503Fusions, Theatre 503, London

503Fusions, Theatre 503, The Latchmere, 503 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 3BW; 15th, 16th and 17th January 2015, 7:45pm, £12/£10

Reviewed by Zozi (15th Jan)

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

503Fusions is a lovely Frankenstein’s monster: a sequence of four themed mini-plays by four poets, each work containing elements of spoken word, jazz, rap, musical theatre and storytelling. The audience are taken on an impressionistic voyage through London, from dusk to dawn. It’s a real privilege to see the poets Karis Halsall, Tommy Sissons, Gemma Rogers and Deanna Rodger come together for this: they’re a sharp, cool, star-bright group, and it’s clear that they’re relishing every moment.

The space is a pub theatre – simple and unpretentious (the packed-out house and enthusiastic audience response suggests that this work could be taken elsewhere, perhaps to Edinburgh). Karis Halsall, who also curated 503Fusions, opens the evening with her piece Night. This is a dynamic work about loneliness and loss, which is suited to Halsall’s engaging physicality. The character she portrays – her shoulders up, hands in the pockets of her overlarge coat, as though apologising for her presence on stage – instantly captures the audience’s sympathy, but she holds our attention with some pointed and beautifully delivered lines. “Time is not data,” she declares, “it cannot be archived/it cannot be stored/it can only be lived.”

Tommy Sissons follows with his work Day, which introduces more hopeful overtones, whilst picking up on the dark themes in Night. This made for a change of tone mid-poem which was jarring at first, but it delivered the message. In contrast with the other three poets, who were all acting out personas or storytelling to some degree, the second half of Sissons’ poem was a straight-down-the-line elegy: he spoke out for young people who have been lost to violence or suicide, and expressed hope that a brighter future can be created for London’s youth. Sissons, who was 2014 UK Slambassador Champion, is another confident and engaging performer, and his chemistry with his backup band Normanton Street was certainly fun to watch.

The most musically sparkling piece of the evening was Gemma Rogers’s. Rogers has a charming stage presence, and it’s no surprise to find out she’s a regular at Glastonbury. A perky figure in large glasses, she is an accomplished musician and poet who can switch seamlessly from performing poetry, to rapping, to singing with a ukulele – and it sounds great, especially with the backup of Nick Rogers, Dominic Kennedy and Thomas Hammond. It’s wonderful to hear music, storytelling and poetry being whizzed together with such eccentric, bolshy virtuosity (move over, John Hegley).

Rogers’s piece Day is a one-woman musical that combines rap, spoken word, ukulele anthems and campy piano ballads; the audience clearly adored it, although sometimes I worried that the musical fun was overwhelming the narrative instead of moving it forward. Steve Harper’s direction holds the piece together, however, and the ending is a sweet and audience-pleasing resolution.

Deanna Rodger completes the evening with Night II. I’ve seen Rodger’s work before, but I’m always surprised afresh by how versatile an artist she is: her work has so many shades and moods, and expresses a wide range of emotions and concepts. Her poetry is always packed with facts, thoughts and ideas, but it’s always accessible and relatable. Rodger has a vibrant physical presence, which she uses to full effect: no facial expression or movement is wasted. Night II is the standout of the evening, with its meditation on light: “the sun cannot defeat London”, Rodger declares. “God made us in her image/so we are God/and we make lights/great lights.”

My takeaway is that we’re all blessed to be in a renaissance of spoken word poetry, where poets can pull off beautiful and daring experiments like 503Fusions. It’s easy to forget that spoken word poetry has previously been seen as inaccessible and irrelevant. My only complaint is that 503Fusions ran for three nights only – but let’s hope this won’t be the last we will see of it.

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