Steve Larkin's one man show based on his experiences as poet in residence at HMP Grendon

January 30, 2012
A year spent working with sex offenders and murderers would not be for everyone; I’m sure I couldn’t do it. Having to engage with – possibly even begin to like – someone who has committed the unforgiveable is beyond the comprehension of many. Doing it with the intention of making life better for them rather than their victims seems even stranger; why should anyone want to? Why do they deserve a break? The answer, for many people, is that they don’t. “Lock them up and throw away the key” may be a Daily Mail war cry, but it’s one that many of us can relate to.

But here’s the thing: after watching N.O.N.C.E., I’m no longer sure. Suddenly, these people become more human. When someone says that all they have known since childhood is crime, you begin to think they might deserve a break. And, even if they don’t, the rest of society does, and the only successful way of reducing crime is to rehabilitate the offender. That’s where HMP Grendon steps in. It is the United Kingdom's only therapeutic prison community for the treatment of serious sex offenders and violent offenders. Inmates volunteer to go there and they can be voted out at any time by their peers. It is no coincidence that it has the lowest recidivism rate in the country.

Larkin opens his one-man show with some background information; he was there because he needed the money, the Arts Council would fund the course if he could recruit enough takers. He struggled to drum up interest and it seemed his efforts were in vain, but at the eleventh hour the men signed up and he got the green light.

On the first day prisoners were asked to name their artistic heroes then adopt their names as their own. Consequently, he found himself in a room full of the good and the great: Lennon, Mozart and Dali were there. So was Paul Weller, he turned out to be a great poet; Michelangelo was something of a philosopher.  Larkin threw female students into the mix, it seemed to up the ante; the testosterone levels must have been off the scale. At the end of the year, all the “artists” put on a public performance. One of them described it as the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life, adding “…and I’ve killed people.”

Steve Larkin will always be Oxford’s Professor of Poetry in my mind. The man is a genius, master of the spoken word, a great performer, hugely talented. There was never a dull moment. The North Wall audience was captivated and the hour just flew by.

January 12, 2012
Steve Larkin's N.O.N.C.E. is many things - probably none of which you'll be expecting. With a show title calculated to challenge and a confrontational poster image of a shaven-headed Larkin, mugshot-style, you'd think you were in for a harrowing tale of a criminal and his victims. Instead, take Larkin's dubious hand as he leads you into the complex world of a poet whose day job is to help imprisoned paedophiles and murderers create therapeutic poetry. Observe the boundaries between the day job and the personal life swirl and blur; examine your own ideas and prejudices; marvel at someone brave, committed (and skint) enough to accept one of the toughest arts jobs there is.

Steve Larkin is well known to many in Oxford and beyond as a performance poet, musician, co-founder of UK poetry slam network Hammer and Tongue and recent candidate for Oxford University Professor of Poetry. This is lucky, since it's quite a punt to associate oneself so closely with the most strongly despised crime we've got. This risk is personal and professional, as some paediatricians will testify - so let's hope that a clever Oxford crowd will get the 'joke'. (Canadian audiences on his 2011 fringe theatre festival tour certainly seemed to, with the show gathering several 4-star-plus reviews plus positive accolades in the national media.)

As Larkin forges through his word-thick tale like a steam train, not missing a beat, the audience must run to keep up, wondering where the journey will end - and whether they'll be different by then. Chances are you won't think you are, til you're snagged by the killer twist - a small, delicious gimmick that flips the world over and starts you thinking all over again. The popular questions surrounding this topic will be familiar to all. Are these criminals evil, or ill? Is it good for them, and/or society, for them to be locked up indefinitely? Is it really therapeutic for them to reengage with the crimes they've committed, even if it is through art? Who makes these judgement calls anyway, and on what basis? Big questions hang in the air as a backdrop, though Larkin doesn't raise them directly, or attempt to answer. And aren't we glad, in the end, that we don't really have to either?

It's easy for fringe-style, 1-hour format theatre to be comedic by default in order to put bums on seats. When an artist bucks the trend, it can really have impact - and this show certainly pulls no punches. There is some dark humour (well - sometimes you HAVE to laugh), along with horror moments and strong language, but thankfully the whole is not populated by tasteless 'paedo' jokes or idiot-bashing of those who attack kids' doctors. Instead, it's an hour-long one-man monologue which is insightful, clever and thought-provoking. Quash your revulsion impulse and check it out.
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