Step into John Hegley’s Family Hotel at Roundhouse’s The Last Word Festival

John Hegley. Picture: Nigel Sutton

John Hegley. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

The veteran performance poet tells Sanya Ali why his latest show involves potatoes, New York and bungalows.

Poet and comedian John Hegley believes there’s a unique power in performing verse.

“To me, it just immediately lends itself to performance- to being spoken and danced and drawn - because it’s a rhythmic discipline,” says the Stoke Newington resident, who introduces his latest show at The Roundhouse on Sunday as part of two-week festival The Last Word.

Like past performances Family Hotel is semi-autobiographical.

“It’s a general drawing upon the existence, the things that surround me: potatoes, the family, the many visits to hotels I make in travels around the country,” says Hegley.

One experience in particular was inspired by his grandmother’s time in New York during his childhood. Actor Ziggy Ross plays a character based upon a visitor to Hegley’s grandmother’s bungalow.

“People know about the little bungalow, but they don’t know about the American who came to visit us and gave dollar bills to me and my sister. Neither do they know what we did with those dollar bills – unfortunately neither do I. I can’t remember.”

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Hegley usually plays all the roles in his shows but this time around others will take part including Ross, fiddle player Eleanor Moreton, and David Belcher who takes to the decks to play Northern Soul afterwards.

Family Hotel is a marriage of new and old; some parts familiar, others a surprise, says Hegley.

“I don’t want to say too much, but there are some unfamiliar bits. I can say that there are some dance steps and select members of the audience will be shown how to do these.”

Hegley’s career began in the 1970’s, when he started busking his songs, mainly outside a shoe shop in Hull.

To this day he remains a songwriter and musician, but in 1980 he made a slight adjustment to his act that evolved into his current performance style.

Instead of singing, he spoke his lyrics to the beat of a tambourine.

Beat poet Michael Horovitz once called Hegley a “lyric poet” - someone who traditionally delivered readings with a lyre.

In Hegley’s case, the “lyre” is his mandolin, a staple of many of his shows.

“I don’t know many chords, they’re very simple. They’re an accompaniment rather than an intricate part,” he says.

Hegley will join Horovitz and a host of other performers at the upcoming 50th anniversary Poetry ReIncarnation at the Roundhouse on May 30th.

Half a century ago Allen Ginsberg, Horovitz, Adrian Mitchell and others made history as part of the first international poetry incarnation at The Royal Albert Hall

“It’s really lovely to be performing on the platform myself. There’s a very exciting group of people who are quite far apart in the world of performed word. It’s been encouraging just meeting these other performers. The interaction, mingling with people makes you feel part of the venue and the festival.”

So what should the audience take away from his show?

“Hopefully not the props,” quips Hegley, adding: “a sense of relief, wellbeing, exhilaration. Possibly a desire to investigate some other poems, other poets, or to write their own.”

John Hegley’s Family Hotel is on May 27, and Poetry ReIncarnation is on 30th May, part of The Last Word Festival of Spoken Word, Storytelling & Live Performance. Other performers include spoken word artist Polarbear, award-winning Mark Grist presenting a celebration of bad poetry, poet Luke Wright’s show What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, and an installation in the undercroft where visitors can see work from young emerging artists on the theme of home. Bookings on call 0300 6789 222