The traditional storytelling circuit can be a bit closed-door to anyone stepping on patch without official guild approval. You have to tell old tales, they will say. Myths, fables and legends of Greek gods gone wrong. And you have to tell’em like we tell’em.
Rightly or wrongly, Battersea Arts Centre has been more expansive in its programming for The Big Story, a month-long celebration of storytelling in all its forms, headlined by Birmingham spoken-word artist Polarbear and his one-man show, Return.
This is a performer with BBC Radio 1 airplay to his name – and Radios 2, 3, 4 ,5 and 6 as it happens. The point being, he’s no Crick Crack alumnus, a fact clear from the very start of this semi-autobiographical account of Brummie boy made good, Noah, revisiting the neighbourhood where he grew up.
The piece is an overt exercise in ‘spoken screenplay’, the third person narrative punctuated by scene set-ups, flash-backs, jump-cuts and fades. It’s effective stuff, particularly the close-ups – the radioactive light cast on the pavement by a streetlamp, the four spoons of sugar heaped into a cup of tea – building up a world as real in our mind’s eye as it is in his.
The characterisation is also strong: Noah’s jokey but exposed dynamic with younger brother Dominic; his brief encounter with a former classmate still working at the local supermarket; and his meeting with Eve, the “one who got away” (if it weren’t for the fact it was Noah who left in the first place). No drama here. Only the realisation that the world he escaped is the world that made him who he is. And us, too. The geography is particular but the psychogeography universal. And the 90s pop cultural references (Baby D tracks, Steven Seagal movies) resonate more keenly than a host of Homeric heroes.
Easy to draw comparisons with fellow Birmingham export Mike Skinner of The Streets. The two certainly share the storyteller's sensibility and attention to detail. The wonder is that Polarbear achieves it without a note of music, his unobtrusive delivery creating a cumulative effect instead. As he puts it, he comes from a place where everyone’s a talker but no one a writer, a place where people are nourished on a “soup of stories”. Return is soupy, too, but in a good way.