Toxic Rhymes at the Natural History Museum

A review by Tim Edwards

Satire is venom injected into a vice poisoning the body-politic.  Friday’s ‘Toxic Rhymes’ event at the Natural History Museum presented a range of poetry and song whose performance complemented neatly the Museum’s current exhibition, ‘Venom: killer and cure’.  The performance space was split between two ends of a long display-corridor, each space occupied by two performers: at the western end the performance-poets Madi Maxwell-Libby and Emma Joliffe, at the eastern end the singer-songwriter Isobel Rogers (a late stand-in for an absentee poet) and poet-performer Omar Bynan.

It was a well-conceived event, if in practice the result was a little mixed – ambient noise and the movement of visitors to the exhibition made it often difficult to hear or focus on the lyrics at the eastern end: Isobel had a fight on to project, even with a mic, in a sustained way, while Omar was often reduced to joshing with passing visitors, or stepping away from the performance space to address a small, momentarily static group.  The pair at the western end had a better time of it, putting on a more sustained and coherent performance, eventually building a sizeable static audience who responded with enthusiasm.

The lyrics themselves ranged in satirical style and tone, from Isobel’s more downbeat, quizzical or wry observations on contemporary urban life and romance/relationships (one song appeared to be a tongue-in-cheek lament on speed dating) through to the more sharply satirical verse of Madi and Emma, by turns burlesquing, caricaturing or parodying a spectrum of contemporary ills – tokenism at the BBC, tabloid stereotyping and hypocrisy, the harsh inequalities engendered in the name of austerity, Little Englander parochialism, insularity, xenophobia.  To a large extent the vituperation hit home, albeit with the occasional lapse into generalised caricature that stood in danger of falling prey to its own stereotypes.  This, however, was rare.

One of the evening’s rewarding aspects was the way the performers supported each other, virtually abandoning the running order to turn the floor into a shared space: at the western end, Emma and Madi took it in turns to perform individual pieces, while at the eastern end Omar and Isobel joined forces, either to present a poem-with-accompaniment or with Omar holding a second mic to boost the sound of Isobel’s guitar.  Another reward was the odd instance of serendipity.  Adjacent to the western performance space was a large electronic display, onto which was projected – along with quietly menacing soundtrack – a slo-mo silhouette of a giant arachnid moving, a nice backdrop to the venomous verse.  At the eastern end, meanwhile, a guy from the Museum’s kitchen appeared, complete with white apron, and was graciously handed the mic by Omar to deliver an impromptu and highly fluent rap.

Overall, the evening went very well, despite the more ad hoc elements: the performers worked hard to engage a largely ambulant audience to successful effect, in what were in different ways fairly challenging circumstances; and there was a nice congruity between the material performed and the theme of the exhibition itself, each lending the other an enhanced dimension which many visitors quite clearly appreciated.  Poet in the City staff organised and supervised the event with characteristic efficiency, good humour and flexibility; one or two extra volunteers would have been handy to do a bit of PitC promotion.



© T.Edwards, 2017

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