Wednesday 12 November 2014

Maria and The Mullet, Upstairs at the Western: Reviewed by Charles Wheeler

This review is late. Even later than I was to the event itself. But while my lateness on 3rd October gained me nothing but a few disapproving glances as my awkward search for a seat undermined the enchanting atmosphere of the Western's hidden-gem attic venue, the lateness of this piece has proven useful, providing me with glorious, enriching, relevance-granting context. How fortunate for me.

Y'see, in the weeks since this event (during which I moved house, started a new job, and tripled the amount of pets I own - legitimate excuses to go alongside my myriad apologies to the unreasonably patient Jonathan Taylor), Leicester, host city of Everybody's Reading, City of Culture contender, and my dear, dear hometown, found itself the centre of what I'm told is "controversy", which we know by now to be a synonym for "a ham-fisted Channel 4 documentary". Make Leicester British raised plenty of ire for plenty of valid reasons, and one of the most common seemed to be that people from Leicester simply didn't recognise the city being shown to them. I was one of those people, and as I watched the hopelessly contrived 90-minute bigot-baiting session unfold, I couldn't help musing on the stark contrast between what some TV producers had decided to make some people from Leicester do in a room, and what some other people in a room in Leicester a few weeks earlier had done for themselves.

I found my seat. Shruti Chauhan was on stage already, launching into a heartstring-pulling account of social media-age romance, posing huge, world-shaking questions of self-worth and self-care in a new, commodified dating scene, hitting cultural touchstones that resonated with the world I know from friends, from life, from Twitter. Other pieces spoke of a life I hadn't lived but that I knew from friends and colleagues. Here was a poet speaking truths I recognised, illuminating experiences I've seen transpire around me. Here was artistic and cultural kinship, happening starkly and obviously for one of the first times I can remember. Channel 4 would presumably prefer Shruti and I to be having a challenging discussion about whether we should even be from the same city.

Mere minutes later, we arrived at our first headline act (oops, I was late). Maria Taylor's work, whether on page or in person, is near impossible to summarise, and that's a case of quality as much as quantity. While her observational scope is undeniably massive, it's the detail with which she attends her subject matter that truly impresses. Jumping effortlessly between diverse ideas, Taylor led us by the hand through ever-changing worlds, never once letting us feel alienated, always hitting home. She is a singular poet and a natural, organic performer.

Post-interval (feat. free cakes! Who could possibly object?), James Mcatear and Jitendra Bhatt presented a set of music-verse collaborations that were both delightfully indulgent and grounded in salt-of-the-Earth charm. I'll stop short of saying "only in Leicester", but if multiculturalism is apparently failing, it's doing so with style, heart and a deceptive amount of success round these parts.

Between all this, compère Lydia Towsey held the evening together in her inimitable style, a whirlwind of personality that can be described as "quirky" if one doesn't mind things being described in woefully inadequate terms. Her offbeat humour made for a perfect backdrop to the acts, but was revealed to be little more than sly disarmament towards the end of the night, as she blew the entire room away with a stunning ukelele-led epic poem about her grandfather's experiences in the war.

And so it was on to the veteran, Andrew 'Mulletproof' Graves, to close proceedings. Moving quickly from wry self-deprecation to wry deprecation of pretty much everything else, Graves is nothing short of a spectacle when mid-performance. With a slickness, easy charisma and hyper-assured delivery of culturally cutting pieces, he is nothing short of a consummate professional who somehow manages to remain a hundred times more relevant and believable than any consummate professional should ever be able to.

But while Graves is sharp, and cuts deep, his touch is every bit as deft as the acts around him on this night - and crucially, it leaves them unmarked. Every act who took the stage at Maria and the Mullet managed strikes to the hearts of their various and just issues with the world, but none ever came close to treading on the others' toes. These commentaries, these experiences, sat alongside each other - not in harmony, but in glorious intersecting solidarity.

If it seems trite to suggest that art will bring us together, it's still better than the implicit insistence that diversity will tear us apart. Whether expressed through creativity, commentary or simply conversation, whether integrated with each other or presented in worthy, safe single-issue spaces, it is the voicing of people's lived realities wherein deeper, more engaged understanding is fostered. Maria and the Mullet was a microcosm of Leicester, and was more representative than any unwieldy attempt to "make" Leicester anything.

And that, surely, is as good an argument as any to get everybody both reading and reviewing.

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