Last night I went to the Tongue Fu show as part of the South Bank’s London Wonderground festival. I’d never been to a Tongue Fu night before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Well that’s technically not true. I slightly knew what to expect as Hollie McNish and Polarbear were performing. They are two of my favourite and brightest stars on the spoken word scene. After picking up the tickets at the box office we decided to have a drink to kill time before the show started.
We made our way through the Wounderground arena and found the spinning carousel themed bar area. If I had been half cut it would have been fine, but to step on something like that sober was an unforgivable sensation. Luckily, by the time the bar staff had told me they didn’t sell Guinness at this bar, we’d performed a full rotation and I was in the hunt for my drink of choice from a more stable bar.
Once my drink of choice had been purchased we got in the queue and a few moments later we were seated and the show began. Tongue Fu is one of the best Spoken Word nights you can go to. The premise is simple. There is a house band and each poet has to explain to the band the vibe, sound, mood they want created when they recite their poem. There is no rehearsal and to quote Eminem “You only get one shot”. Because the poets are the crème of the scene and the house band is tight as fuck, it makes for interesting performances.
It was a packed house and everyone was up for what was to come. Founder and compare Chris Redmond took to the stage and gave a brief introduction of what to expect for newbies, then ask the crowd to pick three different genres of music (for each member of the band). Calypso, Klezmer and Gospel were suggested then the band worked out who was going what. And we were off. Redmond recited a poem and started off a call and response chart with the crowd to warm us up, the band rose to suggestions and managed to pull it off.
Hollie McNish was up first, and as usual, she smashed it. She opened with 'Bungalows and Biscuits', a touching poem about her Grandmothers. Next up was 'Bricks', another poem influenced by her Grandmothers. She ended with crowd favourite 'Megatron'. It was inspired by an argument coming home from seeing a Transformer film. The band pulled out the stops and backed her with slightly jazzy electronic music. It worked perfectly and the crowd went mental after she finished.
Polarbear was up next. He also performed three poems- firstly a poem about a playing spin the bottle at a party while a school kid. He followed that up with Scotch, a poem about performing battle rhymes in his room in front of his cat, and ending with a new one and about having a shit time in a restaurant with your partner’s friends. Polarbear’s poems are slightly more aggressive than McNish’s and this juxtaposition of the two worked well. The music was more harder hitting, but not enough to detract from the performance.
After a thunderous round of applause Redmond took the stage said they would be a break of a few minutes then the next part of the programme would start. I then legged it to the loo and bar (in that order). When I returned the second part was under way, but sadly it wasn’t more McNish and Polarbar.
What I was confronted with Hunting Pigs. Hunting Pigs is a spoken word musical comedy story by Redmond and Anna Freeman. It’s about finding your inner power animal and using that to overcoming awkwardness situation that life (and predominantly adolescence) throws at you. They took it in turns to re-enact their pasts while the other put on a wig and became their power animal (Redmond’s was a pig called Derek and Freeman’s was a flamingo) giving advice on how to better the situation. It was a good idea, but it felt like bad local am-dram shit in execution. If you're going to do something that involves, singing, rapping, a bit of dance, fights scenes it needs to be clean, choreographed, sharper, tighter and punchy. It felt like a self- indulgent rehearsal. While Redmond and Freeman are good writers, they aren’t the best performers and this ultimately let it down.
On the journey home I mulled over what I had seen and came to the conclusion that Hunting Pigs was a wasted opportunity. When you have two of the best and brightest stars of the scene on the bill and you give them 15 minutes (or three poems) each, yet you’ll give yourself an hour for something that isn’t fully formed (or that great) isn’t time well spent. If the gig had been a fiver and was in a pubs back room, it could have been forgiven, but for just under £15 and in a great venue it didn’t really seem worth it.
Hollie McNish & Polarbear 5/5
Hunting Pigs 2.5/5