Like Led Zeppelin albums, Unsung Stories’ spoken word evenings are individually numbered, adding to the unique sense of each. Tonight’s intersection of fact and fantasy was the observation by regular MC George Sandison that today was Diana Wynne Jones’s birthday. Jones, who was at Oxford when CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were lecturing there, is a constant source of good quotations, like ‘it is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair’. James Cameron, whose birthday also falls today, has fewer good personal quotations; ‘I’ll be back’ means nothing out of context although I will always love the Shakespearian heft of ‘nuke the site from orbit’.
The night’s first story, by Malcolm Devlin, riffed on Cinderella as a frustrated girl called Ellie pictures grotesque fairy tale deaths for the rest of her family. My favourite was the nastily honest young heroine imagining her the furry shape of her father’s face pressed from within the stomach of the wolf she has allowed to eat him. The tale cleverly mixed the innocently dark humour children are allowed with the sort of ordinary family setting fairy tales are supposed to make sense of. This piece felt like the most literary and was quietly delivered, which made its laugh out loud moments all the more effective.
The writer of the next story was also called Eli. Granted it is spelled differently but, as with tonight’s date, it still feels like Unsung are dicking about with reality, which I wholly endorse. Eli Lee’s story was about an intelligent but lazy young woman on the rebound who, attracted to the wealth and convenience of a start-up entrepreneur, agrees to be the guinea pig for his new app, which enables access to lived memories. However, the strongest memory the young woman has is of her ex… Again, a well-observed real-world narrative blended unobtrusively with a big but simple SF idea. Often, the trouble with memory device stories is that the memory element is so strong it pulls us in the opposite direction of the narrative. Here, though, that problem with ingeniously reversed.
The first and last stories were in the third person, the second and third in the first. In a spoken-word evening it sometimes feels as if first person narratives have the advantage because they lend themselves more easily to performance and direct address to the audience. Certainly, Rob Boffard’s tale about what appeared to be an aged superhero in an old folks’ home, in which the protagonist responds to unheard questions, had an almost confrontational immediacy. The poor old boy, who is in his 90s, keeps forgetting things and mumbles about his powers. Why, though, is he not still using them? We learn of his ill-fated attendance at a basketball game years ago, a ‘night off’ in which he didn’t wear his super-disguise. His allowance of a terrorist attack (Aryan, refreshingly) to get well underway before doing something about it has us questioning the moral quality of this hero – and that’s when the twist comes.
Angela Slatter’s story begins with a creepy set-up in which a young woman can see the dead. As a mysterious plague takes hold and soldiers from outside the valley begin to make their presence felt, the heroine on whom her people increasingly rely begins to suffer problems with her weak heart. Enter Baba Yaga, a witch from the forest. Her entrance charges the story up to such an extent that when Angela, who was unfortunately suffering from a cold, had to stop reading a crucial juncture in the story because of a bout of coughing there was a palpable sense of frustration from the audience. With movies and TV on effortless demand it was a frisson you only get with live performance. ‘What do you mean we have to wait?’ thought everyone but were too polite to say. I sort of clapped I think; I’d had a few lagers by then. Either way, more of the valley folk die and more soldiers arrive to do what soldiers usually do in these situations. However, thanks to a witchy heart transplant the heroine turns the tables on the invaders in satisfying fashion and the story ends with a bold but well-earned killer line.
The evening was well-curated and a lot of fun. All four stories were of high quality; funny and insightful. I’d say it was great value but the event was free, yes FREE. If Unsung keep this up they’ll have to think of a new name for their gig.