Literature Review: Henry Normal's Love, Relationships and Other Realistic Expectations at Nottingham Lakeside Arts

Words: James Kramer
Wednesday 13 December 2017
reading time: min, words

We got down to Djanogly Theatre to check out the latest from our Henners...


On a stage confusingly decorated with a “Hamish, the Famous Equestrian Illusionist” horsebox, that was soon revealed to be a stowed away prop for the currently running play Black Beauty, all hopes that Henry Normal, poet, comic and writer for such shows as The Royle Family would emerge from its window, or indeed conduct the whole reading as a boxed in wordsmith were dashed as he came onto the stage in a much more suitable cardigan, a garment he declared, that was in aid of furthering world peace.

The night was to be, in Henry’s rambling, semi-incoherent tone, a “comedy, poetry salad with me as a tosser.” Throughout the reading, he maintained a somewhat bemused expression, with slight furrowed brow and dropped, open mouth. He appeared on the stage as a somewhat split personality, half poetic elder statesman and mutteringly enraged pub local. Topics shifted from the juxtaposition of romantic poetry and nature, to swearing blindingly at the pretentious foodstuffs on offer in the Christmas market, currently occupying the square.  

The theme of the night was love poetry in all that it encompasses, from the tender and genuinely affecting, to limericks about lust and its declining powers re sexagenarian years. The poem’s style seem similarly divided into two general camps. There were those that might be considered more traditional poetic forms in terms of their minimal structure, attention to cadence and tone. The other poems approached limericks, or if not limericks by strict definition, a “ditty” as Henry introduces them, followed with “or a busy man’s sonnet.”

In between the poems (of which there were approximately forty) Henry talked to the audience in a diverting comic monologue, that loosely tracked his romantic life, focusing mostly on his wife, Angela. Previous shows have drawn upon his son’s health and his family also, but here most of the focus leaned on how our ideas and ideals of romance change over the course of a life, and how poetry intertwines. At a later point in the night, Henry mused on how there’s so much poetry written about young or new love, but not much dedicated to wives. Within the evening he read not only many which were (explicitly or otherwise) dedicated to Angela, but including a poem that he wrote for her before having actually met her in a rather touching moment about young idealism.

The audience welcomed both comic interludes and poetry with equal laughter and applause. Reflecting back on his own upbringing in Nottingham, Normal mentioned that he could recognise the laughter from the audience when it came from people that he knew, because they were the only ones laughing at the bits that nobody else dared to. Capturing the sense of a homecoming show, there was a genuine air of warmth and familiarity between Normal and the crowd when he meandered outside signing books and just generally chatting about changes to the city since he’s been gone.

Normal promised to keep the night “as truthful as I can” though he played with audience expectations, referring to some poems as based on true stories, then falling into absurdist metaphor, while other poems touched on emotions that clearly cut close to the bone. Some of the jokes appeared way too clearly on the horizon to really land, but the lewd images within the poems (one simile referring to “stacking custard” that I really don’t want to have to explain) garnered the complementary combination of audience laughter and groans that Henry had clearly structured the night to achieve. Yet it’s also true, that when he wanted the atmosphere to quieten and calm, Normal shifted the tone of the room with a deftness towards performance. His voice took on a more measured, softer tone and with a hand steadying the microphone, he was able to bring the room to a near standstill. Some of the poem’s closing lines brought a tangible, audible hush. The closing of Beauty and the Insect Heart with its repeated lines of “a heart as a small gift of stones” silenced the crowd. Yet at times, poems such as The Missing Page, or The House is Not the Same Since You Left felt a little overriding in terms of concept or structure, limiting their emotional reach. And it’s true that the most heart-piercingly beautiful moments came hidden in poems set free from ridged forms, with lines such as “and the world in your eyes stop time” when speaking of Angela, sincerely caused the heart to leap and momentarily stop.

Despite promising at the start of the show that the backdrop had nothing to do with him, Henry Normal did live up to one of the words written on the battered old horsebox at the back of the stage. What appeared on the surface to be the profane, mundane voice of your everyday social observer, concealed a deftness and mastery of poetic language. An illusionist beyond all expectation. There were glimpses of a subtly and tenderness rarely felt from a live performer. After tearing up when reading a poem for the first time in public, musing on both his and his wife’s joint mortality, all of the set up comic act fell away, and there locked in the moment, I felt the intensity of the poem’s intent beside him.

Henry Normal’s next collection The Phantom Breath, comes out in June, or as Henry put it “Posthumously or June, whatever’s next.” Shout outs were also given to Five Leaves Bookstore, for their continued support of Henry’s books as well as other local Notts' writers and poets.

Henry Normal performed his Love, Relationships and Other Realistic Expectations at Nottingham Lakeside Arts' Djanogly Theatre on Tuesday 12 December 2017

Nottingham Lakeside Arts website

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