John Hegley - Family Wordship
Didsbury Parsonage Trust – As part of the Didsbury Arts Festival
How often, at multi-artist events, are you let down by the big name draw? I’ve been to mini local music festivals where the pub bands and tribute acts will have the crowd in the palms of their hands, and then a reformed group from the 80s come on to headline, and they play as though they’ve got a train to catch. I’ve been on caravan parks and cruise ships where the entertainment staff are performing their socks off for minimum wage and a free breakfast, and then the act off the telly (albeit a runner up from the X Factor or an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical competition) take the stage and dials their appearance in for £1000 a night.
Why do the ‘Pros’ always seem to act like this? Do they believe the venue and the size of the crowd are beneath them? Is it out of bitterness as they yearn for the long gone halcyon days? Or is it because they’ve just done a four hour drive up from Glastonbury, nursing a sore head from a night on the Worthy Farm cider and other delicacies? After checking the Events Calendar on his website, I suspect it may have been the latter for John Hegley.
When Hegley’s ‘Family Wordship’ event popped up on my Facebook, I immediately booked tickets and decided to drag the lad along, as it was marketed as a family event. Not as big as he used to be (everyone I told I was going had not heard of him), I was keen to see him, remembering listening to him on John Peel and Mark Radcliffe. I had snapped the tickets up expecting them to sell out in somewhere like Didsbury, but when we arrived at the Parsonage Trust, I had to check with the staff that we were in the right room, as it was so tiny.
The festival director came to the front and did a little welcome speech, but then as John walked in to applause, about 8 other audience members came in late, and the director re-did his speech about turning phones off whilst the poet waited impatiently to kick off. An inauspicious start!
I suppose being a curmudgeon is part of the Hegley ‘act’, but he did not smile once, and really seemed to be racing through the show. The activities and songs John had us doing, including everyone drawing their own ‘WordShip’, were very imaginative and fun, but were not really delivered with any sense of it. There was really no need to be racing, as it was scheduled for two hours, and he cleared us out after 70 minutes.
Accompanying himself on a ukulele, he sang some very funny poems, and there were always parts for the crowd to join in with. But then he inexplicably read from a children’s book from another author, starting half way through, that he said he had bought that morning. Surely a poet that has been writing since the 70s has a wealth of their own material?
I don’t want to sound too down on the event. Everybody, including me, enjoyed themselves, there were jokes for the adults as well as the kids, and it is clear that Hegley is as good a performer as he is a wordsmith. But the only time his eccentricity and joy in his work really started to shine through was when he was performing his last silly song about a guillemot, before which he had told us ‘It’s nearly over, you can all go home after this.’
Some may question my criticism by saying the show was not aimed at me, it was aimed at kids, which is probably fair comment. But I have written a lot this year about the best part of any piece being the infectious enjoyment the performer takes in it, and that transmitting to the audience. Hegley was clearly taking the money and running here. I imagine the low turn out was down to £10 being quite a high price to pay per child for a poetry workshop, and I’m sorry, but if you pay for 2 hours and get 40 minutes short, it’s just not good enough!
The festival director said it was John Hegley’s first ever time in Didsbury. If you come again, John, please get a good night’s sleep beforehand.