Spoken word reviews: Lucy Ayrton | Charlie Dupré | Mark Grist | Harry Baker | Anthropoetry | Love in the Key of Britpop | Spark London Storytelling | Superbard Starts to Save the World | Shane Koyczan

Storytellers, poets and rappers are given their own home in the Fringe this year. Picture: Toby Williams
Storytellers, poets and rappers are given their own home in the Fringe this year. Picture: Toby Williams
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IN THE past, spoken-word artists on the Fringe were always faced with a dilemma: whether to list their shows in the comedy section of the programme, or in the theatre section.

Lucy Ayrton: Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry

Star rating: * * *

Charlie Dupré Presents: The Stories of Shakey P

Banshee Labyrinth 
(Venue 156)

Star rating: * * *

Mark Grist – Rogue Teacher

Underbelly Cowgate (Venue 61)

Star rating: * * *

Harry Baker: Proper Pop-up Purple Paper People

The Royal Oak (Venue 309)

Star rating: * * * *

Anthropoetry

Star rating: * * * *

Love in the Key of Britpop

Fingers Piano Bar 
(Venue 221)

Star rating: * * *

Spark London Storytelling

Riddle’s Court (Venue 16)

Star rating: * * *

Superbard Starts to Save the World

Spotlites @ The Merchants’ Hall 
(Venue 278)

Star rating: * * * *

Shane Koyczan – Talk Rocker

Underbelly Bristo Square

(Venue 300)

Star rating: * * * * *

On the upside, whichever way they jumped this arrangement exposed them to a certain amount of passing trade from fans of theatre or comedy – people who wouldn’t usually consider going to events branded “poetry” or “storytelling”. But it also exposed them to audiences (and sometimes critics) with unrealistic expectations.

This year, however, spoken word has its own section, with a modest 41 shows. Some stick to tried-and- tested formats, but others seem hell-bent on pushing the limits of what a spoken-word show can be, and what it can do.

One performer who evidently delights in playing with these boundaries is Lucy Ayrton. Her show Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry is an electric fusion of poetry, music and academic lecture, in which she shoulders her feminist bazooka and aims it squarely at the way fairytales – traditionally told by mothers to keep their children out of mischief – ended up being hijacked by men, who turned them first into books and then into films, often twisting their meanings in the process.

Her cheerful demolition of the “happily ever after” ending, in which a beautiful princess marries her knight in shining armour, only to take a shine to the knight next door, is brilliantly subversive, and delivered in a heart-stopping combination of rhyme and song. Unfortunately, what promises to be the highlight of the show – a riff on Trust in Me from The Jungle Book, designed to pay Walt Disney back for messing with her childhood – falls a little flat.

Charlie Dupré’s show also has the whiff of the university lecture hall about it, although it’s nothing like any lecture I’ve ever been to. By performing hip hop interpretations of some of Shakespeare’s plays (and one of Christopher Marlowe’s), he sets out to highlight the similarities between the blank verse favoured by Renaissance playwrights and the lyrical flow of modern-day rappers.

The imagined playground rap battle between Shakespeare and Marlowe which opens the show is a feat of linguistic acrobatics worthy of either of them, and Dupré’s re-telling of Othello in the style of Eminem also works well. Elsewhere, though, his Macbeth doesn’t do much more than re-hash the major plot points in a hip hop style, and, in the performance I saw, a spot of half-time freestyling went horribly wrong. Even so, this show still feels like the best English lesson you never had.

One spoken word artist who could give Dupré a run for his money in the pedagogy stakes is Mark Grist, a former English teacher who quit his job to become a rapper and performance poet.

Grist shot to fame when video footage of him rap-battling with a 17-year-old student gained more than two million views on YouTube, and this show deals with the consequences of that event, particularly his feelings of guilt over the way the press poured scorn on his defeated opponent.

Frustratingly, however, Grist spends so much time telling us about how he came to be a professional poet that we don’t get much actual poetry, and some of the poems we do get – the one about people with ginger hair, for example, featuring deliberately awful half-rhymes – feel insubstantial, verging on throwaway. Rogue Teacher is an informative introduction to the life and work of Mark Grist, but it’s by no means the brilliant show he’s clearly capable of.

By contrast, rapper Mixy, Grist’s partner in spoken-word duo Dead Poets, has a show, Content, that’s packed with rhymes – sharp, insightful tales of call-centre love affairs and suburban ennui that make Mike Skinner of The Streets look decidedly average.

A rare talent with an almost supernatural sense of flow, he may lapse into melancholy at times, but these introspective moments are offset by a wickedly dark sense of humour. Mixy started his Fringe run at the Royal Oak, but for the rest of the festival he’ll be at the Banshee Labyrinth. Major-label A&R people: you’re welcome.

Harry Baker, also playing the Royal Oak, comes over like a hip, hoodie-wearing reincarnation of Frank Spencer. Don’t let the grinning idiot demeanour fool you, though – Baker is the current UK Poetry Slam champion, and for every deliberately awful rap in schoolboy German (delivered with his trousers around his ankles, for reasons that will become apparent if you see the show) he has a ferociously intelligent tongue-twister like Paper People.

Like the Banshee Labyrinth and the Royal Oak, Fingers Piano Bar is a modest basement room serving up an impressive menu of spoken-word talent as part of the Free Fringe.

Former BBC Radio 4 Slam champ Ben Mellor’s show, Anthropoetry, is an occasionally contrived but always engaging trip around the human body, his elegantly crafted rhymes backed (but never overwhelmed) by multi-instrumentalist Dan Steele.

Meanwhile, Love in the Key of Britpop, Aussie Emily Andersen’s hour-long poem about her doomed love affair with a Blur-and-Oasis-obsessed Brit, is a must-see for anyone who grew up in the 90s and enjoys playing “spot the lyrical reference”. It could do with a bit more variation in pace, but the inevitable break-up of the lovers’ shared record collection, when it finally arrives, will fairly burn your heart out.

In a lavishly decorated temporary venue in Riddle’s Court near the top of the Royal Mile, all red velvet curtains and art deco table lamps, the art of storytelling is celebrated in a series of events sponsored by Grants, the whisky people. Spark London is a regular night at which performers are invited to tell true stories in ten minutes or less. Some of the storytellers are less artful than others, but the best – like Spark founder Joanna Yates, with the tale of her dad’s efforts to rescue her rusting-to-pieces first car from the scrapheap – are true conjurers, able make the events they’re describing feel vividly real.

The Spark storytellers all tell conventional stories, with beginnings, middles and ends, but there’s nothing remotely conventional about Superbard Starts to Save the World, a piece of meta-storytelling so 
multi-layered it’s doubtful even its creator, George Lewkowicz fully understands all its myriad implications.

Introducing himself as “a storyteller from the future,” Superbard explains that, over the course of the next hour, he must make a choice between saving the world and finding true love. Two members of the audience are then called on to play a very prominent role in the action.

When you strip away all the meta-textual trickery, there’s not much actual storytelling going on, but a more mind-bending deconstruction of the concept of the story is difficult to imagine.

Conceptual fun and games are all very well, but they’re no substitute for mastery of the music of language, and in this Canadian performance poet Shane Koyczan is in a class of his own. Most of the poems in his show, Talk Rocker, deal with his troubled childhood. “It wasn’t a very good one,” he deadpans – a colossal understatement, as it turns out – but from all the years of bullying, loneliness and worse, Koyczan has forged some of blisteringly good poems.

They’re often deeply sad, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but always, in the end, profoundly uplifting. They sound beautiful, too, ebbing and flowing like little symphonies. Even if you didn’t understand a single word of English, you’d still find Koyczan a pleasure to listen to.

• Lucy Ayrton, run ended; Charlie Dupré until 25 August; Mark Grist until 26 August; Content until 25 August; Harry Baker until 24 August; Anthropoetry, run ended; Love in the Key of Britpop until 25 August; Spark London, run ended; Superbard until tomorrow; Shane Koyczan until 27 August.