on the one hand, he takes questions from the audience with mock-1980s earnestness in the professed hope that "we can try to get the answers together", on the other he takes a quiet delight in contrived rhymes which he gobbles as a chameleon would a passing fly. In this show, his repertoire mixes apparently old favourites (such as the verses about his grandmother meeting Eric Cantona on a bench) with newer material, including some freshly penned stuff which he tries out for the first time, taking notes as he goes about the audience response (after one piece falls off anti-climactically, he mumbles as he writes, "Stick with the intro"). He also engages in some recklessly atrocious improvised poetry on subjects suggested by punters, before remarking, "Makes you appreciate the scripted stuff, though, doesn't it?"

Hegley's regular musical sidekick Nigel (just Nigel) is literally wheeled on and off two or three times on a stage truck: some of the musical segments are simply poems with a meoldic backing, others are sung (and I use the term loosely) in a deliberately pained Billy Bragg-like yelp. For the first time, however, Hegley has added choreography to his performance. In the opening minutes he goes into a momentary half-crouch, straightens and sighs, "Well, that's the dance out of the way," but the truth is far from it. He is joined for the movement sequences by a friend named Tony Curtis, but whose only resemblance to the actor of that name is in his role as the Boston Strangler; Curtis dances with menaces, as if Reggie Kray were getting on down on the disco floor.

Although Hegley mostly throws the same shapes, his air is even more bizarre. His body at rest, in its trademark dark grey suit, does not appear gangling, but in motion he always seems to be taking care lest his limbs unilaterally declare independence. As for his demeanour in the major movement sequences... try to imagine a drugged gibbon, dressed as a Jehovah's Witness, performing T'ai Chi exercises. Well, exactly.

To a certain degree Hegley's implicit parody of performance poetry has now slipped a little out of time, but he has established it so firmly as a personal style that it does not seem stale. Fans of the man will not be disappointed, nor will anyone who likes giggling a lot.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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