COMEDY

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The Independent Culture
John Hegley tops a bill which also features John Cooper Clarke, Linda Smith, Hovis Presley, Limbo Mambo Jambo and Jon Reed at the Hackney Empire, London E8 (0181-985 2424) tonight at 9pm

In his trademark tight grey suit and thick specs, John Hegley looks like the bastard son of a bank clerk and Elvis Costello. He certainly shares the latter's curled-lip style of delivery and skill with lyrics.

Berating the audience - "Can you wait till there's a consensus with the clapping?" he snaps at solo applauders, "it's less embarrassing" - Hegley gives off a confident stage air. Which you need when you're relying on poetic material rather more demanding than your average gag about Star Trek or Jeremy Beadle. Only a truly gripping performer could hold audiences' attention with poems going by such titles as "Mental Health Poem".

His best work - delivered with well-practised insouciance - manages to find new ways of expressing sentiments about such age-old problems as sex and spectacles. At the end of "Talking About My Feelings Ain't My Cup of Tea", for instance, he signs off with a heartfelt sneer: "Revealing how I'm feeling,/It isn't my Darjeeling."

Hegley is not afraid to experiment and risk ridicule - a recent show, Dancing with Potatoes, incorporated dance. He often introduces a mandolin on stage - "Some of you may be wondering what this instrument is called. It's called Steve." Defying expectations - something of a speciality for Hegley - is not a cue for buttock-clenching embarrassment but for some bravura comic singing. Imagine Billy Bragg crossed with a court jester. "I need you like a cappuccino needs froth," he croons. "I need you like a candle needs a moth,/If it's going to burn its wings off."

So forget toiling through set-texts of Chaucer and Milton at school. Over several years as our top stand-up poet, Hegley's great achievement has been to show us that poetry doesn't have to be like that. It can be fun.

EYE ON THE NEW

Dubbed "The Baby Perrier", Channel 4's "So You Think You're Funny" has thrown up such winners as Dylan Moran, Phil Kay, and Rhona Cameron. Ten years old this year, the competition is holding three London showcases (not heats) at the East Dulwich Tavern, London SE22 on consecutive Wednesdays, starting this week. Aspiring comics, who must have been working as stand- ups for less than a year, should phone 0171-436 4774 for an application form.

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