Level Up, Season Four, Episode One

Birmingham Rep Door

****

SOME eight years ago I stumbled into the Old Crown at Digbeth on a January evening to take part in a poetry slam.

The usual suspects were there, the usual topics were there. From amidst the fourteen or so performers, towards the end, a slight young female student, hesitantly took her turn – and triumphed.

One of the great things about poetry events is their sociability. Everyone talks freely to everyone else, it is an inclusive community. We started chatting. She was a Brummie girl, a student. She was nervous and self- effacing. She also came alive on stage.

Her poetry was personal, she told of relationships, home and heart break. The things of which many young women might write, but she was different. She had this ability to draw you in, to connect. The girls “got” her, the boys fancied her, and the mums and dads wanted to be her mum or dad. She had an Everyman appeal. Her name was Jodi Ann Bickley.

In the intervening years I have seen her perform several times, each time, impossibly, improving on the last. I originally described her thus: “Her writing is fey, kitchen sink, heartfelt and vulnerable, capturing the angst of young adulthood. She transcends her immediate peers, and reaches out to those who were young once also.” And she has lived a lot of life in those years since I first met her.

In 2011 she contracted encephalitis, and further complications, from a tick bite that left her unable to walk, write or talk. In 2014 she was in the Sunday Times bestseller lists, and on national television radio and newspapers as the author of the hugely successful One Million Lovely Letters- having regained her speech and mobility. Her poetry had also seen her hanging out with Ed Sheeran and collaborating with dubstep heavyJodi Ann Bickley weight Skream. Oh, and she is now soon to be a mother. What an excellent choice to open season four of Level Up.

Level Up prides itself on promoting the best of young British talent, a vehicle supported by national poetry organisers Apples and Snakes and local hipsters Beatfreeks. The past three seasons have seen the likes of Matt Windle, Dreadlock Alien and Hollie McNish in the spotlight, this season’s roster looks no less impressive.

Headliner: Jodi Ann Bickley

Season 3 was hosted by the assured and urban(e) Laura Deadicoat, lean, and with a sharp stage presence, she is a tough act to follow. But followed she must be, and she generously handed over to her successor for Level Up Season 4 to 17 years old acting student, Lauren Williams.

Lauren was 9th Young Birmingham Poet Laureate, 2013-2014. Bubbly, giggling and with an impish, waspish sense of fun, she has taken a pivotal role in the booking of artists She works alongside Prime Poetry, comprising Callum and Melissa Bates, siblings who will be facilitating a series of free workshops throughout Birmingham to accompany the main shows.

Supporting artist was Caleb Femi, a Nigerian born Londoner, a teacher and poet, whose poem and film Children of the Narm draws on the experiences of the underclass in the capital’s suburb Peckham, the Peckham of Damiola Taylor, not Only Fools and Horses ,whose recurring theme is consanguinity.

By chance we found ourselves seated next to each other. His life story is inspiring enough, emerging from the feral poverty of an urban sink council estate to go on to win a place at Queen Mary University and teach English at a secondary school.

However as he started to perform his further qualities as a communicator and wordsmith emerged. There was no hectoring defiant angry diatribe, instead gently cushioned observations with ten ton weights, epitomised by the popularly titled Children of the Narm (he doesn’t give titles to his own writing).

I was deeply frustrated by the brief time he was allowed on stage, but however long he had been given would not have been enough for me. I found consanguinity in his work- and I suspect that would have been enough for him. Watch out for this man.

Headliner Jodi Ann ambled on stage from her place in the audience oblivious to the stardust on her shoulders. She touched on a Radio 1 commission, and was ridiculously modest about the success of One Million Lovely Letters which currently boasts a team of twenty four, dealing with a backlog of 13,000 letter requests. Hold Tight was as good as ever, (Bob) Marley and Me as heart-warming. Her line “tears are scars that remind us we fought hard” an aural by-line for her performance which ended with an improbable exhortation for everyone to “get pregnant!” Only British decency prevented an orgy.

The open mic slots were as eclectic as ever. Oakley Flanagan evoked the spirit of ancient Greece to declare You are the Gods tonight, Flora started off with cruelty to cats and hamsters but ended bemoaning an “unprotected heart”, Lorna Meehan added class and style with her “dancing”.

Beatfreeks have done a fantastic job in creating, and then sustaining, this event series. Birmingham Rep are to be commended for affording them the space to give credibility and gravitas to a form too often relegated to backstreet pubs and cafes. Level Up runs monthly, starting at 7pm, dates and headliners to be found on the beatfreeks website: http://www.beatfreeks.com/#beatfreeks

Gary Longden

24-09-15

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