Tag Archives: ben norris

Infinity Stage Company Presents: In Arabia We’d All Be Kings @ The Guild of Students

In Arabia

I’ve seen Stephen Adly Guirgus’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (and loved it) so I was intrigued to see what his earlier work, In Arabia We’d All be Kings would be like. What is evident is that Guirgis is a writer who loves character: plot falls to the side so that his characters can take centre stage. The most dramatic events are only reported to the audience; the human condition is what this playwright is bothered about.

Arabia follows a group of people in downtown New York. There is no space for them: there’s little to no work, no welfare for the poor or troubled, and certainly no sense of loyalty. Guirgus provides a gritty depiction of a nineties dog-eat-dog New York, in which drugs and sex are a form of escapism, but are simultaneously the very things trapping the characters. Every character seems to be in a Catch-22: to be happy, you need money, but to get money, you need to do some horrific things; prostitution and drug addiction are rife among Guirgus’s characters.

What is interesting about the script is that it allows a range of emotions from the audience. There are moments that are evidently meant to be comical, and ones that are serious, but then there are moments in which the audience’s intended reaction is ambiguous: moments that I found harrowing, in which I pitied the characters, where moments that others found humorous.

Perhaps this is a testament to the cast: perhaps some members of the audience were driven to uncomfortable laughter. Whatever the reason, it can’t be argued that directors Jack Fairley and Andy Baker found a stellar cast for their production (who all mastered the New York accent). Gurguis’s plays don’t really have ‘main characters’, so each actor has to work particularly hard to impress during their scene.

Guirgus is obviously a fan of having someone onstage at all times – Judas is constantly present in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot­ – at it is incredibly impressive to be in character for so long; compliments must therefore go to Ben Firth. He played Sammy, an aged alcoholic and possible drug addict, incredibly well, providing humour and poignancy with skill.

Danny Hetherington was an excellent choice for Skank: his movements and mannerisms were convincing, and his manic laughter in the penultimate scene of the play was unsettling. Guild Drama newcomer Nathan Hawthorne played Lenny, a man recently released from prison. He deftly handled his character’s anger, but was also able to convincingly communicate his vulnerability. Ben Norris gave an impressive and sensitive performance as Greer. When playing a homosexual man, it would be easy to offer a clichéd portrayal. Norris, however, dealt with this carefully, making Greer a man that would exaggerate parts of his personality to exploit others. The scenes between Norris and Hetherington were particularly sad to watch.

For a play with a mainly male cast, the women really stole the show. My favourite character was Chickie, and this is a testament to Phoebe Brown’s acting prowess. I truly believed that she was a drug addict, from her nervous movements to her child-like, heart-breaking optimism at thought of being free from her addiction. My two favourite scenes involved Brown: firstly, the interaction between Chickie and Charlie, the bartender (played fantastically by Calum Fraser), was touching and strangely romantic. Her later scene with Demaris (played by Charis Jardam), a no-nonsense teenager old was particularly poignant: here we were given a tragic glimpse into the women’s hope for a better future. Jardam’s attitude and delivery were perfect for her character, making this scene the standout of the play.

The production team of the play had evidently worked hard to create an authentic atmosphere for the play: the genuine bar helped to create a sense of verisimilitude, but it was really the costume that stood out. The women’s outfits and make-up would have been particularly nostalgic for several women in the audience, which made the play even more uncomfortable to watch.

While Arabia seems to lack something that Judas has – perhaps an emotionally devastating monologue – it is still nothing short of an entertaining and thought-provoking play; however, it is the work of this particular cast and crew that held this production together, and made it undoubtedly successful. 

By Jenna Clake
@jennaclake

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Watch This theatre presents: ‘Method’, a new play by Ben Norris

DavidMethod was written and directed by twenty-one year old Ben Norris. One might think after watching this play, if this guy is writing this at twenty-one, what is he going to be writing when he’s thirty? The sheer scope of converting script to performance is achievement enough.

The play highlights the extremes of method acting, a technique used by actors where they immerse themselves in the physical and emotional feelings of their character in order to improve their performance. In this case, the main character James glues his eyes shut in preparation for an audition; the role of a blind man. Norris has captured the theme of sightlessness throughout as the characters seem consistently blind to what is going on around them. Paradoxically, the young child named Josie, brilliantly acted by Rachel Thomas, seems to be the only character that can truly see.

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The relationships in the play were believable, if at times a little over-sentimental. Daisy Edwards, who played James’s mum Sandra, played a truly convincing walked-over mum figure, right down to posture and tone of voice. The opening scene, where a relationship between a man and woman begins after meeting in a restaurant was both beautifully written and performed. Nicole Rixon’s character persuasively morphed from a confident, knowledgeable woman into a struggling single mum.

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The main cusp of the play is the broken relationship between the two brothers, James and Nick. Jealously seems to be at the core of this and Norris’s reflection that the characters are ‘blind to how to help themselves’ seems ever more pervasive. My criticism is that the resolution of the brother’s relationship does not seem realistic. After James’s eyes are glued shut, Nick is so relieved that his brother will be okay that they hug and play thumb war. Although the reversal back to their childish games is effective, it is not particularly convincing. The horror, however, of what James has done overrides this. It is sick, shocking and admittedly entertaining.

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Overall, this play raises current, thought-provoking questions involving the pressures of the acting industry, broken family relationships and betrayal. A combination of live theatre and digital film projections, especially, makes this play original. The film projections, by filmmaker Paul McHale, were incredibly realistic; strikingly shot and directed. The contrast of live acting and watching the actors on film created an appreciation of seeing them live. It plays with the theme of blindness once more as at some points in the play you are shown everything and in some scenes, nothing.

By Rebekah McDermott @RebekahMcD1

Photographs by Charlotte Wilson Photography

The Gentlemen Press presents: Poetry Espionage

The event is held downstairs in the Six Eight Kafé, Temple Row, Birmingham. There are small tables with small chairs and small candles. Cosy and kooky; your perfect location for a gathering of new musicians and poets.

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Joseph Sale is hosting. Humble as ever, he recites just two of his marvellous poems tonight and only picks up a guitar during the interval. His warmth and buoyancy creates an atmosphere of genuine intimacy and unity between performers and audience.

Max Merrick-Wren is my new favourite musician. He wields guitar and harmonica as if they’re extra limbs, for the most part with his eyes closed. His voice is soothing; his passion consistent throughout. I prefer his own songs to the Dylan cover, especially the gently powerful ‘High Horse’, with its climactic ending. The only constructive point I have is for him to inhale more quietly. I can’t wait to get hold of an album.

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Joseph Sale performs ‘The Necromancer’, a haunting piece about raising the figures of history, listening to the ‘silence that became their voice’. Like the mysterious woman I am ‘wonder-morphed’, both by the ideas Joe evokes and the words with which he (appropriately) brings them to life.

Carl Sealeaf gives us two-and-a-half poems, due to an endearing bout of memory loss. The first half of ‘Growth’ is wonderful, expressing his fear of ‘acting out someone else’s definition of growing older, broader at the shoulders but still shrivelled at the heart’. His last piece about macaroni, festivities, ‘stale air’ and ‘oil-smeared hands’ culminates beautifully with a sad and simple point about family. I am left uplifted by his art but saddened by the things it says.

Next is the Italiano Duo, playing for the first time together in this country. Their covers include ‘New Shoes’ by Paolo Nutini, ‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse, and ‘Warning Sign’ and ‘Clocks’ by Coldplay. Their nerves show a little but their gift is undeniable; Winehouse is obviously their favourite since their attitude and the volume are cranked right up. They shouldn’t be shy; their talent deserves confidence.

Elisha Owen offers us six poems in a voice perfectly suited to recital. She carries us with a quiet pensive joy through the vivid Spanish landscape of ‘Handprints’ where ‘the water creates a rhythm that foreigners dance to’. She reads ‘Prostrate Shadows’ where Muslim men are ‘sentinels beckoning the sunrise’, ‘Racing’, ‘Long Jump’, ‘Origami’, in which a seven year old boy  tries to sell her his art, and finally, ‘In the Days Before They Made Them Biodegradable’, where one plastic bag is transformed into a family treasure.

Sean Neil performs three songs; solemn, honest and touching. His strumming could flow better and he needs to use his diaphragm more, but bearing in mind that I can’t sing and play to save my life, that he wrote all of his own songs and that they’re very good ones, I hardly have a right to comment. His work is reminiscent of Damien Rice without the Irish accent, which suits me fine.

386765_299333770097854_1784160791_nNext is Giles Longley-Cook. We flit through dreary rooms in ‘Reflections in Jordan’ and the joys of alcohol in ‘The Budweiser Gita’, while he drinks pointedly from a bottle. After a disturbing piece on the politics of the Holy Land, Giles pauses to let us listen to the whirring of a fan and the sounds of the café above before stating, hauntingly, that ‘I have never fully known silence’. This poem strikes me in a fresh and thought-provoking way before he thunders on into a mock Christmas carol for his finale.

Aliena and Peter follow up with a few covers as well as some of their own compositions (lyrics by Chris who sits bashfully in the audience). The guitar is a bit too loud but Aliena uses this to her advantage and blows us all away with her vocal power; Peter is both talented and utterly unassuming. My favourite song is ‘Avenue of Cosmonauts’, sullen and gripping and very bass-y.

Ben Norris reads a delightful poem derived from his lecture notes on the European Novel. It is sharp and witty, diving from humour to seriousness and back again. The wonderful twist is that although lecture notes in poetry is an innovative idea, the piece insists that nothing is ever truly original. ‘Meaning is contingent’, he claims, ‘his name is Echo’. Ben proceeds with a touching poem ‘Southern Hemisphere’, and then reads ‘After Babel, After Pisa’ concerning theories of the University Library’s reconstruction, and a lovely piece about keeping hold of somebody by collecting physical memories.

Joe rounds the night off with ‘Circles’, a farewell poem that reminds me of Bilbo’s ‘The Road Goes Ever On’. Profound and heart-warming, it weaves in circles of thought about this little gathering of artists and the common desires that brought us together.

‘We must not shake,’ he encourages us, ‘we must not fear, to seek the dream that brought us to this place’.

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A special thanks to The Gentlemen Press for running this event. We hope to see more from you soon.

For more information, visit www.gentlemenpress.com

By Danielle Bentley

Grizzly Pear @ The Bristol Pear

Writers’ Bloc, University of Birmingham’s Creative Writing Society, has managed to make a name for itself off campus. The society’s previously low-key open-mic night has been transformed into a dynamic and varied night called Grizzly Pear, set in the upstairs room of the Bristol Pear in Selly Oak. The night is the brainchild of Ben Norris, the society’s Literary Events Officer, who knows a thing or two about the open-mic scene in Birmingham – having started his foray into spoken word at this very kind of night. To complement Grizzly Pear’s new identity, the night has been given an entirely new format. There are now ten open-mic slots available to anyone; these are free of theme. The open-mic performers are then followed by five Writers’ Bloc members, who have to perform or read a piece that has been influenced by a subject. Finally, the night is concluded by one top-class headliner.

The theme of the night was ‘Loot’, which was introduced by Ben, who was also the evening’s compere. In a form true to his energetic style, Ben performed a middle-class parody of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ (with Joe Sale on guitar) to a delighted crowd, who responded with roars of laughter.

Grizzly Pear showed that it has the potential to become something much bigger than just a University-based open-mic night, as several poets from the Birmingham spoken word scene attended and performed. There were performances from Lorna Meehan, Jaden Larker and Carl Sealeaf, all of whom have performed at other well known spoken word nights. Lorna stuck to the theme by giving a brilliant performance of a poem based on lyrics from Florence + The Machine, Jaden performed a humorous poem about greetings cards, and Carl Sealeaf left the audience in awe with a beautifully honest poem. There were also several other highlights from the open-mic section. Joe Sale returned to the stage to perform ‘Ulysses Returns’, a powerful poem based on his father’s return from a life-threatening illness, in which Joe’s evident admiration was touching. Ben Jackson, who has previously performed at Hit The Ode, performed an inventive poem in which he experimented with sound and voice leaving the audience wanting more.

However, Grizzly Pear doesn’t simply cater to typical spoken word. Jess Hanson read a hilarious poem about surviving awkward family parties in a witty and confident style. She was followed by two special guests. Founder of the society and former Writers’ Bloc President, Sean Colletti, returned to impress once more. He read a touching poem about a good friend, in which he effortlessly captured the banter of friendship. He took the audience on an emotional journey which left the room devastated, and some audience members in tears. The final open-mic slot went to Luke Kennard, who is a lecturer of Creative Writing at the university and a renowned poet. His hilarious introduction to his sentimental poem, which will be appearing in his forthcoming collection, summed up the dynamic sense of the night perfectly.

The focus of the night then shifted onto Writers’ Bloc members. The standard of performances and readings was consistently high, showcasing the talent that the society has to offer. Among many highlights was Elisha Owen’s reading of ‘Radio Voices’. Elisha shifted her focus from spoken word (in which she has had many successes, including representing the university in a poetry slam against University of Edinburgh) to a more literary poem, which contained some strikingly beautiful images. She was followed by James Dolton, who first delivered a poem in rap-battle style, flawlessly integrating references to literature in every line. His second poem, ‘To’, was extremely honest and very well written, showing that his style has continued to mature. The final Writers’ Bloc member to perform was current President Alana Tomlin, who shared some of the poems she has written for her dissertation. Taking a witty yet simultaneously thought-provoking look at the failure of communities, Alana successfully looted parts of political speeches and was encouraged to continue by a riveted audience.

What is most original about Grizzly Pear is that it welcomes all disciplines of writing with open arms; page poets, spoken word performers and prose writers are all equally encouraged to share their work, providing the audience with a varied and thoroughly entertaining evening.

Grizzly Pear’s major success, however, was headliner Clayton Blizzard, who performed at Shambala Festival this summer. The highly talented folk singer and rapper travelled from Bristol to share a set for the first time in Birmingham. He initially captured the audience by singing a capella and wandering through the crowd, whispering in unsuspecting people’s ears. With witty rhymes, a strong vocal performance and some excellent guitar-playing, Clayton played a set which was full of black comedy. Highlights included ‘Sleep Tight’, in which a relaxing guitar piece was juxtaposed with sharp satire, and the infectious ‘Don’t Send Me Flowers When I’m Dead(I’ll Never Be on Top of the Pops Now)’. His varied set was a perfect end to the evening.

Thanks to its creator, Ben Norris, Grizzly Pear has firmly placed itself in line with some of the other open-mic nights that Birmingham has to offer, far exceeding previous events the society has held. Undoubtedly, everyone cannot wait until January when Grizzly Pear will return.

Follow @uobwritersbloc for more information on future events.

Words by Jenna Clake    @jennaclake

Pictures by Anita Baumgärtner

Speak Up @ The Hare and Hounds

As you walk into the upstairs room of the Hare & Hounds, you are captured by the ambience: the room is filled with beanbags and chairs (mostly taken already), there’s a table covered in homemade cupcakes and the room is lit with fairy lights. Sitting in the centre of the stage is a large leather chair, and in that chair sits compere and creator of ‘Speak Up’, Jodi Ann Bickley. She is renowned in the spoken-word scene and performed on the festival circuit this summer. Jodi Ann suffers from non-epileptic seizures, and she talks very bravely and candidly to the audience about her condition, trying to make them feel completely at ease; she even makes a game out of it, ‘Fits and Giggles’. Jodi Ann will sit in the chair for the entirety of the night (even during performances), unless she decides to take herself upstairs to another room, where she will Skype us and continue to host. The running-order of poets is chosen completely at random. On stage there is a screen (the one we’ll see Jodi-Ann appear on via Skype) and this is used to display a programme that selects the poet’s name at random.

There were a few highlights to the evening. The first poet of the evening was Ben Norris, a second-year English with Creative Writing student at the University of Birmingham, who has made a name for himself in the city’s poetry scene and is now receiving recognition for his work in other parts of the country, having recently represented the West Midlands in a national poetry slam. Ben performed ‘Disaster Sex’, a clever, humorous and heartfelt poem about the end of a relationship, complete with The Simpsons references and his recognisably energetic style. Ben set the bar for the evening, showing us all why his career is getting off to a fantastic start.

Carl Sealeaf followed shortly after. He nervously told that he was performing a new poem, and hetherefore was not sure if he had made the right decision. Carl’s choice of poem was exactly right: it revealed a sense of maturity that far exceeds his age. However, one must feel slightly sorry for Carl. Just before his performance, Jodi Ann decided to move upstairs and Skype. She was evidently in a playful mood and pulled faces and made jokes behind Carl as he performed, which made him lose his train of thought on two occasions, and also distracted the audience.

Lorna Meehan also gave a fantastic performance. She is popular in the Birmingham poetry scene, having supported Richard Tyrone Jones at his recent Hit The Ode special. She performed ‘Swing’, a self-affirming poem about the friendships that define us.

Joseph Sale, another second-year English with Creative Writing student, who has performed at Word Up and Hit The Ode, provided something completely different with a poem accompanied by the guitar. His inspiration was the picture of the falling man from 9/11. Joe’s ‘Thunderbolt 9/11’contains the religious and classical undertones we have come expect and enjoy from his work. His performance was chilling and hypnotic.

The first headliner of the evening was Toby de Angeli, a friend of the host and part of The Elephant Collective, which also contains the likes of Harry Baker. Toby is a storyteller. The audience listened, fascinated, as they were told about his friends and his favourite films (which were referenced frequently throughout his poems). In a touching story about the birth of his sister, Toby broke into a rap by his octopus alter-ego, which simply just added to the somewhat surreal quality of the night. The second headliner was Nichol Keene, also part of The Elephant Collective. She is Toby’s girlfriend, and it is quite evident that they have influenced each other’s style, although both are equally good in their own right. They finished the night with a poly-vocal piece in which Nichol also played the harmonica, which perfectly accompanied their storytelling prowess.

Despite the high calibre of talent, there were also some performances that required a little improvement. Frank Thomas performed a poem about an ex-girlfriend that was wrought with emotion, but clichéd at times. It was also in need of an edit, as it ran on for almost thirteen minutes. While it is evident that Frank was deeply passionate, thirteen minutes is over four-times the length of slam poetry. (However, he must receive credit for being able to remember all of it off-by-heart.)

Timing was also generally an issue for Speak Up as a whole. After nearly three hours, a poet called Archy took to the stage. The surreal atmosphere was amplified by his blatant improvisation, which at first was humorous, but then grew tiresome as he performed a third poem. Archy’s performance highlights Speak Up’s flaw: Jodi Ann doesn’t know when to say ‘no’. Throughout the night, people who had finally mustered up the courage had been asking to perform and Jodi Ann, admirably wanting to encourage them, said ‘yes’ to every single one. Speak Up is lacking the structure that other Birmingham-based spoken-word events have mastered, thus making the audience grow impatient and inattentive by the end. Jodi Ann, despite being quite welcoming in some circumstances, seemed far more comfortable when introducing her friends. Being at Speak Up was comparable to attending a typical American film house party (we literally could have been sitting in her lounge) in which Jodi Ann would have been the Queen Bee and her friends would have been the ‘popular’ group. This left others often out of the loop and feeling a little uncomfortable, especially as the host (ostensibly in good humour) attempted to pick on newcomers and people she had heard of, but never met. In this, Jodi Ann seemed to fulfil the role of a comedienne, not a compere of an open-mic evening. This, coupled with the duration of the night, left one feeling rather drained.

 If you have plenty of time to spare and a thick skin, then Speak Up will be perfect for you. It is definitely home to some extremely talented poets, especially as Jodi Ann is celebrated in the scene. However, if you have an early start or prefer your poetry to last a maximum of forty-five minutes, then there may be other Spoken Word events that will tend to your needs.

Look out for two more Birmingham-based spoken word events this week. ‘Grizzly Pear’ is at The Bristol Pear, Selly Oak at 7:30pm on Wednesday 24th October. Hit the Ode is at The Victoria at 7:30pm on Thursday 25th. 

Jenna Clake

@jennaclake

Hit the Ode (part 2)

Hit the Ode, a monthly spoken word event organised by West Midland’s Apples and Snakes, returned last Thursday to prove that this is an event going from strength to strength. This month’s collection of open mic and featured poets consistently bowled the audience over with their humour, lyricism and raw emotion. The Victoria provided a resplendent setting; the intimate nature and dimly-lit room providing an evocative background for words that were even more powerful.

For those who are now regulars, Bohdan Piasecki is as much a celebrity as the poets he introduces. As a compere and poet himself, his obvious passion for the spoken word excites even the most cynical of audience members. The room was the most filled it’s been yet – an apt reflection of the growing popularity of Birmingham’s spoken word scene.

Advertised as ‘an eclectic mix of styles, voices and languages’, the night fulfilled just that. As the name suggests, open mics in any setting are a gamble. Apart from one crude and mediocre poet overcome by misogynism, however, the poets that performed were as worthy of the stage as those paid to be there. ‘Carys Matic’, an English teacher based in South Korea, humorously recited a poem about British stereotypes she’s often been expected to play up to on her travels. Ben Norris, a Birmingham-based student, excellently explored the connections one experiences with lovers and Grandparents alike, providing a humbling contrast to the more raucous poetry of the evening.

The first featured poet was Paul Murphy. An established resident of Birmingham, he is most-recognised as lead singer and punk poet of the band The Destroyers. Sharing his good and bad experiences of life with rhythmic rhyme, his words flowed instinctively. As was often the case throughout the evening, the audience were continually lulled in with humorous anecdotes and then left reeling at the sagacious and sombre moments.

Vanessa Kisuule, a multiple slam winning poet from Bristol, was the next featured poet. Speaking to her after the event she said that shy writers should not be deterred from the spoken word scene, as poets often use performance to hide the fact they aren’t prolific writers. From her recital, however, it was clear that Kisuule does not fall into this category. Her beautifully crafted metaphors were brought alive by her performance. With poems such as Little Red Bow, her honest and humbling account of a vulnerable friend, and Sandwich, a comic tale of OCD and relationships, the audience were moved from laughter to tears and back again.

The final highlight of the evening was the performance of New York City poetry circuit veterans, Jon Sands and Ken Arkind. Reciting their work alternately, the poets covered topics from a brother’s marriage to his male partner, to the ramblings of a woman on a New York subway platform. They captivated with beat, music, and poetry that obviously was anything but superficial. Possibly the best Hit the Ode yet, the bar has definitely been raised. There is no doubt that as talent continues to emerge, Birmingham has not seen the last of nights like this.

The next Hit the Ode is on Thursday 29th March at 7.30pm.

Words by Elisha Owen

Related links:
Hit the Ode @ the Victoria (part 1)
Tell Me on a Sunday (part 1)
The Poets’ Place