It’s often said that in the creative world you have to become a versatile performer to gain any kind of longevity. If that is indeed the case then it’s little surprise that John Cooper Clarke has managed to maintain a forty year career. Although known predominantly as a poet, his performance at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion is proof that such a term only covers a portion of that which comprises his live set. In reality, Clarke comes off not as a knowingly high-brow poet of the people, but rather as a gleefully bawdy end of pier entertainer, albeit one who can break out a cracking bit of writing when he wants to. Performing to a near-capacity audience, Clarke has the 900 or so people in attendance entirely in his command – even if the performance is not quite what some may expect.
Rather than simply performing poem after poem as a musician might regale their audience with songs, Clarke instead chooses to link each piece together with extended and often surreal monologues. To class this material as stand-up comedy would be a misnomer, but he certainly provides plenty of genuine laughs across the evening, both through his rambling eccentricities and a series of increasingly smutty one-liners. Indeed, cheeky as some of his poetry may be, it’s actually in live performance that Clarke demonstrates just what a distain for political correctness he apparently has. It may not be an evening for the easily offended but then, in fairness, nor is his poetry.
The material itself is almost entirely excellent. Clarke oscillates between performances of serious socio-political observations and more light-hearted, humorous material. Despite the variety on show the set never feels fragmented, if only thanks to Clarke’s idiosyncratic delivery. At times these mannerisms don’t necessarily work in favour of the material he performs; an interesting hallmark of the show is an increase in tempo whenever he brings out his darker, more serious material. On ‘Beasley Street’ and ‘Evidently Chicken Town’ – two of his very finest compositions – he barks each line with such unrelenting speed that it can be a real struggle to keep up with the images that go flying by. While the machine gun effect of this recitation style does to some extent suit the anxiously dour mood of the pieces, it does sometimes result in a catch of breath or, in the case of ‘Evidently Chicken Town’, words blurring into each other.
More effective by far are the moments where he takes the pacing down and allows the audience to revel in the sheer ingenuity of his wordplay. ‘The Luckiest Guy Alive’ and ‘Home Honey, I’m High’ may not pack the same kind of serious punch as ‘Beasley Street’ but they do bring hearty guffaws with them and Clarke’s delivery is consistently excellent. The flurry of borderline nonsensical rhymes that comprises set opener ‘Guest List’ wows the audience through its playful command of the English language alone. ‘Hire Car’, meanwhile, puts a humorous voice to an attitude many in the audience may not have ever expressed themselves. On one or two occasions this more playful material veers slightly into the banal; ‘The Man Who Didn’t Like Elvis’ is neither particular funny or interesting, although fortunately its brevity stops it from notably marring the show’s pace.
The set itself is very short – about 75 minutes. Although the lack of musical backing tonight means that, by nature, no one piece is going to last very long at all, some in the audience may feel a little short-changed by the concision of the evening. Even so, those willing to go with the surrealistic and occasionally repetitive tangents that Clarke takes his audience on will find a unique performer whose work stands out by virtue of its sheer dexterity. Filthy limericks, ’50s pop-culture references and searing political satire – it’s all here. For that brazen eccentricity alone John Cooper Clarke’s performances are certainly ones to remember.