N.O.N.C.E

Fri 27th January 2012

reviews

Stan Pinsent

at 16:17 on 28th Jan 2012

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I love a good monologue, don’t you? An angry rant, an anecdote, cruel impersonation; everything sounds better as a self indulgent soliloquy. Yet Steve Larkin’s ‘N.O.N.C.E’ is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. 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.

He looks like a normal bloke; far more normal than the bearded, bespectacled, droopy earringed Summertown audience around me. 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 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.

The show is based on the poet’s real life experiences working with convicted murderers and sex offenders in a breakthrough programme aimed at rehabilitation through poetry. 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. 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: “I’m the Johnny Cash of poetry, I’m walking the f***ing line!”. 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.

Refreshingly, this man doesn’t hold back. Rather than the sex and violence, its his candidity which draws the audience in, the abundant anecdotes that keeps us laughing. The laughs are there, but in the next breath we’re thinking, examining ourselves and questioning our own judgement of Larkin’s characters and their incarceration. No feature of his or the prisoners’ lives is left unscrutinised; their past crimes, lost dreams, unspoken sexual frustration. “There’s an elephant in the room”, he muses “And its raping a panda with its trunk”.

For lovers of prose or poetry, this is a must. For anyone tired of the snobby Oxford Scene or looking for a story from beyond the student bubble, this is for you too. But the appeal of N.O.N.C.E. is really much wider: you’ll find that, more than just a call to change our approach to prison and punishment, this is a tribute to the spoken word itself, to the power of speech and its innate musicality.

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Anna Kaznowska

at 16:20 on 28th Jan 2012

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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. In N.O.N.C.E., you get that winning combination, usually the domain of comedians like Russell Brand, of biting wit served with a soothing accent; - one that doesn't need to be dressed up in RP or florid language to pack a creative and intellectual punch. 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'. 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. 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. Oh, and I should mention that it is smattered with more than its fair share of brilliant comedy.

A powerful thread imbued in the production is Larkin's whole-hearted belief in making poetry that is both vibrant and relevant. 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. 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.

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'. 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. Oh, and just in case you were wondering, N.O.N.C.E. Stands for Not.On.Normal.Courtyard.Exercise, that is, prison terminology for the sex offenders at the bottom of the inmates' hierarchy who are denied said pleasure. Slightly tricky to weave into a review, please accept my sincere apologies for not mentioning it until now.

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