Having never been to a night completely dedicated to poetry reading before, I didn’t know what to expect. The familiar image you saw on TV once of pale-faced posh people in berets crying into a microphone in front of a silent room of equally posh people sitting at tiny tables with carnations came into my mind but I dismissed it because this night, Bang Said The Gun, which has been established on the London nightlife scene long enough to not fold under pressure of lack of audience or lack of funds, is billed as ‘Stand Up Poetry’ and that phrase has a whole world of possibility behind it.

I used to do a bit of Stand Up Comedy in the upstairs of pubs around London. They were often soul destroying events, where 10 or 15 comedy hopefuls would line up and wait for their 3 minutes of ‘fame’ under the spotlight while an audience made up of the barman and the sound guy would watch. It would often be deafeningly silent.

Bang
Bang Said the Gun is not deafeningly silent. It is just deafening. The room is big and the walls are decorated with giant black and white billboards all proclaiming things like ‘BANG!’ and ‘WALLOP!’ inside spiky explosion bubbles. There are a mish-mash of tables with candles (no carnations though) and benches and squashy sofas.  A big screen above the little stage at the front shows wiggly cartoons of suns and rockets exploding with – what else? a BANG. It’s immediately fun. There are battered looking white bottles on every table that used to contain salt but now contain lentils and raw peas – anything that makes a noise.

The resident performers (of which there are many – Bang appears to be a collective that has just kept growing over the years), are dancing about, shaking them in time to the loud party music that’s playing. Martin Galton, one of the Bang collective, has a party horn and keeps blowing it, producing an earsplitting honking sound. I chose a table right slap bang in the middle of the room and initially felt a bit self conscious. I was instructed to shake my shaker instead of clapping, which seems like a good idea because it turns out, there is a lot of clapping and clapping hurts.

A girl with amazing ice cream shaped earrings dances over to me, shaking her shaker and greets me like an old friend. It turns out she is Laurie Bolger, tonight’s host, and will lead us effortlessly through the night as if we have all, in fact, been best friends for years. ‘I’m hoping for a few more people to turn up – but we’ve still got 15 minutes. They’re probably all downstairs!‘ she says optimistically and my mind falls back to those empty comedy nights, and endless promoters who would say the same thing.

But by 8pm the room is full to bursting. A feat for the Bang collective to be extremely proud of given that it’s Thursday night, it’s raining, there are a million other things to do in London and the night is not free to enter. There’s obviously a lot of love for this weekly night, and noone is being shy about showing their support either. When I first arrived there was a certain amount of shyness about shaking these makeshift maracas but now, as the lights go down and Everybody Needs Somebody to Love by The Blues Brothers starts playing, everyone is shaking and dancing and the noise has become so loud that I’m sure they can hear us in every other borough in the City.

The atmosphere is electric. And I think the same thing as presumably everybody being part of this for the first time who’s main experience of poetry up until that point was slogging through seventeen verses of Alfred Lord Tennyson during A Level English. Who knew poetry was so much FUN?

Host Laurie Bolger lights up the room
Host Laurie Bolger lights up the room

And then come the poets. Some are upbeat and hilarious, spinning limericks about crisps falling in love for us to gently enjoy (Martin Galton), nothing too taxing. Some are deadly serious and want you to feel something, about love, about UKIP, about spiders (there is a heavy ‘fear of spiders’ theme tonight which appears to be accidental). Resident poet Peter Hayhoe brings guitarist and singer Sarah Reddington up on stage to back up his rap Popcorn (about having your heart broken) with lyrics from Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush that makes the room drop into silence for the first time all evening, like they’ve been bashed with a cricket bat, because that’s the effect a few carefully chosen words about pain arranged artfully enough into a sentence and spoken with feeling can do to you. Luckily, he then brings the mood back up immediately by performing Dawson, which is about dating, and has enough Dawson’s Creek theme song singing and big screen images of James Van Der Beek to satisfy the biggest 90’s American TV show fan for a very long time. 

 

Amber Tamblyn
Amber Tamblyn

Other highlights of the night are the two featured artists – USA based Amber Tamblyn, who’s American drawl and immediate appeal for us to ‘shut the f**k up and listen, followed by a playful smile mean that you like her immediately. She reads from a selection of poems that she tells us are about dead child star actresses, a theme so morbid yet brilliant that you can’t help but hang off every word she says after that.

The 2nd featured artist is Keith Jarrett who brings two influences from his childhood together – hip hop and church music – to paint us a picture of what life was like for him growing up in East London, being pulled in the two different directions indicated by the music. His face splits into an infectious grin as he rhymes his way through passages that obviously evoke powerful childhood memories for him and by the end of his set, you sort of want to climb inside his head and listen to everything else he has to say.

Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett

Bang Said the Gun is fast paced, and in between the poets (who are all unpretentious enough not to hog stage time, so that the evening really does move with the speed of a bullet from a handgun) there are fun features that get the audience involved, adding to the ‘we are a collective’ vibe that never stops. Balloon From the Back of the Room gives an audience member a chance to win a free ticket to next week’s show if he can get the rest of the crowd to keep a balloon in the air all the way to the stage and back again. It works, and at the end, the balloon gets burst and inside is a fun, topical pun. It’s quirky and ridiculous and hilarious.

There’s also the Hatalyst – a lady at the front of the audience is asked to wear a very tall President Lincoln style hat with BANG written all over it. She must start the clapping and bottle shaking at the start of each feature. Then, to top off proceedings nicely, there’s an open mic competition called Raw Meat Stew, so that even the audience members have a chance to try their hand at some performance poetry. The night ends with as much noise and clatter as it began and everyone is grinning.

Downstairs in the bar, poets and audience members alike are mingling. No invisible lines divide performers and paying guests. Everybody is in this together. Peter Hayhoe wends his way over to me and presents me with a free copy of his CD ‘Bootlegs’ which has such endearing titles on it as ‘Croydon 1998’ and ‘Ice Denies Everything’. I try to protest and offer him money (he is selling them in the bar for £10 – and it is worth every penny) and he replies in the same jovial manner that makes him so likeable on stage: ‘it’s okay, this one’s been in the bottom of my bag for ages. It’s really mashed up’. There’s really no pretension here and Bang lives up to it’s tagline wonderfully: ‘Poetry not Ponce’. 

I go home and write a poem. I can’t help it. Bang has inspired me. I wonder how many other audience members went home and did the same.

Bang Said The Gun Stand Up Poetry is very Thursday at The Roebuck, 50 Great Dover Street SE1. It’s a ridiculously reasonable £7 on the door (£5 for students) 8pm start. You should definitely go.

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