John Hegley : Letters to an earwig

Originally published at The Groggy Squirrel.

A slight melancholy hangs over the Royal Mile this morning: the last day of the Edinburgh festival. There are lots of hangovers from those whose last performance is done and dusted but a few eager drama students still hand you their flyers in a final act of financial desperation. Posters are being taken down. The Underbelly is closed. The various free stages have been packed away. The city is partied out.

Time to take in one last show though. Something gentle. Something that will definitely be funny. Something that will be a high note to end on but won’t make my delicate head hurt anymore than it does already. The answer is simple: John Hegley at the Pleasance.

Hegley’s style is probably best described in the titles to his various poetry books: ‘These were your father’s’; ‘My dog is a carrot’; ‘Can I come down now, Dad?’; and ‘Five Sugars Please’.

A guy has brought his dog into the venue. Hegley isn’t fazed by this at all. In fact he tries to engage with the man and his dog as much as possible. ‘Sit! Good dog’. Hegley’s engaging with the audience is second to none: always spontaneous yet always in character. Whether he has an onstage persona or whether this is his natural self is difficult to ascertain. As soon as he enters the room, singing with the accompaniment of his mandolin, he invites two children onto the stage for a drawing contest. “Draw me a flower” he sings, and later “Oh, that’s not very good”.

Each of the flowers are added to a mural, covered already with flowers from previous performances. He asks a man on the fifth row to draw him some grass. “What colour would you like?”

And so it goes: drawing, poetry, singing, banter, audience involvement. Nobody seems scared to be ‘picked on’. An hour of this sort of japery is quite lovely – a perfect, gentle way to spend the lunching hour.

Hegley’s style is to channel perfectly domestic incidents and childhood memories into his anecdotes and plinky-plunky poetry. “It was a highly upsetting incident,” he remarks about an occasion on which he was lambasted by a dance teacher for getting carried away, “but it’s nice to make a bit of money out of it later in life”.

The poetry is usually very short – often just between one and four lines – with an abrupt but hilarious end. The result is a highly talented joke-telling machine gun. In one verse he provides the context, his thoughts and a punchline. He also likes a challenge: today he orates a rhyming poem about an octopus “who gets a nasty shocktopus”. Some of his stuff could easily be sold to kids, but it’s impossible as a grown-up not to get caught up in his charmingly eccentric style.

At the end of the performance, there is a five-minute Q&A. Someone asks him what he’ll do with the mural now that the show has ended its run. This results in an impromptu charity auction: twenty-five quid is raised for Amnesty International.

At the end you’re left thinking, “Please come back next year, John. Pleeeease!” He will be though. He’s a total veteran.

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