Review: Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson at The Stand

For over a decade poet-laureate Carol Ann Duffy has been performing with Scottish multi-instrumentalist John A Sampson. At first glance, his silly ditties and her sullen growls might seem an unlikely pairing. Perhaps this is why they’re such a potent mix, each brings out a hidden side of the other. Chemistry which reveals a common spirit of wry wit and unaffected creative brilliance. 

Sampson parades an arsenal of worldly instruments, playing nifty lilts on the hulusi – a Chinese flute – and a buzzy piece on the bagpipe-like crumhorn “composed by a serial killer who also found the time to write this; Henry the VIII”.  

Rather than perform together they take turns. This breaks up the poetry; the equivalent of blank space in a book. Let’s face it – an hour of unremitting verse is a demand on anyone’s attention span. This is an intelligent compromise.

Duffy is an artful rhymer. Unafraid to pen a pithy refrain like “I grew to love the lifestyle / not the life. / He grew to love the kudos / not the wife.” in her ballad to the wife of Dr Faustus, Mrs Faust. She read from her razor-sharp collection The World’s Wife, poems channelling the voices of legendary men’s spouses.

We’re treated to a wedding song for Tracy Emin and the garden rock she married, a meditation on the elephants in Blackpool Zoo (“don’t ask”, she jokes), and a protest poem against the Post Office’s removing county names from addresses. “But you need the county on an address!”, she cries, “like a bay leaf”. She explains that poets both create and preserve. This is a preservation poem – celebrating the country’s characters – the Essex Girl, Shropshire Lad, and so on. Its presence chimes elegantly with the archaic instruments of John A Sampson. 

Poetry is “the music of being human”, Duffy states. Her range is extraordinary, both formally and emotionally – reading chilling poems on the Hillsborough Disaster and child labours in China forced to do the work of bees. It’s all in here. A great poet at the height of their powers in delightful harmony with an erudite musical showman. Not to be missed. 

Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson are at New Town Theatre 10th to 16th of August

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