‘Outlier’ Combines Gig Theatre And Beat Poetry To Explore Drug Culture In Rural Britain: Review

Photo Credit: Paul Blakemore

Outlier, a live-gig, Beat poetry hybrid, has landed at Bristol Old Vic. Penned by Malaika Kegode and performed by herself and Jakabol, a Bristol band, the show unpacks Kegode’s relationship with rural British towns, such as Totnes, and the underlying poverty and drug usage which goes hand in hand with such idyllic scenery. 

Entirely autobiographical, Kegode’s story is not unfamiliar—having grown up in a small tourist town myself. Her descriptions of Wilko as a hangout spot and boys who don’t make it out of town, reliving their youth by going to house parties with much younger girls, are incredibly familiar. But, was the Bristol Old Vic the right venue for this work?

Photo Credit: Paul Blakemore

The audience at a theatre like Bristol Old Vic is, as it is in many theatres across the country, going to be used to a certain type of theatre: with little audience interaction. It became even more obvious when Kegode began to interact with the audience in the first ten minutes of the show—at this point, many of us were still trying to identify whether this was a stereotypical piece of ‘theatre’, or, as we discovered, live poetry and music, with a dash of conversation between audience and performer. Because this story is so personal to Kegode, she asked for our patience, and though audience interaction improved throughout the show, asking a group of people who are used to the kind of theatre where one sits quietly and listens politely was perhaps a little bewildering for some of the audience members. Not all, though, as the reception was suitably warm if a little confused at first. 

A particular highlight of the show is its live animation. Bristol Old Vic’s proscenium arch has been draped in Persian-style carpets and fairy lights, creating a backdrop for live text conversations between Malaika and her friends, and doodles of baby tortoises. There are even sofas amongst the audience, and as Kegode waited for the band to tune their instruments, she sat in one, letting us know that she’d hurt her back during an earlier performance.

Photo Credit: Paul Blakemore

This chatty style of performance—the musicians asking for a moment to adjust, and Kegode openly emoting on stage, adds warmth to the overall performance. As she is a poet, it would be exciting to see Kegode perform this piece in a more intimate venue, that isn’t a traditional proscenium arch—or, to tell her story, perhaps she feels that the Bristol Old Vic is the best place to do so. 

The show’s topic is a difficult one: addiction, and how rural towns can perpetuate drug culture. In the words of the company, “young people growing up in rural spaces have such limited resources, their lives are trivialised, parodied or completely ignored”, and I couldn’t agree more. Though often the subject of hit TV shows and celebrated for their idyllic scenery, rural towns can often have a dark underbelly of poverty, abuse and lack of social mobility. But, as the team behind the show state, “we made this for you if you need it”—how many of the audience members of Bristol Old Vic will truly need it? Though perhaps better suited to a venue where audience interaction is encouraged, sharing these difficult themes in a non-traditional, interactive style of performance is a step forward in diversifying theatre.

Outlier is at the Bristol Old Vic, and available to stream online, until 26 June.

Words by Maddy Raven.

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