Poetry Olympics Twenty05, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The ambitious (and over-long) programme would have had more chance of lift-off had the cavernous auditorium been packed to the rafters, as it had been in 1965. Unfortunately, the place was no more than around a third full: consequently, everyone on-stage had to work that much harder.

Poets with a serious message to deliver into the auditorium, such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Grace Nichols, had to rely on the sheer force of their words. Adrian Mitchell, a veteran of many tricky performance situations, didn't pause in his set, thus avoiding the yawning silence which normally greets the end of a poem's recitation - and was warmly applauded. The most winning humorist was Stacy Makishi, whose poem about the destruction of Bikini Atoll had a serious sub-text delivered with impeccable comic timing. Conversely, Spike Hawkins found to his cost that timing had deserted him: his over-long set was like a giant metaphor for a lead balloon.

The performers who had brought their own musical accompaniment generally fared better. American veteran Fran Landesman had her son, Miles, accompany her on guitar and had everyone laughing to her sly wit. Poet and mandolin player John Hegley and bassist Keith Moore came on like two twinkle-eyed, middle-aged punks: Hegley dedicated his set to "people with teaching difficulties", to wild applause.

The evening's big-hitters came on far too late. Eliza Carthy stunned everyone with the quality of her voice and the depth of her emotion, while young American Willy Mason's quiet authority won everyone over. Pete Townshend got to finish the show with two short songs. His charisma and energy defined what much of the night had largely lacked. The best, quite clearly, came last and everyone knew it.