John Hegley | Old Fire Station, 7 June 2012
Did you ever have a teacher who grabbed your attention by being funny and also a bit odd? Someone who you listened to, attentive and alert, because you weren’t quite sure what they were going to say or do next? Who made you join in when you didn’t really want to, but you were pleased when you did? No, neither did I. But John Hegley’s show is a bit like sitting in a big classroom confronted by that curious teacher-entertainer, someone who clearly knows a lot, has done a lot, and is happy to share a bit of it with you. As long as you sing along.
Hegley is the archetypal fringe festival performer, having cut his teeth on the alternative comedy circuit of the 1980s - and you get the sense that that he has basically busked his way through several decades of spoken word, poetry, silly songs and wry observational comedy. BBC3 he is not. Nowadays he spends a lot of his time doing workshops to get kids to engage with language and poetry, armed with a mandolin and an inimitable sense of the absurd.
And Hegley has deservedly won that unusual tag of "much-loved". His comedy inspires because it is both simple and surprising. The songs and poems are apparently childish, but they are often underpinned not only by a delight in language, syntax and rhyme, but also by wry adult observations. Whether extolling the merits of having a bungalow in Luton, the advantages of being an amoeba, or singing a love song (in French) to the potato, there is a gentle intelligence to everything he does. Yet he also creates a sense of intimacy that only a performer with years of experience - and a deep trust of his audience, as well as himself - can achieve. Now greying around the temples and dressed in a comfortable jumper, he’s more quirky lecturer than bright young thing, but the role suits him. Most people don’t really want to take part when they go to see comedy, but pretty soon everyone was adding the choreographed backing vocals which are perhaps as much for Hegley’s entertainment as they are for the audience's. Even the slightly grumpy-looking bloke at the end of our row was, by the end of the evening, happy to follow Hegley’s instructions in impersonating a guillemot. From tentative beginnings, the evening took on a fuzzy quality with everyone smiling, glad to be in Prof. Hegley’s class as the last lesson of the day.
As an added bonus, Hegley was aided on this occasion by that other uber-cool poet-comedian (it’s a small band) - Simon Munnery. Also appearing at Oxfringe, Munnery is typically unassuming, his poetry sharing Hegley’s warm delivery and gentle wit. They make a great combination, and although the encore sketch was perhaps written over a quick pint before the show, both perfromers were wonderful in their own right. Poetry lives on - and it’s wearing sandals and a cosy-looking cardigan.