Review: John Hegley

John Hegley

He likes my cardigan! Whatever the night promises, somehow the fact that John Hegley likes my cardigan has already made the evening a winner.

John sits to the side of the DJ booth with a cup of tea and an assured attitude as he watches the room fill.  Over a hundred people have come to the Blackpool Catholic Club to watch legendary comedic poet John Hegley, and to hear the Northern Soul set from DJ David Belcher in an event organised by The Grundy Gallery to compliment the current exhibition by Matt Stokes, Dance Swine Dance. John has come from a busy workshop during the day at the gallery creating weird and wonderful pictures and poems, and is looking relaxed and ready to entertain with his trademark lyrical ease.  Indeed, the nature of entertaining is one of things (including my cardigan) he discusses with me:

I was once described as a ‘turn’, rather than a stand up, which is a nicer way of putting it. I am more of an entertainer than a comedian.

This is indeed true.  For those who have missed him, Hegley on stage is an entertaining fluid play of poetry and raconteur, drawing on the oddest approaches to tale telling in both verse and personal stories. The story of his previous trip to Blackpool to watch Luton play at Bloomfield Road is given a surreal tilt as deaf supporters signing good natured abuse is thrown into the mix.

Hegley takes to the stage and with a small pile of books and a smaller guitar and proceeds to enchant his rapt audience over the next hour of his first of two sets of his poetry and pleasant company.  There is an innate sense of understanding in his manner, a reading of the room that goes beyond simply being able to make a hundred people flap their arms like a guillemot or sing a three part harmony to a poem about an amoeba. There is an almost social engagement with the people in the room that makes us feel more like participants rather than an audience.

Hegley has always struck me as a uniquely English or British voice, like a Morrissey without the gloom. I really don’t believe that anyone else from anywhere else could write or perform from the viewpoint he holds.  Oddly enough though he tells me:

I am a quarter French, which some of the poems will tell about, but perhaps that is distinguishing and makes me a distinguish-ed English-man.

His French lineage is touched on during both sets.  In quite touching and personal poems that tug on the heart strings while raising a smile, he talks of his Grandmother’s letters and the handing down of wisdom and advice to a lovelorn Hegley in his youth.  By turns funny, then hauntingly fragile, the nature of Hegley’s poems impress as much as the seamless weaving of them on stage. Sliding from his views on grated cheese, poems about jails and Giacometti, to a competition for the worst drawn Dalek, Hegely has us in palm of his hand for the entirety.

Hegley tells me he is interested in how far he can stretch an audience, to take them to the edge.  This is not in the aggressive way someone like Stewart Lee, who batters them to the point of alienation, does but in a schoolmaster with a class of unruly school kids kind of way.  We are chastised but urged on to ‘do better’ as we sing along to another verse of wry metaphor or the question as to what to do with Grandad’s glasses.
It’s a happy event, one that Hegley obviously revels in:

I want to make it joyous, to bring joy, that’s the key.

And nobody can argue that he has succeeded in doing that.  It’s as joyous and satisfied a room as I’ve ever experienced in twenty five years of attending comedy and events of this kind.

After Hegley’s winning sets and a quick lesson in Northern Soul steps, DJ David Belcher takes to the turntables and the night’s dancing begins.  The tables disappear from the dance floor and it fills to the brim with an eclectic group of young and old, devotees of Northern Soul ‘keeping the faith’ and those who just like to dance to great music.

It is a great night.  No missed beats in atmosphere, poetry or dance steps.  A night that will live on in the memory for a long time to come. Mr Hegley promises to return for a second helping and when he does it is guaranteed to be one of the hottest tickets in town, so keep you ears open and keep watching altblackpool for future events.

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