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It's the kind of situation that only a man of unusual talents finds himself in, and Larkin is a man of unusual talents indeed. If this doesn't seem like your thing, let me add that Larkin's talents include a razor-sharp knack for storytelling.
British performance poet Steve Larkina€™s life takes a turn for the perverse when he lands a job as a prison poet-in-residence in this semi-autobiographical piece. A high-energy performer, Larkin goes to dark places, but he lightens the load with comedic flair.
Her Majestya€™s Prison, Grendon, in Buckinghamshire, specializes in violent criminals and sex offenders of the most heinous variety. For a time, Grendona€™s poet-in-residence was Steve Larkin, a veteran of the Fringe circuit and, in his home country, a leading figure in performance poetry. There isna€™t a false note in his onstage memoir of his experience, studded with performances of his own work, tragedies and near-tragedies in his personal life, and some generous insights into the humanity of the inhumane. He looks like a normal bloke; far more normal than the bearded, bespectacled, droopy earringed Summertown audience around me. The show is based on the poeta€™s real life experiences working with convicted murderers and sex offenders in a breakthrough programme aimed at rehabilitation through poetry.
How refreshing it is sometimes to get smacked in the face with a healthy truism, and this performance, gritty, witty and joyfully self-conscious just kept 'em coming. A powerful thread imbued in the production is Larkin's whole-hearted belief in making poetry that is both vibrant and relevant.
For an hour-long performance consisting solely of one man, an empty stage, and about two and a half sound effects, the impact of this play was immense - the definitive product that is 'more than equal to the sum of its parts'. Steve Larkin is well known to many in Oxford and beyond as a performance poet, musician, co-founder of UK poetry slam network Hammer and Tongue and recent candidate for Oxford University Professor of Poetry.
As Larkin forges through his word-thick tale like a steam train, not missing a beat,A the audience must run to keep up, wondering where the journey will end - and whether they'll be different by then.
It's easy for fringe-style, 1-hour format theatre to be comedic by default in order to put bums on seats.
A year spent working with sex offenders and murderers would not be for everyone; Ia€™m sure I couldna€™t do it. Larkin opens his one-man show with some background information; he was there because he needed the money, the Arts Council would fund the course if he could recruit enough takers.
On the first day prisoners were asked to name their artistic heroes then adopt their names as their own. He set up and ran the infamous Hammer & Tongue night, which has now spread to other cities too, for eight years before backing down to concentrate on his own thing. The basic storyline is that Steve and a Doctor (whose name Ia€™m afraid I forgot to note) regularly go to HM Grendon to run a poetry workshop for the inmates.
Ita€™s what made him such a good Hammer & Tongue host, so as he (and Ia€™m loathe to use this phrase, but it really does describe it best) takes you on a journey through his year long placement, you go right along with him. A large part of the show deals with the interactions between the prisoners and a group of students that Steve is teaching in another job.
There are a couple of uneasy moments in the Stevea۪s personal life side of the show, which serve to highlight how easy it could be for any of us to make an error of judgement and end up in the prisonersa۪ situation ourselves. Steve Larkin has created a moving, thought provoking, and, most importantly, a fantastic piece of theatre. In a masterful rush of language that combines monologue, dramatic narrative and slam poetry, he tells the true story of how he tried to connect with and help those prisoners, and how they challenged and changed him. He knows exactly when to change his narrative approach for maximum impact, employs the cadences of language like a virtuoso to give his performance pace, and projects honesty and charisma that defy his punk-rock stance. As he explores his relationships with the inmates and the women in his life, hea۪s forced to confront disturbing truths aۥ about the prisoners and his own multifarious nature. He isna۪t devoted to sentimentality or happy endings, which is fortunate when youa۪re talking about pedophiles. Larkin's slam-poet style enlivens a clever, rhythmic monologue that's as engrossing as the handful of actual poems he scatters in among the unfolding events. An angry rant, an anecdote, cruel impersonation; everything sounds better as a self indulgent soliloquy. But this can only be a good thing, tired as we are of the overacting thesp types that seem to have been creaking Oxford boards since nobody knows when.


And yet Larkin gives us more than just his day job- he shows us how fraternising with dangerous takes its toll on his social life, on his dreams, on his whole existence. Rather than the sex and violence, its his candidity which draws the audience in, the abundant anecdotes that keeps us laughing.
For anyone tired of the snobby Oxford Scene or looking for a story from beyond the student bubble, this is for you too. On the dramatic front, this piece is a modern tornado of SLAM (an import from the US and basically the poetic equivalent of a rap battle), seen most notably in the scenes in which prisoners recite their own poetry, and a more general narrative prose which remains littered with quirky rhythms and rhyming schemes. On a serious level, it was a thoroughly creative and thought provoking experience, and I couldn't think of a more effective response to the sticky issues raised by Larkin's experiences - art remains the most powerful conveyor of a message. This is lucky, since it's quite a punt to associate oneself so closely with the most strongly despised crime we've got.
Chances are you won't think you are, til you're snagged by the killer twist - a small, delicious gimmick that flips the world over and starts you thinking all over again. When an artist bucks the trend, it can really have impact - and this show certainly pulls no punches.
Having to engage with a€“ possibly even begin to like a€“ someone who has committed the unforgiveable is beyond the comprehension of many. He struggled to drum up interest and it seemed his efforts were in vain, but at the eleventh hour the men signed up and he got the green light. Consequently, he found himself in a room full of the good and the great: Lennon, Mozart and Dali were there. Stevea€™s never been one to shy away from politics in his poetry, so a show about the year he spent as poet in residence at a prison was certainly going to be no exception. At first it appears to be met with a lack of enthusiasm, but as the prisoners who sign up get more into the course, the more the worth of what theya€™re doing seems. It feels like he is talking to you, rather than at you (which in a full theatre is no easy feat). The bringing together of these groups highlights a slight paradox in the way that the prisoners are taught and treated. Ita€™s an uncomfortable feeling to think that you could, in one simple, unthinking moment, end up in the same position as someone in HM Grendon. Again, I am reluctant to give too much away, but a couple of points are raised which confront us with our general perceptions and habits (both of which, I have to admit, I was guilty of), and this highlights another message of the show.
Larkin's job was to rehabilitate these criminals - whose crimes required they be segregated from other prisoners for their own safety - through poetry and creativity.
Larkin doesn't shy away from anything in the storya€•this is a prison ward full of murderers, rapists and pedophiles that he's trying to teacha€•and his own obsession with these men goes to some strange, bleak places that damage his life outside the walls. And he begins, ensnaring me in the first five minutes with his unrelenting, unforgiving and consistently cleverly delivered account, dropping me off ninety minutes later with newfound opinions on the prison system I never before cared about. In a flash his persona morphs from scouse inmate struggling with poetic self-expression, to therapist Dr Angus chatting on the drive home, to Larkin himself, reflecting on his new position: a€?Ia€™m the Johnny Cash of poetry, Ia€™m walking the f***ing line!a€?. The laughs are there, but in the next breath wea€™re thinking, examining ourselves and questioning our own judgement of Larkina€™s characters and their incarceration.
The story demonstrates what happens when you cross the murky world of high security prisoners with, (as the implicitly left wing production implies) the perhaps even murkier world of high art, shining a magnifying glass on some uncomfortable truths and blurring the distinction between 'them' and 'us'.
The clever interpolation of these contrasting poetic styles and meters, (in part a consequence of Larkin performing all the various characters solo) resulted in a remarkably beautiful sonic experience, something that I hadn't expected, despite Larkin's poetic pedigree. With a show title calculated to challenge and a confrontational poster image of a shaven-headed Larkin, mugshot-style, you'd think you were in for a harrowing tale of a criminal and his victims. This risk is personal and professional, as some paediatricians will testify - so let's hope that a clever Oxford crowd will get the 'joke'.
Doing it with the intention of making life better for them rather than their victims seems even stranger; why should anyone want to?
When someone says that all they have known since childhood is crime, you begin to think they might deserve a break.
Small theatre shows are generally treated with the same sense of general disdain as self published poetry pamphlets, possibly even more so, so ita€™s difficult not to approach this without some sense of caution. This rise in professional success is offset by a deterioration of Stevea€™s personal life, creating an interesting dynamic. This repetition is a clever trick, setting a framework for us to become quickly familiar with.


These people are people, and when treated as such respond in positive ways and progress is made.
This is said to be to enable them to loosen up and engage in the program, but I suspect it was also done in order to separate each person from their crime, so that by detaching them from what theya€™ve done theya€™ve done, they could see them as people rather than monsters. We all have preconceptions, and these can often do a disservice to the people we have them of. Its messages are positive ones, and they are delivered in a way that makes you think about them long after the show is over. Surrounded by rapists, murderers and pedophiles, Larkin introduces the inmates to creative writing, using the art form as a tool for catharsis and rehabilitation in his antisocial pupils. With his non stop rhythmic slam poetry prose approach he pops us behind towers and walls and into his shoes for his year spent as Poet in Residence at Grendon Prison. More than just endlessly quotable, this is a show both minutely thought out and rapidly delivered, oozing with more lyrical jazz than I could soak in on first watch. No feature of his or the prisonersa€™ lives is left unscrutinised; their past crimes, lost dreams, unspoken sexual frustration. It is based on the real life experiences of the performance-poet and Oxford University Lecturer Steve Larkin, an 'underemployed' artist who finds himself teaching the notions of assonance and alliteration to yesteryear's Daily Mail headliners - think 'Man-gets-life-for-eating-own-wife' scenarios, whilst tracking the harrowing effects this has on his own perspectives. Instead, take Larkin's dubious hand as he leads you into the complex world of a poet whose day job is to help imprisoned paedophiles and murderers create therapeutic poetry.
Instead, it's an hour-long one-man monologue which is insightful, clever and thought-provoking. And, even if they dona€™t, the rest of society does, and the only successful way of reducing crime is to rehabilitate the offender. Ia€™ve seen Steve Larkin perform poetry before, I know how good he is, but a one man theatre show?
Ia€™m reluctant to go into much more detail, as the showa€™s reveals deserve to be kept as such. Because they are people whoa€™ve committed awful crimes though, they are never to be fully trusted.
Among his spoken-word narratives about criminal students with pseudonyms such as Paul Weller and John Lennon and his own personal battles, Larkin interjects his sublime slam poetry with a gripping rap cadence and brash punk rock style thata€™s absolutely spellbinding. In particular, the play explores the issues of retribution and sexuality, the response to a life behind bars, and the uncomfortable parallels between life on the inside and the out. Slightly tricky to weave into a review, please accept my sincere apologies for not mentioning it until now.
He gets up, goes to work, certain same things happen, he leaves, stays in a B&B, calls his girlfriend, sleeps and dreams.
The interactions with the students highlight this conflict well, and it is a conflict that is never fully resolved. Ita€™s a lot easier for us to root for someone called David Bowie, say, than someone we know as a convicted murderer. Oh, and I should mention that it is smattered with more than its fair share of brilliant comedy. Is it really therapeutic for them to reengage with the crimes they've committed, even if it is through art? It is the United Kingdom's only therapeutic prison community for the treatment of serious sex offenders and violent offenders. Steve Larkin has the faith to just present his events and let the power of whata€™s happening be what affects us. Ita€™s another little trick that really works in getting us involved in and sympathetic to the events of the show. Larkin creates theatre that will speak equally to those who find their poetry from classic literary forms or subversive musicians.
We are shown how Stevea€™s progress with the prisoners was slow to start, and each a€?Eurekaa€™ moment makes us take more notice of it, because ita€™s outside of the framework.
Big questions hang in the air as a backdrop, though Larkin doesn't raise them directly, or attempt to answer.



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