The Last Word Festival has returned to Camden’s Roundhouse for a three week run and there’s much to enjoy beyond the heavily- lauded poetry slam. Celebrating the spoken word, this year’s line-up features the UK’s most original wordsmiths, showcasing their talents with music, theatre, readings, workshops, a rap battle and even a Garage rave!
Each event has a political slant and music group Benin City used Press Night to deliver an emotive slice of gig theatre to lament the decline of London’s club scene. Staged in the Roundhouse’s intimate Sackler Space, ‘Last Night’ was a fitting homage to London’s old school rave culture, inspired by the closure of music venue Passing Clouds, in 2016. The city once rivalled New York and Ibiza as one of the top destinations in the world for nightlife but fifty percent of the Capital’s nightclubs have been shut down in the past five years.
The three piece Electronic / Dance outfit emerged on stage through a haze of smoke, as if navigating a fog of memories, for what turned out to be a beautiful, heart-tugging set. Supported by a brass band, drummer and bass guitarist, they faced an audience yearning for a taste of yesteryear when clubbing wasn’t just a great night out, it was life itself. The show dredged up long-lost memories, unlocking mental vaults that made me want to laugh, cry and dance like no-one was watching.
Produced by cross-art form company Nabokov and directed by Stef O’Driscoll, original music, poetry and audio testimonials from people who lived and breathed London’s nightclubs – along with the bar staff who worked them and the property developers responsible for their demise – led us through eleven snapshots of how good we once had it:
“from happy hour to last orders / from first loves to lost numbers / handshakes to fisticuffs / bar tops to bus stops / all of the doors that are still open / and those clubs that have been shut.”
Vocals were shared between Joshua Idehen and Shanaz Dorsett, jumping from soulful duets to hard-hitting poetry. Their bandmate, Tom Leaper – a composer and musician who plays the tenor sax and keyboard – steered the crowd’s mood with eclectic beats. It was synths and symphony: Electronica, Dubstep, Soul, Drum ‘n’ Bass and Jazz.
Dorsett’s poem/song, ‘I Wrote This Dress’, could have been my own personal account, touching on everything from dancing around a handbag to wanting to enjoy the music without guys tugging on my clothes. Idehen’s witty verse, ‘Lust’, took us through the male perspective: fronting that you’re getting dressed up for your own self-worth while secretly hoping to pull at the end of the night. Lads don’t change much, do they?
Streamed live on YouTube, I wondered if viewers at home could feel the magic filling the Roundhouse as our singers slow-danced in the glow of a spotlight. The voice of a man reminiscing about meeting his partner in a club flooded the venue. It was a poignant interlude – one of many moving segments.
The track ‘Long Way Home’ captured the darker side of the rave scene, while the piercing horns in ‘Bus’ – a joyful tune about travelling home on the N38 bus, drunk and happy – rang warnings of an inevitable hangover. The band’s disgust at the gentrification which has decimated London’s nightlife was palpable, and the tense, angry ‘All Smoke, No Fire’ was a musical smack down on greedy property developers:
“Your shoes are in my gaff bruv / your croissants is in my cafe bruv / your flat is in my dancehall / your parking in my market / this borough is where I from / it’s all I know / if I can’t stay here where will I go? / where will I go? / will this be the day, the day that I go down for good? / all smoke and no fire / electric shock with no wire / sharks in this water / all dark in my quarter.”
Occasionally, song lyrics and interviews were both muffled by pulsating beats, but the band’s skill lies in its imaginative story-telling, combining words and music to relay songs which are so vivid, they appear in the audience’s head like film shorts. Perhaps that’s why I expected more from the show’s staging: a giant, underutilised screen projected the band’s name yet video footage, or old photos of the band in Passing Clouds, would have been nostalgic.
Running at just under one hour in length, the show’s story-arc seemed cruelly stunted. A deliberate twist of the knife? Another reminder that nothing good lasts forever? Approaching the end, I had to accept that the good ol’ days of clubbing are long gone and Benin City had offered a near perfect eulogy: an act of thanks, on behalf of all of us still mourning their passing. It was raw and emotional, words gilded in sorrow and gratitude, voices rising and falling in protest and celebration. As the band wiped tears from their eyes, the deafening cheers of the crowd seemed bitter-sweet:
“no more singing ’cause the music’s off / and no more secrets because the lights are up / no more good times / all the clubs are shut / but you, you’ve had your fill / you’ve tipped your cup / a personal record of 16 shots / strangers, lovers and fisticuffs / made new friends in the Clouds you lost / bust ups, sing-a-longs, wasn’t that just? / weren’t you a handful? / weren’t you a lot? / the 4am morning says that’s enough / we’re all out in the cold now / and the mourning is bold / and you are alone with the last person in the world. yourself.”
Thank you for the memories, Benin City. Now, someone pass the tissues – my mascara’s running and I need to look good while I dance around the handbag on my bedroom floor.
Performers: Benin City (Joshua Idehen, Tom Leaper and Shanaz Dorsett) with Tom “2” Varrall (Bass), Ed “Eddie Eddie Eddie” Broad (Drums), Mark “Fred” Perry (Trumpet), Dan “3digits” Berry (Sax) and Raphael “Ralphael” Clarkson (Trombone) Director: Stef O’Driscoll Venue: Roundhouse Performance Dates: The Last Word Festival runs from 25th May – 10th June 2017. Benin City will also perform ‘Last Night’ at Latitude on July 15th 2017.